7/31/09

Chris Mooney's Apostasy

I've been watching with morbid fascination the way Chris Mooney has become the object of atheist wrath in the last couple of months. In his book Unscientific America (written with Sheril Kirshenbaum) he argues that there's a danger in science educators becoming religion-bashers. With the US so religious and so scientifically illiterate, it can't be good for science and religion-bashing to get coupled in people's minds.

I won't bother gathering all the links that show there's anger about this. But Chris is considered a very, very big idiot in some circles. The critics never tire of demanding his evidence. Where's the data that shows that religious folk are turned off to science messages, if the messenger is also bashing their religion?

Well, sure, it would be nice if the NSF poured a couple of million dollars into some social psychologist's longitudinal study of how religious folk react to religion-bashing scientists. But here's why I don't think they'll do that: the NSF doesn't fund research that aims to prove the obvious.

How could religious folk NOT be offended and alienated by religion-bashing scientists? Take, for example, a visit to a creation museum being planned by PZ Myers and the members of a secular student group. Now, I don't fault them for wanting to visit the museum. But on Pharyngula we read advice not to be rude during the visit that goes like this--
After we leave their private property, it will be time to laugh and mock and vent, and we will: this trip will produce over 200 experienced people who know exactly what kind of lunacy the Creation "Museum" represents, and we will express ourselves in opinion pieces, on blogs, at school board meetings, and in gatherings with our friends. That's where we get our payoff, not in rudeness during our visit that gets us evicted.
I dare say a few creationists have read this passage. Can it do anything but offend them to feel they are going to be laughed at and mocked (though not until after the visit)? And in that state of feeling offended, can they possibly become receptive to evolution?

Oh, but wait, what's my evidence that people lose receptiveness to a message when the messenger is disrespectful? Where's the data? Well, OK, I don't have it. So I have to admit that people could just conceivably remain receptive to science messages, even when their religion is being mocked by the messenger. For that matter, it could also be that you can mock people's race and gender, and still get through to them. So there's no evidence to hold someone back from creating a science blog that bashes people on the basis of race or gender.

But given the high degree of plausibility that Mooney's view enjoys, even without being supported by "hard evidence," why is he an apostate for stating it? Why does "the atheist community" demand such extraordinary fealty to its obstreperous, in-your-face ways? Why can't there be an open and respectful debate among skeptics about how to talk to the rest of the world?

----

Previous posts about Unscientific America:
Atheists Loud and Quiet
Atheists Loud and Quiet (Part 2)
The Intersection

81 comments:

Tea said...

"Why can't there be an open and respectful debate among skeptics about how to talk to the rest of the world?"

Maybe you should ask M&K - they're the ones refusing to participate in this debate by ignoring questions addressed at them. Did they really have to rely on *you* to answer this one for them?

Anyway, it's one thing to suppose that mocking one's beliefs (which certainly cannot be equated with mocking their gender or race) is likely to turn them off. But M&K built their whole book around this supposition, and they assert it as a matter of fact!

Perhaps one could just as well suppose that people's psychology makes them most likely to drop a belief if it's openly mocked: "People hate being disrespected for their beliefs, so if many people argue publicly that such beliefs are ridiculous, people are likely to drop them because - well, who wants to be considered ridiculous?" This certainly sounds *plausible* to me, but don't you think I would need a little more confirmation of such an "argument" if I wanted to make such grandiose claims as M&K do?

I have no statistics on my side either, but just think of all the European countries where we've been allowed to openly mock religion for decades and we don't have to pander to the religious nearly as much as Americans do, yet America is far behind in scientific literacy. Why is it that so many secular countries have the best scientific literacy, despite the fact that many of their inhabitants may be religious in their private lives?

In other words: why do Americans, once again, pose the question hypothetically, when there are so many countries in the world where the "experiment" has already been done, and the conclusions don't confirm the working hypotheses (such as is M&K's) at all?

Jean Kazez said...

Tea,

If you look at the last couple month's entries at The Intersection, you'll see Chris Mooney's posts deal with all the attacks on him. They don't get involved in the comment section, but they single nobody out. Everyone is equally ignored. I don't know the explanation, but the fact is these people are in high demand, writing for national magazines and doing a book tour. Responding to comments on a blog is extremely time-consuming.

They did not "build their whole book around" this supposition. I have the book and it's only one chapter that's built on the supposition about disrespect causing alienation.

More later...gotta run.

Jean Kazez said...

As to your rival hypothesis, that mocking religious beliefs will make people drop them instead of alienating people from science.

I can see how mockery can work that way sometimes. If you're very careful to narrowly focus your mockery, and the belief in question is not too widely shared and supported.

What doesn't work is when you make people feel mocked with respect to a very core part of their identity. I think we know that's offensive, just like we know that mocking race and gender are offensive. I'm not saying religion is entirely like race and gender--just that people have a lot of pride and touchiness in all three cases. We know that without doing a study.

Tea said...

The question is not whether it's offensive, of course, the question is whether it makes people less likely to accept rival beliefs.

I think both hypotheses are plausible, and I think we need to do actual research to settle the question.

I'm absolutely not claiming that the hypothesis I presented as plausible is *my* hypothesis - but I am saying that it's just as plausible as yours. When kids are growing up, for example, their peers' mocking makes them *more*, not *less*, likely to drop their beliefs in fairy tales, Santa, and imaginary friends - it's because they don't want to be considered stupid, among other things, I suppose.

Yeah, people don't like being mocked, but it doesn't follow that they will resist changing the behavior (the one that is the source of their being mocked and disrespected) *because of that*.

Jean Kazez said...

I can agree that mockery sometimes works. I still find the alienation theory more plausible in the type of case at hand. I know a lot of religious people. Their religiosity runs deep, not at all like believing in Santa. They're much more likely to be alienated than persuaded by mockery.

Also--what we're talking about is how to persuade people of scientific theories that are in the public interest for people to believe. The goal M&K have in mind is that, not getting rid of religion. Relative to that goal, the idea that mocking religion is helpful is even less plausible.

On the other hand...a little mockery has some use. When I am Czar I won't ban it entirely.

Faust said...

Well again it seems that this has come down to a question of pragmatism. If it is productive to "make fun of people" then lets do it, if not then lets try another approach. This is an interesting idea. When is it OK to mock people and when is it not OK. Apparently it is OK for kids to mock each other and call each other stupid when they believe in Stanta Clause at some inappropriate age...but is it OK to mock them for being Republicans? For being "jocks" or "nerds?"

The whole "crackergate" thing was interesting. Apparently it is OK to mock people, to call them "stupid" or "idiotic" etc when they defend certain kinds of practices without "sufficient justification." But we have all kinds of arbitrary cultural practices that we enforce. For example: nudity. In the US if I strip down and start walking down the street, eventually I am going to get accosted in some way..eventually arrested. This is because I am violating a social norm. Now of course it's "just a human body" and no one should be offended because it's "just natural." But there it is. Illegal. Am I "disrespecting people" by walking around nude. Some would say yes...simply by virtue of the fact that I am violating a social norm. Hence we say "When in Rome do as the Romans do," because we understand that a great many social norms are things you simply follow because that's how social interactions work. "Rationality" is perhaps determinable according to some archimedian perspective, but in practice our daily social lives are rife with arbitrary practices that must be "respected" simply in order to navigate the social order. A lot of the this debate is a debate about what kind of norms we should have when we engage in discussions about these specific categories of belief.

Paul Hutton said...

Hmm, I'd be willing to place a lot of money on mockery being a block to rational discourse - ESPECIALLY when it comes to religion!

Mooney's hypothesis as Jean presents it is pretty uncontroversial to me. It's much more plausible that having a reasonable evidence-based discourse with someone with a particularly strong and false belief system is probably going to be more successful than mockery at teaching them to develop reasonable evidence-based discourse themselves - which one would expect they would then quite naturally begin to apply to their false beliefs.

Of course science and knowledge progresses by mutually agreed harsh criticism - but here we should surely separate content from tone. Mockery is more to do with tone; content (if robust and convincing) really should be doing the work.

amos said...

