Attention conservation notice: A couple thousand words that can be summarized as: “Someone is wrong on the internet.

Jerry Coyne has a longish reply to my post yesterday. He seems quite upset about it. He seems to think I’m very, very wrong. And yet he cannot manage to characterize my argument correctly, and offers nothing at all that would refute my argument (or even refute his mischaracterization of that argument). It’s odd. He’s basically conceding that I’m right that no evidence was offered, and he knows of no evidence. He seems upset that I bothered to point out that lack of evidence.

Ophelia’s reply at her blog and in comments here takes a smarter tack (as she usually does). She hasn’t convinced me that I’m wrong, but she and I are narrowing down our disagreements to a quibble over how strongly to interpret a couple of her sentences, and how strongly she meant to assert some causal links. Further discussion might even get us to some useful common ground.

Coyne, not so much. His title indicates his opinion that I have what he considers a “strange attitude toward evidence” (to wit: I would like to see some):

Over at Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau vigorously disputes a post by Ophelia Benson

And already we have a problem. I didn’t “vigorously dispute” her post. I said “I don’t know if Ophelia is right,” and that I meant no criticism by saying so. My “strange attitude toward evidence” is that one should offer evidence for empirical claims, and one shouldn’t say things directly contradicted by the evidence. Jerry’s already off to a bad start on both fronts. Anywho…

What’s Rosenau’s beef? That he sees no evidence for this Gnu Effect:

Not quite, but correcting every error will get tedious. Coyne’s reply:

Well, yes, there are no formal surveys about the effect of Gnus on popular perception of religion.

Thank you. We agree that no evidence is on offer, and none seems to exist. What’s his beef, then?

it’s curious for Rosenau to criticize this claim on the basis of a lack of evidence…

“Lack of evidence” having nothing to do with gnu atheists’ common main point about theism, and therefore not worth noting in gnu atheist arguments…

…when for several years he’s been claiming that accommodationism weans people from creationism much more easily than does vociferous atheism—on the basis of even less evidence!

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Less evidence than nothing?
I don’t think I’ve made claims about what converts people from creationism (Coyne offers no evidence, natch), so much as how to sway the undecided middle. Which is different, and it’s important to be accurate. At least, that’s my “strange attitude.”

Coyne blunders on:

the only thing Rosenau has ever offered in support of accommodationism is a study showing that people tend to trust experts more when those experts share more of their cultural values.

Had Coyne taken the time to read to the end of the post he links, he’d see that I linked to two other posts in which lots of other research is synthesized to show the same basic result. It’s what scientists call “consensus.” I wrote:

There’s a body of relevant research out there that addresses questions like the one Coyne posed above, and if they [gnus] want to argue about communications strategy, they would do well to address that literature.

One study plus dozens of unrefuted studies does not, according to my “strange attitude toward evidence,” equal one study.

He then quotes from Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to that post, without mentioning that I have addressed Rosenhouse’s points. Jason and I still disagree about the issues raised there as do the commenters here, but it was hardly the rout Coyne would have you believe. Again, Coyne seems to be representing the evidence in a less-than-accurate manner, which I naively still find strange.

He proceeds:

Are there any data bearing on this? Well, mostly anecdotes…

Which are famously not data

… But let’s look at the anecdotes …

Or, you know, not. I want data.

He cites a debunked story on a blog, and various stories on another website which no one has bothered trying to debunk (or verify) yet. Meh. Altar calls are not the most reliable form of evidence for anything.

Rosenau demands the highest standard of evidence from Gnus to support their tactics, but feels that bald and unsupported assertion suffices to support his own.

No. I cite peer reviewed research that supports my hypotheses, and acknowledge that I haven’t got data when I haven’t got data. In exchange, I ask not for the highest standard of evidence, but some kind of evidence. The end of my allegedly vigorous disagreement with Ophelia said:

Maybe the evidence is there. If it is, I don’t know what it shows. Smallish psychology experiments could probably give some useful data to test the hypothesis … If they’ve been done, I don’t know the results. Maybe someone did that experiment, and some other people confirmed it independently. If so, I don’t know about it. The result isn’t utterly implausible, and I’m not saying it’s false. I’m saying I don’t know, and I tend not to trust people who confidently assert empirically measurable facts without actually offering data to support the claim.

This is hardly an endorsement of bald and unsupported assertions, nor a demand for excessive evidence. Indeed, someone interested in evaluating evidence fairly would have to conclude that it’s the exact opposite of what Jerry says. And he thinks I have a “strange attitude toward evidence”?

We’ll skip Coyne’s quotation from Herbert Spencer. It was written in 1852, long before anything like modern creationism, or the modern theory of evolution, existed. Spencer’s specific point is a lot more reasonable today than it was in 1852. Spencer’s broad argument works: the evidence for transmutationism is still being assembled, creationists are offering no evidence, their model is implausible, and what evidence exists supports transmutation. That’s a lot more like my argument than Coyne’s, except there’s more experimental evidence to support accommodationism today than had been published in support of evolution in 1852.

Coyne’s curiously disjointed relationship with the meaning of written words continues:

Rosenau … not only sees no evidence that Gnus have helped erode the respectability of religion, but sees no decline at all in that respectability, Gnu-induced or not:

“Absent some sort of evidence that religion is less intellectually respectable now than it was 10 years ago, this first step in Ophelia’s logical chain fails, and the conclusions go with it. And the paragraph above suggests that intellectual respectability has not been necessary or sufficient for its social desirability in America’s past, so the second link strikes me as dubious and unproven as well.”

Well, I don’t have the statistics at hand, but I suspect there’s plenty of evidence for this.

First, note that I’m not saying there is no evidence, only that I see no such evidence being offered. Maybe respectability is down, maybe gnus had that effect. All I want is for someone to produce data to support the claim.

Second, what Coyne “suspects” will matter a lot more when suspicions become evidence. He justifies those suspicions by noting:

…decline of church attendance … the increase in the number of Americans who characterize themselves as nonbelievers. … the bus campaigns … the Gnu books have been best sellers … the growth of secular, humanist, and skeptical societies…

Meh.

Church attendance is not declining over all, though it is among Catholics. More people have been identifying as nonbelievers for a while, too, and both trends started long before the rise of the gnus. Indeed, both trends seem to be continuing at the same rate, or possibly at declining rates, since the rise of the gnus in 2004. That tends to suggest that the gnus are a result of those secular, secularizing trends, not their cause. Ditto for the bus ads and the best-selling gnu books. Book sales aren’t a measure of epistemic merit, nor necessarily of societal influence. If they were, Richard Dawkins would be far behind Dan Brown and Rick Warren, not to mention the Bible. The fact that there were big markets for those books suggests that the market was primed for atheist books, not that the Horsemen created a new market. Two million English copies worldwide is pretty impressive, but represents a tiny fraction of the English-speaking population. No evidence is on offer that the gnus have done anything other than rile up the already-convinced.

I suspect that if you surveyed the number of colleges who had such societies a decade ago, and compared that to what we have today, you’d see a striking increase. Perhaps somebody can supply this information.

Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, and neither does Coyne. If those data exist, what does it tell us about the effect of the gnus? I don’t think “I suspect” transforms this sentence into data, and I’m confused that he thinks this would be “a strange attitude toward evidence.” It seems like he’s agreeing with me that someone ought to gather the data, that some relevant statistics may exist, and it would be nice to have them on hand. This was my major point. So why does it seem like he’s trying to disagree with me?

