Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.


Jul 16th, 2009 6:13 pm | By

Daniel Dennett gives the believers just the tiniest of prods.

Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who publicly deplore our “hostility”, our “rudeness” (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right. They don’t themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.

Yes, but that is because belief in God is a very peculiar and special kind of belief that goes all spiky and painful if outsiders explain why they don’t share it. It doesn’t work the other way, of course – non-believers don’t double up in pain if believers explain why they don’t share the non-belief. They get bored, they roll their eyes, they wish they were somewhere else with a bowl of ice cream, but they don’t break or fall apart or need hospitalization. That’s why vocal atheists are called hard names even by other atheists, while believers are wrapped in three layers of cotton wool and kept at an even temperature.

Colgate is not enough

Jul 15th, 2009 1:32 pm | By

Last week a journalist had a very disgusting encounter with a group of Haredi men in Jerusalem. They were protesting the local council’s decision to open a municipal carpark on Saturdays, and she was there to report on their protest. She dressed conservatively, but then she accidentally walked up the wrong street.

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest – in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats. They might be supremely religious, but their behaviour – to me – was far from charitable or benevolent. As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound. Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me. I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

Why? Because ‘using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.’ That’s why.

In other words, a minor, formal, mechanical, petty rule is so important that it justifies dozens of men spitting all over a woman because she breaks it. In other words, something of no inherent importance whatsoever justifies revolting intimidation and bullying and humiliation of a human being.

Right. Just so, the action of a Florida college student in removing a cracker from a church justified death threats and a campaign to get him expelled from his university.

But the Toothpaste Twins don’t see it that way. They see it the other way. They think it’s the trivial infraction that is enormously important while the intimidation and attempted life-spoiling is trivial. They must, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t keep publicly raving about PZ Myers and his destruction of a cracker without mentioning the bullying and death threats directed at the student.

[W]e will end by elaborating upon why, in the wake of the communion wafer desecration, we decided we had to speak out about Myers in a way that would really be heard…[W]e were appalled. We could not see what this act could possibly have to do with promoting science and reason. It contributed nothing to the public understanding or appreciation of science, and everything to a nasty, ugly culture war that hurts and divides us all.

There’s a lot more in that vein, and very emetic it is. It’s also very misleading, because it never mentions the college student, just as the Newsweek article doesn’t.

I tell you what. I would dearly love to see a crowd of some five hundred women or so – a crowd big enough to win – surround that mob of Haredi men and turn on a whole truckload of recording equipment. You bet I would. No violence, no spitting, no pushing up against a wall, no kicking – just a spot of payback combined with demonstration. Demonstration of what? The unimportance of rules of this kind, that’s what. If people want to make them important to themselves, fine, but when it comes to punishing other people for failing to observe them – that’s bad and wrong and intolerable.

Would the Toothpaste Twins be appalled if a bunch of women did that? Apparently, they would. Their thinking is fucked badly up.

At long last, have you no…

Jul 14th, 2009 1:42 pm | By

I want to say a few brisk words about a new piece by Mooney and Kirshenbaum in Newsweek. First a few extracts.

As soon as Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian geneticist who headed up the pioneering Human Genome Project during the 1990s, was floated as the possible new director of the National Institutes of Health-he was officially named to the post on Wednesday-the criticisms began flying. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for one, said Collins is too public with his faith…The poster boy for the so-called New Atheist movement today is biologist Richard Dawkins…The New Atheist science blogger PZ Myers, for instance, has publicly desecrated a consecrated communion wafer, presumably taken from a Catholic mass, and put a picture of it, pierced by a rusty nail and thrown in the trash, on the Internet.

I’ve had it with these two. I’ve had it with their passive-aggressive whiny tattling nonsense, their mindless bulldog persistence, their refusal to pay attention to the abundant highly reasonable and cogent criticisms they’ve received, and above all with their petulant name-calling finger-pointing hatred of an invented group called “New Atheists” and real people such as Dawkins and Coyne and Myers. They’re not as clever or as learned or as interesting or as funny or as good at writing or even as polite or decent or civil as Dawkins and Coyne and Myers. They’re a nasty pair, bent on attacking their betters in hopes of flogging a wretchedly bad book. The hell with them.

Questions still outstanding

Jul 13th, 2009 11:43 am | By

I’ve made a list of questions for Chris Mooney (largely for him, since he’s done nearly all the posting on the subject and the questions arise from his posts as well as his book with Sheril Kirshenbaum). He’s ignored or evaded many questions over the last few weeks, and I thought it would be useful to have a list of the most pressing ones. Feel free to suggest additions.

1) What do you want? What do you mean? You say religion is private so we have no business prying into what people believe, but Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson wrote books, Francis Collins wrote a book and has a website. The National Center for Science Education has a website. Are you saying we can’t dispute claims made in books and on websites? If yes, you’re making a grotesque demand. If no – what are you saying?

2) How do you know overt atheism causes people to be hostile to science? How does that work? What is your evidence?

3) How do you know it doesn’t work the other way? Instead or in addition? How do you know the increased availability of atheism doesn’t make some, perhaps many, people feel more at liberty to explore science, follow the evidence wherever it goes, and the like?

4) How do you explain the fact that theism has had pervasive automatic respect and deference for many decades yet the public-science gap has not narrowed?

5) Do you have any evidence that the putative ‘new’ atheism caused a spike in public hostility to science? Can you point to even a correlation?

