The two species problem of New Atheism

The dove's Tarzan impression went down a treat at parties.

One claims to be friendly. There’s an asshole around somewhere. A number are accused of being militant. There is a multitude who are silent out of either fear or choice. A whole bunch like to distinguish themselves from the old variety. They can be polemical, loud, reasonable, bigoted, intellectual, philosophical, pragmatic…in fact, the only trait they all share is a lack of belief in a supernatural, personal creator of the universe.

And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

Every week a blogger somewhere will point out how dangerous New Atheism is for Old Atheism. This will quickly be followed by another blogger using accommodationist as a pejorative, listing how their criticisms against fellow atheists is simply not cricket, and how they coddle those nasty Bible bashers. Each article will proceed to spawn a fetid tail of comments that gradually decay into barely coherent sentences that might be illogical if they weren’t initially illegible.

And so the conversation goes. On. And on. And on.

To what end does this occur? There’s a question worthy of a sociological PhD. What initially seems to be quite obvious quickly becomes something of a mystery.

On the surface, this maelstrom appears to ultimately be about science. Religion is antagonistic to science, you see, so to make science better, you need to do something about the religion problem. Atheism – the absence of a belief in supernatural personalities who govern nature – is the pill to cure the ill. Simple.

Science is about specific terms. About precision. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence and criticisms of beliefs and methodology. It’s a brutal ecosystem of predators where only the fittest ideas survive. Yet when one looks at the New Atheist discussion, science is the last thing that you’ll find.

So while it might well be under the guise of defending science literacy, there is the unmistakable smell of bigotry tainting much of the discussion. People aren’t just mistaken, they’re stupid or evil. Hyperbole is common place, where all religion is always bad. While individual opinions vary, a culture persists which has turned the discussion into a bloody, muddy battlefield of traded insults, fabricated facts and barely contained hostility.

Criticism is a dirty word. Evidence is dismissed for spurious reasoning, assumptions, wishful thinking and faithful claims. Definitions are vague and quickly dissolve into strawman and ‘no true Scottsman’ fallacies. In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?


ACARA’s bent spoon

Charles Darwin - the perfect anti-creationist picture

Let me be upfront and honest about something – I’m no great fan of anti-accolades at the best of times. You know the ones; an ‘award’ for the worst dressed/stupidest/most laughable actor/book/production/product and so on. I simply don’t see the point, outside of a smug satisfaction that the awarder feels in superiority to the awardee. But, given human nature, I rarely say much as it’s hardly worthy of comment.

I didn’t attend TAMOz this year for numerous reasons. But I did hear on the grapevine that the annual ‘Bent Spoon Award’ was presented in absentia to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for the imminent National Curriculum science framework.

And, frankly, I was pretty gobsmacked.

First, some background. The Bent Spoon Award is an annual raspberry blown by the Australian Skeptics at ‘the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.’ As such, it must have been decided that of all paranormal and pseudoscientific acts, products and claims made in 2010, the National Curriculum must be the worst offender. Given I’d spent a good part of the year reading through it, I naturally presumed there was a sizable chunk of witchcraft, alchemy, geocentrism, voodoo or spiritualism I must have missed.

Fortunately that’s not the case. What was it that was so offensive in this draft framework? According to the nomination, it was for ‘devaluing the teaching of evolution in schools, allowing creationism to be taught, and for teaching alternative theories such as traditional Chinese medicines and Aboriginal beliefs as part of the Science Curriculum.’

Not for removing evolution altogether, and going down the dark path of Texan education. Not for putting creationism or intelligent design or Raelianism into the year 7 classroom. Nothing quite so definitive. It was a vague ‘devaluing’ of education that Australian Skeptics wanted to advertise to the world as the most deserving of scorn over all other media items, pseudoscientific products or audacious claims. One would hope that they had some pretty strong evidence to support the connection between ACARA’s choice of content and a loss of educational ‘value’.