It might be interesting to look at Gallup’s questions about confidence in religion’s ability to answer the problems of the day, which has been steadily declining for a while. There’s more evidence of a post-gnu trend there, than from a question in the same survey about whether people think religion is gaining or losing influence on society (more people thought it was losing influence in the ’90s than today, and the trend has been fairly flat other than a predictable spike for religion’s relevance in 2001). All of this suffers from a post hoc ergo propter hoc error unless someone can separate the many other forces acting on perceptions of religion from the effects of the gnus. And again, Jerry agrees disagreeably.

Now whether the Gnus have contributed to this trend is a different matter, …

No, whether the gnus contributed to the trend is exactly the matter at hand. I was addressing a post by Ophelia Benson which suggests that “gnu atheism can Help” by “relentlessly pointing out that religious belief is not altogether intellectually respectable,” and therefore causing a society in which “religion no longer offers such a desirable kind of identity.” It’s not a claim that there’s a trend independent of gnu atheism, it’s a claim that gnu atheism is a cause. And that’s what I want to see evidence about. In the world of scientists and skeptics where I live, asking for evidence to justify claims is hardly a “strange attitude.”

…but surely there’s evidence for an increased respectability attached to being agnostic and atheist. Can you imagine bus-slogan campaigns 25 years ago? Or a President who asserts the rights of non-believers in his inaugural address?

“Surely” is not evidence either. Maybe atheists and agnostics (Jerry usually calls the latter “faitheists,” so this is a pleasant change) are no less respected, but would like to be. Maybe Barack Obama is a better man than the last few decades’ worth of presidents. The actual data available are slim, but show that willingness to elect an atheist president has declined since 1999 (4 points, right at the margin of error) after plateauing in the low-to-mid 40s. There was no change in attitude towards atheists from 2006 to 2008, the time when gnu atheists were most active. But why must I do Coyne’s homework for him?

Coyne gets upset that I wrote: “Maybe the evidence is there. If it is, I don’t know what it shows.”

I don’t know what it shows? We’re talking about evidence in favor of a thesis! It must show something!

No, we’re talking about evidence. Until we have it in hand, we don’t know whether it’s in favor of a thesis. First you get the evidence, then you decide whether it’s in favor of the thesis, then you decide what, exactly, it shows. Coyne seems to want to do things the other way around, which any thinking person knows is a very “strange attitude toward evidence.”

We can all agree something is surely strange here, but I don’t think it’s my attitude towards evidence.

Comments

  1. #1 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    I didn’t “vigorously dispute” her post. I said “I don’t know if Ophelia is right,” and that I meant no criticism by saying so.

    That’s crap for a start, Josh. You said

    This is followed by vigorous back-patting which I omit lest you’ve already overdosed on sugar and saccharine from candy canes today.

    That’s “vigorously disputing” in my book. Actually it’s not so much vigorously as rudely, not to mention misrepresentingly.

    For the rest, I do wish you could learn to be concise. It’s torture reading you.

    It’s kind of a cheap trick, really, trashing people and then barfing out so much verbiage when they retort that they can’t find the time or energy even to read it all, let alone respond.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    December 26, 2010

    Ophelia: The comment about “vigorous back-patting” is, I agree, not vigorous, but I also don’t see how it’s a “dispute.” It isn’t meant as an argument, it’s an expression of stylistic distaste. It doesn’t claim you’re wrong, and thus doesn’t, by my lights, constitute a dispute. You say it’s rude and misrepresenting. I explained why I said it in comments on the other post, and you haven’t responded, so I can’t say whether I agree about “misrepresent.” It was rude, and I regret that. I really do respect you, and that line doesn’t demonstrate that respect, and I apologize. If it was a misrepresentation, I regret that, too, and apologize.

    I regret it also because it’s a distraction. My main point was about evidence, not tone, and that line had nothing to do with evidence. I’d remove it if it weren’t so much discussed already.

    I thought about responding to Coyne more briefly (the first two paragraphs could basically stand on their own), but decided that the mass of inaccuracies and bad arguments he’d tossed at me deserved to be addressed individually. I have a high opinion of my readers, and am sure that they can read 2000 words. If you want to complain about verbosity, take it to Orac’s place.

  3. #3 Orac
    December 26, 2010

    For the rest, I do wish you could learn to be concise. It’s torture reading you.

    As someone who tends to write long posts as well, let me just say what I always say to someone who leaves a comment like yours on my blog: Don’t bother reading me. The same would apply to Josh, as far as I’m concerned. Seriously. If it’s so torturous to read the post, then don’t bother.

    Quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned, complaints about a blogger’s writing style are on the order of spelling and grammar flames–about as lame as it gets. I recommend heartily that you refrain from them in the future, lest they rebound upon you.

  4. #4 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    Josh,

    Ok, thanks, I’ll drop the complaint about the back-patting passage then. (You could always add a disclaimer in brackets instead of removing it, or do a strike-through. That would take it out of the discussion without creating later confusion.)

    Readers can read 2000 words, sure, but we don’t generally want to for a post of this kind.

    People are always telling me to complain to Orac! Well not always, but you’re not the first. The trouble is I hardly ever read Orac – not because he’s not good, but just because no one can read everything. So…the fact that Orac is wordy, if it is a fact, isn’t really a reply to a complaint that someone else is wordy. (It isn’t anyway, but it’s even less so in my case, since I don’t unfairly turn a blind eye to Orac’s putative wordiness while picking on yours.)

    It’s true enough that the middle part of my claim is speculative. I could have hedged it more. I’m pretty sure it’s true that gnu atheism has caused atheism to be more available, more a part of what you call public perceptions of religion. I’m pretty sure that for some people this has meant a heightened awareness of the epistemic weakness of religious truth-claims. It’s my interpretation that over time this could change the way social pressure to avow religious conformity works on people.

    About the new/gnu contradiction. “New” atheism is a pejorative, and what gnus deny is that we claim to be saying anything new. We don’t deny (I think) that we are having some effect. The two things are quite different, so there is no contradiction.

  5. #5 Barry
    December 26, 2010

    “Jerry Coyne has a longish reply to my post yesterday. He seems quite upset about it. He seems to think I’m very, very wrong. And yet he cannot manage to characterize my argument correctly, and offers nothing at all that would refute my argument (or even refute his mischaracterization of that argument)”

    “Ophelia’s reply at her blog and in comments here takes a smarter tack (as she usually does). She hasn’t convinced me that I’m wrong,…”

    Josh, have you even thought that you might not be the best judge of whether you are “right” or “wrong”? The fact that you remain to be convinced that you are wrong isn’t evidence that you are right. I’ve pretty much given up reading the accommodationist crap you spout and this long diatribe of self pity and piousness is a perfect example of why you are so tedious.

  6. #6 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    Orac, I hadn’t seen your comment when I wrote the previous reply.

    As someone who tends to write long posts as well, let me just say what I always say to someone who leaves a comment like yours on my blog: Don’t bother reading me. The same would apply to Josh, as far as I’m concerned. Seriously. If it’s so torturous to read the post, then don’t bother.

    I say the same thing to people who leave comments on my site saying “don’t write about this, write about that instead.”

    But that’s when the subject is general. In this case, the subject is a post I wrote (via Jerry Coyne’s response to Josh’s response to it), so it’s a bit silly to tell me “don’t bother.” It’s like saying, “If you don’t like the way I talk about you, don’t listen.”

    Quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned, complaints about a blogger’s writing style are on the order of spelling and grammar flames–about as lame as it gets. I recommend heartily that you refrain from them in the future, lest they rebound upon you.

    See above. I generally do refrain from them, but when they relate to me, that makes a difference. And if they rebound on me, so be it – if my posts are too long, I should make them shorter.

  7. #7 ylooshi
    December 26, 2010

    Personally, I like long posts. You get more of what the author is thinking.

    Jerry’s post was just over 1,000 words, which isn’t too unexpected for a critique of a post that exceeded 700 words (1700+ if you include comment #14).