6) Do you have any concern that your advice is in sharp conflict with the whole idea of free inquiry, free thought, freedom of debate, discussion, argument? Do you have any sense at all that it is, in general, a bad idea to impose prior restraints and inhibitions on what it is okay (acceptable, advisable) to discuss? Do you worry at all about the general effects of this timid, placating, cautious, apologetic imposition of taboos and ‘ssssh’ and ‘don’t mention that’ on public debate? Do you really think your reasons are good enough to trump those possible concerns? Do they, for instance, rise to the level of the reasons it’s best to avoid racial or sexual or ethnic or national epithets in public discussion? And are their attendant risks as small? Do we lose as little of substance by not saying there is no good reason to believe God exists as we do by not calling women ‘bitches’?

7) Do you take enough care to present your critics’ views accurately? You admitted on Daily Kos that you got Dawkins wrong in your book. Are you thoroughly confident that you haven’t made other such mistakes, in the book and on your blog? I know I’ve seen other inaccuracies of that kind, and pointed some of them out to you. (Just one example: you said “The New Atheist critics don’t like [what Eugenie Scott says], it seems, because they want to force people to be “rational” and completely justify their views to a very high standard, or else reject them.” Can you see what is wrong with that? I pointed it out at the time. Do you see the problem? Do you worry that it is pervasive?) Have you noticed that this has happened many times? Does it prompt you to worry more about a tendency to strawman anyone you disagree with?

8) Do you understand the need to be clear about terminology and to avoid ambiguity and equivocation? In particular, do you now see that there is a difference – an important difference, one that’s central to this disagreement – between saying that people can combine science and religion ‘in their lives,’ that ‘you really can have both in your life’, and saying that science and religion are epistemically compatible?

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

Big stupid honking mistake!

Jul 12th, 2009 12:21 pm | By

Cristina Odone occupies the first three paragraphs of her review of Does God Hate Women? pointing out a factual mistake – the name of one Afghan woman murdered for acting like a human being with a mind exchanged for the name of a different Afghan woman murdered for acting like a human being with a mind.

It’s a fair cop. The mistake is real. It’s mine. I have no idea how I managed it, but I did.

I didn’t realize I’d done it until the literary editor of The Observer asked our publisher (who asked us) about it, and I looked it up. That was Thursday I think. Jeremy and I had a set-to this morning about whether or not I would say it was mine. He told me not to the minute we both read the review. I said of course I’m going to! He said please don’t – and I wavered. But I also pointed out how damn near impossible that would be – and he admitted as much – and then I had him.

Of course I have to! I’d have bugs crawling under my skin for the rest of my life if I didn’t. His objections are as nothing in comparison. He wouldn’t let me fry, so I’m not about to let him fry. That’s it.

He did however insist that I should say that he is adamant that the responsibility is joint. Like so:

It is entirely fair that we should cop to it together. Look, if it had turned out that people had loved the book because you wrote some particularly devastating critique of something then I would have benefitted. It just happens that you made a tiny slip, and we`re going to get a little flak because of it. But structurally that`s no different. Given that I would have benefitted in the first instance means it`s fair that I`m disbenefitted in the second. (And anyway, I don`t suppose it`ll be much more than this review, and maybe a bit of crowing from the usual suspects.)

Fair enough. As long as I don’t have to creep around like Raskolnikov with a Horrible Crime on my conscience, he can have his say.

Now – as for what Odone concludes from my stupid mistake -

In the rush to drive home their point about all religions’ oppression of women, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom shoved one woman’s narrative under another woman’s name: their priority is to make their case, not mourn a martyr.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t think Odone knows what that means. Mine was certainly a dumb-ass stupid clumsy mistake – but it also certainly wasn’t because we think either woman is unimportant, or subordinate to our making a point in our book, or anything like that. If anything it’s because we think both (and all) are important. As I said, I don’t know how I made the mistake, but the only explanation I can come up with is that both names were in my head and I somehow switched them while writing. That would be because both women matter to me, not because neither does or because one matters more than the other. In other words…the basic story is that there is a lot of material here, about horrible things done to women simply because they are women, and that I scrambled two bits of information about two such women. That stands for…having such women on my mind, not whatever other cynical thing Odone is gesturing at.

Still – to do her justice – Odone is critical of the book, but not to the point of being untruthful. She doesn’t follow the lead of Madeleine Bunting or Sholto Byrnes. She doesn’t just scream and throw things, or say we do nothing but rant from page 1 to page 178. That makes a nice change.

But there is some apologetic nonsense, all the same (and not surprisingly, since Odone is a vocal – or should I say New, or Militant? – Catholic.)

For millennia, women have found in God their greatest ally and muse – witness the writings of mystics such as Julian of Norwich and the charitable work of peasant Muslim women. For centuries, the most powerful and liberated women were the abbesses, nuns and consecrated virgins who devoted themselves to God. Women such as Maryam, Jesus’s mother, and Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife (and boss), play crucial roles in the Qur’an.

Well what choice did they have? No doubt they did, but then God was a given, wasn’t it, so it was either find in God an ally and muse, or do without. You might as well say the restaurant lobsters make a cozy home in that little tank where they wait their turn to be boiled.

