PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Part I

By The Intersection | July 13, 2009 3:09 pm

We now commence, as laid out earlier, our rebuttals to PZ Myers’ review of our book:

1. Getting Personal? Myers claims that our book contains “very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.”

It is hard to know precisely what he means by “very direct and personal attacks,” as he doesn’t back up the charge with any evidence. Certainly we do directly mention Myers. We describe the infamous desecration of the communion wafer, which we criticize. Later, we also talk critically about Myers in the context of discussing the face of science on the Internet.

Even if these constituted “personal attacks”–and we don’t see how–they still wouldn’t be attacks on “atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.” Chris is an atheist. We’re quite sure he did not attack himself in the book.

As for Myers, he is a very public figure, and never was he more public than in what he refers to as “Crackergate.” Does he not expect to be criticized when he puts a desecrated communion wafer on the Internet? Was everyone who criticized him on that occasion attacking him personally?

2.  Pluto. Myers misreads our account of the famous 2006 Pluto demotion. He writes that we “come down on the side of Pluto being redesignated as a planet!” Well, perhaps half-in-jest we did. But that’s hardly the point.

We’re not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn’t mind if it happened). Rather, we’re exploring what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair is deeply illustrative of that divide, as we explain. (This part of the book happens to be freely available online, right here.)

Myers doesn’t appear to grasp this point; he seems to think we’re saying science should have been decided by referendum in the Pluto instance. “Are there other scientific matters that should be decided by popular vote?” he asks. Of course not. The results of science should never be subject to popular vote. But that’s a red herring, since the whole point is that unlike, say, whether an atom is larger than an electron, whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics. Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a “planet” since 1930) and culture–which the scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were pretty insensitive to.

So right at the outset of our book, Myers takes the wrong message from the opening anecdote.

3. What the Book Actually Says. Normally book reviews first describe what an author is arguing or claiming, and only then proceed to takes issue with some of their claims. It is Myers’ prerogative, but this is not how he proceeds. Rather, he judges the entire first chapter, which lays out the book’s argument, on the basis of the opening Pluto section–and then goes on to say, “This chapter was symptomatic of the deficiencies of the whole book.” Yet Myers never lets his readers in on what’s actually being argued.

4. Carl Sagan. When it comes to the greatest science communicator of modern times, we get no disagreement from Myers about, er, his greatness. But then things go wrong. Myers writes with respect to Sagan:

…they fail to notice the peculiar disjunction in their story: while reciting the wonderful efforts of Sagan and praising his skills and efforts, they’re also telling the story of the dismal state of science education at the same time. Strange…the object of their praise was influencing many of us growing up at that time, those of us who were already enthusiastic about science, but the culture was not improving, and was even getting worse. Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society? The religious right was not glued to their TV sets every night that Cosmos was on, you know. Sagan was preaching to the choir, and there’s nothing wrong with that — it can be a powerful tool for motivating and informing a wider cadre of science communicators.

Cosmos reached 500 million people globally. This is “preaching to the choir”?

More generally, Myers does not show any flaw or contradiction in our argument in the passage above. Sagan was massively influential, but still, there were forces larger than he–many of which we duly describe in the book. Myers asks, “Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society?”–but why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be the greater forces, plus the detachment of many of the scientists, who did not detect the greater forces or did not adequately respond to them?

Later, Myers tries to compare Richard Dawkins with Sagan:

They regard Dawkins with considerable distaste (but at least they spare him the outright contempt they give to me!), and at the same time they bemoan the lack of great science communicators since we lost Sagan. Wait, what? Are they aware at all that Dawkins is an excellent and popular writer, that he has sold millions of books and has made a number of documentaries? That he’s taken good advantage of the web? I’d be curious to know who has sold more books, Dawkins or Sagan, but if I had to bet on one it would be Dawkins. He has critics and even enemies, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum, but that’s irrelevant — they know that Sagan was also strenuously vilified by critics on the Right and among the religious, as well, yet somehow that opposition is regarded as the defining element of Dawkins’ popularity, yet is overlooked in the case of Sagan. Scientists will always be delivering hard truths; if our hypothetical desired media-savvy science communicator cannot make anyone uncomfortable, then he or she is a failure at science.

We’d guess Sagan sold more books, though we wouldn’t count Dawkins out if he keeps going like he has since The God Delusion. On reaching people through television (Cosmos) and the mass medium of film (Contact), Sagan vastly outdistances Dawkins.

But a still bigger issue is that no matter how many people see him or read him, Dawkins is no Carl Sagan. In the book, we explain how Sagan approached religion very differently from Dawkins. Especially since The God Delusion, Dawkins has become a “divider.” You either strongly like him or….you feel otherwise. That’s fine, that makes him very popular with some–but that wasn’t Sagan’s approach. Sagan strove to be a uniter–a vast difference.

We can go further. When Sagan was most prominently under fire, it was because he was taking political stands relating to science–standing up for arms control, opposing “Star Wars,” etc. And in these actions, he sought to form broad coalitions, including the religious. He was standing up for causes that everyone, every kind of person, could get behind. Dawkins, on the other hand, is standing up for a particularly uncompromising form of atheism. Again, that’s his right. But it’s vastly different from a cause like nuclear disarmament.

We encourage folks to consult our book for more on Sagan, Dawkins and religion.

In our next post, tomorrow, we will continue responding to the claims in PZ’s review, as outlined here.

Comments (253)

  1. Matt Penfold

    We’re not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn’t mind if it happened). Rather, we’re exploring what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair is deeply illustrative of that divide, as we explain. (This part of the book happens to be freely available online, right here.)

    What vast disconnect ?

    The only place where it seems there was controversy of the re-designation of Pluto was the US.

    If scientists in other countries could explain the re-designation and not have a public outcry then I am not sure you can place the failure in the US on the scientists.

    Here in the UK there was no controversy. Astronomers (and other scientists) such as Patrick Moore, Brian May, Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson were all interviewed and explained why the re-designation had taken place. I know of those only Tyson is an American, but none of the others are unknown in the US. The scientists who could get the message across were available. There would be no language issue either.

    Why blame scientists for what seems to have been a problem with American science journalism ?

  2. John Kwok

    @ Chris and Sheril –

    What Myers fails to acknowledge in his comparison between Dawkins and Sagan is that, unlike Dawkins, Sagan was still conducting important scientific research while writing his books and participating in the development of the COSMOS television miniseries. Dawkins, however, has not published any original scientific research of importance since the late 1980s.

    I am not persuaded by your favorable press in favor of Sagan as the most influential science popularizer of our time. In many respects, I could argue persuasively that Stephen Jay Gould, or even, E. O. Wilson (now) has been far more influential. In Gould’s case he participated actively as one of the primary opponents to Wilsion’s concept of sociobiology. He also was a leading voice in condemning the apparent misuse of racial differences in attempting to explain reasons for differing IQ scores between Americans of European and African descent.

  3. José

    You blatantly misrepresent Dawkins when you criticize him. When people like you say that atheists claim science proves God doesn’t exist, you’re are doing real damage in preventing productive dialogue. It gives people a straw man they can point to in order to be dismissive of science. And were it true, they would be justified in doing so. But it’s not. That a prominent science writer would perpetuate or even believe such stupidity is shocking.

  4. As for Myers, he is very public figure, and never was he more public than in what he refers to as “Crackergate.” Does he not expect to be criticized when he puts a desecrated communion wafer on the Internet? Was everyone who criticized him on that occasion attacking him personally?

    Arguably, yes.

    What matters here is what sense of “personally” you’re using. In a rather ordinary sense, you were indeed making “personal attacks” on Myers in your book. I suppose you could also call it illustrative of matters you’re discussing, but it’s hard not to see it as a “personal attack.”

    Justifiable? Depending on how it was written, yes. And no, you may not have thought of it as a “personal attack” in that you may not have been aiming at Myers, just bringing in an example of what you believe divides scientists and the public. But I do not think that Myers was in the slightest misusing language by calling it a “personal attack.”

    You should focus on justifying your attack. Saying that it isn’t an attack comes too close to equivocation, because I don’t in the slightest doubt that Myers understood it to be an attack.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. Physicalist

    . . . whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics. Moreover, it also involves history . . .

    The involvement of semantics and history does nothing to show that it isn’t a scientific matter

    Consider: once upon a time the sun was a planet, the Earth was not. Was the switching of the two designations not a scientific matter? (As “pure” as you’re likely to find anywhere?)

  6. James T

    “Certainly we do directly mention Myers. ”
    Then it’s personal. You mentioned a “person”. This is why the word has the word “person” in it.

    “whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics. Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a “planet” since 1930) and culture–which the scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were pretty insensitive to.”

    Should scientists change the definition of a planet, or simply make pluto not one? Seriously, your argument is hilariously weak here.

    “”Yet Myers never lets his readers in on what’s actually being argued.””
    Except, for the fact that he has one of the most lengthy reviews that covers everything and more of what others across the net do.

    “”Cosmos reached 500 million people globally. This is “preaching to the choir”?”””
    Yes. As Myers says, the right-wing anti-science people, who NEED the science, are not going to watch science shows.

    “””–but why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be the greater forces, plus the detachment of many of the scientists, who did not detect the greater forces or did not adequately respond to them?”””
    It is both, and Myers knows it. However, it is obviously apparent that the more important forces are the anti-science folk constantly working against science, and Sagan’s TV show never cured them.

    “””We’d guess Sagan sold more books, though we wouldn’t count Dawkins out if he keeps going like he has since The God Delusion. On reaching people through television (Cosmos) and the mass medium of film (Contact), Sagan vastly outdistances Dawkins.”””
    But Dawkins provides something of more substance. In his books, he explains the evidence for Evolution, the evidence against god, and most importantly, Dawkins explains what it means to think scientifically, something the anti-intellectuals do not understand.

    “””In the book, we explain how Sagan approached religion very differently from Dawkins. Especially since The God Delusion, Dawkins has become a “divider.” You either strongly like him or….you feel otherwise. That’s fine, that makes him very popular with some–but that wasn’t Sagan’s approach. Sagan strove to be a uniter–a vast difference.”””
    You cannot unite science and religion. They are two different ways of thinking. Science is a rational way of thinking, and religion is an irrational way.
    We do not accomodate irrational thinking in every day life. Do we allow people to drive 100 mph on the sidewalks, which is an irrational choice? No.
    Why should we tolerate irrational thought when it happens to concern the existence of a deity?

    “””Dawkins, on the other hand, is standing up for a particularly uncompromising form of atheism. “””
    Yet, the vast majority of educated scientists agree with Dawkins, not Sagan.
    A recent report found that 87% of all scientists agreed that “Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection”.

    http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/07/views-evolution-among-public-scientists-004904

    Dawkins’ view is unaccomodating, for good reason. We do not accommodate people who, when confronted with a problem, think in a irrational way in society. Why should we when it comes to god?

