The Problem of Moderation

It’s probably a little foolish to continue this on a Saturday, but I’d like to wrap up the giant framing/ religion/ screechy monkeys mess and get back to more pleasant topics, at least for a while. Putting it off until Monday would make this more visible, but it would also drag things out, so I’m just going to get it out of the way now.

In the wake of my two recent posts about the “framing” controversy, I’ve gotten a number of comments and emails on the general topic of speaking out. These come in two basic forms, which I would paraphrase as:

It’s very important for people with more moderate views to speak out, to break the frame established by Dawkins/ Myers and the creationists that science vs. religion is an all-or-nothing choice. You should write more about this stuff.

and

How does the Dawkins/ Myers/ screechy monkey crowd prevent you from speaking up? Let them do their thing, you do your thing, and everybody wins.

(Those are not direct quotes, but I’ve set them off in blockquote tags for easier reference.)

Here’s the thing: the very fact that I have moderate views regarding the conflict between militant athiests and wing-nut fundamentalists makes it difficult to speak up. Not only because I tend to get drowned out by the monkey army, but because I often don’t have anything to say.

This is the problem with having moderate views. Most of the issues that work one side or the other into a lather just don’t excite me. Hardly a week passes without some religious leader or creationist figure saying something stupid that gets half of ScienceBlogs all a-twitter with “X is an Idiot” posts. In 90% of those cases, I just don’t care.

So some fundamentalist preacher said something stupid about atheists, or Muslims, or gays, or biology teachers. That’s what they do. They say stupid things all the time, and they have obnoxious views about all sorts of people. It’s not surprising, it’s not new, it’s not news.

So some cdesign proponentist said something stupid about biology, or geology. That’s what they do. They say stupid things all the time, and have completely idiotic ideas about science. It’s not surprising, it’s not new, it’s not news.

I don’t have anything interesting to say about either of those cases. They don’t evoke any particularly strong response in me– just a resigned shrug. I can’t work up any enthusiasm for ritually denouncing the outrage of the week, and that’s all I would be able to do– “Some religious wing nut said something stupid. They are wrong, this is bad, they do not represent the views of all religious people.” Whee.

I suppose that if I knew more about computers, I could hack together something along the lines of the del.icio.us links dumps that would give me a template to fill in with the details of the most recent outrage, but really, what would be the point?

If I see reports of people saying something stupid and offensive in a new and interesting way, I’ll comment on it. That happens about twice a year. I’m somewhat more likely to react to wing-nut denunciations of physics, but again, those tend to fall into entirely predictable categories, and any refutations I would write would be basically rote repetitions of previous explanations of how physics doesn’t work like that. I’d rather spend my time writing about interesting new physics or pop music, or just getting away from the computer for a bit to play with the dog or read a book.

Committed partisans on either side don’t have that problem. They can work themselves into an absolute froth over stuff that I find barely worth the time it takes to read. They’re naturally going to generate a whole lot more text on these issues than I will, because I just don’t have the passion for it.

This also plays into the problem of the monkey army, which is one of the points I was trying to get across in the second post, and some of my comments following it. I am significantly less likely to take part in the discussion or in efforts to oppose religious excesses, because of the way the deabte is dominated by extreme views.

On those occasions when I do post moderate denunciations of fundamentalist wing nuts, I either get a whole slew of comments saying “Right on! Religious people sure are stupid!” which I then have to disassociate myself from, or I get a slew of comments denouncing me for not being extreme enough in my denunciation. And we all know what happens to anyone who posts complaining about atheist excess.

As a result, I am significantly less likely to write about these issues at all, even after you account for my general lack of enthusiasm for the topic. Anything I write has to be incredibly carefully crafted and qualified and justified (in which case it usually sinks without comment), or else I end up spending a whole bunch of time dealing with screechy monkeys in my comments. Either way, it takes way too much time, and is more trouble than it’s worth. I generally just wash my hands of the whole thing, and leave the squabbling to the pigs and monkeys (I should come up with a slur for creationists, too, just to balance things out, so we’ll go with “ignorant pigs”).

As I said, I’m sufficiently disgusted by the whole debate that I no longer read most of the blogs that regularly write about science and religion issues. Which means that I’m much less likely to support even the sane and reasonable people and organizations dealing with these issues, because the screechy monkeys have made the whole subject unpalatable to me. I get occasional bulletins from organizations like the National Center for Science Education– which is not, to my knowledge, an obnoxious organization– but I generally don’t post about them because even that is too close to the whole sordid pig-and-monkey mess, and I don’t need the headache.

This is not specific to the science vs. religion fight– it’s a general phenomenon affecting people whose views fall between extreme positions. There are other topics I treat the same way– I don’t write much about gender issues in science, because I don’t feel that I can do so without being attacked. I don’t write much about issues of race and ethnicity, because I’m not confident I can do it well enough to avoid inadvertently offending somebody.

