Monday, July 20, 2009

What's so wrong about PZ?

In the blogosphere, there's yet another ... ehem ... discussion ... going on about "new atheists" and "accomodationism".

The setting: Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote a book called Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. For whatever reason, an entire chapter or two of the book was devoted to criticizing "new atheists" in general, and PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins in particular. As should have been expected, PZ Myers wrote at least four or five posts about it, and so did Chris and Sheril. And the rest of the blogosphere is chattering about it.

What's especially irritating to me is how much the arguments mostly just swish right by each other. I find that I have to keep track of not two, but four different sides: 1) what Mooney and Kirshenbaum say, 2) what PZ says, 3) what Mooney and Kirshenbaum say PZ says, and 4) what PZ says Mooney and Kirshenbaum say. I have to keep track of all this he said she said junk when I'd rather be keeping track of the issues.

One question I'd like answered is, what exactly do Mooney and Kirshenbaum think is wrong with PZ Myers? As in, which part specifically? Is it PZ's position that science and religion conflict? Or is it PZ's harsh internet persona, and his swarming horde of followers? Or something else?

See, Mooney and Kirshenbaum just hammer on and on about PZ Myers (on the internet, if not in the book). But the problem with focusing on a specific example is that you lose applicability to other people! I mean, I can only care so much about PZ Myers. Because I am not PZ Myers. I share PZ's philosophical position, more or less, but his demeanor not so much. And to show that I'm not alone, there was a recent post on Cosmic Variance in which Sean Carroll argued that science can answer questions which are frequently categorized as religious. And he does it calmly, politely.

And arguably, Dawkins is in this category as well. Dawkins argues a lot about how God is in principle a scientific claim, but Dawkins himself is quite polite. Dawkins doesn't need to swear or be rude in order to shock people; he lets his clearly stated beliefs and positions do the shocking.

So do Mooney and Kirshenbaum have a problem with that, or not?

And if they do have a problem with that, what do they expect me to do about it? Surely they could not be arguing that I should change my philosophical position just because it's politically inconvenient. Do they argue that I should keep it quiet because it's politically inconvenient? Forget that! I happen to like having a bit of a voice, thank you very much. If Mooney and Kirshenbaum wish to convince me, they would need some really good direct evidence that speaking up hurts the cause, not just in the short run, but in the long run. And it has to be my cause, not theirs.

And what if their problem is not with PZ's philosophical position, but with his approach? This implies that they would also have a problem with someone who cusses and swears and pulls shocking stunts as he argues that science and religion are completely compatible. But I'm not seeing it. I can't imagine it.

But assuming that they're really just disagreeing with PZ's approach, and not his philosophical position, some of the same questions appear. Where is the good, direct evidence that PZ's approach backfires, even in the long run? And how do they expect to change it?

My line of thinking is, "That's just the internet for you." People can be mean. Different websites tend to have completely different accepted levels of politeness. Internet culture has far too much inertia to change it easily. Look at it this way. No matter what you do, no matter what you argue, you will never change me into a PZ Myers. I don't have the right temperament for it. So how would we change someone like PZ Myers into someone like me? And how are you going to do it to his tens of thousands of readers?

Sometimes, you have to accept the social landscape as is, working around it if you have to. And who knows (since I have yet to see any direct evidence otherwise), maybe a variety of approaches is a good thing after all. You know, don't put all your eggs in one basket. And recognize that our audience is diverse, our goals are diverse.

23 comments:

smijer said...

I think you should change your position, not because it is inconvenient (though it can be, especially if poorly expressed), but because (if I understand your position correctly) it is incorrect.

Care to discuss?

Larry H. said...

PZ is pretty good about using quotations and specific examples, Chris and Sheril not so much. What Myers says Mooney & Kirshenbaum say is pretty much what they actually say.

And PZ's "persona" and approach is not really all that harsh; compared to my blog he's the model of grandfatherly kindness. But he definitely does not trade in euphemism and he does not beat around the bush.

All the critiques of New Atheism -- at least those not objectively and provably inaccurate -- are around how the New Atheists present their position. As an historical model, we see the exact same critique applied to other marginalized groups struggling for civil and social respectability, including homosexuals, women and blacks.

miller said...

Go ahead if you like, though I must mention that I have an upcoming post later in the week which actually expresses my position rather than simply referring to other people I agree with.

I am curious to know if you think Mooney and Kirshenbaum feel the same way. I've gotten the impression that their argument is about what is and isn't politically effective, rather than what is and isn't correct. But I would be interested to hear if my impression of them is mistaken.

miller said...

(The previous comment was directed at smijer.)

Larry,
Heh, that's true. Your blog was far harsher than Pharyngula.

