On false dichotomies

Not to delve into the accommodationism wars again, but this claim is just silly. Ophelia Benson comments on Michael Shermer commenting on Jerry Coyne commenting on Michael Shermer, and objects to Shermer’s claim that “the right way to respond to theists and/or theism… is simple: there is no one ‘right way’. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context”:

He expands on the point, but without bothering to say what he means by ‘works.’ It’s a rather silly way to put it, frankly, because one doesn’t always expect one’s responses to ‘work’ – one sometimes simply wants to say what is true to the best of one’s ability, not to do what ‘works.’ This is a big part of the issue between accommodationists and critics of accommodationism, and it’s one of the most irritating things about accommodationists that they almost never seem to get that. Accommodationists always talk about what works, what wins more allies, what is least likely to offend the moderates, and similar calculating issues. Critics of accommodationism on the other hand tend to dislike manipulative rhetoric and tactical evasion, and want to try to tell the truth instead of trying to shape a message for fragile listeners.

Now, the narrow, boring reply would be that if the goal is simply to honestly state one’s views, then there are ways to respond that would work (i.e., achieve the stated goal), and others that don’t. But to go too far in that vein leaves us reading Shermer’s mind, and I’ll leave him to defend and define his own terminology.

What I object to is the claim that one much choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint. Truth, like love, is a many-splendored thing. There are a range of ways to express true statements (including true statements about untestable personal beliefs), and it seems fair to inquire which of those modes of expression is most likely to sway one’s audience. I’ve watched this debate for 5 years or so, and in all that time, I’ve not seen anyone make a convincing argument against that basic principle.

After all, if the goal is not to actually change people’s minds in some way, why bother speaking? If New Atheism (or whatever it wants to call itself) is a genuine political movement (as suggested by things like the Out Campaign, the basic rhetoric of Dawkins’s TGD, New Atheist comparisons of themselves to civil rights pioneers, etc.), then the goal is to change minds, to swell their ranks if not through outright conversions, at least through growing acceptance. Those are legitimate goals, and they are served more effectively by expressing truths in some ways and are ill-served by other ways of expressing those same truths.

If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal? To piss people off? To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them?

To the degree that I object to “New Atheism” (an ill-defined entity to which I am not entirely unsympathetic), my objection is to this precise aimlessness. By embracing Radical Honesty and railing against evidence-based communication strategy, they seem to be coming out against clearly stated goals, yet they complain when people refuse to treat them as a serious political movement. Sorry folks, but political movements have clearly stated political goals, and take actions with an eye (however skewed it may be) toward making those goals real. If the goal of New Atheism is more than pissing off anyone who isn’t a New Atheist, it’s time to talk about framing, message discipline, and dropping this attitude that “what works” doesn’t matter.

Comments

  1. #1 Art
    November 29, 2009

    Not that I care much, I really think the particular flavor of atheism argument presented is too ‘inside baseball’ and the entire concept of atheism too repugnant and threatening to too many people for there to be any utility in spilling a whole lot of ink arguing the point. It strikes me as a bit to much like the brown cow and the black cow arguing over which color is better while being herded into a slaughterhouse.

    The majority of Christians would, as it stands, never vote for an atheist for any office. I suspect a third equate atheism with Satanism, possibly with atheism being worse for it doesn’t fight against their God but rather dismisses him as a concept. Kind of along the lines of indifference, not hate, being the opposite of love. Some subset of Christians really and truly think that hunting down and killing atheists is a logical step in making America a Christian nation. It is hard to make a case that your going to win over more of those looking forward to slitting your throat by sweet talking them. Such people, in my experience, kind of secretly appreciate having someone get into their grill and tell them what brainless, superstitious rubes they are. Such people like people who will lay it out as you see it ‘straight up’.

    Yes, there is some potential direct gain in using language which might gently persuade and attract others to come to your side. On the other hand there is often an indirect gain to be had by stating a case clearly and directly in blunt, unvarnished terms.

    A blunt case that makes no apologies can be both a rallying point for your side and, because it doesn’t seek to blur differences in pointing out the clarity of the atheist case, can prove to be attractive to some people from the other side who are suspicious of moderate words, logical traps, and smooth talking sophistry. Some people prefer their persuasion to come with the bark on.

    Different strokes for different folks. Both on the sending and receiving sides.

  2. #2 Simon Gardner
    November 29, 2009

    “To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them?”

    Or to leave fat steaming piles of reality and force people to walk through them. I like that. How very apposite. Nice

  3. #3 Lyle
    November 29, 2009

    The situation between science and religion is like the issue of how many lines parallel to a given line go thru a point. There is no correct answer 0,1,many all lead to correct logical geometries. The same applies here. Are there supernatural interventions in the universe that we can not detect using our observations? If the answer is no you get science as we have it. If the answer is yes, then we can’t know the rules of the game, and pretty much anything goes. One could then pitch science as a description of the world that makes some basic assumption about the way the world works see Charles Lyell and principles of geology. If you don’t accept those assumptions we then we are done discussing. So we then pitch science as a system that builds models based upon these assumptions and then asks do the models seem to describe the world under the basic assumptions. If one does not agree with the basic assumptions then there is nothing to talk about. Use science just as a model to make predictions if the work fine, but you don’t have to believe them.