(I will, however, rant about issues of class with very little provocation, because that’s a subject I am passionate about. Likewise education policy, particularly where it veers into union-bashing. Those issues also generate a fair amount of heat in the comments, but I’m willing to deal with it because those are issues where I have strongly felt opinions.)

In all of these cases, I realize that I am passing up an opportunity to do some good. By speaking out on these subjects, I could potentially bring these issues to the attention of people who don’t already read the extremist blogs, and maybe help encourage positive change. The presence of the extremists, though, has a very real chilling effect, even when the extremists are on the same basic side that I am. When I can expect to be attacked not only by people whose views I oppose, but also by people who are ostensibly on my side, it’s just not worth the headache. So I don’t write about those issues, except in those rare cases when something upsets me enough that I’m willing to deal with the hassle.

It’s not like I have all that much trouble finding topics that are more pleasant to write about. They may not bring in the page views like the hot-button topics do, but they don’t result in me having to clean monkey crap out of my comment threads, either.

Comments

  1. #1 justawriter
    April 5, 2008

    Shorter Chad Orzel: “They came for the biologists and I did not speak out for I wasn’t a biologist.”

    I hope the above doesn’t offend, because I do wish to use it to make a serious point and not get pushed off into “screechy monkey” territory. Reading your words, it struck me how, to a great extent, moderation has become a synonym for apathy. Now I am not one to dis apathy. No one can care about everything. I, for example, am not particularly concerned whether artists can practice their craft without freezing to death and rooting around in dumpsters for food. However, I am glad there are people who are concerned about such things and give support to museums and galleries and university humanities departments. I just don’t want to be bothered with all the details that goes into supporting the arts in this country. If I paid the level of attention to every controversy that came down the path that the participants would like, my brain would surely melt from the overload. So I ignore all the screechy monkeys squalling over arts funding. What I don’t do is take my disinterest and general dislike of a subject and transform it into a mystical “moderate” position. Wanting people to simply shut up and go away is not a moderate position. It is not a position at all.

    I don’t have a problem with sciencebloggers ignoring all the various kerfluffles going through the Seediverse. I am perfectly happy finding a blog that has cool stuff about physics, true lab stories and occasional rants on class and union bashing. You can be the “pause that refreshes” between more heated threads. Just don’t try to palm off disinterest and a general dislike of conflict as a well thought out philosophical position. After all, as some dude said in some book, “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

  2. #2 chezjake
    April 5, 2008

    I support your attitude on the daily ping-pong of the science vs. religion games.

    However, I feel it is important for as many scientists as possible to speak up (or take some kind of appropriate action) whenever the religious fundamentalists are making actual attempts to pass legislation that would allow any kind of teaching/advocacy of religious beliefs as part of science education.

    The NCSE is probably the primary group working to keep religion out of science education, and I think more scientists ought to openly declare their support for NCSE’s goals and activities. Maybe even just a logo/link in your sidebar that says something like “I support the NCSE’s campaign to keep religion out of science education.”

  3. #3 windy
    April 5, 2008

    And we all know what happens to anyone who posts complaining about atheist excess.

    You’ve now written several posts in close succession where you at least indirectly complain about it. Are the black helicopters there yet?

  4. #4 Neil B.
    April 5, 2008

    I hear you, bro! One of the sad screw ups is the constant framing as “science versus religion.” No, false. Science is a more specialized branch of applied knowledge seeking and religion is properly defined as belief based on tradition, teachers regarded as special, etc. They left out “philosophy,” which is the use of wide-ranging analysis and yes, speculative thought to get a handle on questions like “why does anything exist at all, and why is it like this and not otherwise?” Science alone can’t really do that, since it is geared to finding natural regularities (“laws”) and applying them to diverse phenomenae. It isn’t really geared to explaining e.g. why the laws are like that to begin with, whether other universes exist (especially ones that aren’t even extrapolations of current knowledge/theory). It certainly isn’t best suited for foundational questions like whether we should accept modal realism (that “all possible worlds” exist since there is no way to justify selection out of the Platonic space of all descriptions/model universes, etc, e.g. per David Lewis, Max Tegmark.) Finally, so many scientism militants forget that the very arguments they use about what science is, what it can do versus religion, etc, positivism, meaningfulness of the unfalsifiable (note e.g. that probability claims aren’t falisifiable due to no outcome being a disproof!) are themselves philosophy, not science proper. Yet the same stale face-offs between “a scientist” and “a religious leader/believer” are what we see put forth. We need to hear more from philosophical thinkers (like me, albeit not in professional life), some of whom have reasoned arguments for there being an ultimate being, etc.

  5. #5 baley
    April 5, 2008

    I guess you don’t agree with Myers or Dawknins methods to attack religions, but in the end they simply apply the same scrutiny you would in a scientific theory. I think it’s right to do so, after all the religious leaders have the power to screw up communities, if not entire countries. It’s easy to claim that stem cells are equivalent to full size humans (then based on what? no evangel says that that I am aware of!), they should be protected and then they are even taken seriously too.
    I can’t see anything bad about fighting religious fundamentalism at least respect on doing nothing!