    As an atheist blogger who is fascinated with the accomodationist vs. New atheist argument, I found both to be interesting and informative. Joshua’s call for data that evaluate the efficacy of New Atheism is one that has me thinking at the very least. I suspect there is a positive effect on atheism if only because of the things that Jerry points out (bus campaigns, books that out sell counter-books, popularity of New Atheists as speakers and lecturers, etc.). But how to measure this and separate it from effectst that might have occurred without New Atheists?

    Obviously the success of New Atheist books wouldn’t have occurred without New Atheists -but are these literary train-wrecks in that people are curious and interested. I’d argue that such curiosity at least sparks public discourse.

    I also disagree with Joshua that Jerry created a strawman and “blunders” in his response. I found both posts informative and interesting (up to this rejoinder) and I do think Jerry accurately responded by noting current available evidence while pointing out the limits of that evidence -and the lack of evidence for the accommodationist side. But I have to agree with Joshua that there is good reason to re-evaluate church attendance and religiosity evidence of recent surveys (ARIS, GSS, etc.).

    I don’t have the references with me at this workstation, but at least one recent study (in the journal, The Scientific Study of Religion) is finding less significance of “nones” than previously thought.

    The dialog is interesting and necessary. The hyperbole on both sides is distracting.

  8. #8 Thisbe
    December 26, 2010

    Ophelia –
    You said, “It’s like saying, “If you don’t like the way I talk about you, don’t listen.””

    Exactly! If you don’t like the way someone talks about you, what do you think your effective options are other than not listening?

    Unless the way someone talks about you slides into illegal territory, there’s no reason they should feel obliged to talk about you in any particular manner.

    So if you think Josh says too many words about you, don’t read them. That’s pretty much your only choice. Complaining about it is kind of silly.

    …I say this as someone who might have read any of the blogs in question once or twice before, but certainly not a regular reader. I don’t find the length or style off-putting at all. Actually I enjoy someone taking the time and making the effort to craft a fully-fleshed argument.

    Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and should go back to spending my Boxing Day reading David Foster Wallace.

  9. #9 Ophelia Benson
    December 26, 2010

    If you don’t like the way someone talks about you, what do you think your effective options are other than not listening?

    It depends, doesn’t it. If the someone is telling lies about you, for instance, one effective option might be to counter the lies. If, as in this case, the someone is arguing with you, one effective option might be to argue back. There’s no sweeping general rule that all you can do is not listen.

  10. #10 BenSix
    December 26, 2010

    Josh, have you even thought that you might not be the best judge of whether you are “right” or “wrong”?

    Barry, have you ever thought that if one’s indicating disagreement with another writing “I don’t think I’m wrong” is preferable to, say, “I’m right”, “Coyne is talking rubbish” or “PAHAHA! I URINATE ON THIS PATHETIC SNIVELLING!!1!”

  11. #11 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    I have little problem with the New Atheism/Rationalist Surge grassroots movement having little evidence for their efficacy. People are entitled to act and judge their actions with minimal evidence, IMO.

    It’s that there is confidence in their actions where there is no desire to seek supporting evidence that I find hypocritical in the extreme. It’s that there is no expressed desire to seek expertise on outreach, communication and educational practices. It’s that there is willful ignorance on past successes and failures and no effort to collect data from their actions – or even encourage it in others – to demonstrate how much of their actions are amounting to successes and how much is a waste of time. It’s that there is no clear goal, no expression of seeking performance indicators, no wish to know if they are effective beyond intuition, gut feelings and a placating of anxieties.

    Bad stuff happens because people think poorly about their decisions. Religious thinking is a subset of this, and addressing this problem is important for human rights, health and freedoms we take for granted. To use limited resources and achieve something of note, it takes more than heated emotions. It takes a rational approach. I would have thought those with an appreciation of scientific values would be the first to see it…yet it seems oddly absent.

    It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable and placating the inner rage against religion than a reasonable desire to reduce the negative impact of religious thinking on the community. In many cases, the poor thinking persists, even if it is atheism that has replaced the religious hatred and bigotry.

  12. #12 Matti K.
    December 27, 2010

    #11 “It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable and placating the inner rage against religion than a reasonable desire to reduce the negative impact of religious thinking on the community.”

    Please elaborate in which ways “new” atheists express bigotry.

    I think atheist arguments towards religions are similar to those of skeptics towards quacks and woo, both in content and tone. Yet nobody in the accommodatioinist camp ever speaks about an “inner rage” of skeptics against quacks and woo. How come?

  13. #13 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Josh
    First the positive/negative effects aside – What exactly is bad or wrong about the New Atheist position? That they should be able to state their minds ? or put up a few billboards? or not be discriminated against for merely being non believers? or to use a few rude words if appropriate? to be allowed to show disrespect to symbols they don’t believe in?
    As a matter of principle you probably have to support new atheists no?

    Next you call out NA’s who hold certain view points without showing evidence to back up their claims. Fair enough.

    Please evaluate Mike McRae’s statements

    It’s that there is confidence in their actions where there is no desire to seek supporting evidence that I find hypocritical in the extreme….
    It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable and placating the inner rage against religion than a reasonable desire to reduce the negative impact of religious thinking on the community…

    and please demonstrate that you are consistent.

  14. #14 Hammill
    December 27, 2010

    #13:

    “Please evaluate Mike McRae’s statements…’It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable…'”

    Paragraph 2 of comment 27 on Josh’s preceding post refers to non-gnu atheists as unintelligent, humorless, and unscientific, implictly if not nearly explicitly. It also orders Josh to keep quiet rather than express an opinion that disagrees with the gnus. Most rational persons, I think, would find such statements “stubbornly intolerant” and not genuinely reflective of a “reasonable desire to reduce the impact of religious thinking on the community,” per Mike McRae’s comment. I’m sure numerous other examples can be found, although the honest tack is to acknowledge that such statements aren’t exclusive to gnus, nor would they have to be to serve as examples the kind of bigotry Mike McRae describes.

  15. #15 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Paragraph 2 of comment 27 on Josh’s preceding post refers to non-gnu atheists as unintelligent, humorless, and unscientific, implictly if not nearly explicitly.

    But isnt Paragraph 2 of comment 27 anecdotal evidence? And this post does say lets not consider anecdotal evidence.

  16. #16 Hammill
    December 27, 2010

    #15:

    “But isnt Paragraph 2 of comment 27 anecdotal evidence?”

    Not in the sense that there is doubt about whether or not the statement actually happened. It did; the statement is still clearly posted on this blog. I will concede that it serves as only a single data point, which of course should never be used to make sweeping conclusions. As I said in #14, if Mike McRae or Josh wanted to spend time thumbing through gnu writings to find similar examples, surely they could, as they likely could with any group. You likely know this, since in your first comment you reference gnus using “a few rude words if appropriate.” The question then is what amount or kind of evidence would you deem supportive of Mike McRae’s claims? Perhaps you find statements appropriately rude while Mike McRae finds them bigoted? Would that difference of opinion preclude any burden of proof? These kinds of questions are getting ignored in even the larger arguments being had in this series of posts.

  17. #17 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    Matti K: Bigotry is the intolerance of any belief or creed that differs to one’s own. I can completely appreciate speaking up against the negative effects of religious thinking, such as the erosion of rights or its own intolerance of other faiths (including a lack of faith). And in cases where atheists do that, I can only see it as a good thing. Where it doesn’t – where it aims to make any individual of faith feel ashamed or threatened for believing in the supernatural – I’d call it bigotry. It serves no point other than to make them feel inferior for having irrational beliefs.