    Wow. I was expecting something of substance, and all we got was this. It’s going to hurt when Myers replies to you.

  7. Physicalist

    Chris and Sheril:

    On the topic of Sagan, I’d very much like to hear your opinion of _The Demon-Haunted World_. I see Sagan being rather anti-accommodationist in that book. Do you agree?

  8. Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a “planet” since 1930) and culture–which the scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were pretty insensitive to.

    What justifies your claim that scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were insensitive to history and culture?

    Remember, it took some time after Pluto was found to be very small compared even with Mercury, and questions to consequently be raised as to its planetary status, before any real change occurred. Indeed, scientists appeared to be quite insensitive for a very long time to criticisms of Pluto still being considered a planet. What forced the issue was that Eris was found to be larger than Pluto, which potentially meant that many small Pluto-like bodies would be counted as planets, even though they are all much smaller than Mercury.

    I don’t really know whether or not Pluto’s demotion was done with or without cultural or historical sensitivity. What I do know is that you haven’t backed up your claim here at all. Nor do I know how much cultural and historical considerations should affect science nomenclature, but I suspect not much.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  9. Jennifer B. Phillips

    In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed!”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

    – Carl Sagan

  10. A really big difference between Sagan and Dawkins is that Dawkins is telling most people in the world that they are delusional. I had some problems with Sagan but he knew you shouldn’t expect to get people to listen to you while you’re insulting them. Sagan also wasn’t anywhere near as vicious and uninformed when he talked about religion, he made some pretty telling historical bloopers but he was never noticeably mean spirited about it. Mean spiritedness is the hall mark of the Dawkinsite school of PR.

    I don’t think Sagan would have been so head soundingly clueless as to label most parents child abusers for wanting their children to find salvation.

    I’d imagine that there were many, many sermons given in many different churches based on points from Cosmos when it was on, many of them overlooking the materialistic PR in the beginning to find something positive to say about it. I wonder if it’s possible to find a record of that reaction to it. I know a lot of religious people who watched it. It couldn’t have gotten the audience share it did without getting a fair number of religious viewers, there aren’t enough atheists to make up that number.

    Pluto. You get the feeling that some people think it’s going to have some kind of impact on Pluto to call it a planet or to call it something else. It’s not as if it’s easy to get out there. Not without the publics support for funding. You have to wonder if people would want to fund research on it if it wasn’t called a planet anymore but just some “object”. If I was planning a funding strategy, getting it dramatically and publicly reclassified as a planet would be something to consider. But that might be too practical for the the new atheists, who never let the practical intrude on their brand of “idealism”. Will irony never cease.

  11. sharky

    You keep bringing up Crackergate. Why is that?

    Please pay attention to your language: the “infamous” Crackergate? Who is that “infamous” among, besides people of faith? Why is it so simplified when it’s an intersection of a variety of points: the right of people not to be attacked for not partaking in worship, the disrespect of several faiths at once, the fallout in death threats and offerings of more violence from the faithful infamous from only one person?

    Someone who takes as a personal attack a harsh description of their work might wish to be more careful about claiming to never offer personal attacks… while using lurid language to describe another person’s acts.

    The rest of this, honestly, isn’t really something I feel helps anyone’s discussion in anything, particularly since it reads like either a rehash of previous claims, or something that I’ve already seen fairly contradictory evidence for (Pluto, for example, in fact seeming to be a bit of an emotional topic, given other posts and comments in other blogs and venues.)

    I won’t be commenting on these in future. I’m entirely unsure of the motive behind them and don’t believe it productive.

  12. bob

    Regarding Pluto: Another example would be Earth, Air, Fire, and Water once being elements. I wonder if Mendeleev ought to have been more sensitive to culture and history.

    More importantly, I don’t see how PZ misrepresented what you said. Though, perhaps, he missed the perhaps-half-in-jest of your writing …

  13. Tulse

    “whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics. Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a “planet” since 1930) and culture–which the scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were pretty insensitive to.”

    I don’t understand this claim at all. Scientists use “planet” in a particular way, and if popular culture chooses to use the term differently, why should science care? Should medical researchers use the popular term “stomach flu” to describe a malady that has nothing to do with influenza? Should scientists have refused to rename “brontosaurus” on cultural/historical grounds? Should they redefine “fruit” so that a tomato isn’t one?

    Science involves a technical vocabulary that at times will be in conflict with popular usage of the same terms (see, for example, “theory”, or for that matter, “dinosaur”). It does not fall on science to alter its precise terminology to keep in line with popular usage.

  14. sharky

    (…baha, last minute edit fail. Still, my point is clear so long as you take a moment to scramble to catch a phone call at the right moment in text…)

  15. foolfodder

    The Pluto controversy didn’t really seem to have any noticeable effect in this country (the UK) as far as I could tell. I wonder why it might have been particularly controversial in the US?

    Also, is it possible that the controversy had a positive effect, by engaging large parts of otherwise science-apathetic people with a scientific subject?

  16. Stu

    “Even if these constituted “personal attacks”–and we don’t see how–they still wouldn’t be attacks on “atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.”

    Yes, they would be. You’re attacking an atheist for being insensitive. Lots of atheists, whether you like it or not, agree with what PZ did during Crackergate.

    “He writes that we “come down on the side of Pluto being redesignated as a planet!” Well, perhaps half-in-jest we did. But that’s hardly the point.”

    Actually, no, I don’t see you really made that case (although the entire excerpt strongly implies that you would like to but are realistic enough not to). It’s all wishy-washy hand-wringing about how difficult it all is. As such, it’s a completely irrelevant example when it comes to the science/anti-science battle. It is a poor example of science communication. And it offers nothing of substance, although (correct me if I’m wrong) it’s a canonical example you attempt to build your case around.

    It seems you’re still choosing to ignore PZ’s main problem with the central thesis:

    “I can agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment…but how, exactly, are we to accomplish it without challenging anti-scientific attitudes? Like the Pluto incident, what Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to want is that science conform itself to that common culture, that somehow science will accommodate itself to the popular will, and everyone will be happy. They lack the realization that what they’re actually proposing is a rather radical change in cultural values, and that that will not come without some pain and conflict.”

  17. Marc

    Tulse: Chris has a completely legitimate point. Astronomers, in fact, don’t have a very good definition of planet. What is the difference between a continent and an island? A lake and a pond? These are, at some level, arbitrary distinctions between big and small. We didn’t need to worry about the boundaries because there was a huge gap between asteroids/comets and the classical 9 planets.

    Then we discovered planets around other stars, and figured out that Pluto was the tip of a very large iceberg. Our theory of solar system formation shifted to emphasize migration and orbital evolution. With these scientific shifts we had to re-look at what being a planet meant. Pluto just didn’t fit. But in the broader context things were different, and folks had an emotional attachment to Pluto.

    Popular emotion wasn’t running against a clear scientific issue, and the intrinsic fuzziness of “planet” vs “big rock” leaves room for value judgements.

  18. John Kwok

    @ sharky –

    It’s not only “CrackerGate”, but a rather consistent pattern of ridiculous behavior from PZ Myers which he – and his acolytes, such as yourself – contend is serious criticism. Really? Is it as serious as this – and I contend that it is typical Myers “criticsm” – bit of inane commentary that he posted over at the PZ vs RealClimate quote discussion thread (Am only going to post a little of it here, the rest you can read over at that thread.):

    424. PZ Myers Says:
    July 12th, 2009 at 12:58 pm
    I confess. I haven’t won the Albert Einstein World Award of Science , either. Or the Alexander Agassiz Medal.

    I also haven’t won:

    Abd-el-Tif prize
    Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research/Lasker Foundation (US).
    Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research/Lasker Foundation (US).
    Aldridge Medal
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Painting
    Archibald Prize, Australia’s premier portraiture award
    Archon X Prize (X Prize Foundation)
    Artist Foundation of San Antonio
    Automotive X Prize – Super-efficient vehicle design competition.
    Balzan prize – international prize for humanities, natural sciences and culture, as well as humanitarian endeavours for peace
    Bartolozzi Prize (Italian Mathematical Union)
    Beck’s Futures

  19. Craig B

    As someone who actually grew up watching Sagan, I can tell you that Sagan was disliked by the religious right – though in general that voice was much quieter in the ’70s and ’80s than now – AND disliked by many scientists; he is more beloved since his death, as often happens.

    I read and respected Sagan and understand why you point him out as a great science communicator, but I’ll make the same point I made a few years ago in a couple of comments when you first started the framing and communication focus and drank from Nisbet’s cup: Sagan and SJ Gould were voices in the wilderness. The *effective* popular communication of science was rare indeed until the last 15 years or so. Since the late ’90s, there has been an explosion of scientists and science journalists – including you, including the blogosphere, including many of the people you criticize. How can you believe that when finally – finally! – so many voices are raised to explain and promote science, that now we have the crisis? At the same time, how can you not see that a multiplicity of approaches is the best means to communicate with multiple audiences? We need Ken Miller and Eugenie Scott and Richard Dawkins (not so sure about Francis Collins, though) and everything in between because different approaches appeal to different audiences and actually support each other (to take a civil rights metaphor, Martin Luther King was far more effective because of Malcolm X than he would have been without that more angry alternative).

    We live in a veritable golden era of science writing, with even leading scientists like Sean B. Carroll writing for popular audiences, as well as good science journalists like Carl Zimmer. There are a number of terrific books and blogs on science for general audiences. There was a time when scientists did not do enough to explain science to society, but that time was Sagan and Gould’s time, not today. Never in history, I am quite sure, has there been such an renaissance of science communication. Your call to arms is too late; it has been happening all along!

    Yes, our society is science illiterate but not because of the lack of science writing and speaking. Some of it, hopefully, is lag time – the voices so eloquent today will have influence over several years, I hope, not immediately. Society is mostly science illiterate because of bad education – bad education in general and particularly bad science education. In large part, that is due to the fear and exhaustion that comes from parents and groups that attack science teaching – evolution, but not just evolution – so that science is drained of much meaning and the importance of evidence and reasoning is diminished across all education. Those people who yell and bully and scare teachers and principals are the nutcases that so make PZ – and me – angry. I’m on the front lines (a community college English teacher in a highly religious part of the country) and see the effects of such bad education on students every day. It is hard not to be angry – and I do have to find more careful ways to talk about these issues in class. I need PZ and Dawkins to recharge my batteries, to help me fight on the front lines. I’m not sure you have ever understood that audience of theirs. Further, I can tell you that it can indeed be effective to offer NOMA or Scott as an alternative after I’ve mentioned Dawkins and atheism.

