As Gnasty As They Wanna Be

Chris Schoen:

before we … endorse Coyne’s self-congratulation for never having “criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner,” it’s worth taking a quick glance at his blog, where it’s hard to find a post that doesn’t devolve into ad hom (unless it’s about kittens). Starting with the most recent example, earlier this week Coyne called Deepak Chopra (not someone I particularly admire, but a writer nonetheless) “Deepity Chopra,” whose significant wealth he calls “an indictment of America.”

Prior to this he suggests that the critiques (“tripe”) of Phil Zuckerman–writer and scholar–are motivated mainly by jealousy of the New Atheists’ book sales. Thomas Jackson writes “babble,” Mary Midgley is “dumb” and “superannuated” (Coyne loves the 10 cent words Hitchens and Grayling teach him). Elaine Ecklund is a “disingenuous” “Templeton-funded automaton,” (regular readers of Coyne’s blog will learn that everyone funded by Templeton has been horribly corrupted), Laurie Lebo has “lost neurons,” Rob Knop is “mushbrained,” and Josh Rosenau has been taken over by a demon. That’s just in the last 3 weeks.

Jeremy Strangroom (co-author of several books with prominent gnu atheist Ophelia Benson):

According to Russell Blackford, the New Atheists are not, generally speaking, uncivil.…

I thought I’d very quickly check out Blackford’s claim of civility. I typed “Colgate” into his search box. The first post it returned included these gems from the polite professor:

“For those who haven’t seen it, more stupidity from the Colgate Twins”

(Note: The term ‘Colgate Twins’ is a comment on the appearance of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. This is the way many of the New Atheists took to referring to them. An indication of how widespread it was is the fact that Blackford doesn’t actually have to name them in this piece. Likely, the New Atheists will claim that their use of the term is a satirical criticism of Mooney’s self-promotion, blah, blah… which, of course, is bollocks: it’s just a cheap, classless attack on their appearance).

“here’s the latest nonsensical rant from the twins. Enjoy. Or not. Yawn.”

“It will take more than these two privileged nitwits with bright, toothy smiles to get us to shut up.”…

This is how New Atheists will defend this sort of thing…:

1. They deserved it. Of course, we’re against incivility. But, you know, sometimes it’s required. Happily we’re the arbiters of when it’s required. Hurrah!

2. Ah no, this is taken out of context. In context, this is actually quite mild. Because Chris Mooney is a threat to civilisation as we know it. Oh yes, and to our free speech. And that’s much worse.

3. They started it.

4. Their abuse is worse than ours.

5. Yes, but we like kittens; and we’re adorable. Srsly. Lolz!

Strangroom doesn’t mention the other insulting nickname given to Mooney and Kirshenbaum: “Mooneytits and Cockenbaum,” a far more problematic phrase which popped up on various gnu blogs, and that I never recall seeing called out by the regulars (though I don’t spend tons of time in the comment sections). And while we’re adding to this particular bonfire, I’ll note that the term “faitheist” was invented by gnus for the sole purpose of giving their opponents within the non-theist community an insulting name. They already had “accommodationist” – as ill-defined and divisive as that phrase often is – but had to invent a new term to further express their derision. Again, I don’t recall anyone among the gnus objecting to the idea of coyning this phrase.

Both of the quotations above are reactions to Russell Blackford’s reply to Jean Kazez’s thoughtful post on The Emperor’s Gnu Clothes. I reproduced much of Strangroom’s post, but Schoen covers a lot of other ground, including a nice critique of the “emperor’s clothes” gambit in criticism of religion, a gambit Kazez turns around in an interesting way.
Kazez starts out by saying:

I’m always trying to figure out how it could be that I liked the first books of the new atheists so much, but I’m so thoroughly not on board with the so-called “gnus”–the contingent that makes fun of the way new atheists are criticized for militancy by adopting a militant name. (Think gays calling themselves “queer.”) Finally, a moment of clarity. Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have posts today that make it crystal clear why I’ve gotten off the train.

After using the emperor to make a general point, she returns to the particular cases that got her thinking, and explains what bugs her about them in particular, and how they illustrate the broader problem.

By contrast, I can’t say that I liked the first books of the new atheists. When I was offered a review copy of The End of Faith, I took it because I was and am basically sympathetic to atheism and wanted to see the latest arguments, and because I’m definitely excited about standing up against authoritarian religion. But the book appalled me. The premise that religion per se was responsible for the various evils attributed to it simply didn’t hang together (as Harris’s own footnotes made clear at times), the idea that moderate or liberal theists validate fundamentalism is absurd and readily falsified within 5 minutes of talking to a moderate theist, and the notion that Muslims can’t be deterred by a nuclear threat, and thus we must consider a genocidal pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran, was too much to stomach.

