If reality had any meaning in modern politics, these “death panel” clowns would be laughed out of the building, and humiliated for life.
The whole enterprise of the modern GOP seems to fit entirely into the category of what philosopher Harry Frankfurt described in his famous essay On Bullshit. He distinguished several approaches to truthfulness in statements. On one hand, people can be truthful – concerned about the accuracy of what they say and striving to say accurate and honest things (though sometimes failing). You also have people who are concerned about the accuracy of what they say but intentionally misrepresent the truth. These people are liars, which is bad.
Far worse are the people who speak with no particular interest in whether their statements are true or false. They will almost surely wind up speaking falsehoods, as there are far more ways to be wrong than to be right. But because they subvert the very value of truth in pursuit of some ideological or personal agenda, these bullshitters are more harmful than liars.
The truthers (who think 9/11 was a conspiracy launched by George Bush) and birthers (who think the President is not truly a citizen) and the deathers (who think the President wants to murder your grandmother) and the screamers at townhall meetings are all bullshitters. They could easily check their facts, but choose not to. Before demanding that government keep its hand off of Medicare, they could find out whether it is in fact a government program. They could easily verify that Barack Obama has a Hawaiian birth certificate and multiple birth announcements in the local press verifying the only relevant fact: his place of birth. And the text of section 1233 of the bill passed by the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee is publicly available, and shows no basis for any claim of euthanasia. None.
Republicans, from the base to the most senior members of Congress, seem willing to repeat readily tested falsehoods so long as it brings them short-term political gain. I do not wish to tar every Republican with the broad brush of bullshit, but I think it’s time for honest Republicans of good will to found a new party and leave the remains of the GOP to the bullshitters. The brand is too tarnished by now.
The ease of checking the claims of the deathers does not stop supposedly serious bioethicists from ranting about the bill’s murderous intentions. Nor does it stop those same people and their colleagues at supposedly serious think tanks from claiming that Hitler’s genocidal campaign was the fault of modern evolutionary biologists.
Indeed, it does not stop creationists of various stripes from repeating oft-rebutted and long-discredited claims about biology, geology, mathematics, and other fields in order to give post hoc justification to their religious convictions about human origins. Creationists form entire pseudoacademic systems to shield their work against facts. It is a whole bullshit factory.
It is especially worrying that Bill Dembski, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, would actively train his students to promulgate bullshit. That is the only plausible explanation I can conceive for assignments he gives his students. Masters students and undergraduates taking Dembski’s course on “Intelligent Design” must “provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on ‘hostile’ websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).”
As John Lynch notes, the problem “isn’t that Dembski is encouraging students to post on ‘hostile’ sites, it is that the assignment doesn’t force the students to engage with their critics in any way. Instead, all the student has to do is cut and paste some text, save the url, and pass it on to Dembski. Money in the bank.” It is also moderately worrisome that students must defend ID creationism, and cannot get credit for offering thoughtful critiques of the instructor’s ideas that are rooted in the methodologies of science or theology. Thus, they must defend a position regardless of what they know or feel the truth to be. They need not engage any responses, only recite trite nonsense and scuttle home to the safety of SWBTS. Dembski’s exam for his Christian Apologetics course is similarly vapid, eschewing critical analysis in favor of reasoning toward a pre-determined conclusion.
Philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy, who is on the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that humans do not have a soul, that soul is a Greek invention, and that the original Hebrew understanding of the human person was as a purely physical being. Thus, for her, our immortality consists not in having immortal souls but in the prospect of God resurrecting us to a new physical existence. Contra Murphy, argue that we do have a soul and that it is more than our physical bodies.
Now Nancey Murphy is a perfectly reasonable person, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, and a respected theologian. Students studying theology ought to be prepared to engage her arguments, and should consider the possibility that her reading of the historical record and her study of theology have led her to a true conclusion. To be compelled to reject her arguments, and (as in other questions) to unthinkingly denigrate an unnamed “liberal seminary” filled with “professors intent on eroding any real faith” in their students, is indoctrination, not teaching. It is an inculcation in the method of bullshit. (We will set aside until later the irony of Dembski’s intolerance of dissent in classes he taught while featured in a film decrying academic intolerance of dissent.)
Alas, this litany of bullshit cannot end here. There is an example worth mentioning not because it is more severe than Dembki’s (let alone the deathers and the screamers), but because it is more surprising, and potentially more pernicious. I expect no better from the wingnut fringes of that regional rump known as the Republican Party, nor do I expect better from Bill Dembski and his gang. I have no expectations of good faith or honest inquiry from them, and so am in no position to be surprised.
