Who knew?

Shorter PZ Myers: Backlash? Harming the cause? Where?:

Simplicity is preferable to science.

Let us accept, arguendo that this post is poorly written. So what? Does that mean it’s wrong? When did PZ Myers – the scourge of framing – come to defend the notion that science discussions are best evaluated based on their presentation rather than their content?

Jason’s post was simpler because he skipped over obvious complications to the story he was trying to tell, along the way ignoring well-known sources of bias, skipping basic steps in polls interpretation, cherrypicking a cutoff for the data, and ignoring any number of confounding factors. My post is complicated because figuring out what increases or decreases acceptance of evolution is complicated.

If it were simple, the problem would be solved already. We’re scientists, and we shouldn’t be afraid of complexity.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2010

    Once again Josh you are missing the point. You do this so often I can only conclude it is a deliberate tactic of yours to avoid dealing with substantive criticism of your appeasement of religion.

    PZ’s point in saying your original post was badly written is that it was so badly written that any message you were tying to get across was lost in the waffle. Here is a hint for you: Karen Armstrong is not a good writer. It does you no credit to copy her style of writing a lot and saying nothing.

    Oh, and please fix your commenting system. I have to sign out to be able to comment.

  2. #2 Mystyk
    July 18, 2010

    Josh, you really need to read Matt’s first paragraph over and over until you get what people have been trying to tell you for some time. You don’t just miss the point by a little, but by a long-shot, and it always happens in the manner that coincides with what can only be assumed is recurring cognitive dissonance on your part. If ever there was an intellectual sibling to the “You’re Not Helping” blog, in that it is a perfect example of a blog that itself is not helping, it would have to be yours.

    PZ isn’t saying that simplicity is preferable to science, he’s saying that Jason’s post was clear and concise for the very reason that yours is not: namely, the conclusion of the data is harmful to your (apparently ideological) position on the topic.

    The data weakly suggests that “New Atheists” are helping, although as PZ and Jason both point out, it is weak enough that the only conclusion we can back strongly is that it isn’t hurting. You, Mooney, and the rest of the “don’t rock the boat” variety regularly assert otherwise. When the data didn’t back your opinion, you waffled rather than just admit it. Tell me: how is that different, with respect to responding to a collision between reality and one’s worldview, from religion?

  3. #3 rni.boh
    July 18, 2010

    PZ isn’t saying that simplicity is preferable to science, he’s saying that Jason’s post was clear and concise for the very reason that yours is not: namely, the conclusion of the data is harmful to your (apparently ideological) position on the topic.

    So if a creationist writes a short clear post, does that mean the data supports their view?

  4. #4 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2010

    Matt Penfold: “PZ’s point in saying your original post was badly written is that it was so badly written that any message you were tying to get across was lost in the waffle.”

    Except that PZ’s example of bad writing is simply quoting something mildly technical, then making accusations of obfuscation. Now here’s another quote from the article:

    Here are a few of the things that might countervail upon the effects of the NAs: The Clergy Letter Project kicked off in 2004, roughly when Harris’s The End of Faith came out. CLP kicked off Evolution Weekend, when clergy present sermons on the compatibility of science and religion, in 2006, the year Dawkins published The God Delusion. Kitzmiller and Tiktaalik both came out in 2005, and movies, TV shows, plays, magazine articles, newspaper stories, blog posts, and other media about Kitzmiller and Tiktaalik and other scientific advances in evolution followed steadily. There was the 2009 Year of Science and the Darwin bicentennial and Origin of Species sesquicentennial. Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins and Ken Miller wrote widely discussed books about the science of evolution, that set aside religious polemic. Before 2003, there were no books by evangelical Christians defending evolution books, but there have been at least 10 since then. Science blogs, including blogs by religious scientists and by New Atheists, gained prominence. Youtube and podcasting rose as methods of narrowcasting, gaining use by all factions.

    Not really that hard to read, and the opening line of the paragraph, “Here are a few of the things that might countervail upon the effects of the NAs,” makes it clear what the thrust of the discussion is. Of course, if Myers had quoted that paragraph, then it would have been much harder for him to misstate Rosenau’s conclusion as being merely that “there is no evidence that the New Atheists have harmed the cause of science education.”

    Rosenau’s point really isn’t that hard to understand. He’s saying that you can’t simply conclude that the NAs are doing no harm because of a slight upward trend in acceptance of evolution, since there are other confounding factors that may counteract whatever harm the NAs have done.

  5. #5 Dave W.
    July 18, 2010

    J. J. Ramsey wrote:

    Rosenau’s point really isn’t that hard to understand. He’s saying that you can’t simply conclude that the NAs are doing no harm because of a slight upward trend in acceptance of evolution, since there are other confounding factors that may counteract whatever harm the NAs have done.