Does God Hate Women? takes us on a terrible journey, where innocent women struggle – often in vain – against an oppressive culture. We should never forget these martyrs, and with their graphic descriptions of female circumcision and multiple rape, Benson and Stangroom ensure we won’t. But in explaining how God is dragged into this systemic abuse, the authors are guilty of the flawed logic they abhor in macho regimes. An attractive woman in a miniskirt who walks down the street is not responsible for the men who, distorting her attitude, read it as an invitation to rape; so God, in his many guises, cannot be held responsible for the men who distort his message into an invitation to abuse others.

Well – props for giving us that much credit, I must say. That’s a pretty generous reading, from a believer. But the last bit doesn’t really make sense, and in any case it’s beside the point. It’s not really God we’re holding responsible, since we don’t think there is any God; it is indeed the men who distort or adapt or use or anything you like the putative message. It’s religion’s power to sanctify and protect injustices that we are holding responsible.

And it’s my stupidity I’m holding responsible for the name-switch mistake. Don’t let nobody tell you different.

Be careful what you wish for

Jul 11th, 2009 5:00 pm | By

I’m deeply irritated. I’ll tell you why. If Chris Mooney can, I can. If Chris Mooney can single out PZ Myers for a damn good scolding not once but twice in his (and Kirshenbaum’s, but he’s the one with the PZ-vendetta) short book, then I can single out Chris Mooney for another in the privacy of this little place.

I know it’s futile. G ignores him, Josh says he should be ignored, and I’ve been ignoring him ever since he went all Matthew Nisbet on everyone’s ass. No bad things resulted from my ignoring him all this time, as far as I know, and I could have just continued to ignore him. But then he started up with the hectoring.

Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else…In a recent New Republic book review, [Jerry] Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, [Barbara] 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?

I pointed out why that is stupid: since Miller and Giberson had written books on science and religion, to that extent their religion was not a private matter at all, and since Jerry Coyne had written a review of their books for a respected magazine, it’s beyond absurd to rebuke him for doing just that.

That was more than a month ago. Then Mooney sent me the book. Then I read chapter 8, and said what I thought about it, including the fact that it starts by singling out PZ for a scolding. Then several people read the book and lots of people wrote posts or posted comments on the Mooney/Kirshenbaum blog to try to get Mooney to see a few things. We pointed out that he offered no evidence or argument for the claim that atheism causes Americans to be hostile to science. We noted that he kept misdescribing what atheists said. We observed that he kept ignoring what everyone said while he went right on doing posts that went right on misdescribing what atheists said. People pointed out that he was quoting favorable bits from reviews while not mentioning the other bits. People said ‘will you please engage with the arguments?’ People made a stink when he did a post about a comment at Pharyngula that had a Naughty Word in it, without saying that it was a comment rather than a post by PZ – and then failed to fix the post until many people made more and more stink – and even then didn’t apologize.

And so on and so on and so on. Tawdry stuff. Bad behavior. Vain, obstinate, belligerent behavior – from a guy whose whole schtick is giving everyone instructions in how to be ‘civil’ and how to bridge divides between people.

Today in yet another display of petulant shunning, he fell on the neck of one commenter (who in fact disagreed with him about much but is apparently a friend, probably one with a Name) – and trotted out one point that is in fact one that I have been attempting to get him to acknowledge for days – as if it had been his view all along. (What point? That atheists don’t dispute that it is possible to combine religion and science [as he put it yesterday when talking about Francis Collins] ‘in one’s life’ but that that is not the same thing as compatibility, it’s just brute force. Mooney put it this way – ‘It seems to me that Scott is just making the blunt empirical point that a lot of people reconcile the two in some way–which is undeniable.’ I have never seen him admit that or phrase the matter that way before, and I don’t think he has, because it undercuts much of what he keeps saying. And that ‘blunt’ is a giveaway – that’s my word – I vary between ‘brute’ and ‘blunt.’ He got that from my comments, but never had the minimal decency to admit as much – and here he’s actually absorbed it and regurgitated it, still without ever so much as saying ‘yes that’s a point.’)

I said so, and also pointed out yet another misdescription of what atheists say. Other people, such as Peter Beattie, also said useful things. Mooney ignored us in order to single out two posts that he considered ‘civil.’

Boring, right?! Unbelievably boring. Yes but here’s what’s interesting – it’s the same as what was always so interesting (in a boring way) about Matt Nisbet. Nisbet is supposed to be a professional in ‘communication’ – yet he is stunningly, conspicuously, unmistakably terrible at it. Not just below average; terrible. It’s the same with Mooney – he claims to be centrally concerned with civility and respect and behaving decently – while he is conspicuously, strikingly, energetically rude, and belligerent, and unfair, and deceptive. He behaves horribly – day after day after day! With people protesting at him the whole time! It’s hilarious, in a way. ‘Be nicer, doggone it – be like me! Misrepresent what people you don’t like say – then ignore them when they try to set you straight – then do the misrepresenting all over again, right after people have just told you you’re misrepresenting them – then do some more ignoring – then take over some of what they tell you but pretend it’s your idea not theirs – then call them uncivil – then do it all over again!’

I wonder if there is a lesson here. Don’t try to set yourself up as an especially nice, respectful, civil, decent, bridge-building person – because it will turn out that you’re just as rude and hostile and ego-protecting and pugnacious as everyone else, and maybe even worse than some. Then you’ll look silly. Silly and not at all nice or respectful or civil. Sic transit gloria.

I feel ever so much better!


Jul 10th, 2009 11:43 am | By

Does God hate women? Ooh, who would say such a thing? That’s disrespectful, and inflammatory, and evil, and crude.