    PZ and Dawkins and the “new atheists” are simply not the enemy; they are a part of the solution. I wish you could see what is so clear to many of us. You are the polarizing voices, not them.

  20. TTT

    Wasn’t the lay public just as disturbed by the discovery and “planet-ization” of Pluto in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been more accommodating to have never brought it up at all?

    At which point in history are we to declare that all discoveries are discovered, all findings are found, beyond which no new understanding is permitted?

  21. We can go further. When Sagan was most prominently under fire, it was because he was taking political stands relating to science–standing up for arms control, opposing “Star Wars,” etc. And in these actions, he sought to form broad coalitions, including the religious. He was standing up for causes that everyone, every kind of person, could get behind. Dawkins, on the other hand, is standing up for a particularly uncompromising form of atheism. Again, that’s his right. But it’s vastly different from a cause like nuclear disarmament.

    If there was controversy over the stands that Sagan was taking, then it clearly wasn’t something that ‘every kind of person’ could get behind. While I happen to strongly agree with him, there are a number of bellicose and xenophobic people out there who are for “Star Wars”. Just because the line that is drawn happens to be political rather than theological, however, makes him a unifier rather than a divider? You cannot take a stand without alienating some people, unless you happen to be taking a stand on something that is universally agreed upon, at which point it’s not much of a stand, is it? To take a stand, the best thing to do is set forth your arguments as rationally and calmly as possible. While I may not agree with everything Dawkins says, he is not half so divisively strident or militant as his critics constantly claim he is. It just happens that disagreeing with someones religiously motivated outlook on the world is just so much more contrary than disagreeing with a political outlook – which is part of the very think Dawkins is arguing against.

  22. @ Tulse:

    Science involves a technical vocabulary that at times will be in conflict with popular usage of the same terms (see, for example, “theory”, or for that matter, “dinosaur”). It does not fall on science to alter its precise terminology to keep in line with popular usage.

    You have just provided the most concise illustration of one o fthe problems Sheril and Chris are trying to address. And so as we’re all clear, I’ll use some precise language here – They believe that the huge disconnect between science and society, which has resulted in increasing use of anything but science to address science related questions, is in part a result of scientists refusal to adjust their precise technical language to allow popular understanding.

    Put another way (if that wasn’t clear enough) – the more scientists cling to “thier” version of what a word means, the less likely the scientist will be to influence policy decisions that need scientific guidance. Language matters.

  23. Palo

    Chris Mooney says:
    “We’re not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn’t mind if it happened). Rather, we’re exploring what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair is deeply illustrative of that divide, as we explain. […] Myers doesn’t appear to grasp this point; he seems to think we’re saying science should have been decided by referendum in the Pluto instance”

    “This chapter is completely baffling. They chose to illustrate the serious problem of the disconnect between a science-illiterate public and the science establishment with a strange example: the redesignation of Pluto as a non-planet. This event was accompanied by a public outcry, by people who had some peculiar emotional attachment to the idea that Pluto was the ninth planet, an attachment that was fed by a willing media that found this level of trivia to be about as complex an issue as they could handle. We know that certain topics rouse the public, and often it’s unpredictable what will catch the fancy of the news. But this? This is the opening story on which they build their argument that “consequences of the science-society divide may prove far more damaging”? And what do they propose we should do to resolve the issue?”

    PZ Myers acknowledges exactly what Mooney argues, but PZ claims the choice of topic to illustrate the point is odd, and the solution Mooney presents is bad… what is exactly the point you are refuting, Mr. Mooney?

    I hope the rest of C.Mooney rebuttal is not as lightweight as this post.

  24. Palo

    Sorry. The second paragraph @24 was PZ Myers’.

  25. “Even if these constituted “personal attacks”–and we don’t see how–they still wouldn’t be attacks on “atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect.”
    Yes, they would be. You’re attacking an atheist for being insensitive. Lots of atheists, whether you like it or not, agree with what PZ did during Crackergate.

    That’s not attacking atheists in general. That’s attacking only the subset of atheists who are also bitter, arrogant, and intolerant. Perhaps that subset is larger than I imagined, but I still can’t imagine that it is a characteristic of all atheists.

    To those who give a damn… I think a point that may or may not have been made well in the book but seems not to be taken into consideration in the comment thread is that Chris & Sheril seem to be saying that while anti-scientific bigots may be the biggest part of the problem, the solution is to overwhelm them numerically by making a better case than they do to everyone else. You don’t even have to address their bad thinking if they are the only ones who take it seriously. The problem arises when there is enough vacuum of scientific understanding and knowledge in the general population that the anti-scientific appeals from creationists, anti-vacciners & anti-global warmers sounds reasonable to everybody else.

    It seems the anti-accomodationist group sees one strategy and one strategy only, and that is to attack, attack, attack the crazies. I think that on numerous levels the strategy of creating an engaged and informed general public deserves the lion’s share of our focus.

  26. Richard Feynman was one incredibly effective teacher and popularizer of science. I believe that in recent times his fame has even outgrown that of Sagan or many many others. One reason is because his language was much simpler than either Gould’s or Sagan’s. I have seen children living in villages in India and China who adore Feynman but who havn’t really heard of Sagan or Gould, mostly because Feynman’s “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman” and some other volumes provided the kind of simple and fun comprehension that they udnerstood. In India where I grew up I can vouch that Richard Feynman is probably the most popular scientist and popularizer of science ever. I have myself grown up on a staple diet of Feynman, and believe that it is very important to note the simplicity of his language and presentation, traits that made him very effective. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind for those who want to popularize science.

  27. Paul

    “PZ Myers acknowledges exactly what Mooney argues, but PZ claims the choice of topic to illustrate the point is odd, and the solution Mooney presents is bad… what is exactly the point you are refuting, Mr. Mooney?”

    At this point, it looks like the message is “we’re being misrepresented, buy our book”. It’s easier to go with this line of argument when you refuse to actually engage with your critics’ points.

    Oddly enough, most of PZ’s points of contention (e.g. “offers no solutions”, “doesn’t support the conclusion that scientists are the problem”, etc.) are also contained in other reviewers’ reviews, such as that of Dr. Free-Ride, which Mooney has posted about and linked as an example of “good reviews”. Yet somehow the conclusion is supposed to be that he has no sort of personal vendettas here.

  28. foolfodder

    I thought I’d note that whilst this discussion is going on, over here in the UK on Channel 4 there’s a program called Inside Nature’s Giants, which includes contributions from Richard Dawkins talking about evolution.

  29. Tulse

    “Chris has a completely legitimate point. Astronomers, in fact, don’t have a very good definition of planet.”

    The whole point of the debate was to develop a good, unambiguous definition of planet. We have one now, and Pluto doesn’t make the cut.

    “in the broader context things were different, and folks had an emotional attachment to Pluto.
    Popular emotion wasn’t running against a clear scientific issue, and the intrinsic fuzziness of “planet” vs “big rock” leaves room for value judgements.””

    Value judgements by whom? I really don’t understand what the alternative was. M&K hint that a preferable solution would have been to allow all the Pluto-size Kuiper Belt object in the planet club, but honestly, would suddenly having the potential for 20 or 30 or 50 “planets” be any less culturally jarring? Should astronomers not be allowed to distinguish between the relatively few large bodies in the main part of the solar system and all the small icy snowballs that congregate in the Kuiper Belt, even if the processes involved in their history are very different from those other large bodies? Should scientists have simply abandoned the term “planet” as too culturally laden, and used another term (say, “schmlanet”) to indicate gravitationally-spherical objects that have cleared their orbits around the Sun? Honestly, what would have been the “culturally sensitive” solution?

    And why should scientists care about the cultural aspects at all?

  30. Stu

    Philip, all of this is assuming that the anti-science forces intend to communicate clearly, or fairly, or even at all. Calmly attempting to reframe what “theory” means doesn’t really help when you’re up against a horde of Gish-galloping drones, or willfully obtuse people avoiding any meaningful discussion of religion, falling back to “other ways of knowing” over and over and over again, as for example Silver Fox has been doing on Pharyngula for months now — without being banned, I might add.

  31. Mark F.

    Regarding the Pluto business- what I know about it is based pretty much entirely on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s account of the IAU meeting in “The Pluto Files” where it was decided to demote it from planet status. So what I took away from the episode is that astronomers didn’t really have a clear, concise definition of what exactly makes a heavenly body a planet. In fact, it seemed to me that at that meeting, they specifically set out to come up with a definition that would result in kicking Pluto out of the planet club. They could just have easily come up with a definition that would have ensured that Pluto remained IN the planet club. But they didn’t. I think when Chris and Sheril say that this was in large part “a matter of semantics”, I have to agree with them. Also, having now read the Pluto section of the book that is linked to above, I think that PZ’s claim that Chris and Sheril use the Pluto story to argue that science should in some way be subject to referendum is simply not correct.

    For the record, however, I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson- Pluto shouldn’t be classified as a planet.

  32. Crap… two typos.

    someones -> someone’s

    “the very think Dawkins is arguing against” -> “the very thing…”

    I’m having a bad day for catching those things on the first read-through…
    And now it looks like I forgot to hit ‘submit’ for my corrections comment. Damn it!

  33. Just a note; Dawkins was full of praise for “The Demon-Haunted World”. His review of the book is the first one on the first page, and he says he wishes he had penned the volume. One wonders how Sagan might have responded to Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”. I peraonally think that although he might have disapproved of specific tactics and thoughts in the book, he would still have given it high praise.

  34. Tulse @14: Scientists use “planet” in a particular way …

    And what way is that?

    Nevermind, I’ll answer it for you. The definition of planet used to exclude Pluto, was defined DURING the decision to exclude Pluto and was written by the IAU to specifically exclude Pluto. Before that, scientists DID NOT use the word “planet” in any particular way. It was as ambiguous as all get out.

  35. Sven DiMilo

    Well, it’s the fact that “buy our book” has been the message all along that makes this all so surreal.

  36. Tulse

    “They believe that the huge disconnect between science and society, which has resulted in increasing use of anything but science to address science related questions, is in part a result of scientists refusal to adjust their precise technical language to allow popular understanding.”

    This is a Poe, right? You honestly think that scientists should change their PRECISE TECHNICAL LANGUAGE in response to the public?! Really?!?! That is, it is not that scientists should EXPLAIN their technical concepts better, provide a clearer account in simple language, but they should actually RENAME them? They should do something we don’t demand of, say, mechanics, or doctors, or plumbers, or pilots, or any other domain that has a technical vocabulary? And it is THIS issue which has played a significant role in the public’s current dismissal of science?

    Really?