Education is, of course, valuable. Anything that reduces the effectiveness of the system in preparing children and adolescents for their future should be addressed. A quick flick through my blog is enough to gauge my views as far as the topic goes. Indeed, it’s so important, I take claims that it is ‘devalued’ quite seriously.

Before we look at the criticism and ask whether the curriculum really warrants its prize, it might pay to quickly establish some context.

Australian education is a responsibility of the state level of government. As such, all states have an education act that prescribes what and how people will be taught important knowledge and skills. An example can be found at Queensland’s Department of Education and Training site. All states have similar documentation, which in part dictates the creation of units or subjects in schools that reflect a curriculum created by a state body. How this is assessed varies between the states, but typically includes the collection of student work samples along with a syllabus that demonstrates significant effort has been made to follow the curriculum’s framework.

It has been a concern for a long time that while there is strong similarity between all state curricula, order and timing of the skills and content taught has the potential to create difficulty for population movement. A student whose family moves from Perth to Sydney might face disadvantages by having missed some topics while replicating others. This led to growing support for a national curriculum.

In April 2008 a national curriculum board was put together with the purpose of meeting this challenge. In early 2010, ACARA released Phase 1 of its kindergarten to year 10 National Curriculum for feedback, which covered mathematics, English and science subjects. Later it opened Phase 2, covering geography, language and the arts for public review.

It appears that science is the field that will be revised most rigorously in the future, as the dominating criticism through feedback was that a sense of perspective was lost by focusing on certain details. To go into detail on my personal views on the strengths and shortfalls of the document would fall outside of the scope of this post. Overall, in spite of certain small reservations, I felt as far as science went it was a robust framework that balanced the diverse needs of the community it was serving.

Having been responsible for working on unit plans and analysing curriculum frameworks, I can sympathise with their creators, especially when faced with a wall of teachers and community members who feel their particular pet field is more important than the others. We’re all familiar with the ‘overcrowded curriculum’, and knowing what is vital for the future citizen to know is no easy task. Keeping everybody happy while delivering a working structure is a nightmare.

Which brings us to the nomination for the Bent Spoon. It states that the teaching of evolution;

‘become virtually sidelined, appearing in one section of Year 10 only.’

Evolution does indeed appear explicitly as the first point in Science Understanding in Year 10. I question the author where else he feels it should be. In my experience as an educator, covering it explicitly as a topic in its own right is difficult prior to a student’s ability to grasp abstract concepts, which more or less rules out going into much depth before years 6 or 7. I’ve never covered it as a concept before year 10. Of course, content based on biological categorisation – which is important for grasping evolution later – can be covered, and is in year 4. Physiological adaptations are usually covered in year 8 or 9, although fossils (and discussing ancient animals) is covered early in about year 3. Genetics typically works alongside evolution in year 10 (as is the case here). So while the word only appears once, concepts that are fundamental to understanding evolution litter the curriculum.

“The evolution of man is not part of the syllabus, and all the examples of evolution given as ‘Elaborations’ in the syllabus deal with non-controversial or small scale applications of natural selection (e.g. ‘the impact of cane toads on the evolution of Australian Predators such as snakes.’)”

The evolution of man has never been part of the K-10 curriculum of any state to my knowledge (happy to be corrected) as it is covered in detail in senior subjects. One can argue for it being moved forward or made compulsory, and I can think of arguments for and against doing so. However, I can’t but help that this isn’t being argued with a pragmatic necessity in mind, but rather as a defensive posture against potential religious indoctrination.

But more on that later.

The elaborations in the document aren’t official necessities, but suggested guidelines on how it might be approached. They are typically suggested with relevance to prior knowledge in mind rather to make it easier for the teacher to determine a useful way to introduce the topic.

What of teaching that dreadful ‘Aboriginal’ science? What does the framework have to say about that?

