Strategic Self-Restraint

Here's what I keep wondering (a propos of all the discussion of the book Unscientific America, which continues at many blogs): what is it that people find so disturbing? I'm going to venture a diagnosis. Ultimately, it's the book's call for self-restraint. Mooney and Kirshenbaum's message to atheists is: please think about the consequences of being antagonistic. The mystery is that saying this unleashes such fury.

It doesn't seem to me that it is a bad thing at all to advise sensitivity to consequences. Take an example completely outside the realm of religion. Recently, Peter Singer has been writing and talking about rationing publicly funded health care: a few weeks ago in The New York Times, and now on CNN. His arguments are very reasonable, but folks are becoming hysterical right now about "death panels" and "socialism." In that setting, "rationing" is a dirty word. If Singer wants to help Obama achieve healthcare reform in the US (and he does) it would be perfectly reasonable to ask him to think about whether it's wise to speak out like this. I am pretty confident that Singer, and people who like Singer, would take no offense at this sort of strategic question being raised. (I don't know the answer--it's just the raising of the question that I'm defending.)

And so why is the same sort of discussion, when it comes to speaking about science and religion in the public square, so profoundly offensive to this book's very riled up atheist critics? I have a hypothesis: I think some of "the new atheists" feel like gay activists did in the 1960s and 70s. They feel like a vulnerable minority that's just now starting to be heard. Thus, it galls them no end to be told they need to tone it down and think about things that matter more--like science literacy, addressing the problems of climate change, etc.

I don't have anywhere near as strong a sense of atheists as muzzled and vulnerable. There are definitely issues about the status of non-believers and their right to be heard, but they don't loom as large in my mind as they do for this book's furious critics. The problems about the future--like climate change--loom much larger. If it's generally reasonable to think strategically about what we say in the public square, I can't see any reason to make an exception when the topic is science and religion.

This is not to side with Mooney and Kirshenbaum on any specific claims they make about who should or shouldn't speak out, when, and where, but just to say their views don't put them beyond the pale. Not even remotely. It takes a rather exaggerated notion of the plight of non-believers to find their call for self-restraint offensive.


s. wallerstein said...

Here we go again. There are two issues which have been debated and which generally get confused.
1. Is Mooney correct that pushing atheism will turn off some believers to science? I think that he is correct.
2. A question of priorities. What is the priority: for atheists to speak their mind and tell it like it is or for atheists to tone down the music in order to not irritate their religious neighbors? Here we have two goods in conflict, the right of atheists, indeed of everyone, to express themselves (within the legal limits of clear and present danger, etc.) and the need to promote scientific education in the schools. At this point of the debate, I'm so tired that I personally will not dictate priorities to anyone. Besides, as I've outlined in other spots, I'm not at all sure that there is a specific problem with science education: there is also a problem with the education of history, of philosophy, of literature, of foreign languages, etc., which has nothing to do with religious fundamentalism. That is, the people who don't learn science don't tend to be experts on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, The charges against these folks are actually escalating, not abating, at other blogs. Hence, the return to the subject, and my attempt at diagnostics.

Plus, I recently attempted to participate in a discussion about this issue of strategic self-restraint at another blog, and was pretty much beaten up for it. That's what makes me speculate that the very notion is deeply troubling to some people...and then speculate also about why. (Sense of being members of a vulnerable, muzzled minority...etc).

I agree with your point about how Americans are illiterate about lots of things. They don't know geography, don't know history, etc. I have not read the book cover to cover, so don't know if the authors go overboard making scientific illiteracy seem like a distinctive phenomenon. I have the impression maybe they do.

Faust said...

I do think analogies with other political movements or projects are good to contemplate here. As you pointed out with your "animal right continuum" there can be gradations of conviction on an issue tied not only to ideology or worldview but also to questions pertaining to effectiveness of given courses of action in the world. What kind of speech one deploys is certainly action in my view. And the concern about people being "shut up" would seem to agree with the speech-as-action view.

But reading various blog sites as I do there are aspects of this particular "blog spat" that look and sound just like any "blog spat." That's not to denigrate the issues...it's simply to note that there is something about the way that blog conversations proceed that seem to be the same no matter what the topic is under discussion. I remember some of the insane wars between Clinton and Obama supporters during the primaries. Truly beyond the pale some of those discussions. Human beings can take ANY topic and turn it into a life or death matter.

Anyway none of this is to comment of the specific merits of the MK v Various Opponents arguments. The hyberbole aside, I think it was actually a pretty intriguing debate (if occasionaly tieresome and strange) with some food for thought generated that I personally have found valuable.

Jean Kazez said...

Maybe you're right. Maybe it's just blog weirdness--flame wars, etc.

I got the gay rights analogy from listening to DJ Grothe talking to Tom Flynn at Point of Inquiry yesterday. He talked about "the new atheists" feeling like gay rights activists of decades ago. Which got me thinking...

s. wallerstein said...

Not only are your Americans illiterate, but yesterday I chanced to listen in to a conversation between two Mormon missionaries and a housewife and the degree of ignorance and superstition, blended together, shocked me. I realized how out of touch I am with that kind of unthinking ignorance, since most of the believers I know are either social Jews or social Catholics, that is, people who go to Church or synagogue out of a desire to participate in a social bond and generally, a vague sense that there is a deity, a creator, a loving Being, who knows? However, there's a level of aggressive ignorance that is not just the product of fundamentalist religion; rather, I'd say that fundamentalist religion is the product of aggressive ignorance, a rejection of thought, of reason, of learning, of culture that comes from very deep in the soul of some people. As they say, correlation (between scientific illiteracy and religious fundamentalism) is not causation.

Faust said...

I think SOME of it is blog wierdness. And some of it is part of important cultural conflicts that will shape our society going forward. Sometimes it's hard to seperate those things out and that's a difficulty that people use to justify the rhetoric.

Jean Kazez said...

I promise to go into rehab if I write more about this. (But I might be crossing my fingers.)

Faust said...

Maybe they sell a "patch" for it? Or some chewing gum?

BLS Nelson said...

Of course secular activists feel like a minority in American politics, and the new atheists even moreso. Dawkins almost comes across as a member of the Frankfurt School when he advocates "consciousness-raising" on the relevant questions, and he explicitly compares the movement to the plight of homosexuals. They're right to feel like a minority, since they are one. Most people simply are not atheists.

It seems unreasonable to expect anyone to judge whether or not some minority group is oppressed or not on the basis of whether or not they pass a subjective "I can't get my dander up over this" test. There are objective markers that are more convincing, like whether you can live in the Midwest without being bashed and bullied, or whether or not you can hold public office.

9/11, coupled with the Bush administration's corruption and betrayal, radicalized anyone with the remotest liberal ethic into an anti-accommodationist stance. There was a quiet revolution, as the center-left paradigm shifted from "Bush protects America from the Taliban" to "Bush represents the American Taliban". The realization that your government is defrauding you hits you at a level that runs so deep that it doesn't go away. It sets the backdrop for your self-image, as a minority group in an increasingly hostile religious world.

As far as that goes, well: when's the last time the Abrahamic religions reached an olive branch out to atheists?

Faust said...

"There are objective markers that are more convincing, like whether you can live in the Midwest without being bashed and bullied, or whether or not you can hold public office."

I certainly agree with this. One's experiences as a non-believer or going to vary widely from place to place.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I might need both the patch and the chewing gum.


"9/11, coupled with the Bush administration's corruption and betrayal, radicalized anyone with the remotest liberal ethic into an anti-accommodationist stance"

That's the sort of weird hyperbole this debate seems to bring out in people. It's just not true. I am a card-carrying non-believer, AND a liberal, AND a fan of Sam Harris's post 9/11 book, BUT...

I find even the words "accommodationist" and "anti-accomodationist" silly. They convey the false sense that non-believers are in the power position. Like it's up to them to give the believers a little room at the table. Given the numbers in the US, it's actually the other way around. And I don't think atheists are going to make much progress as long as they are indulging in fun of telling people how stupid and silly they are. Basic rule of life: you won't get respect unless you give respect.

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: Of course, according to my new theory, you get discriminated against, not because you're an atheist, but because you think too much. The discrimination against atheism is only a pretext, for a deeper rejection of thought and reason. If they succeeded in convincing the aggressively ignorant that Mickey Mouse is an atheist and therefore, atheists are o.k., the aggressively ignorant would find another pretext to discriminate against you for thinking too much.

Ben Nelson said...

Jean, I will admit to hyperbole there, but not for the reasons you presented. For I do recognize that some liberal folks have Stockholm Syndrome. And, indeed, the very fact that such a syndrome exists is evidence to the effect that "give respect, get respect" is far too simplistic to be true, and therefore not realistic to adopt as a rule of life.