    Are there other rationalists who do this? Of course. I don’t see much point in calling people ‘woos’, for example, other than out of a smug sense of self-righteousness. There are also a number of self-declared skeptics who act out of a need to make themselves feel better than to really find a way to limit the consequences of poor decision making in their community. Making it a ‘tu quoque’ argument won’t justify any individual’s bigoted actions.

  18. #18 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Not in the sense that there is doubt about whether or not the statement actually happened. It did

    Ah but was it posted necessarily by a new atheist?

    The question then is what amount or kind of evidence would you deem supportive of Mike McRae’s claims?

    Thats not the purpose of the exercise. Its for Josh to apply the same standards to Mike’s comment as he does to Ophelia’s or Jerry’s.

    If I attempt to answer(I am not a scientist)
    a. A definition of what constitutes a New Atheist(See i’m ignostic!). I also expect the accomodationists to make the same kind of excuses they make when they say not every Christian has the same belief, not every Christian practices the same thing, etc etc – thereby any criticism of Christianity can be easily deflected.

    b. A list of what we can agree constitutes bigotry.

    c. A representative sample of new atheists who have committed said acts (as opposed to say comments on pharyngula) with % of people. Again this is somewhat subjective. I choose this because “Will you do X?” isn’t as good evidence as “Have you been observed to do X?”.

  19. #19 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    Deepak, ordinarily I’d agree completely with avoiding generalisation, and providing a solid definition. However, in this case, I don’t see much point quibbling on the boundaries of who or what constitutes ‘New Atheism’, given even given the broadest definition (a modern community of atheists who attempt to engage with the public in some way, shape or form), the claim still applies.

    Of course, I might be wrong. It’s easy to challenge this by showing me a single example of an atheist outreach effort that has been done using clear goals, identified performance indicators and some effort to gather data to guide future direction. I would then be obliged to retract and modify my claim to reduce generalisation to specific situations (such as the AAF’s billboard campaign).

    However, at this point, I cannot think of a single example. Can you?

  20. #20 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Mike Mc rae

    a modern community of atheists who attempt to engage with the public in some way, shape or form

    So Josh is a new atheist? as is mooney? as is ruse? News to me. is posting a comment on a blog engaging with the public in some way shape or form – I suppose it is?

    Of course. I don’t see much point in calling people ‘woos’, for example, other than out of a smug sense of self-righteousness.

    This is bigotry? You seem to have a very different definition of “intolerance”.

    It’s easy to challenge this by showing me a single example of an atheist outreach effort that has been done using clear goals, identified performance indicators and some effort to gather data to guide future direction.

    No I dont know of any but then Im not part of any organisation so i wouldnt know. I also dont know of any organized outreach effort done by LGBT organizations (the pentagon has one but Im asking for a pro LGBT org) that has identified performance indicators and had made some effort to gather data. I also don’t know of any outreach effort to convince creationists that had identified performance indicators. Don’t appeal to my ignorance!

    In any case you made claims , you back them up with scientific evidence(the claim that atheists do not seem to use scientific evidence in public outreach is a very different one from “It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable”). You can of course have your opinions without needing scientific evidence.

  21. #21 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    “So Josh is a new atheist? as is mooney? as is ruse? News to me. is posting a comment on a blog engaging with the public in some way shape or form – I suppose it is?”

    How on earth did you miss the point of what I said so blatantly? I said in the broadest sense – trying to accommodate any semi-reasonable definition of the term (which, yes, if you argue includes those individuals, I’ll accept) – if you can find a case where said individual or collective acts with the intention of supporting their effectiveness with data, I’ll retract and revise my broad generalisation. You can’t, so it stands.

    “This is bigotry? You seem to have a very different definition of “intolerance”.”

    Calling somebody a ‘woo’ is tolerant? Well, we agree then – we have very different definitions of what tolerating something is.

    “:No I dont know of any but then Im not part of any organisation so i wouldnt know. I also dont know of any organized outreach effort done by LGBT organizations (the pentagon has one but Im asking for a pro LGBT org) that has identified performance indicators and had made some effort to gather data.”

    And when we discuss LBGT outreach groups, we can analyse their efforts. Until then, it’s irrelevant.

    “I also don’t know of any outreach effort to convince creationists that had identified performance indicators. Don’t appeal to my ignorance!”

    Then we’re in agreement. Neither of us knows of any case where there is an effort to support the efficiency of atheist outreach with identifying performance indicators or data. If it exists, it’s certainly not representative of the broader culture.

  22. #22 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Mike McRae
    So you responded to everything other than where is the scientific evidence for your claim

    “It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable”

    How on earth did you miss the point of what I said so blatantly?

    Your definition includes under one umbrella – the so called accomodationists and the so called new atheists. How on earth could it be accurate ? or are you saying Josh’s/Mooney’s posts are attempts to make bigotry feel acceptable?

    You are arguing that a lot of people are not backing up their claims / opinions using scientific – again probably true. but that’s not your first claim where you indulged in the same behavior – please respond to that claim.

  23. #23 Hammill
    December 27, 2010

    #18:

    “Ah but was it posted necessarily by a new atheist?”

    Fair enough. The comment definitely implied that the author agreed with gnus, but the word choice referred to them as “the gnus,” suggesting the author doesn’t self-identify. Mea culpa.

    For your three remaining parts:

    a. I agree that labels are bad. Even if gnus show bigotry as a hypothetical, that in no way means they all do. That should be understood, no? We’re humans though, and we label. I think that’s unavoidable.

    b. That’s impossible, I think. You could say something harsh but in jest to me, and even with the best of your intentions I could take it as an affront. Words don’t always come across as they are meant.

    c. Commenters should count, I think. Otherwise you’re setting up an appeal to authority, or letting those without notoriety have no responsibility for how atheists are perceived, which I think is shortchanging the influence of the average joe. If we’re talking about public perception of atheism, does civility from one famous atheist (say, Dawkins) nullify the nastiest attacks by 200 non-famous atheists (say, a pharyngula comment thread) if a theist reads both? I argue it would not. But you’re correct about subjectivity.

    It appears that you, Mike McRae, and myself all agree while having differences. There is no effective dataset or consensus, and that’s why the issue is contentious.

  24. #24 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    Deepak: To be honest, I’m not sure if you’re trolling, or just not understanding. I’ll accept that I mightn’t have been clear, or something’s lost in communication, so I’ll try a different phrasing.

    As far as I know, no atheist engaged in any form of outreach has made it clear what their goal is, what it looks like if it is achieved or data supporting a connection between their action and success. That isn’t to say this is explicitly necessary for every blog, comment or opinion, unless a claim of success is being made. However, that said, I personally believe that the more effort or resources a person or collective puts into an action, the more they might want to evaluate it for being effective and not antagonistic to their goal.

    If intolerance forms a part of that outreach – such as using language that attempts to shame, defame, threaten, or attack an individual for daring to hold a contrary belief – I’d call them a bigot, as I feel their interest evidently is more in trying to placate their emotions than make a real difference. Are all New Atheists bigots? It depends on your definition of New Atheist. Personally, I think it would be overgeneralising to say anybody who speaks on atheism is intolerant of religion. But there is a culture of overlooking bigotry amongst atheist outreach, I believe, which is typically excused with tu quoque arguments.

    I hope that’s a little clearer.

    Hammill – we’re all forced to rely on our own varying personal experiences, which is why it’s hard to come to agreement. It’s also why I’ll always hold the caveat that mine is a personal opinion based on my experience in education and public outreach in science. My issue isn’t so much that there is currently no data (we all have to start somewhere), but there is a dominating culture amongst new atheists where there is no desire to encourage a science-based view of outreach, where poor logic is used to justify anything and everything and ad hoc justifications are accepted as evidence.

  25. #25 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Mike mc crae.

    I hope that’s a little clearer.