  4. #4 Robert Foster
    November 29, 2009

    Yet again the futile attempt at finding a middle way, a compromise position, a can’t-we-all-just-get-along consensus. Being an atheist isn’t simply a holding pattern waiting for something to change in the body religious. When the arguments for faith are distilled down to their essence it comes down to this: the religious believe what they do because they want it to be so. God is real because they want it to be. There will never be enough contrary proof for them. The fact that the universe is a capricious place where stars go nova on a regular beat and destroy entire planetary systems in a wink and a flash (many of them no doubt inhabited by thriving civilizations) lays bare the claim that it was all made for our benefit, an act of love and mercy, by a beneficent being waiting for us to ascend to its realm. Better to be an atheist and accept the cold reality of a meaningless universe. Then we can move ahead and create our own meaning, which in a perverse way, is what the religions of the world keep striving for, but which are based on primitive pre-scientific, certitudes.

  5. #5 Ophelia Benson
    November 29, 2009

    What I object to is the claim that one much choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint.

    But I don’t claim that. It’s the other way around – the ‘accommodationists’ or the framers or whatever you want to call them tell the ‘new’ atheists to choose. They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and ‘frame’ them instead, on the never really substantiated grounds that otherwise…everything will go to hell.

    it seems fair to inquire which of those modes of expression is most likely to sway one’s audience

    But who is “one’s audience”? The world at large – and how can one really know what is most likely to sway the world at large? The framers aren’t giving us advice before an address to one particular audience – they’re telling us what to say everywhere and at all times. They’re telling us Jerry Coyne’s review in The New Republic was “uncivil.” I would never have thought ahead of time that that review would be shocking to the kind of people who read The New Republic – so I don’t know how to understand the framers’ advice except as: choose the mode of expression that will not annoy any theists at all, and choose that mode of expression for everything you say and write.

    If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal?

    The goals are multiple, the minds are multiple, it’s all multiple. The goal is to get things right to the best of our ability, to tell the truth as we see it, to explore the reasons for believing various things and whether they’re good reasons or not. The goal is to make space for atheism, to bring atheism back out of hiding, to make it more familiar and ordinary and everyday. The goal is to break down taboos on open atheism, to challenge woolly thinking about ‘faith’ and ‘respect’ and what it is or is not reasonable to say in public. And so on. The goal is not straightforwardly to change the minds of X number of people. Furthermore, to the extent that the goal is to change minds, it really is to change minds by telling the truth as we see it – not by manipulating or shading or shaping or evading or prettying up.

    Sorry folks, but political movements have clearly stated political goals, and take actions with an eye (however skewed it may be) toward making those goals real.

    Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that ‘new’ atheism isn’t and doesn’t pretend to be a political movement in that sense. Its goals are more epistemic and cultural and discursive than they are political. It might be reasonable to call them political in a very broad sense – but you are precisely trying to pin them to a narrow sense, and that’s just not what ‘new’ atheism is about.

  6. #6 J. J. Ramsey
    November 30, 2009

    Ophelia Benson: “It’s the other way around – the ‘accommodationists’ or the framers or whatever you want to call them tell the ‘new’ atheists to choose. They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and ‘frame’ them instead, on the never really substantiated grounds that otherwise…everything will go to hell.”

    And which so-called accommodationists are you talking about? I can think of at least a few accommodationists, such as John Wilkins, John Pieret, and our host at TfK, who have been arguing that the way you are calling things is not only harmful, but incorrect. And by “incorrect” I mean unfactual and/or illogical.

  7. #7 Jason A.
    November 30, 2009

    railing against evidence-based communication strategy

    I’ve seen it asked many times but never seen anyone give an actual answer: just what is the evidence that the ‘new atheist’ approach is harmful?

  8. #8 abb3w
    November 30, 2009

    Josh Rosenau: If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal?

    But change minds to what degree? Is the objective to persuade theists, or to shift the Overton window of tolerance? Or is it simply to remove the detrimental impacts atheists perceive as originating from the theists, with changing minds a means to an end? I would say the last is the dominant motive; in particular, reducing the detrimental impacts on science education and research from the various Scriptural Inerrancy sects.

    Changing minds is only a means, not the end itself.

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    November 30, 2009

    Jason A.: “just what is the evidence that the ‘new atheist’ approach is harmful?”

    Well, Isis the Scientist’s post on “Why Jesus Makes Me a Bad Scientist…” comes to mind, or more to the point, the absurd over-the-top caricature of the religious from PhysioProf to which Isis was replying:

    The issue isn’t that religion has some specific alternative theory for this particular electron-size reality shit. The issue is that religion indoctrinates people into a mode of magical fantasy-based thinking that deludes people into thinking that reality shit in general simply isn’t important. Thus, the religiously indoctrinated pay no attention to any of it.

    Or PZ Myers’ post “Fear the atheist”, where he impugned the motives of those who (gasp!) classified the spiritual beliefs (or lack of same) of those who said they had no religion, and exhorted, “Don’t fall for their subtle attempts to divide the unbelievers.” Never mind that about half of these nonreligious believed in either a higher power or personal god.