An Afghan law which legalised rape has been sent back to parliament with a clause letting husbands starve their wives if they refuse to have sex…The women’s rights activist Wazhma Frough, who was involved in the review, said that conservative religious leaders had pressured the Justice Ministry to keep many of the most controversial clauses…”For example, if the wife doesn’t accept her husband’s sexual requirements then he can deny her food.” According to civil society groups, the law, which regulates the personal affairs of Afghanistan’s minority Shia community, still includes clauses which allow rapists to marry their victims as a way of absolving their crime and it tacitly approves child marriage. The law sparked riots in Kabul. Hundreds of Shia women took to the streets in protest. They were attacked by mobs of angry men who launched counter demonstrations outside the capital’s largest Shia madrassa…Critics claim that Mr Karzai signed the law to appease Shia leaders.

Oh. Really? Conservative religious leaders want husbands to have a legal right to starve their wives if the wives refuse sex? This is a law for the ‘Shia community’? Mobs of angry men attacked protesting women outside a madrassa? So this all does have something to do with religion then?

That’s odd. I’d have thought The Independent frowned on connecting misogynist laws and practices with religion, especially Islam. Why would I have thought that? Because they published a review of our book by one Sholto Byrnes which is filled with assertions that are not true and they refused to retract any of those assertions, partly on the grounds that the book really is just as ‘inflammatory’ as Sholto Byrnes said it was. But in truth, the book talks about issues and facts like the ones in that article. So….what’s the difference?

I don’t know. Maybe the literary section of the Indy has its very own policy which the news department does not share.

Want a sample of assertions that are not true?

…amid the torrents of invective, they allude to many matters worthy of calm examination…This could have been the starting point for a thoughtful discussion about textual literalism and modernity. Instead, Benson and Stangroom attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong…and quote, without qualification or disapproval, the view of an American Baptist leader that Muhammad’s marriage means that the Prophet was a “demon-possessed paedophile”. This is inflammatory in the extreme. But that appears to be the point. Self-proclaimed champions of the secular right to challenge and insult others’ beliefs, Benson and Stangroom show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion.

There are no torrents of invective; there is some strong rhetoric at the very end, on the penultimate page, but that does not amount to such ‘torrents’ that the rest of the book is merely sandwiched in ‘amid’ them. There is a large amount of thoughtful discussion. We don’t analyze Armstrong ‘instead’ of thoughtful discussion but as part of it. We don’t attempt to trash her reputation, we dispute her scholarship. Our distance from the Baptist guy’s comment is obvious to any sane reader, though it’s true that we did not think it necessary to add ‘We do not endorse this view.’ It is not inflammatory in the extreme, at least not unless the article about the Afghan law is also inflammatory in the extreme. We are not champions of the right to insult anything. We show every desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion, and we do in fact go well beyond name-calling and distortion.

Meanwhile, as zealous defenders of religion like Madeleine Bunting and Sholto Byrnes hawk great gobs of spit all over Does God Hate Women?, religious men physically attack women for protesting laws that would make it legal to rape them or starve them for refusing sex. Does that God hate women? Well obviously, yes.


Jul 8th, 2009 12:54 pm | By

Update: Thursday evening: that part could well just be Kwokkian fabulation. In other words, bullshit. Sheril isn’t entirely clear about it, but I think that’s what she’s saying. If I learn more, I’ll say more.

Oh gee, I was just a little premature with that. I was unaware that Kwok had claimed that Sheril Kirshenbaum herself had fed him an article about me (the recent Observer article). So it’s not just a matter of passively failing to remove comments including one that calls me a bitch, it’s a matter of actively helping the notoriously (and widely-banned) obsessive and vituperative and out of control John Kwok. They turn out to be bottom-feeders. I’m a little stunned…

Standards in triplicate

Jul 8th, 2009 12:28 pm | By

A small and trivial sub-point, that is nevertheless interesting because of what it seems to reveal about agendas and motivations and…scruples, or the lack of them. Chris Mooney yesterday told his readers he had deleted a comment and asked commenters to keep it substantive – ‘no personal attacks.’ Since then the notorious John Kwok has continued a stream of posts directed at me, which are as personal as anyone could wish for, including calling me a bitch. There they sit, unremoved, while Kwok adds more and more. Ho hum.


Jul 8th, 2009 11:46 am | By

More on Unscientific America

1) There is an unpleasant tone of scolding and blame throughout. I’ve given some examples in previous posts, and there are many more.

For every scientist who shuns or misunderstands the broad public, there’s another who deeply wants to find better ways to connect…[p. 11] [no reference given for that 'statistic']

All too often we find scientists saying things to their peers and colleagues, or even to the press, that sound something like this: “I can’t believe the public is so stupid that it believes X” or “I can’t believe people are so ignorant that they’ll accept Y.” At this point the scientist ceases to be a friendly instructor and becomes a condescending detractor and belittler. [p 17]

2) There is way too much loose journalistic over-generalization; too much talk of ‘scientists’ or (repeated ad nauseam) ‘the scientific community’ as if all scientists think and act as a bloc; too much confident assertion about causes and consequences and solutions.

3) The generalizations sometimes degenerate into what looks like mere vendetta, in particular when CM and SK single out PZ Myers for a scolding not once but twice: the first time for having a popular blog and for the aforementioned cracker affair, the second for having a popular blog [pp 96-7, 109-11, 114].