    Not at all. You said
    “It leads me to think that New Atheism is more about making bigotry feel acceptable”
    So follow the same standard you set for new atheists and conclude about your own statement.

    Hammill
    b. Might be impossible in general – but if its the two(or limited number) of us having a discussion it might be possible to agree on a set of criteria.

    c. Commenters should count, I think.

    I’m excluding them because of the nature of the internet.
    A person may state that he is fair/tolerant etc , he might even post comments showing his fairness. it is not however evident if he does or does not actually discriminate. Words are just words.

  26. #26 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    Deepak: Yes, that is what I said. And I explained what I meant by that – in cases of intolerance amongst New Atheists, the culture of avoiding the need to demonstrate efficacy with data makes the intolerance gratuitous and therefore acceptable and bigoted.

    I’m sorry – I can’t make that any clearer. Maybe somebody else can see what it is I’m trying to state, and you’re missing. As for ‘same standard…and conclude about your own statement’, I have no idea what that means, especially given we both agree that there are no examples of data collection by any atheist outreach effort, and therefore no objective means to evaluate any effort (let alone ones expressing intolerance). If we agree that there is no effort being made, that only leaves a disagreement that intolerence exists amongst new atheists. Is that what you’re seeking evidence of? Really?

  27. #27 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    And I explained what I meant by that

    but Im asking you for your evidence – not for your convoluted explanation. And if you don’t have any then follow your own standards i.e. say nothing or find the evidence first.

    Is that what you’re seeking evidence of?

    Yes – Because it looks like intolerance means something else to you. You seem to imply that disagreement plus a few rude words = intolerant.

  28. #28 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    Not too far off – I equate intolerance with ‘a few rude words’ directed at somebody personally as a direct consequence of beliefs they might hold that contrast with one’s own.

  29. #29 Deepak Shetty
    December 27, 2010

    Mike McCrae
    So just to confirm
    if I say Sarah Palin is dumb because of her beliefs and actions , im intolerant towards her?

  30. #30 Mike McRae
    December 27, 2010

    If you’re calling her ‘dumb’ because it’s an objective assessment of her intelligence based on some assessment of her actions, then not necessarily.

    But the word ‘dumb’ isn’t usually used in such a way, given it has pejorative connotations. In other words, I’d doubt you were calling her dumb simply because you’re remarking on her low IQ – I’d venture you’d be calling her dumb because her contrasting beliefs angered you, and such a term reflects how you feel about them. Nothing wrong with that (I’d probably even agree with you), but one thing you couldn’t say is you’re being tolerant of her holding such views. Nor could you claim without evidence that calling her dumb would be of such benefit that it reduced any negative consequences of her beliefs.

    Likewise, if an atheist makes an objective claim about the dangers or oppression arising from a person’s religious belief, then that’s one thing. Calling the person names because they’re a theist might feel good, but it’s by no means the same thing, and I’d certainly call it intolerant.

  31. #31 Matti K.
    December 28, 2010

    #17 (McRae)

    “Bigotry is the intolerance of any belief or creed that differs to one’s own.”

    Well, what is intolerance? Just speaking out your opinion that some idea is stupid? I think if one defines “bigotry” so loosely, the word will soon become meaningless. Eccessive political correctness is a threat to the freedom of speech, IMHO.

    “Where it doesn’t – where it aims to make any individual of faith feel ashamed or threatened for believing in the supernatural – I’d call it bigotry. It serves no point other than to make them feel inferior for having irrational beliefs.”

    The problem is that many religious people “feel threatened” even when the criticism is “against the negative effects of religious thinking”. I can understand that such people find gnu atheists to be very much bigots. What I wonder is that many accommodationists make such sweeping statements and consider (f.ex.) antireligious blogs to be expressions of bigotry.

    “Are there other rationalists who do this? Of course. I don’t see much point in calling people ‘woos’, for example, other than out of a smug sense of self-righteousness.”

    Well, I guess you think the word “denialist” is also an offensive word which should not be used to describe irrational people. If so, you have company:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2008/11/listen_to_this_radio_segment_a.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2008/11/is_name_calling_an_effective_c.php

    I think the word, just like “quack” and “woo” are perfectly valid words to describe utterly irrational behaviour. It makes no sense starting every discussion about, say, homeopathy on the premise that there might be something useful behind it. There are plenty of ideas that have been thoroughly inspected and falsified and thus deserve no respect whatsoever from rational thinkers. Why should such disrespect considered a form of persecution?

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2008/11/cranks_cry_persecution_nisbet.php

  32. #32 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    Matti K – “Well, what is intolerance? Just speaking out your opinion that some idea is stupid?”

    I’m assuming you wrote without continuing to read what I wrote? You’ll see I indicated it is an attack on the individual, not the idea.

    “The problem is that many religious people “feel threatened” even when the criticism is “against the negative effects of religious thinking”.”

    I’m quite sure they do. That’s beyond your control. However, it would be pretty poor logic to mean that because some people will respond to anything as if it is a threat, all criticisms are threatening. If your aim is to threaten or create shame in a person, it’s intolerant.

    I’m not sure if that was a deliberate obfuscation, but it is a common one. Let me be clear – intention is the mark of intolerance. If somebody feels threatened or attacked against your wishes and best efforts to address the belief rather than them, then it’s irrelevant to this discussion.

    “Well, I guess you think the word “denialist” is also an offensive word which should not be used to describe irrational people. If so, you have company:”

    If I know people take offense by my using it, and I can find another term that describes the same beliefs or behaviour, then I will. What is your goal in using words that intend to offend, if not to create a sense of threat, shame, humiliation or mental distress in a person?

    “There are plenty of ideas that have been thoroughly inspected and falsified and thus deserve no respect whatsoever from rational thinkers.”

    You’re conflating several things here, again either deliberately or simply because you’ve not considered it. We’re talking about deliberately setting out to make a person feel bad because they believe in something different to you. That’s intolerance, and I’d go as far as saying that efforts to extend this to anybody who holds such a contrasting belief as a form of bigotry. What we’re not talking about is the demonstrating of why a belief is inconsistent with certain values (such as science).

  33. #33 Matti K.
    December 28, 2010

    #32

    “Let me be clear – intention is the mark of intolerance.”

    You are not clear at all, because intention is not always a clear concept. I might call an occasional idea of a colleague stupid without him getting hurt, but if I say the same about an idea which is a cornerstone of someone’s faith, he/she will very easily think I consider him/her stupid (or naive), which, of course, most people find insulting. Even an accommodationist might call me an atheist bigot for such remarks. Yet I feel I have good reasons to call many religious ideas stupid.

    “What is your goal in using words that intend to offend, if not to create a sense of threat, shame, humiliation or mental distress in a person?”

    I use words that I think describe my thoughts the best way to people to whom I intend to communicate with. I also avoid getting personal. Isn’t that enough?

  34. #34 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    “I might call an occasional idea of a colleague stupid without him getting hurt, but if I say the same about an idea which is a cornerstone of someone’s faith, he/she will very easily think I consider him/her stupid (or naive), which, of course, most people find insulting.”

    If you call your colleague stupid, is it because you want to upset them, or is it because you predict they’ll take it as friendly ribbing? Would you use the same term with a complete stranger with the same intention of creating the same sense of friendly banter? That’s where intention comes into it – the outcome you wish to produce through your choice of language.

    Intention is a rather simple concept – it’s what you hope your communication will achieve. You continue to conflate intention with the outcome, as if because there is a risk of confusion, choice of communication is irrelevant. By what you say, I don’t think you believe that at all.

    “I use words that I think describe my thoughts the best way to people to whom I intend to communicate with.”

