To highlight the persecution of women in Saudi Arabia

Jul 20th, 2009 10:10 am | By

Well that clears that up.

A Saudi Arabian princess who had an illegitimate child with a British man has secretly been granted asylum in this country after she claimed she would face the death penalty if she were forced to return home…Her case is one of a small number of claims for asylum brought by citizens of Saudi Arabia which are not openly acknowledged by either government. British diplomats believe that to do so would in effect be to highlight the persecution of women in Saudi Arabia, which would be viewed as open criticism of the House of Saud and lead to embarrassing publicity for both governments.

Indeed – to do so would in effect be to highlight the persecution of women in Saudi Arabia. So…maybe the UK government shouldn’t be quite so affectionate toward Saudi Arabia? Yes I know that’s not a realistic question. But there it is.

She persuaded the court that if she returned to the Gulf state she and her child would be subject to capital punishment under Sharia law – specifically flogging and stoning to death. She was also worried about the possibility of an honour killing.

Hey! You can’t say that! This is The Independent! You can’t say harsh things about Sharia in The Independent – it’s forbidden. Just ask Sholto Byrnes.

The file keeps expanding

Jul 18th, 2009 5:45 pm | By

Another entry (they’re coming in thick and fast these days) in the “Random hostile assertions about ‘New’ atheists” file. This one, I’m sorry to say, is from HE Baber, with whom I have had friendly exchanges, and whose blog I like, and who has a way of seeing things from an unexpected angle. But ‘New’ atheists are not among the things she sees from an unexpected angle.

Most people I know are atheists. But they’re atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don’t think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.

But ‘the New Atheists’ don’t think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting. I challenge anyone to find ‘a New Atheist’ (by which I do not mean just some random anonymous commenter from Dawkins’s site five months ago) claiming to have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting. All the ‘New’ atheists I know are perfectly well aware that atheism has been around for a long time. As a matter of fact it’s often the Old Theists who claim that atheism is new-fangled – they’re the ones who are always telling us that all our ideas – equality, the value of the individual, rationality, secularism, democracy – are the product of Christianity. We’re the ones who say ‘oh come on, do you really think it’s only the believers who have ever been able to think of anything? Do you really think there were no secret atheists in the good old days when atheism was a capital crime?’

I just think it’s obviously false to say that ‘New’ atheists think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting. False and rather unpleasant – unpleasant because false. There’s an awful lot of this kind of thing around, as we know, and it really is quite annoying. It’s not good to single out groups for opprobrium; it’s not good to do that by saying things about such groups that are false. I think people ought to stop doing that. I think Comment is free: belief ought to stop encouraging them to do that.

It wasn’t all there was

Jul 18th, 2009 11:08 am | By

Sometimes the jaw simply drops, the incredulous oath simply forces its way out past the teeth. This is one of those times – Terry Eagleton explaining the merits of a Catholic schooling to Laurie Taylor.

“I valued the way it taught me to think analytically, to not be afraid of analytic thought, however nonsensical some of the content surely was. There was an opportunity to argue.”

But how could he square that relatively sanguine memory with the requirement at Catholic schools to memorise and recite the absurd one-line strictures contained in the standard catechism?

“I agree that the catechism was a way of short-circuiting thought. But it wasn’t all there was. I also remember a religious teacher in the sixth form, a rational enlightened man, quoting from an awful textbook called The Fundamentals of Religion that we had to learn like a garage mechanic boning up on parts. He came to a passage which dismissed Buddhism in two sentences, looked up, and said, ‘That’s shoddy scholarship’. That phrase resounded in my ears. It wasn’t typical. But it did happen. It was possible.”

Jeezis. He’s (apparently) serious. Years and years of the catechism and everything that goes with it, countered by one teacher on one occasion uttering three words that point out an obvious absurdity. It wasn’t typical, but it did happen, therefore his Catholic schooling taught him to think analytically.