I was excited to get a review copy of The God Delusion, because Dawkins is generally great and I was curious to see him work through a broad defense of his atheism. But I found it unserious and lacking in the depth of thought I’ve come to expect from him. The gratuitously insulting treatment of NCSE (this was before I was working at NCSE, by the way), of Stephen Jay Gould, and of other non-theists who happen to disagree with Dawkins just turned me off. The whole “Neville Chamberlain appeaser” meme remains a low point in an often low debate. There was a troubling anti-intellectualism to his handling of ideas that bugged me, as discussed here.

But when Russell claims in the post linked above that I “wish that the Gnus would go away,” he’s wrong. I wish they’d make better arguments, ones which engage the peer reviewed literature in the relevant fields, including philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, science/religion studies, metaethics, and even theology. I wish they cited that literature more, and I wish they published their arguments there and engaged with the relevant communities of scholars that way, rather than just through blogs, and TED talks, and mass-market books and magazines. I wish they’d study the literature of social movement theory, and take what lessons can be learned from past efforts to change society and apply that research to their own efforts. I wish they’d lay out some sort of consensus platform, including both big principles and practical changes to be made. I wish they’d work with, rather than against, their most likely allies. I wish they wouldn’t drive wedges within the pro-science movement, and would focus their righteous ire on the religious authoritarians who deserve it, or who at least we all agree deserve it most. I don’t want them to go away, I want them to be better at what they’re trying to do.

None of the foregoing is meant to set myself up as a perfect role model. I’ve been divisive. I’ve responded in kind to attacks on myself and my colleagues, not always with proportionate responses, and sometimes with too little provocation (not that two wrongs would make a right anyway). But it’s the internet, and the flamewar is a time-honored tradition, and taking part in one – even starting one – is not inherently discrediting. In my defense, I’ve made an effort to root my claims in the relevant research literature, in polling and philosophy, and referring to consensus statements where possible, and not cherry-picking. I think I’ve focused my criticism on the ideas and forms of argument rather than individuals, though I’m sure I could be better about that. I’m not a saint, and I don’t expect anyone else to be, either, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect self-proclaimed protectors of a “scientific worldview” based on “facts” and “science and reason” to behave according to the norms of scientific behavior, to avoid logical errors (including the fundamental attribution error), to focus on ideas not namecalling, on evidence not personal taste, and on ideas not personalities. It won’t always work out that way, but it’s a fair expectation. It’s a standard I hold myself to, as well.

Comments

  1. #1 julian
    February 18, 2011

    This is gonna sound trollish but,

    What was the point of all that? A quick summary of why gnus are bad people?

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    February 18, 2011

    I’m not prominent enough to get the kind of treatment that Chris & Sheril do — what they get is just horrifying from people who like to look down their noses at the “unrational”. However, if you read comments on new atheist blogs that reference me, there are all kinds of assertions and assumptions about what I think that are just flat wrong. It’s simply amazing that these people believe that they’re the bastion of critical thinking, reason, and caring about evidence.

  3. #3 Jean Kazez
    February 18, 2011

    As to why I did like Dawkins’ & Harris’s books–it really does have to do with what makes them like the girl in the Emperor’s New Clothes. I enjoyed the way they were breaking through the hush-hush reverence that surrounds religion. At the time their books came out I think that was a great step forward.

    I really do see a difference between “new” and “gnu” tone. Candor’s one thing, contempt is another. It’s candid the way Philip Pullman (another “new”) explores the Jesus myth and how it got embellished and perpetuated in his recent novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” but just plain contempt how Jerry Coyne must constantly write “Jebus” instead of “Jesus.” Sounds like it to me, anyway.

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    February 18, 2011

    Julian: No. Not bad people. Perhaps lacking in self-awareness. But it isn’t about the people, it’s about the arguments they make and the reasons some of us out here on the intertubes are unconvinced by those arguments.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    February 18, 2011

    Jean: I know what you’re saying about the early books, and my difference there is basically a matter of taste. Maybe I just tended to travel in non-theistic circles or something, but atheism stopped striking me as inherently transgressive or novel sometime around 8th grade (early ’90s). I’m sure that’s not a universal sentiment, and don’t consider it a strike for or against the new/gnu atheists. I grew up in a secular household, had friends who didn’t take religion overly seriously, went to a secular university, and hung out in nontheistic circles. Harris’s and Dawkins’s arguments struck me as insufficiently novel, though I can’t dispute their candor.

