Monday, 30 August 2010

A Beginner's Guide to Skeptical Dickery

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve become known on the internet due to my science-based letters and other comedy articles. When I say ‘known on the internet’, it’s the equivalent of someone saying they’re ‘known on TV’ because they once did a guest spot on a 3am call-in show on Challenge TV, or one of those other pointless channels where the nameless presenter tries to remain jovial but ends up looking psychotically desperate while talking to strangers drunk enough to think calling a premium rate line is a good idea but too drunk to work out a simple word jumble like ‘MASTE OF WONEY’. But still, it’s more than I expected. So, thanks for that.

Anyway, as a result of my blogging and satirical approach to science, it appears that I’m now part of the skeptic community (and it’s sKeptic for a specific reason apparently, but damned if I can remember what it is right now). I wasn’t invited to join, nor did I apply, it just sort of happened as a result of my attempts to make science interesting/amusing.

For all the use of the phrase ‘skeptic community’, there is no discernable central organisation or committee that regulates skeptic activities; you just sort of get acknowledged as a part of it and that’s it. This is by far the best possible system. If there were a central organisation you had to apply to, imagine the paperwork you’d have to fill in to prove your identity to a bunch of superskeptics? You’d probably have to submit a video of your actual birth along with DNA samples of all your family members before they’d even agree to send you the forms.

Either that, or maybe there’d be some ancient entry ritual involving the slaughter of a goat or virgin (presumably just to prove that such an act has no superstitious or unnatural consequences other than a lot of screaming, a terrible mess and a high likelihood of imprisonment).

But lately, it’s been pointed out several times that a lot of skeptics are dicks. Either that, or they come across as dicks, which to a casual observer is the same thing. As skeptics spend a great deal of effort trying to encourage others to join in or at least see things differently (i.e. more rationally), this isn’t a useful trait.

This has caused a lot of discussion and heated debate as to who exactly is being a dick and why. One side usually accuses another of being dicks because of their ‘incorrect’ actions when engaging others, and these in turn accuse their accusers of being dicks because they’re ‘clearly’ the ones in the ‘wrong’. And on and on, like a bunch of dicks.

Oh, the irony. Also, my preferred term of 'skeprick' hasn't been picked up.

The whole thing is quite confusing; especially for someone like me who is relatively new to the skeptics (I’ve still not got my membership card). So, in order to make some sense of this for myself and other potential newbies, here is a list of the type of skeptical dicks I’ve noticed, coupled with what I’ve learned about the skeptic community to make some sense of the ‘why’ of it. And as an experienced stand-up, I have a lot of experience dealing with dicks (metaphorically) so have suggested some strategies for dealing with these people should you be on the receiving end of their dick-ness (again, metaphorically).

(DISCLAIMERS: This list is based entirely on my own observations and conclusions, no examples are cited because I’m trying not to be a dick to people myself and, conversely, much of it can be applied to me).

· THE EVIDENCE JUNKIE: A lot of things are just accepted as fact. E.g. If I let go of my coffee mug, it’ll fall and probably scald my leg, and lo there shall be heard much foul-mouthed cursing throughout the land. I don’t need evidence to know that’s the case. For anything less certain, skeptics are very big on evidence, which is as it should be, but none more so than the evidence junkie. When debating a contentious issue, a typical skeptic will demand evidence for the opposing argument. If this is presented, they should then adjust their position. However, an evidence junkie will want evidence that the evidence is real. Present this evidence, and they’ll question the validity of this follow up evidence, and on and on. For an evidence junkie, sufficient evidence is like the speed of light; something that can be approached with massive effort, but never actually reached. These skeptics are the ones that most closely resemble opponents of skeptics, and are always in danger of switching sides, becoming moon-landing deniers or antivaxxers

o BEST DEFENCE: If possible, respond with the same strategy. Demand evidence for every claim they make, even if blatantly true. They may realise they’re being unreasonable. If you’re especially lucky, you might cause them to question their own existence, at which point they’ll leave you alone in order to escape the Matrix, or something.

