The stupids

Blogging has been scant here of late for two reasons. First, I’ve got enough going on that blogging time is limited, and I don’t have a lot I need to get off my chest. Second, the world is currently utterly dominated by the stupids. The climate change treaty negotiations at Copenhagen, which should be a serious event where scientists and policymakers hash out the most important global issue of our day, is instead a circus for douchebags and privacy-invading pricks. And, you know, douchebags and privacy-invading pricks are kinda my professional bread and butter at NCSE, so it’s not a problem. The problem is that they just aren’t bright enough to care about.

To whit, pro-ID blogger chunkdz describes what his peculiarly blinkered and obscured perspective reveals as The Central Issue, riffing on this quotation by Phil Jones, the former head of University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (from an email illegally obtained): “The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998.”

Chunkdz replies:

No, Professor Jones. No. The true scientific community (scientists, using the scientific method) are keenly interested in thorough, unadulterated observation and recording of data. The scientific community therefore would not bat an eye if presented with your data that says the Earth has been cooling. This is what they do. Objectively, unemotionally collect data, and use it to further understanding.

But this is not Jones’ point. His point is that the scientific community knows that the earth has not gotten cooler since 1998. And he knows that the scientific community would consider him a lying sack of crap if he went around spouting readily falsifiable and demonstrably false claims. And that they’d express their displeasure at his dishonesty by “com[ing] down on [him] in no uncertain terms.” Rightly so.

Amidst the dross, there are a few bits worth noting. Eric Michael Johnson writes to point out a treaty proposal which not only shifts the burden of addressing climate change from the developed world (which caused the problem) to the developing world (which didn’t cause the problem, and can’t afford the burden of fixing it on their own). As if that weren’t bad enough, the proposal seems to give enforcement power for a climate change protocol from the UN to the World Bank.

The World Bank has no great reputation among developing nations, who regard it as an extension of Western imperialism, dictating economic practice and social policy in a manner befitting the heirs of Rudyard Kipling. And if the developing world isn’t on board with a treaty, it won’t mean anything, as these nations are among those with the fastest growth of carbon emissions, and also have the greatest opportunities for carbon sequestration or emissions offsets.

So that’s depressing, and I don’t wanna write about it.

I have no passion either way for the compromise proposed in the health insurance fight, which is probably good. The compromise appear insufficiently awful to fight against (and may be better than the sadly vitiated public option at this point), and insufficiently good to fight for. I want something to pass, and I don’t mind seeing this plan pass. I don’t know why 55 year olds get to buy into Medicare but I don’t, and I wish boomers didn’t always get the good deals while the rest of us seem always to get screwed, but I can let revenge be a dish served cold.

Nor do I have any energy for commentary on New Atheism. Since PZ wrote a piece against Thanksgiving, I’ve seen the enterprise in a much dimmer light than I did before. As someone who doesn’t dance, I never really cared about Emma Goldman’s “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” sentiment. But if I can’t eat turkey and pie and spend a night basking in the presence of the people I love and to whom (and for whom) I’m thankful, then I don’t want anything to do with your movement. And now they’ve gone on to paeons in praise of antagonism and so forth, while Coyne lifted his moratorium on discussing accommodationism to attempt an armchair psychoanalysis of Michael Shermer (which form of antagonism is surely easier than engaging in actual rational discourse). This is not for me. You don’t build a movement based on what you don’t like or don’t want. Or if you do, I don’t want to be part of it.

Here’s the deal: The more I hear from proselytizing theists, the more I sympathize with atheism. The more I read the New Atheists (or whatever, pick a preferred name and I’ll use it), the more I sympathize with theism. So, for the good of my soul, I’m going to stop reading the New Atheists. Maybe some day they’ll decide that being persuasive might have benefits, and I’ll start reading them again. *plonk*

Meanwhile, that’ll free up some time and blog capacity for genuinely interesting topics.


  1. #1 Sigmund
    December 10, 2009

    Just a suggestion Josh but if you really don’t want to hear from the ‘new atheists’ it might be a good idea to refrain from calling them “the stupids”.

  2. #2 Martin
    December 10, 2009

    If PZ stating his personal distaste for the largely empty rhetoric of another holiday of consumption has such an effect on you, you’re a delicate flower indeed. It almost seems as if you don’t know your own mind and all this to-and-fro between religionists, accommodationists and unrepentant atheists is making your head spin.