    Obviously. A little like saying you speak to make words come out of your mouth – it’s somewhat redundant. Nonetheless, if you use a word that commonly communicates an attack on somebody personally, there are two reasons for it. Either you intentionally want them to feel shame, or it’s because you seriously didn’t anticipate they’d interpret it that way.

    If it’s the former, then it’s an intolerant behaviour that’s more an exercise to make you feel good than to change minds. If it’s the latter, it becomes a question of experience in how to choose your words and pick your battles.

    “I also avoid getting personal. Isn’t that enough?”

    Then I don’t see the issue. You take measures to avoid intentionally making a person feel bad, while still seeking ways to evaluate their beliefs? Great. We have nothing to discuss.

  35. #35 Matti K.
    December 28, 2010

    #34

    “If you call your colleague stupid, is it because you want to upset them, or is it because you predict they’ll take it as friendly ribbing?”

    I generally do not my colleagues stupid. However, I call an idea stupid if I think the idea is stupid. I also hope my colleagues open their mouth when they think my ideas are stupid.

    “Nonetheless, if you use a word that commonly communicates an attack on somebody personally, there are two reasons for it.
    Either you intentionally want them to feel shame, or it’s because you seriously didn’t anticipate they’d interpret it that way.”

    I offer a third possibility: I simply don’t care how people outside my target audience interpret it. And why should I?

  36. #36 Hammill
    December 28, 2010

    #25:

    “I’m excluding them because of the nature of the internet…Words are just words.”

    If only they were.

    #32:

    “What is your goal in using words that intend to offend, if not to create a sense of threat, shame, humiliation or mental distress in a person?”

    I was reading Coyne’s post on WEIT to get background on Josh’s argument, and in the comments gnu atheism is being referred to by several as “a new social threat,” or “Drop the goddy thing right now or we’ll make it hot for you!” I can only assume “making it hot” means creating “a sense of threat, shame, humiliation or mental distress in a person” that’s religious rather than relying on the strength of one’s argument in order to change their mind. If that’s truly the case and those statements weren’t made in jest, that’s nothing more than intellectual bullying, no? The type that several in this discussion have been saying gnus don’t do? It’s also what Mike McRae seems to be speaking of as being intolerant, ‘bigoted,’ and counterproductive.

    #35:

    “I generally do not my colleagues stupid. However, I call an idea stupid if I think the idea is stupid. I also hope my colleagues open their mouth when they think my ideas are stupid.”

    There should be nothing wrong with calling ideas stupid. People, however, might be another story.

  37. #37 Matti K.
    December 28, 2010

    #36
    “There should be nothing wrong with calling ideas stupid. People, however, might be another story.”

    Well, if one’s most cherished ideas are called stupid, people tend to take it as a personal insult. After all, labeling ideas stupid is a sign of intolerance, which, according to McRae, makes one a bigot:

    “Bigotry is the intolerance of any belief or creed that differs to one’s own.”

  38. #38 Hammill
    December 28, 2010

    #37:

    “After all, labeling ideas stupid is a sign of intolerance, which, according to McRae, makes one a bigot:

    ‘Bigotry is the intolerance of any belief or creed that differs to one’s own.'”

    To be fair, that definition is courtesy of Mr. Webster more than it is Mr. McRae. Thus it doesn’t seem a cheap definition but more of a widely accepted one. If that’s what gnus or anyone else is doing, then I don’t see it wrong to use the word to characterize one’s words or actions. By that definition, is bigotry always a bad thing, or is it the connotation of the word that upsets people?

    But I see your point. People indeed do take personal insult when ideas are criticized. That isn’t exclusive to religious ideas, either. But not all criticism of religion is criticism of ideas, is it? I certainly don’t think so. I think that myself and Mike McRae, if I’m not misinterpreting what he’s saying, see a failure not when religious people take offense when their ideas and beliefs are criticized but instead when atheists or others use criticism of religious people to undermine their ideas. I think that’s an important distinction and a legitimate concern, and I don’t think the fact that religious people get upset when someone criticizes their ideas justifies us not worrying about how we’re going about criticism, either. It also shouldn’t mean that criticism is generally bad.

  39. #39 Ophelia Benson
    December 28, 2010

    Hammill – I’m the one who said “Drop the goddy thing right now or we’ll make it hot for you!” – and of course it was in jest. It was obviously in jest.

  40. #40 Hammill
    December 28, 2010

    My apologies, then. Consider my comment about that phrase in #36 revoked.

  41. #41 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    “I offer a third possibility: I simply don’t care how people outside my target audience interpret it. And why should I?”

    Given we weren’t specifically discussing the impact of words on those who lay outside of the target audience, it’s surprising you now specify. But in any case, it’s still good question. If you call a person an idiot behind their back, why should it matter?

    For the most part, on an individual basis, it probably doesn’t. We all get pissed off by people whose values conflict dramatically with our own. Sitting about with friends or making a blog comment, it’d be a pretty unusual person to not express their distaste for a person whose actions conflict so much with our own values we find them reprehensible, and express this by calling them a woo, a tool, a moron, a fuckwit, evil etc.

    Socially, it’s so much a part of human nature, I don’t think it’s possible for many of us to avoid doing it on occasion. However, rational thinking is about distinguishing our emotions from reason and logic in order to gain an objective perspective. It’s what supposedly separates atheists from theists. It’s one thing to let anger slip – it’s another to take pride in it and believe you’re still being rational and reasonable by publicly calling somebody an idiot.

    If the culture of a community is to choose to communicate emotionally without thought to exploring the consequences objectively, I can only come to one conclusion – the community isn’t interested in knowing for sure if they’re making a difference. It simply becomes an exercise of polarising the population by labeling some as smart and the rest as stupid. It’s about feeling better by belittling, shaming or antagonising those who don’t share similar values. For those who claim to prize rational thinking, I find this hypocritical, especially when it is defended as an appropriate tactic, hence my earlier comment.

  42. #42 Deepak Shetty
    December 28, 2010

    @Hammill

    If only they were.

    Well i dont mean words are words in the sense that words dont hurt or something like that. Im using them in the sense that what one says and what one does aren’t the same thing.

    @Mike McRae
    Are there objective measures for anything with respect to human behavior?. is IQ really a measure of intelligence? Do you have a number for bigotry? racism? What objective measure do you use to call someone a troll or hypocrite? is every insult/rude statement made with the intention of causing shame or improving the world in some way? What a false dichotomy.
    These arbitrary fine lines you seem to draw are also silly. You agree that an idea may be criticized as racist. How many such ideas must one have before you can label the person as racist without falling foul of your intolerance/bigotry criteria. Should you never call a person racist? (or do we first need an objective measure followed by careful scientific experiments to prove it?).

    and lastly some things are a matter of principle.
    Suppose the recent pentagon study showed that repealing DADT would cause significant problems in the military. Would you vote to repeal? I know my answer would be yes independent of the results of the study because sometimes you choose what’s right(and there is no objective definition of right here either) , not whats the least harm or what someone else feels.

  43. #43 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    Deepak: “is every insult/rude statement made with the intention of causing shame or improving the world in some way?”

    No. And I never claimed that to be so. But statements are made with the intention of causing shame, and some people defend their behaviour as if it is a good or even objectively right thing to do.

    “You agree that an idea may be criticized as racist. How many such ideas must one have before you can label the person as racist without falling foul of your intolerance/bigotry criteria.”

    Where did ‘racist’ come into this? Unless you’re using it intentionally as a pejorative, it’s a poor example. Or are you referring to some alleged case where I called people ‘bigots’? Because if you’ll look back, I referred to bigotry – the act of intolerance towards values that conflict with yours.

    “Suppose the recent pentagon study showed that repealing DADT would cause significant problems in the military.”