  37. Also, The Demon-Haunted World is a very different book from The God Delusion. Unlike TGD it is really a clarion cry against pseudoscience and not particularly against religion. And it is as much a battle hymn for skepticism and wonder as it is a reprobation of pseudoscience. The two books are not really comparable. Sagan is a resounding echo of what Feynman once said. Behold the majesty of the universe!:

    “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the “why?” It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

    This is what Sagan was getting at.

  38. Philip H: You have just provided the most concise illustration of one o fthe problems Sheril and Chris are trying to address. And so as we’re all clear, I’ll use some precise language here – They believe that the huge disconnect between science and society, which has resulted in increasing use of anything but science to address science related questions, is in part a result of scientists refusal to adjust their precise technical language to allow popular understanding.

    Put another way (if that wasn’t clear enough) – the more scientists cling to “thier” version of what a word means, the less likely the scientist will be to influence policy decisions that need scientific guidance. Language matters.

    Philip you hit the nail right on the head. I cannot begin to tell people how often I am asked for an “interpretative summary” of my technical abstracts. And how do you write one? You write it assuming that a member of the public, with no science background, will be reading it. These interpretations are even used by Congress, so they’re not some trivial exercise. Every single time we write up progress reports, annual evaluations, etc etc we need to consider who will be reading the document. By and large, it will be the public, and as such we need write the documents accordingly.

    That journals do not require authors to write an “interpretative summary” which could be understood by the public is beyond me, especially the open access journals.

  39. Stu

    It seems that there’s an awful lot of projection going on here.

    “That’s attacking only the subset of atheists who are also bitter, arrogant, and intolerant.”

    Ah, yes… a very constructive way of discussion.

    “It seems the anti-accomodationist group sees one strategy and one strategy only, and that is to attack, attack, attack the crazies.”

    Wait. We’re discussing a book that pretty much tells anti-accomodationist atheists to sit down and shut up, but it’s THEM that sees one strategy and one strategy only?

  40. Tulse @37: You honestly think that scientists should change their PRECISE TECHNICAL LANGUAGE in response to the public?! Really?!?!

    No, it should be necessarily supplemented. Excuses to not do so, if requested, would seem to be nothing aside of sheer laziness. Government researchers provide these interpretative summaries all the time.

  41. Tulse

    “The definition of planet used to exclude Pluto, was defined DURING the decision to exclude Pluto and was written by the IAU to specifically exclude Pluto. Before that, scientists DID NOT use the word “planet” in any particular way. It was as ambiguous as all get out.”

    Yes, and they came up with the definition they did because Pluto does seem different than the other historical planets (its orbit is not cleared of other objects), and (which seems to continually be overlooked in this discussion) any non-ad-hoc definition that would include Pluto had the potential to include tens if not hundreds of other Kuiper Belt objects, which would have also radically changed the traditional view of what a planet is.

    No one is denying that there was no formal definition of planet prior to the IAU meeting. That’s not really the issue. The question is, instead, should the definition developed have been jury-rigged to include Pluto solely due to the emotional attachment of the public. I think that’s a silly and potentially dangerous notion.

    To give some historical context, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a psychiatric disorder. This was very controversial at the time. Should they have bowed to public opinion on this “semantic” issue, and left it in?

  42. If we ask the question, “Who have been the most popular and effective popularizers of evolution in recent times?”, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins are really the only names that come to mind. Gould’s books are actually more sophisticated in a way but Dawkins’ have the enormous advantage that they are easier to read. No wonder they are hugely popular in developing countries, especially among schoolchildren. That is one of the important things about writing popular science; it can be incredibly poetic and eloquent, but it also has to be accessible in order to reach a large audience, a condition that most of Dawkins’ books on evolution eminently satisfy.

  43. Stu

    Okay TomJoe, how would we supplement “theory” to have the correct meaning for the layperson?

  44. koan0215

    Why are Mooney and Kirshenbaum even fighting with Myers? Why can’t the public face of science include firebreathers like Myers as well as people who think of themselves more like ambassadors of scientific thinking? It seems to me like the current state of science literacy demands that we use all of the tools in our toolbox. Maybe Mooney and Kirshenbaum actually take this line in the book (which I can’t wait to read) and Myers is overreacting, but at some point shouldn’t everybody remember that they are on the same team?

  45. koan0215

    Okay TomJoe, how would we supplement “theory” to have the correct meaning for the layperson?

    I guess by putting the correct definition at their feet, over and over again. I WISH I saw more people in the media doing this. Defenders of science are going to have to repeat themselves alot in order to get this stuff out there.

  46. Screechy Monkey

    smijer @ 26: “It seems the anti-accomodationist group sees one strategy and one strategy only, and that is to attack, attack, attack the crazies.”

    I have the opposite impression.

    I don’t see the anti-accomodationists claiming that the accomodationists are “hurting the cause” by using the tactics that they do.

    I don’t see the anti-accomodationists telling the accomodationists to decline all comment and allow others to do the talking, as Matt Nisbet (with Chris and Sheril’s support) did in telling PZ and Dawkins to shut up and let the NCSE answer questions about the Expelled affair.

    I don’t see anti-accomodationists criticizing the very act of criticism itself, as Chris did in lamenting that Jerry Coyne had the temerity to write a critical book review in The New Republic.

    Obviously the anti-accomodationists have fired back on their critics, as PZ has done in his review of UA. But in general the argument seems to me to be that the accomodationists are the ones insisting that their way is the only way that works, and that everyone should either follow their way or stay out of the conversation. The anti-accomodationists obviously believe that their way is better, but I don’t hear them demanding that everyone should be an anti-accomodationist.

    Indeed, I’ve seen many comments here on the Intersection, and elsewhere note that anti-accomodationists may be a useful “bad cop” to the accomodationists’ “good cop,” and that the antis are helping to move the Overton Window on these subjects. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chris or Sheril address this point.

  47. It seems that there’s an awful lot of projection going on here.
    “That’s attacking only the subset of atheists who are also bitter, arrogant, and intolerant.”
    Ah, yes… a very constructive way of discussion.

    Tu quoque much?

    Please remember that this was about supporters of “cracker-gate”. So, yes – in that context it was about as constructive as I could personally manage. I did several edits to get away from the natural tendency toward profanity in describing the habit of mind that leads one to lionize that sort of conduct.

  48. Davo

    For those who may have gotten the impression that Richard Dawkins is some kind of bigot who is against every single religious person, I would strongly urge you to watch his documentary “The Root of all Evil” in which he interviews and strongly agrees with of lot of clergy and other religious people. For instance in an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, he says that the pastor’s views about the compatibility of science and religion are like “music to his ears”.

  49. James T

    Additionally, it seems to me Unscientific America is only hurting the science cause by attacking “new atheists”. It is simply giving the Intelligent Designists, Creationists, and other nutjobs ‘talking points’.

    Now, they can point to the book and say “Hey look, atheists aren’t scientific!” or they can read the book and get “Oh yeah, I always KNEW those atheists were unscientific”.
    This is obviously not the point of the book, but a criticism of atheists in a book that is criticizing anti-scientific ideology would certainly link the two in a Creationist’s mind.

  50. DS

    I disagree that criticism of someone’s actions, words, or published opinions–in this case not only well-publicized but specifically engineered to attract publicity–is the same as “attacking them personally.” If you reject this notion, than any kind of criticism is a “personal attack,” and the term has no real meaning. It strikes me that people who denounce any criticism of their actions as “personal attacks” are, at the very least, pretty thin-skinned.

    @ Sven DiMilo:

    Well, it’s the fact that “buy our book” has been the message all along that makes this all so surreal.

    ?? What, exactly, is ‘surreal’ about a professional writer encouraging potential readers to buy his book? What is truly ‘surreal’ is that we now live in a world where people feel so entitled that they see nothing odd about attacking an author because he did not instantaneously respond to all of their individual grievances and questions.

    I guess Chris doesn’t mind, since he chooses to maintain this blog. But I can’t for one second imagine Carl Sagan or SJ Gould putting up with it. This is one particular aspect of internet culture that I don’t see as progress…

  51. @45 Sreechy Monkey

    I don’t mean to single out a single comment here, but I found these remarks illustrative of the “attack-only” mind-set I so often encounter…. from earlier in the thread, both from the same comment:

    “”Cosmos reached 500 million people globally. This is “preaching to the choir”?”””
    Yes. As Myers says, the right-wing anti-science people, who NEED the science, are not going to watch science shows.

    Cosmos preached to the choir because it didn’t directly confront the anti-science proponents. Mooney is right – it preached to the vacuum of the larger population who are the targets of anti-science propaganda routinely. And they ain’t the choir.

    You cannot unite science and religion. They are two different ways of thinking. Science is a rational way of thinking, and religion is an irrational way.
    We do not accomodate irrational thinking in every day life. Do we allow people to drive 100 mph on the sidewalks, which is an irrational choice? No.
    Why should we tolerate irrational thought when it happens to concern the existence of a deity?

    This seems to be the common theme behind anti-accomodationist thinking. Mooney says he wants to unite people behind common goals, even if they have some uncommon habits of thinking, the way Sagan did. The reaction is “no, we must have purity. You cannot unite, yoiu cannot unite.”

    Not just “you cannot unite”, but also “you cannot tolerate”… Take a step back. You know, what Eric Roehner did is comparable to driving on the sidewalk. And what Ken Ham does is pretty damn bad… but the offense of someone like Ken Miller – you know having room in his epistemological system for non-empirical thought… I don’t know. I think that it is tolerable.

    I think that the perspectives I’m using these comments to illustrate are pretty widely held, and I think that they are unconstructive and deserve some criticism.

  52. Sven DiMilo

    “Surreal” was a poor choice of words, I suppose, but I was referring to this brand-new phenomenon of book-authors responding to critical reviews at length and in detail in near real time. The authors have commercial motivations that the reviewers do not. Personally, I tend to be highly skeptical of the statements of people who are trying to sell me something, and in my opinion M&K’s actions and writings over the past few days have the appearance of prioritizing sales over substance. That’s all I meant.

  53. Matt Penfold

    Chris has a completely legitimate point. Astronomers, in fact, don’t have a very good definition of planet

    This is not true.

    It was true, only a short while back. As we began to know more about the Solar System astronomers came to realise that calling Pluto a planet led to all kinds of problems, as there are non planet objects in the Solar System bigger than Pluto. The problems were compounded in recent year astronomers began to find planets orbiting other starts. They realised they were calling things planets, but there was no consensus on what a planet is.

    So Astronomers decided to rectify the problem. They were open. They said, look we use the term planet, is it not about time we established some criteria as to what planet is. This they did. It seems that upset someone people who feel the American public should be the ones to determine what is and is not a planet. Quite why only American public opinion should matter is not clear, although the fact only American public opinion should matter hints at a belief in American Exceptionalism.

