Monthly Archives: July 2009

Unscientific America: The Debate and Crackergate Redux

So leave it to me, while correcting all the small mistakes in the first post, to see that the debate on Unscientific America had not concluded. I actually should have known this because Mooney and Kirshenbaum had said there was going to be a part three to their response. So much of the first two response had seemed to miss what PZ Myer’s was so offended about in the first and was more or less responding to the sneers in his writing.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum site Myers as one of the reasons they left Sciblogs several months back. Mooney does not pull punches:

Watching all of this, we were appalled. We could not see what this act could possibly have to do with promoting science and reason. It [the communion wafer destruction] contributed nothing to the public understanding or appreciation of science, and everything to a nasty, ugly culture war that hurts and divides us all.

We recognize that Myers writes entertainingly and sometimes hilariously; we know he’s kind and soft-spoken in person; and we realize he describes science accurately and insightfully. And we understand he’s a very good teacher as well.

Nevertheless, in his online persona–and nowhere more than with the wafer desecration–we believe he cultivates a climate of extremism, incivility and, indeed, unreason (the opposite of calm and respectful debate and exchange) at ScienceBlogs.

So we’re going to have to deconstruct the claims here. If we distill down Mooney charges in the book and on his blog, what’s his issue with Myers:

1) Crackergate was merely offensive.
2) It was highly destructive to PZ Myer’s reputation in the larger world.
3) Myer’s has a cult of personality that encourages extremism.
4) This whole debate has been damaging to science.

When read in the context of the two chapters in question:

5) The debate with PZ Myers illustrates a problem with blogs
6) PZ Myers is representative of problems of “New” Atheism.

These are separate charges. Furthermore, they have underlying assumptions and points. Some of these are addressed by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, some aren’t.

Let’s look at the first one: 1) Crackergate was merely offensive

Now, this is complicated. This event has its own note on PZ Myer’s wikipedia entry, so let’s look at a supposedly neutral source for the context:

A controversy arose in July 2008 over a Pharyngula blog entry written by Myers expressing amazement at news reports of death threats issued to University of Central Florida Student Senator Webster Cook. On June 29, 2008, Cook attended a Catholic Mass being held in the student union at UCF by a Catholic student group that receives funding from the student government. Cook received the Catholic Eucharist host but did not consume it immediately. He said later that he wanted to take it back to his seat to show a friend, but when stopped he put it in his mouth until back at his seat, then a church leader made forcible attempts to take the host from him. Cook stored the host at his home, then returned it one week later after receiving e-mail threats and pleas.Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, described the student’s actions as “beyond hate speech” and said that “All options should be on the table, including expulsion.”

Now, to say that this had no reflections on scientific community is sort of misleading. In this situation we have what looked to severe reprisals on a student, including death threats, for inferring with a Catholic Mass. Now, I think ever PZ Myer’s would have understood if Webster Cook had been banned from Catholic functions in the school. The ensuing uproar was what PZ Myers was responding against, particularly Florida State’s reaction.

So PZ Myers was not reacting without provocation. What do Mooney and Kirshenbaum say about this in Unscientific America? They did mention the death threats against Webster Cook and how he returned to “host” in a ziploc bag. Mooney and Kirshenbaum say, “things might have ended, had the popular atheist science blogger and University of Minnesota Professer Paul Zachary (“PZ”) Myers not gotten involved” (85).

Would it have stopped there without PZ? I don’t know because the scandal had already been made a national uproar. Furthermore, should we have let it? The response by the University and the Catholic community was disproportionate unless you accept that the host is sacred. Note my wording, I didn’t say, “unless you accept that the host is sacred to Catholics,” so the point PZ Myers was making is that people outside of a belief-system shouldn’t be forced to recognize its tenets.

So Mooney and Kirshenbaum continue, “Myers’s public desecration generated a global outcry. The Catholic League histrionically demanded that University of Minnesota take disciplinary action” (86) and then say, “To religious fundamentalists, who already nourish plenty of suspicion towards mainstream science–and who promote the false and pernicious idea that faithful can’t accept core scientific findings as evolution–Myers is a walking, blogging justification for their confusion and misdirected antipathy” (86).