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    April 5, 2008

    I have moderate views on the science vs. religion issue as well, perhaps primarily for the practical reason of considering interactions with my colleagues and students, many of whom are religious to some degree. For colleagues, I prefer to focus on their research publications and/or teaching abilities and accomplishments, rather than on the nature and extent of their religious beliefs. I think that extreme, vociferously-expressed views about science vs. religion would interfere with this attitude, in my case. And I don’t care whether they’re engaging in cognitive dissonance-it’s really not my business.

    Cognitive dissonance seems to be a favorite accusation made by some of the “screechy monkeys”. I have no idea why it’s important to them to assign this attitude to others, or why they (apparently) feel justified in labeling anyone who disagrees with them as a “creotard”, or “f**kwit”, or whatever the insulting name of the week happens to be.

    I’ve found interesting posts on almost every ScienceBlog, on a variety of fascinating topics, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of them. However, I’m not dependent on these blogs for access to or interpretation of scientific information, for either fun or work, and perhaps that’s a difference between me and a few of the screechiest monkeys. If I want to examine cis-regulation of the genes I work on, I’ll go to a BioTapestry workshop, read papers and books on transcriptional networks, and discuss strategies for phylogenetic footprinting and making transgenics with colleagues here who actually do computational and wet-lab experiments in those areas, and who publish their results. Similarly, if I want to construct a lecture on Hox genes and patterning in the vertebrate limb for my graduate course, I’ll go to the primary literature and to review articles written by those scientists who actually did the original research on the topic.

    Of course, your mileage may vary, but that’s how mine works.

  7. #7 Federico Contreras
    April 5, 2008

    This post is full of bland. The blandness, it hurts. I am a screeching monkey (and proud of it).

    This post can be shortened to: I don’t care, I would rather play with my dog or argue about poor people. PZ and DickyD may or may not be nice.

    So go and play with your dog. I Alt-tabbed out of eve-online for this and I want my 3 minutes back.

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    April 5, 2008

    Yeah, we get it already. The screechy monkeys bore you and are beneath you and you are much wiser and measured and above the fray and have much more important things to do than the screechy monkeys.

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 5, 2008

    What do we want?

    Moderation!

    When do we want it?

    At a reasonable time, neither too soon nor too long from now, when it won’t cause a commotion from extremists on any side.

    Random responses, before the coffee kicks in.

    (1) Another thoughtful essay by Chad, which makes a lot of sense to me.

    (2) There is a genetic component to “liberal” and to “conservative” mental styles, as recently reported in Discover and other popular science venues. “Moderate” in that sense means something close to “middle of the road.” I suspect that “moderation” in the sense used here by Chad is a normal mix of inherited and learned.

    (3) It may be easier to learn moderation on, say, the Science / Religion battlefield if you have close personal friends or relatives on both sides. From my childhood experience, my mother being Left Liberal and my father being Right Republican, helped me to see the coherence of each paradigm, and hence easier for me as an adult to have friends in both camps, each of whom seems to think that I’m one of them.

    (4) It may be easier to learn moderation on, say, the Science / Religion battlefield, if you have had profound Scientific experiences and Religious experiences. So far as I can see, most of the antiscientific wing-nuts (residents of the White House included) have never understood any important idea in Science, and are unable to grasp that they don’t know what it is that they don’t know. In some long-ago thread by PZ Myers on the glory of Atheism, he admitted, in replying to comments (including mine) to never having had a “numinous” or “transcendental” or “mystical” experience. Hence is consciously aware of lacking something that many other people have had, and, I suspect, no way of weighing the evidence to correct for any bias that this may cause him.

    (5) Those that have moderate views on moderation are less likely to respond to your essay.

  10. #10 John Scalzi
    April 5, 2008

    Well, for what it’s worth, I like you as you are.

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    justawriter: Shorter Chad Orzel: “They came for the biologists and I did not speak out for I wasn’t a biologist.”

    I disagree, only because in the cases I’m talking about, nobody is “coming for” the biologists. When somebody’s actually doing something, I’ll be happy to speak up.

    What I’m talking about are the weekly stories that can be summarized as “Crazy person says stupid thing. Long rant at 11.” Hardly a week goes by without some new frenzy over something stupid said by Ham or Luskin or Behe, or somebody like that.

    These stories are the Paris Hilton escapades of the science media. Yes, fine, Paris Hilton has been seen carousing in Ibiza with some disreputable pop star. That’s what she does. Wake me when she joins the Poor Clares.

    So the Pope says something about how only Catholics get into heaven– that was a big kerfuffle a while back. What did you expect him to say? “Yeah, um, that stuff about sacraments and Mass on Sunday? All a big put-on. Sorry ’bout the confusion.” That would be news.