    Or take the whole “Neville Chamberlain” debacle from Dawkins, which Orac satirized so well that “accommodationist” came to be used instead of “Chamberlain atheist.”

    Or take the way that Ophelia Benson herself in her B&W post “In the new order there will be Unity”, where she likened Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s “Call for Peace in the Science/Faith Battle” (however ill-considered) to the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung, and this on the heels of earlier commentary where she had castigated Mooney and Kirshenbaum for using “attack” and “assault” idiomatically to refer to non-violent conflict.

    And you wonder why you get called “screechy monkeys”? This is the sort of thing that happens when people get so caught up in an us-versus-them mindset that it distorts their thinking. We’ve seen it happen big time with the Republicans, but we’re already seeing a taste of the same phenomenon from the New Atheists. That’s the harm from the New Atheist approach.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    November 30, 2009

    Jason A.: “Just what is the evidence…”

    Jean Kazez responded to this point rather elegantly (http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/07/chris-mooneys-apostasy.html), “Well, sure, it would be nice if the NSF poured a couple of million dollars into some social psychologist’s longitudinal study of how religious folk react to religion-bashing scientists. But here’s why I don’t think they’ll do that: the NSF doesn’t fund research that aims to prove the obvious. How could religious folk NOT be offended and alienated by religion-bashing scientists?”

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    November 30, 2009

    But Ophelia, you do claim that. You claim it in your original post, and you claim it in this comment. You write here: “They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and ‘frame’ them instead.” This is a false dichotomy. I certainly don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views, I just want them to state those views in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse, or on some clearly defined subset of that discourse.

    “But who is one’s audience?,” you ask. Whoever you like, is my answer.

    I can’t answer on behalf of the New Atheists. My question here is: What does New Atheism want to accomplish, and how is the current strategy supposed to improve things? Indeed, if we eschew any consideration of “what works,” how can we ever possibly improve anything, with any audience? Isn’t such a radically anti-empirical attitude anathema to the New Atheists?

    You say that New Atheism isn’t meant to be a political movement in a narrow sense, and yet we have the Out Campaign, and we have Coyne (among others) claiming that New Atheism’s style of radical honesty will work better than what, for instance, NCSE and NAS and AAAS have been doing. That’s a political claim (one that I have debunked already), and an explicit claim about what works for a particular audience. Coyne has also written (approvingly quoted and assented to by Dawkins in TGD): “The real war is between rationalism and superstition [not creationism and evolution].” Eradicating religion is a goal that certainly falls into a reasonable

    I’m ignoring your continuing effort to make everything about Chris Mooney’s response to Jerry Coyne’s review, as this is a discussion about Shermer and Coyne. Do note that Jason Rosenhouse, one of the biggest critics of accommodationism out there, thinks that the passage you quote by Shermer is “Exactly right.” Sounds like there’s a useful discussion to be had about the nature of New Atheism and where it goes from here. Happy to help however I can, but this isn’t accommodationism vs. anti-accommodationism.

  12. #12 Michael Fugate
    November 30, 2009

    But does it make any difference in their acceptance of science? That is the question – not if they are offended.

  13. #13 TB
    November 30, 2009

    So, if one objective is “to shift the Overton window of tolerance,” then that means – if we are to apply the idea of an Overton Window – so far the atheists who have become the reasonable center that everyone should listen to are … atheists like Josh Rosenau and Chris Mooney.

  14. #14 Ophelia Benson
    December 1, 2009

    But Ophelia, you do claim that. You claim it in your original post, and you claim it in this comment. You write here: “They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and ‘frame’ them instead.” This is a false dichotomy. I certainly don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views, I just want them to state those views in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse, or on some clearly defined subset of that discourse.

    Josh, no I don’t claim ‘that’ – ‘that’ being your “the claim that one must choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint.” I don’t claim that one has to do that; what I claim is that other people tell us we have to do that. Therefore my writing that “They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and ‘frame’ them instead” does not show that I claim that we have to choose, it just shows that I claim that other people tell us we have to choose – which is what I said. You can tell me I’m misunderstanding what other people are telling us to do, but you can’t tell me I claim what I don’t claim.

    As for your claim that it’s a false dichotomy – no it isn’t. Your gloss on the idea – “I certainly don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views, I just want them to state those views in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse, or on some clearly defined subset of that discourse” – is frankly nonsensical. You can’t tell people to state their views “in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse” while still claiming that you don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views! Those two claims just can’t be reconciled. If you stipulate in advance that X statement of Y view has to “have a positive impact on the public discourse” then you are stipulating in advance what can and cannot be said. Surely you can see that. If you can’t, please try harder.

    I have similar objections to the rest of your reply to me, but it’s too much trouble to type them, especially since I know it’s futile – you don’t read carefully enough. Broadly my objections would be that you simply don’t define your terms, but talk sweepingly of what “works” and “goals” and “improve things” as if what you mean were self-evident.

    I’m ignoring your snottiness in the last paragraph.