Here I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum are off: religious fundamentalists, who are generally, by definition, Protestant Christians probably are in line with Myer’s destruction of the host. They would are cherry-picking instances in which Myer’s is disrespecting religion to built their case. Those kind of thinkers would find something else, someone else did to make their case. In many ways, this is a red herring. We can blame Myers for becoming such open bait for that sort of action, but is that fair? Myers could have calmly explained why it was attack on civil and secular society, and still be quote-mined into a demonic legionnaire.

Let’s drop that line of argument here for a moment: the “sacredness” of the Eucharist cannot be a scientific question, but its transubstantiation is because, going back to the doctrines of Aquinas, a question of physical transformation.

This gets to Ophelia Benson’s question to Mooney:

Do you understand the implications of the Pew study, which spells out the fact that a large percentage of people simply ignore the findings of science whenever they contradict their religious beliefs? Do you understand that that is not epistemic compatibility but its opposite? Do you have any qualms at all about telling scientists and atheists to just acquiesce in that?

You know we can bring up brilliant religious scientists from Teilhard De Chardin to Kenneth Miller. You can bring up that my friends, almost most, of my friends are Catholics, Jews, and Greek Orthodox and they know how I feel about these issues. You can bring up that Catholic church historically supported the development of sciences. But you still have to answer these questions: is it cognitive dissonance that allows it? Is it compartmentalizing? Is it “faith” in reconciliation between science and theology?

If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, you do have issues with scientific methodology and that form of religious faith. I don’t know the answer to those questions, but they legitimate both as epistemological inquiries and sure as hell are relevant to the true compatibility between those sorts of theistic religious ideas and scientific methodology.

Now, I know that MANY of my friend’s missed Myer’s point: agnostics and pagans who are generally sympathetic to “our side in the science wars” were horrified. Which brings me to point two: It was highly destructive to PZ Myer’s reputation in the larger world.

There are two things we need to take care of here: First, PZ Myer’s blog in immensely popular, but to some degree, if one judges from the comments, it is an ideological echo chamber. Atheists, skeptics, and secularists who like or, at least see the need for, hardline arguments read it. Sometimes apologists read it to be bait PZ if the comments over the past three years are any indication. It is immensely popular, but rarely does it show up on Scienceblogs daily round-up. There is lots of science content, but there is also lots of troops rallying. Myers can send TONS of people at website on any given day.

Second, on a matter of scale, I still don’t know that the blog is culturally important outside of science bloggers and atheists. I asked biology teachers at my school if they knew who PZ Myer’s even was? Most didn’t. The one that did referred me to the Expelled showing where he was not allowed in, not Crackergate.

Most of the agnostics and pagans I am referring had NO IDEA who Myer’s was before I mentioned the Crackergate instance to them a year ago, and most have forgotten him now.

Even if one takes the 16.5%, according to Pew, of the religious unaffiliated as PZ Myers intended audience, and admitting that 1.5 millions watchers is a large circulation for an individual blog, I don’t know that Myer’s has had a huge influence on the general culture. Blaming him, at all, for general scientific illiteracy is almost a compliment to the effectiveness of blogging. I don’t know science blogs, as of yet, really have that much effect.

This also answers Mooney’s implied fourth point: This whole debate has been damaging to science.. In short, I doubt it really has that much of an affect on things and those who a hostile to science would find someone else to represent Myer’s position for them, or they quote mine so less firebrand sounding scientist into one.

Which brings to the third point: Myer’s has a cult of personality that encourages extremism.

Now confirmation bias and the media is a old drum to beat for any skeptic. It is nothing new to know that because confirmation bias exists, and because selection of media is completely self-sorting on the internet, the tendency towards selection bias is magnified. Furthermore, the anonymity that the internet provides does lead people to act MUCH less civilly than when they are in person. Why? Honest, and I say this knowing its unscientific, I think it has to do with the near zero probability of getting decked in the face and the relatively low probability of immediate social fall-out.