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    February 18, 2011

    Heh… in the very late 1970s and early 1980s, as a junior high schooler and early high schooler, I remember feeling embarrassed to admit to school friends that I went to Church. Atheism has seemed completely mainstream to me for all of my 42-year life. Of course, I did grow up in Berkeley…. (The other thing is that the general political tenor of the church I went to was as flamingly liberal as you can imagine. For that reason, it’s always struck me as weird that people think that religion is a particularly conservative thing. There’s no doubt that the conservatives in the USA cling to religion, and that the fundamentalists are all politically conservatism, but there’s a lot of liberal activisim coming out of other kinds of churches, too.)

  7. #7 Jean Kazez
    February 18, 2011

    Josh, I also grew up in a non-religious household. I actually think we might have set a record. I was never once taken to a house of worship as a kid. I’m also surrounded by atheists (70% of philosophers are atheists). But I also live in the conservative suburbs of Dallas, where all sorts of words are taboo…not just “atheist,” but “Obama.” I guess that’s part of it, but I also just think Dawkins and Harris are both fine writers of bracing polemic.

  8. #8 G.D.
    February 18, 2011

    Ok, I can’t pass this up. It’s a side point, since the post concerns something else, but Chris Schoen’s post is hilariously beside the point. Apparently Schoen attempts to nail Coyne for saying that he hadn’t “criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner”. Well, if he thinks Coyne is wrong about that, wouldn’t his point have looked better if he had come up with some examples?

    Oh, he finds examples of Coyne being mean, all right, and he finds examples of Coyne calling people names. But he finds, as far as I can see, not a single example of ad hominem. And for the record (and for Chris’s information), ad hominem has nothing really to do with personal attacks. An example of an ad hominem is an argument of the form “X says that p. X is an idiot/mean/unsympathetic/belongs to this or that group; hence we have no reason to believe p”. It should not be confused with arguments of the form “X claims that p. p is really dumb. Hence X is an idiot”. The latter argument may be rude, and it does contain a personal attack. But it is not ad hominem. It may be a perfectly good, well-supported argument.

    The most common form of ad hominem fallacy on the web is probably “X says that p. But X is funded by Big Pharma/exposed to peer pressure from other climate scientists/etc. Hence we shouldn’t listen to X”. The second most common form of ad hominem fallacy is probably “X uses ad hominem (used to mean “personal attacks”). Hence we shouldn’t listen to X”.

    For all its worth, I think Coyne justified many of his personal characterizations pretty well (the ones I’ve seen are Chopra and Midgley). Whether it’s “helpful” or whatever is a wholly different matter.

  9. #9 Journalmalist
    February 19, 2011

    Josh, I don’t see the point of atheists — whether old (like me) or gnu — to “study the literature of social movement theory” or “lay out some sort of consensus platform, including both big principles and practical changes to be made.”

    Atheism isn’t a paradigm or a world-view or a philosophy. It is the lack of those things, and of any other specific beliefs. To the extent that militant atheists (or New or Gnu or what-have-you atheists) can be said to have any sort of cohesive “movement,” it is a movement away from guiding principles (namely, religious dogma), not toward them.

    Perhaps what you mean has more to do with strategies for communicating science rather than atheism ?

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    February 19, 2011

    GD:

    Ok, I can’t pass this up. It’s a side point, since the post concerns something else, but Chris Schoen’s post is hilariously beside the point

    Only if you miss the forest for the trees. Yes, you can criticize Schoen’s use of “ad hominem,” but his main point stands, which is that the complaints from the Gnu Atheists that they are being unfairly maligned as nasty and uncivil don’t hold up when you look at what they actually have said. Coyne’s comments on Lauri Lebo are a particularly telling example. Why did he snark about her losing neurons? Because in response to an IDer who said “Evolution runs directly counter to most major world religions,” Lebo had replied,

    Really? Just off the top of my head I can think of a few major religions that have no trouble reconciling evolution with faith, including Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and all non-fundamentalist versions of Protestantism, such as, for instance, the United Methodist Church.

    That’s what “justified” Coyne’s abuse.