I can be and am shocked when similar indifference to truth appears among my friends, my colleagues, and my honored teachers. In the current struggle over Unscientific America, there has been a wealth of bullshit, bullshit not unlike that heaved during the wars over accommodationism before it, and the framing wars before that. And while Chris Mooney has been a target in all these struggles, I do not see evidence that he has made statements he knew to be false (setting aside, for purposes of serious discussion, quibbles or issues where brevity makes it hard to represent full nuance).
In contrast, the defenders of Dawkins (and Harris and Hitchens) in these various fights have made truly bizarre arguments. Theology has been presented as a static field of inquiry with no actual reason for existing, claims which ignored vibrant intellectual disagreements and thoughtful research such as that of Nancey Murphy. Largely settled areas of philosophy of science and epistemology were cast aside in pursuit of scientific justifications for atheism; no such justification is needed, and adopting creationist bullshit about what science can say regarding religion is hardly wise or helpful.
Sam Harris’s famous and oft-repeated claim that religious moderates enable fundamentalists also strikes me as bullshit. How can the Rev. Barry Lynn’s work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State be taken as enabling fundamentalism? How can the efforts of religious moderates to end the enforcement of school prayer be taken as tacit endorsement of fundamentalist modes of thought? How can the hundreds of clergy who specifically defend evolution as compatible with their faiths be seen as clearing the ground for creationism? Could someone with actual awareness of the viciousness directed by those of Dembski’s ilk toward serious scholars like Nancey Murphy really think that moderates enable fundamentalists? What can we call this line of argument but bullshit?
And in the latest fight, Mooney and Kirshenbaum were personally maligned, and their book misrepresented to a degree that raises questions about whether critics actually read the book. Abbie Smith claimed that the book was inherently dishonest because it does not, being a printed object, have a way for critics to include their responses in the book itself. Like others, I find this rather bizarre. I love Abbie like a sister, but I cannot fathom her hostility to a book which, at least when she began her fusillade, she admitted to not having read.
Most worrisome, though, was Jerry Coyne’s review of Unscientific America in Science. A review in the top scientific journal is a fairly rarified entity, one with various rules and expectations. Not least among those expectations is that the reviewer will give an honest account of the book as written, and will take issue with the authors’ actual claims, not with imagined enemies. I took classes with Coyne as an undergraduate at Chicago; I know him to be an honest and honorable man, a scrupulous researcher, and dedicated to thoughtful and open discourse. Thus, my expectations for his review were rather high. I hoped he would rise out of the muck which has surrounded the book online, and give a fair look at it, however assuredly critical it might be.
Instead, I cannot characterize his review as anything but bullshit. His opening sentence claims that “Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America’s future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public.”
In fact, Mooney and Kirshenbaum specifically do not claim that atheists are responsible for scientific illiteracy, nor do they claim that scientists alone are to blame. In my review (which the authors feel “characterizes our argument in great detail and with the utmost accuracy”), I noted that “The solution Chris and Sheril advocate is, broadly, to bridge key gaps. … Science is not just separated from academic disciplines across the quad, but from the media, from journalism, from religious communities, from politics, and (they observe in an endnote) from the law. …Americans as a whole are increasingly disconnected from what science is, and what scientists know. This is a problem not just for the general public, but because of the increasing specialization of science, a problem for scientists themselves.” This assessment blames scientists and the public. Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame the emergence of “evangelicals … as a political force” not just for many broad problems, but specifically for the conflict between science and religion. They write: “Of course, the New Atheists aren’t the origin of the cleft between religious and scientific culture in America– they’re more like a reaction” to the emergence of politically active fundamentalists.
To claim, as Coyne does in Science, that they offer two solutions to these several gaps is simply false, and if Coyne had read the book with an open mind, he would know that they do not blame atheists for those gaps, nor do they think bridging the science/religion gap is some silver bullet.