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    December 1, 2009

    Ophelia: Setting aside the trite ad hominems, I fail to see how you’ve demonstrated any actual dichotomy. You claim: “You can’t tell people to state their views ‘in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse’ while still claiming that you don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views!” You don’t really demonstrate this, you just assert that it’s obvious, and that if I don’t agree I should just “try harder.”

    But it is at least trivially wrong. To take your argument as an example, it surely represents your actual views, but it is utterly and necessarily unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

    If asking you to actually make an actual argument here is the same as asking you to lie, it suggests that your claim is pretty damn weak. I know you are capable of reasoned discourse, but this ain’t it. Asking you to apply those skills here isn’t asking you to lie, it’s asking you to actually engage with your audience and with your own argument. If that isn’t your goal (if that isn’t what you think it means to work), fine. Have your own understanding of the terms. All I ask is that you make clear what meanings you prefer. (Yes, this means that my use of the terms are vague: what works and what your goals are will vary between circumstances.)

    The fact is, you presented Shermer’s claims as if they perfectly encapsulate the accommodationist/new atheist divide, yet Jason Rosenhouse – no friend to accommodationism – says that those comments perfectly represent his own views. Your argument is therefore not the truth, and it’s fair to ask that you address that simple fact.

  16. #16 Ophelia Benson
    December 1, 2009

    Oh, Josh – what ad hominems? I said you don’t read carefully enough, but that’s because you don’t – you answer what I didn’t say instead of what I did say. It does get frustrating to try to discuss with someone who does that, because there is just an endless expanding tangle of misreadings instead of a clear discussion that goes somewhere. That’s not an ad hominem because it’s not part of an argument, it’s just an explanation for why I stop short of a complete answer.

    If asking you to actually make an actual argument here is the same as asking you to lie, it suggests that your claim is pretty damn weak.

    That is just ridiculous – and surely you must know it. You must know that I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to ask people to make an actual argument! You also must know that you have not talked about making an actual argument until just now. That is not how I understood what you were saying – I understood what you were saying in the usual way: that atheists should tone down or conceal their atheism for certain (but unspecified) pragmatic reasons. If that’s not what you meant, by all means say so, but don’t pretend that “make an agument” is what you were saying all along and that I’m refusing to make an argument!

    Come on – fight fair. This kind of dreck is – surely – beneath you.

  17. #17 Josh Rosenau
    December 1, 2009

    Hrrm, the inference that I don’t read carefully seems unjustified, as one could as easily conclude that you didn’t communicate your points clearly. All we know for sure is that there is a miscommunication of some sort, and to dismiss my arguments because you think I don’t read carefully is an ad hominem.

    The context of the accommodationism/new-atheist fight is precisely about what arguments to make. Shermer says it doesn’t work (is ineffective at changing minds or behaviors, I take it) to attack religion. My experience tends to bear that out, for what it’s worth. Unless the goal itself is to attack religion, that argues against that strategy. You describe your goals above, and it is clear that those goals are at least partly to present arguments about social and political issues. It isn’t clear to me that any of the goals require a headlong assault on religion per se, as opposed to particular religious claims, and all of them can be achieved by opting against ineffective styles of argument (construing “argument” broadly).

    In the context of those goals, you write: “Furthermore, to the extent that the goal is to change minds, it really is to change minds by telling the truth as we see it – not by manipulating or shading or shaping or evading or prettying up.” But if the goal is (even partially) to change minds, you should pretty the argument up, because that makes you more effective. To choose an obvious example, if “the goal is to break down taboos about open atheism” and make it easier to be an open atheist, it matters how open atheists are perceived, so being seen as jerks is contrary to that goal.

  18. #18 Ophelia Benson
    December 1, 2009

    No, it would be an ad hominem if I said your argument is wrong because you don’t read carefully enough (and nothing else). It’s an ad hominem if you substitute a personal criticism for an argument. But I wasn’t making an argument when I said you don’t read carefully enough; I was explaining why I didn’t want to spell out the rest of my disagreements with what you’d said.

    “You describe your goals above” – no I don’t. I say what some of ‘the goals’ – the goals of new atheists in general – are, and then I say ‘and so on.’ What I said was not meant to be an exhaustive list – it was meant to be an indication that the goals are many and various. I have many goals and I assume that new atheists in general do too. I think this is one of the basic disagreements between whatever we should call these two groups. I’m sure it’s one of mine. I don’t like this narrow pragmatic political view of the subject – this assumption that everything everyone does has to be done according to the rules of a political campaign.

    [We're discussing this in email too, and your reply has just come in - I've decided to finish this before I read it, in order to finish the thought. I don't know if we're homing in on agreement or total mutual bafflement!]

    Some of what we (people in general) do is about thinking, and finding things out, and discussing those things with each other and the world at large. Much of that just doesn’t have a particular, narrow goal. It has a broader goal – understanding, further thought, satisfying curiosity and developing new curiosity, and the like. But it just isn’t always and necessarily changing the minds of X number of people.