It's hard enough to get people to change their beliefs by rational argument and so-called constructive criticism, since most people react to that with hostility. Mockery produces even more hostility. If you don't believe me, step into any fundamentalist church, football club, political party or ethnic reunion and mock the core identity. I hope for your sake that you know karate. And the more fundamentalist or fanatic the belief, the more likely mockery will be met with hostility or even violence: that is, you can mock my belief that Nietzsche is the greatest 19th century philosopher and I'll force a polite laugh, but if you mock someone's belief that God's name is Allah, you'll have a fight on your hands. One more point is the one that Faust brings up: is it good to mock others?

Jean Kazez said...

My point is not just to agree with Mooney, but to wonder why his view is considered such a travesty. This is where the morbid fascination comes in.

As to whether it's good to mock others. In my house we recently drew up something called The Respect Code. We were forced to do it because we were all mocking each other constantly. It was actually hilarious, but we started to worry that this might not be healthy. Now if you mock someone you get charged with a code violation and you have to give a dollar to the Humane Society (double if you're over 12 years old). Unfortunately, the code is now being mocked a lot. It's just become a game to accuse someone of a code violation. Truth is--we are sensitive mockers. You can mock people, but only if you known them well and do it very carefully.

amos said...

Correct, Jean, mockery serves a different role within the peer group than with non-peers. That is why if other kids mock a child's belief in Santa Claus, he'll drop it or if my friends mock my taste for Mexican soap operas, I'll stop watching them. However, when mockery comes from non-peers, from non-significant others, it produces hostility and is perceived, as you said, as an attack on the core identity, that is, on the self.

Tea said...

This is beginning to sound as if the New Atheists (TM) are proposing that we should implement mockery as a central and exclusive method of promoting science amongst the religious.

But all we're doing is questioning Mooney's implications that pretty much any public mockery of religion (and especially of claims about religion & science compatibility) puts the whole enterprise of teaching science into jeopardy - it allegedly even explains why Americans are so bad at basic science. In order to support *this* claim, you need evidence, not anecdotes.

Jean Kazez said...

Mockery "explains why Americans are so bad at basic science."

Hmm. I've read the offending chapter and some of the rest of the book. Mooney offers a long list of causes of American scientific illiteracy. It's a complicated diagnosis. The religion-bashing on science blogs is on his list of causes but it's certainly not at the top of the list (he doesn't put the items in any order). There isn't even a claim that it's a major factor. In fact, he's clear he thinks fundamentalism is a much more major cause of science illiteracy.

His point is just what I said in the post--it's not good for science education on the internet to get coupled with religion-bashing. The fact that one of the two most popular science blogs is an over the top religion-bashing blog is worrisome....he says. This is bound to wind up alienating some people who might have been brought on board.

What he says certainly has prima facie plausibility. As someone said at "The Intersection," the book is an essay, an opinion piece. You're allowed to speculate about causes and possible solutions in a book like this. I don't think he needed to produce hard evidence... whatever that might look like.

amos said...

I don't live in the U.S., but I suspect that people know little of science there, as they do here in Chile, for the same reasons that they know little of history, foreign languages, of philosophy and of Greek literature. In fact, the same factors which lead to a culture of ignorance and superficiality produce both religious fundamentalism and scientific illiteracy. Children, in Chile, who attend religious or secular schools are equally ignorant of science as they are ignorant of history and philosophy. Chile is not a country which values wisdom or learning, and from my experience, nor is the United States.

Tea Logar said...

"This is bound to wind up alienating some people who might have been brought on board."

But this cannot be all he's saying, Jean. It's certainly not all he's saying on his subsequent blog posts.

I mean, if this were all he was saying, then it would be really stupid to protest such a claim - but it would also be a stupid claim to make in the first place. Not because it's false, but because it's so trivial: *everything* is bound to alienate *some* people. There's not a single thing in the world you can say about science that's not going to have that effect on *some* people.

Of course he doesn't need to conduct a study to prove *this* - everyone knows it, and no one's disputing it.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think he's saying something trivial and indisputable OR something outrageous and worthy of the blogosphere's wrath. He's saying something in between.

He's warning that religion-bashing impedes the delivery of important science information to the audience that needs to learn it--an audience that is largely religious. There's an implicit comparison being made between gains and losses. You gain some converts to science through Pharyngula-style bashing, but you lose a chunk of your potential audience too. You cement the idea that it's impossible to embrace evolution without giving up your religion. Not good, says Mooney.

My point here is that there's a high degree of antecedent plausibility here. You can think he's wrong, but he's not "crazy, reprehensible" wrong.

Yes, there are claims in chapter 8, but I think it's this attack on Pharyngula that has particularly enraged people.

Faust said...

Tea writes:

This is beginning to sound as if the New Atheists (TM) are proposing that we should implement mockery as a central and exclusive method of promoting science amongst the religious.

I think the claim is that enthusiastic activist atheists have made explicit claims that we SHOULD (a normative claim) marginalize religious discourse so that it becomes inadmissable to conversations that pertain to epistemological matters. The idea is that when we have done this, when we have rendered this kind of belief marginal and essentially of the same status as leprechauns and Santa, that science will flourish because people won't have their heads clogged by bad epistemology.

This seems a perfectly good route to take.

What seems to also happen though is that there seems to be an idea that in addition to merely making the argument above, that it will be helpful if we add healthy doses of profanity and contempt, not to mention mockery.

Crackergate is interesting because it centers on questions of "when we are justified in being contemptuous of other people." I think this is an intersting question. People who defend Myers "desecration of that cracker" are inclined to see his display as justified because Cook was assaulted and harassed for his actions, and his actions were utterly trivial, and only involved trying to take a cracker out of a religious ceremony. In the subsequent analysis of this event of course all the people involved in Cook's subsequent harassment are lumped together in a great big category called "the religious." Thus the woman in the church who tried to pull that damned cracker out of his hand, the senate body who stripped him of his senate position (for reasons not related directly to his cracker stealing), the people who called in death threats to him (were there 2? Or 100?) are all the same people "the religious."

"The religious" clearly demonstrated that they are all the same, and that they are deserving of the maxium ammount of contempt that we can muster. People like Chris Mooney, who question this kind of contempt mongering, and who think actively fomenting contempt on a regular basis is not productive to promoting science, eo ipso become identified with "the religious" and thus worthy of the same kind of contempt that "the religious" are worthy of.

That's one thesis anyway.

PS: Atheists are funnier:

http://tiny.cc/Ag9lU

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, well, there's humor to be had in violating social conventions. Seriously, irreverence is hilarious. So when people are writing worriedly about the impact of this irreverence, they sound like dull school marms. They aren't funny. But they may be right.

I think Jerry Coyne (who wrote the post about funniness) is just the sort of person who we ought to worry about what Mooney worries about. He's right now coming to the attention of a lot of people because his book "Why Evolution is True" is on Time's (Newsweek's?) list of 50 books everyone should be reading. But he also seems to be eager to find a place in the pantheon of wickedly irreverent atheists. I just don't know about that. Does he really want his book to be read just by people like me, atheists who want to brush up on their evolutionary biology? Or does he want to reach people who aren't sure whether evolution is true? If the latter, he's probably not going to gain much by being seen as a religion-basher.

There are other ways to go. For example, there's the understated atheism of E. O. Wilson or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which doesn't undercut their role as public science educators.

Jean Kazez said...

Whoops, I left a comment over there, not realizing that was an old post.

I'm still laughing.

The thrust of it is--religion bashers manage to be so funny because they have the gift of empathy.

"Accomodationists"--people who think religion should be discussed respectfully--are unfunny because they don't understand other people.

So, the bashers want to both bash away without being criticized, and also pride themselves in their empathy!

No, tell me it isn't true. Can anybody really be that delusional?

Faust said...

I know, I had the same reaction. Talk about inadvertant hillarity.

I guess one comment I have about the norm violation thing is that this something anyone can do in virtually any context. So Rush Limbaugh is "very funny" with his norm violations--to a certain audience. The audience has everything to do with it.

"Objectively funny" seems me a complete oxymoron--unless we are going to start developing "comic realism" to go along with our moral realism.

amos said...

