On bullshit

Steve Benen reviews the ways in which Republicans now ranting about how insurance reform will kill grandma once loved their ‘death panels,’ adding:

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.

For instance:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 mememine69
    August 16, 2009

    Global Warming is not just a conspiracy, it’s a giant web of conspiracy that is growing like a cancer via a feeding frenzy of personal gain for each and every one of these scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and a gullible, fear ridden, politically-correct generation or two of climate pu$$ies.
    A as far as assuming professional honesty goes, there is a fine thread of truth that has now naturally sewn itself through the theory but you have to admit even as a believer that predictions of an impending climate crisis are not sustainable for another 23 years. That, is the future of climate change, how will this failed theory end and what will its costs be to society. If we allow ourselves to live with less and be governed willingly by politicians who promise to tax us and lower the temperature of the planet earth with those taxes, surely we will then be heading for a new dark age. I ask all of you believers to consider this and ponder abandoning the theory so we can preserve, not rescue our planet with fear from a mistake.
    When “climate change” is used in place of the word weather, what chance does an opposing view have then? What chance does questioning the theory have when the term “climate variation” has now been replaced with the all-assuming promise of doomsday: “climate change” and or “global warming”? Add in some perceptions of consensus and correlation, feelings of guilt, envy, fearing the future, fearing the unknown and what we have now folks will be history’s view of this CO2 mania as being an insane exercise in modern day witch burners thinking humans can melt planets. The term “melting” may not be part of your personal and convenient definition of global warming but the United Nations only promises global warming will change “life as we know it” so waiting for crisis will be the coming issue. This irresponsible and wishful thinking for misery disguised by global warmers as concern will be viewed in history as leading us to war against the air itself, an invisible enemy and a non existent combatant of climate change.
    We need a martyr to shake us out of this “emotional” science that is taking us back thousands of years as civilized humans. I suggest we arrest and convict Al Gore for high treason for leading us to war against a false enemy.

  2. #2 Captain Steve
    August 16, 2009

    Nothing obama says has meaning because he can’t be trusted.

    Watch this video. You’ll see obama lie like a dog in his very own words.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3JKDTBOYKg

    People need to wake up and see obummer for the America hating, Saudi King bowing, dictator loving, former cocaine addict, racist Kenyan usurper dirt-bag Chicago thug lying fraud for who he is!

    The questions about obummer continue to mount! Now there is new evidence about his Fake Birth certificate and that Obama’s mother didn’t live at claimed address in Hawaii when obama was born

    The records from a Honolulu title search, obtained by WND, document 6085 Kalanianaole Highway was purchased in 1958 by Orland Scott Lefforge, a University of Hawaii professor, and his wife/companion Thelma Young, who lived at the property and remained owners into the 1970s.

    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=106258

    And the Globe is running an article about obama’s fake birth certificate. Granted they’re a “gossip rag” but then “The Enquirer” busted John Edwards in spite of denial after denial by him and all the major news agencies.

    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=106471

    The questions won’t go away until obama releases his hidden records. All he has to do is make the following official public statement,

    “I Barack Obama authorize the State of Hawaii to release and make public all of my records on file.”

    That’s it. Issue over. But he won’t because he’s a fraud!! Obama knows that millions of citizens want to see it yet he continues to hide it. What and why is he hiding?

    And maybe more disturbing is why don’t BHO’s supporters want to know the whole truth, especially since there’s a reward of $100,000 for proof that Obama is a “natural born” citizen of the United States? The answer is that Obama’s very own supporters also know he’s a fraud!

    OBAMA, STOP HIDING. SHOW US YOUR LONG FORM BIRTH CERTIFICATE AND OTHER RECORDS!!!!!

  3. #3 RBH
    August 16, 2009

    And right on cue, out of the woodwork comes bullshit.

  4. #4 Tony Whitson
    August 16, 2009

    NCSE — I heard that’s the same as ACORN and Hitler’s SS, right?

  5. #5 Montaldo
    August 16, 2009

    Great post. I really enjoy your writing and thinking. Coincidentally I am also a KU grad.

    One point I’d like to make about religious moderates enabling extremists. I tend to agree with Sam Harris on this, but not because specific extremist actions can be traced to specific causal events or actions of moderates. The existence of billions of moderate religious people provides a sheath in which extremists may hide their knife. If you imagine the world without moderate religion–one where 99% of people did not believe in a god–can you imagine how utterly crazy extremists’ religious claims would sound? As it now stands, since billions of people believe in things like reincarnation, virgin birth, rewards in heaven, etc., the extremist arguments are only a step further, instead of a step off the cliff of reason. I think this is the point Sam Harris makes when he says moderate religion provides cover for extreme religion. Moderate religion makes suspense of reason OK and even desirable. From a position of suspended reason, one might make a person believe almost anything.

  6. #6 Bob Carroll
    August 16, 2009

    Good post, dammit! Now I’m going to have to go out and read the book.

    Bob

  7. #7 Mike Cooper
    August 17, 2009

    YOU SAID:

    “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.”

    I’m not quite sure what you meant by the above. If it was that “modern evolutionary biologists”–those living now– had nothing to do with what occured before they were born, then of course you are correct. However, the record is also clear that at least some of the intellectual firepower behind the eugenics movement came from Darwinian evolutionists, and also that eugenics was part of the justification for what became the Holocaust. “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.” 2d International Eugenics conference, 1921.

  8. #8 MartyM
    August 17, 2009

    Eugenics was not founded on or after Darwin’s concept of evolution. It just be came prominent in the late 19th century when biologists like Charles Davenport founded took up the cause.

    Wikipedia says:
    “The basic ideals of eugenics can be found from the beginnings of humanity. Tribes such as the Fans, aboriginal tribes and ancient Prussian tribes all carried out policies reminiscent of eugenics.[35] The philosophy was most famously expounded by Plato, who believed human reproduction should be monitored and controlled by the state. However, Plato understood this form of government control would not be readily accepted, and proposed the truth be concealed from the public via a fixed lottery.”

  9. #9 Physicalist
    August 17, 2009

    I agree with much of your post, but methinks some of it is wide of the mark. Shall we start with Harris? You say:

    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?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt that Harris claims that every single action of religious moderates supports the fundamentalists. (Feeding a parking meter, for example, doesn’t bolster fundamentalism.)

    Harris’s point is that Faith is the problematic root of fundamentalism, and moderates nurture that root even while they trim off some of the ugliest thorns.

    You may disagree, but you should attack Harris’s actual position, rather than a straw man. (Especially given the topic of your post . . .)

  10. #10 Physicalist
    August 17, 2009

    I’ll try not to go through line-by-line, but I’m afraid you’re wrong on the internet . . .

    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.

    Abbie’s objection (as I read it) was not that the attack was dishonest because it was in dead-tree format, but rather that a dishonest attack is less forgivable when in a book than it would be in an internet post. (She was understandably upset that M & K ignored the motivation for Crackergate, misquoted PZ, etc.)