I don't have the historical perspective (obviously, I'm young), but it does seem to be the case that some people only argue against the approach of new atheists because they are incapable of arguing against the position. I'm not sure I would say this is always true, but it sure seems suspicious when position and approach become so intertwined that it's difficult to tell which one they dislike more.

smijer said...

Yeah - it would be more productive to wait until you clarify your position.

To answer your questions, sort of... I think that there are matters of politics (and politeness) that should be dealt with, so I probably agree with M/K to some degree on that score, but 1) I haven't read their book, 2) I'd rather profess and defend my own opinions about those matters than someone else's, and 3) I'm like you in thinking that matters of fact and proper thinking precede and supercede other issues.

As to Larry H's statements, I have three considerations:
1) I'm wondering if the historical examples he has in mind are along the lines of the Black Panthers or along the lines of MLK jr (iow, is it ever appropriate to criticize the approach of a "marginalized minority" toward the aims of that group?).
2) I notice that there is often confusion and ambiguity between whether one is talking about scientists (a privileged minority, if anything) or atheists (a marginalized minority). This also applies to the larger debate between "accommodationists" and "anti-accommodationists" - it's often difficult to tell whether one is arguing this position relative to atheism or to science.
3) it occurs to me that movements among other minorities sought tolerance, whereas scientists and atheists seek not only tolerance, but deep understanding and "conversion". This must come into the discussion one way or another, but I fear biting off more than can be chewed.

Scott said...

All the critiques of New Atheism -- at least those not objectively and provably inaccurate -- are around how the New Atheists present their position. As an historical model, we see the exact same critique applied to other marginalized groups struggling for civil and social respectability, including homosexuals, women and blacks.

I have to admit that I find this comparison quite shocking. Are you suggesting that atheists are currently struggling for civil and social respectability in the same way that homosexuals, woman and racial minorities have been?

I won't deny that not everyone respects atheists, but not everyone respects fundamentalist Christians either. In any case the US has a long history of actively protecting religious minorities -- a group that includes atheists, in my opinion! -- from persecution. Not so in the case of women, homosexuals and racial minorities.

Indeed, when one considers the widespread acceptance of secular institutions in the United States, one would think that atheists have a lot more to gain by quietly supporting those (very successful) institutions than by railing against their detractors. In a place like Tehran, perhaps a different approach would be necessary, but we don't live in a religious state!

Larry H. said...

Scott: Are you suggesting that atheists are currently struggling for civil and social respectability in the same way that homosexuals, woman and racial minorities have been?

I am not. I am saying that the same critique -- stridency, pushiness, lack of "respect" for the status quo, going "too far" -- has historically been applied to other marginalized groups.

Note that even Dr. King, who was much softer on the white majority than his contemporaries such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, was also condemned as a radical, and not just by J. Edgar Hoover. He may not have been a militant radical (at least not yet; before his death King was beginning to connect the black civil rights struggle to the Vietnam war), but he was no Booker T. Washington.

smijer: it occurs to me that movements among other minorities sought tolerance

There are a lot of differences between the New Atheist movement and the civil rights struggles in the past (and present), but this characterization is over-simplistic. The civil rights struggles sought and continue to seek truly profound changes in the operating social and political systems, not just a new mental attitude in the population. These sorts of changes simply do not happen without open confrontation.

There is real oppression of atheists -- it was much easier to have a black man run against a woman for the Democratic nomination than it was to have an open atheist, but no one serious asserts atheist oppression is of the same character or severity as slavery, misogyny and homophobia.

Even so, the New Atheists really are seeking a societal and political change every bit as momentous as those of the civil rights movements: we seek the marginalization of superstition and religious authoritarianism at the most basic metaphysical and epistemic levels.

Larry H. said...

I notice that there is often confusion and ambiguity between whether one is talking about scientists (a privileged minority, if anything) or atheists (a marginalized minority). This also applies to the larger debate between "accommodationists" and "anti-accommodationists" - it's often difficult to tell whether one is arguing this position relative to atheism or to science.

To a certain extent, there are two issues: the larger New Atheist movement, which is a broad-based critique of religion in all phases of society, and the accommodationist/anti-accommodationist debate about the relationship of religion specifically to scientific inquiry.

There's obviously a lot of overlap: the canonical "New Atheists" seem pretty firmly in the anti-accommodationist camp. (With perhaps the exception of Dr. Dennett, who plays his cards pretty close to his vest.) Likewise, most of the critics of the New Atheists are also accommodationists.

It's fair I think to call the accommodationist debate a specific battle being fought in the larger New Atheist war.

smijer said...

It's fair I think to call the accommodationist debate a specific battle being fought in the larger New Atheist war.

I do see that this is how many perceive it... but what I mean is confusion of a different type - where the argument is about science and religion for a while, then switches tracks without one side or the other noticing that it has done so, and becomes about atheism and religion.