Sure, each identity or peer group uses mockery in at least two ways: 1. to police itself, that is, to ridicule apostasy, heresy and non-conformity and 2. to belittle the other, the member of the non-peer group.

Mockery not only harms the mocked, but also the mocker, insofar as he is blind to the other, to the member of the non-peer group. I've had the experience of becoming someone whom I might have mocked at age 15 (I was quite a snob at 15): I don't live in the "right" neighborhood or the "right" type of apartment building nor do I wear the "right" clothes or read the "right" (trendy) books. So I can see myself at age 63 with the mocking eyes of myself at 15. I can also resee those whom I mocked at 15 and if they were not all long dead, I would so much like to approach them and apologize for my blindness to their merits, to thank them for their patience with my undeserved sense of superiority.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Why can't there be an open and respectful debate among skeptics about how to talk to the rest of the world?"

You do realize they banned me (without explanation), right? That's one impediment to "open and respectful debate."

You exaggerate how reasonable they are, and you also exaggerate how unreasonable their critics are - by using the word "apostasy" for instance. This is the kind of thing that makes vocal atheists more vocal - it's constantly being misrepresented. They misrepresent PZ Myers in the book and in their articles in the mass media - Newsweek for instance. That is a major reason they've been attracting anger; another is their stonewalling almost all questions from critics while still finding time to renew their attacks on "New" atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

By using the word "apostasy" I'm making a point--that Mooney is an atheist criticizing other atheists. That seems to draw a particularly strong reaction. See: Baggini incident. This is a reality. I didn't make it up.

Yeah, I know you've been banned, and I think it's too bad for it to happen just as someone's called you a liar, so that you can't respond. But you did beat the drum against them very loudly, and insistently, and for a long time and with threats about how their reputation would be sullied if they didn't answer you, and with name-calling ("the Colgate twins").

If somebody had criticized your new book in that fashion, you might have been more interactive for a period of time (which is good of you), but I think you would have gotten fed up and banned them at some point.

As to the substance...

I find them reasonable in their book, in the sense of being civil, and pretty fair and balanced. I don't see them as misrepresenting PZ. I do see people as misrepresenting them.

They are misrepresented as telling people to shut up (no), as having much more to say about "the new atheism" than they do (the book's about lots of stuff), as not pointing the finger at fundamentalism (they do, esp. in other books), and as not engaging in debate at their blog (they do, but in their posts, not in the comment section).

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes I know you're making a point - but you're making the point by misrepresenting the side you dislike. What do you mean "see Baggini incident"? I don't consider reactions to Julian's article to be an "incident."

Yeah in a sense the atheist-attacking-atheists thing perhaps does increase the irritation, but you're just assuming it's for reasons of the kind that evoke the word "apostasy." I think it's more because one expects other atheists to understand certain things and is surprised when they don't.

What I would have done if someone had criticized my book "in that fashion" is not entirely relevant for this reason: I wouldn't write such a sloppy book. Not in a million years. Yes yes yes I know what that sounds like - but the fact remains - I wouldn't. That is of course not to say that any book I write is perfect or beyond criticism - but I just wouldn't perpetrate one as bad as that. So somebody who took after it that way would be behaving differently from the way I was behaving. Besides which, Mooney sent me the book. I didn't ask to get into all this - he sent me the book. Then when I didn't like it, he stonewalled me. He never once answered anything I said - and I somehow could never believe that he never would - so that's why I was "insistent." There was no drum though.

"I don't see them as misrepresenting PZ."

Well then you don't know enough about it, because it's just a fact that they did. They left out crucial details of the cracker affair.

"They are misrepresented as telling people to shut up (no),"

No - again, you must not know enough about it. Mooney told Jerry Coyne (ventriloquizing Barbara Forrest) that he shouldn't have reviewed Miller's and Giberson's books for The New Republic. What is that if not shut up?

"and as not engaging in debate at their blog (they do, but in their posts, not in the comment section)."

No they don't - they ignore criticisms and questions and just keep repeating what they've already said.

Jean Kazez said...

The Baggini incident: by that, I mean the incredible nastiness against him at Pharyngula. By the way, the worry about Pharyngula isn't all about "crackergate"--notice that I didn't use that example in this post (because it's actually quite complex). I think Mooney focuses on it for journalistic reasons.

Mooney sent you the book: yeah, and for that reason, I do agree that some response to your points would have been civil of him. I read your continued demand for an answer (at B&W and The Intersection) as not likely to have been appealing to him, and of course the warnings and name-calling would not have been appealing.

Crucial details: hmm. I read that bit of the book, and thought they'd given enough background so the reader could understand PZ's motivations.

Jerry Coyne shouldn't have reviewed those books in TNR: I've read that Jerry Coyne article. I like it, but I worry about it. If he succeeds in convincing a lot of people that science is incompatible with religion, there will just be all the more opposition to science education. There's a pragmatic problem here, even if he's right about the compatibility issue (which I'm inclined to think he is). I think it's really the pragmatic thing that's bothering Mooney.

Last but not least: I'm no more a troll on Coyne's blog than you're a troll here. Hey, I've read his New Republic article and listened to his Point of Inquiry interview. I might even read his book. I'm no troll over there. Sheesh.

Ophelia Benson said...

Taking the last first - I said you were giving a good impression of a concern troll - not that you were one. I meant that you sounded like one, not that you were one. But okay, I apologize, I'll take it back over there.

I didn't see the incredible nastiness (or any nastiness) about Julian at Pharyngula.

Okay the worry isn't all about the cracker, whatever, but you're still wrong that M&K don't misrepresent him - they do.
No of course the warnings and name-calling wouldn't have been appealing, but they came after weeks of stonewalling - after weeks of stonewalling me and other critics, bragging about good reviews and ignoring bad ones, citing the favorable bits of reviews and ignoring the bad bits, and returning to the fight with PZ yet again.

"Crucial details: hmm. I read that bit of the book, and thought they'd given enough background so the reader could understand PZ's motivations."

That's grotesque. That bit of the book goes out of its way to attack PZ and it leaves out, yes, crucial details. What does it even mean to say "the reader could understand PZ's motivations" when the full story of what was done to Wesley Cook was left out? And why on earth give M&K the benefit of the doubt? Was it impossible for them to include all the facts? Would that have somehow been a huge chore? Of course not - and it was just reprehensible of them to leave some out. I can't begin to understand how you can casually think "they'd given enough background so the reader could understand PZ's motivations."
This is the part I don't get. All bending over backward for them - explaining how they would have supported their claims if only they had, thinking they'd given "enough" background, as if they were rationed - and all dark suspicion of their critics. That's a lot of critics you'll need to keep track of.

I don't agree about Coyne and TNR, of course.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think I've bent over backwards for these guys. I am sympathetic with what they say about alienation, as I explain here--

http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/07/atheism-loud-and-quiet.html

..but I think there's a lot of weak argumentation in chap. 8, as I say here--

http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/07/atheism-loud-and-quiet-part-2.html

As to the specifics on crackergate...I'll have to look at chap. 8 again. It's good to get my money's worth.

Ah...it was Dawkins where there was all that Julian-bashing, not Pharyngula.

Faust said...

I would like the specific link to this:

Mooney told Jerry Coyne (ventriloquizing Barbara Forrest) that he shouldn't have reviewed Miller's and Giberson's books for The New Republic.

Because if it's contained in this:

http://tiny.cc/mkZf4

Then I am blind (I'm pretty nearsighted).

Jean Kazez said...

I promised to reread what chapter 8 says about PZ Myers and did.

The cracker story is told without every last detail. But does it mislead? The reader comes away thinking PZ Myers likes to mock and insult religion. And...PZ Myers does like to mock and insult religion. My own excerpt from the blog is an example. Anyone who reads the blog can find more examples. There was even a letter to the editor in the NYT a week ago quoting Myers as calling Francis Collins an "idjit". This is standard fare over there.

Faust, Yeah, I don't follow that either. I don't see where anybody's telling anyone else not to review books. What they're saying is much more subtle than that.