· THE “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!SKEPTIC: There is no manual on how to ‘do’ scepticism. Certain skeptics feel that their way is correct, and that other people’s methods are wrong (usually with regards to effectively engaging non-skeptic). When they feel the need to tell everyone else why they’re wrong and what they should be doing, that’s when they become a YDIW skeptic. They mean well, and may have many logical points, but they tend not to suggest but instruct others in the ‘correct’ approach despite being unable to confirm that their way is ‘correct’. And people don’t like that. Imagine an art class where an unknown fellow student keeps tearing up your paintings or squashing your wet clay sculptures because ‘they don’t look right to me’. Whatever their rationale, the unshakable impression they can generate in their victims is ‘and WHO THE F**K ARE YOU, exactly?’ Civilised debate with someone is difficult if they make you want to kick them in the nuts as soon as they open their patronising mouth.

o BEST DEFENCE: A passive approach is recommended as a YDIW skeptic usually means no harm. For someone who feels they are experts in effective engaging, pointing that their approach is infuriating may cause enough of a logical contradiction for them to revise their strategy. Or they might call you a prick, which further undermines their argument.

· THE IMPERIAL CONQUEROR: Upbringing and background varies considerably from person to person, and is possibly the most significant factor in deciding how a person behaves and what they believe. For an ‘imperial conqueror’ skeptic, none of this is an excuse. Like an imperial conqueror, they feel they have free reign to belittle and insult those from ‘inferior’ communities, and feels duty bound to bring skeptical civilisation to the savages. Backed up with their cast iron logic and evidence, an IC will wade into any debate or discussion and ridicule those with a less-than-rational viewpoint, no matter what the reason for their position. An IC is the sort of person you could imagine visiting a tribe of Native Americans and spending the whole time mocking them for not inventing iPods.

o BEST DEFENCE: Can be quite aggressive. Avoid if possible. If it’s an option, single out a physical flaw or failing (e.g. being overweight) that they could do something about but haven’t. Accept no excuses for this ‘oversight’ as, by their own arguments, they should know better

· THE ‘PRESENT COMPANY EXCEPTED’ SKEPTIC: Despite the rumours, some skeptics do have friends. You can sometimes spot these anomalies as they are equally enthusiastic as other skeptics about debunking ridiculous beliefs or pseudoscientific theories, except if they have a close friend who shares those beliefs, in which case they’re off limits to criticism. And not just to themselves, but often anyone else who probably doesn't have the same friends and sees no reason to make allowances. Accommodating the views of others is fine and diplomatic, as is not wanting to upset close friends, but with a PCE skeptic you do get the impression that they’d verbally tear you a new one if you mentioned you supported homeopathy, but would argue in favour of the merits of genocide if Idi Amin came to their house for dinner once and complemented their wallpaper.

o BEST DEFENCE: Claim to have friends who are committed sex-offenders or drug dealers, and that you see nothing wrong with their actions. If you manage to get them to face their double standards, the subsequent cognitive dissonance may cause their brains to reboot.

· THE 'GOAD AND WITHDRAW' SKEPTIC: People who have beliefs that aren't supported by science tend, to compensate, to get very angry when they're challenged. As such, skeptics have an instinctive distrust of people who argue from an emotional base rather than a logical one; citing an emotional element in your argument is akin to a Godwin's law of scepticism. Skeptics also like to win arguments. A GAW skeptic will get their debate-winning fix by deliberately making statements that have some supporting evidence but are clearly shocking or controversial to many people. They will then appear to be shocked and alarmed at the emotional response, retaining the moral high-ground by claiming to be simply trying to generate debate. Anyone with a logical argument delivered in an emotional manner is disqualified.

o BEST DEFENCE: Defence is only required if you're the one being goaded, in which case just reply rationally and calmly. If this isn't an option, simply overplay the emotional aspect; threaten to turn up at their house and bludgeon them to death in their sleep. You will be scorned for your childish overreaction. Then turn up at their house with a lump hammer. Upon seeing you, future goading should cease.

· THE 'WEIRD PRIORITY' SKEPTIC: Vaguely similar to the Goad and Withdraw, the WP skeptic will engage in debate but dismiss their opponents argument for reasons which have little or no bearing on the debate itself. E.g. incorrect grammar, the use of slang, a known relationship with a religious person etc. A current prominent example is the attacking of Jenny McCarthy's support of the anti-vaccination movement. Many skeptics claim that she has no possible credibility as she used to pose nude. Under this logic, any woman who performs in a strip club to pay their tuition fees (quite common, I'm told) is just wasting their time, as if you've exposed yourself to strangers for money you are incapable of having an informed view on anything. In truth, McCarthy being a dangerously deluded idiot is unlikely to have anything to do with her physical features being more familiar than most people's.

o BEST DEFENCE: Should a WP skeptic point out a ridiculous flaw which invalidates your argument, do everything possible to emphasise this flaw. Abandon grammar all together, adopt an incredibly dense cultural patois (preferably not your own), just strip off there and then. This should enrage/confuse/arouse them to the point that their own arguments become incomprehensible.