Amos, I think you're on to something. People instinctively recoil from the complicated, because it produces irresolvable frustration. Much of that, though, has to do with culture and temperament. And of course it doesn't help that people have bad interactions (or no interactions) with scientists.

Jean Kazez said...

Ben, Go chat with your most religious friends and relatives. Give 'em some of that PZ Myers treatment. Then ask them how they view atheists. Write down what they say. Then get back to me. If you don't find corroboration of the principle that getting respect requires giving respect, I'll gladly eat my words.

Faust said...

Or to spin the principle the other way:

Imagine that "the religious" were open and tolerant, didn't try to enact public policy according the dictates of their religion (anti-gay marriage etc), and were always very respectful of non-believers.

If this utopian scenario took place would there be any problem here? Isn't the reason that there is such a fight here due to the fact that "the religious" are so disrespectful of people who choose not to live according to the dictates of their particular relgion? Isn't that proof positive of the give respect/get respect principle?

s. wallerstein said...

Give respect, get respect sounds a little simplistic and optimistic to me, as any child who has been bullied in school can testify. If the Jews had respected the Nazis more, would they have been respected in return? An extreme case, to be sure. I have to go, but later on I will search for an article about Hitchens's thesis, also simplistic, but interesting, that ant-semitism has to do with a hatred of thinking and of reason. Anti-atheism has the same roots in my opinion, a hatred, a rejection of thought, of reason. If Blaise Pascal or Kierkegaard were to open their mouths in some circles today, they would become pariahs, not because they're atheists (obviously not), but because they think.

Jean Kazez said...

I didn't say "give respect, get respect"...sure, it's not that easy! If you give respect, you're not guaranteed to get back respect.

I said, "you won't get respect unless you give respect." Which means that if you don't give respect, you won't get respect. In other words, disrespect tends to get paid back with more disrespect.

Even this is just a rule of thumb, and not always true. Some people stay above the fray and treat everyone with respect, including people who are disrespectful But I don't think that's the usual way of the world.

s. wallerstein said...

the article about Arendt, with Hitchens's idea about anti-semitism, the seed of my idea about a hatred of thinking.


Ophelia Benson said...

“what is it that people find so disturbing?”

I’ll try to pin down what it is that I at any rate find so disturbing.

First of all – literally first, chronologically, because there is a progression here – it has to do with the stuff Matthew Nisbet has been saying for years. I disagreed with him early in the game – 2003 I think. It’s an ongoing dispute, so a new instalment of it draws on a reservoir of irritation that already exists. It isn’t possible for M&K to start fresh – which is perhaps unfair – but then again that’s how it is with a lot of disputes.

Next – the initiating post (which was the one about civility, Barbara Forrest, Jerry Coyne, at the end of May, before UA was out) took a rather presumptuous tone. That got on my nerves at the outset. So that is one of the things you’re looking for (I take it) – why did it get on my nerves? Well…because it just seemed silly and shallow to me. (Some of which could be because of that reservoir.) Presumptuous, as I said. I’m just not convinced that, on this subject, Mooney (it was his post) is sharp enough or thoughtful enough to take on Jerry Coyne. Yes I know how that sounds, but it is what I think.

Next, I still think it’s completely inane to challenge Jerry Coyne for writing a long, thoughtful book review in a magazine like The New Republic. If Coyne can’t do that then none of us can do anything. That was a huge factor in my initial irritation – and it just went on from there – especially since Mooney never answered objections to that particular post. I know you point out that he’s not obliged to, he’s busy, etc, all of which is of course true, but it’s also true that he took the time to challenge Coyne in (what I think is) an unreasonable way on his blog which allows comments – so I do think he should have dealt with objections. (And if he had, surely both of them would be in a lot less hot water with [as they say] former allies than they are now.)

And so on. I could go on that way for the whole course of the argument, but it would take days! So I’ll spare us all. But there are reasons, and I think they’re not all that mystifying or irrational.

Sure, the call for self-restraint is part of it – but only part. It’s also the assertion instead of interrogation – the obsessive repetitive name-calling in national media – the spite and vindictiveness. (You probably disagree with those nouns – but their obsession with PZ looks bizarre to a great many people.) There’s also the problem that they claim to want to bridge gaps but what they’re actually doing is informing a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise know a thing about it how dreadful they think PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne are.

Benjamin Nelson said...

Jean, just so we don't get off topic, I'll repeat my point in the hopes of it being given some real consideration. "I do recognize that some liberal folks have Stockholm Syndrome. And, indeed, the very fact that such a syndrome exists is evidence to the effect that "give respect, get respect" [or giving respect is necessary for getting respect] is far too simplistic to be true, and therefore not realistic to adopt as a rule of life." In other words: give me an enclosed area, supplies, guns, loudspeakers, and a lifetime, and yes, I'll give you a brand new brainwashed family.

This is but one exception to what you've literally presented as a general rule of life. Elsewhere, even on this blog, I have given others. Perhaps you intend to qualify that rule so that it only deals with personal interactions of a certain kind. That would be nice and fine, and it may even come out true -- or, at least, more true than the proposition you asserted. But if you do you'll risk missing out on important, and related, facts of life which, in this case, are of central importance.

Faust, it's so complex that nothing can be usefully stated in generalities. On the one hand, there is a halo that surrounds the mere believers that inspires people that believe in belief. This halo effect, paradoxically, comes from the transformation of the victim's mixed feelings of intimidation and desire for friendship into feelings of protective subordination. And then on the other hand there's a different effect on others, i.e., some of the cruelest of those that comment at Myers's blog, who are prepared to "shoot the hostage" (so to speak) in Stockholm America. So yes, their disrespect does have a partial effect of inspiring awe, and also the partial effect of inspiring outrage.

Ophelia Benson said...

A couple more things.

“I am pretty confident that Singer, and people who like Singer, would take no offense at this sort of strategic question being raised.”

I have been able to think of ways that M&K could have raised the issue that would have been much much less irritating. They could have done some questioning. That would have been a whole different thing. What they have in fact done, though, is a lot of asserting – and they’ve been asserting more than they know (more than anyone can know), radically simplifying everything, ignoring competing goods and other tensions, etc etc. That is irritating.

“I think some of "the new atheists" feel like gay activists did in the 1960s and 70s. They feel like a vulnerable minority that's just now starting to be heard.”

Well of course – many of us (I seem to be one) have said that, often. Dawkins talks about that at the outset of TGD (I know this, because I’ve just re-read the first couple of chapters). This is very much part of the issue and has been all along – so yes, to be told to pipe down five minutes after we open our mouths is very irritating. Now, you say you don’t think that’s such a big issue. Okay, but other people do. So…

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I am at a point where I am honestly trying to at least understand, so--thank you for all of that. I confess, some of my diagnostics came from a few things you said recently at B&W, and not just from listening to DJ Grothe (who is so great). Some of the background to all of this wasn't apparent to me. Will peruse more closely later (I'm trying to dig myself out from under a household disaster here...called "painting kid's room").

Ben--I didn't think that "Stockholm Syndrome" point in response to what I had said was plausible enough to be worth a long discussion. No offense intended. Let me know when you've done that experiment!

s. wallerstein said...

Here's my theory. There is a segment of the population which I will call "aggressively ignorant".
I will not call them "stupid" because they can be very crafty, shrewd and manipulative, but they reject critical thinking, critical reason and all questioning of received ideas. Atheism is simply a pretext, for their hatred of thinking and of thinkers. What is behind their hatred? Fear. The thinker, in questioning received ideas, threatens their world or so they perceive it. Envy. The thinker has a power, the power to see through what they don't want to or cannot see through, and they envy that power, as much as they reject it. Finally, simple hatred of all that is different, in this case, thinking. I think that it is very difficult to reach this segment of the population, because their power, their self-esteem, is based precisely on their rejection of reason and so any attempt at a critical dialogue with them threatens their very being. They frighten me. I looked at pictures in internet of some thugs protesting against Obama
and I said to myself: storm-troopers. The best way to deal with them, in my experience, is to avoid them, as far as that is possible.

Benjamin Nelson said...

Jean, I'm certainly not prepared to re-do the Zimbardo experiments on a longer time scale. Especially not when their results are as they are, and as famous as they are. And in any case, related field research into cults tells us similar stories. People sympathize with their oppressors when they have nowhere else to go, and they gladly internalize the most abusive of roles.

When you brush the point off without anything but a gut reaction, I can't help but feel as though you're not really taking your own questions seriously. Don't you want to engage the question with reasons, responding to the evidence?

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean, I know, and I was trying hard to convey some of the reasons. There are lots more reasons - but that was a sample anyway. (It reads as though I thought you were looking for my reasons, which I didn't mean to say - I meant to say you were looking for reasons so here were some of mine in case that's useful.)

D J Grothe rocks. He interviewed me once!

Faust said...

"I'm certainly not prepared to re-do the Zimbardo experiments on a longer time scale."