  11. #11 TB
    February 19, 2011

    GD

    From dictionary.com, ad hominem is defined

    “1. appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason 2. attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument”

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    February 19, 2011

    @Journalmalist: Any social movement could stand to learn about “literature of social movement theory” or to have a clearer sense of what its platform is and the practical steps to take to accomplish it. While atheism itself is not a social movement, “gnu” atheism is.

  13. #13 Chris Schoen
    February 19, 2011

    GD is right that there is a strict definition of ad hominem as a type of logical fallacy, where one uses proof of irrelevant personal characteristics to discredit an argument. (Pythagoras sleeps with goats, therefore A squared plus B squared does not equal C squared). Most of the examples I gave in my post do not rise to the level of such a logical fallacy.

    This, however, was clearly not the usage Coyne was defending himself against. Coyne was not asserting that he eschews the logical fallacy of conflating character and reasoned argument. Rather he was claiming that he does not employ a debased tone in the accomodationism debates, always striving to be polite and courteous, criticizing the ideas, not character of his interlocutors.

    Whether or not this is the correct usage of the term, it is the usage Coyne intends in his claim, and for which I provided counter-examples from his blog.

    I do want to also note that Coyne is hardly innocent of the more precise definition of the term. When Jeremy Stangroom posted in criticism of Russell Blackford’s tone on this same subject, Coyne’s immediate response was to mention that Stangroom supports statuatory rape, a classic ad hominem move, with a little tu quoque mixed in for good measure.

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    February 19, 2011

    Journalmalist: I agree that atheism is not a paradigm or world-view or philosophy (though it verges on a philosophy, to the extent theism is, too). But gnu/new/extreme/militant/affirmative atheism does present itself as a movement, indeed as a movement on the order of civil rights, abolition, gay rights, and suffrage movements. As such, it isn’t unreasonable to ask them to present a coherent platform and some sort of cohesive principles. There’s no contradiction between a movement opposed to irrational dogma presenting a set of coherent and reasoned principles: principles aren’t dogma!

    I accept that the gnus see the battle in terms of religion, not science, and I’m not trying to change that, so the answer to your last question is “no.”

  15. #15 gillt
    February 19, 2011

    As such, it isn’t unreasonable to ask them to present a coherent platform and some sort of cohesive principles.

    Actually, you want this social movement to publish their platform and principles in the peer reviewed literature of philosophy and religious studies journals, cultural studies and “even theology,” basically to be institutionalized in academia before it opens its mouth.

  16. #16 Anton Mates
    February 19, 2011

    Actually, you want this social movement to publish their platform and principles in the peer reviewed literature of philosophy and religious studies journals, cultural studies and “even theology,” basically to be institutionalized in academia before it opens its mouth.

    Non-”institutionalized” viewpoints are published in peer-reviewed literature all the time. That’s usually a key step in getting institutionalized, as we’re always trying to explain to the creationists.

    And many of the gnu voices are as already as institutionalized as it’s possible to get. I mean, Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne? Not exactly lone voices in the academic wilderness, you know? I can’t imagine them having a lot of difficulty getting published, especially if they were working with someone else in the relevant fields.

  17. #17 Jeremy Stangoom
    February 19, 2011

    @Josh

    “I’ll note that the term “faitheist” was invented by gnus for the sole purpose of giving their opponents within the non-theist community an insulting name”

    The whole “faitheist” thing is ludicrous. I can just imagine Coyne et al delivering a lecture on structural functionalist approaches in sociology (or their equivalents in anthropology), and coming to the way that Parsons, or Durkheim, for example, handled religion, and summing up by saying:

    “And the trouble here, of course, is that they were a bunch of fatheist bastards”.

    @Chris

    “Coyne’s immediate response was to mention that Stangroom supports statuatory rape, a classic ad hominem move, with a little tu quoque mixed in for good measure.”

    Coyne’s a fool (and yes, I know, he’s also a brilliant scientist), and you guys really shouldn’t take anything he says about non-scientific stuff too seriously, but actually I don’t think that is quite an ad hominem move (though it was clearly made for rhetorical purposes, and its intent is morally suspect – which, frankly, is par for the course with Coyne).

    Clearly, I do think that it is wrong and absurd that certain sorts of consensual, sexual relationships between teenagers and adults have been criminalised (and yes, of course, I’m fully aware of, and have written about, the complexity surrounding the notion of consent in this context): in that sense, Coyne is right that I think there is (sometimes) nothing wrong with behaviours that are by the lights of the legal systems of some countries (but not others) classed as “statutory rape”. That is my position: I’m not ashamed of it; I think I’m right about the issues; and I fully intend to carry on saying it.