    Which is all just as much guesswork as the idea that the “New Atheists” are doing harm.

    Rosenau is trying to save the “NAs are doing harm” hypothesis by (a) assuming that the NAs are doing harm (which is unevidenced), and (b) creating a bunch of ad hoc excuses (which are unevidenced) for why that harm doesn’t show up in the latest data. He wants to call these “good scientific practices,” but it looks indistinguishable from wild speculation. Why doesn’t Rosenau go for the two-fer, and just say that there could be unknown confounders of unknown magnitude at work, and make the hypothesis completely unfalsifiable? (And actually he does exactly that, just not explicitly.)

    Heck, Rosenhouse’s conclusion wasn’t even that NAs are doing no harm, but instead a highly qualified and tentative conclusion that there’s no evidence of the “backlash” that accommodationists have been promising. Claiming that there might be confounding effects does nothing to falsify that, no more so than the idea that there might be other gravitational effects we haven’t yet seen disconfirms General Relativity.

  6. #6 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2010

    Rosenau’s point really isn’t that hard to understand. He’s saying that you can’t simply conclude that the NAs are doing no harm because of a slight upward trend in acceptance of evolution, since there are other confounding factors that may counteract whatever harm the NAs have done.

    And he refuses to support that claim with evidence. Unless he can produce evidence it is intellectually dishonest for Rosenau to continue to make the claim.

  7. #7 bob koepp
    July 18, 2010

    MP – Just to be clear, are you saying that Rosenau refuses to provide evidence that “there are other confounding factors …”? What’s your evidence that he refuses to do this?

    Absence of evidence, etc., etc.

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2010

    Matt Penfold: “And he refuses to support that claim with evidence.”

    You say that Rosenau doesn’t provide evidence of the existence of confounding factors, even though in comment #4 I just quoted him listing several of those confounding factors.

  9. #9 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2010

    Rosenau has for some time being claiming that “new” atheism has been harming the cause of fighting creationism in the US.

    The latest data does not support that claim, and Rosenhouse pointed this out. He also pointed out that the data does not support claims “new” atheism is helping either. Rosenhouse’s analysis would seem to be correct.

    Rosenau for reasons tied up with his employment and philosophical outlook was not able to admit he had been wrong to claim “new” atheism causing harm. If Rosenau wants to continue claiming “new” atheism is causing harm he really needs to produce evidence to support that claim. Not to do so smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

  10. #10 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2010

    blockquote>You say that Rosenau doesn’t provide evidence of the existence of confounding factors, even though in comment #4 I just quoted him listing several of those confounding factors.

    No I did not say that.

    I said Rosenau produce no data to support his claims “new” atheism is harming the teaching of evolution in the US.

    I note you were not able to produce any data to support that claim.

    Rosenau needs to produce data to support hos claim or admit he was wrong.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2010

    Matt Penfold from comment #10: “No I did not say that.”

    You quoted me pointing out that Rosenau is “saying that you can’t simply conclude that the NAs are doing no harm because of a slight upward trend in acceptance of evolution, since there are other confounding factors that may counteract whatever harm the NAs have done.” Then immediately you add, “And he refuses to support that claim with evidence.” So, yes, you did say that Rosenau hasn’t provided evidence of confounding factors.

  12. #12 Mystyk
    July 18, 2010

    You say that Rosenau doesn’t provide evidence of the existence of confounding factors, even though in comment #4 I just quoted him listing several of those confounding factors.

    JJ, these confounding factors are, at the moment, pure speculation. What he hasn’t provided any evidence for, and what I believe Matt was referring to, was that these potential factors actually have any measurable impact comparable to what we have for the NA movement itself. The slow rise in the acceptance of atheism started before the factors Josh proposes, and instead correlate much better (albeit not perfectly) with the rise of NA than with those factors. This strongly implies that while we may never know for sure if NAs have a distinct positive effect, we can with reasonable assurance rule out that they have a negative one.

    Here’s the thing: Josh is the one who holds to the claim that NAs are causing harm. All evidence to date fails to find any support for the claim, and there is at least some decent evidence that it is simply wrong. He can’t seem to intellectually come to terms with this and admit that his claim lacks evidence, so he tries to insinuate doubt in the hope that it provides a sufficient refuge for those who want to continue believing it. This is “accomodationism of the gaps.” Actually, I’ll go one better: this is the exact same tactic that Anthropogenic Global Warming deniers use everyday.

    Josh has become the precise antithesis of Bill Maher. Where Bill is strong on religion and weak on science (evidently not really understanding it), Josh is strong on science and weak on religion (even if he doesn’t believe it personally). And most importantly, just like Bill, nothing seems to be able to reach him. As long as Josh uses the same rhetorical and argumentative techniques as the enemies of reason, he deserves to be mocked and called out on it.