Are you prepared to re-do it at all? Because apparently:

"Current ethical standards of psychology would not permit such a study to be conducted today. The study would violate the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association, the Canadian Code of Conduct for Research Involving Humans, and the Belmont Report."

OB said...

I think anybody who knows anything at all about the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments knows very well that they would no longer be allowed. Zimbardo beats himself up for not shutting the study down sooner, in his book The Lucifer Effect.

Ophelia Benson said...

I have a couple of further thoughts here.

"I am pretty confident that Singer, and people who like Singer, would take no offense at this sort of strategic question being raised. (I don't know the answer--it's just the raising of the question that I'm defending.)

And so why is the same sort of discussion, when it comes to speaking about science and religion in the public square, so profoundly offensive to this book's very riled up atheist critics?"

That's a jump, and it's the kind of jump that M&K tend to make, so it's worth pointing it out. What people would say or do or take is necessarily always uncertain, and it's a mistake to jump from a predicted "would" - however confident - to treating the "would" as a fact. So saying "and so why is the same sort of discussion etc" doesn't work. However confident we are about what people would do, we're still just guessing, and we shouldn't over-estimate how sure we can be. One huge element of my irritation with M&K (and I think other people's, from what I've read) has always been their over-confidence about predicted consequences of very complicated chains of events. You've said a few times I think, including at The Intersection, that it's silly to demand evidence for such an obviously true claim as M&K's claim about what the "New" atheism will cause to happen. But it's not silly at all because M&K's claim isn't obviously true, for the same reason it's not obvious that you're right about what Singer would do (whether he would take offense). You may be quite right; I'm willing to take your word for it in casual talk (because you know your Singer); but when M&K make similar claims not in casual talk but in a book and in mass media - I'm by no means willing to take their word for it.
The problem is they make a big jump from something that is obviously true - that lots of religious people don't like atheism - to various things that are not at all obviously true, because there are lots of steps in between. It's just not obvious that believers' dislike of atheism means that people won't do anything about AGM, for instance. It's possible to invent a chain that gets you there (lots of religious people don't like atheism, lots of scientists are talking about atheism, lots of religious people will think science and atheism go together [notice what a big jump that is!], lots of religious people will decide to spite science in order to spite atheism, those people will refuse to unite to do something about AGM when they would have done so if it hadn't been for the atheist scientists...) but it involves a lot of frankly absurd jumps.

Sorry, that's a bit long-winded, and may look excessive, but as you know, I'm doing something with the larger subject, so just think of this as part of that endeavor - because it is.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I am a "long time listener" of PoI--and yes, I did listen to that one. You were altogether professional sounding, as I recall. Interesting fact--I think you come across very, very differently in person than in writing.

Re: all of the above. I definitely am interested in how you came to find these guys so annoying...so I am glad to hear the explanation (or some of it, anyway). I need to have more of a look at the Nisbet business (maybe a PoI)? I never paid much attention to that.

Yes, I think they could have said things in a very measured way that would have raised fewer hackles. I think in journalism school you must get a C when you go that route.

Ben--I don't mean to be rude--I'm just reluctant to get into a big discussion about something that wasn't at all within the scope of the post.

Jean Kazez said...

Whoops--your last comment just came in. That was a response just to the earlier comments.

OB said...

"You were altogether professional sounding, as I recall."

A fluke!

:- )

Jean Kazez said...

True, I don't know how Singer would actually react to someone saying he should be quiet about rationing. Maybe he would find it irritating. But I should think that couldn't be his "official" reaction, because he clearly does care about the outcome of the health care debate. As a consequentialist,he just has to care about his impact. So I used the "would" with a pretty high degree of confidence.

About the evidence thing. OK, let's stick with the Singer example. It's pretty urgent that he not add fuel to the fire of the crazies who are worried about death panels. We really, really need universal health care. So I wouldn't see a problem with someone telling him to get out of this debate, even in the absence of hard evidence that he's having a negative effect.

The appropriate response from him would not be "You can't say that, you don't have evidence!"--let alone feeling affronted. It would be to tell a more plausible story about how his speech might influence people. Maybe he would say that the rationing "cat" is out of the bag anyway, so it's better to confront it.

It's perfectly fine (I think) for atheists to argue with "M&K's" alienation theory...and that's what some people have done. It's the sense that M&K shouldn't have "told atheists to shut up" and needed much stronger evidence that I don't buy.

BLS Nelson said...

Fair enough.

Still, to backtrack a bit. There's one question from my first post that speaks very much to the issue of the sense of a belittled minority, and which remains unanswered. When's the last time you've seen the Abrahamic religions reach out to atheists? Because we've seen the inverse in spades, of course. If the answer is "I don't know" or "never", then doesn't that tell us something about the power dynamic?

s. wallerstein said...

I gather that the two of you, Ophelia and Jean, have never met face to face. You should get together some day and record your conversation (that part of your conversation that can be recorded for children over age 50).

Matti K. said...

Dr. Coyne's review was based on rational arguments and he made no ethically questionable statements*. Even Mr. Mooney does not say otherwise, he just thinks publishing it is bad strategy. Mr. Mooney in short: if Coyne speaks out his honest opinion on the compatibilty of science and religion, science education and outreach suffers.

Self-censorship is sometimes warranted, like when omitting names in crime reporting, with the aim of avoiding to cause extra pain for the victims.

Mr. Mooney wants the religious people to think that just about all scientists think that science and religion (in geral) are compatible. He thinks that by not producing counterclaims one is able to build such an illusion.
I, hoever, think that trying to give a false impression on purpose is cheating.

Learning of the huge diversities in thoughts and opinions around religion is certainly a schock for many people, especially those coming from small and tight-knit communities. Knowledge brings pain, as we say in my home country (Finland).

Due to the nature of Internet and the new media there is no way to control the order in which people learn about controversial ideas.
Therefore Mr. Mooney's strategy of selective communication is naive, even if one does not consider free speech issues.

*Unless, of course, one considers proposing the general incompatibility of science and religion as such.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, What's this about children over 50? Are you saying if we met we might use profanity? Good heavens!

Ben, What does "reach out to" include? I know many people who are non-believers, yet are welcomed as members of synagogues. And it's not just a matter of keeping secrets either.

I've heard political leaders acknowledge non-believers with acceptance--Obama at his inauguration, and even George Bush on some occasions. I don't think it's impossible to hope that atheists would be accepted as just another color in the rainbow, but it's tricky. I think for that to happen people have to come to see that atheists are "like them" and believe some of the same things.

Matti K., If you're going to comment, why not respond to the argument in the post? You have completely ignored it.

Matti K. said...

Jean concluded her arguments of her post:

"It takes a rather exaggerated notion of the plight of non-believers to find their call for self-restraint offensive."

In my comment I explained why I think this "call for self-restraint" is both useless and naive and why following such advice could be harmful.

I hope this helps.

Jean Kazez said...

Your previous comment made it seem as if self-restraint only makes sense when a newspaper doesn't publish names of rape victims...and the like. But my example makes it pretty clear that self-restraint is reasonable in far more situations. So it's really up to you to say why the case I refer to (Singer) is not instructive.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, I was thinking more of the content of the conversation than of the language.

Matti K. said...

We both agree that self-censorship (or self-restraint) and calls for it are sometimes warranted. Therefore there is no need to pick examples not related to this specific case (Mooney vs. Coyne).

In any discussion, it is reasonable to avoid ambigous words, like "rationing" in your example. But has anybody asked to avoid discussing certain particular aspects of health care in USA? I don't think so. What do you think the general reaction would be, if f.ex. Obama would do so?

Mr. Mooney has no complaints about the semantics in Dr. Coyne's criticism. He thinks that public questioning of the compatibility of science and religion is altogether bad strategy and counterproductive.
I told you already my opinion about that kind of attitude.

There is another aspect: Mooney seems to worry more about the effects of communication than the truth value of communicated substance. This kind of short-sightedness might be no big deal for certain type of journalists, but it has pissed off many scientists.

I hope this has incereased your understanding why there are so many negative attitudes toward Mr. Mooney.

Jean Kazez said...

"Mooney seems to worry more about the effects of communication than the truth value of communicated substance. This kind of short-sightedness might be no big deal for certain type of journalists, but it has pissed off many scientists."

Yes, but that's just the issue. Should it have pissed them off? I'm saying no, because you can find lots and lots of cases where truth is not the only issue; effects also matter. The rationing example is a case in point. And no--in the present context the word is not ambiguous. The linked material makes it clear what the word means.

s. wallerstein said...

Effects do matter. The next time a woman friend asks you if she looks fat, tell her that she does, if you really think so.

Jean Kazez said...

Another example (which avoid getting into the debate about health care rationing)...