    I hope now that you’ve decided to stop reading the ‘new atheists’, you’ll stop writing about them too.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    December 10, 2009

    Martin: My point is that if PZ finds utterly harmless and non-theistic (in my experience, at least) language about giving thanks too religious-seeming to engage with, then I think he’s jumping at shadows.

    I do know my own mind, which is the problem. I know that the arguments proselytizers make are awful, so thoroughly uncompelling that they make me think up counterarguments that are more compelling, making me think that the other side might have a better case. At the end of the day, neither side can make any empirical (or indeed intersubjective) case, and agnosticism is still the only viable option philosophically. But the NAs are sinking deeper and deeper into unpleasantness, and that’s not my game.

    Sigmund: All the NAs need do to get off that list is to make smarter arguments. They’re generally smart people, and capable of doing that in general. The fault lies not in their intellects, but perhaps in their idea.

  4. #4 Sigmund
    December 10, 2009

    “All the NAs need do to get off that list is to make smarter arguments. ”
    Josh, the biggest critics of the NAs are people like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbett and yet they don’t criticise the arguments of the new atheists. In fact they whole-heartedly agree with their arguments. What they disagree with is the outspokenness.
    From my perspective it seems that the insult taken by moderate religious individuals comes not from a direct accusation of stupidity by the new atheists. Rather, it comes from them taking offense at the suggestion that their belief itself is without factual basis – or is as factually based as a belief in leprechauns or Santa. It’s not just new atheists that think this, it’s also accomodationist atheists like Mooney et al. The argument between accomodationists and new atheists is essentially one of how one deals with the public. The new atheists think it is OK to speak openly about their views on the fact claims of religion while the accomodationists think it is politically better to remain quiet on this matter lest we upset the sensitivities of the moderate religious individuals. In the case of creationists, however, all bets are off and sensitivities are not worried about, even by accomodationists – I suspect due to the relative lack of political clout of fundamental creationists.

  5. #5 Ray Ingles
    December 10, 2009

    Josh: Being appreciative is different from being thankful.

    I can (and do) thank my wife for marrying me, and for bearing our children. But feeling gratitude to God(s) or ‘the universe’ for making that possible seems… misplaced. I certainly appreciate the wonderful things about the universe in general that make wonderful people like my family possible. But “thanking” anyone for that just seems… weird.

    So I celebrate Thanksgiving, but in practice for me it’s more like ‘Appreciation’. As PZ himself put it on an addendum to his post:

    “Some people seem to be misreading this, and think I’m telling everyone to have a bad day. Wrong: have a grand old day off, I know I am. Just forget this silly business of feeling blindly thankful. Gratitude is to be shared between sentient beings.”

  6. #6 Constance Reader
    December 10, 2009

    With your permission, I will henceforth direct friends to your post when they can’t understand why I gave up reading Huffpost. You explain it better than I have so far.

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    December 10, 2009

    Sigmund: Setting aside that I’m not Chris or Matt, and our opinions are not interchangeable, it’s entirely possible (dare I say likely) that it is the arguments NAs advance for their particular form of outspokenness that Chris and Matt find uncompelling.

    Chris and Matt are, AFAIK, atheists, and thus agree with a major theological conclusion that the New Atheists argue for, but that doesn’t mean that they think the arguments are good. One can make bad arguments for correct views, after all.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    December 10, 2009

    Ray: Why must one feel thankful too anything? Why can’t one simply be thankful that things are as they are rather than as they aren’t? Why be warily vigilant rather than thankful to the people and natural processes which make life enjoyable? It’s contrarian for contrarianship’s sake, and it’s curmudgeonly about a secular holiday that everyone can share.

    If anything, atheists should have a blast with Thanksgiving. Whatever its religious origins, it isn’t a religious holiday. It’s a secular holiday, on which theists can certainly give thanks to their favored deity while nontheists can thank whoever and whatever they want. This is different from something like Christmas. I’m Jewish, and my people’s Christmas tradition is to eat Chinese food because the other restaurants are all closed to celebrate the birthday of someone who may not have existed on a day when he surely wasn’t born, in honor of properties we don’t think he possessed.