  19. #19 Jason A.
    December 1, 2009

    Michael Fugate #12:

    But does it make any difference in their acceptance of science? That is the question – not if they are offended

    Exactly. I don’t doubt it offends them, but how does that affect their perception of science? I can name at least one anecdotal case where it helped – myself. A few years ago it was the framers that made me feel like it was okay to question my rejection of evolution, but it was the in-your-face people that actually motivated me to do so. It’s hard to say what would have been if things were different and I had only been exposed to one style or the other, but I feel that without both I might still be talking about Noah’s flood.

    TB #13:

    So, if one objective is “to shift the Overton window of tolerance,” then that means – if we are to apply the idea of an Overton Window – so far the atheists who have become the reasonable center that everyone should listen to are … atheists like Josh Rosenau and Chris Mooney.

    Josh Rosenau and Chris Mooney are surely more palatable for theists and they’re more likely to listen to them. But if we’re talking Overton windows, it’s the ‘new atheists’ who would be responsible for their position in the window. In this view it seems clear the moderate pro-science view would be extreme and unpalatable without the ‘new atheists’.

    Two kinds of voices: one says it’s okay to learn about science, the other challenges to make that happen. I’m open to evidence that we’re better off with only one of those voices, but not a claim of “evidence-based communication strategy” when the ‘evidence’ is “the NSF doesn’t fund research that aims to prove the obvious.”

  20. #20 Josh Slocum
    December 1, 2009

    Josh,

    I don’t see Ophelia making any ad hominems against you, for the reasons she cited. I *do* see an inconsistency between two of your statements, just as Ophelia does:

    “I certainly don’t want anyone not to accurately state their views

    and

    I just want them to state those views in a way that would actually have a positive impact on the public discourse . . .

    Those two goals can, in fact, be mutually exclusive and contradictory. They needn’t be necessarily. But when one party defines “positive impact” as meaning “toning down the actual disagreement, to the point where the primary epistemological disagreement is obscured,” that party is, by definition, asking the other to misrepresent what’s actually at stake. There is a difference and a line, Josh, between “prettying up” one’s message – no one reasonable doubts that’s often useful and necessary – and bastardizing it. There are some people – yes, there are – who will not brook frank disagreement . You can’t have a conversation with these people and remain true to your point of view. Not everyone, Josh, can be swayed with pretty rhetoric. Some people actually object to, and resent, a non-theistic, non-religious worldview. That’s a fact. You can’t “PR” that fact away, or blame frank interlocutors for failing to communicate effectively.

    Yes, you’re right, there are others who can and will respond to a more rhetorically gentle approach. They may even be swayed to their opponent’s core position if approached that way. But you need to recognize there are many who won’t, and you need to recognize that it’s a legitimate goal for some of us not to waste effort on those who can’t be reached, but to marginalize them in public discourse precisely because they are unreachable, but dangerous. They’re not just a fringe, Josh, they have a disproportionate voice in public policy. I don’t care about swaying them when they demonstrate that they can’t be swayed. I care about blunting their disproportionate effect on the law and public discourse. You do your good work with NCSE, and let the rest of us do ours. We’re not your enemy.

  21. #21 TB
    December 2, 2009

    Jason A: “But if we’re talking Overton windows, it’s the ‘new atheists’ who would be responsible for their position in the window. In this view it seems clear the moderate pro-science view would be extreme and unpalatable without the ‘new atheists’.”

    Reaponsible for their position? Perhaps. Intentionally? No. There’s a reason why people hire professionals to help them with message discipline.
    I really don’t believe this is an intentional Overton exercise. Witness Dawkins consternation at being asked about matters concerning TGD on his current book tour. He may have typecast himself – and if you go to an extreme, it’s not surprising that all your subseqent work will be viewed through that lense.
    Witness the sparing between atheist camps. An Overton exercise would have recognizable demarkations – the “accomodationist” stance would be applauded as one step toward the far end. Instead it’s decried and debased.
    It’s not enough, IMHO, to burble “Overton Window” and expect that what you’re doing immediately gains credibility. This all comes back to Josh’s point: Not just what arguments to make but how to make them. Without a real strategy, you’re not going to be in control of the process and you’re less likely to end up with the results you hope for.

  22. #22 TB
    December 2, 2009

    Josh Slocum: “Yes, you’re right, there are others who can and will respond to a more rhetorically gentle approach. ”

    You’re missing his point.

  23. #23 Josh Slocum
    December 2, 2009

    You’re missing his point.

    That statement, all alone, isn’t helpful. Would you elaborate?

  24. #24 TB
    December 2, 2009

    Josh Slocum: “Would you elaborate?”

    Honestly, I don’t know if I can do any better than has been done already – here and elsewhere.

    Speaking rhetorically…

    How do you explain to someone who is not a lawyer why it’s not a good idea to represent yourself in court, when they’re intent on doing just that?

    How do you tell someone running for office that it’s a good idea to have an experienced campaign manager, when they believe they can go it alone?

    Yes, there are people who have been successful at these kinds of things, but how many out of all who have tried? And, how do you know that you’ll be one of the successful ones? Are you willing to chance losing the court case or election to find that out?

    So, no – sorry, but I don’t think I need (or want) to elaborate. I believe it’s already been adequately explained and at some point it’s not a good use of time to rephrase a sentence in a blog comment to get an already clear message across.

