Neil DeGrasse Tyson Challenges Dawkins’s Confrontationalism

This is a great video from way back. In it Neil DeGrasse Tyson effectively gets across the point that you need to combine your mastery of the facts with sensitivity to how the others’ minds work if you are going to be persuasive to them, rather than just put them off with confrontationalism and dismissiveness. Dawkins then hilariously makes the point that he’s not as bad as one could be in this regard.

While he’s not perfect, I think Dawkins stays more within the bounds of fair game civility than is acknowledged, as I illustrated by analyzing his much misrepresented Reason Rally Speech.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • deltmachine



    • David Scott

      You think this is how you get our attention? With spam in all caps? I scorn you and I only listened to enough of your music to see that you are disingenuous. Look it up.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I’m pretty certain that’s Mabus, without even clicking the link, David. He normally wouldn’t have gotten through but since the change to Disqus, I have lost some of my preemptive moderation powers for the time being and need to reconstitute the controls within this new system (starting with even getting permissions to moderate my own goddamn blog, which were stripped of me automatically and without warning, it’s really absurd.)

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    I think the entire Dawkins, 4 horsemen, etc being abrasive is a bit of a meme. Yes, they are a bit more prone to the Socratic method, which mostly seems to be a cultural difference between the US and Europe (particularly Britain). Also, it seems that the enlightenment precept of emergence from self-imposed immaturity (and accordingly the responsibility for seeking knowledge being chiefly on the individual) has bypassed the US somewhat.

    That said, most of the ‘sharpness’ seems to be a willingness to confront the specific issues the disagree with. I don’t remember any of them using ad hominem attacks, etc.

  • David Scott

    I see Tyson’s comments as tone trolling. Richard Dawkins has to put up with very ignorant people, in many cases wilfully ignorant people, who express their opinion stridently and emotionally without considering the feelings of those they will say are going to Hell. I always feel he is a gentleman, and excessively polite to people who do not deserve to have their ideas and opinions considered for even a moment. We atheists are always told that we must be tolerant and polite. Dawkins is polite. The fact that he doesn’t couch his opinions in mealy mouthed accomodationist terms is simply to his credit. And for Tyson, who will not even stand up in public and say that he is an atheist, to criticize Dawkins is inappropriate.

    Tyson’s argument seems to be that Dawkins is using ineffective tactics. But isn’t it about time that people who hold very ignorant and foolish ideas are told bluntly that their ideas are ignorant and foolish? Let other people try to maintain the peace and good feelings between atheists and believers. We need knowledgeable and highly educated people who are willing to call a spade a spade. Tyson can be nice to people if he thinks that is what will win the hearts and minds. But criticizing Dawkins is essentially saying, you shouldn’t say what you are saying because it will upset people. That may be true, but some things need to be said.

    • asonge

      Actually, I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson won this one. Dawkins *left* his professorship which was for the education of the public (Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science) so he could be more of an activist. Tyson sees his role as an educator, and there are measures of effectiveness that go directly into that…he’s taking on a responsibility for things that most people don’t have, and that includes being extremely charitable and removing impediments that some religions put into people’s minds. That’s simply a choice in priorities. And I think your comment about *you* saying that “tone-trolling” is automatically off the table creates a situation where we can’t talk about which priorities we find more important…you’re shutting down the possibility to reflect on what our priorities are. People should be prompted to think about this at times. That isn’t tone trolling. Tone-trolling is saying that you don’t deserve to be in the public square because of your tone. That’s a different thing.

      Now, in your second paragraph you discuss that people who have bad ideas deserve to be bluntly told their ideas are ignorant or foolish. But if we’re going to take pedagogy seriously, then we need to actually look at the psychology literature on this seriously. That means certain methods are going to work better than others, that there’s going to be optimum mixes of methods in the public square (good-cop, bad-cop mixes, etc), and that we need to think about our actions. The way YOU make it sound is that we need to give people what they deserve, which doesn’t *necessarily* align with other goals like creating more rational thinkers and getting people to drop superstition. Being frank and open simply does not have to involve telling believers that they are deluded or stupid.

      I personally have a character flaw where I will come off as haughty and condescending. It comes from my childhood where I only felt good about myself by feeling like I was the smartest person in the room. When I’m arguing with people about religion, I have found that I maintain the most friendships *and* get the most exposure to change people’s minds when I treat them as equals…even when (and especially because) this means not pointing out every single wrong thing with whatever they just said. Simply trying to help them iron out their own inconsistencies, and uncovering some for them, and allowing them the space to think about things they don’t have “comebacks” for creates a kind of trust and safety that allows what I say to actually be listened to. As Jerry DeWitt says “No one ever stopped believing in God when you show them that you can’t fit all the animals on the ark.”

