Last week, Rick Perry made some factually false and deeply disturbing claims about how evolution is and ought to be taught in Texas. In the ensuing flurry of criticism (fueled by the fact that Perry simultaneously doubled down on his climate change denial), retired British biologist Richard Dawkins was invited to comment on the matter at the Washington Post’s website. His piece opens by heaping bile on Perry and any political system that allows him to rise to a place of prominence, before repeating a typically Dawkinsian (somewhat florid, always passionate), but somewhat tangential defense of the awesomeness of evolution.

Texan science policy wonk Jamie Vernon suggested that Dawkins’s approach, opening by calling Perry an “uneducated fool” and an “ignoramus,” might not be the best way to sway any Perry supporters’ views on evolution. One could object that this may not have been Dawkins’s intention. Indeed, I can’t be sure what audience Dawkins intended to reach. His encomia against Perry will do nicely for Democratic partisans, but people from the liberal end of the spectrum don’t need to be told that evolution is awesome – they generally know it already. Then again, folks who might need convincing about the merits of evolution are exactly the sorts of folks who probably have a high opinion of Perry, and of the anti-intellectual strain of politics he represents, but they aren’t likely to read past the first paragraph, let alone take any argument after that point terribly seriously (motivated reasoning, etc.).

There are plenty of reasons to write stirring diatribes against Rick Perry. He’s a hairdo and little else, with an awful record as governor of Texas. He executed an innocent man. He violated a treaty to execute another. He executed a mentally ill man. He’s hell-bent on undermining Texas schools. He suggested seceding from the Union over the stimulus bill. He doesn’t care about any science that doesn’t help him get elected. If you thought things were bad from 2001-2009, Perry would be even worse.

There are also plenty of reasons to write an ode to evolution. The 21st century will be the century of biology, a century defined by personal genomics, by the ability for home hobbyists to tinker with biology the way kids play with Legos today. Every insight into biotechnology, every invention, every discovery, every drug, every biofuels advance, rests on an understanding of evolution. Evolution ties it all together, makes it make sense, and makes it possible for people to make advances unimaginable even a decade ago. It’s a beautiful theory, not just scientifically but aesthetically, a simple and pervasive idea that makes the world better.

But I think Jamie is right that you ought not to combine those arguments. That evolution rocks is not really an argument that Perry should not be president, and that Perry should not be president is surely not an argument in favor of evolution. These are distinct ideas, and trying to advance them in the same piece seems likely to lose you any plausible audience.

There is, of course, a different take. PZ Myers read Jamie’s post, and uses it to attack “accommodationists,” a group which he doesn’t really define, and which he misdescribes by any plausible accounting, even if he were only trying to describe Jamie Vernon himself. These accommodationists, Myers writes:

always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.

So get out there, Mr Vernon. What are you doing to inform people of the disastrous ignorance of Rick Perry? What are you doing to oppose his candidacy? Are you even willing to state that he’s unfit for office, and why? Don’t you think evolution-denial is a very good marker for science illiteracy?

This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.

What’s Jamie doing? Well, he’s been working for Scientists and Engineers for America, doing policy analysis and activism training for them. Before that, he was a post-doc in Texas, working on gene therapy in PZ Myers own model organism, the zebrafish. He’s getting ready to begin a policy fellowship through AAAS, working on science policy at a federal agency.

That’s not just happy thoughts, that’s work in the trenches, trying to change how science is perceived by politicians and the public. To pretend that Jamie is politically disengaged is absurd, and, to borrow a term from Dawkins, ignorant.

But what about other “accommodationists”? Are we all milquetoasts on Perry’s anti-science remarks? Hardly. As you probably know, I’m one of the more vocal people who get tagged as “accommodationists,” and I’ve been rather vocal about Perry’s statement. I told Politifact Texas that Perry’s remark was “false,” and that’s how they graded it. I told Talking Points Memo, “The idea that the standards require or even permit the teaching of creationism is wrong. … Under almost almost any plausible interpretation of what he said it’s either not true or he’s advocating something that’s unconstitutional.” On this blog, I wrote, “he’s not just wrong, but advocating a policy struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court 24 years ago… to claim it as a statewide policy is simply false, and Perry’s been involved in Texas politics long enough to know better. … Perry’s creationist ideas were as wrong and inappropriate for science classes 27 years ago as they are today.”

