Unscientific America: it's personal!

I feel obligated to reply to Mooney and Kirshenbaum's latest complaint, but I can't really get motivated. Their argument has become so absurd and so petty that it seems a waste of time anymore.

All they've done is confessed that they are on a personal vendetta: they are very upset with me, they admit that my existence is a central reason that they left the scienceblogs network, and you can just feel the roiling resentment that people dare to criticize them, persistently and at length…and it's all my fault.

I did not address their scapegoating of PZ Myers and Pharyngula in my reviews of the book because it was a palpably strange bit of personal antagonism on their part, and I confined my disagreement to the poverty of their other arguments. It is interesting to see my assessment of the anti-me sentiment now confirmed. It's unfortunate, too. Their book is very thin on ideas and evidence, and it detracts from it further that they spend two chapters whining about people who have annoyed them. It's unprofessional, and it reveals their own poor comprehension of how the web works. This petulant bravado, for example, is simply unreal.

For too long, people in the science blogosphere have tiptoed around Myers. After all, he can send a lot of angry commenters your way. And he, and they, are unrelenting in their criticisms, their attacks, and so on. Just read our threads over the last week—it's all there, the vast majority from people who have not read our book and do not seem inclined to do so.

But we're not afraid of Myers or his commenters. They can leave hundreds of posts on our blog-we readily allow it—but our book will be read by a different and far more open-minded audience. It's already happening. And that audience will largely agree that Myers' communion wafer desecration was offensive and counterproductive, and that more generally, he epitomizes the current problems with the communication of science on the Internet.

I have not noticed any tip-toeing around me at all — it is simply bizarre to argue that people are afraid to criticize me because something horrible might happen: they might get criticized back. That's all I've got, after all: I do not have clout in government or science funding agencies, I do not have an army of ninjas, people can howl all they want about me — and they do! — and all that will happen at worst is they'll get a brief flood of traffic and a bunch of comments on their blog. This is something most bloggers want. To claim bravery because they aren't intimidated by the possibility that I might link to their articles is damned silly. And I have read over the last week's worth of comments on their blog: it's a bunch of people on the internet arguing over both sides, and many of the angriest (and dumbest) are Mooney's own defenders.

They really don't get it. I have no power except as a focus for a lot of like-minded people; if I were to vanish, those people would still exist, and would still be hammering at the foolishness that Mooney and Kirshenbaum emit. There is a growing minority in this country, this Unscientific America that Mooney and Kirshenbaum write about, which is fed up with the false privilege granted to religion, that wants science to have a more prominent role, that is willing to be outspoken and critical, and that is more than a little exasperated with the tepid apologists for the status quo who believe that making nice with the Unscientific part of America is the solution. That minority wants a voice, and they will have it whether I'm part of it or not. They are also our only hope for changing Unscientific America. Ultimately, the only way we can get a Scientific America is by challenging and criticizing the proponents of anti-science and un-science…and all the Colgate twins can do is protest in horror at anyone who wants to rock the boat.

This isn't a problem with the communication of science on the internet, it is a strength. We have a platform from which we, with many voices, can roar. Use it, don't muffle it.

Ultimately, though, the problem with their book, the one they've avoided despite the fact that I brought it up in my review, reiterated it in my response to their 'rebuttal', which Jerry Coyne discussed briefly, and that Ophelia Benson skewered with some pointed questions, is that they are thin on substance. Bellyaching about me personally is entertaining and has brought them some short-lived blog traffic, but all that is is a distraction from what ought to be the topic of conversation: how do we get the public to think scientifically and become better informed about real world matters, and make decisions rationally? I push one obvious strategy: the erosion of a major source of delusional, sloppy thinking, religion. I do not pretend that this is the only useful strategy, however. What Mooney and Kirshenbaum could have done was provide a practical alternative, with details and specific suggestions that we could then productively wrangle over. They have not. That's the most obvious deficiency of their responses so far (other than their frequent distortions of what others and they themselves say), a strange reluctance to actually discuss what is in their book. I've already spilled the beans about their Grand Solution, so they might as well try to talk about it.

I predict that they won't.

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