    I don’t say anything about those stories, because there’s nothing interesting to say. “Pope Says Only Catholics Saved” is a story that fits between “Dog Bites Man” and “Water Is Wet.” They’re not interesting, and they’re not important. They’re just noise.

    When somebody “comes for” the biologists in a serious way– not some addled small-town school board instituting policies that will last about a nanosecond in court– call me. But don’t expect me to give a shit about Casey Luskin running his mouth in the usual stupid manner.

    John Scalzi: Well, for what it’s worth, I like you as you are.

    Thanks John. That makes it all worthwhile.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    April 5, 2008

    It’s not like I have all that much trouble finding topics that are more pleasant to write about. They may not bring in the page views like the hot-button topics do, but they don’t result in me having to clean monkey crap out of my comment threads, either.

    This is your blog, so you get to write about whatever you want to write about. I find most of your posts interesting enough to keep reading your blog. That’s what it comes down to in the end. If I want to read the views of someone like PZ, I’ll read PZ’s blog, but I don’t read it regularly because the proportion of what I consider interesting content is not nearly as high.

  13. #13 Amber
    April 5, 2008

    I read your previous posts on these topics, but this one hit the nail on the head so squarely, that I felt compelled to comment.

    Thank you for making so much sense. I agree with you and I applaud you. You have earned a new reader and I’m looking forward to reading the fun physics stuff.

  14. #14 GAC
    April 5, 2008

    I wish more moderates would speak out. I have some moderate views myself, and much of what I read seems to say that it’s not OK to respect both science and religion, that you can’t be just agnostic to certain questions. That seems ridiculous to me. I see things on a continuum, and myself as trying to find a place along that continuum. I don’t like going far to one pole or another — as I think either extreme view is potentially dangerous in many cases.

  15. #15 D
    April 5, 2008

    I have no idea why it’s important to them to assign this attitude to others, or why they (apparently) feel justified in labeling anyone who disagrees with them as a “creotard”, or “f**kwit”, or whatever the insulting name of the week happens to be.

    “Screechy monkey”, I believe, is the term you’re looking for :)

    No but seriously, this blog is a welcome break from the sorts of science-religion posts you see everywhere else. This is what you do, and you do it well. Don’t change by giving in to some sort of ill-conceived desire to speak up for the moderates. There are people who do that sort of boring thing professionally (the cud-chewing cows perhaps?). Leave it to them.

  16. #16 Cherish
    April 5, 2008

    Even though you may not be inclined to comment much on this topic, I’m glad you did. It seems to me that both sides really get a kick out of thinking up new insults for the other and really don’t care all that much about the middle ground or trying to work out differences. They only care about being right.

    It’s nice to know that other people who ostensibly may agree with one side or the other still can find their behavior unpleasant and/or intolerant.

    Kudos.

  17. #17 Brad Holden
    April 5, 2008

    Chad, I sort of admire how much thought you have spent on this. But, at the end of the day, I think that the basic message is that you will talk about what you think is really important, and science versus religon ain’t it. Acting the methods is understandable, but I am thinking that if the issue were really important to you, you still would not often be engaged.

    Class issues in science, academia and education as a whole are often overlooked, and are really important. Ranting about that would be a good thing, especially as social mobility in the US is going down, and higher education matters more and more for success in ones career.

  18. #18 Kyle
    April 5, 2008

    You lost me when you said “militant” atheists. What does this mean?

  19. #19 MH
    April 5, 2008

    Chad, you are still using the offensive, blanket terms “screechy monkeys” and “monkey army” whilst denouncing other people for using offensive language. I imagine that even your biggest fans can see the hypocrisy.

  20. #20 Neil B.
    April 5, 2008

    Federico, and similar: Chad rather evidently does care, he just doesn’t like extreme approaches and opinions. And I don’t think much of the snarky indulgers in affronted humblenesses who gripe about how whomever that disparages group X “think they’re better than us” etc. Well of course, criticism of jackasses is about the very idea that some people are in some sense more annoying, destructive, wasteful, etc. than someone claiming to be better. So what? You think no one has a right to compare themselves favorably to anyone else? Well, some of us don’t like that PC style obsession with “tolerance.” Get over it.

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    Chad, you are still using the offensive, blanket terms “screechy monkeys” and “monkey army” whilst denouncing other people for using offensive language.

    I’m not insulting all atheists, just the stupid and annoying ones. Moderate and reasonable individuals like yourself shouldn’t feel offended at all.

  22. #22 KKairos
    April 5, 2008

    I liked the article.

  23. #23 Neil B.
    April 5, 2008

    Followup: Those who complain that moderates/centrists etc. think they’re better than the extremists, almost always (indeed by definition where applicable) consider themselves superior to the extremists on the opposite side from themselves. Indeed, the latter are often thought of in effect as evil, crazy, and stupid. That’s worse than the charge leveled by moderates against extremists, that charge typically being, well, the extremism itself! (Hard-line viewpoint combined with combative, derogatory putdowns etc.) So, there’s lots of hypocrisy there. (Well sure, here I am criticizing someone/s, but I’m not complaining that there’s something inherently officious about doing it.)