Never mind the extra confusion created by the diverse and nebulous meanings of the term "religion", by the Deism rabbit trail, by differences between questions that can be approached in principle but not in practice and those that cannot be approached in principle..

That's one reason I like miller - he tends to stay focused and helps keep confusion to a minimum by dealing with one subject at a time.

miller said...

I do see that this is how many perceive it... but what I mean is confusion of a different type - where the argument is about science and religion for a while, then switches tracks without one side or the other noticing that it has done so, and becomes about atheism and religion.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons the current discussion about Unscientific America annoys me. Both parties seem to jumble up all the different points they wish to make, so it's hard to separate them out.

For instance, one thing that should have made more clear is that there are at least two goals in play: promoting science, and fighting religion. PZ believes each goal assists the other, and thus tends to lump them together. M&K only care about the former goal, and thus tend to assume that it's the only thing anyone talks or cares about.

smijer said...

Further, I think that M/K see fighting religion as a potential impediment to advancing science.

So, they & PZ truly are at cross purposes, and likely will talk past one another.

If the various parties do eventually learn to communicate, the discussion should be multifaceted & very interesting.

Larry H. said...

Both parties seem to jumble up all the different points they wish to make, so it's hard to separate them out.

For instance, one thing that should have made more clear is that there are at least two goals in play: promoting science, and fighting religion. PZ believes each goal assists the other, and thus tends to lump them together. M&K only care about the former goal, and thus tend to assume that it's the only thing anyone talks or cares about
.

I don't see how the latter is an instance of things getting jumbled up together. You seem to have grasped PZ's point clearly; indeed the anti-accommodationist position is precisely that anti-religion and pro-science are inseparably linked, if not actually the same thing.

Religion, at least the kind of religion that the New Atheists critique, is, just as is science, a way of thinking about the world. The anti-accommodationist position is that these ways of thinking are mutually contradictory.

Furthermore, George Orwell noted more than sixty years ago that science education has to be much more than just teaching science facts, it has to be about teaching the scientific way of thinking.

I agree with Orwell, which is why I object to the accommodationist viewpoint: it's simply not enough -- it's barely anything at all -- to convince people that evolution is true. What's important is to teach them how scientists (not just Darwin) arrived at that conclusion.

And the way they arrived at the conclusion is completely antithetical to any way of thinking that can support religion as religion: at best the vague metaphysical bullshit of the "sophisticated" theologians or the ridiculous superstitions of the ordinary believers.

Scott said...

I am not. I am saying that the same critique -- stridency, pushiness, lack of "respect" for the status quo, going "too far" -- has historically been applied to other marginalized groups.

Ok, fine, that's a factual statement that I can't deny. But if you aren't analogizing the status of atheists to the status of minorities, homosexuals and women, then what are we supposed to take from this fact?

There is real oppression of atheists -- it was much easier to have a black man run against a woman for the Democratic nomination than it was to have an open atheist

In my view -- and I hope I will get some support for this -- the inability to successfully run for president does not constitute oppression. "Oppression" implies active political restraint; "oppression" would be a law preventing atheists from taking office. Not being able to successfully run for president is -- like it or not, and believe me I don't -- "US democracy in action."

Even so, the New Atheists really are seeking a societal and political change every bit as momentous as those of the civil rights movements: we seek the marginalization of superstition and religious authoritarianism at the most basic metaphysical and epistemic levels.

Wait, so you consider atheists a marginalized group deserving restitution, and yet you seek the marginalization of another group? Would any successful civil rights movement make such a claim?

Don't get me wrong, I think that atheists have something to fight for, but the "identity politics" angle you're taking is deceptive and -- I honestly believe -- deeply ethically suspect.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Larry H: "All the critiques of New Atheism -- at least those not objectively and provably inaccurate -- are around how the New Atheists present their position."

So it is "objectively and provably inaccurate" that Dawkins has contradicted himself about whether theology has "moved on," or that Hitchens let an anti-Semitic urban legend slip into his book?

miller: "I've gotten the impression that their argument is about what is and isn't politically effective, rather than what is and isn't correct."

I'd say that is half-true. M&K do think that science and religion can be compatible.

Larry H.: "Religion, at least the kind of religion that the New Atheists critique, is, just as is science, a way of thinking about the world."

And I'd say that this is incorrect on two grounds. First, science is a discipline, not a way of thinking, and it is set up to account for different ways of thinking and even errors in thinking on the part of those who participate in the discipline. Second, religion isn't a way of thinking, either. It is an umbrella term that covers a range of systems of belief and practice, some of which are in blatant contradiction of the facts, others more subtly so, and still others unfalsifiable in practice if not in principle. In particular, it is a foolish overstatement to say, for example,

"The issue is that religion indoctrinates people into a mode of magical fantasy-based thinking that deludes people into thinking that reality shit in general simply isn't important. Thus, the religiously indoctrinated pay no attention to any of it."