That’s not “psycho-mojo.” It’s not passivity and silence. In my private life, including this blog, I’m happy to state unequivocally that Rick Perry should never be President of anything, even his local kennel club. Talking to reporters on NCSE’s dime, IRS regulations forbid me from commenting on political campaigns, so saying that his claims about science education are nonsense is about as far as I can go in that setting.
And if anyone doubts that I (again, a prominent accommodationist) think evolution denial is anything but a mark of science illiteracy, you need only consult the post where I address that exact question, or my comment in Science magazine:

Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, … “Whatever the cultural context or reasons for it, rejection of evolution has profound consequences for a person’s ability to fully integrate new and existing science into their own lives, to participate in their own medical care and in the 21st century economy,” he says. “If NSF’s surveys downplay that fundamental concept, they will be measuring science literacy in name only.”

PZ closes with a contorted analogy between Jamie and McCarthyites, a maneuver that only narrowly evades a Godwin violation, and about which the less said, the better.

Note, too, that PZ now declares himself an “activist,” and apparently an expert on political rhetoric and tactics. Which is amusing, since not long ago he declared, “I’m no good at politics, I freely admit.” Maybe he should set aside his own non-expertise and the guidance of someone who doesn’t even live in the US, and listen to people who deal with US politics and especially the politics of science full-time.

Comments

  1. #1 anon
    August 26, 2011

    The 21st century will be the century of biology, a century defined by personal genomics, by the ability for home hobbyists to tinker with biology the way kids play with Legos today.

    Is laboratory glassware still illegal in Texas? That might slow home research down a little…

  2. #2 Left_Wing_Fox
    August 26, 2011

    It should be noted that Jamie is refusing to allow critical comments on the sullen, content-free reply to PZ’s post. I have no trouble with him being snarky or sullen in reply to PZ’s post, but the fact that he simply whined about being criticized and failing to actually address the issue at hand is the pattern of behaviour which alienated myself from The Intersection’s crew in the first place.

    Ultimately, I don’t feel these folks are effective communicators. They seem to be more effective at dividing the pro-science folks into “Angry Atheists” and “Reasonable communicators” than bringing religious folks into the pro-science fold.

  3. #3 Matti K.
    August 26, 2011

    Do our dear accommodationists ever consider the possibility that when a prominent scientist writes about evolution, his/her primary motive is not always to convert antievolutionists? For example, Dawkins brings up the idea of the attitude to evolution being a litmus test of adequate scientific understanding. That might be a interesting new point also for people who have no problems accepting evolution:

    “Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable.”

  4. #4 CosmosMarinerDU
    August 26, 2011

    I just wish the scientifically informed would simplify the message. There are only two points that need to be made over and over. They are both based on words that have two meanings – all good, all used often by everybody. But two have meanings within science; the other two are just commonly, usually, conversationally, bloggingly used – that are used FAR MORE OFTEN IN THAT SENSE than the other more technical ones:

    1. BELIEVE: No scientist “believes” in evolution. No scientist “believes” in ANY theory. We DO think that some theories are DARN GOOD explanations for a lot of observable facts – but we don’t BELIEVE in them. Just think that as the facts accumulate they keep getting more and more solid in their explanation – and we can turn on a dime if necessary. Bye-bye steady state; hello Big Bang.

    2. THEORY: Creationism IS a theory in the USUAL SENSE of the word; Evolution is a theory in the specialized scientific use of the word. Theory in the usual sense is hypothesis in the scientific sense.

    It is EXACTLY on not hammering on that distinction that the argument keeps on going – when there is no argument in the first place. There can NOT be an argument, there can NOT be a debate, if the two sides are using words differently.

    Look, a history Ph.D. is Doctor; a neurosurgeon M.D. is Doctor. Which one do you want operating on your brain?

    And, here’s the point, creationism MIGHT BE RIGHT! How can you disprove that God created the world 6,000 years ago with all the fossils in place? Can’t prove a negative. Can’t be done.

    But that belief – which is fair to call a theory IN THE CONVERSATIONAL SENSE – has NOTHING to do with what the (scientific) theory of evolution is about.