Specific knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is incorporated where it relates to science and relevant phenomena, particularly knowledge and  understanding of nature and of sustainable practices. For example, systematic observations by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures over many generations of the sequence of various natural events contribute to our scientific understanding of seasons in Australia.”


“Students should learn that all sorts of people, including people like themselves, use and contribute to science. Historical studies of science, mathematics and technology in the early Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures extending to modern times will help students understand the contributions of people from around the world.”

Given my upcoming book more or less goes into some depth on this topic, I’d like to think I’ve got something of an informed opinion. I feel the demarcation problem makes it difficult to describe precisely what science is and isn’t. Indigenous Australians have developed systems of describing nature, which might be viewed as scientific. They definitely created technology. Personally, I’m inclined to define science as values that described natural events in an impersonal fashion, so would see this as an interesting contrast, where I’d present to students the question ‘Is science the same as technology?’. Nonetheless, I think it’s a valuable contrast in the classroom, and one (when taught in accordance to the skills implicit in the curriculum) that would benefit student’s comprehension of how science isn’t simply defined.

“Thus the syllabus leaves open the option of teaching Creationism, while teaching just the basic theory of Natural Selection to Year 10 students only, omitting any reference to the evolution of man, and not mentioning Darwin once. This must be of great concern to sceptics as this document will form the basis of Science teaching for the next generation.”

Here’s the core of the matter. ACARA was found guilty of peddling pseudoscience because there it didn’t seal up the cracks, preventing the possibility of creationists slipping their venom into the ears of kiddies. That’s it – it didn’t account for the reds under the beds.

What troubles me most is that in spite of a greater focus on good scientific thinking, in spite of a move towards evaluative tools and promoting a critical epistemology more than any prior document, they got their wrist slapped because they didn’t put in enough Darwin. The assumption is that this is what impedes creationism in the classroom – evolution put in bold ink and underlined in a state-enforceable document.

There is a valid concern of pseudoscience slipping into the curriculum. I’ve encountered it all before – teachers who believe that the spin of a planet causes gravity; conspiracy theories; dolphins are a type of fish. But greater detail in the curriculum would not have made a lick of difference, given the existing documents failed to dissuade such errors or misinformation. Putting another evolution topic in primary school and adding Darwin to the list of great scientists will not safeguard schools against creationist teaching, and for that to be the focus of attack demonstrates a complete ignorance of pedagogy.

For skeptics, nothing should be more important than the arming of students with the fundamental skills that allow them to hear nonsense and identify it. This is not a question of content, but skills.

What does make a difference, then? A number of things. Better trained teachers. A school culture that reinforces cross-curricular skills. Improved career prospects for teaching and non-teaching staff. Good resources. Community involvement in the classroom. It’s not a simple solution, let alone one that can be addressed through a liberal dose of public mockery. Rather, differences are made by proactively contributing to the discussion with good information on pedagogy, cognitive psychology, best classroom practices etc.

The draft science curriculum is certainly not without its faults, and can definitely stand improvement. Nobody would argue otherwise. Informed and constructive feedback is vital and groups like the Australian Skeptics should well have pulled together a team of sceptical educators and produced well supported feedback grounded in research, which could have been promoted on its website to demonstrate its measured approach to education. Discussing how to go about this would be worthwhile.

Yet what is the likelihood of their being taken seriously by any curriculum council when its response is to instead ridicule ACARA, effectively calling them pseudoscientists because their conclusions don’t have enough evolution for their liking? Not great, I’m afraid.

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments (18)  
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Psych-out over ridiculous communication

And this bump means I'm clumsy.

I’m not a psychologist. I haven’t got a degree in it and I failed the only subject I did in it during my undergrad about fourteen years ago. That said, much of my career has revolved around making myself well acquainted with certain topics in this field. Education and cognitive psychology go together like pedals and bicycles. To butcher the analogy further, education without psychology is like a bicycle without pedals – it might feel like you’re going for a ride, but once you get to a hill you’re screwed.