· THE ‘RELENTLESS KILLJOY' SKEPTIC: Science has yet to really accurately define and quantify 'fun', ergo some skeptics seem to feel that it doesn't (or shouldn't) exist. Harmless non-scientific or irrational activities that people enjoy are unacceptable and not to be tolerated, and any objection by people who enjoy these activities is irrelevant as joy can't be calculated on the metric system. You could easily imagine an RK skeptic turning up at Disneyworld and ripping the heads off the Mickey Mouse costumes worn by the entertainers, before angrily remonstrating with them and the crowd about how it's physiologically impossible for a mouse to have evolved into a bipedal humanoid. RK skeptics don't get on with PCE skeptics, partly because they see no exceptions for the application of ruthless rationality, partly because they don't see the point of friends.

o BEST DEFENCE: The RK is relentless. Your best bet is, when you see them approaching, fling a well known fictional novel (e.g. Harry Potter) off to one side, then make a run for it after they pounce on it and start crossing out all the bits which science does not agree with.

· THE 'ACOLYTE' SKEPTIC: Some people get involved with the skeptics because they want to be cool. As ridiculous as this sounds, being different is sometimes the same as cool, and most people aren't skeptics. As they're clearly influenced by the opinions and views of others, these people tend to latch to the most well known skeptic community figureheads and agree with anything they say, and react aggressively to anyone who dares criticise them. This completely misses the point of skepticism, but then again that's not why they're involved

o BEST DEFENCE: If on the receiving end of a monologue/rant about how great their hero is, casually slip in a mention of something you heard/saw about that person which is completely incongruous with their image (e.g. "Have you seen that video of Richard Dawkin's mud-wrestling with a sheep?"). They'll either think you have a superior knowledge of their idol's work, or make their excuses and immediately go to check your claims. Either way, rant over.

· THE 'SQUIRREL' SKEPTIC: The squirrel skeptic is not a dick, just inadvertently irritating. When someone finds out about the skeptic community, it can be very liberating to realise there are many others who share your interests and views. Sometimes though, these newcomers can be a little overzealous in their enthusiasm, scampering around the internet finding examples of pseudoscience and irrationality or blogs/articles they've written and sharing them with anyone who listens, like a squirrel gathering nuts with a rodent-like exuberance. However, they run the risk of repeating very familiar points, digging up old arguments or presenting you with things that you'd rather not have to encounter, like a cat dragging dead birds into your house. The squirrels are also the closest the skeptics have to cheerleaders, eager to defend skepticism as and when challenged, with an enthusiasm that can seem quite over the top.

o BEST DEFENCE: The Squirrels mean no harm and will most-likely settle down into a typical grumpy skeptic curmudgeon. Should they suddenly wade in to a polite debate you're having and risk upsetting the whole thing, just throw a stick or ball; they'll be compelled to chase it.

· THE 'ARISTOCRAT' SKEPTIC: Whereas many skeptics feel the need to engage with non-skeptics in some way, some seem to have a very specific view of the kind of 'non-skeptic' that should be engaged. Usually, people who aren't university educated, aren't scientists, have an arts/humanities qualification, have had or do have any connection with pseudoscience or irrational beliefs in any form, have read the wrong sorts of books, have read the right sort of books but have the wrong views about them, and so on. Being interested and keen to know more is not nearly enough, you have to meet their personal entry criteria. People who don't aren't referred to by Aristocrats as 'proles', 'muggles' or 'scum', but you can easily imagine them wanting to use those terms. Anyone who doesn't 'meet the grade' but dares to ask a question can either expect a hideously patronising indulgence (think house guest confronted by host's toddler showing off the contents of their potty) or utter disdain (think an expert film critic being told by someone that their favourite film is 'Dude, Where's my car?').

o BEST DEFENCE: If confronted by an Aristocrat, ask many random questions that can have no logical answer, such as "If ghosts did exist, how much would they weigh?" "When will science finally get round to producing the jetpack?" or "Would people pay more attention in talks/lectures if the speakers were forced to do them in the style of movie stars from the '80's?" They may attempt to answer the question, which will end up with them looking stupid, or they won't be able to answer, at which point you can indulgently accept their limitations, infuriating them.