    The discussion has NOTHING to do with whether or not evolution is right or wrong. It’s science. A SCIENTIFIC theory. Creationism and its children is NOT!

    And that’s why creationism, creation science, and intelligent design, can not be in the classrooms. Not because its wrong – but because it isn’t science. And the POLITICAL discussion stops there.

    It is IRRELEVANT what one “believes!” That’s the entire point. I wish the intelligentsia would stop trying to play on the other side’s court! It’s a different court; a different game. We keep trying to play chess – and they keep hitting us over the head with a baseball bat. GET OFF THEIR DIAMOND!

    And, yes, Dawkins – brilliant though he is – is destroying the possibility of acceptance of both atheism and science (not just evolution) with his ranting to true believers. And part of the damage he’s doing is he keeps linking atheism with evolution – if you think evolution is true, you can’t be religious. Nonsense! They have nothing to do with each other. Science says nothing – and CAN’T say anything – about anything outside its domain … and the transcendent (no matter what you think about things mystical)is WAY outside its domain of sharable, observable, observations – its facts.

    And again we have a word with multiple meanings: fact. Evolution IS a fact; evolution IS a large set of facts; evolution IS a theory. So fact, facts, and theory – and THAT theory is NEVER a fact. Ever. So call out the “Of course, evolution is ONLY a theory – not a fact” every time it comes up. It’s wrong, ignorant, and insulting, all at once. Impressive.

    Actually Dawkins is no better (if not worse because he’s more intelligent)than some extreme fundamentalist preacher screaming hatred at his little congregation – and making everyone else think that religion is the devil’s own doing. (That last phrase is almost a Yogi Berra-ism.)

    Anyway, until we stop debating flagellum and irreducible complexity and genetic mutations and all the rest – and just keep hammering on the difference between those two sets of words – nothing is going to happen … except maybe get a Rick Perry elected and eventually allowing creationism to get into where it should not be.

    And hammering CONSISTENTLY – time to stop being wimpy … and we don’t have to be all Dawkins about it either. Just calm assertiveness. Works with dogs too.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    August 26, 2011

    Matti: To make the argument you quote, he doesn’t have to make that extended argument in favor of evolution. And again, the people who are ambivalent about whether evolution ought to be a litmus test are likely to think Perry’s anti-intellectualism is OK, and to resent Dawkins’s opening salvos against Perry and the GOP. In the Democratic Party, primary voters seem to regard pro-evolution attitudes as necessary already, so the folks who need to be reached on the issue are Republicans. Who are less likely to take anything he says seriously after reading that opening paragraph.

  6. #6 Mike from Ottawa
    August 26, 2011

    PZM: “always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.”

    Looks like PZ’s doing his Luskin impression there.

  7. #7 Matti K.
    August 26, 2011

    Mr. Rosenau, I just gave an example of an interesting point Dawkins made. I am not interested in analyses of target audiences.

    However, I guess that when you yourself prepare articles about evolution, you spend very much time thinking about target audiences and how to sell them your idea. You are clearly in the marketing business. That’s OK, everybody must make a living.

    But is it really impossible to understand that not everybody shares your priorities and prepares their articles in a similar way? I don’t think Dawkins would be such a popular writer if he did.

  8. #8 Mike Magee
    August 26, 2011

    Dawkins is making a simple point–if someone denies the scientific theory of evolution then that person is ignorant, not just ignorant of evolution but the denial of something so well established by 15 decades of research, and myriads of published papers is pure IGNORANCE. 92 percent of Republicans might be insulted to know that they are ignorant, but it is true if that proportion of them deny evolution, and many of their leading lights like Perry, Bachmann, Palin and Coulter like to brag about their ignorance to pander to their constituents.

    As for science and theory, science is a method of determining predictive explanations by formulating hypotheses (educated guesses–what CosmosMarinerDU calls “the usual sense” of the word theory) and then testing them in real situations to find out whether they work–whether they do indeed explain something sufficiently well for us to be able to anticipate the result of a test. CosmosMarinerDU says “Science says nothing – and CAN’T say anything – about anything outside its domain”. That is manifestly nonsense or at best circular, because anything is within the domain of science that can be investigated by the scientific method.