    And I (like her) do hold people’s books to higher standards than I do their journal articles (let alone their blog posts).

  11. #11 Physicalist
    August 17, 2009

    I have mixed feelings about Coyne’s review, so I’ll spare you my ramblings. But I would like to ask a key question that I think gets to the heart of the matter:

    Are you willing to call bullshit on M&K’s treatment of the anti-accommodationists?

    Here’s a little something to put some teeth on the question:

    The twins have shown that they are not just reasonable people who happen to disagree with us on important issues. That would be fine. But they have no rational arguments relating to the issues of substance; instead, they are purveyors of hatred and bigotry who choose to demonise opponents.

  12. #12 Involved1
    August 17, 2009

    The byplay between reasoned and narrow-minded, hate-filled respondents to Josh’s engrossing blog is at once fascinating and disturbing. How sad a life Captain Steve must live. (That he would dub himself more than a buck private shows how out of touch he truly is.) At the risk of sounding simplistic, I refer all to the iconic film, “Planet of the Apes”. It is worth watching, if not for the story, then certainly for the figurative mirror it provides, enabling us to see ourselves in a startling and unnerving way.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    August 18, 2009

    Physicalist: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt that Harris claims that every single action of religious moderates supports the fundamentalists.”

    Of course not, but when the moderates actively undermine the fundies, it doesn’t really help Harris’ case that they enable the fundies.

    Physicalist: “Harris’s point is that Faith is the problematic root of fundamentalism”

    Well, that’s his hypothesis. It would be nice if the evidence for this point were solid before Harris tried to use it to bash moderates.

  14. #14 Physicalist
    August 18, 2009

    Well, that’s his hypothesis. It would be nice if the evidence for this point were solid before Harris tried to use it to bash moderates.

    We can ask for evidence on both sides of the debate, but in the context of responding to Josh’s post, the key point is that Harris’s hypothesis is not unreasonable on its face, and he does in fact support it with rational argument.

    Thus it is an error to charge Harris with “indifference to truth.” Indeed, the charge of bu!!sh*t leveled by Josh gets dangerously close to further degrading the conversation into name-calling because he is (as I see it) attacking a straw man.

    My post from yesterday regarding Coyne hasn’t made it out of moderation (perhaps because I used a term from the title of this post?), so at the risk of repetition should that post appear, let me raise a comparison between Coyne and M&K:

    I agree with Josh that Coyne’s review fails to capture all that M&K try to do in their book. But I place the fault for this as much on the book itself as on Coyne’s reading of it.

    Yes, M&K mention that forces other than the scientists (especially atheist scientists) are to blame for the divide they’re worried about, but this comes across as little more than lip service when one looks at where they place the emphasis in their book and at their proposed solutions.

    And, yes, they decry the deficit model of scientific illiteracy, but I don’t blame Coyne for coming up empty when he looks for a clear alternative.

    “The solution is . . . to improve people’s people’s appreciation of why science matters to what we all do in our lives.”

    I fail to see how this is going to convince mememine69 (1st comment above) that climate change is a genuine threat, or the creation museum visitors that evolution is a fact.

    So I’m not at all convinced that Coyne’s review is unfair. And overall, I’m inclined to say that UA is no better, and is probably worse, as far as intellectual honesty goes.

    Josh absolves Mooney of the charge of bu!!sh*t on these grounds:

    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).

    I’d be inclined to say the same thing about Coyne.

    But on reflection, I think M&K’s intellectual vice isn’t so much peddling bu!!sh*t, as it is a failure to critically engage the arguments of their opponents. They’re guilty of a form of ad hominem argument: They ignore the motivation and arguments of the anti-accommodationists and simply dismiss them as foolish villains who are “hurting the cause.”

    I think Russell Blackford captures the point well:

    The twins have shown that they are not just reasonable people who happen to disagree with us on important issues. That would be fine. But they have no rational arguments relating to the issues of substance; instead, they are purveyors of hatred and bigotry who choose to demonise opponents. They choose to treat us as beyond the pale of substantive discussion of our ideas.

    So even if Coyne was a bit rough, I’m not convinced that it wasn’t justified given the intellectually vicious (note etymology) attack of M&K.

  15. #15 TB
    August 18, 2009

    Physicalist

    Have you read UA, the book?

  16. #16 Physicalist
    August 18, 2009

    Have you read UA, the book?

    I have read through it. I admit that I didn’t dig through all the endnotes, and I also admit that I didn’t take the time to go back and see what points I might have missed or misinterpreted. It’s awfully light going, so I have trouble imagining that I might have missed many substantial arguments, but it’s certainly a possibility.

  17. #17 TB
    August 18, 2009

    I have read it, and gone through the endnotes extensively. I think Josh gave it a thorough read and an honest review. I also think he was right on target with this post as well. I followed his links to see for myself what he was referring to and found his characterizations accurate.
    In looking at your points I find you insinuating Rev. Barry Lynn’s work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State is on the same level as feeding a parking meter. I did not find that to be a credible dismissal of J.J.’s point.
    Because of that and other things you’ve written here, I don’t find that your assertions carry as much weight as Josh’s or J.J.’s.
    So that’s why I asked if you had read it, because some things you’ve written here made me think you hadn’t and were just repeating what others have said. But you say have, at least some of it. I guess I would recommend you read Josh’s review again and then give the book a good, honest read.

  18. #18 Physicalist
    August 18, 2009

    I find you insinuating Rev. Barry Lynn’s work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State is on the same level as feeding a parking meter.

    Sorry I failed to make myself clear (one of my many faults).

    I agree that Rev. Lynn’s work is laudable, and I expect that Harris would too (though I’m certainly open to correction; I’ve read only a limited amount of his writing). Harris’s point, as I understand it, is that despite this wonderful work that undermines the fundamentalist agenda, Lynn is still nurturing the irrationality that lies at the root of fundamentalism.

    Thus if you want to rebut Harris’s argument (let alone charge it with being bu!!sh*t), you’d better address the problems he sees with faith, and the link between faith and fundamentalism.

    The parking meter analogy was just meant to show that Harris is arguing about the overall effect of defending faith; he isn’t claiming that moderates can’t perform actions that are benign or even virtuous. I do take J.J.’s point that the actions cited work to undermine Harris’s position. But you’ve got to actually make the argument; and not attack a straw man. (Indeed, Josh has put an even heavier burden on himself, because he has to show not only that Harris is wrong, but that Harris is ignoring a known truth.)

    I followed his links to see for myself what he was referring to and found his characterizations accurate.

    Did you find the lines where ERV (Abbie) said the following?

    Twisting and misrepresenting someones view online? Meh, not a big deal.
    Twisting and misrepresenting someones views in print media? Unforgivable.
    . . .
    If youre going to bad mouth someone in print, youve got to be like Dexter. You have to be sure.

    I’d say that makes it pretty clear that she’s upset because of perceived “twisting and misrepresenting.” The format just makes it “unforgivable.”

    Again, Josh is welcome to disagree, but I don’t see that this deserves to be lumped in with bu!!sh*t. (Though perhaps Josh only wants to say that it’s “bizarre.”)