While I cannot profess to significant expertise, I have worked hard to understand the fundamentals and have a keen eye for deciphering literature on current educational psychology. In my world, psychology is a useful science for determining worthwhile methods for communicating, educating, engaging and assessing.

Much like its sibling sociology, psychology is often flippantly dismissed as a pseudoscience on the grounds that it is compromised by a myriad of variables that no experiment could possibly iron out. As such, diverse opinions on anything to do with human thinking or behaviour are treated as equally valid. Or, more precisely, for some people, personal stories and ad-hoc rationalisations are granted more weight when it comes to claims in psychology than they would if the topic was physics or chemistry.

I find this rather odd, given my understanding of science as a methodology. It’s true that psychology and its ilk are impeded when it comes to devising experiments. Ethics aside, controlling for a diverse range of niggly factors makes it hard to pinpoint definitively a simple relationship between any two observations. Fortunately science is not limited to such constrictive dichotomies of ‘proven by experiment’ and ‘falsified by experiment’. Rather, science isn’t about ticks and crosses, but about the weight of evidence by way of a combination of logic and observation. It’s true that a social experiment cannot carry the same convincing power as one done with lasers and atom counters. But it’s not to say that all beliefs regarding social behaviours or cognitive reactions are of equal weighting.

The so-called tone wars rage on, with Phil Plait recently fleshing out his TAM8 speech with several blog articles, and Richard Dawkins weighing in with his two cents. While I can appreciate the sharing of opinions, I do find it quite strange how the numerous responses to each – as well as the original comments themselves – utilise personal accounts to support claims of the role of ridicule in communication. I find it odd because this is a community of skeptics; people who prize science and would quickly put the boot into anybody foolish enough to try to support their claim with an anecdote or a just-so-story.

While by no means does it come across as a majority view, I have had it pointed out to me that psychology is a soft science, therefore it’s impossible to address such a claim with evidence. I wonder, however, how many of these skeptics would quickly suggest the role of confirmation bias in psychic claims, or cite any one number of other neurological quirks or cognitive hiccoughs as a suitable explanation for some otherwise paranormal observation.

No, psychology is not physics. We won’t have laws of the brain in the next few years, or a formula for sociology. The local tabloid might have articles on equations for the best handshakes or how best to meet girls, but few self-respecting psychologists would entertain such notions seriously. But to dismiss it as science and believe it has no role in helping us understand communication simply because it’s complicated is to misunderstand how science operates. We’ll probably never know whether ridicule is the best course of action for creating a more critical community in the same way we know the laws of thermodynamics. But by no means does that mean all bets are off when it comes to studying human behaviour, and in no way does it mean all opinions on the topic are equally valid.

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 12:35 am  Comments (4)  
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A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach

“I don’t think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn’t do any good to get your head cut off. But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it’s because I fear you. Don’t for one moment think it’s because I respect you.”

-Richard Dawkins, 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.

Fear can be quite an effective motivator when it comes to silencing your critics. Make people ask if the consequences of speaking out are worth the trouble and you’ll find the voices of your opposition will fade from the public stage. But as Dawkins noted, the quiet fear of retribution is not the same as respectful silence.

Perhaps the more aggressive of the Islamic fundamentalists care little for having their position respected by anybody, let alone a kafir like Dawkins; fear-induced submission, regardless of the cost, could be their goal. If it is, they can claim a resounding success.

Those within the ‘rationalist surge’ communities of atheism, feminism and skepticism are currently debating a parallel situation. Phil Plait presented a speech at TAM 8 that spoke against the use of mockery and ridicule when it comes to conversing with believers.

When it comes to communicating on topics relevant to the group’s interests, should we endeavour to curtail our passion-fuelled frustration, or is ridicule and mockery an appropriate response to some ideas? The answer, of course, is complicated and contextual, depending entirely on one’s intentions.

Why are we talking?