  24. #24 Lee
    April 5, 2008

    I found this to be the most interesting part of the article.

    “(I will, however, rant about issues of class with very little provocation, because that’s a subject I am passionate about. Likewise education policy, particularly where it veers into union-bashing. Those issues also generate a fair amount of heat in the comments, but I’m willing to deal with it because those are issues where I have strongly felt opinions.)”

    Is it possible that the Dawkins and PZ Myers of the world just happen to have the passion for their causes that you have for yours? I think it would be very easy for someone to rewrite this article saying that they really don’t care for socioeconomic issues or union policy in education and don’t understand the people who get angry about these issues, and then add a footnote that they really get riled up about religion and science. I guess I don’t really see your point other than to say “I don’t post a lot about religion and science issues, because I’m not that passionate about them”. That’s cool. Not everyone is, nor should they have to be. Is that all you’re really saying, or am I missing something here?

  25. #25 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    I guess I don’t really see your point other than to say “I don’t post a lot about religion and science issues, because I’m not that passionate about them”. That’s cool. Not everyone is, nor should they have to be. Is that all you’re really saying, or am I missing something here?

    No, that’s pretty much what I’m saying in this post. With the added element that the barrier to my posting is increased by the tendency of the local extremists to attack even people who are on their side (i.e. me), for not being extreme enough.

    As far as the larger Dawkins/ Myers issue goes, which I talked about more elsewhere, there’s ranting, and then there’s ranting. You can post long and impassioned rants about political topics without actively being an asshole about it.

    If somebody tells me that my particular mode of ranting about, say, teacher’s unions offends them enough that even though they support unions for teachers, they don’t want to be associated with me, then I will seriously consider moderating my behavior and rhetoric. That hasn’t happened yet. I also don’t recall ever describing teachers who are tepid supporters of unions as “appeasers” or “Neville Chamberlain educators.” And so on.

    “Passionate advocate” doesn’t have to mean “asshole,” any more than “scientist” has to mean “atheist.”

  26. #26 MH
    April 5, 2008

    #21 “I’m not insulting all atheists, just the stupid and annoying ones. Moderate and reasonable individuals like yourself shouldn’t feel offended at all.”

    And I’m sure PZ would say that he’s not insulting all Christians (indeed, there are supportive ones on his blog), just the stupid and annoying (and for science education, potentially dangerous) ones.

    He’s against anti-evolutionists, in the same way that other bloggers here are against anti-vaxers, or HIV denialists, or global warming denialists. You’re fortunate that physics doesn’t currently have its detractors. It just so happens that creationists are also (as a rule) religious, and religion seems to have a special unearned respect in the US. The creationists wield it like a protective talisman. If PZ sometimes appears terse (have you ever met him, btw?), it’s probably because some of his fellow scientists are telling him that he’s got to fight his particular pseudo-science enemies with one hand tied behind his back.

    I’m all for moderation*, but remember that camaraderie is important too.

    *and lets also remember that PZ only advocates church/state separation. He may also like to see the US population eventually discard religion as Northern Europe has, but he’s not advocating a ban, or encouraging people to burn down churches. He thinks it can be achieved by better standards of education. That’s not an extremist position, and he doesn’t deserve to be labelled as such.

  27. #27 ponderingfool
    April 5, 2008

    And I’m sure PZ would say that he’s not insulting all Christians (indeed, there are supportive ones on his blog), just the stupid and annoying (and for science education, potentially dangerous) ones.
    **********************
    Not quite getting what Chad was trying to do with his comment. He is doing what PZ does. Some of you are getting upset are you saying you won’t listen anymore. Basically what he says PZ does for him.

    Good clean fun if you ask me. Which is the impression I get from PZ and Chad as to why they blog and why I enjoy both of their blogs. Yes they have interesting posts which get you to think and learn from, but it is fun.

  28. #28 Neil B.
    April 5, 2008

    MH exclaimed forth:

    And I’m sure PZ would say that he’s not insulting all Christians (indeed, there are supportive ones on his blog), just the stupid and annoying (and for science education, potentially dangerous) ones.

    He’s really hard on the latter type, but you mischaracterize his overall tone and message. PZ and like do paint religious believers in general as idiots, irrational, etc, unless they are perhaps especially likeable (maybe he’d give me a pass for being a philosophy-based Unitarian Universalist, not a revelation-based faith believer.) Folks, some of us actually read those blogs etc. (just like some of us actually listen to or read Rush, Ann Coulter, Mike Savage, etc.) so we know what they say. Whitewashes are not viable.

  29. #29 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    And I’m sure PZ would say that he’s not insulting all Christians (indeed, there are supportive ones on his blog), just the stupid and annoying (and for science education, potentially dangerous) ones.