    Religion? Well, those aspects of religion that are purely imaginary like spirits, transcendence and God cannot be investigated by science, but they are imaginary–that is why! But science can show that many of the psychological phenomena that religious people consider meaningful, can be induced. And the application of scientific method to history, archaeology and literary criticism of books considered divine can show that they are better explained by conventional means than by imaginary constructions.

    Let us not be diverted by those who would have us believe that religion is outside the scope of the scientific method. In large measure it is religious propaganda.

  9. #9 Collin
    August 27, 2011

    CosmosMarinerDU: “So fact, facts, and theory – and THAT theory is NEVER a fact.”

    What does that mean?

  10. #10 Anthony McCarthy
    August 27, 2011

    I doubt either Dawkins or PZ are really interested in preventing the disaster that a Rich Perry presidency would be they are interested in protecting their Vaudeville act, their only claims to fame, at this point. Well, Dawkins has his evo-psy but that’s beginning to fray at the core so his fall back career is all he’s got these days.

    The left has a weak, ineffective president who will be the only chance at keeping a radical, possibly psychotic, Republican out of the White House. It’s got enough problems without Dawkins and Meyers and their adoring fans from complicating matters.

    Most voters are going to be too busy worrying about losing their homes and jobs, a lot of the people who voted for Obama are going to have to be convinced to vote on someone who let them down badly. Having a bunch of conceited egomaniacs telling them that they’re stupid isn’t going to do anything but put someone like Perry in the presidency. Even his fans don’t owe Dawkins that. The WaPo had no problem with the Bush II disaster, they won’t have any problem tacitly supporting a Perry if they think its in their financial interest, which they will. I can imagine them playing up the loser issue of slamming religion to benefit Republicans quite consciously and quite intentionally. Richard Dawkins is about the worst candidate I can think of to speak for science to the American public.

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    August 27, 2011

    I think evolution, the idea in science supported with the most massive amount of evidence, should be called a fact because it fits the understanding most people have for the word “fact”. “Theory” for most people means an idea that isn’t supported with an enormous amount of evidence.

    Though it’s probably way too late for the effective public acceptance of evolution, this misunderstanding of that point by majority of people is based in a fussy, silly insistence on formal meanings of those words that are contrary to most peoples’ use of them. Sacrificing effective use of language for snooty cleverness doesn’t seem like very smart thinking to me.

  12. #12 Wesley R. Elsberry
    August 27, 2011

    Collin:

    CosmosMarinerDU: “So fact, facts, and theory – and THAT theory is NEVER a fact.”

    What does that mean?

    My attempt at explanation:

    http://austringer.net/wp/index.php/2009/07/03/another-look-at-law-and-theory/

  13. #13 Collin
    August 28, 2011

    The definitions on austringer.net technically make sense. They would be very useful in an ideal conversation, e.g. between Gandalf and Elrond.

    In the real world, however, most people, even most smart people, just don’t talk that way. And I see nothing wrong with saying something like “There are many types of evidence for evolution. They just keep coming in, and they all agree. There is by now not a shadow of a doubt that evolution is true.”

  14. #14 TB
    August 29, 2011

    That Dawkins has a different intent is fine, but if that’s the only thing you’re going to point out then it’s a non-admission admission.
    Regardless of his intent, he could still be ineffective in communicating science to people who might otherwise be swayed. Saying he had a different intent implicitly concedes that and skips over to trying to justify it.
    So, Matti K, sure he’s free to do that and we’re free to point out to the Washington Post that they need to include a diversity of voices and that Dawkins represents a small, polarized portion of the population – not even all Atheists.
    And in that sense, I think it’s great that PZ finally admits the obvious, that he’s an activist. Now we can stop having these discussions and wish him and his fellow activists well.
    And it also makes it easier to point out that their’s is a political message about a particular brand of Atheism and not about science or science education.

  15. #15 Matti K.
    August 30, 2011

    TB: “Regardless of his intent, he could still be ineffective in communicating science to people who might otherwise be swayed.”

    So? By all measures, Dawkins is terrific in communicating science. Is it a terrible loss if he can’t reach everybody? There are enough accommodating scientists and supposed communication experts who should be able to handle the difficult cases. Why whine about the diversity of approaches?

