"How many of you lost your faith because somebody called you an idiot?"
Several atheist bloggers have embedded a talk by Phil Plait on how to promote rationalism where the question above played a key role in that presentation. Plait expects that most skeptics will say that they were not convinced of skepticism by being called an idiot and proposed that we quit using practices that do not work.
I suggest that Phil Plait is asking the wrong question.
The proper target of condemnation is desires, not beliefs. The fact that condemnation is ineffective against beliefs is not a surprise. Condemnation is not meant to be effective against beliefs.
The proper target of condemnation is desires. Praise and condemnation are used to affect what people like and dislike.
If the question is, "Should skeptics use praise and condemnation as an argument to try to convince others whether certain propositions are (probably) true or (probably) false?" . . .
Then the answer is "no". Actually, the answer is that this would be an absurd practice. Praise and condemnation do not provide any evidence that a particular proposition is true or false, thus they do not provide any good reason to adopt or reject that proposition.
In fact, using praise and condemnation to affect beliefs is itself immoral because it embraces the principle of unsound reasoning that people's beliefs should be affected by claims that have no relevance to the truth of falsity of those beliefs.
So, this is a practice worthy of our condemnation.
However, if the question is, "Should skeptics use praise and condemnation as a way of affecting desires - to promote aversions and affections that are useful and to inhibit aversions and affections that are harmful?" . . .
Then the answer is "yes".
In fact, there is nothing else to use.
In the same way that praise and condemnation absolutely fail to provide evidence that a proposition is true or false, pure factual propositions have no relevance to desires.
An evil person - a person who likes things that are harmful to others - who has true beliefs and sound reasoning - is simply going to be very efficient and effective evil person. Nothing that you can say to this person in the forms of altering his beliefs - in the forms of argument and evidence - will ever have any effect but to teach him more effective and efficient ways of doing evil.
If you wish him to be good, then the tools to use are not rational argument - they are praise and condemnation.
Now, it is important to pay attention as to what target you are going after.
I want to repeat that point because it is of crucial importance. It is vital to pay attention to what your target is - to what you want to accomplish. Because affecting beliefs requires a different set of tools than affecting desires.
If you are going after somebody's belief, then the thing to do is to present evidence and sound reasoning. Calling somebody an idiot does not provide him with a good reason to adopt or reject a particular belief.
However, when he shows a moral failing - a defect in desire - then it is time to cast aside evidence and sound reasoning and to bring out the tools of praise and condemnation.
Here are cases is which it is perfectly legitimate to bring out praise and condemnation in response to somebody else's behavior.
(1) When the person you are talking to lies.
You are having a public debate with somebody and he says something that is not only false, but you have good reason to believe that the other person knows to be false.
Go ahead, make the evidence available, and call him a liar.
It is not name-calling when you call somebody who murders somebody else a murderer, when you call somebody who forces sex on somebody without consent a rapist, when you talk to somebody who makes gross and derogatory overgeneralizations about all people of a particular race or gender a bigot, or when you call somebody who utters claims he knows to be false a liar.
(2) When the person asserts claims he has not checked and could have easily checked.
Let's say somebody claims that recession of the moon proves that the earth could not be billions of years old. Now, I am not talking about somebody asking a question. I am talking about somebody who is making an assertion.
This person is showing a moral failing. "Before you make these stupid assertions why don't you research them and find out what the facts are you intellectually reckless sophist?"
The problem you are addressing here is not being wrong, it is being lazy. Lazy people deserve to be called lazy and they deserve to be called lazy in public - and their laziness needs to be demonstrated.
"It would take you 15 seconds to find the answer to your question on the Internet. Why do you come here and assert that utter nonsense as if it is proved true when, if you had an iota of concern for the truth rather than pushing a myth, you could have found out the answer yourself?"
This is a perfectly legitimate response when a person shows a moral failing of laziness.
A lack of concern for the potential harmful consequences of one's errors - as demonstrated by a lack of motivation to check claims or reasoning supporting conclusions that have potentially harmful consequences is not a "belief" problem. It is a "desires" problem.
The fact is, there is no set of evidence you can provide - no sound syllogism of any form - that will provide a proper response to a lying, intellectually lazy hypocrit who does not care about the potentially harmful consequences of pushing nonsense as if it were truth.
Phil Plait asks the question, "What is your goal here?"
Sometimes the goal is to condemn lying, intellectual laziness, hypocrisy, and a lack of compassion over the potential harmful consequences of pushing nonsense. When it is, calling such a person a lying, intellectually lazy, hypocrite who cares nothing about others is not only true, it is perfectly legitimate.
I would like to close by calling the attention to the fact that the very title of Phil Plait's speech, which is taken from his closing argument, is an example of condemnation through name-calling. It is an example of the type of activity that I support, and which Plait - in a speech where he condemns its use - actually uses.