What if Obama had gone around in the last month of the campaign talking about his atheist mother--yes, he had one. That would have been truthful and decent of him, but ....agh! Lots of people would have been telling him to put a lid on it, including atheists.

Matti K. said...

Well, for most scientists, truth is paramount. Also many ordinary people despise lying or even attempts to lie. I'm sure you understand their feelings.

Scientists do not agree at all on the compatibility of religion and science. Mr. Mooney knows that but still wants to build a public illusion that there is a consensus among the scientists. What do you call that?

Maybe you are saying that lying is not so bad, if one thinks it is for the common good. Like "lying for Jesus"?

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, Jean is not advocating lying. She is advocating omitting to tell people certain truths which may have negative effects. Now, there are times when one has to lie in the name of a greater good, the classic example being when the Gestapo comes to your door asking where your Jewish neighbor is hiding.

Matti K. said...


Don't you think it is very naive to ask scientists, philosophers and theologians discussing science, philosophy and religion to think like politicians?

Of course one needs politicians (like Mooney) and the policies they help to produce, but it is plain stupid to expect everyone to be a politican.

After all, it is preferable that at least her physician tells the hevily overweight lady friend of Amos that it would be good for her health to lose some weight. :-)

Jean Kazez said...

Right, I'm not advocating lying. It might just be a matter of omitting things--not talking about rationing right now, not talking about Obama's atheist mother, when he's in the middle of a campaign.

There are other ways to be strategic. In my new book, I try to keep people on board with the part of my thesis that is most important to me (we ought to treat animals more humanely) by allowing that "reasonable people will disagree" about some of the more controversial claims. That's entirely true!

Coyne could have offered some of that "reasonable people will disagree" emollient to keep readers on board with science, even though in his view friending science means defriending religion.


Matti K. said...


Mr. Mooney wants to give the public an impression that among scientists, there are no real disagreements about the compatibility of science and religion.

That is not true.

What do you call pushing such an incorrect idea?

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K, OK, I agree up to a point. There's got to be a place for discussion of ideas that's like the doctor's office. No politics, just truth. (But then again--doctors are strategic! They especially want to be persuasive!) That's why I keep talking about "the public square."

There are places that are not the public square...though of course the line is fuzzy. I definitely think books of philosophy that are written for philosophers should be totally non-political (to give just one example). My own book (which I just mentioned) is a "public square" book--hence, the attention to persuasion. The New Republic is definitely part of the public square.

BLS Nelson said...

Jean, I will admit that Obama has been an exceptional case, in many ways. But that just holds a stark contrast to the norm (I think we agree).

All, just to jump in here with respect to Matti's comments. Effects do matter, obviously, because there is such a thing as negative responsibility. But unless we're very naive consequentialists indeed, we have to ask: what effects? There's the foreseeable effect of having people over-react (which is their choice), and there's the effect of trivializing debate over serious matters. And as far as that goes, in this case, it's a no-brainer. We have to respect a discourse. For any life lived in a culture that trivializes debate is one that tolerates the defenestration of meaning from public dialogue, and therefore potentially condemns us to squander our ability to enjoy our private ones.

This doesn't generalize, of course. You don't tell a grandmother lying on her deathbed that her family has just died in a car crash on the way to see her. You don't sexually harass women, or do anything that you think will have the consequence of making them feel harassed, even if you do feel like making honest statements that may be suggestive. But I fail to see how these cases draw upon norms that matter to the present problem.

Ophelia Benson said...

"It might just be a matter of omitting things--not talking about rationing right now, not talking about Obama's atheist mother, when he's in the middle of a campaign."

That points up a huge difference between your examples and what M&K are suggesting. Your examples are of temporary, and very brief, strategic omissions; M&K are urging atheists to omit things forever. They've never (that I've seen) said anything about a temporary brief hiatus for the sake of immediate goals - their idea seems to be that atheists should hide what we take to be the truth indefinitely for the sake of vast overarching goals like not having dissent and not having culture wars.

Matti K. said...


I do agree that some discussions do not belong to the "public square". However, usually these "taboos" stick exactly because the majority of people agree that they should not be discussed in the public. Sometimes this kind taboos have been harmful, like for example questions regarding sexuality and contraception. There is no real need to work hard to produce more of these.

The compatibility of religion and science has not been a general "taboo" and has been discussed probably for centuries. I cannot understand why a supposedly liberal Mr. Mooney is trying to make it a taboo.

Moreover, it is only the anti-compatibility stand that he thinks should be kept under the lid. Pro-compatibility articles and books on the other hand, are strategically wellcome. I find this attitude very dishonest.

If PR-work is paramount to factual accuracy, wouldn't it be enough to point at Miller and Collins and forget about Coyne, PZ and Dawkins? I think this would be analogous to the kind of "omitting" you are speaking above.

I think Mr. Mooney is trying to deceive the religious public. For their own good, of course.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I cannot understand why a supposedly liberal Mr. Mooney is trying to make it a taboo."

Quite. This raises another issue, or another reason for the irritation with M&K - what might be called the Millian reason. There is in liberal secular societies a very strong presumption in favor of free open uninhibited public discourse and discussion. It requires very compelling reasons to go against that presumption. I think M&K's reasons just strike a lot of people (me for one) as woefully inadequate to the task. M&K seem bizarrely blithe about all this - bizarrely unworried about going against the presumption. It's as if they've never heard of free speech! Or arguments over speech codes, PC, hate speech, etc etc etc. It's as if they didn't even know there's an issue. There's something startlingly clueless about that - which contributes to the overall sense that they are in way over their heads which contributes a lot to the overall irritation at their presumption - their breezy air of superior wisdom. Every time they say something like 'We just can't see why there's such a fuss about this' (and they say it often) they contribute to that overall irritation. (Mooney probably set them up for that when he said in one of his early posts - maybe the one where he agreed that he had changed his mind - that scientists who disagreed with him on the compatibility issue hadn't read enough history and philosophy. I've noticed that he hasn't repeated that claim in a long time.)

s. wallerstein said...

Mill's argument is about the right to free speech. Jean's argument (I haven't read Mooney) is about the appropriateness of saying certain things at certain moments, for example, Singer talking about rationing healthcare in the public space, Obama talking about his atheist mother in the public space, etc. Jean doesn't say that Singer doesn't have the right to talk about rationing healthcare, just that it would be more prudent for him not to mention the subject publicly while the issue is being debated. Obama had all the right in the world to talk about how much he admired and liked being with Bill Ayers during his campaign, but it would not have been prudent, given the fact that Obama wanted to be elected.

Jean Kazez said...

Fair enough--the Singer and "Obama's atheist mother" examples are more about temporary battles in the public arena. What people say about religion and science sometimes gets tossed into a much bigger pond, with much less predictable consequences. So if you're going to raise questions about the latter, it should be with a bit more uncertainty. Maybe M&K could have carried off a more questioning tone, without just being deadly dull.

(But then, I smell a double standard here. Jerry Coyne and others write very, very confidently about the incompatibility of religion and science, even though this is a hard issue on which smart people will disagree. If they're entitled to that bold tone, can't M&K be bold?)

As far as illiberalism goes--nobody's talking about restricting anybody else's liberty. Of course people will go on publishing what they want, running their websites as they please. Nobody's going to be muzzled. We're not living in China or Iran. No party to this debate wants that. (Shouldn't that just be taken for granted?)

Maybe some of y'all (above)have this pretty view of 1000 flowers blooming--all the different visions of the truth being freely expressed, and the real truth being what triumphs in the end. I think I might have thought that made sense the first time I read Mill's On Liberty, but at the moment the world seems much more full of forces that warp debate. So I think it pays to be more pragmatic.

s. wallerstein said...

I agree with you about Mill, Jean. Awaiting the response, I thought about instances where Mill's principle led to disaster, and Chile during the Allende government is a good example. If the radical left, those to the left of Allende, had had the good sense to tone the rhetoric, the coup might have been averted. I don't want to blame the radical left for the coup, because there were elements on the Chilean right, in the armed forces, not to mention Nixon, who demanded a coup no matter what Allende did, but the imprudent rhetoric of the radical left certainly scared the middle classes and the political center, thus legitimizing the military takeover. Allende should have told them to shut up, but he wasn't a strong enough leader.

s. wallerstein said...

That should read "tone down the rhetoric", not "tone the rhetoric". Their slogan was "avanzar sin transar", that is, "forward without compromise", which reminds me of some people.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Mill's argument is about the right to free speech. Jean's argument (I haven't read Mooney) is about the appropriateness of saying certain things at certain moments"

No it isn't; not just that and full stop. He also had more than one argument - I said 'Millian,' not 'On Libertyan.' Mill also argued (in his two long reviews of Tocqueville, for instance, as well as in On Liberty and elsewhere) against the pressure of majority opinion. I understand what Jean is saying, but I am arguing that there are tensions here, especially in some of the claims that M&K make, in their post-launch articles as well as their book. It's not just a matter of legal rights, it's also a matter of pressure to conform - a kind of pressure that M&K sometimes exert quite unashamedly (by calling their unpreferred type of atheist 'extreme' for instance).