    TB: “So, Matti K, sure he’s free to do that and we’re free to point out to the Washington Post that they need to include a diversity of voices and that Dawkins represents a small, polarized portion of the population – not even all Atheists.”

    I don’t think WP needs such a reminder. After all, Dawkins was not the only writer asked to discuss the views of gov. Perry:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/religion-evolution-and-rick-perry-god-is-how-we-got-here/2011/08/23/gIQAb8pPYJ_blog.html

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    August 30, 2011

    So? By all measures, Dawkins is terrific in communicating science. Matti K

    He is lousy at talking to any but the already convinced and, generally, only those convinced of his particular ideology. That is the one and only thing he has ever convinced anyone of, that I can see, and as that grows ever more tattered, which it will, his defects in communicating science will be more obvious. There are many people who work in science who think he is seriously wrong on that.

    His invention of memes and his evo-psy advocacy would lead me to believe he has a pretty ideological conception of science to start with. And his condescending, insulting, elitist mode of “communication” is an absolute loser with the large majority of Americans and likely others. There is a reason he is better known as a neo-atheist than as a scientist. As I found out, to my surprise, last year on another Scienceblog, a number of his great admirers are entirely unaware of his scientific claim to fame.

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/10/richard_dawkins_sues_josh_timonen.php

    And as Dawkins was obviously aware of the discussion (see comment #82), he didn’t feel very strongly about setting his true disbelievers straight on that tiny little point, on which rests the one and which is only reason anyone ever heard of him.

  17. #17 Matti K.
    August 30, 2011

    AMC (16): “He is lousy at talking to any but the already convinced and, generally, only those convinced of his particular ideology. That is the one and only thing he has ever convinced anyone of, that I can see, and as that grows ever more tattered, which it will, his defects in communicating science will be more obvious.”

    Well, millions of people have bought his books. I don’t think that is a sign of bad communication skills.

    Of course, one shoe does not fit all. The religious evoskeptics obviously need special marketing if evolution is supposed to be sold to them. Dawkins is not even trying to do that. Therefore one cannot really blame him for failing to convert religious evoskeptics.

    BTW, it seems that there are people whom Dawkins has converted people who were not convinced. One doesn’t even have to visit Dawkins’ “Converts corner”, Evolutionblog is enough:

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2011/08/an_interview_with_leo_behe.php

    Of course, one should not overemphazize such anecdotal stories. I think the main contribution of Dawkins has been to clarify the understanding of those already sympathetic towards evolution. That’s a much better position than just believe in evolution in the same way religious people believe in Scripture.

  18. #18 Anthony McCarthy
    August 30, 2011

    The number of books sold is hardly the same thing as communicating about science, the ID industry sells lots of books too.

    Dawkins doesn’t so much as communicate about evolutionary science as he promotes his ideology of radical adapatationism. He is probably the predominant voice in that promotion but in doing that he has done enormous damage to science. That is if you believe, as I do, that science eventually has to produce physical evidence to support ideas. The ideas of his ideology are such that there will never be physical evidence of them and, as in the case of “memes” are so badly constructed that they turn out to not even attain logical consistency. I fully expect that within the next decade evo-psy is going to begin to sink under the weight of its unsupported assertions like every previous school of behavior sci has. As Hamilton’s entirely speculative ideas about “altruism” rot away so will most of what Dawkins has wrought.

    As for the young Behe, if he never realized that religious ideas could be questioned I doubt he ever had much religious belief but habitual assertions. It’s not surprising that belief that hasn’t been arrived at through questioning falls when the first breeze is felt anymore than a seedling that hasn’t been hardened off does. I’m a lot more impressed with the reaction to TGD by people who have had their ideas tested by questioning and who have read some challenging thinkers about the questions that book deals with. Some of whom have been atheists.

  19. #19 TB
    August 30, 2011

    Matti K said: “So? By all measures, Dawkins is terrific in communicating science. Is it a terrible loss if he can’t reach everybody? There are enough accommodating scientists and supposed communication experts who should be able to handle the difficult cases. Why whine about the diversity of approaches?”