    The public in other countries do not seem to have been upset by the re-classification of Pluto. Given the lack of outcry in other English speaking countries it seems hard to blame scientists for the outcry of the American public. An American scientist is as well equipped to explain the situation to a British, Canadian or Australian audience as she is to an American one. If an American audience is less receptive to what a Canadian, British or Australian scientist have to say then that does not strike me as being a problem with the scientists.

    If we accept that the American public was less receptive to the re-classification of Pluto then I am not at all convinced scientists are to blame. The message was the same in English speaking world, often given by the same people. If that message was accepted in most of the English speaking world, then it is not the message that is at fault.

  54. — We’re discussing a book that pretty much tells anti-accomodationist atheists to sit down and shut up, but it’s THEM that sees one strategy and one strategy only? Stu

    I haven’t read the book, though I doubt that’s what it says. The “shut up” stuff is a smokescreen.

    “Accomodationism” is a big problem, that is the word in the context of this discussion. I haven’t read anyone here, except a lone advocate of something like creationism, advocate science accommodating its methods and formal publications or public school science classes to anything but science. Using the word in that sense is clearly false in this discussion.

    It’s not accommodation it’s realism that’s needed. Like it or not, you live in a society where the public’s perception of science matters, certainly in terms of funding and the support of public education. For those things, the public acceptance of science is as important as the integrity of science. If you don’t think so, you can do without both and see how far you get when your funding gets cut off. For now the courts have protected science education, but that’s not a perpetual guarantee. If McCain had won the election, you’d probably see another Alito or Roberts in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee today. If not someone worse.

    The new atheists haven’t even been told to shut up as much as they’ve been told to wise up. They are arrogant and presumptuous in thinking they’ve got a lock on science, which they don’t. I think this should be about the last chance they’re given to get it.

    I don’t think there’s any good to come out of talking to the new atheists. They’re the kind of loud cult in which everyone is trying to out do the next one in outrageousness and zealous assertions of their ideology. Those kinds of groups are useless, they are totally self-involved and don’t really care about anything but their glorious, always-in-the-future utopia. Which never comes.

    New atheists need to be isolated and ignored. People who want to do something practical in the areas of science funding and education should make it clear they aren’t associated with them, they shouldn’t answer for their losing PR, they should disavow it and the new atheists who insist on it.

  55. NewEnglandBob

    Framists vs. ani-framists.

  56. —- For those who may have gotten the impression that Richard Dawkins is some kind of bigot who is against every single religious person, Davo

    I’m sure he meant “delusion” in only the nicest, possible way. And all the other nice, universal things he’s said about religion and the religious.

  57. Mark F.

    I’d like to second what koan0215 says in #45.

  58. but at some point shouldn’t everybody remember that they are on the same team?

    My understanding is that the whole dispute is over whether religious people are allowed to play for the scientific team while still advocating for their religion.

  59. foolfodder

    My understanding is that the whole dispute is over whether religious people are allowed to play for the scientific team while still advocating for their religion.

    My understanding is that both sides agree that religious people are as capable of doing science as non-religious people.

  60. —- Defenders of science are going to have to repeat themselves alot in order to get this stuff out there. Koan

    I seem to recall during the “framing” conflagration at the old blog, more than one person stuck their nose in the air and said they weren’t going to lower themselves to talk in a way the general public would require.

    But you’ve got to talk the language the people understand. That’s one of the hardest things about talking about national health insurance with people, they don’t understand the language so they don’t understand the issues. It was an issue on a non-profit board I’m on, the people on the board understood the lingo but they wanted public support and when they started using that language, they turned off a lot of potential supporters.

    Other than a direct insult, about the fastest way to lose peoples’ support is by using language they don’t understand. Eventually they’ll take that to be a direct insult too.

    If you’re going to insult people or to use language you don’t have any reason to expect they’ll understand, you should save your breath.

  61. My understanding is that both sides agree that religious people are as capable of doing science as non-religious people.

    I hear that said by both sides, but I get the impression that each side means something different by it. Frankly, I’m not sure what Coyne & friends mean when they say it, because in the same breath they are adamant that science and religion are wholly incompatible, and that if you are an honest and intelligent person, you’ll quit being religious as soon as you become a True Believer in science. Or something like that. It’s clear that they don’t see religious people as good ambassadors for science who can play on “our team”. It’s clear that they see someone desecrating religious symbols and bragging about it on the internet as a good way to reach people for science, but that they consider embracing pro-science religious people for “our team” as something worthy of denigrating by naming them “faitheist” or “wormtongue” or whatever the contest-winner’s entry ends up being.

  62. Screechy Monkey

    Anthony McCarthy @ 55: “The new atheists haven’t even been told to shut up as much as they’ve been told to wise up. They are arrogant and presumptuous in thinking they’ve got a lock on science, which they don’t. I think this should be about the last chance they’re given to get it.”

    And if they don’t “get it” — then what?

  63. debunk

    “Chris is an atheist. We’re quite sure he did not attack himself in the book”

    This is not an argument. People can attack the group they belong to. There’s even a popular term for that, it’s called back-stabbing.

    “whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter”

    Yes, it is.

    “Myers never lets his readers in on what’s actually being argued.”

    Then explain what you’re arguing. This is not a rebuttal of his statement.

    “On reaching people through television (Cosmos) and the mass medium of film (Contact), Sagan vastly outdistances Dawkins”

    Please explain how Cosmos is relevant in any way whatsoever in this context.

    “We encourage folks to consult our book”

    How about you present your claims right here on your blog, since that’s where the current discussion’s going on? Oh, wait, I forgot, you just want to peddle your book.

  64. koan0215

    If you’re going to insult people or to use language you don’t have any reason to expect they’ll understand, you should save your breath.

    Certainly the terms of the definitions need to be stated in accessible language. But even those accessible definitions require constant repetition to seep into the public’s mind.

    New atheists need to be isolated and ignored.

    I really hate the term new atheists. I disagree. There is a place for ridicule in this debate, it just shouldn’t be the only vehicle people who speak for science use. I think many Creationists and IDists are deserving of ridicule, and I think that ridicule can be effective. Problems occur when ridicule is applied where it shouldn’t be. There are cases where people like PZ and Dawkins have gone way too far in lumping everyone with any religious convictions whatsoever together with young earthers and other crazies.

    My understanding is that both sides agree that religious people are as capable of doing science as non-religious people.

    I’ve never seen Myers claim that religious people can’t do good science. In fact he often goes out of his way to say that he thinks they can. He does insult their religious beliefs in pretty offensive ways. This is fine, and can be quite entertaining, but it doesn’t make friends. I really like Pharyngula, I’ve read it almost every day for years, but it can sometimes be a bit over the top.

  65. andy

    Sure, the demotion of Pluto goes against history and culture going back to 1930. On the other hand we know more about the structure of the solar system now than we did back in 1930. Furthermore it was demoted for much the same reason that Ceres, Pallas, Juno, Vesta and a few others were demoted from planetary status, which is history and culture that dates back to the 19th century, rather earlier than the discovery of Pluto.

    Should scientists have promoted the picture of Venus as a greenhouse hellworld when there is a long history and culture of depicting it as a paradise planet (including by noted Christian apologist C.S. Lewis)? Wouldn’t want to disrupt that because of a change in our view of reality, would we?

  66. koan0215

    In the above comment where I say “this is fine” I should have said “this is his right”, as that is what I meant.

  67. Making the science / religion debate a road block to the solution of our very biggest problems… global warming and the fact that most of politics is chasing the goal of infinite economic growth… is one way to ensure that ensure that no substantive change will ever take place.

  68. Stu

    “Making the science / religion debate a road block to the solution of our very biggest problems… global warming and the fact that most of politics is chasing the goal of infinite economic growth… is one way to ensure that ensure that no substantive change will ever take place.”

    Actually, since abuse of the environment and infinite economic growth is often backed up (whether overtly or not) by religious (whether dogmatic or not) arguments, I have to disagree.

    Look at the pseudo-scientific claptrap climate denialists trudge out over, and over, and over.

  69. Jewbacca

    whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics.

    Well, you’re halfway there. It is a question of scientific nomenclature, like what is a species. But you have the question all wrong. The question isn’t “is Pluto a planet?” The question is “what is a planet?” As others have already pointed out, nobody bothered to define “planet” until the IAU convention. It wasn’t to decide if Pluto should get kicked out of the planet club. It was to actually define the term “planet” in a meaningful way, since this is starting to matter with all the TNOs and extra-solar planets being discovered. Also, your use of the 5% of astronomers voting on it statistic is disingenuous at best. You do realize the vast majority of astronomers don’t do anything remotely planetary, right? You would prefer, say, helioseismologists and galactic astronomers to tell the planetary astronomers and planetary geologists what terminology to use in their fields?

    Now, I know this is probably futile (I’ve never commented here before, but I’ve read enough comment threads to know you almost never respond), but I really want to know what you think the correct solution would be. Should the “dwarf planet” category not have been created, adding at least four (Eris, Ceres*, Haumea, and Makemake) – I’d say probably 8+ (add Charon and Quaoar, possibly Vesta, Varuna, Orcus, and Ixion) – new planets**? Because I have the suspicion if that was done you simply would have written your chapter about how out-of-touch scientists were mean to schoolkids by making them memorize all these new planets. Or do you suggest that while purely scientific questions should be left to science, scientific nomenclature must avoid actually being defined if this would offend the sensibilities of a significant portion of the American public.

    Also, what Matt Penfold said @5:17.

    * Ceres was actually designated a planet once upon a time, then had the status revoked when a whole bunch of similar objects in similar orbits were discovered. A lot like Pluto, only quicker. I’m sure it was merely an oversight on your part not mentioning this while quoting “no takebacks.”
    ** FWIW, I would have been perfectly happy with this solution. It’d give me an excuse to babble to everyone about all these new planets — new to them, and in some cases new to us. Plus, poor 1996TL66 might finally have a name, then.

  70. DS

    Sven,

    Maybe I jumped on you to quickly. I think we agree more than we disagree, but I’m not sure it’s Chris’s fault. I guess it’s just the world we live in now. Frankly, I’m not sure that this instant gratification compulsion we all have now is very healthy–particularly when it comes to stuff like this. It used to be that an author couldn’t expect to–and wouldn’t be able to–respond to critics until people had read the book, reviews had been published in print, etc.

  71. Carmen

    I read the excerpt on Pluto. Are you saying that the astronomers should have held a vote on a scientific fact, to see what popular opinion is?