· THE 'INSECURE JOKER' SKEPTIC: Probably a newcomer to the skeptic community, this one finds himself overwhelmed by the genuine intellectual curiosity most people involved demonstrate, and in order to compensate for his failings in this area becomes flippant and satirical where important issues are concerned. Highly qualified, but this is not evident in his output. Uses humour in all his dealings as a clear attempt to compensate for lack of knowledge. Makes wide and sweeping generalisations about diverse groups for the sake of a joke, but then pursues it too far and it gets boring and monotonous. Probably keeps a blog which varies wildly from relentless self-depreciation to breathtaking arrogance, such as adopting the mantle of the entirety of Science. Tries to be funny and incisive but probably ends up pissing a lot of people off, but carries on regardless.

o BEST DEFENCE: Defence is unnecessary, the 'insecure joker' knows how pointless he is already.

So there you go. In truth, every skeptic everywhere occasionally wanders into some of these categories to a certain extent, most likely without being aware of it. Because skeptics, like scientists, pseudoscientists and religious people the world over, are people; messy, confusing, complex, changeable people.

There are plenty of dicks in the skeptic community, I've even advocated being a dick myself, but (based entirely on my own experiences) they're the exception, rather than the norm. If people wish to generalise based on the few, that's their prerogative, but if you want to see truly breathtaking levels of self-aggrandising dickery, just take a look at any of the groups who oppose the skeptics.

Now, if we've spent enough time giving the dicks a spanking (a 3rd 'metaphorically' for luck), let's get back to work.


e-mail: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy


Bill S. Preston Esq. said...

I can't believe the woo community haven't got hold of "skeprick" yet. I fear the day will come when you are hoist on your own petard. Well done sir!

Anonymous said...

The "types" you list are various responses to being inundated with crap 24-7 in this society. Sorry if our Type A personalities offend your lay-backness. But after a while someone who has actually bothered to learn something will have a normal, emotional reaction to the gullibility of the people around them.

Anonymous said...

"by the genuine intellectual curiosity most people involved demonstrate"

But when it is very clear that the creationists have a complete antipathy to anything approaching something "intellectual", I feel that it is appropriate to call them "ignorant fools".

What category is that?

DEEN said...

That was excellent, thank you.

Also, if I may add a little bit of advice: if you're in a group of skeptics, and you see none of these skeptics, it might be you.

Lurker said...

onein6billion said...

"But when it is very clear that the creationists have a complete antipathy to anything approaching something "intellectual", I feel that it is appropriate to call them "ignorant fools"."

You have started your sentence with a conjunction, and so your entire post is therefore invalidated.

Anonymous said...

I saw what you did right away, and I'm surprised that it seems to have gone right over everyone's head.

Zeno said...

An exercise for the reader: Into which categories does the the response of Anonymous (comment #2) fall?

Azkyroth said...

You might consider exchanging "Wikipedia Tagger" for "evidence junkie"; many of them seem to have the same problem.

Nameless Cynic said...

Actually, wouldn't "skepdick" roll off the tongue easier? And since its primary use would be on-line, it seems visually obvious, with the added advantage of any verbal stealth use you could put it to IRL. ("Yes, George, I can tell you're a real skepdick.")

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 is the more stereotypical rear end in a top hat skeptic. You regularly see this person post something along the lines of "Well, my racism and blind arrogance and unwillingness to accept doesn't count because the pope molests little boys.", which always struck me as being the debating equivalent of "you shouldn't arrest me for breaking into someone's house because hitler murdered a bunch of people."

Eric said...

I giggled whilst reading this. I'm also sure I've been most of these at some point or another. I should probably get offended, but I refuse.

Larian LeQuella said...

Great fun! And yes, I proudly proclaim myself as a Skepdick! If you don't like it, well, you can just sod off for all I care. ;)

Anonymous said...

sKeptic is the American spelling FYI

Anonymous said...

Try making sense for a change.

Bwanasonic said...

You left out The Scarecrow Skeptic. The Scarecrow Skeptic is prone to categorizing and creating folk taxonomies of imaginary or grossly caricatured *types* that are rarely, if ever seen in the wild. Ironic since these categories often resemble the vague nonsense of a newspaper horoscope. These types are then used to differentiate the *good* skeptics from those that are *dicks*. Also see: Skeptic Fail.

Laurie said...

Hilarious post!

I like "skepdick." It has a nice ring to it.

Anonymous said...

"Actually, wouldn't "skepdick" roll off the tongue easier? "

At least how I pronounce "skepdick" and "skeptic" no one would be able to tell the two words apart.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...