Jean Kazez said...

To be more precise, he called Francis Collins a "clown" and a "flaming idjit."

Ophelia Benson said...

"The cracker story is told without every last detail. But does it mislead? The reader comes away thinking PZ Myers likes to mock and insult religion. And...PZ Myers does like to mock and insult religion."

Yes, it misleads. The reader comes away thinking PZ did what M&K consider an appalling thing for not much reason. He had a reason, which M&K give a very incomplete account of. Saying "PZ Myers does like to mock and insult religion" is incomplete.

Suppose someone did a very harsh satirical cartoon of the Brazilian bishop who excommunicated the mother of the raped 9-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins and had an abortion. Would you express vehement outrage about the harsh satirical cartoon in a book and Newsweek and the Nation while giving a very incomplete account of what the bishop did?

Suppose someone did a very harsh cartoon about the Irish church in response to the Ryan report. Would you express vehement outrage about the harsh cartoon in a book and Newsweek and the Nation while giving a very incomplete account of what the church did to children in Irish industrial schools as recently as the 1970s?

Maybe you would.

Jean Kazez said...

Yeah, but see, in your examples, you're imagining someone who takes great care with their insults and mockery, calibrating them to the situation. I think there are people in the world who are like that. To understand their cartoons (your example) you have to understand the exact nature of the situation they were responding to.

But PZ doesn't strike me as that sort of person. He hurls around mockery and insults on a daily basis. I mean--what was the point of calling Francis Collins a "flaming idjit" and a "clown"? Even if he said something inane, that sort of name-calling suggests PZ is a person who thinks there are simply no limits to what you can say against religious people and religion.

Now, maybe he did proceed more carefully in the wafer case. But was that because he thought there was some need for respect there? I doubt it. If he was more careful, it would be my guess that it was because he knew that he was in the spotlight, and that there could even be legal or employment implications. I don't think any circumspection could possibly have been because he thinks religious sensibilities deserve any respect. He shows he doesn't feel that way every day at his blog.

So...I think M&K make PZ look outrageously disrespectful and the truth is that he is outrageously disrespectful. What they leave out doesn't mislead anybody.

Tea Logar said...

"PZ is a person who thinks there are simply no limits to what you can say against religious people and religion."

That's not true. It's just that PZ thinks that the limits to what one can say against religious people are *exactly the same* as the limits to what one can say to NONreligious people.

This fact seems to bother theists and faitheists alike, and I think you should be concerned about it.

Jean Kazez said...

At the end of the other thread - "Saving God" - I do express concern about double standards.

I think if Pharyngula were a political website and it were just as insulting and mocking, there'd be people who said it was excessive and counterproductive.

Faithiest (noun): Someone who treats an atheist like Chris Mooney like an apostate, just because he dares to question one of the movement elders. Atheist with religious fervor.

Tea Logar said...

Oh please. He doesn't question, he asserts without evidence. It's his assertions I have a problem with, whether they contradict the "elders" or not. You really should know better.

Jean Kazez said...

"You really should know better." Uh, I think I do know better. As in--I know better than to think this is all about "assertion without evidence." That just makes no psychological sense. Maybe in your case, but not as a general rule. People get furious about criticism they perceive as a betrayal. It happens in all groups, and atheists are no exception.

Tea Logar said...

Could be. I assure you that that's not the case with me.

I mean, it does bother me that some atheists are so fond of "framing to the religious." But it bothers me much, much more when they go beyond mere framing and actually start *making up* completely bogus assertions that allegedly don't need evidence because they're supposed to be "common sense." Like I said before, common sense tells the majority of Americans that you can't have morality in a country filled with atheists, or that you can't have functioning universal healthcare, or that stay-at-home moms produce better-adjusted kids, or that mocking the religious will make them significantly less likely to accept scientific theories.

I say, drop your "common sense", and look across the Atlantic pond! Why hypothesize when the experiments have already been made?

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, OK, explain again how the experiment has already been done across the pond. I am not in the mood to argue about this anymore, but I just want to understand.

Ophelia Benson said...

Okay, a rude one-word dismissal won't do; that's understandable. But I think this is simply outrageous.

"I think M&K make PZ look outrageously disrespectful and the truth is that he is outrageously disrespectful. What they leave out doesn't mislead anybody."

You're saying that it's perfectly all right to give an incomplete account of a particular action because it reflects what you consider the basic nature of the actor? And you think that's not only all right (not morally dubious) but also not misleading?

I think that's grotesque, and shocking. I'm sorry that that's the case, but it is.

Jean Kazez said...

Look, I don't want to come across like Chris Mooney is my cousin. There are plenty of things I do find dubious about this chapter (and the book). I do say so in another post.

But the telling of the PZ story doesn't strike me as being very awful. It's imcomplete, but not egregiously incomplete. It doesn't lead you to believe something about PZ that couldn't have been amply supported with other evidence. So it is not A+ journalism, but it is not terribly irresponsible either.

OK, personal question. I haven't read your book yet, but want to. You tell lots and lots of stories (or so I gather) about people who do X, and do it for religious reasons. In each of these cases, do you really give such a full and detailed account that the reader gets a complete picture of the bad agent's state of mind?

Or do you tell what you need to tell, in order to build your general case?

Matti K. said...

Mr. Mooney is asking for self-censorhip: in his opinion, atheist scientists should be very careful when criticizing major religions or the idea of compatibility of science and religion. This kind of "civility", in his opinion, is supposed to promote general acceptance of science in USA.

It is a truism that people who feel strongly about things tend to speak out about these things. Mr. Mooney himself promotes his pet ideas very loudly. The "new atheists" speak out against religion. Miller and Collins, on the other hand, speak out for religion. I think their actions are in perfect harmony with the idea of free expression. Self-censorship is less so.

The marketplace of ideas is here to stay. Mr. Mooney's book will not pressure any outspoken atheist scientist to tone down his/her critique of religion. So what was the purpose of chapter 8 in UA? To polarize the science-religion debate even more?

Ophelia Benson said...

Well I don't see what the point can be of saying it's incomplete but not egregiously incomplete - especially when he/they have repeated it in two mainstream media places, after many people had criticized the omission. I don't see why it's worth saying 'well it's not that bad.' I don't even agree that it's not that bad, but even if I did I'm not sure I would see the point. It wouldn't have cost them anything to give a complete account, so I don't see why it's worth defending it. And since I don't agree that it's not that bad, I don't agree that it's not terribly irresponsible.

I hadn't seen your earlier posts on this until now (and I've still seen only the first one). A reader pointed out this one to me on Sunday, and I kind of wish I'd remained in ignorance. I see that Jim Lippard gave a very good and detailed account of the cracker affair way back then, a month ago.

http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/07/atheism-loud-and-quiet.html?showComment=1246803024615#c8570677518989782012

Your question. In the stories we tell, we don't have "such a full and detailed account that the reader gets a complete picture of the bad agent's state of mind" because our sources don't provide such an account. That doesn't apply to M&K because their source for the cracker affair is identical to the source for its motivation - both come from the first person account that PZ provides.

And then there's another aspect. Your question assumes some kind of equivalency between religious outrage at disrespect of a cracker, and various kinds of physical violence against and oppression of women. I don't accept that, to put it mildly.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K., I think you're right that no outspoken atheist scientists are going to tone down because of what Mooney says, but there are up and coming scientists and writers who haven't made up their minds yet about how to handle religion in their books, articles, blogs, etc. When I was writing my first book, I went through a period of thinking about that myself. I needed to talk about being a non-believer in the book, and had to decide how to do it. Likewise, I had to decide how to talk about this stuff in my own classroom, in articles, and on this blog. So I think Mooney will have his impact--and of course so will the other side.

Jean Kazez said...

As I keep staying, the sketchy cracker story doesn't merit a lot of complaining because it's not that sketchy (they do mention the death threats) and because it does not mislead the reader. The reader does not wind up thinking things about Myers that aren't true and couldn't be substantiated with lots of evidence. Basically, they've used a journalistic short-cut, but gotten to the truth. Complaining about this is like complaining about some slightly exaggerated story about Bill Clinton's womanizing. It just wouldn't be all that important, because Bill Clinton is in fact a womanizer.