    • Rogier van Vugt

      Both wrong: Dawkins and NDT are like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. They go together as the carrot and the stick for moving a donkey.
      I myself like the Dawkins approach better as I think it is more honest. However I still like to see people like NDT play the good cop. As long as they play along and understand that they should not undermine the ‘bad’ cop. (as far as I have seen, NDT does this pretty well)

    • asonge

      I said Tyson won because Dawkins resigned his title as a science educator, as his atheist activism (something that I consider a good thing) was distracting from his mission as an evangelist to the public for science education. Now he does atheist activism full time.

      If you wanted to archetype the two as MLK and Malcom X, go ahead, but I think this is seriously misleading. I don’t want to simplify things to a spectrum, and I’d rather take each one’s actions on their own as well as a group. Dawkins has said things that are easily taken uncharitably and he doesn’t seem to care, whereas NDT is a bit over-cautious in many arenas and runs away from the atheist label as David Scott mentioned (something that helps NDT’s goals as a science evangelist, but hurts the atheist evangelism project, which I share with Dawkins). I think this is better done, instead of as “different approaches to the same goal”, as really just 2 sets of goals with a lot of overlap, and a large set of shared values.

    • David Scott

      I think you are saying what I said. We need a range of approaches. If Tyson wants to go gentle with nonsense, that’s his business and his approach. I like Dawkins because he doesn’t mince words.

    • asonge

      But for me, it’s not that he doesn’t “mince words”, but he also says things that are easy to take the wrong way, and I hear arguments like yours used to give him a pass because he’s “speaking truth”. It’s an over-expansion of concern-trolling: by labeling someone a concern troll, you can ignore every part of their argument from the conversation automatically. When you do that, you are no longer responsible for choosing words that are less likely to be taken uncharitably.

    • faithisfraud

      I agree. For some people, the evidence is all that matters. For others a little bit of coddling can help them to change their minds with out doing too much damage to their egos.

  • Laurent Weppe

    The more time passes, the more I’m inclined to think that Dawkins does not want to convince people but is merely expressing his fantasy of living in a world entirely ruled by scholars like him. I already wrote what I thought about the speech you defend (short version: big pile of intellectually dishonest triabalistic bullshit), but compared to some of Dawkin’s other outburst, and his growing compalcency if not support toward the european far-right, well, considering his recent behavior meesa wonder if he’s not pulling a Heidegger and whether Tyson and him are not merely diverging about the methods, but about their actual goals.

  • Rogier van Vugt

    It is as I thought: the first beyond belief conference. All video’s are here:
    is about 17 hours of video. There’s some fluff in it (ignore Stuart
    Hameroff & Joan Roughgarden). However I do not think it is possible
    to find 17 hours of continuous video that entertains the mind more than

  • mikmik

    I hardly find Dawkins intentionally offensive. His attitude is more like having had enough pissing around and setting his foot down.
    People will find any reason to be offended when a nerve has been struck.

  • HyperDragon

    This is the same event where NDT gave a very interesting presentation on intelligent design ( and Sam Harris on morality (

  • legacymillenium

    First off, let me just say that, I’ve read a lot of blogs regarding regarding Richard Dawkins, and one thing I keep noticing time and time again are aethiests calling religious people ignorant. Some religious zealots are ignorant, but to consistently make these blanket statements about religious people is not only insulting, but down right arrogant.

    On another note. I believe science potentially can solve all the great mysteries of the universe and beyond. But, there is a possibility that science, no matter how advanced, may never answer some of these questions. One fact that is overlooked very often by many atheists that I’ve spoken to is that philosophy and spirituality often times have pushed for mankind to develop science to answer the big questions. Richard Dawkins advocates getting rid of religion, but has also grouped spirituality, and some philosophy in that same category. To push for abolishing spirituality and some philosophical concepts in my humble opinion is detrimental to human progress, which is the very thing Dawkins, Tyson, and others are trying to prevent.

    Amit Goswami, a PhD in quantum physics, and colleagues conducting research in the field of consciousness, have already proven scientifically that human consciousness is non-local, let me repeat that, scientifically proven. There has been data taken regarding this concept going back to 1994.

    Human consciousness has been studied by philosophical and spiritual discussions and concepts going back to the beginnings of human history. Scientific advancement has gone hand in hand with with that. After all, all scientific principle first started off as an idea. If we get rid of spirituality and philosophy, then there is a strong possibility we get rid of scientific advancement.

    Amit Goswami’s and others in his field, push to scientifically measure human consciousness would never have been made if the concept of a non-local consciousness wasn’t thought of or believed in, which was originally in the realm of the philosophy and spirituality.