    Whining about diversity is a strawman. I’m pointing out your non-admission admission.

    As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s fine if his intent is to communicate to a potential audience segment. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean the criticism isn’t also valid – that the message is going to a wider audience and being received in different ways. I get that he’s more interested in a wedge strategy – “us” versus “them” – than in changing minds. That intent doesn’t mean he isn’t also actively contradicting people who are working to change minds – especially since he’s identified as a “British Evolutionary Biologist and Author.”

    His opinion of Perry and people who might listen to him is affected by his exclusivist atheism, but he’s associating his credentials as a scientist with it.

    So what does it imply by arguing that Dawkins has a different intent? It not only doesn’t disprove the criticism, it avoids admitting that the criticism is even potentially correct. It skips over that and goes right to trying to justify whatever it is he’s being criticized for. But if the criticism isn’t true, there is no need to justify anything, you would simply disprove the criticism.

    Claiming a “diversity of voices” isn’t a get out of jail free card. If he chooses to participate in the public sphere in the way he’s chosen – as an exclusivist athiest – then we get to point out what’s wrong with his message. After all, that’s what he does. (Except, I’m not calling him an idiot.)

    As for the Washington Post, sure I saw the other essays. But that doesn’t mean they’re not falling into the same old “science vs. religion” debate. After all, the front page of “On faith”
    reads

    “On evolution, can religion evolve?
    On Faith AUG 23
    Texas governor and GOP candidate Rick Perry rejects evolution, but so do many Americans and religious scholars. Why is evolution so threatening to religion?
    Full panel debate
    Figuring Faith: Perry’s Texas Two-Step on evolution
    Richard Dawkins: Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a fact
    Mathew N. Schmalz: Christianity’s evolution problem”

    Hmm. Wonder why they’re still highlighting an essay (Dawkins) that ran on the 23rd? And why pair that with an essay called “Christianity’s evolution problem.” Oh wait! Science vs. religion!
    At least, though, if you click through the full debate link, you can find essays that say science and religion can be compatible.

  20. #20 Emily Willingham
    August 31, 2011

    It seems to me that the target audiences here differ entirely, and that polemicists and “accommodationists” are both necessary, having different targets in mind while working toward the same goal. Nope, it doesn’t help convince Perry or people like him or even almost like him to start with an ad hominem against the man’s intellect–such an easy target, that–and it won’t convince any fence sitters or the merely confused, either. But is reaching beyond the choir Dawkins’ or PZ’s intent? Seems more intended to raise a not-so-joyful noise in the skeptic aisles that will generate more noise. Anyone not within earshot of this racket doesn’t give a rap if Dawkins insults Rick Perry or not, unless it’s to fire up the faithful on their side by presenting Dawkins as some sort of 21st century incarnation of what the devil hath wrought.

    And the accommodationists speak to a different audience entirely, as is obvious. What I don’t really understand is why people and personality traits intrude at all, especially within our own ranks. Either we have our science to stand on, or we don’t. Tactics must differ here because the target audiences are very, very different. If we don’t understand that, we’ve lost the battle on all fronts.

    I engage a great deal with anti-vax rhetoric in several venues around the interwebz. Many years ago, when I saw stupid, I’d call it stupid, obstreperously. It’s angering to see the burning stupid out there, to see the incorrect interpretations of science, the skewing, the just made-up shit, often offered with a walloping dose of asshattery. I get that.

    But then I realized that what was needed in that tsunami of anti-vax, anti-science sewage on newspaper comment threads, blogs, etc., was a calm, reasonable voice. I stopped talking about the people posting or their personalities or mental capacities and focused instead on what they were saying. Sometimes, I even skip over that and offer up a selection of credible sources people can turn to for factual information or simply provide a list of facts, presented without hyperbole or emotion.

    My rationale is this: People who’ve made their minds up completely, who adhere fanatically to a belief system, aren’t going to change their minds because of what I say; to them, their beliefs are fact. But the people who are out there on the fence, who are just confused and misinformed, who haven’t had something taught to them or taught to them the right way? My words can be the ones that stay measured and focused, the ones that come across as reliable and sensible. When I write about vaccines–or science, for that matter–they are the people I keep in mind. They are not the smaller target here, they are the larger one, and they are Legion.