    But, generally, you guys shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the substance of Coyne’s non-scientific stuff.

  18. #18 Josh Rosenau
    February 20, 2011

    Gillt: Your argument reminds me of this classic bit of testimony from Kitzmiller:

    Well, yes. It seems to me that, because of the way — I really do think, in many respects, the cards are stacked against radical innovative views from getting a fair hearing in science today because of the way peer review is run, the way in which resources are concentrated, and so forth, much more so than in the past actually.

    It was a kind of much freer field back in the old days. And so there’s a sense in which, unless special efforts are made to make space for views that do show some promise, okay, they’re never actually going to be able to develop to the level at which then they could become properly testable and then their true scientific merit can be judged.

    So special efforts have to be made. And in one of my earlier books, The Governance of Science, I actually talked about this as an affirmative action strategy with regard to disadvantaged theories. It’s not obvious in the normal system of science that these theories will get a fair hearing.

    How would you distinguish your position (especially in light of Anton’s entirely correct points) so as to avoid endorsing Fullerian buffoonery?

  19. #19 Verbose Stoic
    February 20, 2011

    gillt,

    “Actually, you want this social movement to publish their platform and principles in the peer reviewed literature of philosophy and religious studies journals, cultural studies and “even theology,” basically to be institutionalized in academia before it opens its mouth.”

    Personally, I’d like to see them engage people in the academic fields studying those things when making points about those fields, even just by reading some of the background on them. Which:

    1) Is not much different from how people like Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers treat people from other fields that talk about biology.

    2) For theology, at least, is what is DENIED by many “gnu atheists”, as they continually argue that they don’t care what people who are doing the professional work of theology say, but only on what the every day person believes. Which is totally the opposite of how they treat science — we judge and engage science by what scientists say, not by what folk science says — and is not exactly a good approach for any claim that, say, relies on making a philosophical claim about the incompatibility of the two, for example.

  20. #20 Journalmalist
    February 20, 2011

    Can Josh or JJ point me toward a source that explains what “Gnu Atheism” actually means? I don’t believe it is a movement, so much as merely reactionary. Urban Dictionary:

    A term used by atheists online to ridicule the idea that there is such a thing as a “New Atheist.”

    And Josh, it’s a reaction to things like advice to study the “literature of social movement theory.”

    But gnu/new/extreme/militant/affirmative atheism does present itself as a movement…

    You’re not following the script!

    To keep the story focused, be as presentist as possible. Neither outspoken atheists of the past nor the history of atheism in radical and social-justice movements, including feminism, are relevant to your contemporary portrait.

    I do agree that, like atheism, theism isn’t a world view or philosophy either.

  21. #21 gillt
    February 20, 2011

    How would you distinguish your position (especially in light of Anton’s entirely correct points) so as to avoid endorsing Fullerian buffoonery?

    This desperate insult/parallel is a silly distraction from dodging the implications of your rhetoric.

    Or can you show us where I said Gnus want to indoctrinate school children or complain about a conspiracy in academia against their viewpoint–academia is probably the only place where Gnus are less of a minority.

    I’m saying the implications of your wish list is that Gnus STFU until they do more to comport with your idea of what a social movement is and isn’t and should and should not be about. Accommodationist rhetoric is always light on the argument and heavy on telling others what to do.
    That should cover Anton Mates complain as well.

  22. #22 Josh Rosenau
    February 21, 2011

    Gillt: Saying I want people to publish their results is hardly the same as “STFU.” In fact, it’s the opposite. What implications are you referring to? And how does anything you said address anything Anton said? How, to put a finer point on it, does your rhetoric even approach an argument?

  23. #23 Anton Mates
    February 21, 2011

    gillt,

    Or can you show us where I said Gnus want to indoctrinate school children or complain about a conspiracy in academia against their viewpoint–academia is probably the only place where Gnus are less of a minority.

    I don’t think you said either of those things. But you did say that publishing in the peer-reviewed literature requires being institutionalized in academia. That’s the same (incorrect) claim creationists use to argue that they should be taken seriously even though they don’t publish in academic circles. No, that doesn’t make you a creationist!

    I’m saying the implications of your wish list is that Gnus STFU until they do more to comport with your idea of what a social movement is and isn’t and should and should not be about.

    That’s odd, since what Josh actually said is that Gnus should talk more–not just in popular media, but also in peer-reviewed journals. How do you draw an implication of “STFU” from that?

    Accommodationist rhetoric is always light on the argument and heavy on telling others what to do.