    I would recommend you read Josh’s review again and then give the book a good, honest read.

    Any highlights you’d like to point me to? I’ve already complained twice that I find Josh’s take-home message to be somewhat bewildering, because it just doesn’t seem to address any genuine problem. But I do think he’s nicely summarized what can be found in UA; it’s the message in the book that’s unsatisfying.

    What’s the goal as M&K present it?

    We need a nation in which science has far more prominence in politics and the media, more relevance to the life of every American, far more intersections with other walks of life, and ultimately, far more influence where it truly matters – – namely, in setting the agenda for the future as far as we can possibly glimpse it. (p. 18)

    While I’m not opposed to all this, I’m not sure we “need” it in the same way that we need people to stop rejecting the facts about (e.g.) climate change and evolution. And here I just don’t see M&K offering any real insight or solutions. I get the feeling that they think that scientists just need to make more friends (“only 18% of Americans personally know a scientist”) and all the denialism out there will go away.

    OK, I’ll shut up now. I don’t want to be guilty of overrunning the thread the way some others do.

  19. #19 TB
    August 18, 2009

    “Sorry I failed to make myself clear (one of my many faults). I agree that Rev. Lynn’s work is laudable …”

    Thanks for clarifying, I do appreciate it. I’m doing some snipping of your quotes, but only for expediency. If I take something out of context, it’s inadvertent.

    “Harris’s point, as I understand it, is that despite this wonderful work that undermines the fundamentalist agenda, Lynn is still nurturing the irrationality that lies at the root of fundamentalism.”

    No I understand his point – I’ve heard it before. I think, though, that people like Lynn do show a flaw in Harris’ reasoning.
    Beyond that, simply engaging in an activity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re responsible if other people abuse that activity in some way. For instance, just because I drink a beer every now and then doesn’t mean I’m enabling alcoholics. At some point, you (not specifically you) need to look at personal responsibility and not engage in such broad-brush descriptions.
    I drink in moderation, I usually drink smaller, locally-owned brews and I don’t drive when I drink. Why am I responsible for the guy who downs a quart of cheap scotch and gets behind the wheel of a car?
    Now, that doesn’t mean I or anyone else shouldn’t address those kinds of abuses – after all, my kids could be killed by a drunk driver. But that’s different than me sharing the blame for his activities.
    Harris’ accusations are just too broad-brush for me and don’t hold up.

    “Did you find the lines where ERV (Abbie) said the following?
    Twisting and misrepresenting someones view online? Meh, not a big deal.
    Twisting and misrepresenting someones views in print media? Unforgivable.
    . . .
    If youre going to bad mouth someone in print, youve got to be like Dexter. You have to be sure.

    I’d say that makes it pretty clear that she’s upset because of perceived “twisting and misrepresenting.” The format just makes it “unforgivable.”
    Again, Josh is welcome to disagree, but I don’t see that this deserves to be lumped in with bu!!sh*t. (Though perhaps Josh only wants to say that it’s “bizarre.”)”

    It’s been a day or so and I don’t remember those exact words, but I don’t dispute them. I still have no problem with Josh’s characterizations.
    First, I disagree that there’s been “Twisting and misrepresenting” in UA. There’s some strong opinions, but I don’t think they’re out of bounds. We may just have to agree to disagree on that.
    Second, it falls aport when, again, you try to apply it to another situation. I think we can both honestly say there are people who feel that Dawkins’ “God Delusion” wasn’t an accurate or honest portrayal of religion. Some might even say it was “twisting and misrepresenting.” But regardless of whether you agree with that, should we join in and condemn Dawkins as unforgivable simply because his detractors can’t comment on his opinions because they’re in a book? I don’t think so.

    “I would recommend you read Josh’s review again and then give the book a good, honest read.
    Any highlights you’d like to point me to? I’ve already complained twice that I find Josh’s take-home message to be somewhat bewildering, because it just doesn’t seem to address any genuine problem. But I do think he’s nicely summarized what can be found in UA; it’s the message in the book that’s unsatisfying.”

    Well, that’s an honest opinion.

    “What’s the goal as M&K present it?
    We need a nation in which science has far more prominence in politics and the media, more relevance to the life of every American, far more intersections with other walks of life, and ultimately, far more influence where it truly matters – – namely, in setting the agenda for the future as far as we can possibly glimpse it. (p. 18)”

    I would say that’s almost it. I think the book goes a long way toward saying why the current institutions are not up to the task, in their opinion. I think in this fractured media environment – where people can choose to be ignorant and uninformed simply by limiting the websites or cable shows they choose to watch – there just may be a need for a more institutional effort to communicate science.

  20. #20 scripto
    August 19, 2009

    I don’t quite get this enemy of my enemy is my enemy stuff. Although I haven’t read the book, I’ve been following some of the controversy and I’m kind of astonished by the lack of civility. I live in a small town in central Pennsylvania and the bullshit I’m concerned about is the watering down of the science curriculum by some of the school board members. Like it or not, around here one Collins or Miller is worth a hundred PZ’s. And if Professors Coyne and Myers don’t want to spend the rest of their careers teaching remedial science to their incoming freshmen they need to start making some, ahem, accommodations.

  21. #21 Physicalist
    August 19, 2009

    @ scripto:

    From your perspective, is a PZ worth a fraction of a Collins, or some negative fraction of a Collins? That is, do you think the actions and writings of Myers and Coyne are making it easier for creationists to get on the school board in your town?

  22. #22 scripto
    August 19, 2009

    Physicalist –
    God, I hope not. But when you’re a prominent pro-evolution science writer that has a gift for explaining the science and you go wiping your ass with a consecrated host, you are going to get a visceral reaction and lose half your potential audience. Faith is important around here. More of a social network than anything else but it goes back generations. People need to know that you don’t have to be an atheist to be a scientist. Even if I personally feel that Myers or Coyne are more in touch with the way things are, I’d much rather have Collins or Miller speak in my community. I’ve heard Collins speak to fellow believers. You can’t fake that kind of sincerity. He’s pretty impressive. And persuasive.

  23. #23 TB
    August 20, 2009

    I think the case for negative effect is expressed in the footnotes of UA, specifically those on pages 177 through 183. The effect that I think scripto is pointing out (and which I’ve observed too) is summed up in the quote on page 183, by Sen. Sam Brownback: “if evolution means assenting to an essentially materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence then I reject it.”

  24. #24 Anna K.
    August 20, 2009

    TB, I have heard comments similar to Brownback’s at my church, despite the fact that the pastor of our church has given sermons insisting there is no conflict between accepting evolution and continuing to hold religious faith.

    However, there is a handful of people at my church (all college-educated, by the way) who have decided, along with the creationists and Myers and Coyne, that accepting evolution must mean one has to deny the existence of God. They have gone on to homeschool their kids with creationist curricula.

    From my perspective, coming from a community which sounds a lot like scripto’s, I think Collins and Miller are far more helpful to the cause of promoting science education.