Why do we talk? I’d suggest it was to be heard, and possibly understood and even have our view appreciated.

Let’s clump all possible intentions behind a person’s desire to communicate into a blunt dichotomy – self-gratification and non self-gratification. In other words, you’re either engaging with somebody because it makes you feel good or you’re doing it in an effort to change somebody’s mind (including the possibility of changing your own position). For current purposes we can completely ignore the first category on the grounds of being self-evident in its results – if mocking others makes you feel good, then mission accomplished. We can say it’s effective. Of course, it raises questions on whether ridiculing somebody for selfish reasons is morally reprehensible, but as to whether it can be considered contextually appropriate, the answer is a clear ‘yes’.

That leaves us with communication for non-selfish reasons; there is a desire to influence the behaviour of other people. Again, there is a dichotomy we can invoke here – there are those who are product-driven and those who are process-driven.

‘Product’ in this case describes a practical change. That might involve anything from making certain acts illegal or encouraging the removal of disagreeable products from shelves. The way this is achieved could involve the extreme of lying to people so they’ll believe you, to a more mundane gentle social coercion. In short, product-driven communicators are less concerned about the ‘how’ than they are about the ‘what’, whether it is for people to not to believe in God, not to have alternative medicine available to the community or to make it illegal for businesses not to have a certain number of women on their board.

Process-driven communication is about changing the way people arrive at their conclusions, hopefully leading them to make decisions more compatible with a shared set of values. It’s the difference embodied by the idiom ‘teach a person to fish’, as opposed to simply giving them a poached halibut for their supper.

While both categories might ultimately desire the same outcomes – such as a community where people opt for chemotherapy over homeopathy or where God isn’t thanked for life-saving operations – each faction desires this to be achieved in subtly different ways. And although it is a dichotomy for the purposes of this discussion, few can place themselves solidly in either category for all situations. Being process-driven does not make one a hardcore anarchist where government laws are anathema. Likewise, being product-driven doesn’t mean a complete disregard for the need for promoting good thinking skills.

Yet variation in opinion holds enough within any group that individuals will go about achieving their outcomes in subtly different ways, depending on whether the process or the product is considered to be more important. For example, product-driven communicators might target a shop owner and petition them to remove a product from their shelves. A process-driven communicator might explain to the public through a campaign or a media outlet how that product is defective, offensive or ineffective. Each will employ different communication strategies depending on their ultimate goal.

This is ridiculous!

Before we look at the impact of ridicule in achieving either process-driven or product-driven objectives, it is important to define the behaviour in question.

Essentially, any communication that is intended to cause an audience to associate the holding of a particular opinion with a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear, subservience or any other oppressive sentiment can (for the intentions of this essay) be described as mockery or ridicule. It’s obvious that some people will feel offended by any form of non-complimentary feedback, lending people to conflate ridicule with any criticism; ridicule, however, can be considered to be defined by the communicator’s intentions rather than the audience’s reaction.

Ridicule can be spontaneous or it can be carefully crafted. It can take the form of clever sarcasm or witless insults. It might attack a person directly or be implied indirectly. It might be easy to spot or worded in a way that somebody might weasel out of it later if they come under fire. However it is presented, ridicule is a form of aggressive behaviour that aims to reduce a person’s confidence in an idea using emotional manipulation.

The target need not always be the person who presents the idea, either. For any act of communication, there can often be the hidden audience – lurkers, fence-sitters and the non-committed. While many forms of communication might for all purposes appear to be localised between two parties, it’s typically understood that there are additional audiences who are passively involved. Ridiculing an idea can just as easily be intended to emotionally challenge those on the sidelines into changing or reinforcing their behaviour, siding with your views over theirs.

So, does it work? Will ridicule influence your audience? Yes…and no. It primarily depends on who your audience is.

Poles apart

Unfortunately research on aggressive language as an effective means of outreach in rationalist grassroots communities is rather thin. No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.