  21. #21 Emily Willingham
    August 31, 2011

    And…they are young.

  22. #22 TB
    September 1, 2011

    Emily, I like your reasoned approach. I think the only thing I would quibble with is your assertion about sharing the same goals.

  23. #23 Emily Willingham
    September 1, 2011

    TB…I was thinking that the shared goal is that people turn to science or naturalism (to put it in Dawkins’ excellent distinction) to explain their world rather than turning to gods or supernaturalism. Achieving this goal of rationality would influence every aspect of society, from education to politics to public discourse, and seems to be the encompassing intent of anyone who promotes science and naturalism over a supernatural belief system.

    I’m sure there are innumerable splinter goals that could even be parsed to the individual level, but I’d viewed that fundamental shift toward naturalism as the overarching aim. Do you disagree?

  24. #24 mesenchymal
    September 1, 2011

    I realize that you’re mostly defending him from PZ’s attack by listing Jamie Vernon’s accomplishments, but using it as a defense of his argument and his article is just a lazy argument from authority.
    “We defend evolution with our actions that the new atheists haven’t criticized or opposed” is a good defense against PZ’s hyperbolic rhetoric but it doesn’t make criticisms about Vernon’s article any less valid.

  25. #25 TB
    September 3, 2011

    Emily: if you mean naturalism as a method, I do not disagree. If you mean it as a philosophical position, then I do disagree – I think it’s really none of our business what people believe as long as they accept the findings of science and don’t try to force their beliefs on others, especially through government sponsored schools.

  26. #26 Anthony McCarthy
    September 3, 2011

    I was thinking that the shared goal is that people turn to science or naturalism (to put it in Dawkins’ excellent distinction) to explain their world rather than turning to gods or supernaturalism. Achieving this goal of rationality would influence every aspect of society, from education to politics to public discourse, and seems to be the encompassing intent of anyone who promotes science and naturalism over a supernatural belief system.

    Your assumption that believing in God is a bar to rational thought is only slightly more unrealistic than the idea that something called “science” is some kind of scapula potently guaranteeing rational thought. I’m not especially impressed with Dawkins’ rational rigor even in his quasi-scientific writing. Having gone through a number of his ideas on this and other blogs, they are typically based in ideology and frequently contain rather breathtaking logical disconnects.

    Materialism is an ideological position, not an idea that is, itself, based in rigorous application of reason. It is based in preference. The fact that science is only reliable when it restricts itself to physical evidence, the examination of which was the one and only reason science was ever invented to start with, has little to do with materialism though, as I said to you on another comment thread, it has been inserted into the literature of science in a way that has been far from uniformly fortunate.

  27. #27 Emily Willingham
    September 5, 2011

    “Your assumption that believing in God is a bar to rational thought is only slightly more unrealistic than the idea that something called “science” is some kind of scapula potently guaranteeing rational thought.”

    Never said any of the above.

  28. #28 Emily Willingham
    September 5, 2011

    @TB: “if you mean naturalism as a method,…” This is indeed what I mean, and I believe that these days, we refer to it generally as the scientific method. My interest does not lie in trying to tell people what to believe. My interest lies in promoting answer seeking through explanations derived from natural laws.

    @Andrew…you refer to saying something to me on another comment thread. I don’t recollect ever having (a) commented here before or (b) having encountered you.

  29. #29 Anthony McCarthy
    September 6, 2011

    Emily, you said:

    I was thinking that the shared goal is that people turn to science or naturalism (to put it in Dawkins’ excellent distinction) to explain their world rather than turning to gods or supernaturalism. Achieving this goal of rationality would influence every aspect of society, from education to politics to public discourse, and seems to be the encompassing intent of anyone who promotes science and naturalism over a supernatural belief system.

    “Achieving this goal of rationality”,

    You shouldn’t write something unless you understand what it means. Though that’s something contemporary atheists seem to believe they are above due to their ownership of rationality.

  30. #30 TB
    September 6, 2011

    Thanks Emily

  31. #31 Emily Willingham
    September 6, 2011

    @anthony As long as we’re doling out advice, you should avoid making assumptions about the perspectives of others when none have been stated.