Indeed, sorry about the oversight. I shall add the scarecrow skeptic to my notes. I'll have the add the corresponding crow skeptic as well, of course. Crow skeptic = irrationaly alarmed by inoffensive stimuli, squawks indignantly and pointlessly in response to it. Unable to perceive things like exaggeration for comic effect in order to provide light relief.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM said...

"*types* that are rarely, if ever seen in the wild"

So that invalidates the characterization? To be replaced with what?

But it is already a strawman, as the post ended with "very skeptic everywhere occasionally wanders into some of these categories to a certain extent ... Because skeptics ... are people; messy, confusing, complex, changeable people."

Now the proper response would probably be to place you in any of the dick categories you belong to. But the game gets boring and the next time you may be another type or even none.

I think the point is, as can be implied by your own comment, that much of the "dick" discussion constitutes "cold reading". There isn't much dickery as compared to anti-skeptic organization (already noted), and we shouldn't destroy that with an irrelevant discussion designed to increase the level.

Mark said...


Great post! I'll have to start reading your blog.

On the subject of crow skeptics, I suggest a sub-category called Anonymous Skeptics. In addition to all the traits of crows, they have one more which sets them apart: they only make their noises when their identity is disguised.

Ian Andreas Miller said...

This is the first time I saw your blog. I love it! And I love this.

The names are great. They ought to have scientific names:

THE EVIDENCE JUNKIE = Scepticus evidentipetus
THE “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” SKEPTIC - Scepticus modinegans
THE IMPERIAL CONQUEROR - Scepticus superantissimus
THE ‘PRESENT COMPANY EXCEPTED’ SKEPTIC - Scepticus amicaccommodans
THE 'GOAD AND WITHDRAW' SKEPTIC - Scepticus stimulifugalis
THE 'WEIRD PRIORITY' SKEPTIC - Scepticus aliprioritatalis
THE 'ACOLYTE' SKEPTIC - Scepticus acolytus
THE 'SQUIRREL' SKEPTIC - Scepticus sciuraceus
THE 'ARISTOCRAT' SKEPTIC - Scepticus aristocrata
THE 'INSECURE JOKER' SKEPTIC - Scepticus intutiioculator

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to have to inform you that you invalidated your entire argument by putting an apostrophe before the s in "Dawkins". Still, a valiant effort :)

trog69 said...

I am guilty of past, and assuredly future Squirreling and Insecure Jokering.

I refuse to contemplate on anything I posted before 1997 or so.

clamflats said...

New Category: Lily Gilder

one who cannot leave well enough alone and constantly want to improve commentary. Example: Ian Andreas Miller's attempt to add scientific names to the various skepdicks.

Another example: skepdicks who reflexively suggest new categories!

Whether it's heaven or hell for me, I hope there's a separate skeptic's section - away from the alleluia chorus or the puppy killers.

Anonymous said...

These all look to me like general blog post commenter categories, found all over the Internet regardless of where on the belief spectrum the poster originates. The Evidence Junkie is an archetype of creationism and AGW-denialism, shading easily into the Evidence Denier. The Goad and Withdraw is a cross between a Drive-by and a Tone Troll. And so on. It's not just skeptics who are dicks.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure which one I am, Aristocrat maybe. My usual response to ignorance is to want to suggest that the person in question go and get themselves an education. How am I supposed to summarise decades of reading in a paragraph?

Bill Beaty said...

Also there's the Wet/Dry Skeptic" spectrum from the ancient SCI.SKEPTIC FAQ. Personally I always saw this and the "trolls" vs. "scientists" spectrum.

DRY: There is no reason to treat these people seriously. Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that their ideas are completely bogus. Time spent trying to "understand their ideas" and "examine their evidence" beyond that necessary for debunking is wasted time, and life is short. Furthermore, such behaviour lends them respectability. If we take them seriously, so will other people. We must ridicule their ideas so that others will see how silly they are. "One belly laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" (H.L. Mencken, quoted by Martin Gardner).

WET: If we lay into these people without giving them a fair hearing then we run two risks: 1: We might miss someone who is actually right. History contains many examples.
2: We give them a weapon against us. Ad-hominem attacks and sloppy logic bring us down to their level. If we are truly the rational, scientific people we claim to be then we should ask for their evidence, and then pronounce our considered opinion of it.

The two extremes are perhaps personified by Martin Gardner (dry) and Marcello Truzzi (wet).

Also: typical 'smeghead' types

Charles Soto said...

Oh I never thought of Idi Amin! I have these fabulous draperies I can never find anything that complements them quite right.

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