  72. Heraclides

    (I have read the book: haven’t the budget to buy a copy and no library out this way will have it for some time.)

    re 1: Surely it’s simple Chris: that you directed comment at a particular person’s efforts, rather than just the underlying issues, of which their efforts were only one example?

    re 2: You seem to be contradicting yourself with whether Pluto is a “planet” is not purely a scientific matter and later Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a “planet” since 1930) and culture–which the scientists involved in Pluto’s demotion were pretty insensitive to. As I understand it, it was a matter of consistency within science.

    re 3: Myers was reviewing as he reads. It might not be your preferred style, but it is done. I think that this was is approach is clear, too. This approach has it’s good and bad points. The good being it follows how a reader sees the book; the writer “sees” the whole and can subconsciously think of material has yet to read and may even never think to mentally link together when they do encounter it. For me this, point is neither here nor there.

    re 4: I’d like to start by making an aside that you refer to Myer’s popularity as a later criticism, but he is really only known in a relatively small sphere compared to the likes of Sagan and even Dawkins. I would suggest you re-read Myer’s words more closely, with emphasis on “entirely”: Myers asks, “Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society?”–but why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be the greater forces, plus the detachment of many of the scientists. He says as much as you have…? Here, you’re not countering him, you’re agreeing with him. (To be fair, adding ‘also’ after ‘but’ would have emphasised it more clearly, but the ‘entirely’ is already saying what you want to, isn’t it?)

  73. KZT

    Reasoned arguments aside, can I call a spade a spade and say that the book was utter toilet rinsed down with super-happy-funtime-gee-can’t we-all-just-get-along apology from a couple of kids who’ve let a book deal give themselves delusions of competence.

    @John Kwok- I think the “w” in your name is superfluous and weren’t you banned from PZ’s site? Do tell us why. :D

  74. davidm

    “Certainly we do directly mention Myers. ”
    Then it’s personal. You mentioned a “person”. This is why the word has the word “person” in it.

    So mentioning a “person” is the same as a personal attack on the very same person? Are you one of P.Z.’s Kool-Aid drinkers?

    LOL. This is great.

  75. Interesting that you frame this as a battle: “PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America”. Where’s the bridge-building?

  76. John Kwok

    @ Deen –

    There’s no interest in “bridge – building”, especially from Myers. Are you kidding? Have to assume you are.

  77. Davo

    I never said he has only good things to say about religion. Have you seen the film or the interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury? First see, then say.

  78. DS

    To all the people who keep criticizing Chris for ‘peddling’ his book, let me explain something:

    Chris is a professional writer. His income depends on things like book sales. For him, writing about science isn’t–as it is for many bloggers–just a hobby. His blog is, primarily, a vehicle for attracting a wider audience for his work. If people do not buy his books, he doesn’t get paid, and therefore can’t do important things, like eat. If Chris were to provide all of the content in his book on his blog… well, then obviously there’d be no reason to read his book. Which would get in the way of his eating.

    Chris has even gone so far as to provide a sample of the book to help people decide whether they want to buy it. That’s more than many authors do.

    Nobody’s insisting anyone has to buy the book in order to hang around here and comment. But please understand how unreasonable it is to keep complaining about the fact that Chris wants people to buy his book. While he obviously believes deeply in what he does, he isn’t doing it pro bono. If we didn’t support journalists and science writers by buying their books, we wouldn’t have any journalists or science writers.

  79. John Kwok

    @ DS –

    Your comments on Chris’s right to publicize his and Sheril’s book needed to be said. Thanks for doing so. Moreover, he isn’t the only one who does this; Phil Plait and Carl Zimmer, among others, promote their books too.

  80. Peter Beattie

    This is a very strange post. To start with, I don’t understand why you’d want to make it a “rebuttal”. That to me seems to reinforce an us-v-them attitude, which arguably is helping to divide instead of uniting. But perhaps more importantly, if you believe that PZ got a couple of things wrong, fair enough; but why focus on proving him wrong when you can just as well spend your time expanding and clarifying your arguments? You might want to make the case that that’s what you did, but I think the facts wouldn’t support you there. A few details will have to suffice to try to show what I mean.

    1. As for the “personal” issue, you kind of have a point when you say that PZ didn’t give any quotes to back up his interpretation. But perhaps tellingly, neither do you. Oh, just in: PZ’s reply to your rebuttal. He actually can back up his interpretation, and you have some serious egg on your face.

    2. The most charitable thing I can say about your Pluto excerpt is that it’s pretty incoherent and bumbling. Just look at your central claim:

    And yet today the United States is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, refuses to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of where our species came from; is in dangerous retreat from childhood vaccines, one of medicine’s greatest advances and the savior of a million lives per year by the end of the 20th century ; has become politically divided over the nature of reality itself, such that college educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and human caused ; and stands on the verge of allowing us to fall behind other nations, like India and China, in the race to lead the world in science in the 21st century.

    Just like PZ, I fail to see, because you don’t explain, what the Pluto affair has to do with all this. For something that is supposedly “deeply illustrative” of the divide described in the quote, you certainly fail epically even to spell out the connection to Pluto.

    Then, as if that could somehow settle anything, you say, “Myers takes the wrong message from the opening anecdote.” Now, anyone who knows anything about writing should be aware that blaming a failure in communication on the reader should be the absolute last thing you do. (Incidentally, the philosophy of science would teach you the exact same thing. I have made that point about “philosophical illiteracy” in more detail elsewhere.)

    3. You say, “Yet Myers never lets his readers in on what’s actually being argued.” And neither do you take the opportunity to point out even one single thing that PZ could profitably have seized upon. At the very least, that kind of thing doesn’t make you look good.

    4. What, really, have you got to offer in terms of support for your designation of Sagan as “the greatest science communicator of modern times”? You can’t, even after a year’s labour on the subject, produce numbers as to whether his books or even his television shows were more popular than Dawkins’s, which you seem to believe is an important point. You have nothing to offer to counter PZ’s actual argument expressing skepticism about your account, except a rhetorical question—which one can only hope you’re not under the illusion of thinking it an argument.

    But perhaps most importantly, you don’t seem to have read your Sagan very well. He could be just as incisive in his treatment of religion as Dawkins has ever been. Witness, for example, “The Dragon in My Garage”, a painfully obvious swipe at religion: “The only thing you’ve really learned … is that something funny is going on inside my head.” Or have a look at “Can We Know the Universe?”, where he talks about “weak-minded theologians”.

    Maybe Sagan generally gives the impression of being a little more conciliatory, where Dawkins relishes a lively, even adversarial discussion—and for perfectly good reasons, one might add. But then Dawkins is a supreme example of crystal-clear writing; with him, there’s nary a moment when you even suspect that you didn’t get exactly what he wanted you to. And when you say that Dawkins is no Sagan, one has to add, unfortunately, that you aren’t even a Dawkins.

  81. Michael Neville

    The theists and their lickspittles, the accommodationists, complaint about “new atheists” is that we’ve come out of the closet. The theists don’t like people questioning their beliefs and actually asking for evidence of the existence of deities. Theists get annoyed when it’s pointed out that actual, physical evidence for any god is non-existent. The accommodationists’ is “oh noes, yer upsetting the poor, persecuted theists who would be happy to believe in sciency stuff like evolution if only you ‘new atheists’ would shut up.”

    As for the “is Pluto a planet?” thing, who really cares? Why didn’t Mooney and Kirshenbaum look at a real controversy, like anti-vaxers doing their best to promote the spread of disease or creationists trying to destroy scientific education? Those situations effect real people, unlike the reclassification of Pluto as a minor planet. But Mooney and Kirshenbaum didn’t want to upset people by pointing out the damage that anti-science is doing in the US, so they wrote about the non-issue of Pluto’s status.

  82. Jon

    I’m going to make one complaint on PZ Myers’ side. You have a passage, near the beginning of the book where you say:

    Meanwhile, many US religious believers are just as extreme [as the New Atheists]

    That’s a false equivalence if I’ve ever seen one. The religious right have been *far* more extreme than the New Atheists. Do we have to count the ways, under the Bush administration, where this was true? If I were a New Atheist I’d find this very annoying.

    I’m not a New Atheist, though. I think they comfortably fall under what Matthew Arnold called Philistinism: “The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own.”

    Associated with Philistinism, in addition to a smug, boorish way of relating, is a scorn for non-literal, non-materialist ways of thinking, which tends to fall under the category of the liberal arts (which is where Isaiah Berlin comes in handy: See the Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities: http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf ).

    Respect for conscience. Respect for meanings that aren’t literal or material. And not laughing and dripping scorn on things people take seriously as a matter of conscience (some of them due to peoples’ lack of education, which in many cases isn’t peoples’ fault, folks!). If that kind of attitude gets conflated with science, we’re in trouble.

  83. Disappointed

    I just browsed this book in my local bookstore for an hour and I have to honestly say I am disappointed. The arguments are not invalid and the fundamental problems that are noted are serious ones, but the book lacks gravitas and intellectual sophistication. The authors come across as intellectual lightweights in their arguments. I think this is a pity because I thought Mr. Mooney’s earlier volumes (which I have read) were both much more well-argued and intellectually sophisticated with a much more firm grounding in the basic issues. I especially did not think that the controversy over Pluto (with which the book opens) was a serious example of the rift between science and society.

    I have a request for all future popular science writers; please don’t turn your books into the “chick flicks” of popular science writing; basically valid arguments that are nonetheless rather flippantly and casually presented without regard for serious scholarly or intellectual substance and writing. Thank you.

  84. ndt

    Just admit you wrote a book that sucks. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Stephen King has written 10 or 15 crappy books and he’s still doing all right.

  85. ndt

    Also, part of being a published writer is getting bad reviews. It happens. It’s generally considered bad form to complain about bad reviews.

  86. José

    @DS
    Chris is a professional writer. His income depends on things like book sales. For him, writing about science isn’t–as it is for many bloggers–just a hobby. His blog is, primarily, a vehicle for attracting a wider audience for his work

    We know. The fact that he’s primarily an author doesn’t mean he can’t take the time to provide actual answers to criticism. Instead he continues to throw his hands in the air and say “That’s not what we said! Read the book” This response is especially inadequate in light of the fact it’s already been shown that he’s been dead wrong when he’s said this. His questionable behavior and evasiveness are huge red flags that scream that his book isn’t worth buying.

  87. Peter Beattie

    Oh, and one more thing about the level of Sagan scholarship on display so far. In “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”, he quite approvingly quotes Thomas Paine thusly:

    Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.

    Sounds damn close to “Root of All Evil” to me. And makes it quite preposterous, for my money, to try to enlist Sagan for the accommodationism side in the battle against the Fun Atheists. But, as always, YMMV.

  88. alkali

    DS, I don’t think the problem is so much the fact that Mooney is publicizing his book as it is the venue.

    If you want the readers coming over from Pharyngula to be convinced that your arguments in the book have merit, fine. Recap them here, and if they are compelling people will still want to read the book to see them fleshed out in more detail.