Except of course it didn’t, and neither did anything else, or if it did, he forgot it all again later. Judging by his current performance he’s crap at thinking analytically. As witnessed by this artless confession to Taylor, and by the whole interview, and by his horrible book, and by his horrible LRB review of Dawkins’s book. It’s not that there’s no fault to find with Dawkins’s book, it’s that Eagleton does such a bad job of finding it or saying it.

But hadn’t he as an intelligent sixth-former sometimes wanted to kick against the awful certainty of Catholic doctrine, its sheer unreadiness to entertain the idea that there might be something in other religions or ways of thought?

“Well, there is a bad side to certainty but there’s also a good side. People with my background don’t automatically thrill to the idea that we don’t know what we think about anything. I was taught by people at Cambridge who got an almost erotic frisson from the idea that they didn’t know what they thought and could afford not to know. Whereas I came from a background where it was thought that there were certain things you really had to get sorted out. There’s a difference between reasonable certainty and dogmatism.”

Is there ‘a good side’ to the awful certainty of Catholic doctrine? Eagleton seems to be saying, in his typically evasive, deniable (so much for ‘reasonable certainty’) way, that there is. Well there isn’t. Amen.

What we need

Jul 17th, 2009 5:55 pm | By

Comment is Free’s ‘Belief’ asks whether we should believe in belief and makes a highly debatable assertion on the way.

[S]ocieties do need myths, as indeed do individuals. Take away their organising beliefs about their purpose in the world and both individuals and societies disintegrate: the belief that societies can function without myths, or rather that they should and will in the enlightened future, is itself a myth, and not a very helpful one.

Organizing beliefs are one thing, and myths are another. It is perfectly possible to have organizing beliefs about one’s purpose in the world without believing in myths. It gets rather exasperating sometimes noticing how sloppy and casual and offhanded people can be about mixing up their terminology. Yes organizing beliefs are generally useful (depending on what they are, of course), but that doesn’t just translate straight into ‘societies and individuals need myths.’

Is it something in the water?

Jul 17th, 2009 11:45 am | By

This is the stupidest thing I’ve read since…well since the last eruption from the twins. There’s so much stupid in it that it’s hard to single it all out.

Saying that science has made religion redundant is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov, says Terry Eagleton in this gloriously rumbustious counter-blast to Dawkinsite atheism…paradoxes sparkle throughout this coruscatingly brilliant polemic…

Brilliant my ass. It’s tricksy, it’s decorated, but it’s not brilliant.

Eagleton is not anti-science or reason. He merely points out that science has produced Hiroshima as well as penicillin.

Because nobody would know that if he hadn’t merely pointed it out, and besides it’s stupid to say that ‘science’ produced Hiroshima.

Eagleton is stronger on reason than Ditchkins, for he thinks carefully about what his opponents say whereas Dawkins & Co prefer knockabout rhetoric to serious engagement with mainstream religious thought.

How would somebody who mindlessly follows Eagleton’s mindless lead in using ‘Ditchkins’ know what being strong on reason even looks like? And how can he claim without irony that Eagleton ‘thinks carefully about what his opponents say’ two words after he’s echoed that very Eagleton in calling two of those very opponents by a stupid schoolyardy nonce-name? Don’t ask me; I can’t begin to figure it out.

This is, then, a demolition job which is both logically devastating and a magnificently whirling philippic. Ditchkins, he says, makes the error of conflating reason and rationality. Yet much of what seems reasonable in real life turns out not to be true. And much that is true, like quantum physics, seems rationally impossible.

My foot my tutor, as Prospero said. Contrary to what Paul Vallely clearly thinks, neither Dawkins nor Hitchens is actually stupider than Terry Eagleton. Neither of them needs Eagleton to explain quantum physics. Neither of them needs him to explain that much of what seems reasonable in real life turns out not to be true. Eagleton is a conceited teacher of English who got way too much undergraduate adulation early in life and let it go to his head. He is not a polymath or a universal genius or a towering intellect. Dawkins and Hitchens aren’t necessarily right about everything (I hope it’s needless to say) but that doesn’t mean Eagleton is the guy to set them straight. Paul Vallely isn’t even the guy to comment on anybody setting them straight.

There’s more, but it’s too sick-making. I’m outta here.


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.