  25. #25 TB
    August 20, 2009

    Anna K:

    I completely agree. My response was to Physicalist’s wondering if a PZ was worth “some negative fraction of a Collins,” or would have a negative effect.
    And I think that quote shows that if – if – he chose to go into that situation insisting that the existence of god is a scientific question and that science shows with a high degree of certainty that there is no supernatural, then that audience would not accept the science.
    My own observations, yours and Scripto’s seem to confirm that.

  26. #26 Physicalist
    August 20, 2009

    @ Scripto: That fits with my expectations, given what I’ve seen/heard.

    If the Dawkins/Myers/Coynes arguments were actually making it harder to fight against the anti-science forces in the short-term, then I think the situation would be a bit more difficult. I still don’t think I’d be willing to sacrifice the rational pursuit of truth for the pragmatics of the situation, but that may reflect the fact that I’m a philosopher and not a politician.

    But if we accept that the anti-accommodationist efforts aren’t actually harmful in the short term, I think it’s fairly clear that we shouldn’t criticize them (on these grounds) for engaging in a big-picture attack on religion. We can grant that the Collins and Millers are more helpful for small-town battles against creationists without assuming that this fact negates the position of Dawkins and Myers.

    A very helpful discussion of a closely related issue can be found in a post by Dr. Free-Ride, which points out that it’s a mistake to assume that all scientists (and science supporters) have the same precise goal in mind. It’s one thing if you merely want the public to understand and accept the basic facts of evolution. It’s something else if you want the public to appreciate and adopt a skeptical, evidence- and rationality-based form of reasoning quite broadly.

    If the latter is your goal, then you can see why you might find it counter-productive to cozy up to faith just because this might keep evolution in the textbooks. You could win the battle but lose the war.

    Of course, the mere fact that the anti-accommodationists see faith as an epistemic vice, doesn’t make it so. But arguments for and against the position need to be evaluated; we can’t simply point to the political effectiveness of Collins and pretend that this settles the argument. And on this front, I find Unscientific America woefully lacking.

    Indeed, overall I found the reviews by Josh, Dr. Free-Ride, and Jason Rosenhouse to be far more insightful and useful than UA itself.

    @TB: I’ll look through those endnotes again, but I recall being thoroughly underwhelmed. I understand the point that if we convince someone like Brownback that science is in conflict with his faith, he’s likely to choose his faith over science. Thus you (and M&K) conclude that we should work hard to convince him that the two are compatible.

    As I said above, I might be more concerned about this if I actually saw the Brownbacks of the world being convinced by Dawkins et al., or if it seemed that the Dawkins arguments were making it harder for the Brownbacks to buy the accommodationist line of Miller & Collins. (I’m unconvinced that this is likely, in part because of Overton-Window sorts of arguments.) But even if this were the case, I’d still view it as a mistake to let the politics of the situation trump an honest intellectual evaluation of the arguments.

    Consider: I’ve heard plenty of Brownbacks also say, “If rationality means assenting to materialism, then I reject it.” I don’t take this to be a legitimate reason for asserting that it’s rational to reject materialism. Would you?

  27. #27 TB
    August 20, 2009

    Physicalist

    Huh?

    “@ Scripto: That fits with my expectations, given what I’ve seen/heard.
    If the Dawkins/Myers/Coynes arguments were actually making it harder to fight against the anti-science forces in the short-term, then I think the situation would be a bit more difficult.”

    Scripto said “when you’re a prominent pro-evolution science writer that has a gift for explaining the science and you go wiping your ass with a consecrated host, you are going to get a visceral reaction and lose half your potential audience.”

    How is turning off half of your potential audience not making things difficult? How is eliciting an offended, emotional response conducive to getting people to listen to rational arguments? It didn’t sound to me that Scripto was being reassuring – he expressed hope that there wouldn’t be harm but pretty much said half your audience isn’t going to listen to your rational arguments because you don’t respect them.

    “But if we accept that the anti-accommodationist efforts aren’t actually harmful in the short term…”

    And since that’s not what scripto said, everything after that statement has nothing to base it on, so you don’t get to use that as a spring board into your lecture.

    “@TB: I’ll look through those endnotes again, but I recall being thoroughly underwhelmed.”

    That’s fair – I’m not finding your arguments very convincing either.

    “I understand the point that if we convince someone like Brownback that science is in conflict with his faith, he’s likely to choose his faith over science.”

    Well, that’s not exactly the point. If we change the nature of science from it not being able to say anything about the supernatural or god, to saying that science proves to a high degree of certainty that there is no supernatural and no god, then people who believe in the supernatural or god will then be in conflict with science – even if their beliefs weren’t in conflict before we changed the nature of science.
    That’s the line in the sand that the NAs have drawn.
    (Please note: when we say science can’t say anything about the supernatural or god, that doesn’t mean science can’t say anything on claims about the supernatural or god here in the natural world.)

    “Thus you (and M&K) conclude that we should work hard to convince him that the two are compatible.”

    You know, if you use that quote and the word “Brownback” in a search, you’ll find the original NYT op-ed. And you’ll see that Brownback’s understanding of science and his beliefs are really, really awful. Science isn’t going to be compatible with his faith – unless he changes his faith.
    But, many maintain that science CAN be compatible with religion, so he doesn’t have to give up faith. But the specific theology needs to change – not science.
    So science isn’t accommodating anything.

    As Larry Krause has said, the work has to be done by people of faith, not science. Advocating that people do the work to bring their theology out of conflict with science is a form of advocating science.

    “As I said above, I might be more concerned about this if I actually saw the Brownbacks of the world being convinced by Dawkins et al., …”

    Brownback rejects Dawkins’ idea of science, that’s pretty clear. Actually, I reject Dawkins’ idea of science. I agree with Pennock – methodological naturalism is not the same thing as philosophical naturalism.

    “… or if it seemed that the Dawkins arguments were making it harder for the Brownbacks to buy the accommodationist line of Miller & Collins. ”

    No, not at all. Can’t think of why it might be a problem to convince people that science doesn’t say anything about the supernatural or god, specifically that science doesn’t disprove the existence of the supernatural or god.
    Oh, wait…
    Look, I’m skeptical because I have personally had this discussion. I have had silly stuff long-ago debunked on talkorigins thrown in my face and I’ve had Expelled and Hitler used as arguments. And I had this discussion just because someone saw a book by Dawkins lying around.

    “(I’m unconvinced that this is likely, in part because of Overton-Window sorts of arguments.) ”

    For a non-politician, that’s pretty political of you.

    “But even if this were the case, I’d still view it as a mistake to let the politics of the situation trump an honest intellectual evaluation of the arguments.”

    Have you ever watched the Blues Brothers? You know the part where they’re in the country/western bar performing behind chicken wire? If you decide not to “let the politics of the situation trump an honest intellectual evaluation of the arguments,” and “go wiping your ass with a consecrated host” I really recommend you do it behind the chicken wire.

