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.