  13. #13 bob koepp
    July 18, 2010

    talk about being in denial…

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2010

    Mystyk: “The slow rise in the acceptance of atheism started before the factors Josh proposes, and instead correlate much better (albeit not perfectly) with the rise of NA than with those factors.”

    I’d be careful there. According to the ARIS 2008 survey, the number of those with no religion climbed from 8.2% to 14.1% between in 1990-2001 — which pre-dates the NAs — but only moved up to 15.0% in 2008. It isn’t that clear what the measurable impact of the New Atheism is, so I doubt you can blithely dismiss the possible confounding factors as something that can be trivially dismissed.

  15. #15 Dave W.
    July 18, 2010

    We can dismiss any confounding factor which is stated as only being a possible confounding factor with no quantification at all, because we can all invent an infinite number of such factors.

    We can say, for example, that the invention of the Wii is a confounding factor, and it’ll have as much impact on the conclusions based on the data we have at hand as any of the factors that Rosenau listed, because none of them have been quantified in any way. So how much and in what direction any such factor affects the conclusion is utter guesswork, and so they’re all unscientific, ad hoc excuses for the data not showing what Rosenau wishes it would show.

    Rosenau boldly states that he hopes that someone, somewhere, has some actual data that demonstrates what he wants to demonstrate, so it’s clear he has none. That some people wrote some books isn’t evidence of a confounding factor, it’s an assertion of a confounding factor. Show that those people writing those books had an actual effect on the acceptance of evolution, and then it’ll be evidence.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    July 18, 2010

    Dave W.:

    We can dismiss any confounding factor which is stated as only being a possible confounding factor with no quantification at all, because we can all invent an infinite number of such factors.

    We can say, for example, that the invention of the Wii is a confounding factor …

    Riiight. Because the invention of the Wii is totally like an outreach effort from clergy to encourage the religious to accept evolution, or an influential court case on the teaching of evolution like Kitzmiller. Good grief! What you are essentially saying is that since one can invent an infinite number of possible confounding factors, one should ignore the subset of such factors that could plausibly deal with the questions of interest.

  17. #17 Antiquated Tory
    July 18, 2010

    Frankly, outside of science blogs, I’m not sure how many people are even aware of New Atheism. As far as I can tell, it’s an intellectual movement popular among some people with scientific backgrounds, and that’s an awfully small number of people. Yeah, there are people who read Dawkins or Hitchens (or Hirsan Ali) on religion, but I’m not sure how many of those readers associate these names with a broader movement. I also think that most of these readers are starting out with a fairly anti-religious outlook in the first place.
    I’d say that I occasionally run across people who describe themselves as creationists but, when engaged, turn out to be theistic evolutionists. They simply assume that accepting evolution == atheism. So I could see that the NA movement might cause harm in retarding the realization among some members of the “devout middle” that theistic evolution even exists. But I have neither evidence nor very much faith in that supposition.

    I do find the NA-“accommodationist” debate to be irritating and pointless, and I usually resist the urge to read or comment on such posts. My suspicion is that any religious person who is intellectually honest and interested in natural history either arrives at theistic evolution and/or compartmentalizes like Hell. (I think compartmentalization can be intellectually honest if it’s admitted to.) True creationists are intellectually dishonest and there’s nothing to be done about it. And the majority of people just don’t care about natural history. A chunk of those people do care about their religion, so they take the creationist side, but weakly. In societies where religion stays away from falsifiable matters (eg. W Europe), the majority still don’t care very much about natural history but weakly accept evolution out of trust of authority. I don’t think the New Atheism is going to affect this very much in any direction.

  18. #18 Dave W.
    July 18, 2010

    J. J. Ramsey wrote:

    Good grief! What you are essentially saying is that since one can invent an infinite number of possible confounding factors, one should ignore the subset of such factors that could plausibly deal with the questions of interest.

    No, I’m saying that in the context of a lack of evidence for a claim, we can’t point to confounders which are also without a shred of evidence in an attempt to save the original claim. Accepting such an argument makes the original claim unfalsifiable, because any alleged unevidenced confounder can be used, there’s no need for any evidence of any confounding effect, nor any need for plausibility. “Plausible,” after all, doesn’t mean that there actually was an effect. We still need evidence, and don’t have any.

    So Rosenau’s objections would be just as valid (not at all) given even a tripling of evolution acceptance next year (for an extreme example). “Oh, there are all sorts of factors which might be hiding the backlash against the New Atheists.” It’s ad hoc nonsense, despite Rosenau’s preemptive protestation that it’s good scientific practice. It is a refusal to accept (even tentatively) the null hypothesis based upon nothing more than wishes, so whether they’re plausible wishes or not really doesn’t matter.