    “Consider: I’ve heard plenty of Brownbacks also say, “If rationality means assenting to materialism, then I reject it.” I don’t take this to be a legitimate reason for asserting that it’s rational to reject materialism. Would you?”

    Consider: It’s not a question of rational argument – something asserted by Ken Miller. This is an argument based on emotions and trying to be strictly rational is not going to work.

    If someone said that to you, they weren’t concerned about meaning of the words – they probably weren’t rejecting rationality. They were expressing how little respect they have for your beliefs (or non-belief) probably as a reaction to what they perceive as a lack of respect for them and their beliefs.

    Which brings us back to what scripto actually said: “People need to know that you don’t have to be an atheist to be a scientist. Even if I personally feel that Myers or Coyne are more in touch with the way things are, I’d much rather have Collins or Miller speak in my community. I’ve heard Collins speak to fellow believers. You can’t fake that kind of sincerity. He’s pretty impressive. And persuasive.”

    Here’s practical question for you: What level of evidence are you looking for that this is a problem? Obviously the ones in UA are insufficient for you – what would be sufficient? And, why do we need that level of evidence? I’m not conceding that the evidence is insufficient, mind you. But I want to hear what form of evidence would be sufficient for you.

    Can you express that please?

  28. #28 Dave W.
    August 22, 2009

    Rosenau wrote:

    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?

    What can we call the above paragraph but bullshit? Rosenau fails to engage with Harris’ actual argument (instead offering the conclusion as nothing more than an assertion), and then proceeds to rebut it with no fewer than four restatements of his own incredulity. And then without even mentioning how Harris might answer the questions, his idea is deemed to be bullshit. The reader is meant to take away the idea that Harris’ hypothesis has been firmly demonstrated to be bullshit, but that idea is itself bullshit.

    How many times have we seen the same from creationists? Evolution is presented as just a claim, then a whole bunch of incredulous questions are asked which supposedly undermine evolutionary theory but don’t actually address it (half an eye, etc.), and then evolutionary theory is deemed to be bullshit without relating what the theory would or would not say in answer to those questions.

    In a broader sense, the argument is presented as the conclusion of an argument, X, followed by questions about X without providing any answers X may offer, and ends with the conclusion that X is false (or bullshit). It’s obvious to me that such arguments are invalid, regardless of what X might be or whether X successfully answers any of the questions posed of it, because the author of such an argument clearly doesn’t care about whether X is true.

    And so similarly we don’t need to test the truth value of Harris’ idea or Rosenau’s questions to determine that Rosenau’s argument fails to provide a conclusion that’s reliable. The structure of the argument fails to provide any support at all for its conclusion.

    The mark of a great mind is not the ability to be instantly right, but the capacity for revising assessments made in error.

    Indeed.

  29. #29 Madman
    August 23, 2009

    Over on beliefnet M&K have a brief essay up. I think it demonstrates where the real BS in this argument can be found.

    They make the claim that science is in danger if you are hostile towards religion.

    Seriously. They say that.

  30. #30 Dude
    August 23, 2009

    Josh said:
    “The mark of a great mind is not the ability to be instantly right, but the capacity for revising assessments made in error.”

    I completely agree with this sentence. I also hope you are in possession of this capacity.

    Your long essay is filled with, well, assessments made in error. Far to many to list in a short time, I’m afraid. You misrepresent the statements of several people (ironic, considering the main complaint of your essay here), you criticize those strawmen you create and fail to address substantive arguments (probably because you can’t), and you call a person who believes and teaches immortality by divine resurrection “perfectly reasonable”.

    The title of your blog entry accurately describes its content.

  31. #31 Physicalist
    August 23, 2009

    @ TB:

    How is turning off half of your potential audience not making things difficult? How is eliciting an offended, emotional response conducive to getting people to listen to rational arguments?

    It very much depends on who your audience is, and what you’re trying to communicate/accomplish. I take it that the audience Scripto had in mind was a small town in Pennsylvania that’s debating teaching creationism. I wouldn’t expect such a crowd to view the Myers desecration episode favorably, and I’m sure Myers didn’t think that his actions would convince such folks to keep creationism out of the classroom.

    But that obviously wasn’t the audience Myers was aiming for, and obviously he wasn’t making an argument for teaching evolution. This is why I pointed you to Dr. Free-Ride’s excellent post that points out that not everyone on the “pro-science” side has the same goals in mind. Do you think Myers lost half of his actual audience? What do you suppose the history of his web stats look like?

    My take is that Myers was trying to demonstrate that it’s a mistake to suppose that “moderate” faiths like Catholicism are innocuous just because they aren’t currently burning people at the stake or flying planes into buildings. Catholics will still place wafer-rights above human-rights, send death threats, and so on. Likewise, the episode highlights just how deep the magical thinking runs in Catholicism: it really gives you some perspective on their belief that a wafer is literally the body of their god.

    “But if we accept that the anti-accommodationist efforts aren’t actually harmful in the short term…”
    And since that’s not what scripto said, everything after that statement has nothing to base it on, so you don’t get to use that as a spring board into your lecture.

    Scripto offers zero indication that the Myers episode is making it more difficult to keep creationism out of the classroom, despite the fact that s/he’s clearly opposed to the episode, and despite the fact that I specifically asked whether s/he saw such harm. I’ll use whatever springboards I like, thanks.

    If we change the nature of science from it not being able to say anything about the supernatural or god, to saying that science proves to a high degree of certainty that there is no supernatural and no god, then people who believe in the supernatural or god will then be in conflict with science – even if their beliefs weren’t in conflict before we changed the nature of science. . . . (Please note: when we say science can’t say anything about the supernatural or god, that doesn’t mean science can’t say anything on claims about the supernatural or god here in the natural world.)

    There’s no change in the nature of science involved. Science shows what it shows. If some religion claims something contrary, then there’s a conflict. And it looks like you’re willing to admit that science can say an awful lot about virgin births, the nature of wafers, the possibility of resurrection, the evolution of the cosmos and of life, etc. Plenty of conflict.

    Of course, one can push god all the way out of the natural world and adopt some form of deism. From what I’ve seen, the anti-accommodationists are happy to admit that such a position does not conflict per se with the results of science. However, you have to admit that precious few people in the U.S. actually subscribe to such a view. So if we’re talking about the actual faith of the people in Scripto’s town, that faith is incompatible with the results of science. Of course, we can hope that they’ll change their faith to deism, but that’s a different matter.

    Now it is also true that the anti-accommodationists go on to point out that even deism is in conflict – – not with the results of science per se – – but with the scientific attitude, if you like: a skeptical mindset that rejects prejudice and demands evidence for assent. This is, of course, a philosophical claim, as M&K say in their book, but this fact does nothing to undermine its cogency.

    Science isn’t going to be compatible with his faith – unless he changes his faith.

    Agreed.

    Advocating that people do the work to bring their theology out of conflict with science is a form of advocating science.

    OK. And one form of such advocacy can be advocating for atheism, since that will obviously resolve the conflict.