"Jerry Coyne and others write very, very confidently about the incompatibility of religion and science."

But Coyne did make an argument - in that very TNR article that Mooney told him off for writing. He didn't just assert. And what he says is not as speculative as claims about what might happen in the future if atheists talk too much.

"Maybe some of y'all (above)have this pretty view of 1000 flowers blooming--all the different visions of the truth being freely expressed, and the real truth being what triumphs in the end."

I certainly don't. I've disavowed exactly that view many times. I think it's a giant myth that the truth will somehow magically triumph in the end. I think Christian Jago (potentilla) and I used to talk about the myth of the magic mechanism. But I have yet to see anything that comes close to a good argument for the claim that atheists should pipe down because if they don't Bad Things Will Happen.

Ophelia Benson said...

A bit more...(I so often have further thoughts, don't I).

"But then, I smell a double standard here. Jerry Coyne and others write very, very confidently about the incompatibility of religion and science, even though this is a hard issue on which smart people will disagree. If they're entitled to that bold tone, can't M&K be bold?)"

How do we define double standard? We can call almost anything a double standard, but that makes the term useless. I don't think Jerry Coyne making a careful, reasoned argument about the incompatibility of religion and science is sufficiently the same kind of thing as M&K making a variety of large unargued claims about what will or would happen if atheists keep/kept talking, to justify claims about double standards. Unqualified assertions about future conditionals are not merely 'a hard issue on which smart people will disagree' - they are simply a kind of thing which it is impossible to know for sure outside of physics and (when all goes well) engineering. I don't think there is anything bizarre or untoward about the way Coyne writes about the incompatibility of religion and science, while I think the confidence with which M&K tell us what will happen if atheists don't tone themselves down is a good deal more than 'bold.'

So where you smell a double standard I detect a heavy thumb on the scale.

Jean Kazez said...

Hopefully reading atheists won't cause Bad Things to Happen to me...because I'm about to read another Coyne TNR review. Boy they give him a lot of real estate!

I haven't read the other Mill essay. But obviously, he's also the patron saint for the idea that consequences matter! The guy had a consistency problem.

OK..all things have probably been considered. Onto Coyne.

s. wallerstein said...

For the record in this long debate, I'm willing to concede the TNR article to Mr. Coyne. That is, I don't think that TNR is a publication read by Bible Belt school boards or by rightwing fundamentalists. In fact, the debate should go precisely in publications like TNR, but not on TV, for example, or not in schoolboard meetings where there is strong pressure against the teaching of evolution.

Jean Kazez said...

I thought we were done!

I'll just explain what I meant. I'll grant that M&K have more confidence than they have a right to, because they can't prove that the new atheists are alienating people from science, etc.

But Coyne might have too much confidence too, though for a different reason. The truth is that many people who are better versed in philosophy of science than he is don't see things as he does. So he could have been more conciliatory--more "reasonable people will disagree"-ish.

Instead, both parties are "fun" journalists--they just come out with it, without a lot of hemming and hawing. I'm reluctant to say M&K should just be cautiously questioning (at most), if Coyne is allowed to reach very confident conclusions about highly contentious matters.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I'm more concerned the right of M&K to discuss the TNR article, without being seen as "beyond the pale," than I am to attack that article. I do have some worry that Coyne could be playing into the hands of fundamentalists but I think whether that's true depends on some very specific things he says, and I'd have to reread the article to make up my mind.

Here it is, if you haven't seen it--


s. wallerstein said...

I've read the TNR article in question. My impression of TNR is that it is a publication directed towards an educated reading public, towards people like me, who don't read or don't have access to specialized scholarly publications, but are interested in reading debates that go on among specialists. TNR reviews books on history, on politics, at times on philosophy, with more detail and with a finer eye than do even the so-called quality newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian. I would compare its level to that of the Times Literary Supplement, in terms of book reviews. I don't agree with its politics, especially on Israel and on Latin America, but that's another issue. It's important that publications like TNR inform the educated lay public about issues like the kind which Coyne discusses. I feel that the educated lay public is adult enough to grasp what the tendencies and slant of any article is.

Ophelia Benson said...

"they can't prove that the new atheists are alienating people from science, etc"

I of course don't expect them to be able to prove it - but they haven't supported it at all.

For that reason I think it's unfair to call both M&K and Coyne 'fun journalists' - Coyne gives a lot more in the way of serious argument than they do.

Jean Kazez said...

All I mean is that they both write with verve...and you don't get into the popular press without that.

BLS Nelson said...

Jean, on my reading, Mill was not inconsistent in the sense you allege. Still, I would agree that he wasn't nuanced enough to predict the rule/act distinction, which has caused headaches ever since.

Mill may have had his faults, but at least he explicitly recognized that rules have consequences. My worry is that without giving him due credit on this issue and learning our lessons accordingly, we end up with "double-standards" talk without explicating exactly what the standards are that are being doubled.

Amos, not to derail, but I have to say:

"...the imprudent rhetoric of the radical left certainly scared the middle classes and the political center, thus legitimizing the military takeover..."

And similarly Yale University Press would be legitimizing terrorist acts against America by re-publishing Danish cartoons.

Superficially, it might seem as though there were a big difference between these cases for a clear reason: the publications at Yale are not a national emergency, while the time running up to the coup was. But actually, there is no difference between these cases. For everything is an emergency when you're the company of madmen. These cases are no-win scenarios, in which case foreseeably optimizing consequences is impossible; in such cases you might as well go with integrity.

Still, I'm not a scholar of that revolution, so perhaps you're privy to some historical details that I'm not?

s. wallerstein said...

Believe me, Ben, it would have been better to have not advanced without compromising than to have precipitated a coup in which 4000 people died (official figures), at least ten times that number were imprisoned and tortured and which led to 17 years of military dictatorship. There's a saying in Spanish: it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. That's the integrity you're speaking of. Cynics like myself remark that that saying is generally uttered from a comfortable armchair, very distant from those who either live on their knees or die on their feet.

BLS Nelson said...

The problem with sensationalism, and which fires up cynics so much, is that it is indifferent to consequences. This is obvious. Less appreciated is the the problem with cynicism: it has no respect for autonomy, and therefore no sense of what it means (or what is required) to proactively build a good life.

As far as I can tell, the only way you could hold the far left accountable for their enemy's later war crimes would be to appeal to a state of emergency where our normal aspirations for autonomy in speech are outweighed. If you did mean to suggest that the relevant analogy was the state of emergency, then (just to hazard a guess) it is hard to level talk of "armchair" politics of those who are courageous or stupid enough to speak out. When you're in the thick of it, everything you do is an earthquake. In which case, the moral of the story here would seem to be that we ought to value security before liberty of speech when it appears momentarily expedient to do so. And if there was no state of emergency, then it's hard to see how to hold them accountable, except by abandoning liberalism on non-pragmatic grounds, which I assume you don't want to do.

Or maybe you meant it as a historical lesson for today only, and don't mean to hold them retroactively accountable? If so, then I have to know what standards I am meant to be convinced of.

But, of course, I may have missed something in the analogy. But exactly what I have missed, I need to be made explicit.

Matti K. said...

"Jerry Coyne and others write very, very confidently about the incompatibility of religion and science, even though this is a hard issue on which smart people will disagree."

In the TNR-piece, Coyne is criticizing books. Isn't it quite obvious that the authors of these books disagree with him on the matter of compatibility? So what's the need for additional disclaimers?

Coyne's arguments as such are rational and even Mr. Mooney is not complaining about logical errors.

"If they're entitled to that bold tone, can't M&K be bold?"

Preachers (and politicians) are entitled (or even expected) to be bold. I don't think that if Mr. Mooney would have a title "Rev." in front of his name, anybody would complain about his calls for self-censorship.

However, Mr. Mooney claims to be a science journalist and hence at least an affiliate member of the scientific community. That's why scientists judge his output more strictly. Deceiving, even deceiving by omission, is a big no-no in the scientific community.

Well, this whole question might become obsolete. It seems that less and less scientist consider Mr. Mooney to be a bona fide science journalist. And even scientists apply looser standars of sincerity for politicians.

Jean Kazez said...

I think this business about boldness started way up, when the suggestion was made that M&K could have written something more tentative and questioning. I agreed they are are more confident in tone than they have a right to be.

The question is whether the same can be said about other people. There is lots and lots of confidence among skeptics like Coyne. At the end of the TNR article, he's waded into very contentious and muddy waters. Yet there's nary a word about the difficulty of these issues--about what science is, and what secular reason is, and why we ought to use secular reason to approach every single topic, and whether respectable beliefs must be falsifiable, etc etc.