I'm puzzled by your point about "equivalency." When you're saying a person's religion is responsible for them performing an honor killing or something equally awful, isn't it especially important to get it exactly right what was going on in their mind? For example, if they were antecedently psychopathic, wouldn't that be an important thing to know? (But sure...that would be hard for YOU to know.)

M&K actually linked to that post on their blog to make the point that it was ridiculous of Lippard to criticize them in the comments, and then admit he hadn't read their chpater. By the way--I think I might know Jim Lippard. I'm trying to figure that out how/when/where/why.

Jean Kazez said...

The critical post is here.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes I know you keep saying it, but your keeping saying it doesn't make it true. I don't think it is true. It is that sketchy. They mention the death threats but in a trivializing and incredulous way, designed to make it seem significantly less important than the removal of a communion wafer - "But as the Eucharist is one of the seven sacraments in the teaching of the Catholic Church and considered the literal presence of Christ, his action outraged many Catholics, sparking a flurry of media coverage and even, apparently, some death threats." Note how much more important the "action" is made to seem than the "some" "apparently" death threats. Note the elaborate, extensive, hyper-"respectful" language used about "the Eucharist" and the offhandedly hasty mention of the "apparent" death threats. That's not just sketchy, it's also elaborately manipulative - it's "framing" at its worst. (Why at its worst? Because it's typical of the usual religious distortion - making a purely notional abstract bit of ritual or law-following massively important while condoning or brushing off real threats or violence against real people. Cf the Brazilian rape case, the journalist assaulted by spitting Haredi men in Jerusalem for the crime of turning on her recording equipment on a Saturday, the pope's instructions on condoms, etc.)

"Basically, they've used a journalistic short-cut, but gotten to the truth. Complaining about this is like complaining about some slightly exaggerated story about Bill Clinton's womanizing. It just wouldn't be all that important, because Bill Clinton is in fact a womanizer."

No. Absolutely not. It's not the truth, because PZ's reasons were good reasons - he was dramatizing his objections to real threats against a real person. That doesn't apply to Clinton's womanizing - not unless you have reason to think he does it out of altruism - which would be news to most of us.

Your blindness to this is really depressing. You make a kind of boast about your "respect" for religion and religious believers (yes you do - I can give you quotes if you want them) but there's such a thing as too much respect. I don't think anyone should waste any "respect" on people who are more upset about a communion wafer than they are about threats to a student and attempts to get him expelled from school. I think that kind of callous lack of proportion should be treated with contempt, just as PZ did.

"When you're saying a person's religion is responsible for them performing an honor killing or something equally awful, isn't it especially important to get it exactly right what was going on in their mind?"

What we claim isn't quite that simple. Part of our point is that religion makes 'honor' killing respectable - which in itself makes it irrelevant what is going on in the killer's mind. People who think their religion makes murder respectable don't ask what was going on in the murderer's mind, because they think they already know, and that it was good.

"M&K actually linked to that post on their blog to make the point that it was ridiculous of Lippard to criticize them in the comments"

That's interesting. Did they also make the point that it was ridiculous of you to ask "What's with all the criticism of Chris Mooney, here, here, here, and elsewhere?" when you hadn't read their book?

Jean Kazez said...

Maybe our different perspectives turn on this-- You may be thinking there's huge difference between desecrating a communion wafer and being generally very insulting and disrespectful about religion.

So it's very, very important not to say the first, without tons of details and qualifications, even if the second is obviously true and supportable with lots of evidence.

But I don't see this huge gap. Maybe it's because I'm not Catholic. Who cares? Wafer-shmafer. Whatever his reasons for messing with the wafer, it's true that he's says nasty things every single day. "Flaming idjit," "clown"...blah, blah, blah.

I think what irked M&K was Lippard contesting a very specific paragraph of their book, wtihout having seen it. I was supporting, not contesting, but not talking about a very specific paragraph.

As to boasting about respect. Hmm. Whatever.

Drumroll. Mooney's going to be in your neighborhood Thursday night. Will you go? (she asked, mischievously)

Tea Logar said...

"Tea, OK, explain again how the experiment has already been done across the pond. I am not in the mood to argue about this anymore, but I just want to understand."

But Jean, you must know that scientific literacy in Europe is much higher than in America, despite there being a lot of religious people over here. Did you see that embarrassing "the percentage of citizens who accept creationism" chart? You may be surprised to find out that our scientific literacy is much higher despite the fact that here, just like in America, so many people are religious AND we're allowed to make fun of them at the same time.

*We* published a (photoshopped) centerfold of the naked Slovenian archbishop getting a blowjob from a nun. *We* replaced the baby Jesus in Mary's lap with a giant rat. Yes, it was an outrage. But I have yet to meet a religious Slovenian who doesn't accept Darwin's theory of evolution.*

And yes, last year we got rid of the minister of science and education who gave too much money to religious "research" projects. And no one thought of complaining - every sane person knew it was the right thing to do.

*(I'm not saying there are no creationists here, of course. But their number is negligible when compared to, you know... unscientific America.)

Jean Kazez said...

Tea,
Yes, I must know that there's less religion/more mocking of religion in Europe, and higher science literacy...and I do. I wouldn't have thought it automatically followed that mockery was a cause of that increased literacy, or even if it was, mockery in any setting (the US instead of Europe) would have the same effect. But that's what you're saying, I guess. OK. I just wanted to be clear.

Ophelia Benson said...

"You may be thinking there's huge difference between desecrating a communion wafer and being generally very insulting and disrespectful about religion."

No...I don't even think either of those terms is meaningful. I don't accept the assumptions, and that includes your assumption that it is meaningful to talk about being "insulting and disrespectful about religion." I also don't accept your (pervasive) assumption that we are all but required to "respect" religion. I don't accept it, and I think it's illegitimate.

"Whatever his reasons for messing with the wafer, it's true that he's says nasty things every single day."

Is it? Really? Or is it just true that he often says things that you consider "disrespectful about religion"? Is it just true that he flouts your assumption that we are all but required to "respect" religion?

"I think what irked M&K was Lippard contesting a very specific paragraph of their book, wtihout having seen it."

Oh, please. What irked them was that he was on the wrong side.

Mote, beam. Gnat, camel.

You do realize you're doing a Mooney-Kirshenbaum-Nisbet yourself here, right? You're busy rebuking people for being "nasty" and not "respectful" enough, thus positioning yourself as one of The Nice Respectful People - but you're indulging in a lot of distortion and exaggeration in the process, thus not being all that Nice after all.

No, I'm not going on Thursday. I did consider it, but quickly decided it would be far too sick-making.

Ophelia Benson said...

Here's something from a comment posted at The Intersection:

"in intellectually responsible circles we don’t ignore the justification for our opponents’ claims and actions. The book neglects completely the motivation behind Myers’ obtaining and disposing of the wafer. Here’s the sum total of the book’s account:

“Myers was staggered and disgusted by all the hoopla over a “frackin cracker.”

This is intellectually dishonest, because it ignores the fact that Myers was outraged that a person was being attacked by people who think that a wafer is a god. They were accusing Cook of kidnapping and hate crimes, and threatening him with expulsion, violence, and death. This is completely obscured by the above dismissive gloss.

This is what makes your attack personal: you are attacking the action while dishonestly ignoring the justification for that action. In intellectually responsible circles, it is extremely offensive (uncivil, if you like) to misrepresent or ignore someone’s reasoning, more offensive by far than mere profanity."

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/08/03/when-stating-the-obvious-is-most-important/#comment-28758

The more I think about "it's true that he's says nasty things every single day" the more...offensive I think it is.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, Talk about "framing". You ask me--

"You do realize you're doing a Mooney-Kirshenbaum-Nisbet yourself here, right?"

Like it was obvious, and just something I have to "realize"! Very funny. Of course I realize no such thing.

I think you misread my last comment. I was simply trying to explain why we look at the journalistic ethics here very differently.

But to answer your question. Yes, I do think it's fair to say it's disrespectful to call Francis Collins a "clown" and a "flaming idjit." That's obvious.