    Quote: “…political movements have clearly stated political goals, and take actions with an eye (however skewed it may be) toward making those goals real. If the goal of New Atheism is more than pissing off anyone who isn’t a New Atheist, it’s time to talk about framing, message discipline, and dropping this attitude that “what works” doesn’t matter.”

  25. #25 Peter Beattie
    December 2, 2009

    Those [to sway minds and to swell ranks] are legitimate goals, and they are served more effectively by expressing truths in some ways and are ill-served by other ways of expressing those same truths.

    Presumably, in this maximally unspecific sentence you are trying to say that the Not At All New Atheists’ way of expressing themselves is not as effective as something that you would be more inclined towards, say acommodationism (or whatever it wants to call itself).

    What exactly is your evidence for that? We are actually all interested in ‘what works’ (towards a specific goal), but we’d like to decide for ourselves and not just take somebody’s word for it.

  26. #26 Blair T
    December 2, 2009

    Josh,
    Regarding your comment to Jason A question about evidence – the post by Jean Kazez is a terrible dodge. Well I am no expert in human psychology I have read enough in the field to know that our common-sense beliefs about how our minds work are often wrong. If Jean wants to claim that religion-bashing scientists cause people to feel alienated from science, then there should be actual evidence within the psychological literature already (at least of analogous situations) without requiring $millions in additional research.

    I suspect that she is wrong and I suspect she has done zero research on the topic.

    Here is some counter-evidence on the topic:

    Christopher Hitchens is probably the most offensive of the new atheists, since he not only says religion is false, but that it is evil. Yet he has been well received by religious audiences and those who have debated with him seem to keep him in high esteem. I have seen no evidence that people feel alienated from Hitchens, or take issue with his political opinions because he is outspoken on religion. That is, people generally respect him, even if they disagree on one particular topic – and they are willing to hear him out on other topics.

    If Hitchens can go into the heart of Bible country and still maintain the respect of those he opposes, methinks you might reconsider whether you understand enough to criticize other’s communication styles.

  27. #27 Josh Slocum
    December 2, 2009

    So, no – sorry, but I don’t think I need (or want) to elaborate. I believe it’s already been adequately explained and at some point it’s not a good use of time to rephrase a sentence in a blog comment to get an already clear message across.

    Your condescension is noted.

  28. #28 TB
    December 3, 2009

    Josh Slocum: “Your condescension is noted.”

    Yes, that must be what it is.

  29. #29 Benjamin Nelson
    December 3, 2009

    Josh R. writes:

    we have Coyne (among others) claiming that New Atheism’s style of radical honesty will work better than what, for instance, NCSE and NAS and AAAS have been doing. That’s a political claim (one that I have debunked already), and an explicit claim about what works for a particular audience.

    Who is evidently referring to this, the most pertinent passage associated with the link:

    By the lights of Coyne, et al., the creationists too have failed, as they aren’t moving the needle against evolution. Indeed, we appear to be in a public opinion stalemate. Static public opinion thus suggests that either creationists are totally ineffective and that pro-evolution forces have been as well, or that creationists are effective on some level and that pro-evolution groups have also been effective, but not much more effective than creationists. The first is wildly implausible, given the wide dispersal of creationist talking points in the general discourse, so we have to conclude that pro-evolution groups have been effective to at least some degree, and the premise of the New Atheist critique of such efforts is left on quicksand.

    The idea here is that “talking points in the general discourse” means something we care about, i.e., success at actually persuading anyone of anything. But obviously it does not, since we all agree that public opinion levels for creationism remain static. So the supposed “dual buildup” model is not necessary to explain the data, it only succeeds at distracting us away from the facts we learned from the polling data by conflating “noise” with “persuasion (of creationists)”.

    Unless, of course, success is defined in terms of “noise in the discourse”, not “persuasion towards belief or doubt”. In which case, assuming he is correct about the state of the discourse (which I’ll grant), Rosenau has just set up an argument in support for PZ Myers, who is quite noisy.

    Incidentally, the data is something worth looking at with fresh eyes. There may be a stalemate between those that recognize evolution and those that don’t since 1982, but the number of atheists has risen and the number of mere agnostics has fallen, according to a Gallup poll (each by about 5%, respectively). So Coyne’s initial premise, if it was presented accurately in the other post, may be too pessimistic. But it doesn’t appear to be caused by the new atheists (i.e., there isn’t a significant uptick after 2004) — rather, it seems as though the growth of atheism was caused by 9/11. If that’s the case, then the new atheists are just giving voice to that growing minority.

  30. #30 J. J. Ramsey
    December 4, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson:

    The idea here is that “talking points in the general discourse” means something we care about, i.e., success at actually persuading anyone of anything.

    No, the idea is that the increasing presence of “talking points in the general discourse” would lead to more people believing these points if they were left unopposed.

    More to the point, Coyne is flat-out saying that the static public opinion on evolution is evidence that the NCSE and other accommodationists have failed, and the fact that this evidence of his can be trivially and even more plausibly explained by a “dual buildup” model shows that Coyne has jumped to conclusions.