    He undoubtedly would.
    Did you feel less offended when I said that? I’m curious, ’cause it never works for me the other way ’round…

  30. #30 Chris C. Mooney
    April 5, 2008

    Thanks so much, Chad.

    All this reminds me of Cass Sunstein’s book, Republic.com, predicting that the internet would let people sort themselves into groups of people who think just like they do, and so become more and more intense in their opinions (on either side of the aisle). Which, in turn, squeezes out the middle.

    I think that is exactly what we’ve seen, and it’s exactly why voices of moderation–like yours–are so incredibly important.

    On my blog, I plan to keep explaining framing, as calmly as possible. As yet it is totally unclear to me whether, in light of the polarization that now exists, it is possible to make any progress or bring people back to any middle ground. I still like to hope so.

  31. #31 SC
    April 5, 2008

    “I also don’t recall ever describing teachers who are tepid supporters of unions as ‘appeasers’ or ‘Neville Chamberlain educators’. And so on.
    ‘Passionate advocate’ doesn’t have to mean ‘asshole’, any more than ‘scientist’ has to mean ‘atheist’.”

    This sounds very noble and reasonable…in the abstract.

    Have you ever been in an academic union battle? One in which your job and career, and the lives of numerous people who will come after you, are at stake? I have. It’s not pretty, and the “tepid supporters of unions” are often quick to accept any self-serving “reforms” that the administration puts forth (“they don’t really need independent arbitration, just better pay”; “academe is different, after all, and while I generally support unions in other contexts letting them in here might interfere with our sacred educational mission”; “I support them in principle, but all of this commotion might hurt the school’s image”;…). They will try to find “middle ways” or “common ground” that work against the union, sometimes trying to strike so-called compromises with the administration without your participation. What would you call them in these situations? How would you feel if you were involved in a drive for recognition and some professor who believed he had found the New Paradigm for Academic Labor admonished you publicly to shut up and just stop all of your agitation already, in the midst of a heated battle?

    I believe that the people you denigrate believe themselves to be in that kind of fight. You may disagree with that assessment, and you may not care particularly about their issue, but it would be helpful if you could try to understand it from their perspective.

  32. #32 Brad Holden
    April 6, 2008

    What would you call them in these situations?

    I guess one is suppose to call them appeasers to Hitler, cause that will sure help move along the movement for a academic union, not to mention make future faculty meetings a blast.

  33. #33 Wilson Fowlie
    April 6, 2008

    I guess one is supposed to call them appeasers to Hitler

    Oh, my.

    I actually got to see this happen.

    What would you call them in these situations?

    Whatever Chad says, one could simply call them “wrong” and “misguided”, which do not have to be insulting; they aren’t names, they’re attributes.

    He may even say that he wouldn’t call them anything at all; he could criticize them, disagree with them, and point out why he thinks they’re wrong, without calling them … anything!

  34. #34 Wilson Fowlie
    April 6, 2008

    (By the way, Brad, I know that your comment was ironic and that you weren’t comparing anyone to Hitler. Still, the phenomenon is pretty amazing.)

  35. #35 SC
    April 6, 2008

    “one could…”

    Undoubtedly. However, given the name-calling and invective I’ve seen here over the past several days, if Chad were to suggest that this would be his response in the hypothetical situation described…well, call me dubious.

    In any event, the questions were rhetorical. I was merely trying to find an illustrative scenario that I thought would be understood here in order to make a point. While I see this site as more analogous to that of a labor advocacy group, I view the other as more like the blog of a militant union, with the corresponding differences in content and style.

  36. #36 SC
    April 6, 2008

    And I would be careful about throwing around names like “Monkey Army” as intended insults. That one I kind of like, in fact.

  37. #37 baley
    April 6, 2008

    “I’m not insulting all atheists, just the stupid and annoying ones. Moderate and reasonable individuals like yourself shouldn’t feel offended at all.”

    If Myers is an annoying atheist then we need more annoying ones!

  38. #38 MH
    April 6, 2008

    What would you call them in these situations?

    Well, I guess the moderate thing to do would be to make them out to be sub-human. Screechy monkeys? Yes, very moderate and mature, and not at all a childish tu quoque argurment.

    Lets all act our age and remember that, as scientists, we have one thing in common that’s worth defending. And if we can’t help directly, then we should support the defenders. And if, for personal reasons, we can’t even do that, then we should refrain from attacking those who are defending our profession from those that would like to see it hobbled.

    And if you don’t think that publicising the idiocy of pseudo-scientists will do any good, you obviously haven’t heard of Stetson Kennedy.

  39. #39 Bill Tozier
    April 6, 2008

    I’ve often wondered why people place me (a moderate in a lot of polarized debates) “in the middle”.

    I think I’m orthogonal, not “in the middle”. I’m concerned about plenty of things; they’re just not what’s being discussed, and in some cases they can’t even be framed in the terms used in the core debate. My suspicions grow that fundamentalism should not be defined as being extreme, or merely holding extreme opinions, but rather as framing every discussion including those having nothing to do with a subject in terms of the polarizing issue.