    Deepak, I really do find it hard to follow your arguments, sorry. They seem all over the place. Maybe I should just ignore them, but you seem sincere enough. I don’t know what DADT has to do with anything here – if I was convinced that open homosexuality was of some threat to combatants or military, yes, I’d agree with DADT. Likewise, if there was an attempt by atheists to show that their actions resulted in their pre-established goals, then I’d have little to say on it.

  44. #44 Hammill
    December 28, 2010

    #42:

    “Well i dont mean words are words in the sense that words dont hurt or something like that. Im using them in the sense that what one says and what one does aren’t the same thing.”

    Ah, but we’re talking about the public’s perception of atheism, no? Can that not be markedly different than the intentions of atheists, even if that difference is not a fair one?

    Here’s an example. Today at Pharyngula PZ Myers has posted an email sent to him by a 12-year-old. Myers is beyond cordial; he doesn’t call the child names or act uncivil. But then the child has shown up in the comment thread, and he’s getting gang-tackled. Granted, maybe he’s a Poe, and if he is he should get what’s coming to him. But anyone on the outside who happens to read that thread would see nothing but atheists gang-tackling a religious kid who is (supposedly) so young he can’t drive, hasn’t learned anything beyond elementary science even in the best educational system, and likely hasn’t had to shave yet. It has the danger of appearing as bullying even though it most likely isn’t, which I don’t see many perceiving as anything but counterproductive.

    To get back to your comment quoted above, what those commenters are doing is attacking what may be a Poe, which may be fine. But what others may perceive them as doing is bullying a grade schooler. It’s unfair, yes, but it could still harm public perception.

    So, does it? I think that’s the type of evidence we need collected and studied but woefully don’t have. I think it’s also why even internet commenters should count, since atheists are perhaps heard more on the internet now than anywhere else.

  45. #45 Deepak Shetty
    December 28, 2010

    Mike McRae
    sorry. Time constraints and general poor communication skills conspire.
    a. racist is a rude term like any other. you can use how many dumb ideas must one have to be called dumb?
    b. DADT is use an example that it isnt always about harm/hurt/gain. You can do somethings on principle even if the overall effect is negative.

  46. #46 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    Deepak

    a) No, racist is not a term like any other. It can be used in a pejorative manner, sure, but if somebody said they were using it purely because they felt somebody based their intolerance on a racial stereotype, I might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    The word ‘dumb’ – taken from the term describing somebody who is mute and presuming they must have a low intellect – isn’t commonly used in a similarly literal manner. If you used the word ‘dumb’ to describe somebody, I’d have a much harder time believing you weren’t out simply to insult them.

    As Hammill has pointed out, this nuts and bolts of language makes or breaks the perception others have of you and your argument. It can paint you as somebody worth listening to, or somebody best ignored. If you use language that is intended to offend somebody and then claim it’s a useful tactic, you’ve got to back it up. If it’s merely because you don’t care, then again it demonstrates intolerance merely out of a desire to placate the emotions, rather than for any real purpose.

    B) What’s ‘it’? DADT was a government compromise on homosexuals serving in the military – I don’t see what that has to do with anything here. Yes, it was done out of principles of homophobia, justified with ill-formed, bigoted beliefs. If there’s any comparison, it might be that many New Atheists are intolerant of any religious belief, and will also back their responses to it with gut feelings and intuition rather than evidence. Otherwise, it’s a red herring argument.

  47. #47 Deepak Shetty
    December 28, 2010

    @Hammill

    But what others may perceive them as doing is bullying a grade schooler.

    while I may agree in a specific case like the one you quote- I don’t think you can make a general statement based on what other people perceive.
    take for example the Atheist billboards – some are somewhat confrontational(religion is a myth!) and some are really harmless (Millions are good without God!) – But all are perceived negatively by some religious. At some point you have to be able to say the problem lies with the perceivers. However people seem to be implying that you need to show scientific evidence that putting up a billboard with an atheistic theme is a net positive or something. Or that you must think about how a religious person might receive “you can be good without god!”.

  48. #48 Douglas E
    December 28, 2010

    Back to the original query – where are the data/evidence re the impact of the Gnu’s? Coyne’s handwaving claims can be countered by similar anecdotal claims that Mohler and Ham have had much greater ‘success’ in forcing folks to realize the emptiness of their YEC, anti-evolution, anti-intellectual perspectives.

  49. #49 Deepak Shetty
    December 28, 2010

    a) No, racist is not a term like any other.

    A few posts ago it was criticise the idea , not the person. Now it’s some terms are different? Whatever.

    If you used the word ‘dumb’ to describe somebody, I’d have a much harder time believing you weren’t out simply to insult them.

    Dumb. Silly. idiotic. stupid. moron. dumbass. these are words used normally and usually to mean similar things. Take your pick. the question still stands. how many silly/stupid/idiotic acts/ideas must a person carry out before you can classify the person with an insult. Never?

    In most cases on emotional topics criticising the idea is taken as criticism of the person, whether meant or not. If you say I show intolerance or bigotry then Im going to take it to mean that you think Im intolerant or a bigot. The distinction between an idea and a person works in the professional world where the work is clearly distinct from the person. It does not work in case of religion. If I say the idea that a person born of a virgin is silly (artificial means aside) – Some religious people do think that Im saying they are silly for having the belief.

    If you use language that is intended to offend somebody and then claim it’s a useful tactic, you’ve got to back it up.

    In most cases on an Internet blog or comment people are expressing an opinion. Offense may or may not be intended.
    As to the claims of back it up. Josh is an employee of the NCSE and tries to defend the teaching of evolution. Scientific evidence is available that Religion is correlated negatively to acceptance of evolution. You have possible approaches
    a. Try and point out that evolution doesn’t conflict with Religion
    b. Try and reduce the influence of religion
    c. Ignore religion and focus purely on the science.
    Whichever approach NCSE chooses they must have evidence to back that approach right? Now provide me instances where you have demanded the same of Josh (or any NCSE employee) since you seem to care about people making claims without evidence to back them up. Acceptable evidence would be anything that studies how / why do Creationists / ID’ers change their mind.
    I need this to gauge your sincerity (its not tu quoque – im not stating that new atheists get a free pass because others do)

  50. #50 Mike McRae
    December 28, 2010

    Deepak, you’re as slippery as an eel in these discussions. I don’t think you’re intentionally being dishonest, but I do think you’re so desperate to defend your position, you grasp at anything that might feel like an argument.

    You claimed that calling somebody a racist was no different to calling them dumb. THAT was what I was responding to – the fact that they aren’t strictly equivalent. Personally, I wouldn’t even bother calling somebody a racist, but for the purpose of your point I was showing how if somebody DID use the term, I could accept it was done for purposes other than to be insulting. OTOH, if they used the word ‘dumb’, I’d have great difficulty in believing they were being anything other than belligerent.

    You then again go into mixing up intention with response. I’ve pointed out so often how this is erroneous that I can only conclude you’re not reading, not understanding, or just being argumentative. Either way, I won’t bother to waste time addressing it again.

    As for your point on the NCSE’s choice of communication – Josh has made it clear (I believe) that while there is a correlation, the very fact that people often compartmentalise their faith with science shows it’s not a causative relationship.

    In fact, there’s much reason to believe poverty and low education are intrinsically linked with religosity (look up Caploviz and Sherrow, 1977). This is evident across the globe, where poverty is constantly correlated with low education. America has higher poverty levels than many western nations (20% below poverty line, compared with about 5%-10% for most other western nations), which also correlates with its lower success in education. Making education accessible and improving socioeconomic situations has a far greater chance of creating good critical thinkers than directly challenging religion through public campaigns.

