I’m in trouble now — I have drawn the ire of Massimo Pigliucci. I’d be chagrined if it weren’t such an ineffectual criticism that is mainly Pigliucci doing a little foot-shooting. I’ve also annoyed Ronald Lindsay of the CFI (as well as several other people associated with CFI), but his criticism is even feebler. Somehow, CFI has the idea that ferocious criticism of CFI staff is to be discouraged — because we are generally on the same side, we’re apparently supposed to be in solidarity on everything.
That’s not going to happen. I support the CFI; I criticize the CFI. I also support the NCSE; and I criticize the NCSE. If you’re on the side of science, reason, skepticism, etc., all the good stuff I value, that doesn’t mean you can expect me to complacently go along with everything you say (and vice versa, of course). The whole idea that advocates for critical thinking get an extra-special free pass from criticism with hearts and unicorns on it, just because we share common goals, is the antithesis of critical thought. Am I going to continue to be mean and cruel and judgmental against even my own allies? Hell, yes.
There’s a cliche that I hear all the time, and that I despise because it is so trite — organizing atheists is like herding cats. I die a little inside every time I hear it because it is so old, but also because it is inaccurate. Everyone seems to picture masses of willful domestic cats wanting to scurry off to play with yarn or chase down mice; it’s just not right. Organizing atheists is like herding lions, or at least ideally it should be. What we want is a community of fiercely independent, roaring, wrestling, arguing, fighting freethinkers; cross them, and you will get rhetorically mauled, and our battles are not about polite batting about with little kitty paws at issues, but should involve claws and fangs and uncompromising forcefulness. Everyone who is complaining that the harshness of the debate degrades the discourse, get stuffed; I think the call to weaken the vigor of the disagreement is the real degradation here.
But back to Pigliucci. I am deeply underwhelmed. His entire complaint is about goddamned tone; he even advises me to look up rational thoughtful discourse in the dictionary, as if I should be swayed by bloodless definitions. He also trots out dictionary definitions of some of the insulting terms I used, as I was unaware of their meaning, or needed some reminder that they were perhaps a bit excessive. Nope. I knew what they meant and meant what I said. De Dora was foolish, stupid, lacking in strength of character, and indulging in masturbatory sloppiness while contributing to the cause of the enemies of reason. I’m not backing down because Pigliucci has a dictionary.
What this is actually about is that De Dora is a personal friend of Pigliucci’s, a contributor to his blog, and he is part of the administration at CFI. We apparently are supposed to be nice to such connected people. Sorry, but you don’t get to be stupid because you have friends in high places. Pigliucci seems to understand this, because he feels free to insult me (or perhaps my friends aren’t quite high enough), and it undermines his whole argument; it is silly to make a high-minded complaint that I used insulting words against a friend while using plenty of insults against me…which is fine, by the way, it just means that his principled argument about tone and form is a load of horsepuckey.
So forget the whole complaint about tone. Let’s deal with the substance. This is where we differ, and where I think De Dora is an idiot. This is all about a dunderheaded creationist complaining about a textbook that called his superstition a “myth”. Here’s the full quote from the book, Tobin and Dusheck’s Asking About Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll):
In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the “equal-time” bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.
And to put it in perspective, that was a small part of a two page section of the text that summarizes the legal history of efforts to keep creationism out of the public schools. It is not a book that condemns Christianity, carries on a crusade to abolish religion, or calls believers delusional; it is moderate, entirely polite in tone (praise Jesus! It meets the most important criterion of the faitheists!), and plainly describes an entirely relevant legal and social issue for biologists in non-judgmental terms. It does use the accurate, factual term “myth” for what creationists are peddling, and that’s as harsh as it gets. It is exactly what the less rude proponents of evolution teaching should want.
But no. All it takes is one indignant creationist (One! Who doesn’t even get any headway with the local schoolboard!) to complain, and what kind of support does a reasonable and polite statement in a textbook get from the intellectual cowards — a phrase I use in complete awareness of the meaning of each word, thank you very much — who want to run away from any conflict? De Dora whines, ‘well, he has a point’. Pigliucci makes a worthless complaint about knowing our epistemological boundaries, implying that the statement of fact in Tobin and Dusheck is a violation of the separation of church and state. On one side, a creationist who is offended that a science textbook is not sufficiently deferential towards his superstition; on the other, science, which refutes his claims at every step, and a textbook which lists court cases and says that creationism is a myth. In the middle, De Dora and Pigliucci, siding with the creationist.
If a science teacher can’t even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we’re doomed. If the effect of biology on society can’t even be mentioned in a textbook, then the relevance of the science is being sacrificed on the altar of religious submission. Getting enmired in these pointless philosophical “subtleties” when the facts are staring you in the face is a recipe for the further gutting of science education in this country.
We don’t need to teach atheism in the science classroom — and I’ve said often enough that I don’t, and don’t endorse such activities — but we do need to be forthright about the conclusions of science. We cannot give religion so much unwarranted privilege that it is treated as a special category, in which the pronouncements of faith may not be contradicted at all, in even the mildest, politest manner, by a science teacher…but this is precisely what De Dora and Pigliucci are advocating when they rush to support a young-earth creationist who objects to any discussion of the social context of evolutionary biology. I guarantee you that Kurt Zimmerman was not exercising subtle thinking and thoughtfully contemplating the inappropriateness of a specific epistomological issue in his kid’s textbook. He was being an ignorant ass, nothing more.
I’m afraid Michael De Dora is not fighting the same battles I am. I read a number of his articles, and his biggest concern seems to be running away from any confrontation, making excuses for the other side, and suggesting that the people in the front lines who are smacking around our opponents are making way too much noise. He’s not on my side at all, but seems to be helping the other guys far more. And suggesting that I shouldn’t treat him as a nuisance and a collaborator with nonsense because he’s somebody’s friend is not going to hold me back at all.