William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

“Are You Nice?”

"Yes, but are you nice?"

“Yes, but are you nice?”

The Editor reminds everybody to be nice and asks if you have a minute to notice the author’s name.

New York City is littered with groups with causes, especially since the weather is improving. To paraphrase a pastor that I once knew, you can always tell a good cause if they need money. If you see two people with clipboards twenty paces apart, you better pick up your step or cross the street.

The sidewalk solicitors have an arsenal of banal pick-up lines: “Are you against war?”; “Are you for a women’s health?”; “Do you care about the environment?” Well, peace is preferable to war; everyone likes health (but it is a commodity?); and even the most sharply fanged climate denialist cares about the environment. But as none of these questions demands an answer, it is easy to turn a shoulder and carry on with one’s day.

One opening salvo that I’m hearing more often is: “Are you a nice person?”

Ah, now it’s personal. Most people are going to think to themselves, “I am a nice person” and the hook will be in their mouth and they will be reeled in.

Well, it’s not nice not to respond when someone it talking to you, and I’ll say, “No.” This will either have my assailant drop their shoulders and let me pass, or to laugh, and try to convince me that deep down, I really am a nice person.

This is what one fellow tried yesterday. He was energetic and well dressed (which is pretty rare for a street activist). He wore a suit, one of those slim stylish ones. His only sartorial faux pas was that his belt was a little long and the loose end flapped when he raised his arms to make a point. I can imagine the training where a roomful of bright-eyed recruits were taught how to stand on their toes and raise their arms to make a point about the white rhinos.

I was listening closely for words like “climate change” and “sustainability” in his patter, but he was interested in the animals. He asked me if I liked animals—one of those questions that a shy first-grader might ask the kid next to him.

And I said, “Not at the expense of humans.” After doubling over in laughter, he agreed with me, “Oh, no, not at the expense of humans.”

I liked him. He had a pleasant, mobile face, and he was trying awfully hard. I could see how he could get pedestrians to hand over their credit card on the street to support his cause. I have a little rule borne from experience: I don’t open up my purse on the street. I may be more lenient with my rule if someone comes through the subway with a cheery Spanish song played on a beautiful guitar, or gives me a heartfelt speech about the abysmal treatment of honest, hardworking, and still-patriotic veterans at the hands of the VA.

So, he tried, and told me about the species that have vanished in the last year. He talked to me about the bees, and I said I knew about the bees. The bees are a problem, but I don’t see how giving my credit card number to a complete stranger will inspire the bees not to die.

But it was the “nice person” that got to me. I gave up being nice when I saw it was futile. Being nice didn’t get me more or better friends. Being nice just brought more people into my life who were willing to take advantage of me. Being nice didn’t improve the quality of my life. Being nice did nothing for me spiritually. That said, I strive to be merciful, gracious, grateful, humble, and helpful—which I can do without being nice.

The trap is to think that if you’re not nice, then you have to be mean. If the street beggar asked me, “Are you a mean person?” my answer would have been, “No.”

I wouldn’t have given the exchange any thought except that I ran into colleagues of Mr. Are-You-Nice this afternoon. There was a cluster of them, and I thought I dodged them all, but I didn’t. There was a young man at the edge of the group that could have been an office worker waiting to meet his friend after work. He tried to interest me in his cause, and as I was passing him at a fast clip, I told him that I ran into his friends yesterday further downtown.

He yelled after me, “Were they nice?”


  1. I would be giving a speech back about Darwin and natural selection and how animal rights people don’t understand the Darwin many claim to love. Extinctions are part of nature.

    I like your write-up. I, too, would not call myself nice. I am fair-minded (JMJ can double over with laughter on that one–see, I make people laugh), open to discussions, care about other people, but nice is not an adjective I use. Nice sounds too much like a wimpy sell-out who hands out their credit card to people on the street. Be nice now means to shut up and let the opposite side have their way. Not happening–so thank you for the post!

  2. “Were they nice?”

    As nice as athletes’ foot. And more persistent.

  3. “Sometimes I guess, but my goal is to be a virtuous person.”


  4. What a coincidence. As I remarked in a comment on another post, I’m reading the last of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, “That Hideous Strength”.
    The villains, agents of Satan, are scientists/academics/bureaucrats who do their dirty work via an agency called “N.I.C.E” (acronym for National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). … and are they evil!!!

  5. Dr. Briggs enemies are still waiting in ambush.
    “Well, it’s not nice not to respond when someone it talking to you, and I’ll say, “No.” ”
    BTW, I do like tasty animals.