4) There is a pervasive lack of support for the large, general claims. Causes and connections are simply asserted rather than argued or backed up with evidence.

5) The book and its argument are fundamentally political rather than epistemological, and they are political in a very particular way. There is much talk throughout of the need to ‘bridge divides,’ and this, in my view, creates a basic distortion of the thinking. If the overarching goal is to bridge divides (as they at least once say it is), then differences must be papered over or ignored – and that is simply not compatible with free inquiry.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum write and think (here, at least) more like political operatives or advertisers or people in the PR business than anything else. They are intent on consensus and community-creating, and that makes their approach seem more like manipulation and pandering than like frank and open discussion.

[I]t is undeniable that the troubling disconnect between the scientific community and society stems partly fom the nature of scientific training today, and from scientific culture generally. In some ways science has become self-isolating. [p 11]

And so on. Yes, but that is the nature of the discipline. It simply doesn’t make sense to expect ‘the scientific community’ and society to blend seamlessly together, and it makes even less sense to expect science to be anything other than ‘self-isolating’ in the sense of being what it is as opposed to something else.

There is a kind of pseudo-populist, anti-’elitist’ tone throughout that is grating and that, more seriously, pulls the whole book in the direction of disdain for epistemic values. This is perhaps the most serious flaw in the book. There are scattered disclaimers about this – professed admiration for Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, for instance, while at the same time enacting some of the anti-intellectual tropes that Hofstadter wrote about. But in spite of the disclaimers, there is a lot of blaming and scolding of ‘scientists’ as a bloc and a lot of pressure to be more ‘friendly’ and accessible.

[I]n a world dominated by the twenty-four hour news cycle…scientists will have to find ways of presenting science issues in such a way that politicians will instantly recognize their media communicability. Scientists will have to accept that their advice is being judged not on its substantive content – at least not at first – but explicitly on the utility of its packaging.

In context, if you concentrate, they seem to be saying that some scientists will have to do that kind of work – but their habit of overgeneralization and bloc-thinking prevents them from making that clear enough, and after awhile they seem to be simply telling all scientists to stop being such sticklers for content.

More later.

Scientists think they’re so special

Jul 7th, 2009 5:02 pm | By

I said (somewhere, at some point) that I would write about Unscientific America as a whole, by way of following up on chapter 8. Here we go.

It starts with an account of some sort of populist revolt over – the demotion of Pluto. Yes, really.

People were aghast…On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, their love of the underdog provoked…Even many scientists were upset. ‘I’m embarrassed for astronomy,’ remarked Alan Stern, the chief scientist on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond…[H]ow could this planetary crack-up happen in the first place? Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such a public outcry? Did they simply not care? [pp 2-3]

Bastards! Miserable heartless bastards! No, they didn’t care – the elitist swine. ‘The furor over Pluto,’ CM and SK solemnly inform us, ‘is just one particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society.’ Is it? Really? I would say no, I would say it’s just some random Thing that’s part of the great pageant of 21st century life and one that it’s risky to draw large conclusions from. Or maybe not so much risky as absurd.

And that’s a sample of one major problem with the book overall: it’s packed to the rafters with large claims for which the authors offer no evidence or argument. There are a great many assertions that just dangle there, unsupported.

Scientists know what advances are under way and debate them regularly at their conferences, but they’re talking far too much among themselves and far too little to everybody else. [p 10]

Are they? Too much for what? Too little for what? How do we know? How are the excess and the deficit measured? Who decides?

I don’t know, because the authors don’t say, and that kind of thing is all too typical. There’s the dreaded war between ‘the New Atheist movement’ and many religious believers:

The zealots on both sides generate unending polarization, squeeze out the middle ground, and leave all too many Americans convinced that science poses a threat to their values and the upbringing of their children. [p 7]

Do they? How do we know? How do the authors know? I can’t tell you, because they don’t tell us; they just make an announcement, and then move on. They truly seem not to realize that their claims are not self-evident – which seems surprising, since Mooney is a journalist and has done excellent work complete with evidence backing it up.

More later.

Moby Chris

Jul 6th, 2009 6:47 pm | By

I give up. I’m going to stop saying I’ll stop disputing Chris Mooney, because Chris Mooney won’t stop talking bossy patronizing evidence-free nonsense, and I can’t stay away. It’s like trying not to pick a scab. The scab is there! It tickles, it nags, it pulls – how am I supposed to ignore it?! I can’t, so I give up.

I’m reading the book. It’s very short and very easy to read in a sense – but in another sense it’s very hard to read, so I’m going slowly. It’s hard to read in the sense that the mental atmosphere stifles me after a few pages, and I have to stop. There’s also a lot of annotation to do, which slows things down.

Meanwhile – there’s yet another offensively condescending hectoring bossy smarmy post in which Chris tells Jerry Coyne how to be more like Chris. This comes after – what is it now? A week? Two weeks? Is that all? It feels like months – of Chris ignoring all reasonable serious probing questions about how he knows what he keeps claiming to know, what he means when he tells Jerry in particular and ‘new’ atheists in general to be more civil, to not flail at religion, to talk and write in a different way, and similar gaps in our understanding. Many people have asked him such questions, and he just ignores them all and goes on repeating his original claims over and over and over again. I find this profoundly exasperating. He really needs to answer these questions, because he’s busily telling people off in public, so he has a duty to pay attention to their questions and to answer them.