The question here, in this context, is whether it's harmful--whether it turns people off. It really is an empirical question. I don't think I have any a priori view. I am not inherently a "nice" person. I am actually fairly confrontational. I have very close friends and students who are religious and conservative. I've thought for many years about how to talk to and write for people like them. I've come to certain conclusions, which I follow in my own life. They mesh with Mooney's chapter.

So...there you go. That's how I wind up with my view of these things. Not out of any weird, twisted, boastful positioning thing. I wouldn't go on endlessly arguing with you about stuff if I were all that nice.

Jean Kazez said...

You keep making the wafer thing so central to this. I don't get it. I can sort of see why Myers did that. I followed the thing while it was happening. I understand that sort of protest. I understand burning flags, etc. etc. There's something courageous about it, etc.

But so what? Leave that incident completely out of it. Pretend it never happened. Then M&K would still have plenty of material they could have used from Pharyngula to make PZ the poster boy for a certain kind of very sneering, mocking, name-calling treatment of religion. There's no disputing that he does that, and he's proud of it!

I am definitely not misrepresenting him here--really, I can't see how anybody could say that I was. The only real issue is about the impact of it. I understand the view of those who say it's positive, but my experience in my conservative religious community is that it's not.

Tea Logar said...

"I wouldn't have thought it automatically followed that mockery was a cause of that increased literacy, or even if it was, mockery in any setting (the US instead of Europe) would have the same effect. But that's what you're saying, I guess."

You have got to be kidding me!!! You are, right!?!?

Jean Kazez said...

Tea,

Two things are correlated. Must one be the cause of the other? Of course not. They could have a common cause.

For example, it could be that liberal, non-dogmatic religion and unbelief is the underlying factor. You have a lot of that in Europe, and it might be the cause of both the mocking of literal religion and the higher science literacy. If that's so,and it might be, the mocking is not actually a cause of science literacy. Causation is complicated.

Tea Logar said...

Well yes, exactly. Which is why I'm merely saying that it cannot be "common sense" that mockery causes rejection of science. That's ALL I'm saying, and saying that A doesn't cause B is somehow just not quite the same as saying that A therefore causes non-B. I can't believe that you're interpreting my counterexample to your "common-sense" approach as a factual claim that "mockery causes literacy"!!

Your guessing that mockery *might* cause illiteracy under very different circumstances just proves my point: intuitions won't cut it, "common sense" won't cut it, musings of a West Virginia professor won't cut it. What you're looking for is EVIDENCE.

amos said...

Causation is complicated, and as I said above, it may be that both fundamentalism and lack of scientific literacy are the result of an underlying cultural or educational problem, because those who are illiterate in science are almost always also illiterate regarding philosophy, history, foreign languages, and current affairs. We've so concentrated on scientific illiteracy in this discussion that we've lost sight of a general cultural literacy and that the people who believe that God created in world in 6 days generally cannot identify the president of France or the current President of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes all right, that was a tendentious way to put it. But you are doing a lot of distorting and exaggerating while talking a lot about respect. M&K do the same thing.

"Yes, I do think it's fair to say it's disrespectful to call Francis Collins a "clown" and a "flaming idjit." That's obvious."

There's one right there for instance - I didn't dispute that. You talked of "being generally very insulting and disrespectful about religion" and I said I don't think that is meaningful. Of course I think it's meaningful to talk about insulting particular people.

"I have very close friends and students who are religious and conservative. I've thought for many years about how to talk to and write for people like them."

That's where things get tricky (in my view). Talking to people is one thing and writing is another (unless by "write for" you mean in email and letters, but I'm taking you to mean writing in general). The thing about "writing for" anyone in particular is that you are presumably in your books and articles writing for everyone, in the sense that anyone and everyone could read what you write. I realize that people we know and don't want to wound or worry do loom in our heads as we write - but I also think we have to be careful to weigh that against other considerations. In short I think we have to do our best to tell the truth as we see it, and not let ourselves be inhibited by thoughts of friends and relations. I think that applies especially to religion, because religion gets so much automatic deference and "respect" as it is.

"Leave that incident completely out of it. Pretend it never happened. Then M&K would still have plenty of material they could have used from Pharyngula"

Yes no doubt but that's not what they chose to do. They did choose to focus on the cracker and they did misrepresent it. Of course they could have done other things, but they didn't! You're saying everyone is too angry at them - well you can't make that case by pointing out that they could have done something different!

I think (though I certainly don't know) they chose to focus on the cracker in order to stir up as much anger and disgust as they could.

Ophelia Benson said...

A bit more on this

"I have very close friends and students who are religious and conservative. I've thought for many years about how to talk to and write for people like them."

But why are you concerned just about how to write for people like them? Or if not just, then more, for people like them.

Because you think they're more vulnerable? Because they have something to lose while atheists and liberal believers don't, or don't so much?

But that patronizes them. I understand it (I know some believers too) - but I still think it patronizes them. I also think it deprives them. And I think it risks neutering or watering down what you write - or perhaps making it more...respectful than is otherwise desirable. I don't mean that as a shot - I think it's a real risk. I think it's a mistake to take one particular group, and especially that group, to adjust your writing for.

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, I agree completely: more research needed.

Ophelia, It's odd to call it a distortion to go from reading many cases of mocking and insulting to saying that PZ is generally mocking and insulting.

As to writing/teaching. All I can tell you is what I experience. People seem to shut off if you're not respectful...in my classroom, and where I live. I don't want them to do that. I think there are exceptions...and it's complicated. Why do I particularly want to connect with religious people? Well, I guess because there are lot of them, and they'll be reading my books, and some are my friends, and why should I treat strangers any worse than friends? But no compromising on the truth as I see it. I didn't and wouldn't.

Matti K. said...

Jean Kazez thinks that "there are up and coming scientists and writers who haven't made up their minds yet about how to handle religion in their books, articles, blogs, etc.". Therefore "Mooney will have his impact--and of course so will the other side".

Those writers and scientists who feel strongly about religion will always be outspoken, UA or not. On the other hand, there is no value of a "schock example" to guide less opinionated people to communicate science effectively to religious people. The ideas of successful accommodationists, faitheists or even religious scientists might have been more useful. Using positive examples would have caused much less polarization among the present science/religion/atheism bloggers.

When a scientist or a science teacher tries to get his/her message accross to a religious audience, he/she doesn't think initially "shit, if it wasn't for this darn PZ, this would be a piece of cake". There are much bigger barriers of communication, like for example the apparent incompatibilities of science and scriptures.

Most reviewers who mention chapter 8 of UA, mention it in a negative light, so it may well be pulling down the overall quality of the book. The question still stands: why was it written?

Judging from Mr. Mooney's actions and comments on Intersection, he does not like Dr. Myers (to put it mildly). If that is his main motive for singling out Dr. Myers negatively in UA, it seems that the proponent of self-cencorship doesn't practice what he preaches. Speaking out seems still to have an intrinsic value.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Ophelia, It's odd to call it a distortion to go from reading many cases of mocking and insulting to saying that PZ is generally mocking and insulting."

No doubt it is, but why are you telling me that? Are you trying to give the impression that I said that? If so that's a distortion right there. I didn't say that.

"Why do I particularly want to connect with religious people? Well, I guess because there are lot of them, and they'll be reading my books, and some are my friends, and why should I treat strangers any worse than friends?"

That's all over the place. I was responding to your "I have very close friends and students who are religious and conservative. I've thought for many years about how to talk to and write for people like them." I asked "why are you concerned just about how to write for people like them?" I didn't say a word about treating strangers worse than friends. And your answer isn't an answer - it's a complete non-answer. All those conditions apply to people who are not religious and conservative too, so you haven't explained why you think in particular about people who are religious and conservative.

"People seem to shut off if you're not respectful..."

But you apparently take respectful to mean "not mentioning religion at all" - as when you praised Peter Singer for being "respectful" by not mentioning his atheism in The Life You Can Save -

"For another example involving religion, take Peter Singer's new book The Life You Can Save (see review link in the previous post). He's downright respectful toward religion in the book, never letting on that he's actually an atheist. Well of course not--he's trying to alleviate the vast problem of extreme poverty, and the last thing he wants to do is alienate religious readers."