  6. I imagine street preaching or active outreach for certain causes can be humiliating. Brave soul.

  7. It is amusing that “nice” once meant stupid (Middle English) from a Latin word meaning ignorant.

  8. All,

    I think the BB has offered us more proof that progressivism is a religion.

  9. Noblesse Oblige

    May 2, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Watch the original (1956) make of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to see the endpoint of “being nice.” Alas the film ended ambiguously; we are not sure who won. We now know that the pods won.

  10. I tell people, when asked how I am, “I’m mean!” and then grin at them.
    They probably think I’m crazy so it saves a lot of time.

  11. “Extinctions are part of nature.”

    This seems to be one of those annoying talking points I often see on skeptical and conservative blogs. Big parts of the world are now ‘unnatural’ because humans dominate the natural world. It makes sense not to facilitate extinctions as the process takes millions of years. When the environment changed, plant and animal life could in past times migrate. That’s much more difficult now, since cities, towns, suburbs, are barriers to survivability.

    As to whether I’m a nice person or not… I don’t care. Being ‘nice’ seems to imply I have to meet someone else’s approval. I don’t need the approval ratings of strangers as they are not important to me. I have my own standards which are internal to me. I try not to be a jerk. So I won’t double park on a busy road to drop a passenger off if I know it will disrupt hundreds of other people, for example. That probably makes me ‘nicer’ than most people I seem to run into driving motor vehicles. Although I don’t sound like I’m as nice as Dr Brigg’s. Someone with a clipboard on a public street trying to get in my face would not even register with me as I walked past them.

  12. Will: Unless we were created as separate from the rest of the planet or we aliens, we are just as much a part of nature as anything else on this planet. If we rise to the top and some species go extinct, I don’t see how that is not just as Darwinian as any other process. Arguing that people are special and exempt from the process seems more problematic. Again, “unnatural” would only apply if we are special or aliens.

  13. Asteroids hitting the Earth periodically is also part of the natural process of things. Sometimes they destroy nearly all life on the planet when they do so. Because it’s a natural event does that mean we shouldn’t try to prevent them?

  14. I think the argument that conservatives tend to make is that the nature worshipers can’t complain about extinctions of wildlife as that is a natural process. Of course, a nature worshiper would immediately counter that humans have upset the natural balance and “unnaturally” accelerated wildlife extinctions, hence everything must now be done to counter balance humans mischief.

    So I don’t think this type of argument works at all, although I see it show up every ten minutes somewhere on the internet.

  15. Will: That depends on your viewpoint. If you think nature is the ultimate authority and we should not mess with nature, then no, we should not try to stop them. If you consider humans part of nature and a clever part at that, then yes, I suppose we can try. I say try because I’m not very confident that we can find an answer to stopping an incoming asteroid, but if we have a few billions lying around, we can try. If we go by risk assessment, maybe we don’t worry about the asteroid at all and go with more imminent threats. (You know, like terrorists versus climate change as most important.)

    I was making a comment about a scientific theory, not endorsing a political philosophy. Darwin is accepted by many nature worshipers as the absolute describer of how the earth was made. Schools teach evolution as the gospel truth. Darwin described survival of the fittest. Humans were part of that, except that they are not when it’s inconvenient to the argument. It has nothing to do with politics, though I suppose jumping to politics is a habit with some. Personally, I don’t care what humans do with nature. I consider us part of it and whatever we do to be part of the evolutionary path. If we destroy ourselves, something will replace us.

  16. As a scientific theory, Natural Selection has nothing to say about moral agency. If you’re thinking of it as a scientism then the proposition you’ve expounded is strongly rejected by nature worshipers for the reasons I’ve already explained. I don’t know if Natural Selection is taught in school these days as a scientific theory or as scientism. (One would hope caution would still be applied as the last time that happened we ended up with the eugenics movement.) Usually, at least when I was taught the theory, it was contrasted against Lamarckism. As for it being taught as The Truth, I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, as the evidence is very strong, and one would have to be irrational to not see it as true, or at least not treat it as being true for practical purposes. The sun may not be a ball of hydrogen gas either, but I don’t see a problem with treating the sun as being such.

  17. JH makes a good point about active outreach and to be courteous would be a minimum response. If they are from an organized party then asking them to send you an email, where you then have the opportunity to consider providing help, is acceptable. If it is an individual asking for some immediate assistance then I think Matthew 5 et al needs to be considered.

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