    “It’s more complicated than that.” How does that simple grounding assumption get left behind by so many people? It is more complicated than that, for any choice of “it” and “that”. The fundamentalist is the person who says “Yes, but—” when you point out that the world is more complicated than their model of the world.

    So thank you, Chad, for emphasizing (to a much larger audience than mine) the core attitude of moderation: Thank you for your opinion in that matter. Now, moving on to our actual business….

    [Shorter me: Dichotomies are dumb. And everybody always overgeneralizes.]

  40. #40 Russell Blackford
    April 6, 2008

    Screechy monkeys, eh? I must remember to wear that dehumanising label with pride.

    I’m getting sick of this topic, but I’ve consolidated a lot of my thinking over here: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2008/04/science-religion-and-framing.html

    … complete with someone who has seen fit to write me a booklength comment trying to convert me to Hinduism. I suppose that’s appropriate for someone in the monkey army.

  41. #41 DrT
    April 6, 2008

    Chad, I’ve been reading the on-going disagreements on the various blogs regarding framing. Although I had many of the same reactions you had to the way things were discussed, I must say that they inspired me to read all sides of the issue and do some serious thinking.

    Although I’m a moderate in the current evolution/religion debates, I am passionate about educating people about science. My area of interest in science is primarily in Microbiology, Immunology, Epidemiology, and Health Care.

    http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2008/03/objection_to_vaccination_they.php

    Reading the comments to the post there shows that even the “germ theory of disease” is being denied by some.

    The only impact that I personally can have is by doing the best job I can in teaching the education majors that take my classes. If you look at the percentage of our population that don’t continue formal education after K-12, you see that we have to be able to have an impact on the non-college attending population. We tend to concentrate on what our majors need to go on to professional schools, graduate programs and industry. Its clear to me that we need to look at the attitudes of education majors towards science, as well. (By “we” I mean the department I’m in.)

    I’ve come to look at this more as an anti-science attitude that will impact us all.

  42. #42 NJ
    April 6, 2008

    Geez, forty-some comments and no one has even tried to address the fundamental question.

    Heavy water or graphite?

  43. #43 SC
    April 6, 2008

    Russell,

    The path-to-enlightenment comment over at your place was just too hard an act to follow, so I’ll screech my appreciation for your post here.

    Viva el ejercito mono!

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    April 6, 2008

    Russell Blackford: “Screechy monkeys, eh? I must remember to wear that dehumanising label with pride.”

    Who says that you are a “screechy monkey”? Actually, you blogged on the problem of screechy monkeys yourself, though you didn’t call them that:

    I do see people – usually pseudonymous – who appear to have swallowed down a quite precise body of inflexible atheistic doctrine, wherever they got it from. Never, their doctrine insists, call yourself “agnostic”, or anything else that sounds softer than “atheist”; always accept that the word “atheist” has only one possible meaning (usually, mere lack of belief in any deities … I’m happy with this definition, but other definitions do exist). Treat all religious folks as liars or fools (of course, some are … but many are far from it). Don’t just satirise religion and (as I like to do) question its right to special respect; feel free to treat even moderate religious folks offensively. Of course, some people will take offense if you condemn or satirise their ideas, but you should go beyond that: make sure you attack them personally if they try to engage with you, even in a reasonable and honest way.

    From http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2007/10/fundamentalism.html

    I think that you do underestimate the degree to which the likes of Myers and Dawkins encourage the behavior that you describe. It’s telling that when Ed Brayton and Myers got into a tiff about the religion petition that Dawkins signed and later repudiated, Myers started going off about Brayton being “hesitant to call out creationists” and having “a history of doing his best to urge atheists to silence,” both of which are nonsense. Actually, the quote in an earlier thread on framing points out a more recent instance of willful ignorance, where he writes, “I don’t see the reminder to be compassionate in religion at all.” (One can say that religions are imperfect and uneven with regard to compassion, but Myers’ claim requires a very selective reading of the evidence.) As for Dawkins, remember that he was the one who started the Chamberlain-atheist nonsense, and what he wrote on religion and child abuse probably led up to the very petition that he ended up repudiating, and certainly made it plausible that he meant for his signature to be on that petition.

  45. #45 Russell Blackford
    April 6, 2008

    JJ, didn’t we ultimately agree to call the people I was describing knee-jerk atheists, or some such term? They certainly exist, and can often be found at Dawkins’ site (though they tend not to be encouraged even there). PZ actually seems to have done quite a good job of discouraging them on his blog. I don’t put PZ and Dawkins in that category at all.

    Anyway, hopefully you’ll enjoy Voices of Disbelief, because we’ll have 50 or so atheists all stating their positions. Some will be measured and conciliatory, others more fierce. Let all the voices be heard.

  46. #46 Andrew
    April 7, 2008

    #42 – graphite, clearly. Heavy water makes for rubbish pencils.