    Of course, one might worry if pro-science groups (like the NCSE, for instance) started pushing for a particular form of resolution; e.g., for an enlightened form of Buddhism, or deistic Christianity, or atheism. Likewise, one might worry of these pro-science groups were to take an official stand on the philosophical question of whether faith is epistemically compatible with the cognitive values and methods distinctive of science. This, of course, is what the anti-accommodationists are objecting to.

    I reject Dawkins’ idea of science. I agree with Pennock – methodological naturalism is not the same thing as philosophical naturalism.

    I very much doubt that anyone believes that methodological and philosophical naturalism are identical. Coyne and Myers have explicitly rejected such a conflation, and I’ve yet to see any quote from Dawkins that commits him to ignoring the distinction. (The quotation in UA, that the existence of a god is “unequivocally a scientific question,” obviously fails to establish the point.) UA’s discussion of this issue is truly pathetic, and Mooney’s attempts to build a case against the anti-accommodationists on these grounds blew up horribly in his face.

    “(I’m unconvinced that this is likely, in part because of Overton-Window sorts of arguments.) ”
    For a non-politician, that’s pretty political of you.

    Political considerations for questions of politics. (But Mooney can keep is politics out of our epistemological debates, thank you very much.)

    If someone said [“If rationality means assenting to materialism, then I reject it,”] they weren’t concerned about meaning of the words – they probably weren’t rejecting rationality. They were expressing how little respect they have for your beliefs (or non-belief) probably as a reaction to what they perceive as a lack of respect for them and their beliefs.

    Not at all. And if you think about it, I’m confident you can think of plenty of fundamentalist Christians who would choose faith over reason in a heartbeat. The Creation Museum even contrasts the conclusions one reaches starting from “Human Reason” with the conclusions one reaches starting with “God’s Word.”

    They’ve got FAITH!! Faith moves mountains, and gets you into HEAVEN, and SAVES you from the fires of Hell! Rationality is a tool of the Devil; the sin of PRIDE, makin’ you think that you know better than God, who created reason, who’s above ALL reasons! God doesn’t ask you to figure out the world, He tells you to fall on your knees and accept his TRUTH! Alleluia!

    So, no. They weren’t expressing anything about my respect for their beliefs. They were saying that the most important thing for them is to believe in their religious beliefs. And they are willing to reject anything, including rationality, that impedes that belief.

    Which brings us back to what scripto actually said:

    I think I agree with everything that Scripto said. I’m not about to send Dawkins’ book to a theist whom I’m trying to talk out of creationism. In fact, I checked out Miller’s book, thinking I might mail that (but I wasn’t too impressed). But none of this means that the “New Atheists” are hurting the cause of scientific literacy, or that they should shut up. (Fortunately, even Miller rejects that theme of UA.

    What level of evidence are you looking for that this is a problem? . . . Can you express that please?

    As I’ve said, even if it were the case that anti-accommodationist arguments were making it harder to keep creationism out of schools, I’d still be loathe to shut down an honest philosophical debate just for political convenience. So I doubt there’s any amount of evidence that you could present that would get me to join Mooney and Kirshenbaum in telling the New Athiests to shut up.

    However, you and I obviously disagree about whether the anti-accommodationists are currently hurting the cause of scientific literacy. So your question is fair enough. To begin, I’d like to at least hear some anecdotal evidence that the arguments of Dawkins et al. are pushing some believers from the compatibilist camp to the must-reject-science camp. (It seems to me that those who are going to hang onto their faith even if it means throwing out science are very unlikely to be convinced by a bunch of atheists. Those ones who read Dawkins and agree with him are going to be those who are ready to side with science.)

    So I’d like some sort of indication that the anti-accommodationist line is pushing the middle strongly away from science. Given that the accommodationist strategy requires converting people to deism (perhaps that’s not entirely fair, but it’s not too far off), I’d also be interested in hearing about individuals who could have been convinced of the truth of deism, before Dawkins got hold of them, convinced them that if they actually accepted science they’d have to lose their faith altogether, and so they decided to reject science.

    Seeing Dawkins being brought in as a witness in court cases, which then ruled that evolution is a religion, or that creationism isn’t, and having the judge cite the anti-accommodationist arguments in the rulings would also speak strongly for the political expediency of adopting accommodationism.

    Ideally, of course, I’d like to see some good studies of polling data etc., showing that communities that read Dawkins are more likely to reject evolution, or something along those lines. But I realize this can be difficult. But I have to say that the constancy of the percentage of Americans who reject evolution doesn’t do much to bolster UA’s claims (to my mind).

  32. #32 J. J. Ramsey
    August 24, 2009

    Physicalist: “Catholics will still place wafer-rights above human-rights, send death threats, and so on”

    There are millions of Catholics, so even if we see Myers spammed with thousands of protests against his desecration of a wafer, we aren’t necessarily getting a representative sample, especially since those sending insults and death threats are a self-selected group. Funny that you go on about a scientific attitude and then make a very unscientific overgeneralization.

  33. #33 TB
    August 24, 2009

    “TB: How is turning off half of your potential audience not making things difficult? How is eliciting an offended, emotional response conducive to getting people to listen to rational arguments?
    Phy: It very much depends on who your audience is, and what you’re trying to communicate/accomplish. I take it that the audience Scripto had in mind was a small town in Pennsylvania that’s debating teaching creationism.”

    But he didn’t put that qualification on his statement, that’s your assumption. And I’m not willing to concede that’s where the goalposts should be.
    There’s quite a bit of science advocacy to do before you even get to the point where people are trying to take over school boards.

    “Phy: I wouldn’t expect such a crowd to view the Myers desecration episode favorably, and I’m sure Myers didn’t think that his actions would convince such folks to keep creationism out of the classroom.”

    To be fair, I took Scripto’s description of what someone would do with the host not to refer specifically to Myers, since that’s not actually what he did. I’m thinking of any science communicator trying to effectively communicate science but who also shows disrespect toward religion.

    “Phy: This is why I pointed you to Dr. Free-Ride’s excellent post that points out that not everyone on the “pro-science” side has the same goals in mind.”
    Which is well-intentioned, but meaningless noise. Ed Brayton pointed out the different goals idea three years ago.
    Thing is, just because people have different goals doesn’t mean they don’t come in conflict. Consider: You’re downstream from me and your goal is to have a clean source of drinking water. Upstream, I have the goal of cheaply disposing of toxic chemicals from my industrial plant.
    If I dump my chemicals into the stream, that may help me achieve my goals but it certainly hurts your goal downstream.

    “Phy: Do you think Myers lost half of his actual audience? What do you suppose the history of his web stats look like?”

    Except we’re not talking about his web audience. We’re talking about a theoretical science communicator talking to a theoretical audience in a public place (not on the web), an audience with an open-enough mind to come and listen. You’re not really addressing the arguments.