Arguably a good place to start might be a concept in sociology referred to as ‘impression management’ (IM) – the theoretical processes we use when we try to influence how others see things. This can cover everything from how supermarkets will display their stock to whether a politician wears a red or a blue tie to a debate.

According to contemporary IM theories, this behaviour comes in three varieties, depending on the method of communication –

  • Ingratiation: Encouraging compliance in others through attempting to inspire good feelings
  • Supplication: Encouraging cooperation, empathy or dominance in another through appearing weaker or submissive
  • Intimidation: Encouraging submission in others through appearing stronger[1]

The American sociologist Erving Goffman theorised in his text ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ that goals are best met when there is congruence between our choice of method and the perception we wish people to have[2]. Wanting people to like you by intimidating them won’t work very well, in other words.

More specifically, the sociologist Richard Felson has applied IM theory to aggressive communication[3], concluding that intimidating behaviour might be an effort to reinstate one’s identity in a situation following a perceived threat or ‘attack’. Hence when we encounter something we feel is not just wrong but detrimental or incomprehensible (or just plain silly), our response is to meet the threat aggressively to re-establish a sense of perspective that we’ve felt has been lost.

While it isn’t the only theory addressing the role of aggression in communication, IM has some strong evidence supporting its propositions. It goes some way towards explaining why people might employ the use of ridicule even if it is found to be otherwise completely ineffective in achieving their communication goal.

A few pedagogical investigations have addressed the role of ridicule and mockery as a form of classroom management. Perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence supporting the use of insults and sarcasm as an educational corrective, encouraging commitment to a particular activity (such as reading a text)[4], but mostly for children over the age of six[5] but before mid-adolescence[6]. The fear of humiliation appears to be enough to motivate children into applying themselves to simple tasks. There is a counter to this approach as a recommended classroom management tool, where ridicule and social isolation can have a detrimental impact on student confidence and self-esteem, however it is indeed evidence demonstrating that if the goal is purely to motivate young students to engage, it is effective.

On the other hand, as students develop, aggressive language seems to lose its motivational quality. For instance, there is a negative correlation between the amount of aggressive language (including swearing, ridicule and teasing) used by a college instructor and the young adult student’s affect towards course content[7]. It appears that as the social dynamics change with the onset of adolescence the threat of ridicule diminishes and it becomes associated with incompetence rather than authority.

Perhaps the most relevant study in this regard is one that coins the term ‘jeer pressure’ in examining the effects ridicule on third parties has on conformity[8]. Put simply, the act of seeing others being ridiculed is enough to encourage conformity. Not only is the humiliation itself effective – retaliation is seen as a sign of weakness, making it difficult to respond to. Given that most forms of criticism are typically enough for people to withdraw from contributing to a group discussion, this is hardly surprising at all[9].

So, ridicule appears to be an effective way of discouraging free thought and maintaining beliefs held by a social group, especially amongst groups of children. Other research on this topic only goes further in supporting how adult groups use isolation or humiliation to encourage conformity[10], where ‘reactions to ingroup deviants are … based on an individual-protection motive, namely the desire to distance oneself from unfavorable others in order to reduce the likelihood that one will be associatively miscast.’ (Pinto et al, 2010). In the context of discouraging individual thoughts, encouraging group-think and conformity, ridicule is extremely effective. Threat of humiliation within a group makes it difficult for ‘black sheep’ thinking to persist, thereby maintaining an illusion of being an effective way of promoting a particular set of values.

Yet what of those external to a particular social group? What of those who couldn’t care less about whether they’re accepted as part of the fold? Unfortunately the evidence for using aggressive language, ridicule and mockery as a means of communicating with people outside of your own clique (whether this is a student in a classroom or a visitor on an internet forum) isn’t very supportive.

A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication – Dominic Infante – looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument[11]. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics[12]. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments[13]. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.