So are the blogging ranters who agree with PZ, crash polls, and comment spam sites unique to Myers? No. In fact, compared to political debate forums, they seem somewhat mild. PZ Myers never bend a poll quite as bad as say Ron Paul supporters, for example.

On The Intersection, I saw this blog post from one of my favorite blogs, Crooked Timber, Deliberation vs. participation in blogs. The post is actually OLDER than Crackergate or this debate, so I had forgotten it. However, its a post on the Blogginghead debate between Cass Sunstein and Henry Farrell. I’ll admit that while I think the trade-off is ultimately worth it, I see many of Sunstein’s points as I watch the development of blog culture as my above comments indicate. However, as Farrel points out, there is a weird point from Diana Mutz:

Here, I’m riffing off the work of Diana Mutz (her most relevant article is available as a PDF here ; a somewhat more user-friendly version of her claims can be found in her book, Hearing the Other Side, available from Powells, or Amazon). Mutz looks at individuals’ personal networks, and the extent to which they have political discussions who share their political perspective, and people who have different ones. Much of her evidence supports Sunstein’s claims – that is, she finds that there is a strong relationship between people’s direct exposure to other viewpoints, and their willingness to acknowledge that other ways of looking at things may have a genuine rationale. She also finds (as Sunstein claims) that one of the most important way in which people get exposed to differing points of view is via mass media – people’s intimate personal networks involve far less exposure to alternative points of view than you might expect.

Where she differs from Sunstein is that she points out that this cross-exposure may make people less likely to participate in politics. Her evidence suggests a quite substantial negative correlation between exposure to cross-cutting views and willingness to participate – furthermore, there’s some reason to believe that the arrow of causation points from the networks to participation rather than vice versa. This suggests, as she argues, a real trade-off – more participation is likely to go together with less deliberation among people of different points of view, and vice versa.

So, really, participation in these areas does lead to a lot of decline in understanding between two sides, but Pyrrhian skepticism and refusal to engage may be the result of careful deliberate over and over again.

Now this may seem like a digression, but its key to why I think people like Myers are needed: they rally the troops and without that, the troops go away. Liberal and Conservative talk radio have the same effect. Ultimately, you don’t want all the “troops” making public policy, but that’s not really why they are engaged.

Verbal extremism in defense of science IS A vice, but it may be a necessary one at this point in the game. So in some ways, the sniping between the two camps is a natural outgrowth of the way popularizing movements work. I am using anecdotal evidence again, so take what I say with a few grains of salt, but this was part of the feminist movements and of worker’s movements: your firebrands and your moderates both serve useful roles, and generally both sides hate each other. Now this can devolve to the point where internal sniping and purity arguments ruin the whole thing, but as arm-chair sociology goes, this seems to hold.

Furthermore, I doubt that given the current amount of political power most science defenders have, there will be anything more than symbolic casualties in this battle. That’s more than I can say for most developments of any political importance for the last 200 years.

So does Myer’s produce extremist? Maybe, but that seems to be more a trade of provocateurs in a media market that doesn’t have “gate-keepers” the way more traditional media markets do. Is that unique to Myers? Expressly, no. Is that particularly undesirable? I doubt it. Do I want to tell with a bunch of trolls attacking me? No, but I am on the internet so that is a risk I take.

So in addressing point three, we have also taken care of implication five: The debate with PZ Myers illustrates a problem with blogs.

This leaves us with the last problem, which Chris did not raise in his defense, but was evident from the structure of his book: PZ Myers is representative of problems of “New” Atheism.

First, we have to accept that the new atheists have problems in a unified way. Now I admit that there is a tonal problem with some of they “new atheists’ say. I have some critiques of their rhetoric and I think some of the implied sociology of religion is weak. David Sloan Wilson and Scott Atran have gone into this far better than I (although both have some severe blind spots and perhaps over-generalize from sociology).