So "letting on" that one is an atheist is not "respectful" - so it's morally wrong to let on that one is an atheist.

Well. That explains a lot. What a depressing box you've gotten yourself into.

Jean Kazez said...

Sigh. If I said all the things you impute to me, I'd be the world's biggest idiot.

Ah well. As you can imagine, I'm no longer finding this conversation edifying.

Matti K--no insults please. The word "faitheist" is idiotic. I'm going to make it a practise not to respond to people who use it.

Matti K. said...

Personally, I think "faitheist" (= atheist accommodationist) is a neutral term. It describes a subgroup of atheists, just like the term "new atheist". I assume you have no problems with the latter, although there are people who don't understand what the "new" stands for.

However, since you obviously find "faitheist" derogatory, I will not use it any more when writing here.

Also, you don't have to give any excuses for not responding. It's your blog so you host it any way you please.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K.,

As to why that example. I take it Mooney is sincerely dismayed by the level of confrontation at Pharyngula. He was dismayed enough to move his blog. Plus, he's a journalist. Journalists know that stories work. People like to read them. Plus, Pharyngula was one of the top two science blogs when that incident occurred. So it's an example that bears on the issue of how science educators talk about religion. Examples drawn from some other atheist blogs wouldn't have served that purpose. So I don't find the example nefarious. He could have added three more sentences so PZ's actions would have been more understandable. That would have been better. But I don't think the reader comes away thinking PZ is outrageous when PZ isn't outrageous. Of course he is, and I would think proudly so.

The whole issue about this book's chap. 8 might seem merely inflammatory, but it could be that up and coming folks are thinking more about how they want to get involved in the religion issue (or not). Maybe. Not impossible.

amos said...

Let me try to explain why scientific discourse for the masses should be put in terms that they feel comfortable with. I've observed that is a cut-off line for the discussion of most issues. For example, if I observe a discussion about higher mathematics in professional terms, I will not participate because I lack the vocabulary, the entry-level codes. Thus, I am effectively cut-off from that dialogue. If I discuss the current political scene in abstract terms with my lawyer neighbor in the presence of the building caretaker, as does occur, the caretaker is cut off because he lacks the entry-level codes. However, once the person is able to enter the discussion, once he or she has entry-level codes, he or she can follow the discussion and go deeper into the matter. That is what occurred with the TPM blog in my experience: knowing only a little about philosophy, I entered the blog with fear of seeming ignorant, but I had sufficient entry-level codes to persevere and to learn more about philosophy, enough philosophy to make myself obnoxious to all those who know more.

Jean Kazez said...

I'd be reluctant to set up one rule for all writers. Christopher Hitchens is wildly popular yet offensive because he's mastered the art of being outrageous. He's just good at it. For most of us mere mortals, it's not a bad rule of thumb to be as inclusive as the topic allows. Don't gratuitously scare away half your audience either by being incomprehensible to them or by insulting them. Again--exception for CH.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Sigh. If I said all the things you impute to me, I'd be the world's biggest idiot."

Jean - for heaven's sake - did you not notice all the quotation marks? I didn't impute things to you, I quoted you.

Maybe I misunderstood what you said about Peter Singer. Maybe "He's downright respectful toward religion in the book, never letting on that he's actually an atheist" doesn't mean that you think letting on that one is an atheist is not "respectful" - but that's not at all obvious. I think my reading is the obvious one. You could explain instead of just accusing me of imputing things to you.

I don't find the conversation edifying either, but probably for different reasons.

Jean Kazez said...

I didn't think the quoted bits were properly understood. I'm also trying to get back on track with what I'm supposed to be doing.

Let's leave it there--we're both unedified. It's better than calling each other ignorant sluts.

Jean Kazez said...

For any teenagers reading, that was a reference to a SNL skit from way back in the 20th century.

amos said...

There is a time and a place for almost everything. If Paul Krugman were to begin each op ed column on economics with the comments that "religion is stupid" and "only atheists like me have a sense of humor", he would not succeed in getting his message about economics across to as many readers and he would be disrespectful to his readers who are believers. If Nietzsche had begun his book, The Anti-Christ, with a disclaimer about not wanting to offend any creeds or religious beliefs, he would be self-contradictory and would not even respect his own text, since one of the purposes of the Anti-Christ is precisely to offend and attack Christianity.

Jean Kazez said...

One last thought. We're letting this discussion wander into general questions about how to write/talk, and how non-religious writers should write/talk, etc., etc. But that's not what Mooney's book is about, or what I was talking about in the post.

The topic here is--how should science educators write/talk, considering that there is an urgent need for science education, given climate change and problems of that sort.

It would be going much to far too say that nobody can be an outrageous polemicist. (This occurs to me after just listening to Baggini's podcast with Gray and Grayling. Have at it, I would say. No harm done. But these guys aren't science educators.)

windy said...

Oh, but wait, what's my evidence that people lose receptiveness to a message when the messenger is disrespectful?

The best evidence of this would be Mooney himself, but that would kind of destroy his credibility on this issue. And possibly his unresponsiveness and disingenuousness have been more damaging: how would the atheist blogosphere have responded if he had been merely rude?

The whole issue about this book's chap. 8 might seem merely inflammatory, but it could be that up and coming folks are thinking more about how they want to get involved in the religion issue (or not). Maybe. Not impossible.

But as M&K repeatedly have made clear, they expect the book to be read by a much broader audience than just up-and-coming scientists or atheists or scientist-atheists (the kind of people they presumably would want to especially dissuade from mocking religion). If Pharyngula and Crackergate are especially damaging to people's perceptions of science, why do M&K want to trumpet it far and wide, when their proposed replacement (a generation of new scientist-communicators out of whose ranks will arise the next Carl Sagan) is not even available yet? Apparently they care more about getting back at PZ Myers, than about the supposed harm Crackergate does to the public perception of science.

Jean Kazez said...

Mooney makes a mistake by putting his publicity stuff on a blog. At least he should turn the comments off if he doesn't have the time or inclination to get involved. It annoys people to be ignored. I do understand the time factor--he's enviably busy with his book tour. But then...turn comments off.

I don't think the reader comes away from that chapter thinking of all scientists as opposed to religion. In fact, they have lots of examples of people who aren't, and a compatibility argument to show that they shouldn't be. I don't happen to think it's a good argument, but I imagine they think the total message will make the reader think that science is doesn't threaten their religion, if they're religious.

So--no harm done to the image of science. But yes, PZ himself comes across as outrageous.

windy said...

Mooney makes a mistake by putting his publicity stuff on a blog. At least he should turn the comments off if he doesn't have the time or inclination to get involved. It annoys people to be ignored.

By unresponsiveness and disingenuousness, I didn't mean so much the blog comments as his dialogue with Jerry Coyne and others.

Mooney implies in his criticism of Coyne that New Atheists lack 'civility', and 'flail indiscriminately against religion'.
Coyne asks where he was being uncivil or flailed indiscriminately.
Mooney answers 'oh no, we didn't mean you.'
Mooney implies that New Atheist reviews of the book are not to be trusted.
Coyne asks why they sent him the book then.
Mooney replies 'oh no, we didn't mean you'.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So--no harm done to the image of science. But yes, PZ himself comes across as outrageous.

Which is it- Crackergate didn't harm the image of science, or is it magically prevented from harming science only when people learn about it from M&K?

Jean Kazez said...

Windy, I've been watching this whole thing unfold for over a month, and don't see what you see. In fact, I see the opposite.

People haven't just made criticisms of M&K. They've made criticisms with a lot of fury, and then they've demanded answers as if Mooney owed them something. They've treated him like he had committed a personal offense against them.

I have the impression that Mooney's critics would be satisfied with nothing less than a retraction of chapter 8. There is no other response that would satisfy them.

I don't expect you to agree--and obviously you don't. But that's how I read the thing.