Coyne’s review proceeds to badly misrepresent the core of the problem that Mooney and Kirshenbaum identify. Coyne writes as if the scientific illiteracy which the book’s subtitle warns “threatens our future” is about what facts Americans can recite. In fact, the book criticizes this view of scientific illiteracy at length, replacing it with a definition of scientific literacy involving how people perceive science’s relevance to their lives. Coyne claims to be showing that the problems of public perception of science are “more complex than the authors let on” when he writes: “The public’s reluctance to accept scientific facts may reflect not just a lack of exposure but a willful evasion of facts due to conflicting economic agendas (e.g., the case of global warming), personal agendas (vaccines), or religious agendas.” But this is the point of their whole second chapter, and is a theme they return to throughout the book; this is the point of their emphasis on disconnects between scientific culture and the cultures of politics, of journalism, of popular entertainment, etc. Again, if Coyne had read the book with an open mind, he would know this.
As I wrote in my review, it isn’t enough to simply get people to know the scientific data: “The solution is not merely to better educate the public about what science says or how scientists know what they do, but to improve people’s people’s appreciation of why science matters to what we all do in our lives.”
Chris and Sheril go to great pains to show that the deficit model (the “people are stupid” form of scientific illiteracy that Coyne addresses in his review) is inadequate, and that the real issue is a disconnect between what science shows and what people think is relevant to their own lives and what they think is worth knowing. Coyne, thinking he is problematizing Unscientific America‘s claims, is actually repeating the authors’ thesis. Again, I don’t know how he could do that if he actually read the book and engaged with it on its own terms, and set out to write a fair and accurate review. His review is bullshit, and as such, brings shame to him and to Science.
Coyne digs the hole deeper in complaining about Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s reaction to his review. He feels “disgust” at the “near duplicitous” response, because he thinks it wrong to “dismiss my critical opinion on the grounds that I’m a biased ‘new atheist.’” Coyne may not remember, but he dismissed Eugenie Scott’s fairly positive review of his own book, claiming it was “tepid” because “I suspect … I have angered the National Center for Science Education (Genie Scott is its executive director) by claiming that science and faith are largely incompatible.” This claim occurs nowhere in the book she reviewed, nor does she address that point in her review. Nor does it comport with the assistance NCSE gave him as he was writing the book, or NCSE’s decision to buy it in bulk and send it out as a membership reward. His claim is thus unsupportable on multiple levels: bullshit by any standard.
Coyne undertook exactly the behavior he now decries on this very blog, dismissing my blog post by saying “Of course you must adhere to your party’s line.” Is it unfair for Mooney and Kirshenbaum to claim Coyne’s review was written out of adherence to his party’s line? I don’t know. I do know that it was unfair for him to use that logic against me, as I belong to no organized party, and if I did, my agreement with the party ought to be presumed to precede my having joined. This is a basic assumption of good faith. Had I made the sorts of arguments Coyne now makes when I was his student, Coyne would rightly flunk me. This is not how serious scholars, serious intellectuals, behave.
I spent more time on these examples, the problematic actions of Coyne, Smith, Harris, and others in that broad circle, not because I think they are worse than what Dembski or the birthers do. Internecine battles within academia will not deny health insurance to millions of Americans, and will not divert the President and the Congress of the United State from solving critical problems of our day, nor will “New Atheists” (or whatever, pick a name, people!) actively undermine the content of science classes.
I expect no better from Dembski. I expect no better from Glenn Beck or his wingnuts. I do not expect this from serious academics, the people who trained me to be a thoughtful scholar with respect for people I disagree with. Dembski’s failures bring him and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary no new disrepute: both have already fallen too far for that.
I know Jerry and Abbie and PZ and others on that side of this battle to be honorable, and I know that their work matters. I don’t know why Coyne would tarnish his own reputation, and that of his school and his students, by engaging in such unscholarly behavior, nor do I know why others would sink to the depths they did.
Perhaps I’m wrong about them all. Perhaps they will reread the book and revise their inaccurate statements about its content. Perhaps Coyne got caught up in bizarre internet drama, and will come to regret allowing it to spill over into the hallowed pages of Science. Perhaps Abbie will come to realize that the response to a book you disagree with is to read it and respond to it, and that a response can be in a different book, a letter to the editor, or even a blog post, and people will find it. It’s happened for centuries and life has gone on. Perhaps Sam Harris got caught up in the horror of 9/11 and wants to revise his assessment of religious moderates. The mark of a great mind is not the ability to be instantly right, but the capacity for revising assessments made in error.
I apologize for the length of this post, and for its vehemence. Let no one mistake honest criticism for malice toward my friends and colleagues. “Bullshit” is a strong word, but is offered here as an assessment rooted in science and philosophy, not an exercise in name-calling. I hope it is taken in that context.