    If you don’t wan to give away too much because you want us to buy the book, fine. Let us non-paying readers go away with the impressions we’re getting from your and PZ’s blog, accept that many will be inclined to compare your vague, unsourced claims here unfavorably with the thoroughly-argued stance PZ buttressed with quotes from your book. But you don’t seem pleased with that outcome, judging by the effort you’re putting into trying to refute his review.

    This whole thing reminds me of reading long essays and paeans to the relationship between Harry and Hermione, except it’s as if Rowling decided not to laugh it off but to say “No, you can tell they’re just Platonic friends for this reason! And this one! And you’re overlooking this blatant hint that Ron likes Hermione! And that one! And that interaction between Harry and Hermione was totally innocent! How could you have interpreted it otherwise?”

  89. ndt

    Jon, we “new” atheists aren’t talking about matters of conscience, we’re talking about beliefs about matters of fact. If an adult actually believs that the earth is 6000 years old or that vaccines cause autism, then they deserve all the mocking scorn we can heap on them and more.

    I myself love art, literature, music, and the other humanities. What separates me from the religious is that I can tell the difference between fiction and reality.

  90. Jon

    ndt #89:

    You *think* you’re talking about “belief” and “matters of fact.” In many cases you don’t know what “the religious” (a generalizing term that covers a huge and diverse range of people) mean by “faith” and “belief,” nor do you care enough to check. You pour scorn on things you haven’t bothered to try to understand, and proudly flaunt your lack of patience with it.

    Sounds like a type of Philistinism to me. Maybe not the classic kind. Dawkins reads poetry. But I’d say it’s a type of Philistinism.

  91. Feynmaniac

    To go further on a point that has been raised here, I don’t see how Sagan can be considered conciliatory towards the religious. Here are just some quotes:

    -In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” [1987 CSICOP keynote address]

    -“Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal.”

    -“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.” [The Demon-Haunted World]

    -“If we’re capable of conjuring up terrifying monsters in childhood, why shouldn’t some of us, at least on occasion, be able to fantasize something similar, something truly horrifying, a shared delusion, as adults?” [ The Demon Haunted World]

    -“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” [The Demon Haunted World, my bold]

    – “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” [Pale Blue Dot]

    -“In a democracy, opinions that upset everyone are sometimes exactly what we need. …We should be teaching our children the scientific method and the Bill of Rights.”

    Sagan was an agnostic, but he hardly seemed like one who wanted to appease the religious.

  92. —- We know. The fact that he’s primarily an author doesn’t mean he can’t take the time to provide actual answers to criticism. José

    How come everyone’s forgetting Sheril? Chris is a co-author with her. They just launched a book, for crying out loud.

    Having been trolled by new atheists for three years, there isn’t any level of evidence that will satisfy them, they’ll just keep asking the same questions in different variations because the only thing they want to hear is what supports their opinions. If it was me, I’d finish these three promised posts and leave it at that because the new atheists are a tiny minority that can be counted on to not buy the book in large numbers. This is a political struggle, not one for the purity of science. Just like in winning elections, you go for where you can get the most success, you have to, that’s what it’s all about.

    — And if they don’t “get it” — then what? Screechy Monkey

    If the new atheists don’t get it, you’ve got to move on without them. Their program is irrational and damaging to getting a coalition which will support science. Science is too important to let it be damaged by the new atheist fad. Education is too important too.

    I don’t have much faith that they will ever get it, because getting something done in real life doesn’t seem to matter to them anywhere near as much as their self-congratulations on their superiority. People like that, you can’t have them in a coalition, it just doesn’t work.

  93. Here’s what Richard Lewontin said about a debate he and Sagan were asked to participate in with a creationist with a PhD from the Dept. of Zoology from the U. of Texas in 1964.

    Sagan and I drew different conclusions from our experience. For me the confrontation between creationism and the science of evolution was an example of historical, regional, and class differences in culture that could only be understood in the context of American social history. For Carl it was a struggle between ignorance and knowledge, although it is not clear to me what he made of the unimpeachable scientific credentials of our opponent, except perhaps to see him as an example of the Devil quoting scripture. Richard Lewontin: Billions and Billions of Demons NY Review Jan. 9 1997

    I think Lewontin’s understanding of the issue is a lot more realistic than Sagan’s was and Sagan’s was a lot more realistic than Dawkins’ is. Dawkins’ has always over simplified everything and this issue is a lot more complex than he thinks.

  94. Sagan Fan

    Umm…Sagan may have been tamer than Dawkins but The Demon-Haunted World was hardly an “accommodationist” book. In fact it lambasted religious thinking quite effectively and freely. Have you guys actually read the book? Also take a look at this last Charlie Rose interview of Sagan. Poor Sagan is weak from all the chemo but he still has sparkling vigor in his eyes and arguments. What a man.
    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/6174

  95. John Kwok

    Not having read “Unscientific America”, I will note that Chris and Sheril’s enthusiasm for Carl Sagan may be overstated. I would contend that as public intellectuals, both Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson have been far more important than Sagan ever was. In Gould’s case it is for two reasons; first as the most prominent critic pointing out how science has been – and may still be – misappropriated in reaffirming racial and ethnic discrimination (e. g. the controversy over the book “The Bell Curve” comes to mind), and second, as an early prominent critic of both E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and of evolutionary psychology, its “descendant”. Wilson of course may be better known now for his ongoing crusade on behalf of conservation biology and promoting public awareness in ensuring the preservation of as much of Earth’s biodiversity as possible.

  96. Jon

    ndt #89:

    As for the scare quote needs of the term “new atheists”, I think there’s a pretty clear case for distinguishing new from old. The new aren’t going around quoting Camus. They’re reading Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, just like the person who coined the term “New Atheist” said they were, reading PZ Myers, his spinoffs and each other on the intertubes, etcetera.

    Not to say that these phenomena sprang up on their own. There’s some very good current-events reasons why they sprang up the way they did. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t “New”…

  97. James T

    Religious views should not be accommodated. People have got to understand how ridiculous their religious views are, and saying: “Maybe you should do some more research. I can help you.” to these people is going to just get a “durrr evolutionists suck!!1″, or a “Evolutions a liez!!!”.
    It must be directly evident to these people that their views are ridiculous. If somebody thought there was a zombie-person inside a telephone, you’d recommend that they go to the hospital.” Why should we act all nice and pretend it’s ok when people think the same thing about a cracker?

  98. James T

    Additionally, it’s a shame, because this book would have been quite excellent if it concentrated more on the people who are actually kicking science out of society, IE the right wing loons, and criticized the “evil mean new atheists” less.

  99. Hank Roberts

    Okay, I have a proposal.

    PJ and Chris and Sheril should show the world (or at least the Americans)
    that they can agree on science while disagreeing on religion.

    Here’s how — write up why this is important.
    Together. Agree to leave your disagreements out of the science and explain it:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/health/policy/14fda.html?hp

    Bill Seeks to End Antibiotic Use to Spur Animal Growth

    By GARDINER HARRIS
    Published: July 13, 2009

    WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Monday that it would seek to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.

    In written testimony to the House Rules Committee, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle — done to encourage rapid growth — should cease. And Dr. Sharfstein said farmers should no longer be able to use antibiotics in animals without the supervision of a veterinarian…..
    —————

    No question PJ and Chris and Cheryl will agree it’s way beyond time for this.

    No question the proposed law will be assailed by elements trying to confuse
    people about the science.

  100. Jewbacca

    Are you sure you want to bring Camus into this, Jon? He sure didn’t think much of muddle-headed, wishy-washy refusal to inquire into matters or call nonsense nonsense for fear of the repercussions. From The Plague, which was this “new” atheist’s introduction to Camus: “There always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that 2+2=4 is punished by death. And the issue is not what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not 2+2=4.”

  101. Screechy Monkey

    McCarthy @93: “If the new atheists don’t get it, you’ve got to move on without them”

    And what does that mean? Right now, organizations like the NCSE are only plugging the accomodationist line anyway. What exactly would it look like if “you” moved on without the “New Atheists”? That people like you and Chris and Sheril would stop whining about them? Fat chance.

  102. ndt

    97. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    ndt #89:

    As for the scare quote needs of the term “new atheists”, I think there’s a pretty clear case for distinguishing new from old. The new aren’t going around quoting Camus. They’re reading Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, just like the person who coined the term “New Atheist” said they were, reading PZ Myers, his spinoffs and each other on the intertubes, etcetera.

    I don’t see who we’re reading as all that relevant. I became an atheist at age 7, long before I ever read Camus, which was long before I ever read Dawkins.

    If there’s anything “new” about the “new” atheists, it’s that we’re more outspoken.

  103. Jon

    I think Camus deals with the terrible questions with a hell of a lot more depth than Daniel Dennett does. I don’t disrespect atheism, I just don’t like philistinism. I don’t like questions of conscience treated with the level of respect you see on right wing radio.

  104. ndt

    59. smijer Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    but at some point shouldn’t everybody remember that they are on the same team?

    My understanding is that the whole dispute is over whether religious people are allowed to play for the scientific team while still advocating for their religion.

    Of course they’re allowed to. And people like PZ are allowed to point out the cognitive dissonance involved in doing such a thing.

  105. ndt

    104. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I think Camus deals with the terrible questions with a hell of a lot more depth than Daniel Dennett does. I don’t disrespect atheism, I just don’t like philistinism. I don’t like questions of conscience treated with the level of respect you see on right wing radio.

    Once again, whether a god exists or not isn’t about questions of conscience, it’s about questions of fact.

  106. Erasmussimo

    I’ve been plowing through this discussion and I’d like to develop further a point that I made in an earlier discussion concerning anger. First, I’ll note that there’s a lot of anger on the militant atheist side. I realize that some people rightly take offense at having anger imputed to them personally, so I want to make it clear that my comment is not directed at any individual; instead, I’ll simply note that the angriest rhetoric seems to emerge from that side of the debate. One of the more impressive comments here came from an English teacher who made some cogent criticisms and explicitly declared his anger over these issues.

    Here’s the irony: anger is irrational. The central claim of the militant atheists is that they want to promote the place of rationalism in our culture — and yet they retain irrational anger. My point here is not to attack militant atheists for hypocrisy, but instead to caution them that anger subverts their efforts. If you let your anger get ahold of you, then you can’t think calmly about how to solve the problem. I believe that the best way to advance the cause of rationalism is through calm reason, not angry confrontation. When people behave irrationally, screaming at them that they’re being irrational will not make them more rational.

    Yes, it’s frustrating. I can certainly understand the anger that some militant atheists feel. But social progress is a slow and frustrating process. You can’t accelerate it by venting your anger.

  107. ndt

    91. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    ndt #89:

    You *think* you’re talking about “belief” and “matters of fact.”