    Oh, come on. Gnus have written books filled with recommendations for individual behavior and social policy. They’ve argued that scientific and educational organizations are Doing It Wrong. They’ve told others what to do on everything from reception of the Pope to the appointment of government officials.

    If you like gnu arguments better than accommodationist arguments, no problem, but it’s absurd to claim that accommodationists are particularly big on ordering others around. Even Matt Nisbet, who’s probably the bossiest accommodationist ever, is matched by Sam Harris on that front.

    (Not that there’s anything bad or weird about that. Gnu atheism is a strongly political movement, and politics is basically the art of telling others what to do.)

  24. #24 gillt
    February 21, 2011

    Are you saying it’s not enough that a social movement exists and is popular but that it should have previously done the work to ground itself in academia? That seems like poorly given advice.

    Why should proponents of a social movement first establish themselves in the relevant academic literature then write hugely successful books for their intended audience? Again, there is no basis in comparing the goals of New Atheism to getting ID in schools.

    I’m saying I want people to publish their results[...]

    What results have Harris, Dawkins, Dennett Myers, and Coyne reached? Is it that more acquiescing to the status quo is not the way policy for social change or overcoming a universally reviled minority status?

  25. #25 Josh Rosenau
    February 21, 2011

    Gillt: My point is not that gnus should only make their arguments in the peer reviewed literature, which is why I first wished “they cited that literature more,” which could be done in mass market books and blogs and so forth. And being “engaged with the relevant communities of scholars” does not require publication. It can mean attending conferences and reading journals and citing those scholars’ results, or even engaging the summaries of that scholarship provided by specialists’ blogs.

    Certainly some arguments aren’t appropriate for the peer reviewed literature: no one would expect the Declaration of Independence or the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to be revised to satisfy reviewer 3. But Sam Harris’s argument in The Moral Landscape, for example, does: it’s a technical argument about metaethics and neurophilosophy. And instead of going through peer review, he publishes in mass market venues. Nor should all social movements cite peer reviewed literature to back their arguments. But, again, Sam Harris should have, and would have been better for doing that: instead he said that citing that literature would be “boring.”

    And if people want to redefine science (Moran, Coyne, Harris), which seems to be a key aspect of many gnus’ agendas, then that’s something that I think can only be done in the literature. If they want to argue that science and religion are not “epistemically compatible” (a phrase never defined clearly, used by Benson, Coyne, Blackford), then that’s a philosophical argument that also belongs in the technical literature. Similarly for the central gnu principle that religion is all bad (pretty much all the gnus, possibly excepting Dennett): a claim that should at least cite social science results, if not be published in peer reviewed literature.

    Much of the gnu social agenda is based on those ideas: a redefinition or expansion of science, a claimed incompatibility between science and religion, the pernicious effects of even moderate and liberal religion(s). And those are not abstract moral claims, a la King’s or Jefferson’s. They are philosophical and sociological arguments, and if they are bad arguments, then the social movement built on their back will be weakened as a result.

    Saying that Harris should have run the Moral Landscape through peer review isn’t saying STFU. But if he’d done that, he’d have had to rewrite various parts, maybe drop some claims, rethink others, perhaps gather new data, certainly address certain key concepts that he ignores. Having done that, he might have written a mass market book, but it wouldn’t have been the same book. It’d be a better book, one that would be more convincing to a wider audience, because it’d be more accurate. Saying that’s equivalent to STFU strikes me as conceding that all gnuism has to offer is inaccurate and technically flawed arguments along with some bombast. I don’t want to think that, and I’m fairly sure you don’t think that, so what’s the problem with demanding the same rigor from gnus that I expect from any other group of scientists?

    And you’ll note that I don’t criticize Dennett when I criticize other gnus. Because he does real research on the issues, and publishes it in scholarly settings as well as mass market venues. That doesn’t seem to have S Dennett TFU, and I don’t know why it should STFU any others.

    You ask “What results have [gnus] reached?” Well, they have plenty to write about, and reach various conclusions. I question the way they reached those results. And I’ve laid out the basic structure of a research program that could address some of their claims, especially about the effectiveness of gnuism as a tactic for changing minds: http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2010/07/prolegomena_to_any_future_soci.php I’ve seen no counterproposal from the gnus.

  26. #26 Anton Mates
    February 21, 2011

    gillt,

    Are you saying it’s not enough that a social movement exists and is popular but that it should have previously done the work to ground itself in academia?