Today’s sermon was on this text:

What good is trying to communicate about science and reason if you can’t get non-scientific audiences to listen to you?…But how long do we have to keep making the same mistake, of trying to defend science and reason in a manner that we ourselves find persuasive, but that does not appeal to non-scientific audiences or even grasp where they are coming from?

I pointed out (knowing it was futile, because he won’t answer me, because he literally never does) that he is as usual treating audiences as a bloc and ways of appealing to them as a dichotomy as opposed to a range of possibilities. The book does exactly the same thing. It’s not convincing.

A breath of fresh air

Jul 5th, 2009 5:22 pm | By

Oh good, a new book saying how bad and stupid the ‘new’ atheism is, and it starts out just as it should, by summoning the usual clichés.

[The book] is clearly intended as a riposte to all those blasts of aggressive atheism from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Reading Armstrong after these boys is like listening to a clever and kindly adult after a bunch of strident adolescents. Both Bible-bashing fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists have a similar idea of what “God” means, she points out…

Well done! That got a lot in. The usual implication that there have been thousands of atheist books, which promptly collapses into the usual sad admission that the total is all of five, or maybe as many as eight if you include the outliers like Onfray and Stenger. The usual charge of aggression directed at…some books. The S word! Hooray, he got in the S word! He gets the Madeleine Bunting Award for this week. ‘Fundamentalists’ is there, ‘dogmatic atheists’ is there, the charge that they share a silly idea of god that is nothing like the sophisticated version that everyone actually believes in and prays to is there. Well done in such a small space: many of the familiar stale tropes, and not one thing surprising or unexpected or even clever.

…a similar idea of what “God” means, she points out, and it is an absurdly crude one. They seem to think the word denotes a large, powerful man we can’t see.

Yes…There are reasons for that. For most people, the word denotes exactly that.

Socrates pushed rationality and intellect to the point where they fail: you reach his famous aporia, and realise you really know nothing at all. The new atheists do the opposite. Their rationality and intellect bring them to a place of absolute knowledge, a height from where they survey all history, and pronounce with finality on pretty much everything.

Okay, I’m bored with the joke now. That’s just cretinously stupid, and it’s not true. ‘The new atheists’ don’t do any such fucking thing, and we (I guess I get to say ‘we’ now, since I’ve been called one by no less an authority than Madeleine Bunting) are pretty damn tired of being told that we do.

The book is by Karen Armstrong. The reviewer, Christopher Hart, vouches for her at the outset in the careful way that one has to:

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has written highly acclaimed biographies of Muhammad, Buddha and, most recently, the Bible.

Yeah – notice he doesn’t say who does the acclaiming. Cautious.

A priest’s fond memories of gay-baiting

Jul 5th, 2009 12:23 pm | By

Have some nice clerical moral blindness from a tattling joke called Michael Seed.

The cathedral came under attack in different ways on many occasions. The publication of certain Catholic edicts, or the re-emphasis of traditional church principles, could incite mob fury…The protest that got completely out of hand was led by Peter Tatchell and concerned gay rights. The church was launching a new catechism that had upset various pressure groups. The section saying homosexual activity was wrong had particularly aroused anger, protest and even rioting around the world.

Really?! I can’t imagine why! Merely because ‘the church’ had announced that a whole substantial minority of people is of its essence ‘wrong’ despite the fact that there is no actual reason to think ‘homosexual activity’ is wrong in any sense that can be pinned down – people got angry, and protested! Astonishing.

But actually of course what’s astonishing is the obtuseness of Seed’s dismissive wave of the hand. The section saying homosexual activity was wrong aroused anger because homosexual activity is not wrong in any meaningful sense, and saying it is at this late date and in the teeth of awareness that gay people are subject to disdain and worse – is bad. That’s what’s wrong, if you like: not ‘homosexual activity’ but stupid settled prejudice dressed up in clerical robes.

What the refrigerator magnet said

Jul 4th, 2009 6:45 pm | By

Well Sarah Palin is fer sher comedy gold, right? (Provided nobody ever lets her get anywhere near real power ever ever again.) I’m sure I speak for many Americans when I say I couldn’t believe what I was hearing yesterday – Tina Fey and all the writers at SNL coked to the gills couldn’t have done it better. ‘I’m doing what’s best for Alaska’ by by stopping being its governor. Well that’s always been my view, certainly! And then all the dynamic thrusting energetic plucky metaphors and stories to say why she was dumping an elected office a year and a half before her term expires. Yes indeedy you betcha, you can’t get much more plucky and determined than that! That’s the grit that made this country great. When you get restless any time – when setting up the first Ford factory, when fiddling around with this here telephone thing, when tooling up to build bombers and tanks for Dubya Dubya Two – the iron-jawed two-fisted spirit-of-Paul-Bunyan thing to do is just drop it and go wander off elsewhere for a space of time and regroup, or change the way you do your hair, or something.

Life is too short to compromise time and resources and though it may be tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up. But that’s a worthless, easy path out. That’s a quitter’s way out. And I think a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fishermen and we know that only dead fish go with the flow.

Yeah…so what you do, to be not apathetic and not like a dead fish and not go with the flow, is you stop being governor of Alaska.

And so as I thought about this announcement, that I wouldn’t run for re-election and what that means for Alaska, I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks…I promised efficiencies and effectiveness. That’s not how I’m wired. I’m not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual. I promised that four years ago and I meant it. That’s not what is best for Alaska at this time. I’m determined to take the right path for Alaska, even though it is unconventional and it’s not so comfortable.

