PZ Myers responds to a podcast debate between Chris Mooney and Ron Lindsay about accommodationism and New Atheism. I haven’t listened to the podcast, so I don’t know who won or who lost, or what brilliant points were or weren’t made. I do know that the title of PZ’s post reflects the general New Atheist triumphalism about the podcast, and yet his post doesn’t match the title.
The title is: “We aren’t angry, we’re effective, which is even scarier.”
From that title, I’d expect some sort of clear statement of what effect PZ wishes to have, and then clear evidence showing that the strategy is effective. The account of New Atheism’s goals PZ offers is as muddled as any other such effort I’ve seen, and there’s literally no evidence of effectiveness offered, unless “seeing believers get angry and stomping off determined to prove I’m a colossal jackhole” is meant as evidence of effectiveness.
And PZ’s dismissal of Mooney’s argument is rather odd. It begins:
the problem revolves around a central argument for the Mooneyites: that harsh criticism of cherished beliefs, like religion, leads to an immediate, emotion-based shutdown of critical faculties by the target, and makes them refractory to rational evaluation of their ideas. To which I say, yeah, so? I agree with that. I know that happens. It’s what I expect to happen.
PZ here is not disputing anything Chris is saying. He’s not, that is, disputing that the extant psychological research supports Mooney’s point about the likely effectiveness of New Atheist tactics. If you’re expecting a “but,” you sort of get it. Mooney’s not wrong, PZ explains, but the evidence is irrelevant:
that’s all short-term thinking, and I don’t care what happens in the mind of a believer five minutes or a day after I make an argument (the usual domain of the psychology experiments accommodations love to cite in defense of their position; there’s an awful lot of psychology done in our universities with horizons no longer than the next publication deadline).
Reading that last sentence, I hoped against hope that the next sentence would begin, “However, some long-term research shows…,” but all we get next is “What I’m interested in seeing happen is … a sustained argument, over the course of years or generations, … pressing on the foolishness of faith.” No contrary evidence, no reason to think that the short-term studies don’t tell us about long-term effects. Just wishful thinking.
The problem is that the research Mooney cites, the research PZ acknowledges as valid and legitimate and expected, tells us that the head-on approach PZ advocates is unlikely to undermine any entrenched position, especially religion-based positions. No one disputes that “hitting people in the gut and telling them to open their eyes” is “a very effective way to let people know we think they are dead wrong.” But the evidence at hand also shows that forceful attacks of that sort undermine the credibility of the source, and reinforce the target’s commitment to the attacked beliefs.
No, it’s not a new idea. It’s The North Wind and the Sun from Aesop’s fables. It’s not just folk wisdom; it holds up under experimental conditions. And this extensive body of research and practical experience says that just telling someone “I think you’re dead wrong” is not likely to change them, no matter how forcefully it’s said, no matter how many metaphorical punches you deliver to the gut. The trick to persuasion is to make the person want to change their own mind. And gut-punching doesn’t do that, it just makes them want to fight back.
And if anyone wants to see this sort of motivated reasoning at work, one need look no farther than the reactions of gnu atheists to this body of research.