    That’s not to say I don’t like the secular parts of Christmas (PRESENTS! Decorated trees! Candycanes! Traditional carols sung well! Peace on earth! Good will toward all!), but the hoopla people make about churchgoing and the “reason for the season” and obnoxious muzak versions of beautiful songs certainly deserve our strongest criticism.

  9. #9 Dan L.
    December 10, 2009

    Why can’t one simply be thankful that things are as they are rather than as they aren’t?

    From the definition of the word “thanks.” As PZ says, gratefulness required two parties — the thankful and the thanked. We can be happy that things are as they are and we can reflect on that happiness, but we can’t be thankful if there’s no one to thank. I think you’re reading too much into his post, and I think PZ is fully supportive of everyone taking a day off to reflect on what they have to be happy about. His point is just that there is no one to thank for the current state of affairs under the literal meaning of the word “to thank.”

    For someone who accuses atheists of not taking a historical view, the notion that Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday is quite ahistorical. It was a celebration by New England puritans to — get this — give thanks to God for their good fortune. While it has become largely secular, I would guess that PZ’s post is objecting to this sentiment, which is implicit in the holiday’s name and observation.

    As far as atheists’ arguments not being convincing — what’s not convincing? I haven’t seen any worthwhile rebuttals to the strongest arguments. (Maybe you’ve made them before; I don’t visit your blog very often.) I’ve seen a lot of people say that the arguments are weak, but I’ve never seen anyone, you know, explain why they’re weak or actually criticize them effectively.

  10. #10 TB
    December 10, 2009

    Welcome to the club, Josh. I stopped reading them a while ago. I do kind of miss the Friday cephalopod but I got over it.
    I really do believe there is work to be done on behalf of atheists and atheism. It’s ridiculous that many people won’t vote for someone simply because they don’t believe in God and atheists have as much right as theists to put their message on billboards or staff a recruiting table at a college.
    But at some point the outrageous behavior isn’t meant to advance a point of view, it’s a divisive tactic that may gain converts but doesn’t do much to advance mutual respect.
    Yup, that’s all we need, more tribes at war with each other.
    Hey, maybe you could do a Friday photo feature based on “the role of competition in the geographic ranges of species, especially mammals.”

  11. #11 Sigmund
    December 10, 2009

    Josh said:
    “Chris and Matt are, AFAIK, atheists, and thus agree with a major theological conclusion that the New Atheists argue for, but that doesn’t mean that they think the arguments are good. One can make bad arguments for correct views, after all.”
    I can’t obviously speak for Chris or Matt but from what I’ve read of their views previously I get the distinct impression that their disagreement with the NAs is nothing to do with theological arguments. Most scientific atheists (as both the NAs and Chris and Matt seem to be) use very similar arguments in terms of their theological beliefs and I haven’t seen any arguments between the two groups on this point. The disagreements stem from a difference in opinion on political tactics. In a simplified form both the accomodationist atheists and the new atheists think that believing in traditional Christianity is akin to believing in Santa or Thor, but only one of them thinks its OK to say so (out loud) to a Christian.

  12. #12 TB
    December 10, 2009

    Sigmund: That’s not quite the impression I get. As I understand it, Chris is personally an atheist but recognizes that as long as people are advocates of good science (their religion doesn’t get in the way of their acceptance of science and scientific inquiry), then there’s simply no need to argue about religion and in fact arguing about religion may be counterproductive.
    But, as you say, we shouldn’t try and speak for them.

  13. #13 Matti K.
    December 19, 2009

    Mr Rosenau said:

    “All the NAs need do to get off that list is to make smarter arguments. They’re generally smart people, and capable of doing that in general. The fault lies not in their intellects, but perhaps in their idea.

    I think the arguments of the “new atheists” against the compatibility of science and (non-deistic) religions have been clearly formulated. Like: how can an entity eternally evasive to physical detection have an effect in the physical world?

    The accommodationists, on the other hand, don’t seem to care about such philosophical questions at all. Instead, their worries are pragmatic (and political): how to disseminate enough science to religious people so that they are not handicapped in and do not handicap a society whose well-beeing is very much dependent on the advancement of science.

    It is understandable that a politician does not value a philosopher very much. However, I don’t think that is reason to call the latter names, like “stupid”.

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