So it’s the same old politics as usual to stay in the office you were elected to until the end of your term – the getting all mavericky up in there thing to do is to stop dead, right there in the middle, and get out a year and a half early. That’ll show that old politics as usual! That’ll be unconventional and uncomfortable. Good strategy for running for president, too.

Comedy gold, I tell ya. Happy 4th of July.

Candle power

Jul 4th, 2009 3:25 pm | By

Udo and Russell did an interview about 50 Voices of Disbelief recently.

Part of the first question was why this book, and what Udo said certainly resonated:

I guess my main motive was some kind of frustration (that’s putting it mildly) about religious people’s published musings about how they “struggled to find God” only to eventually succumb to the delusions we all know too well. It seemed only fair game to me to let reality-based people explain why they did better.

Quite. For all the screeching about the dreaded ‘newatheism’ the default position is still that there’s something impressive about ‘struggling’ with ‘faith’ and then collapsing into the old nonsense again.

The candle on the cover and what it means:

Udo: The flickering candle is normally understood as a symbol of believers’ connection with their imaginary God. Our intention, of course, is to sever that link and accordingly we blew the candle out on our cover. I am curious whether people who see the cover will see it that way…

Russell: I don’t “read” the symbolism in the way that Udo describes. I expect that that will be how most people see it initially, but I hope they’ll then do a cognitive shift to seeing it as the candle of reason or Enlightenment, which is blown out in so many places and circumstances by religious nonsense. As we say in the book’s introduction, it is very difficult to keep the candle of reason alight at a time when unreason in many forms is resurgent. But each essay is one small effort on behalf of the candle of reason, one contribution to keeping it alight. That reinterpretation is reinforced by the interior design: when you open the book, you see one lit candle for each essay, on the essay’s first page!

Ah, I didn’t know that; that’s nice. We could call it ‘Fifty Candles’…

Is it ‘part of the New Atheism movement’?

Russell: Well, what’s the New Atheism movement? I think the expression is often used pejoratively to attack anyone who argues against religion. The best sense that I can make of “the New Atheism” is that it is a return of normal transmission – a return of perfectly normal and proper criticism of religion in the public sphere, after this seemed to become taboo during the 1980s and 1990s. We have to thank Dawkins and others for breaking the taboo, so in that sense I suppose the book can be seen as part of the so-called New Atheism.

And then, there’s the familiar issue…

All too often, religion demands and receives deference in the political sphere. And yet, over recent decades it became taboo to criticize religion strongly in public.

And that’s a bad, and coercive, and dangerous situation.

Second prize: a visit to the piranhas

Jul 4th, 2009 11:22 am | By

Even funnier than Sarah Palin.

A Turkish game show is challenging atheists to reassess their views and win “the biggest prize ever”. Penitents Compete will bring together an Islamic imam, a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist monk and a Greek Orthodox priest seeking to convert the atheists. The prize for any converted contestants is an expenses-paid pilgrimage to a holy site of their chosen faith.

But that’s not a prize unless you do in fact convert, so it’s not going to function as a prize for the people who are supposed to convert because they won’t want the thing offered – it won’t appeal to them – in fact it will repel them. It’s like saying the prize is a bowl of shit, or a week in Evin Prison, or two tickets to a wrestling match. It’s like the old W C Fields joke – first prize is a week in Philly, second prize is two weeks in Philly.

A free ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ of one’s ‘chosen faith’ – if you’ve converted that could be enough to convert you right back again, don’t you think? You have to be gentle with these things! Someone who’s just converted from atheism to Islam or Greek Orthodox Christianity on a tv game show is in a fragile state in the ‘faith’ department – I don’t think instantly thrusting a ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ on such a convert is a very sensible idea! You want to take things step by step, not shove people off the diving board and watch them sink. To an atheist, or to someone who was an atheist until five minutes ago, a ‘piligrimage’ to a ‘holy site’ sounds like being locked in a ship’s cabin with a few thousand people all of whom you detest. It doesn’t sound like a nice holiday – or a prize. It sounds like…you know…torture.

[I]f any are genuinely convinced by a faith, they will be sent on a pilgrimage – new Muslims to Mecca, Buddhists to Tibet and Jews and Christians to Jerusalem. The TV cameras will follow the winning contestants as they go on their pilgrimage. “They can’t see this trip as a getaway, but as a religious experience,” the deputy director of Kanal T, Ahmet Ozdemir, told Hurriyet.

See? It’s not a prize.

Not that kind of compatibility

Jul 3rd, 2009 11:36 am | By

Chris Mooney (yes, it’s not over after all) disagrees with Jerry Coyne (and by extension me, and Austin Cline, and anyone else who has made the same point) about what the Pew report tells us about the putative compatibility of science and religion.

Let me say at the outset that I find it regrettable, just as Dr. Coyne does, that people are rejecting scientific findings due to their religion. That’s not cool. It’s not acceptable. And it is of course one of the key reasons we have an “unscientific America.”

But where Coyne sees sheer science-religion incompatibility, I see something else: An opportunity. For it seems to me that if we could only dislodge the idea that evolution is contradictory to people’s belief in “Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%),” then they would have no problem with evolution.

Yes, and if we could perform other miracles we could do other great things, but alas…

My view is that if we force-science religion conflict on much of America, then for a large portion of our citizenry, science is not going to prevail as the victor. But if we demonstrate compatibility, then that should be very good for the public understanding and appreciation of science.