None of this is perhaps surprising when seen in the light of a sociological phenomenon called ‘group polarisation’. The theory states that social groups of contrasting beliefs or ideals will tend to reinforce their differences when engaging in discussion. A feature of confirmation bias, it essentially means we have a tendency to find reasons to reinforce our beliefs when we come together in groups to make decisions[14]. This occurs to such a great extent we’ll re-negotiate risks, taking bigger gambles than we would alone (referred to as ‘risky shifts’). Aggressive behaviour only further polarises the situation, exacerbating the existing phenomenon.

Be rid of ridicule?

What can we conclude from this sample of research? Several things.

Grassroots rationalist groups who engage in any form of communication with the public might want to seek, contribute to and encourage research into the results of their outreach efforts. Given we know relatively little about the impacts of various forms of public communication, knowing which efforts are useful, which are useless and which are damaging is invaluable for groups who don’t have the resources to waste on getting it wrong or the luxury of losing potential audience members.

Secondly, there is evidence supporting the use of aggressive language such as ridicule only under limited contexts. Those contexts seem to conflict with what one might presume to be ‘rationalist’ values – endeavours that arguably promote freedom of thought over indulging in group-think and critical thinking over conformity. However, if those goals are product-driven, where success is measured not by how people think but by the pressure a group can exhibit on a key demographic, ridicule and mockery just might work. Humiliating the right targets could well create conformity and result in laws being changed, products being removed from shelves, people being fired or hired from influential positions…and so on. For product-driven rationalists, there is some wiggle-room in arguing for the use of ridicule.

Lastly, if the goal is to encourage those from diverse communities to think critically and to cooperate in order find ways of limiting the impact of poor thinking on individuals and the community, then ridicule is a poor choice of communication. At best it further polarises the issues, prompting those you’re trying to communicate with to reinforce their poor thinking skills while doing little to help them think logically. At worst, it prompts third parties to view your argument as comparatively uninformed, potentially isolating individuals who might otherwise be reached by a less aggressive approach.

Of course many people are far beyond changing their epistemology and can be expected to indulge in spreading irrational beliefs regardless of any attempts to ‘educate’ them or change their views. Some might argue there is no harm in ridicule in those cases. Yet there are two responses to that – certainty is for politicians and priests (not those of rational minds). How certain can a person ever be that they ‘know’ their audience is permanently beyond reach? There is less harm in simply ignoring a person out of the possibility that one day they might be more inclined to change their values by somebody who is better skilled at communication; and there are always more reasonable third parties who, out of sympathy for your target, might find it difficult to distinguish the reason from your ridicule.

Unfortunately the playing field isn’t a simple one necessarily capable of supporting many different methods. One rationalist’s actions can make another’s attempts at communication more difficult at achieving success. One person’s insults under the banner of ‘rational thought’ can paint others in a dark light. Promoting scientific and rational values in the wider community is by no means a simple affair, and will take time and effort. The last thing we can afford to do is make it harder purely out of an emotional desire to mock and belittle those who don’t agree. We might be able to aggressively manipulate some into accepting we’re right. But to borrow from Dawkins, using emotional manipulation to elicit submission is not the same as encouraging people to submit to the discussion respectfully. I, personally, would much rather focus on encouraging others to identify irrational beliefs for themselves than waste time and energy on ridiculing the ridiculous.

[1] Schlenker, B., (1980), Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations, Krieger Pub Co

[2] Goffman, E (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday: Garden City

[3] Felson , RB, (1978), Aggression as Impression Management, Social Psychology, 41:3, pp. 205-213

[4] Bryants, J., Brown D., Parks S.L., (1981), Ridicule as an educational corrective, Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(5): 722-727

[5] Jennings, B., (1981), The Effect of Ridiculing a Model on Children’s Imitation of Televised Instruction, presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association

[6] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[7] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[8] Janes, L.M., Olsen, J.M., (2000), Jeer Pressure: The Behavioral Effects of Observing Ridicule of Others, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2000; 26; 474

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