    (But then, this is from the same guy who wrote “And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11 … ?” a question that he could have answered by looking up “9/11″ in Wikipedia. Of course, he would have learned that the answer was not “none,” as he had thought. This is the New Atheists’ “radical honesty”?)

  31. #31 Benjamin Nelson
    December 4, 2009

    JJ, you have described an inference that I have explicitly challenged, i.e., when I insist on a distinction between mere noise and real persuasion. Fox is very good as muddying waters (for example). But this is not a technique of central persuasion, it’s a technique of distraction (at worst) or peripheral persuasion (at best). When it comes to mere noise, you will expect no lasting results that could act as any genuine agent of change either way (unless you want to explain straggling weird loners, which we do not).

    Instead, real (central) persuasion happens when you engage people on topics they really care about, on behalf of sources that are trusted, with reasons that can be independently motivating. These things require a degree of embeddedness in the lives of people that cannot be attributed to any but the most cultish followers of the spin news cycle. If you want to see what changes grandpa’s mind about evolution, look to what the pastor is saying in the rural church. As far as communities are concerned, the people on television are just glial cells, a bunch of cultural cheerleaders that prop up the real life agents of socialization. And if you want to know what the prime force in combating that is, look at the schools.

    I’m sure the NCSE does fine work, mind you. The point is to put things into perspective, and see just how much or little Josh’s argument can plausibly explain. I say it distracts more than it illuminates. Also, that the data has not been properly attended to.

  32. #32 J. J. Ramsey
    December 5, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson: “Fox is very good as muddying waters (for example). But this is not a technique of central persuasion”

    I wish. Repetition is a very important tool of persuasion, and boy, does Fox repeat talking points. That said, in this case, comparing Fox News to the creationists here is misleading, since the creationists do have the “degree of embeddedness” of which you speak, especially in the churches.

    Benjamin Nelson: “If you want to see what changes grandpa’s mind about evolution, look to what the pastor is saying in the rural church.”

    You don’t think the NCSE knows this already? Why do you think they work so hard at pointing out that atheism and evolution can be decoupled?

    If anything, the embeddedness of the creationists supports Josh R.’s point. The creationists are very well entrenched, and just keeping them contained is a huge effort.

  33. #33 Benjamin Nelson
    December 5, 2009

    Repetition is an important tool for one’s toolbox, but you need the other desiderata to create (or dismantle) a culture with entrenched beliefs. And the relevant issue is what helps to get the message across to people who hold entrenched beliefs in semi-closed communities, i.e., in rural areas, where (I presume) creationism dominates.

    Josh’s point in favor of the NCSE depended upon counteracting media chatter. My suggestion was that this is off base. You seem to counter by suggesting that the NCSE has other routes to persuasion via dealing with local communities. Fine, but that’s your argument, not (exactly) Josh’s.

    Still, it is encouraging to hear that some community outreach positions have been created by organizations like NCSE, and it speaks in favor of my point about grass roots activism. But this does not reinforce the “dual buildup” model, since (as Josh explains in the linked post) such programs are relatively new, i.e., five years old.

    Can we recover a “dual build-up” explanation in some other way? Sure, in some limited instances, by looking at direct community action; i.e., looking at who was on the right side of the Dover case. Extremely valuable work. In those cases, the organisations are quite clearly engaged in some kind of useful activity, because they make their message absolutely clear: ‘this is what science looks like, this is what religion looks like, do not conflate them’. No doubt about it.

    But these are rare events. Most of the NCSE’s work is reactionary in nature, if we go by Josh’s very own critique of his organisation. If I am reading his summary accurately, the NCSE has been based, not on “dual build-up”, but on facilitating those “teachers and activists” who themselves might or might not have been interested in fighting against creationism by providing them with an information “clearinghouse”. It is useful to note a few things as far as this goes:

    – Pre-9/11, one might plausibly expect the number of reactionaries to have been relatively lower, since one might reasonably expect that the rise in the atheist impulse post-9/11 proportionally represents a more general rise in a desire for rejuvenated secularism (and especially during the later years of the Bush presidency).
    – Post 1998 (or so), the internet was put into wide public use, and so became an information clearinghouse for those teachers and activists interested in debunking (or spreading) creationist mythology — the NCSE arguably becomes otiose as far as their “clearinghouse” model goes.
    – Pre-1988 or so, the right wing noise machine was not significant.

    On a “dual build-up” model, with these ups and downs in political climate, one expects that the shifting tides would show us a fluctuation in the number of creationists, with a proportional bounce-back in a few years time which we attribute to the NCSE. (Remember, Josh agrees that they’re a reactionary organisation, and it takes time to disseminate a reaction.) But not only do you not see any significant change in the size of the anti-evolutionary population during any of those four periods, you don’t even see any significant change even after the NCSE’s clearinghouse model became culturally irrelevant, nor even after an epoch-changing event like 9/11 happened. Talk about entrenchment! I claim that this tells us something about the difference between noise and persuasion: i.e., that people may be able to be trained to be upset about Terri Schiavo when Fox tells them to, but (anti-)creationism is evidently buried down deep.