So let's not ask for a modest, searching tone in M&K, but not in others. I say--let 'em all be bold. There's nothing more boring than an excruciatingly careful academic paper.

BLS Nelson said...

I don't understand why we're talking about tone and boldness when the issue is reasons and critical motivation.

If someone has a bad argument, people criticize it. If the bad arguments are published nationwide, people criticize it more. If people think someone has failed to be faithful to intellectual norms, and are turning back the clock on political progress, then the nattering may take on a different tone.

Both sides are motivated by something like the above. The difference is that only one side -- M&K -- engage in intellectual hygiene in order to avoid bringing attention to their shallowness. They ignore evidence and argument, which trivializes debate. By contrast, Coyne and Myers are always in the thick of it. It raises my suspicions that either we're not dealing with honest brokers in M&K, or that they've dug themselves such a deep hole that the only way out is to dig deeper. If the former, then it requires outrage, if the latter, then pity and a helping hand. I try to offer both.

Jean Kazez said...

"I don't understand why we're talking about tone and boldness when the issue is reasons and critical motivation."

Things come up in a long thread like this, and you only see how and why if you're following the entire thing....which probably only I am doing!

The only way I could respond to your last paragraph is with the original post, and then we'd have all the same comments, and we'd get back to this point. It would be an infinite loop and not much fun.

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: Yes, there was a state of emergency. I think that I made it clear that I don't hold the radical left responsible for the coup: I mentioned the Chilean right, the armed forces, the Nixon administration as the movers behind the coup. However, I do think that in such a delicate situation it would have been prudent to tone down the radical rhetoric, a rhetoric which scared the middle classes and the political center. Nixon and the Chilean right were looking for a pretext for a coup against Allende from the day of his election, but a coup was impossible without the passive or tacit support of the middle class, a group which Allende could have wooed, instead of letting his more radical supporters (not Allende himself) frighten them with ultra-revolutionary slogans. Why did I mention Chile? As you will recall, someone had suggested that on Millian principles, free debate should always be encouraged, although latter that statement was qualified. I adduced Chile during the Allende government as an example of a situation when free debate of all ideas was not prudent.

Matti K. said...

"So let's not ask for a modest, searching tone in M&K, but not in others. I say--let 'em all be bold."

Sure. Then why should the qritique of these bold statements not be bold as well?

Critique is usually not balanced. M&K blast "new atheists" but not creationists. Those criticizing M&K do not usually dissect critically the writings of Coyne. But who needs such "evenhandness"? The marketplace of ideas works even if everyone is not criticising everyone.

However, the marketplace needs items to be sold, so there is very good reason to be suspicious of people demanding the reduction of those items. Even if they are sure that it is for the common good.

Ophelia Benson said...

"someone had suggested that on Millian principles, free debate should always be encouraged, although latter that statement was qualified."

No, that is not what I said. (I am "someone.") I didn't qualify anything, either; I stipulated something. I didn't say anything as simple-minded as "free debate should always be encouraged"; I said this:

"There is in liberal secular societies a very strong presumption in favor of free open uninhibited public discourse and discussion. It requires very compelling reasons to go against that presumption."

s. wallerstein said...

When I said that you qualified it, I was referring to your comments about "magic mechanisms". Yes, I know that you are "someone". Maybe the problem is that Mill presupposes a "liberal secular society" (your phrase), which may have existed in his time in Great Britain (I can't say), but does not exist today except in a very imperfect form in the U.S. or in most countries of the world, including Chile. The liberal secular society is a model of reality (like free markets), which does not always correspond to reality. Furthermore, it's not always clear whether it's a model or an ideal.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K--Yes, there's a presumption in favor of having all the goods for sale. I wouldn't disagree.

"Then why should the critique of these bold statements not be bold as well?"

Bold is one thing. In that TNR article, Coyne is bold. Anger is something else. Anger make sense when someone has said/done something vile. That's what I'm at pains to argue--definitely their ideas are open to dispute. I'm simply saying "not vile."

Surely there really is a duty in a liberal society to keep anger out of debates as much as possible. Anger is scary, makes people want to run away and not discuss things anymore. The original post didn't complain about boldness, but just about "ire."

Matti K. said...

"Anger make sense when someone has said/done something vile."

How much have you followed the arguments of M&K, their responses and lack of responses? I think their behaviour at times can certainly be described as "vile".

Like for example this cherry-picking of comments of two blogs. They were supposed to tell something about the characters of the blog keepers:


Mr. Mooney had to add later a clarfication, after another blogger presented the comment as a statement of Dr. Myers. Real sloppy work by Mr. Mooney, most likely due to emotional heat.

As you said, anger can make sense, although it seldom produces anything constructive.

BLS Nelson said...

Amos, so much for the armchair then. The question is whether it was stupid or courageous to go on, which lies on the question of prudence. Except that if we're in a consequentialist mood, everything is prudential, including the idea to speak your piece in order to facilitate a good and free life.

Think of it in terms of the Prisoner's Dilemma. If it weren't for the occasional two sets of mavericks that took a chance on trusting each other, the best possible consequences could never happen. Aspiring to that (optimizing) is consistent with consequentialism, just as much as the other (satisficing) option is.

So it is far better to talk about this in terms of prudence than in terms of accountability, which is a relief to hear. Just as we can say they were imprudent in some sense, we can say they were imprudent to do otherwise.

Jean, where in your initial post did you talk about intellectual hygiene? I missed that. In any case I don't take them seriously enough to be super mad mad. But I am happy to make a bit of fun at their expense. When they get around to doing some philosophy, they might even be able to convince us to have "doubt in public doubt", to put a spin on Dennett's phrase. But that would take a lot more effort than has lately been given.

Jean Kazez said...

I would say I have followed this whole thing very carefully, and I know the canonical texts and events pretty well. I've also written about the kerfuffle over M&K a lot (some would say ad nauseum).

The post you point out does not strike me the way it does you. It tells you something about a blog what sort of comments are published there without being challenged by the blogger or the other commenters. So--it was no huge faux pas for Mooney to quote from comments, but yes, he needed to make it clear he was doing that, and in short order, he did.

We will just have to agree to disagree, I think, rather than sifting through more of these controversial events. Life's too short to go over them on and on and on...

I was trying to bring up a new topic in the post, and I think that's been discussed thoroughly so...onward, to something else.

Jean Kazez said...

Ben--I said nothing about "intellectual hygiene"...so I don't know what that's about.

As to "fun": I saw that caricature you did of them a while ago. It was really good! I think even they would enjoy it--the likenesses are excellent.

Faust said...

"they might even be able to convince us to have "doubt in public doubt", to put a spin on Dennett's phrase."

OK that's pretty good!

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: I'm happy to hear that someone is relieved to hear from me. However, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by affirming that they were imprudent in some sense, but they were also imprudent to do otherwise. If we agree that a coup and 17 years of military dictatorship is bad, not only in itself (because of human rights violations, torture, etc), but also because it ends all possibility of democratic social change (the democratic social change promised by Allende), then how could it not be prudent to do all that is possible to avert a coup?

Ophelia Benson said...

"how could it not be prudent to do all that is possible to avert a coup?"

Because no one knows what that is. You're reading backward. (Hindsight is 20/20, according to the bromide.) No one knows what is going to happen in the future. No one knows what will cause or prevent X. It is all, always, guesswork. What seems like the utmost caution can be disastrous (Chamberlain thought he was being prudent at Munich in 1938, but it turned out he wasn't). If one knows what will prevent a coup, then of course one should do that thing, but one doesn't know. One doesn't know with hindsight either. One can make educated guesses before and after, but that's all they are.

s. wallerstein said...

History is cruel. However, is it ever prudent to trust in a slogan like "avanzar sin transar", "forward without compromising", as was the case of the Chilean radical left? Nevertheless, to take an example which may be less foreign to everyone else, let's look at Nader's campaign in the 2000 election in the U.S. Was it prudent for Nader to present himself as a progressive candidate in that race, given that the contest between Gore, less progressive than Nader (especially in his days pre-sainthood), but infinitely superior to Bush from a leftwing point of view, and Bush was going to be close, according to the public opinion polls?

BLS Nelson said...

Amos, OB hit it right on. Your point makes for an suggestive illustration, but can't possibly be retroactive guidance. Unless you know some historical details that I'm oblivious to.

I add the point that there is such a thing as rule consequentialism, and all kinds of consequentialism view ordinary moral norms as prudential relative to rule they're trying to satisfy. So long as we have a vision of the good life that includes freedom, and that freedom is always a thing that must be won and is never a thing that is merely granted, then it is prudent to stand up and speak freely.