This, annoyingly, is just Mooney going back to that same old equivocation again, as he keeps doing, like a dog with a bone, no matter how many times people tell him that that’s what he’s doing. (And yet he’s always telling us that people who disagree with him don’t know enough philosophy!) I told him so in a comment but of course, as always, he took not a blind bit of notice. I pointed out that it is not possible to ‘demonstrate compatibility’ in the epistemic sense. The only kind of compatibility it is possible to demonstrate is this brute force kind, in which believers simply ignore the evidence whenever it threatens their religious beliefs. The brute force kind of compatibility is epistemically worthless, and worse than that if it leads to delusions about genuine (epistemic) compatibility.

I told Mooney he is still playing on this equivocation and that he’s still talking about the brute force kind of compatibility and ignoring the fact that the people who disagree with him (and I’m one) are talking about epistemic compatibility.

It’s such a basic point. Is he refusing to get it, or is he unable to? The brute force kind of compatibility is an option, it’s true, but it’s not an option that it’s reasonable or sensible to try to pressure other people – least of all scientists! – into accepting for themselves. Yes it is always possible to ignore evidence, even whole mountain ranges of evidence, and believe whatever we want to. But that is not the same thing as substantive compatibility of findings. It is unwise to ignore this distinction.

Bunting redux

Jul 2nd, 2009 5:41 pm | By

Guess who’s back – why, it’s Madeleine Bunting. ‘What’s she up to now?’ you cry in pleased surprise. She’s going out of her way to show us how silly she can be, yet again.

There is a school of thought that the new atheists have so polarised the debate about the relationship between science and religion that it’s not a conversation worth having. The “Ditchkins” – as Terry Eagleton describes them in his recent book – have developed such a crude argument about religion based on their boasted ignorance of the thinking which underpins belief that it’s hard to know how a dialogue is possible.

‘School of thought’ – she means herself saying it, and Terry Eagleton saying it, and one or two other woolly prats saying it. That’s not actually a school of thought.

So what happens when there is an attempt at a very different kind of conversation which is not around the extremes of belief and non belief but largely amongst thoughtful believers, many of whom might be scientists? That was the proposition behind Lambeth Palace’s gathering of scientists, philosophers and theologians yesterday morning.

Ooooh, doncha wish you’d attended that? No, neither do I.

[T]he Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

Uh huh. And the archbishop doesn’t believe the Nicene creed. Except of course he does.

I am genuinely a lot more conservative than [Bishop John Shelby Spong] would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don’t. I don’t know how to persuade him but I really don’t.

Thank you Edmund Standing.

It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

Because religion and religion alone concerns itself with that; there is no secular discipline or way of thinking or set of ideas that concerns itself with relationships to other people; therefore religion has a crucial role. Except that the first part isn’t true. Other than that, it hangs together a treat.

There’s other stupid crap in there – crap about consumerism, crap about Darwin leading to Goebbels – but that’s enough to clutter the place up with. Bunting did a bang-up job of showing us what she set out to show us. We’re convinced.


Jul 2nd, 2009 7:47 am | By

We’ve seen that Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim that ‘faith and science are perfectly compatible.’

Austin Cline has a very helpful post explaining how this is done.

Chris Mooney regularly insists that all he wants is to promote the “pragmatic” position that science and religion are compatible. He doesn’t want critics of religion and theism to “shut up,” he just doesn’t want them to keep being so publicly critical. This differs from shutting up in that… well, Chris Mooney can’t quite explain how it differs. But it does, really. You can trust him on that.
As a demonstration of just how trustworthy Chris Mooney is, as well as a demonstration of just what he he thinks “framing” is all about, he recently cited a report which reveals that there is a “silent majority” of Americans who agree with him that science and religion are compatible.

That report, from the Pew Research Center, does indeed shed new light on how people find science and religion to be compatible. What they do is, whenever science says something they don’t like, they just ignore it. Simple!

[A]ccording to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form…Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard…So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

Ah! So that is what is meant by compatible! We suspected as much all along, but how helpful of Mooney to cite a report that spells it out so bluntly and in such detail. Science and religion are ‘compatible’ because many people are perfectly happy just to ignore any theories and evidence that contradict their religious beliefs. Right. We knew that. That’s one of the first things Jerry Coyne said in the New Republic review –

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.

Or the even more trivial sense that people can pay lip service to one attitude while allowing it to be trumped by the other whenever that seems more pleasant.

In other words, for a great many Americans, religion and science are ‘compatible’ in a sense that simply contradicts the real meaning of the word. They are ‘compatible’ in the sense that people in this demographic will allow science to go its merry way, and will avail themselves of its benefits, but they will ‘simply choose not to believe’ anything they don’t feel like believing. That’s not genuine compatibility – it’s just compartmentalization, which is in fact the opposite of epistemic compatibility.

It’s funny that Mooney doesn’t seem to dwell on that part of the Pew report very much. He did slip up though in his ‘silent majority’ post, and Austin Cline spotted the slip-up. Mooney quoted this from Pew:

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.

Right – and that, Chris, makes religion incompatible with science, not compatible. It makes the two ‘compatible’ in the brute force sense that people can always just ignore mountains of evidence, but it makes them incompatible in the sense that just ignoring mountains of evidence is in fact not a reliable way to discover the truth about anything.

Mooney seems to rely on equivocation between the two meanings for his whole case, and then express baffled outrage when anyone points this out. Not good.