  19. #19 Bob O'H
    July 19, 2010

    No, I’m saying that in the context of a lack of evidence for a claim, we can’t point to confounders which are also without a shred of evidence in an attempt to save the original claim. Accepting such an argument makes the original claim unfalsifiable, because any alleged unevidenced confounder can be used, there’s no need for any evidence of any confounding effect, nor any need for plausibility.

    Hm, but we do this all the time. We scientists are humans too, so we’re able to assess the plausibility of different confounders having an effect. almost any observational study has unobserved confounders, and the important question is whether they are likely to be big enough to affect the conclusions. Deciding that is the stuff of real science, which is rather different to the armchair sort.

    This doesn’t make the claims unfalsifiable because we’re even more amazing than you think possible. If we don’t have any evidence for a claim, scientists go out and find the evidence. Shocking, I know.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    July 19, 2010

    Talk about getting it completely wrong…

    I am definitely not prioritizing style over substance. Jason came to an entirely correct and reasonable conclusion from the data — the same data you were both using. You had to come to the same conclusions after smothering the data in pointless verbiage, and doing your damnedest to drown the story in unsupported speculations and unwarranted hypothetical exceptions.

    I hate framing. Framing is what you were trying to do, couching a simple story with low certainty and limited interpretability in uncertainty and doubt so that you could continue to pretend there is a possibility of statistical support for your concern that those wicked New Atheists harm the cause of science ed.

    I do like clarity. It is possible to get the science right while simultaneously expressing yourself lucidly and concisely.

    It’s a skill you really Have to work on.

  21. #21 Dave W.
    July 19, 2010

    Bob O’H wrote:

    If we don’t have any evidence for a claim, scientists go out and find the evidence.

    Well, duh. If there’d been any evidence presented that any of the proposed confounders actually had had a non-zero effect, I wouldn’t have been complaining about the use of unevidenced speculation to try to save an unevidenced hypothesis. But since there is precisely as much evidence that the effect of the existence of the Clergy Letter Project is hiding the backlash against the “New Atheists” as there is evidence that Google’s dispute with China is doing the same, I don’t see any rationale for changing my tentative conclusion that the evidence of a backlash is absent.

    Heck, even if we had all the evidence, and totaled up everything and found out that the effects of the confounders represent 5% (for example) of the total acceptance of evolution, that doesn’t mean that those confounders are hiding a backlash caused by the “New Atheists.” The confounders don’t actually mean squat without evidence that a backlash really exists, and quantification of the effects of the backlash itself on the numbers. All because the confounders can work both ways.

  22. #22 Josh Rosenau
    July 19, 2010

    PZ: “Jason came to an entirely correct and reasonable conclusion from the data”

    No. His conclusion that we might be on the point of doubling belief in unguided evolution was wrong, and built on faulty premises. The conclusion that there’s no backlash in the polling data is either irrelevant or wrong. There’s no trend in the data, but there are a number of reasons why that might be true, and there are a number of reasons why we might not expect national polls to show that backlash.

    I happen to think it’s important to get the right answers for the right reasons, and even if Jason’s conclusions were right, I still think it’s worth criticizing him for putting forward a deeply misleading analysis and explanation of those polls.

    As others here have pointed out, the section of my post that you quoted was not so much badly written as fairly technical. Technical language has to be precise, and that’s more important than literary excellence. It’s possible you just chose a bad example, but doing so undercuts the argument.

  23. #23 PZ Myers
    July 21, 2010

    No. He was appropriately cautious, noted the steady increase over the years, and said that it is “possible that there is a real trend here”. Nothing more.

    His firm conclusion was that “the numbers show not the slightest evidence of a backlash”. That’s it, and he’s right — they don’t.

    There’s nothing misleading. He shows the numbers, they’re increasing, but he backs off from claiming there’s a trend. He does say that it shows no evidence of a backlash, and now here you’re arguing that it’s not showing in the national polls, but maybe it’s there anyway…that’s reading an awful lot into data that shows, if anything, the contrary.

  24. #24 J. J. Ramsey
    July 23, 2010

    “He was appropriately cautious”

    Appropriately cautious in the sense of offering disclaimers, but his analysis of the data was still shoddy.

  25. #25 Matti K.
    July 23, 2010

    #24 “Appropriately cautious in the sense of offering disclaimers, but his analysis of the data was still shoddy.”

    Well, maybe he himself never thought that he was making an “analysis”. He simply claimed that the polls do not provide any evidence of a backlash due to NA. BTW, no one seems to disagree with this claim.

    Do you mean that every post sceptical about accommodationist “truths” is “shoddy”, unless it is written like a paper submitted for peer review?

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