    As for the blog – I’m not sure you are actually moderate really, it sounds more like vaguely apathetic. Or more accurately (and without the negative connotations), perhaps “unconcerned” would suffice. As you don’t seem to be pushing for any moderate position as much as you are pushing for the (as you see them) fringe views to kindly quieten the hell down so you can get on with stuff you do find interesting/concerning without all the distracting noise.

    Which is fair enough as a position, but I’m not sure how fueling the fires will extinguish them any faster. :)

    As an aside, whilst writing this it occured to me…is the opposite of apathetic pathetic? :p

  47. #47 Daniel B.
    April 7, 2008

    I loved this post, and pretty much mirror your position, though I can get a bit screechy sometimes.

    I do have to ask, though, is this a “moderate” position–moderate seems to imply that you stand somewhere in the middle regarding the two sides. Whereas, from my limited reading (so far) of your blog, I suspect you fall squarely on one side of the debate–you just choose not to engage in pointless and redundant discussions on the subject.

    (Apathetic, by the way, certainly doesn’t apply here either, as you obviously care, you just choose not to get caught up in all the screeching).

    Maybe “soft-spoken monkey” would be a term better applied to your position?

  48. #48 mythago
    April 7, 2008

    So go and play with your dog. I Alt-tabbed out of eve-online for this and I want my 3 minutes back.

    Traditionally this sort of post includes a challenge along the lines of “I know you’ll delete this post/stick this post in moderation”. Have some respect for the form, man.

    Speaking cynically, blogs need material, and dumb fundamentalists say stupid things a lot more often than they do stupid things. If you limit yourself to posting about the latter, you don’t generate outrage–and traffic.

  49. #49 J. J. Ramsey
    April 7, 2008

    Russell Blackford: “JJ, didn’t we ultimately agree to call the people I was describing knee-jerk atheists, or some such term?”

    Actually, not quite. I wrote:

    It occurs to me that “atheist partisan” or even “hack-partisan atheist” would be more on the mark than “kneejerk atheist.” It would certainly capture what such atheists do have in common with the more rabid fundamentalists to which they are compared, namely the strong tendency to see things in black-and-white opposition, to caricature one’s opponents, to be uncritical of those one sees on one’s side, and so on.

    I think, though, that there really isn’t much difference between what you called a kneejerk atheist and what Chad Orzel calls a “screechy monkey,” except perhaps that “screechy monkeys” aren’t necessarily atheist.

  50. #50 SC
    April 7, 2008

    It’s increasingly clear to me that what we have here is someone trying to pass off a personal character trait – a low tolerance for conflict in the form of strong language or heated argument – as a morally superior stance.

  51. #51 Chad Orzel
    April 7, 2008

    I’m really enjoying the duelling narratives here. Am I a big meanie hypocrite who’s using nasty names to refer to people I disagree with, or am I a squeamish wimp who can’t handle harsh language?

    Maybe I should set up a poll…

  52. #52 SC
    April 7, 2008

    No need for a poll (and one would in fact be illogical in this case), as these are not mutually exclusive possibilities. The expression “can dish it out but can’t take it” comes to mind.

  53. #53 SC
    April 7, 2008

    That, or you have an inability to distinguish situations in which harsh language might be appropriate (e.g., in a high-stakes fight) from those in which it’s just snide and pointless.

  54. #54 mythago
    April 7, 2008

    Let’s conjugate!

    MY arguments are high-stakes fights where harsh language is not only appropriate, but necessary.

    YOUR arguments are disagreements where the occasional choice word might get the point across.

    HIS arguments have a lot of snide and pointless attacks.

  55. #55 SC
    April 8, 2008

    mythago,

    First, what you’ve done isn’t conjugation.

    Second, this has nothing to do with whose struggles they supposedly are. Three fights have been discussed:

    One concerns the future of religion, atheism, secularism, and by extension human freedom.
    One concerns concrete union struggles, the future of the labor movement, and by extension human freedom.
    One concerns someone’s sensitivity to the rhetoric of his fellow bloggers and the commenters to his and other blogs. (I would point out the numerous mischaracterizations at work here, but others have already tried and at this point I don’t think it would do any good.)

    I think it’s evident in which two of these three the stakes are high. Yes, I realize that you could argue that the third relates to a concern with how their rhetoric might affect the broader struggle of which Chad forms a part (though he offers no empirical evidence to back up any claims of harm). However, this would be a difficult argument to make, given that he has expressed that the issue isn’t of great personal importance to him and describes himself as more of a sympathizer with the cause than an actual participant. There are battles among people who share a common cause, like the current divisions within the SEIU, that I think are of great significance. I don’t believe this is one of them.

    Third, I did not write “not only appropriate, but necessary,” and it is dishonest of you to imply that I did.

    Fourth, you are of course free to disagree with any or all of the above points, and I couldn’t care less what kind of language you use.

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