    Not incidentally, regular church attendees who are anti-evolutionary are more likely to endorse the idea of the compatibility of science and religion than their more casual churchly counterparts. The issue is that people in general have respect for science, but in the form of a respectful distance — which is the very worst (but entirely natural) consequence of NOMA style policies. This fact is quite striking, and whatever your final policy analysis is, it ought at least be informed by this direct logical connection. As you know, some of us (not all of us are new atheists) conclude that another tack is worth trying, countering noise with noise, countering wrongheaded conflation with sensible dissonance. This, therefore, is called “naive”, “disingenuous”, and so on and so on. I find these to be merely interesting opinions but not rationally persuasive.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    December 6, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson: “Josh’s point in favor of the NCSE depended upon counteracting media chatter.”

    Are you kidding me? Josh’s point was about how widely the creationists have distributed their talking points, not about how they have distributed them. Indeed, the original post from which you quoted discusses such things as how well or poorly evolution is taught in schools and even mentions a measure to reach out to teachers. You seem to be reading far too much into the phrase “talking points.”

  35. #35 Benjamin Nelson
    December 6, 2009

    JJ. Media or not, there is no natural reading of the expression “talking points” except to speak of superficial arguments that lead and direct a discussion without engaging rationally. Talking points account for nothing wrt entrenched beliefs of the sort we’re interested in. I have argued that it is a mistake to continue to conflate the two phenomena. Perhaps you disagree.

    Re: the linked post and education. Confused. I examine all of Josh’s post in my argument above, including the education element. His debunking leaves quite a lot to be desired. Read the critique through if you’re interested.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    December 6, 2009

    Benjamin Nelson: “JJ. Media or not, there is no natural reading of the expression ‘talking points’ except to speak of superficial arguments that lead and direct a discussion without engaging rationally.”

    I question your working definition of “talking points.” Often in practice, it is used to refer to points that keep being mentioned over and over again by a certain group in order to become widely disseminated in the population. For the Republicans, dissemination is through the mass media, while for creationists, it is done through churches. One could easily describe most of the topics listed in Talk.Origins Index of Creationist Arguments as “talking points,” especially the ones that have been repeated over and over again by the Discovery Institute, Answers In Genesis, or Reasons To Believe. I would easily consider the creationists’ statements about how the eye could not evolve to be a common talking point, as is the idea that evolution is atheistic.

    That said, “superficial arguments that lead and direct a discussion without engaging rationally” is a pretty good description of creationist arguments, and those are frightening entrenched.

    Benjamin Nelson: “Re: the linked post and education. Confused. I examine all of Josh’s post in my argument above”

    Your argument amounts to overpressing the meaning of “talking points” and acting as if Josh R.’s line of thinking required the creationists’ arguments to not be well-entrenched.

  37. #37 Benjamin Nelson
    December 7, 2009

    JJ, I don’t think we actually do disagree about “talking points” as I just recently formulated it. I did press the media point, which was reasonable on a first reading, and may have been too quick. But even if I concede that this is more than just a matter of the noise machine, I can still make the same point quite reasonably about central and peripheral persuasion. By agreeing with me on the summary of creationist arguments, we seem to be in agreement, so I don’t see where you disagree as far as my broader point goes.

    What I suspect is that the arguments for creationism are not well-entrenched. People change their talking points all the time on the particulars, to no effect on the health of the movement. It’s the reason for belief that is entrenched, and it has to do with faith and cultural isolationism. Entrenchment there has to do with direct social relationships: issues of trust, for example.

    Does Josh’s line of argument require that creationism not be entrenched? Only if it aims to be coherent, and if we think that the information clearinghouse model is grounds for hope. Josh, though, seems to be leaning towards criticism of that model, and is more hopeful in projects of direct outreach. He is the one who has provided the fodder for criticism of the NCSE, here. I’m just pressing his suggestions to logical conclusions. And one of those conclusions is that the “dual buildup” argument is unpersuasive. If I am pressing, it is with the lightest touch.

  38. #38 Matti K.
    December 12, 2009

    Josh: “If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal?”

    Maybe “minds”, like truth, like love, are many-splendored things? And could it be that the goals of some people are further away than the goals of others?

    Radical changes of minds are exceptional. Most of the time reading the views of other people just strengthens or weakens one’s previous opinions. Since many supposedly religious people have doubts about their faith, rational arguments against religious faith may well feed these doubts.

    Of course, fundamentalists do have very few doubts that can be amplified with sceptical debate. But: do you think that accommodationist rhetoric makes them prone to accept any more “controversial” science like evolution and cosmology?

    Arguing against the compatibility of science and religion may not serve the short-term goals of dissemination of science among religious people. However, anti-religious arguments may in the long run make the society truly secular, with religion having a minuscule role. This would be good for scientists, since they would not have to waste time fighting religious prejudicices like anti-evolutionism and opposition against stem-cell research.

    The goal of active atheists is a truly secular society, with religion having no effect on politics. I think it is understandable that they do not applaud when science is presented as a supermarket from which religious people can pick items they like and leave out things they do not like. Although that might please the (accommodationist) shopkeeper.

    Did I answer your question?

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