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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Give Phil Plait 31 minutes

Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion there as well. Persuasion isn’t always, “Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,” but, “Here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind,” and it’s the facts plus the sensitivity, which convolved together, create impact. – Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, 2006

You’re a busy person. But Phil Plait needs 31 minutes of your time.

Phil (of Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM8 in July that is one of the most important and resonant messages I’ve heard in ages. It’s about being heard.

It’s an obsession of mine lately, this topic. I tried to write a simple blog post about it last year and ended up instead writing 11,000 words in an eight-month series of posts called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The thrust of that series, and of Phil’s talk, is that content is all well and good, and argument is lovely, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t think about how to get ourselves heard. And when it matters most, we’d better think not just about how tight our arguments are, but how to stand any chance of having them received on the other end.

This isn’t just about religion. It’s also about politics, social issues, alternative medicine, the paranormal — everything people get hot and bothered about. Discourse is nothing more than shouting down a well if we merely compose zingers for the applause of our stablemates and fail to create a receptive mind in the listeners we hope to persuade.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to this in a rebuke to Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief in 2006 (which Dawkins accepted with grace and good humor):

Tyson’s precise point is well-taken: “I felt you more than I heard you.” (Many other critiques of Dawkins, et al. are not, as I noted in 2007.)

Now Phil Plait has made a magnificent, deeply personal, effective and well-titled plea along the same lines. Please set aside 31 minutes at the end of your busy day to hear what he says.

But also note what he does NOT say. He doesn’t say that being heard requires us to respect the unrespectable, or bury our passion, or deny our convictions. He’s not calling for a moratorium on religious satire or political outrage, or I’d tell him to bugger off. I intend to continue treating ideas themselves with whatever respect or contempt they earn. But when it comes to discourse with our fellow mammals, the Tyson Equation nails it: facts plus sensitivity equals impact.

I’ve said too much. Take it Phil.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

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This was written on Wednesday, 18. August 2010 at 16:17 and was filed under belief and believers, Can You Hear Me Now?, critical thinking, diversity, Kerfuffles, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Global Atheist, Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan said: New post @ Meming of Life: Give Phil Plait 31 minutes [...]

    Pingback: Tweets that mention The Meming of Life » Give Phil Plait 31 minutes Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders -- – 18. August 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  2. Dale, I am a regular reader, but typically a lazy lurker rather than a constructive commenter.

    Your “Can You Hear Me Now?” posts stuck in my mind, and hearing Phil’s (kick-ass) speech today was timely. I have a Facebook friend who posted this morning lamenting that “Anti- religion billboards are going up in both Atlanta and New Orleans” and quoting Colossians 2:8. Her post was fairly calm, but followed up by a friend who wrote “In N.O. they have a sign that says ‘Don’t believe in god… you are not Alone… go to Athiest’!! I mean really…”

    It was my trigger instinct to make a sarcastic remark about the First Amendment – a profoundly original angle, not doubt – but instead I walked away and came back to express my gratitude that we have the freedom to see billboards featuring churches and scriptures alongside those offering support to atheists. She hasn’t responded yet, but I take more pride in my new comment, and I mean more of what I said. It doesn’t tackle the entire issue, but it expresses my opinion in a way that I hope won’t shut her out of the conversation.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment: Allison – 19. August 2010 @ 8:17 am

  3. In the first few months of my own blogging experience I came across a debate between Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens. After watching it I remember thinking it was such a waste of time. Two (I assumed) mature, educated grown-ups pretty much declaring they wouldn’t listen to each other for 40 minutes or so.

    Sabio over at had a great post recently about how comparative studies do more for worldview-tolerance and change than scientific study, in part due to our too-easily partitioned minds.

    He’s made a neat video that demonstrates the power of optical illusions and cognitive illusions: []

    I like Phil’s comment on how one belief is often enough only changed or replaced by another. That’s a huge statement towards understanding why so many religious people leave their parents’ denomination or faith or religion only to find themselves in another pew or chair in a different building a few blocks across town. Last stat I saw about this suggested this is the situation for almost the majority of North Americans now.

    Awesome video.

    Comment: Andrew – 19. August 2010 @ 11:53 am

  4. I love Phil Plait. He says it all. This should be required viewing for all skeptics. Thank you for sharing this, and for Tyson’s comments.

    Comment: kathryn – 19. August 2010 @ 4:17 pm

  5. I think Phil Plait is pretty fantastic. This speech is one I both agree with and don’t.

    I agree there are some -many- situations where behaving with deference and politeness is both a good strategy and worthwhile for everyone.

    However, I also think the being in-your-face works. Years ago, I was pretty deep into new agey pagan beliefs about art and life. I believed in an afterlife. Two major sources propelled me out of those thoughts in early university.

    One was Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden (this was years before he wrote The God Delusion). The other was reading PZ Myers Pharyngula blog.

    The frankness and beauty of Dawkins writing held sway over my artwork and still does. And reading Myers gave me a lot of passion for being a skeptic and an atheist.

    That said, here are two views not entirely in agreement with Phil that I think have a lot of merit:

    Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds
    and Ophelia Benson at Notes and Comment.

    Someone will always be upset with your tone: it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strategize, but you can’t make friends with everyone and hold a strong opinion.

    Comment: Glendon Mellow – 26. August 2010 @ 6:18 am

  6. @Glendon: First of all, thank you SO much for introducing me to Almost Diamonds. That must be one of the most nuanced and intelligent blog posts I have ever read.

    Secondly, damn you, all that good input has inspired a second post.

    Comment: Dale – 26. August 2010 @ 7:29 am

  7. [...] science communication comes from less sarcasm, less name calling, and less insults. Basically, don’t be a d***! I’ve personally seen people turn away from my message when I’ve gotten snarky in [...]

    Pingback: By the power of Dragoncon! I HAVE THE POWER!!! « SCIENCE-BASED PARENTING – 30. August 2010 @ 8:11 pm

  8. I was really moved by how carefully Phil Plait responded to the young woman who was challenging him with young earth creationist ideas. He reinforced the importance of following the evidence, that she was free to come to her own conclusion, and phrased it all in ways she could hear. It sounded very much like the parenting methods documented in this blog :-)

    I am grateful for all of these good examples to help me hear and be heard.

    Comment: JaniceOly – 09. June 2011 @ 5:56 pm

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