If that were true, there wouldn't be any religious scientists, let alone good ones.

smijer said...

First, science is a discipline, not a way of thinking, and it is set up to account for different ways of thinking and even errors in thinking on the part of those who participate in the discipline.

This is a foundational point. I understand the shorthand that "science is a way of thinking about the world" - and it is, on a non-technical level - true. But we are dealing with some issues under which it has to be better analyzed. The truth is that Rationalism is the "way of thinking about the world" (aka philosophy) that is under discussion - and as J.J. Ramsey put it, science is a discipline - a set of tools - a method that assists us in the job of understanding the world under any world-view that even contains elements of rationalism.

Larry H: George Orwell noted more than sixty years ago that science education has to be much more than just teaching science facts, it has to be about teaching the scientific way of thinking.

Again we have to be careful of the shorthand. Orwell is almost certainly talking about a way of thinking in terms of discipline and method - not a grand world-view. So, I agree with his statement, but not with yours.

As to the "antithetical" thing - I hope to get to that when miller does his next post.

Larry H. said...

Miller: You're on your own from here on out. It is precisely this sort of bullshit that persuaded me to stop writing on my blog.

Scott said...

Wow. And I was still pulling punches.

Let me restate my position in a less loaded way.

First, I think there is a substantial difference between arguing that others should adopt your views because they are correct, and arguing that views that disagree with your own should be "marginalized." If you take the latter approach, then you should not be surprised if others take the same approach with you.

Second, I think that critiquing the manner in which a group presents its views is sometimes valid. To be taken seriously, groups being so critiqued must make a persuasive case that their approaches are justified. Participants in the civil rights movement had a very, very persuasive case. Unless there is a similarly persuasive case for the New Atheists' approach, any comparison between the two groups risks trivializing the injustice and violence that minorities have historically faced in this country.

Larry H. said...

Let me restate my position in a less loaded way.

You can restate your position any way you please. I'm still leaving further response to Miller and other commenters. After 10 years and a million words, I'm just completely out of steam for confronting this kind of bullshit.

Scott said...

Well, anyone else care to dispute my bullshit?

Miller: My aim is not to alienate your readers, but I sometimes worry that my, ahem, vigorous participation has that effect. If I am out of line, please tell me and I'll tone it down or move on.

Scott said...

P.S. Miller: feel free to contact me privately through yopmail: attevify_967@yopmail.com

miller said...

Scott, don't worry about that.

If you want me to jump in, you should start by stating your point more clearly. I'm not even sure what we're arguing about anymore.

Scott said...

Ok, I'll try again.

In unbalanced debates over highly politicized issues, people in the minority sometimes claim to belong to a marginalized group for purely rhetorical purposes. These people may not be subject to state-sanctioned violence or discriminatory laws because of their beliefs. As a group they may even be better off economically and politically than the majority side. Nonetheless, they claim that they are being marginalized or oppressed by the majority.

I find such claims problematic, because there are people who are subject to state-sanctioned violence and discriminatory laws. There are people who are singled out for their beliefs and denied basic human rights. Often, the only recourse such people have is to draw attention to their oppression; they have nothing to fight with but rhetoric. But that rhetoric is cheapened when other groups who need it less use it opportunistically. If anyone can claim to be oppressed, the claim no longer means anything, and those people who really are oppressed loose a vital tool.

Now, perhaps I have misunderstood; perhaps Larry H is not making such claims. Or perhaps I am wrong about the status of Atheism in the United States, and Atheists here can indeed justify such claims. If so, I'd be glad to learn more. In any case, I apologize for my strident tone; it's just that I feel quite strongly about this issue.

miller said...

First things first: I am not a stand in for Larry. I do not necessarily agree with him, unless I am being charitable. I agree with you too if I am being charitable. Also, I am completely desensitized to stridency. :)

Let's see... oppression of atheists. On the concrete end: 7 states legally exclude nontheists from office. Atheists also discriminated against in child custody cases. On the less concrete end, I consider anti-secularism to be discrimination pretty much by definition. On the anecdotal end, we have stories like this, though it's probably not common.

But I'm not going to pretend that it's a lot, and I'm not going to pretend that atheists are fighting solely for civil rights.

On comparing to past civil rights movements:
I'm pretty sure no one intends to diminish the civil rights movements. Of course oppression of atheists is in a different league from oppression of queers, which is in a different league from the oppression of blacks. We talk about past civil rights movements because we look up to them with great respect. And then we try to bring them home, because they are real stories about real people, not some distant fantasy.

On the other hand, I can see how the claim of oppression can be cheapened. I might compare it to Godwin's law--obviously, comparisons to Hitler have been cheapened a lot through overuse. And maybe that's for the best?