    Why should proponents of a social movement first establish themselves in the relevant academic literature then write hugely successful books for their intended audience?

    Are you reading the same post I am? Josh said nothing about publishing academic literature first or previously, he just said gnus should publish as well.

    What results have Harris, Dawkins, Dennett Myers, and Coyne reached? Is it that more acquiescing to the status quo is not the way policy for social change or overcoming a universally reviled minority status?

    That religion is socially destructive, that religious belief is irrational, that the rhetorical styles they endorse are more effective for both public science education and, yes, changing social attitudes toward atheism?

    Prominent gnu authors aren’t (usually) just emoting into the ether as some kind of performance art, they’re making actual arguments. Those of us who are interested in truth, as most gnus seem to be, would like to know whether they’re good arguments. The best way to do that, IMO, is to offer them up in the peer-reviewed literature and let the relevant experts chew them over.

    No, that may not make gnu atheism more successful as a social movement. But presumably they don’t just want to be successful, they also want to be right.

  27. #27 Marion Delgado
    February 21, 2011

    My complaint is not civility and never was.

    I just think they’re wrong on most points that distinguish them.

    That said, Josh, in all seriousness, you’re not their keeper – they can gripe all they want, but so?

    This whole situation seems Darwinian – meaning, let them succeed in their niche, and let, e.g., the NCSE succeed in its niche. History has shown that bickering won’t change behavior.

  28. #28 Anthony McCarthy
    February 21, 2011

    There has never been a reviled minority which has changed its status by dishonestly insulting people in the majority. That the new atheists think they can win influence by insulting the majority of people is so irrational that it should be enough to discredit them.

    Imagine if MLK had practiced the NA tactical program instead of the one he did. New atheists might not enjoy their status as a covered class under the Civil Rights Act because it would probably have never been passed.

  29. #29 gillt
    February 21, 2011

    And as you hope to see Gnus “do better” I’d like to see some improvement on your part as well. If you’re going to criticize New Atheists for not doing something when one of the most prominent one’s is doing it, maybe it would be more helpful to stop generalizing your allies and hold Dennett (and Blackford?) up as a great example of what some New Atheists do.

    The Moral Landscape is certainly controversial among New Atheists. Massimo Pugliucci even says “[Coyne's and Dawkins'] position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ so I don’t see the justification in holding it up as the main example of your complaint.

    And being “engaged with the relevant communities of scholars” does not require publication.

    I wish they published their arguments there and engaged with the relevant communities of scholars that way…

    I’m confused as to what you really want here.

    And if people want to redefine science (Moran, Coyne, Harris), which seems to be a key aspect of many gnus’ agendas,

    On the one hand you say “defining science is notoriously hard,” and yet you’re definitely sure Gnus must be redefining it, thus implying that they’re wrong. I’m not aware, has a consensus been reached among scientists and philosophers on this matter that would qualify your confidence? It’s not as if your link–not published research but one of your blog posts–makes an open/shut case. All we have is your unsuccessful attempt to assure everyone Gnus are doing it wrong.

    However, the link does quote a philosopher’s book review, a philosopher who was compelled to apologize to Coyne for bad behavior (where’s your hair-trigger reproof?), and who is no more qualified to speak about the compatibility of science and religion than a scientist or theologian, yet that doesn’t stop MP from doing so, of course. Or you for that matter.

    I like the “research program” you laid out and I think a science organization should fund something like it. What I don’t like is what Elaine Ecklund did with her data, so no Templeton interference.

    You have to remember that Gnus are concerned with increased science literacy and increased atheist awareness. Those are different goals. However, I don’t see a good reason why–besides your own personal testimony–that these can’t sometimes go hand-in-hand or compliment one another–especially if you believe that religion is the or one of the main obstacles to science acceptance, both individually and culturally. And no Gnu would deny that a plurality of tactics optimized for the situation is best, as witnessed by their general praise over the Dover Trial and how it was conducted.

    What I don’t understand is that if polling data shows evolution or science acceptance has remained stagnant for the past 30 years (and for whatever reason) why is it incorrect, as you seem to argue, to interpret that as justification to try a new and possibly better strategy?

  30. #30 Anthony McCarthy
    February 22, 2011

    I have never read or heard a new atheist who didn’t seem intent on inserting ideological materialism into science, some as almost a professional requirement. Thus the almost uniform habit of the heroes of it to want to jettison the need for physical evidence in favor of materialist speculation when there was no physical evidence available. It’s been true of Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, and recently Hawking who went so far as to state:

    “We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes.”