    “Phy: My take is that Myers was trying to demonstrate that it’s a mistake to suppose that “moderate” faiths like Catholicism are innocuous just because they aren’t currently burning people at the stake or flying planes into buildings. Catholics will still place wafer-rights above human-rights, send death threats, and so on. Likewise, the episode highlights just how deep the magical thinking runs in Catholicism: it really gives you some perspective on their belief that a wafer is literally the body of their god.”

    Wow! That’s a whole lot of empty assertions that show your ignorance about theology and, frankly, your bias against Catholics. What Catholics flew a plane into a building because they were Catholic?
    There’s a lot of disagreement about the theology of the Eucharist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucharist#Eucharistic_theology
    Catholics don’t have a monopoly on that.

    “Phy: But if we accept that the anti-accommodationist efforts aren’t actually harmful in the short term…”
    TB: And since that’s not what scripto said, everything after that statement has nothing to base it on, so you don’t get to use that as a spring board into your lecture.
    Phy: Scripto offers zero indication that the Myers episode is making it more difficult to keep creationism out of the classroom, despite the fact that s/he’s clearly opposed to the episode, and despite the fact that I specifically asked whether s/he saw such harm. I’ll use whatever springboards I like, thanks.”

    You made assumptions, and it’s clear that Scripto wasn’t addressing those assumptions. Sure, use the springboard – I’m just pointing out the pool is empty.

    “TB: If we change the nature of science from it not being able to say anything about the supernatural or god, to saying that science proves to a high degree of certainty that there is no supernatural and no god, then people who believe in the supernatural or god will then be in conflict with science – even if their beliefs weren’t in conflict before we changed the nature of science. . . . (Please note: when we say science can’t say anything about the supernatural or god, that doesn’t mean science can’t say anything on claims about the supernatural or god here in the natural world.)
    Phy: There’s no change in the nature of science involved. Science shows what it shows. If some religion claims something contrary, then there’s a conflict. And it looks like you’re willing to admit that science can say an awful lot about virgin births, the nature of wafers, the possibility of resurrection, the evolution of the cosmos and of life, etc. Plenty of conflict.”

    As I said, you’re letting your ignorance on theology show through. Virgin birth? Theologically it’s been said to only signify a birth without original sin, or didn’t happen at all – something added later. Nature of the Eucharist? A ritual memorial, with no physical change to the items. Resurrection? A metaphysical instance, undetectable by science (as one Jesuit has put it). No contradiction. Forcing one interpretation of theology to represent all theology is just wrong. Trying to change the nature of science so that it addresses the supernatural is not only bad science, but lousy theology. Hey, didn’t they say that about ID?

    “Phy: Of course, one can push god all the way out of the natural world and adopt some form of deism. However, you have to admit that precious few people in the U.S. actually subscribe to such a view. So if we’re talking about the actual faith of the people in Scripto’s town, that faith is incompatible with the results of science. Of course, we can hope that they’ll change their faith to deism, but that’s a different matter.”

    And with a wave of your hand, you dismiss all efforts to bring theology in line with science as watered-down deism. As if the only acceptable form of religion is a fundamentalist one, since that’s the one you can feel intellectually superior to.

    snip

    “TB: Advocating that people do the work to bring their theology out of conflict with science is a form of advocating science.
    Phy: OK. And one form of such advocacy can be advocating for atheism, since that will obviously resolve the conflict.”
    No, advocating for atheism is advocating a philosophy. And here’s my concern: I don’t care if you want to believe in non-belief – hell, I support your right to do so. But the question I have is whether you think that should be taught as part of a public school science course.

    “Of course, one might worry if pro-science groups (like the NCSE, for instance) started pushing for a particular form of resolution; e.g., for an enlightened form of Buddhism, or deistic Christianity, or atheism.”

    And, that seems to be my answer. Then, really, we’re not conflict here. We’re arguing philosophy so I only think that you should have the right to believe what you believe as long as it doesn’t infringe on my right to believe what I believe.

    “Likewise, one might worry of these pro-science groups were to take an official stand on the philosophical question of whether faith is epistemically compatible with the cognitive values and methods distinctive of science. This, of course, is what the anti-accommodationists are objecting to.”

    I disagree. In contending that religion can’t be compatible with science, you’re imposing your philosophical beliefs on others. There’s no reason for you to do this except to use such a position to advance your own beliefs, which causes me to be concerned about what you want taught in a public school science class.
    What you think is a neutral stance is actually advancing your cause. And it’s quite reasonable to call you out on that.
    What the pro-science groups are doing is as innocent as saying a church can tap into the public water system. There’s no special endorsement of any specific religion, it’s simply a description of what they can do if they so choose.

    “TB: I reject Dawkins’ idea of science. I agree with Pennock – methodological naturalism is not the same thing as philosophical naturalism.
    Phy: I very much doubt that anyone believes that methodological and philosophical naturalism are identical. Coyne and Myers have explicitly rejected such a conflation, and I’ve yet to see any quote from Dawkins that commits him to ignoring the distinction. (The quotation in UA, that the existence of a god is “unequivocally a scientific question,” obviously fails to establish the point.) UA’s discussion of this issue is truly pathetic, and Mooney’s attempts to build a case against the anti-accommodationists on these grounds blew up horribly in his face.”

    UA’s discussion was right on target and it blew up because it was so accurate. I have no doubt Coyne, Myers and Dawkins can pay lip service to methodological naturalism, but as long as they insist that the supernatural can be studied as opposed to claims about the supernatural, then they’re conflating a method with a philosophy.

    “TB: If someone said [“If rationality means assenting to materialism, then I reject it,”] they weren’t concerned about meaning of the words – they probably weren’t rejecting rationality. They were expressing how little respect they have for your beliefs (or non-belief) probably as a reaction to what they perceive as a lack of respect for them and their beliefs.
    Phy: Not at all. And if you think about it, I’m confident you can think of plenty of fundamentalist Christians who would choose faith over reason in a heartbeat. snip”
    Faith over reason or faith over atheism? Not the same thing. I know YOU think so, but it’s not. snip

    “Phy: I think I agree with everything that Scripto said. I’m not about to send Dawkins’ book to a theist whom I’m trying to talk out of creationism. In fact, I checked out Miller’s book, thinking I might mail that (but I wasn’t too impressed). But none of this means that the “New Atheists” are hurting the cause of scientific literacy, or that they should shut up. (Fortunately, even Miller rejects that theme of UA.”

    Right, Miller and M&K explicitly say in they’re not telling anyone to shut up. But, criticism is not censorship. If someone can’t change their arguments to answer the criticism, that’s not the fault of the critic. And labeling criticism censorship is really not dealing with the criticism.

    “TB: What level of evidence are you looking for that this is a problem? . . . Can you express that please?”
    Phy: As I’ve said, even if it were the case that anti-accommodationist arguments were making it harder to keep creationism out of schools, I’d still be loathe to shut down an honest philosophical debate just for political convenience.”

    You know, as long as it’s clear that it’s a philosophical debate, then it’s fine. As a matter of fact, that would make it easier to defend NAs rather than have to dismiss them. “That’s what they believe, and they’re not trying to teach it in public schools.” That contrast goes a long way.