    “Achieving this goal of rationality” refers to rationality in the sense of using systematic and consistent reasoning with the intention of solving problems. The very phrasing implies other options, but the one I explicitly reference here involves focusing on natural law for explanations and solutions. Doing so removes the insoluble issues of colliding and incompatible belief systems that are reliant instead on the supernatural. Natural law provides a rational system on which people can agree, regardless of personally held supernatural belief systems. Relying on this construct is a practical and targeted solution that avoids belief system conflict. Using the word “rational” to describe this concept or using “rationality” in this sense does not automatically exclude other systems of explanation and problem-solving from falling within the definitions of these terms.

  32. #32 Anthony McCarthy
    September 7, 2011

    Emily Willingham, if that is what you meant then it has nothing to do with whether or not someone does or doesn’t believe in God or anything supernatural, it merely is about whether or not they practice reason.

    I would hope that within that you consider that much of what Richard Dawkins means when he talks about science goes far beyond the subject matter of science and is, not infrequently, an expression of an ideological position. Dawkins and many others make assertions not based in evidence but assert the reality of ideas created out of their preferred theories as a substitute for unavailable evidence. Instead of contributing to “The Public Understanding of Science”, it is more likely to be a manifestation of decadence within science. I think that many of the people doing that being materialists who are asserting materialist dogma as science is not a mere coincidence, I think it is symptomatic of a misunderstanding of what science can do, the limited means of doing those things and that when you can’t do those things about something, what you assert about it can’t be science.

    And I would hope that you understand that “Natural law” is a human construct, an abstract attempt at description and not an abstracted equivalent for the natural universe, not even sufficient to talk about the physical universe and not certain to be an exclusively effective means of dealing with all of it. For example, there is no evidence, whatsoever, that human behavior is governed by “natural law” that has been successful in describing parts of the physical universe.

  33. #33 Alcibiades
    September 21, 2011

    Anthony McCarthy,

    In the context in which this discussion takes place, that of criteria for viewing a political candidate, your distinction with regard to “materialism” seem irrelevant.

    The core point of political action is to find practical solutions to problems which are largely of a material nature. Essential to dealing with practical problems is ascertaining fact and a solid comprehension of explanatory models which are based and confirmed by them. A candidate who evinces little regard to, what have been found to be, reliable methods of establishing fact and models of reality is less likely to be able to solve problems, distinguish between alternative proposals from advisor or ask incisive questions to distinguish wishful thinking from reality.

    I think Dawkin’s “litmus test” is applicable here.

    That science doesn’t deal with the non-material is really a matter, in my view of philosophical interest. As a practical matter it matters little in coping with reality. Of course someone who writes “there is no evidence, whatsoever, that human behavior is governed by “natural law” that has been successful in describing parts of the physical universe” would disagree. I would maintain that there is, in fact, plenty of evidence such as neurophysiolgy, and psychopharmacology or the easily observed affects of damage to the brain all of which conform to the descriptions we term “natural law”.

  34. #34 Anthony McCarthy
    September 21, 2011

    Alcibiades, Dawkins’ preference for materialism is entirely relevant to any discussion of what he has to say about religion. It is also clearly relevant to his history of cooking up evidence free assertions based in and in service to his particular ideological preference and calling the results science. The man makes stuff up and it gets lapped up by his fellow materialists, the ones who share his particular sect of materialism, at least, and the ignorant believe it to be science when it lacks any evidence to back it up.

    I expect that within my lifetime to see his school of psychology masquerading as evolutionary science to be overturned and disposed of. I’ve seen two major schools of psychology meet that end. Unexamined in both are the ideological, materialist underpinnings of all of them. Using a materialist position and using it to create a substitute for evidence is a dangerous and wide spread practice among materialists.

  35. #35 Alcibiades
    September 22, 2011

    Anthony McCarthy

    I don’t see anything substantive in your response. Provide and example of an instance where Dawkins “makes stuff up”. What, do you mean by a “particular sect of materialism”. How does it differ from any other type of materialism.

    Where do you see a substitution of materialist position as a substitute for evidence? Demonstrate.

    All I see here is vague, dismissive rhetoric without specifics sufficient to even evaluate your opinion. So far all I see is vague opinion.

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