Jean, I should put my remark in context. When I said, "The difference is that only one side -- M&K -- engage in intellectual hygiene in order to avoid bringing attention to their shallowness", I'm speaking to a point about the critical reaction that your first post didn't. So it can't be right to say that the conversation would go in circles. We only go in circles when we focus on "tone" and "boldness", and not reasons and evidence too. Sure, adding a bit of a noble myth into a well presented argument can be helpful -- Fodor made his career on it -- but if its myth from top to bottom, then I have to be forgiven for questioning its nobility.

BLS Nelson said...

"Was it prudent for Nader to present himself as a progressive candidate in that race, given that the contest between Gore, less progressive than Nader (especially in his days pre-sainthood), but infinitely superior to Bush from a leftwing point of view, and Bush was going to be close, according to the public opinion polls?"

Yes in one sense, and no in another. That's what's maddening about consequentialism, but so it goes.

s. wallerstein said...

Okay Ben, please explain in what sense it was prudent for Nader to run for president in 2000. I'm philosophically illiterate, so don't talk to me about the 1001 varieties of consequentialism, just explain in language that I can understand. This is not a trick question. Thank you very much. By the way, I'm using the word "prudence" as a synonym for "practical reason". Is that definition ok with you? If not, please suggest one.

Jean Kazez said...

Right, hindsight makes it more obvious what would have been the best way to communicate in the past. In real life, we have to try to predict the future. But of course that's exactly what we do, especially when a huge amount hangs on the way that we speak.

As to "rule consquentialism" (which tells us not to do the thing with the best consequences, but to follow rules that generally have optimal consequences...and Ben, you shouldn't assume all parties to this conversation know philosophy jargon)--

I have no sympathy for rule utilitarianism--I just think it makes no sense. But if I did go in for it I'd think surely "tell the truth" is not the rule with the best consequences, overall. If you were to hammer out a good rule for speech, it would talk about context, audience, probable impact, etc.

About whether M&K are "engaging in intellectual hygiene in order to avoid bringing attention to their shallowness"? Am I supposed fall for this trick? Next thing I'm going to be asked when I stopped beating my wife (dog, kids).

Benjamin Nelson said...

I should've rehearsed these ideas before I started writing, but I don't really know when that's appropriate, when it would be condescending, and whether or not anyone's reading anyway.

Amos, yeah, long story short, prudence is practical reason.

Slightly longer story: To say some action is prudent is just to say that some act satisfies some goal that we tacitly assume is worth satisfying. Usually this has to do with amoral goals, like satisfying my own wants and needs, regardless of whether or not they're consistent with what we call morality. So, it's prudent for us to take umbrellas with us when we go out in the rain, assuming that we don't want to be wet.

But there's a way of looking at ethics that says, "the rightness (morality) of an action in any given situation can be figured out just by how effective or ineffective the act is at producing good consequences". The right, in other words, shares a tight and tidy relationship with the good. Tell me your goods, tell me the facts about how things will turn out, and we'll know what to do. That's consequentialism. Once we're agreed on what the good is, and what we know about the consequences, everything else is just a question of practical reason.

There are two kinds of consequentialism: rule and act consequentialism. Act-consequentialism is basically just what I've described above, talking about the rightness of just this or that action full stop. I know that I shouldn't throw a Molotov Cocktail at that baby's face because I know it'll cause pain, and causing pain is bad. On the other hand, rule-consequentialism goes one step further, and says that we can even look at the rightness and wrongness of actions in terms of how they satisfy rules, and those rules are what get assessed as right or wrong in terms of how well they bring about the good or the bad. So (to use an imperfect illustration) I know that there is a law that tells us to wear our seatbelts, and this law is helpful in bringing about good consequences, even if one particular incident where I don't wear my seatbelt on a trip from here to the corner store probably wouldn't have made any difference.

The American two-party system, by all informed accounts, is broken. This was well known in the runup to 2000; among other ills, it breaks the left into the center, making it impossible to conduct real and lasting reforms. Moreover, a third party solution has worked elsewhere (like Canada), where it succeeds generally at breaking the center to the left. It is generally a laudable goal to follow the following rule: fix this broken system.

Of course, pre-2000, nobody expected for levels of cynicism in the two-party system to reach a record high as there was in 2000. But even if it had been expected, relative to the goal of fixing the broken political system, it would be generally prudent to run a leftist party in every election. Still, it would also be prudent, relative to the goal of making sure Bush doesn't come into office, to vote Democrat. Practical reason itself is indifferent to which goal (anti-Bush, pro-reform) is superior. You might argue with the power of hindsight that voting Democrat would have been better for the people -- actually, I think everyone would agree -- but that would not be a prudential judgment in any obvious sense.

BLS Nelson said...

Jean, you don't have to answer the complex part of that question, although the shallowness pretty much follows from the unresponsiveness.

As for unresponsiveness, it's really not open to interpretation. They just haven't responded to substantial negative criticism. Rosenhouse is the best recent-ish example; their "documentation" of Coyne is little more than sniping; there are too many others to list, though you can find them easily. To their credit, M&K almost sort of approach fairness with Myers, but even then, they don't. He was right about Pluto, to take a random example, and so has every other subsequent critic who pointed out that Chapter 1 (page 1! paragraph 1!) was literally ridiculous, but you don't hear much of an apologia for that except "we were kind of kidding about the last part of the chapter".

Frankly, I think they've got a certain cultural malaise that some folks have: they're too nice to debate. This is the tenor of the times. But sometimes being nice isn't so nice, sometimes it keeps us all in the dark. It makes us tolerate our own prejudices and makes us fooled by used car salesmen with greasy paper-thin moustaches. It even makes us elect them President, or believe him when he says that he's bringing freedom through war.

BLS Nelson said...

(Just so I'm not interpreted as a bastard with that first sentence: when I say "you don't have to answer the complex part of that question" I mean to recognize that it's a Complex Question like 'are you still beating your wife'. And by "the unresponsiveness" I'm referring to M&K's intellectual hygiene, not your decision not to respond.)

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: According to Aristotle, which is about as far I got in philosophy, practical reason has to do with determining the means towards achieving a virtuous goal. You already know that, I'm sure. What would be our virtuous goal in reference to U.S. society? Would you accept the capabilities outlined by Sen and Nussbaum as indicators of a virtuous goal in social terms, that is, the goal we are aiming for, not only in the U.S., but in planetary terms? If yes, why would it be more prudent to run a third party (in the U.S., which, unlike Chile or France, for example, has no run-off election)in every election, as you affirm? In some elections, it might be more prudent, granted; in others, no. Practical wisdom, phronesis, is what determines in which elections it is a good idea to run a third party and in which elections it is not. I have the impression that you see political strategies in terms of games of chance, but that is really not the case, since while every roll of the dice is basically the same as the previous one, every election involves new variables (changes in the population, in the economic situation, in the culture, etc.), variables that it is the role of phronesis to evaluate in terms of a virtuous goal. By the way, after reading your posts, I stick to my first conclusion: that people discriminate against you because you think too much or too fast or too accurately, not because you are an atheist. Thought is threatening.

Jean Kazez said...

"As for unresponsiveness, it's really not open to interpretation. They just haven't responded to substantial negative criticism."

!!! Of course it's open to interpretation, but in the interest of conserving precious moments of my life, I'll just leave it there.

Matti K. said...

BTW, here is the last booster of UA by M&K:


There is no more "new atheist bashing" like in their previous op-eds. They do not even mention the words "atheist" and religion. Maybe the confrontational attitude turned out to be counterproductive? Pluto is mentioned, though.

Jean Kazez said...

Well of course--the book is about science illiteracy and its multiple causes. It makes sense they want to talk about the other causes too. I very much doubt they're losing sleep over the atheist reaction to the book.

Matti K. said...

"I very much doubt they're losing sleep over the atheist reaction to the book".

You are right. I think they are more worried about the generally lukewarm reception of the book. "Unscientific America" will not buy it and scientifically orientated people do not find it interesting.

s. wallerstein said...

Matti: With all the free publicity, you guys and girls have given the book, a book which few would have noticed is going to sell well. Mooney sends you his thanks from his newly purchased yacht.

BLS Nelson said...

Amos, thanks. That's why they keep me caged in the back room. But I hope people don't discriminate against me because they think I'm an atheist, because as far as they know, I'm not one. Instead I call myself a "quietist" or "secular activist".

So long as the virtuous goals are phrased as they were (pro-reform, anti-Bush), there's a bit more than just prudence going on when we're deciding which elections to run in and which ones not to. We're also deciding which kinds of consequences we want to avoid over others -- we're temporarily reconsidering our sense of the good. (For the sake of argument, substitute "the good" for a "virtuous goal" -- I hope we can get away with that equation.) To reconsider the good is to go beyond consequentialism and the sense of practical reason you described.

To be clear, I don't think it would be more prudent to pick the one or the other, I just mean to point out that they're both able to be justified prudentially. The only way it could be otherwise is if they were unworthy goals, to be accomplished in foolish ways.