You're ignoring what I said about why chapter 8 is cumulatively not going to make the reader think scientists are anti-religion. No magic involved. It's the context that matters--all the stuff about compatibility and religious scientists.

windy said...

Windy, I've been watching this whole thing unfold for over a month, and don't see what you see. In fact, I see the opposite.

"Opposite?" You could argue that I left out the context or ignored or misrepresented something (I was paraphrasing), but I don't see how you can deny that those exchanges took place?

People haven't just made criticisms of M&K. They've made criticisms with a lot of fury, and then they've demanded answers as if Mooney owed them something. They've treated him like he had committed a personal offense against them.

Maybe people are reacting that way not because of just this incident, but the long established pattern of Mooney&friends criticism of scientists and atheists. The debates over 'Framing science', Expelled!, Sizzle, and the argument with Coyne led to similar frustration. It would be nice if people had limitless patience to deal with each new claim on its own, but in practice it doesn't work that way.

This post from Almost Diamonds may illustrate how some have ended up losing patience with the Mooney approach:
http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2009/07/todays-question.html

I have the impression that Mooney's critics would be satisfied with nothing less than a retraction of chapter 8. There is no other response that would satisfy them.

Well, to take one example, there was a pretty serious misrepresentation of Dawkins' views in the book, and Mooney's grudging admission of that is buried in a DailyKos comment thread. Do you think he couldn't possibly have done any more short of retracting the whole chapter?

You're ignoring what I said about why chapter 8 is cumulatively not going to make the reader think scientists are anti-religion.

So maybe the cumulative effect of Pharyngula is not bad for science either?

Ophelia Benson said...

"They've made criticisms with a lot of fury, and then they've demanded answers as if Mooney owed them something. They've treated him like he had committed a personal offense against them."

That's because of the content of what he said - particularly in that post directed at Jerry Coyne. He has committed a personal offense against most of us - he's told us we can't write things of the kind that Jerry wrote for The New Republic, and then refused or failed or both to answer the many many many objections to and questions about that ridiculous claim.

Your comment about that post the other day was "I don't see where anybody's telling anyone else not to review books. What they're saying is much more subtle than that." What? What was Mooney saying in that post that is much more subtle than "don't review books"? We've all asked Mooney nine hundred times, and he's never managed to explain what subtle suggestion he was making.

This is what he wrote:

"Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?"

How, exactly, is that not saying what it appears to say? Which is that Jerry Coyne should not be criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion in a review of their books commissioned by The New Republic.

Please don't tell me I'm imputing things to you, or just say that you "didn't think the quoted bits were properly understood."

Ophelia Benson said...

Of course it's also because of what windy said - which I thought I'd said long ago, but hadn't.

"Maybe people are reacting that way not because of just this incident, but the long established pattern of Mooney&friends criticism of scientists and atheists. The debates over 'Framing science', Expelled!, Sizzle, and the argument with Coyne led to similar frustration."

This stuff goes back more than two years. You say you've been following it a month. You just don't have all the background - yet you remain very convinced of your own rightness.

It was the same way with that argument over the Motoons last year. I re-read it earlier today, and god it was depressing. You just didn't have all the background, and I kept telling you about crucial facts that you'd left out, and you kept ignoring all that and complaining about non-existent ad hominems instead.

If people have more information about a particular subject than you do, you could just give up on the ego stuff and learn from them.

Jean Kazez said...

Windy, The issue about the "cumulative effect" of Pharyngula is a good one to raise. There is some good stuff over there (I steal his pictures sometimes, and used to have a link to the site). I also like the way he handles debate. He does not expect the site to be homogeneous. There is genuine debate with opposing viewpoints, and nobody is bullied into submission. He also had a Christian blogger there a while back--which appealed to my sense of inclusivity. So...good things, all in need of being weighed against his tendency to be ridiculously insulting to whatever he doesn't like.

Ophelia, Right, I've been following this debate since the end of June, but in the interest of understanding where people are coming from, I've gone back and looked at things written before then. For example, I've read Jerry Coyne's New Republic piece. It's not simply a book review, it's a very long, substantive argument that religion and science are irreconcilable. I have also looked at what Mooney said about the review, back in June. What he says is that it's dangerous to insist on that irreconcilability. It's clearly true that creationism is incompatible with evolution....which makes fundamentalists do battle against the teaching of creationism. If Coyne succeeds in proving to a lot of people that all of science is incompatible with religion, then you will have an even bigger crowd arguing against the teaching of science. This point is interesting, and not the least bit reducible to "don't review the book." To say that's what Mooney is saying is just silly. I can't help but see it as a deliberate simplification and distortion because nobody reading Mooney carefully could make such a big mistake.

I think you've got to get over this idea that I'm little bo peep--terribly simple minded and uninformed. Having endured many debates and insults from you for two years, it's time for a little candor. A debate with you seems to have to go on endlessly because your goal is to get your opponent to surrender. You can't grasp that equally smart and informed people can simply disagree. This is not good. It's just not viable for people to engage in debate without some level of mutual respect and charity.

ben nelson said...

Hi Jean. I do, and have, and will continue to agree with you that it is a terrific exaggeration to present Mooney as telling people to shut up.

Unfortunately, though, that's just about as generous a reading as I can make for Mooney and Kirshenbaum. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are, among other things, giving simplistic strategic advice. I agree with most folks that the burden of proof is on them to justify their anodyne approach. Short of a longitudinal social psychology, as you quip, the evidence will likely be inadequate, by any reasonable standard -- and even then, probably not good enough. Hence, anything of lesser pedigree would require a debate. But since they're not interested in providing either evidence or engaging in debate, it is very hard for me to picture a reasonable person being convinced that they've said anything sensible.

But I go one further: I do not believe we are free of evidence, I just think we need to sort through it. There are three kinds of questions we want to answer. First, can conflict work at convincing people of some proposition? Second, can conflict work at opening a dialogue? Third, can conflict work at building communities?

1. Within limits, and with qualifications. Two examples. a) Suppose we say that mockery is inherently confrontational. When a speaker has someone's attention, the audience needs to trust the speaker; I would suggest that trust is what makes the difference between a quip being considered an insult and being a joke (Keith Olbermann v. Jon Stewart), and would suggest that the distinction may have very different impacts. Stewart does confront people, but it comes across as a joke because people trust him (among other things). b) One study shows that the authoritarian personality responds to credible threats, which risks confrontation (or might risk being deemed confrontational under some interpretation). Hence, "Obama's Health Care Bill Will Kill Old People", and pretty much the entire Republican Party's (highly effective) strategy.

2. Yes. Often, you do not have the target audience's attention. How do you get it? Well, that's a bunch of simple lessons we learn from advertising. Bribes, sex, comedy, death... and brawls. People are attracted to trainwrecks, to the WWE, to PZ Myers and Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka. Confrontation works: it works at pulling people into Expelled when they expelled Myers, it works at making Myers's blog one of the top science blogs, it works attracting people to the Intersection (there is plenty of activity when they write libelous and silly things, but it is otherwise a dead zone). Will confrontation convince people, once attention has been grabbed? Only in a fleeting and shallow sense. But if that's all you have to work with, then that's what you work with.

3. Oh God yes. The oldest trick in the book for community-building is persecution of "the other". Hence, PZ is not very good at reaching out to the other magesterium. That's not his project. Rather, he (along with the other Four Horsemen) are very good at giving secular activists a place to breathe. When this is undermined on spurious grounds by other allies, it undermines political solidarity within the liberal fraternity. And M/K's response to Crackergate was, I think, pearl-clutching nonsense. But they are following along with the Democratic Party's (highly ineffective) strategy.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm, You say all sorts of things,not all of which I understand. I'll pluck one thing out to agree with--yes, it's good for "secular activists" to have a place to breathe. If blogs and such are just that--communities of like-minded people--then I'm all for it. It's the ambassadors to the public that you have to worry about. I'd rather have EO Wilson or Neil DeGrasse Tyson types in that role-- not PZ Myers. I don't think I need to have a body of scientific evidence in hand in order for that to be a rational preference.

--

OK--5 days on this topic is enough. Actually, probably too much. Thanks for all the comments (everyone).