    If that isn’t a radical redefinition of science maybe science never had a definition to start with and the anti-method folks were right.

    If the physicists are trying to hog metaphysics to themselves, freeing themselves from the subject matter of physics in the process, I don’t see why philosophers can’t comment on science since ideological materialism isn’t really science.

  31. #31 Anthony McCarthy
    February 22, 2011

    I had until recently thought that Coyne might be an exception to that, which accounted for his book being better than anything I’ve read by Dawkins, but he seems just to have been able to compartmentalize better, not having been quite as dependent on inserting the non-standards of the social sciences into biology.

  32. #32 Anthony McCarthy
    February 22, 2011

    Josh, I hadn’t seen your July 16th post before now, it’s an excellent short explanation of the complexity of studying social phenomena. I especially liked the last bullet, “And many more”. That, along with the practical impossibility of studying, for example, Hamilton’s ideas about “altruism”, makes the assertions of evo-psy seem to me to be inserting materialism into some extremely vast chasms in what can be known.

    I’ve yet to see any evidence that behavior and consciousness are susceptible to scientific methods, the notoriously unreliable record of the attempts to study those scientifically seem like loads of artificial fill in place of real knowledge. Considering the length of time that effort has been going on leads me to doubt that those areas are susceptible to scientific methods and whatever the attempt to produce something will lead to a simulation of knowledge simply because those engaged in it have to come up with something. I’d think by the rules of the new atheist-”skeptical” ideologues, the onus to provide evidence that my kind of skepticism of the effort is on those who are routinely making extremely extraordinary claims which the self-appointed champions of science eat up since it reinforces their preferred ideology.

  33. #33 Anthony McCarthy
    February 22, 2011

    See also: Neal Gabler, The Arrogance Divide.

    It’s even more the reason that the new atheists will never catch on with most people, it’s also got a lot to do with how the far right is successfully attacking the progress of the past century.

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/02/22/the_arrogance_divide/

  34. #34 Marion Delgado
    February 22, 2011

    Neil Gabler gets Thomas Frank wrong – I think Frank makes Villagers uncomfortable, so they can’t actually read WTMWK, just caricature it. The blogger who does Gene Expression also got Frank utterly wrong, in a different way.

    Thomas Frank *didn’t *just blame GOP and conservative manipulation. He said what enabled the split off of – not the majority – but enough of a minority of the working class and about half the middle class to get Republicans into power, and then more conservative Republicans – was the opportunity presented when the Third Way/DLC/triangulating Democrats abandoned industry, unions, equality, fairness, and the social safety net. At that point, why not be a “values voter?”

    That puts the arrogance divide between the Villagers like Broder, Friedman, etc. and the average person, where it belongs. The New Atheists aren’t leading liberalism. Very few liberals look to them for leadership, especially after Harris and Hitchens became Busheviks.

    That smug formulation by Gabler ignores another divide: the owners of the media and the viewers or readers of the media. The former have complete contempt for the latter. I experienced that first-hand – I was fired from one radio station for, to quote the manager, my belief that “we are in the radio business, or the news business or the music business. That’s all crap! we are in the business of taking the consumer ” – and here the manager made a “take the kitten by the scruff of the neck” gesture – “and feeding him to the producer.”

    The customer for the media is the advertiser. Media figures, including op-ed writers, can’t really speak for the masses about things like arrogance as long as the class war elephant is in the newsroom.

  35. #35 Anthony McCarthy
    February 22, 2011

    Marion Delgado, Gabler acknowledged that there was something wrong in Kansas but he is right that condescension is a problem among many liberals. A good part of the problem is that any arrogance on the part of anyone of even a vaguely leftish identiy will be used against the rest of us, though there are certainly liberals who are condescending. My usual haunts online are liberal political blogs and it’s not uncommon to come across class and regional condescension. A few weeks back someone complained that I was telling them to have some respect for “fat, white Nascar fans”. Of course, one answer to that is you do if you want them to vote with you.

    You are right that the whole problem is due to the media’s allegiance to the side that pays the best, as Marc Blitzstein put it more than 60 years ago. But condescending liberals offer them too much hay to work with.

    It’s one of the reasons I don’t have any worry that the new atheists will be a political success, not for our side, at least. They’re a lot better at turning people off than encouraging people to join up for their great cause, which isn’t the purification of science and society as much as it is lording it over the unfit, as determined by their bright lights. I do worry that they’re coming of on science and damaging it just as I have that they are more useful as a foil to the Republican right than they are to the left.