Or we could say, "these aren't unworthy goals in isolation, but the real issue is the capabilities of persons to function in the ways they might want to". Well, that won't help much, since the two-party system makes people incapable of making real and lasting change to the political system. But the Bush reign did the same thing. Unless we have a systematic way of choosing between them (i.e., the principle of utility), we're not doing prudential work anymore. (If even then.)

BLS Nelson said...

Amos, I'd be happy for M&K if they get matching yachts named "Coyne" and "Peasy". Hopefully, book sales will bring the debates alive in the popular mind. This would branch our secular hobbyhorse out into the silliness of the real world where previously it has just been restricted to the silliness of the interweb.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm a case in point--I bought the book for no other reason but to find out what all the fuss was about. That'll buy two lemonades to sip on the yacht.

s. wallerstein said...

Prudence has to do with selecting an adequate means towards a good or virtuous end. We seem to agree about that. We now need a bit more clarity about what are the ends and what the means. As an end, I suggest a society based on the capabilities approach of Sen and Nussbaum. Now, are you affirming that such a society could not be created through a two-party system or that a two-party system could not bring us closer to such a society? Those are fairly broad claims. That is, it seems possible to me that through transforming the Democratic Party, we could bring the U.S. closer to a good society or at least avoid that society becomes worse, as did happen under Bush. So, the question of a two-party system for me is a means towards an end, not an end in itself. The end is a good society. Once again, prudence determines which means (in this case, voting for Gore or supporting Nader) helps us get closer to said end, the good society, or at least averts the possibility that we end up farther from our goal, the good society, as did happen with the election of Mr. Bush.

s. wallerstein said...

A common error in progressive circles (hence, the idiotic name, "progressive") is that we are always going forward (avanzar sin transar) towards our goal, while in reality, at times the best we can hope for is to go backward more slowly, to slow down the backward motion.

BLS Nelson said...

My claim is that, in a society where the two-party system is in play, one third of the electorate is programmatically alienated from the body politic. In principle, the alienated party could be left, right, or center; in America at the present time, it is the left. That means that one third of the body politic lacks the capability to engage with their political system -- they are serfs, not citizens. This is a thing that the capabilities approach was built to condemn. Supposing we did transform the Democratic Party to be a leftist one, we'd be alienating either the right or the center, depending on how the Republicans play the game. (And that's not even bringing up the libertarians, who are programmatically alienated no matter what.)

When we talk about what's a good in itself, or a means to an end, we're having a moral/axiological discussion (a discussion about what makes for the good), and not a prudential one (practical reason, what acts bring the good about). Incidentally, if I happened to be a time traveller and had the opportunity to go back to 1999 and tell Ralph to cut it out, then I would -- but that would be the outcome of a moral decision.

Of course, we might decide that there's an overriding goal, of increasing human flourishing, greatest happiness for the greatest number, or whatever -- in that case, we're taking newer, wider-ranging goals for granted instead of the ones we had at the outset (anti-Bush, pro-reform). By kicking it up a meta-level, the goals that we had previously been calling "moral" when in competition with each other would turn out to be "prudential" relative to this newer, bigger goal. But the cost of introducing these grander, bigger goals is that you take on increased epistemic burdens and decreased personal power at actually affecting these outcomes by your own actions.

This speaks to an earlier issue you raised. Quite a bit would seem to be left up to chance -- if it weren't for the fact that we also have agentic duties, i.e., the duties to learn more about our world and to empower ourselves.

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: This has been a long and pleasant conversation, but I don't think that I ever affirmed that my goal were either anti-Bush or reforming the U.S. political system. I have always seen them as means to an end. As to alienating one third of the electorate, I think that you are assuming, without any empirical justification, that one third of the population is on the left; another third in the center; and still another third on the right. It may be that 99% of the population is in agreement on X issues or it may be that the differences between most people are so marginal that it would be ridiculous to say that they are farther on the left and on the right than others.

BLS Nelson said...

Amos, sure, but talk about the "good society" sounds more like eudaimonia than the capabilities approach. And of course there's no doubting that political reform is a means to the eudaimonic end, just as anti-Bush activism is. Considered independently from each other, they're both prudentially recommended for those folks with liberal views (this was my original point). But when they're put in competition, we're just as apt to say that we're ranking our values as we are considering the alternative consequences. Granted, the end of a good society is general enough to fit both goals and allow them to be compared, but as goals go, it's nebulous, and provides no guidance on which one to choose. We make the choice for ourselves.

Your case would be stronger, I think, if it were right to say that Nader was leeching votes off the Democrat party as opposed to providing an option to those leftists that would otherwise refuse to vote, or who spoil their ballots.

On many issues the American people are well to the left of their political parties, so as far as your population argument goes, I can only respond with puzzlement. You might be correct for some country or other, but not for America.

s. wallerstein said...

There's no contradiction between speaking of a good society and the capacities approach. A good society is one where all can live their capacities; living one's capacities gives one the possibility of eudaimonia, of a good life. Without capacities, a good life is not possible or so says Aristotle. He doesn't use the term "capacities" of course. I can find the reference in the Ethics, however, if you want.

Your affirmation that the American people are well to the left of the political parties puzzles me. Nader's vote in 2000 was 2.7%, not a sizeable vote. Received wisdom says that both Clinton (in 1992) and Obama (2008) had to move to the center to win the election. Where are all those leftwing voters? Calling Obama a "socialist" is a smear tactic; liberals don't dare to call themselves "liberals", because the word has negative connotations for the majority of U.S. voters. That hardly paints a picture of a country where many voters see themselves as leftwing or to the left of the Democratic Party. Finally, you entered this blog complaining of the discrimination that atheists suffer in the U.S.; a secular attitude is a characteristic of the left everywhere (except perhaps in some Muslim countries), and so you contradict yourself. Either the U.S. is anti-secular (as you claim) or the U.S. has a sizeable population to the left of the Democratic Party. Both affirmations cannot be true.

BLS Nelson said...

No contradiction, of course, but surely different accents. Just to explain the direction of my comments.

Re: left. I'm going by the polls, say, in support of health care reform, which have been high for some time. From 2007: "Nine out of 10 say the system needs at least fundamental changes, including 36 percent who favor a complete overhaul." http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/03/01/opinion/polls/main2528357.shtml And I don't doubt that this goes back for quite some time. We also have to keep in mind that the American legislative system is not democratic. The House Rules Committee can act as the ultimate gatekeeper for the majority party, or at least that was the function it held (raucously lampooned by Matt Taibbi in one of his best Rolling Stone articles, reprinted in The Great Derangement). We can't even forget that the legislature is a crazy fun house mirror reflection of the body politic at best.

That said, Clinton had a brief window of opportunity at the start of his presidency, but that was quickly taken away from him when they lost the House. And yes, the cultural right is quite significant in talking about why that happened, no question. And since Mondale's loss, the fall of the USSR, there is no question that the cultural left was deflated.

But that doesn't stop the funhouse mirror from warping even more. In the intervening years, highly destructive policies shifted. Media reform via the 1996 Telecommunications Act subtly altered the social system by removing the fairness doctrine. This paved the way for crazypants 24-hour news networks which spilled onto cable the bile and slander that used to be confined to the AM dial. Filibuster reform during the Bush years is another key, allowing them to pass Orwellian bills like the Clean Air Act.

Obama was a uniquely charismatic figure who surfed in on an anti-right-wing sentiment, though endorsing generally centrist principles. I think he won apathetic leftists over with his vibe. And it looked for a while like he was gunning for left-wing health care reform, but by dropping the public option, he's alienating the progressive caucus. And why can't he pass the public option? Because my dopey namesake from Nebraska opposes it, along with maybe one other guy. If we pretend that politics is representative now, then the centrists on this issue are a minority.

Also, I deny that a secular attitude is characteristic of the left everywhere, so no.

BLS Nelson said...

I'll reiterate, just so we don't get tripped up on terms.

I don't agree that secular activism is characteristic of the left everywhere, though secularism tends to be (I make a distinction there). i.e., secular = You can agree with the separation of church and state and still be Catholic. Secular activist = your advocacy of church is very minimal; typical comment is "I don't trust organized religion". I'm not sure which you're referring to when you talk about a secular attitude.

Even if we were talking about secular activists, it wouldn't be right. For atheists may or may not be secular activists (though we'd be fair at expecting them to be). Yet atheists receive special flak that other secular activists don't, for reasons that are largely historical and arbitrary.

s. wallerstein said...

Ben: It's been a long and interesting conversation, and it's been a pleasant to make your acquaintance. We've strayed far from the original topic. After a night of insomnia and various family problems, I don't feel capable of spelling my own name, much less of answering your thoughtful comments. I'm sure that we'll run into each other in future threads. Thank you for the effort and thought that you put into the dialogue.