But, aside from the fact that neither the tone nor most of the arguments of the “new” atheists are “new”: they aren’t monolithic. When Sam Harris released his first book The End of Faith, I tore its politics apart and called him out for cherry-picking from the history of Buddhism, but not allowing others to cherry-pick from the Abrahamic faith. Harris’s argument did have some scientific angles on the psychology of belief, but mostly his arguments were political, moral, and historical. Christopher Hitchens’s arguments in God is Not Great were the same mixture of the political, moral, and historical, and sometimes he seemed to sacrifice precision for wit. Harris and Hitchens both did not do, in my opinion, a particularly good job defining religion outside of theism, and both attacked much more than mere theism. Dawkin’s, in the God Delusion, aside from a rather weak anecdotal attack on Buddhism as practiced in Asia, limited his critique more and was more devasting. Here Dawkins had the moral and historical critiques one sees in Hitchens and Harris, but Dawkin’s attack was more epistemological and more scientific. His rhetorical barbs could be said to be sloppy in his otherwise well argued chapters, and I do know a few atheists who said he didn’t actually use the best theistic argument as grounds for his rebuttal, but he did demolish Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA hypotheis. I actually prefer his book, The Blind Watchmaker, because his critique is entirely scientific and more focused in that book. Daniel Dennet seems to be primarily concerned with the effects of religion on cognitive and his critique is entirely based on epistemology and scientific theories. Notice that the critiques are not monolithic.

Even if we expand the definition of “New Atheist” to include writers such as Victor Stenger, Dan Barker, John Loftus, Ibn Warraq, Richard Carrier, etc, we see a vastly different array of different kinds of arguments. Different tones. Different feels. Some of the arguments go back to Epicurus. Some back to Hume. Some unique to developments of physics and evolutionary biology.

PZ Myers, despite his tone, definitely can’t represent these different kind of thoughts on religion. I do think Myers, for rhetorical purposes, tends to overstate and over-polarize his case, but I understand WHY he does it. Honestly, if we view Myer’s goal in this as creating a solid base for scientific rationalism and atheism, he does it. Does he reach out to the general public? No. That’s not his mission, and isn’t really his job.

Honestly, that’s Neil Degrasse Tyson’s job, that’s Michio Kachu’s job, that’s Richard Dawkin’s job even… but not Myer’s. Creating a world that is safe for science, one that respects rationalism when backed by empiricism, and understands complicated ideas is hard. It takes both approaches.

It is my belief that while I agree with most of the chapters of this book on a basic level, I think Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are off-base here. If they want people to counteract the weight of PZ Myers, they need to push for people to feel that gap, which Mooney and Kirshenbaum do advocate happening. I believe that’s why they wrote the book, and that’s why Chris Mooney wrote his last book as well.

PZ Myer’s feels like that is obvious. He feels like Mooney and Kirshenbaum are saying things that the scientific community and the secular activist community already know?

Of course, they are. This book isn’t for the scientific community. Its for the general public. It’s style. It’s marketing. The very form of the book indicate that.

So in short, I do think that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are unfair to Myers and largely seem to miss many of his points. They also overstate his influence outside of the circles that we all already travel in. Still, Myers seems to miss who this book is aimed at and can’t help writing in a hyperbolic manner on such matters. The later is his style and, frankly, its why he has so many readers in the first place.
In movements that involve politics a careful balancing act is needed: firebrands and moderate advocates snipe each other as part of that act. If either side wins, the movement starts to lose power: one can look at the current state of the Republican Party in the US for examples of that.  We may not like the New Atheists’ arguments–although I, personally, like most of them.  We may disagree with their tone.   Still, we must admit that it rallied the troops.

You may feel that we need to scale that back, but I don’t think the way to do that is blaming them for hostility to science.

Now, I am done with the debate element of this book and will review it on its other merits sometime in the next week.

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