    “So I doubt there’s any amount of evidence that you could present that would get me to join Mooney and Kirshenbaum in telling the New Athiests to shut up.”

    And since that’s not what they’re saying, we have no conflict here. You’re just repeating other people’s arguments. You have the book – they explicitly say they’re not telling people to shut up.

    “However, you and I obviously disagree about whether the anti-accommodationists are currently hurting the cause of scientific literacy.”

    As long as they’re simply asserting their personal beliefs and not representing them as science, then I don’t think it’s a problem. I think, though, that as long as they maintain the supernatural can be studied by science – as opposed to claims about the supernatural – then there’s a potential problem – if they want that taught in science class. That’s asserting a belief and involving science as opposed to studying a phenomena with the expectation that there will be a natural cause.

    “So your question is fair enough. To begin, I’d like to at least hear some anecdotal evidence that the arguments of Dawkins et al. are pushing some believers from the compatibilist camp to the must-reject-science camp. (It seems to me that those who are going to hang onto their faith even if it means throwing out science are very unlikely to be convinced by a bunch of atheists. Those ones who read Dawkins and agree with him are going to be those who are ready to side with science.)
    So I’d like some sort of indication that the anti-accommodationist line is pushing the middle strongly away from science. Given that the accommodationist strategy requires converting people to deism (perhaps that’s not entirely fair, but it’s not too far off), I’d also be interested in hearing about individuals who could have been convinced of the truth of deism, before Dawkins got hold of them, convinced them that if they actually accepted science they’d have to lose their faith altogether, and so they decided to reject science.
    Seeing Dawkins being brought in as a witness in court cases, which then ruled that evolution is a religion, or that creationism isn’t, and having the judge cite the anti-accommodationist arguments in the rulings would also speak strongly for the political expediency of adopting accommodationism.
    Ideally, of course, I’d like to see some good studies of polling data etc., showing that communities that read Dawkins are more likely to reject evolution, or something along those lines. But I realize this can be difficult. But I have to say that the constancy of the percentage of Americans who reject evolution doesn’t do much to bolster UA’s claims (to my mind).”

    It’s an interesting standard.
    1) “Anecdotal evidence that the arguments of Dawkins et al. are pushing some believers from the compatibilist camp to the must-reject-science camp.” How about reenforcing prejudices that believers already have, such as expressed in that Brownback quote I gave? Or, the citation on page 182, by a geologist from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington with the page 183 citation from the biologist at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia? The testimony by Anna K and scripto’s that we’ve been discussing?
    2) “I’d like some sort of indication that the anti-accommodationist line is pushing the middle strongly away from science. Given that the accommodationist strategy requires converting people to deism…” But that’s not the strategy. There’s no reason to resort to deism. Aren’t you doing what the NAs are accusing the pro-science organizations of doing – specifically giving the religious guidance on what could be acceptable to science? And what do you mean by strongly? That’s a subjective term.
    3) “Seeing Dawkins being brought in as a witness in court cases, which then ruled that evolution is a religion…” No pro-science org is going to allow that to happen. If Dawkins is brought in as a witness, there will be others – like Pennock who is already recognized as an expert witness in the philosophy of science – brought in to provide the judge a third way, one that leaves science the way the Dover trial left it. Nice to see you acknowledge the evolution/religion outcome is a real possibility with the NAs’ approach to science, though.
    4) “Ideally, of course, I’d like to see some good studies of polling data etc.,” Agreed. Have you seen the recent Pew research that shows younger people are more likely to accept evolution than older, which seems to show a trend over time?
    http://people-press.org/reports/images/528-60.gif

    In the end, you’ve set your standards up to be, essentially, unmeetable. No one’s going to want to lose a court case, deism isn’t the goal of accommodationism and you don’t account for reenforcing prejudices and dismiss the anecdotal evidence for that. So by setting standards no one wants to meet, your philosophy is not challenged. Really, those aren’t standards, they’re stopgaps to real discussion.

  34. #34 George
    August 29, 2009

    Wow, this is excellent reading and discussion. . . in truth, I doubt I can add much of consequence to it since I am not a scientist (although I have a passionate preoccupation with evolutionary biology and astronomy). I will, however, happily admit to being Catholic (studied for priesthood, monastic life, etc) and an artist, medieval art historian, and general nuisance.

    Frankly, I never “got” the whole ‘science v. faith’ thing. Seems that the two are different fields which one can see as complimentary (as long as science is science and not a shame to prove a preconcieved notion) or not as the case may be. Myself, I take them as they are in their unique realms. When I’m chasing a tornado and trying to make sense of a lot of meterological data I’m not concerned with how it reveals the power of God, just that this is a really photogenic storm and, wow! I finally caught a tornado.

    On the other hand, to deliberately offend against religion is, well, juvenile. I expect more from scientists as I do from anyone with an advanced degree in something requiring half a brain. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the only thing an advance degree proves is that you passed the classes and successfully defended your thesis/disseration. Imbeciles have PhDs as often as real intellectuals.

    So, what does Myers accomplish with his little performance? Annoy people. Its as juvenile as whatever stupidity goes on at the Creation Stupidity Museum, only worse since – as a scientist – Myers should be above such silliness.

    That having been said, I will confess (no pun intended) that there is a certain perverse pleasure to be gained from baiting fundamentalists. But perhaps this too, is just juvenile, not unlike teasing a caged feral dog. Fundies typically are as they are because their fundamentalism allows them a sense of empowerment and justification. Indeed, I have long argued that 99% of all believe is not about personal conversion, enlightenment or relationship with the transcendant, its about justifying one’s existence. Thus, the Baptist who believes himself ‘saved’ does so in order to overcome personal guilt for behaviour he knows (or believes) to be depraved. By believing that once he is saved, he cannot loose his salvation, he comforts himself psychologically – he creates an illusion of righteousness even as he continues to hate his neighbor, support the Ku Klux Klan, and shoot people he thinks are the devil, all while being drunk off his buttocks after a night of visiting prostitutes. . . and the problem is not limited to Baptists.

    Speaking of which, the point that there has been a complete pseudo-academic system created to support fundamentalist delusions is extremely well made, and something I have argued for decades. The only thing necessary to be a Doctor of Biblical Studies from a fundamentalist or “bible church” is a halfway decent printer or the ability to write the letters. Its madness.

    “Madness? This is SPARTA!”

    But, most Americans get their ‘knowledge’ from movies anyway, so you’re not really just battling fundamentalist lunacy, you’re battling Star Trek (say it isn’t so!) and “Dinosaur”. Disney, really. Just watch “Pochahantas” once and tell me that the real enemy isn’t the wild distortions in movies and such.

    But, I digress – and ramble.

    Long and short, all this is essentially anecdotal opinion (what I’ve written). I look for scientists to be scientists, not juvenile performance artists, theologians to be questioning investigators of life’s questions, not imbecilic hysterical hacks frothing at the mouth every time someone fails to say ‘god’ every seventh word.

    Great article, great discussion – Thanks

    G

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