    Josh argues that it is more efficient to pick one’s battles, to focus on what is known to decrease the more detrimental effects of religious thinking (such as good science education) rather than wage war head-on. In any case, where such battles are waged, he asks that they are done rationally with a deference to evidence.

    Personally, I’m satisfied that there is a causative relationship between science education and understanding evolution, and the fact that education in general has been demonstrated to help people think critically about the decisions they make. Personally, I couldn’t care if people compartmentalised their faith, so long as it has no impact on their understanding of science. I don’t challenge Josh on this as I’m confident he is correct based on my own experience in education and science communication. Conversely, I’m not satisfied that there is any comparable evidence for scattershot, public ranting converting religious people into atheists with the thought that this is a better way to educate them into believing in evolution.

  51. #51 Hammill
    December 29, 2010

    #47:

    “I don’t think you can make a general statement based on what other people perceive….At some point you have to be able to say the problem lies with the perceivers.”

    Exactly, right? There are some things that, no matter how you phrase them, are just going to offend. Your atheist billboard example is excellent. All those billboards are doing is questioning or criticizing religious ideas, and the response to them has been wildly disproportionate. That’s something that atheists cannot control, correct? I might argue that the public response to those billboards by theists makes the atheists come out looking better.

    But what if the billboards criticized religious people instead of religion itself, for example instead of “you know it’s a myth!” the billboard said “only fools believe religion.” Then I think the religious people have more of a case when they whine about the incivility of atheists, and the atheists lose their footing. When it comes to perception, there are responses we can control and responses we cannot. If we control the negative perceptions where we can, we can point out that all we’re doing is criticizing the ideas, and the negative perceptions of us can become part of an advantage because they’re undeserved.

    As I’ve been saying, I think it all comes down to attacking people versus attacking their ideas or beliefs. I had no problem last week, for example, when Jerry Coyne called Michael Ruse’s constitutionality argument “stupidity” or “dumb” or “mounmentally idiotic.” One can have a monumentally idiotic argument and still not be a monumentally idiotic person, no? If they take personal offense to that, then it looks weak on them.

    But Coyne also attacked Ruse the person when he called him “nasty” and said that “his brain has passed its sell-by date.” Commenters called him, and not his idea, “mentally hobbled” and a “clueless gobshite.” That might make Ruse more than justified to rely on a characterization of gnus as strident or shrill or needing to lean on personal epithets the next time he argues against them, no? But that’s a perception we can control. If the personal epithets weren’t there, all Ruse can criticize is the argument against his idea, which gives him less of a leg to stand on. That’s one case where the problem may not lie solely with the perceiver.

  52. #52 Hammill
    December 29, 2010

    #47:

    “Back to the original query – where are the data/evidence re the impact of the Gnu’s?”

    and

    and #49:

    “Acceptable evidence would be anything that studies how / why do Creationists / ID’ers change their mind.”

    Do we really have sufficient evidence in either of those examples? (By “evidence” I mean controlled experimental or observational studies.) I don’t think so. We have the studies from cultural cognition that Josh links to, but these don’t specifically address creationism/ID/evolution. I suppose in that case climate change could be a suitable analogue. Jason Rosenhouse used an advertising example to attempt to refute those studies, but others (like O’Keefe’s 1999 meta-analysis of persuasion tactics) have found that humans respond in an entirely different manner to advertising than in more personal arguments.

    There is also the study by Gal and Rucker (2010) on advocacy and doubt. They found that when someone’s belief is shaken, the believer will generally turn into a more vocal advocate for that belief. But if the believer is allowed to voice their support for a belief to an open-minded recipient before having the doubt introduced, they are less likely to turn into a more vocal advocate afterward. I think that speaks towards the value of less confrontation and more dialogue in debates, although I suppose whether it applies to creationism/evolution, gnus, the NCSE, etc. could be questionable.

    I suppose the bottom line is that there’s more confusion than clarity when it comes to evidence?

  53. #53 Deepak Shetty
    December 29, 2010

    But what if the billboards criticized religious people instead of religion itself,

    I’d think that the response would be much the same. moderates would shrug and move on , fundamentalists would react much the same. In principle I agree with you , in practice criticism of religious belief is taken as criticism of the person(anecdotal :) ).
    The problem as I see it is people make statements of the form don’t do things that will be perceived negatively or give offense(which then means – shut up!). Some will clarify and say well we don’t mean shut up but then they don’t actually demonstrate how to do such a thing – state your position without giving the offense – any criticism of religion always offends some people.

    For Michael Ruse – There is a history to Ruse. I guess part of Coyne’s reaction is because of that history. Personally I’m unsympathetic to repeat offenders though I concede that you are right in this example.

    I dont really buy the

    all Ruse can criticize is the argument against his idea,

    For e.g. Jason Rosenhouse is usually very articulate and I cant remember him violating your criticise the idea , not the person criterion. Ruse could choose to address that criticism. Who says Jerry Coyne is more representative of new atheists than say Jason Rosenhouse?. Dawkins was called strident for God Delusion. I cannot see where that book falls foul of your criterion – but he was still called shrill , strident for that book.

    Do we really have sufficient evidence in either of those examples?

    As far as I know, no. But the work that the NCSE is doing is really of a much higher priority than some professor’s blog posts. Yet similar questions as to where’s the scientific evidence for the approach chosen by NCSE is not asked of the NCSE ,other than by the New Atheists. Why aren’t people like Mike asking the same questions of the NCSE when they evidently care about such matters? It makes me question their motives. I don’t have a similar question about a new atheists motives because in the end you can write what you want in a blog post or book , and sometimes those are avenues where you choose to express your frustrations (That doesnt make it right , merely that I understand it better).

  54. #54 Hammill
    December 29, 2010

    “For e.g. Jason Rosenhouse is usually very articulate and I cant remember him violating your criticise the idea , not the person criterion. Ruse could choose to address that criticism.”

    I think that’s fair. I went back to read Rosenhouse’s post and he does indeed refrain from getting personal.

    “Who says Jerry Coyne is more representative of new atheists than say Jason Rosenhouse?.”

    I was using Coyne as an example since “gnus” are the topic of the OP. Coyne, for example, has what I understand to be the gnu symbol on his post about Josh, whereas I have no clue if Rosenhouse identifies as one. I think it’s worth pointing out that I dislike all the labels because they create a false impression of unanimity, but the gnu label is one that several individuals at least seem to purposefully identify with.

    “Dawkins was called strident for God Delusion. I cannot see where that book falls foul of your criterion – but he was still called shrill , strident for that book.”

    Of course. One can still be shrill or strident even if those terms are applied falsely in different cases, however. I still hold that resorting to insulting Michael Ruse’s mental capacity because one disagrees with his opinion characterizes the excessive forcefulness that defines being strident, regardless of past history.

    “But the work that the NCSE is doing is really of a much higher priority than some professor’s blog posts.”

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    “Yet similar questions as to where’s the scientific evidence for the approach chosen by NCSE is not asked of the NCSE ,other than by the New Atheists.”

    What “approach” are we talking about, specifically?

  55. #55 Deepak Shetty
    December 29, 2010

    Hammill
    Again I agree that Coyne’s posts/some comments have some insults that aren’t necessary – but I would give some leeway since it is a blog and I think it’s ok to conclude that Ruse is a nasty man if he has a history of doing nasty stuff.
    If Coyne has to professionally review Ruse I doubt he’d use the same words.

    What “approach” are we talking about, specifically?

    Any approach that it follows.
    As far as I can see the stated position is that they will have no comments about religion and stick to science. In practice they tend to lean towards “Religion and Science dont conflict”. But it doesn’t matter – Any approach including a confrontational one or a no comment one should have evidence to back it up and NCSE should be held to a much higher standard than a blog.

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