    Well, yes. The religious think some kind of god, gods, spirit, or spirit exists that made the universe and has some kind of influence on it. That’s a fact claim. I’ve been looking for evidence to support any one of those claims my whole adult life, and have yet to find any.

    If you’re not talking about fact claims, you’re no longer talking about religious beliefs.

  108. ndt

    107. Erasmussimo Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Yes, it’s frustrating. I can certainly understand the anger that some militant atheists feel. But social progress is a slow and frustrating process. You can’t accelerate it by venting your anger.

    The suffragists and civil rights activists of yesteryear would beg to differ.

  109. Erasmussimo

    If you’re not talking about fact claims, you’re no longer talking about religious beliefs.

    That confuses me. There’s a double negative here, which may be the source of my confusion. Are you saying that religious beliefs are factual in nature? I’m trying to differentiate the factual from the spiritual. That is, I would think that you could separate factual from spiritual and assign the factual to science and the spiritual to religion. Agreed?

  110. Jon

    #106. ndt: Once again, whether a god exists or not isn’t about questions of conscience, it’s about questions of fact.

    That assumes that the “existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration.” To be perfectly honest, here, I’m an agnostic when it comes God. But I’m sympathetic to philosophers like Karl Jaspers, who viewed religion as a matter of conscience, tradition, etc., not scientific rationality.

  111. Erasmussimo

    The suffragists and civil rights activists of yesteryear would beg to differ.

    I disagree with your interpretation of history. In both cases, the confrontational people made progress more difficult to achieve because they generated a backlash. It was the accomodationists who made things happen. Martin Luther King’s greatest and most powerful moment came when he concluded his “I Have A Dream” speech with these words:

    “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

    That’s not divisive. MLK doesn’t attack any group, he brings all groups together. His tent is the biggest tent possible. Read the speech. He doesn’t compromise his sense of urgency, nor does he balk at naming the injustices of the day. But he has no bad word to say about any person or group of persons. He attacks racism — but never mentions racists. He decries injustice — but accuses no person of perpetrating it. He attacks ideas, not people. Nor is there any anger in the speech. He says, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Even though he has personally suffered at the hands of racists, he refuses to let anger intrude into his greater purpose. That’s the kind of thinking that atheists need if they are to make progress.

  112. Paul

    “That confuses me. There’s a double negative here, which may be the source of my confusion. Are you saying that religious beliefs are factual in nature? I’m trying to differentiate the factual from the spiritual. That is, I would think that you could separate factual from spiritual and assign the factual to science and the spiritual to religion. Agreed?”

    Mary gave birth to the savior of mankind while a virgin. Truth claim or spiritual?

    Prayer heals the sick. Truth claim or spiritual?

    If you want to separate “factual” and “spiritual”, mainstream religions all fall under the former and Deism falls into the latter. Somehow, I don’t think the religious will accept that arrangement either.

  113. My breath is taken away by the amount of vitriol that has been exposed here.

    I’m with #45, koan0215, in that Kirshenbaum, Meyers and Mooney all think that the portrayal of science in society, and basic science education in the U.S., could be improved. Why not let them all advocate this common goal in their different styles without all this infighting? This, not more or less “accommodation”, is what will keep creationists chuckling for a while.

    #59, smijer, identified one of the reasons as that some atheist supporters of science will only allow other atheists to be true supporters of science. As an atheist scientist myself, I find this attitude (exemplified by a number of comments here) highly counterproductive. Especially if expressed in anger and confrontation, as discussed in comment #107 by Erasmussimo.

    This is not to say that I found PZ’s criticisms to be unfounded. They were, however, provocative, as possibly was this book in the other direction with respect to religion, and both points of view will now have to suffer the consequences of having offered ample fodder to true anti-science movements. On the other hand, the Salon.com review on the section devoted to science and Hollywood is the one I have forwarded to friends. Scicurious also wrote a balanced, and therefore more productive, review here: http://scienceblogs.com/neurotopia/2009/07/book_review_unscientific_ameri.php .

    So, let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater.

  114. Jewbacca

    Let’s recap, shall we?

    Jon: “I think there’s a pretty clear case for distinguishing new from old. The new aren’t going around quoting Camus.”

    Me: [quotes Camus to call Jon intellectually bankrupt and counter his silly distinction]

    Jon: “I think Camus deals with the terrible questions with a hell of a lot more depth than Daniel Dennett does. I don’t disrespect atheism, I just don’t like philistinism. I don’t like questions of conscience treated with the level of respect you see on right wing radio.”

    I am trying to make sense of this, but as best as I can tell, Jon just managed a Turing test FAIL. How is Dennet cogent to this? Am I missing some anti-atheist dog-whistle here? And when did I fall down the rabbit hole to la-la land where claims of what exists and how the world works are somehow “questions of conscience”?

  115. Jon

    If you’re not talking about fact claims, you’re no longer talking about religious beliefs.

    Are the arts “fact claims”? Is everything in Plato or Aristotle, “fact claims” in the sense that Newton’s laws are? I don’t think so. I think it’s similar with religion.

    Check out Karen Armstrong’s discussions of mythos and logos. She’s heavily influenced by Karl Jaspers.

  116. ndt

    110. Erasmussimo Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    If you’re not talking about fact claims, you’re no longer talking about religious beliefs.

    That confuses me. There’s a double negative here, which may be the source of my confusion. Are you saying that religious beliefs are factual in nature? I’m trying to differentiate the factual from the spiritual. That is, I would think that you could separate factual from spiritual and assign the factual to science and the spiritual to religion. Agreed?

    I agree one could do that, but it would involve a radical change to the meaning of the word “religion”. Currently all of the world’s religions involve beliefs about the nature of reality, and most involve belief in one or more divine entities.

  117. Wowbagger

    Are you saying that religious beliefs are factual in nature?

    It’s certainly what the religious believe, except when denying it to avoid criticism.

    Or are you implying that Christians do not believe that it is a fact that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, lived, preached, performed miracles, died and was resurrected in order for their sins to be forgiven?

    Do you think Orthodox Jews don’t believe it is a fact that their god wants them to adhere to the dietary and lifestyle restrictions and other tenets of their religious practice?

    How about Moslems? Do you not believe that Islamic suicide bombers consider it a fact that their sacrifice will be rewarded in heaven? Are you suggesting that they are strapping on bombs to kill themselves and as many others as they can if they don’t actually believe it will benefit them?

    All religions make factual claims, whether those someone can argue those claims can be considered ‘spiritual’ – whatever that even means in this context – or not.

  118. ndt

    114. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    If you’re not talking about fact claims, you’re no longer talking about religious beliefs.

    Are the arts “fact claims”?

    The arts aren’t religion.

    Is everything in Plato or Aristotle, “fact claims” in the sense that Newton’s laws are?

    Much of Aristotle’s work is, but not everything.

    I think it’s similar with religion.

    So religion doesn’t involve believing in a god or gods that interact with humanity? You must be talking about some strange form of religion I’ve never heard of that differs from the dictionary definition of the word “religion”.

  119. ndt

    Ultimately, of course, spirituality reduces to neurology, which is just extremely complicated chemistry. So in that sense spirituality is in the realm of science. But what is spiritual meaningful to people is a subjective human question.

  120. Jon

    The arts aren’t religion. And also, religion isn’t science.

  121. Jon

    But what is spiritual meaningful to people is a subjective human question.

    So what if it is “subjective.”

  122. Wowbagger

    But what is spiritual meaningful to people is a subjective human question.

    Exactly. Let’s say that I’m a person raised without any religion at all, and I wake up with a ‘spiritual inclincation’.

    So, I got to a Catholic Christian priest who gives me a bible and tells me about Jesus and how the two can be combined to give my life purpose – and the importance of the sacrament and confession and so forth.

    Then, being open-minded, I got to a Calvinist minister, who explains that I can’t really believe in his god unless that god has chosen that I should, and explains the other specific Calvinist concepts to me. I tell him that I’ve already been to a Catholic priest and he smiles and says ‘our way is better’.

    My quest continues: I go to a Imam, who gives me a Qu’ran and tells me about Muhammed, praying five times a day, Ramadan, and not eating pork; a rabbi, who tells me about the Shabbat restrictions and not to mix meat with dairy; a buddhist monk who says I should seek to attain nirvana and not eat any meat at all; a voodoo houngon who says he can cast spells; a Wicca who says she can cast spells; and an Asatru adherent who shows me a very impressive hammer while he plays me some Wagner and smiles when I mention my grandfather was of Danish extraction.

    But, even after all this, I’m still undecided. Who should I believe has the correct answers, and why?

  123. John Kwok

    @ Erasmussimo –

    Your recent posts (@ 107, 111) invoking the Civil Rights Movement are absolutely superb. Militant Atheists should ponder whether “accomodationism” can be more useful than they are willing to give credit for. Moreover, I respectfully observe that the anger that they’ve expressed is really a symptom of their zealous adherence to their “faith”, merely confirming eminent evolutionar biologist David Sloan Wilson’s assertion that atheism is a “stealth religion” in disguise.

  124. Jon

    ho should I believe has the correct answers, and why?

    That’s a good question. But what if there aren’t universal answers to religious questions like there is scientific ones? A quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Science gives us major answers to minor questions, while religion gives us minor answers to major questions.”

    What if it’s like this:

    Today we often assume that before undertaking a religious lifestyle, we must prove to our own satisfaction that “God” or the “Absolute” exists. This is good scientific practice: first you establish a principle; only then can you apply it. But the Axial sages would say that this was to put the cart before the horse. First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought.

  125. ndt

    122. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    But what is spiritual meaningful to people is a subjective human question.

    So what if it is “subjective.”

    The problem is when religions claim their subjective spirituality represents an objective fact.

  126. ndt

    On the Civil Rights movement, let’s remember that Malcolm X was as necessary as Martin Luther King. People don’t generally stop oppressing others just because they’re asked nicely.

  127. Wowbagger

    Content-deprived name-dropper John Kwok wrote: Militant Atheists should ponder whether “accomodationism” can be more useful than they are willing to give credit for.

    If you can provide some data beyond your own disturbed, riddled-with-pseudo-celebrity-fanboy-fantasies to suggest that ‘accomodationism’ is any more successful then perhaps someone might actually listen to you – for a change.

  128. Screechy Monkey

    Yes, let’s look at the words of that accomodationist, don’t-make-waves MLK:

    “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

    ***

    “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.””

    ***
    “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

    Source: Letter from a Birmingham Jail, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

  129. Jon

    The problem is when religions claim their subjective spirituality represents an objective fact.

    We have a number of problems, and that is one. Not the *only* one, as I’ve heard some commenters on this blog imply.

  130. John Kwok

    @ Wowbagger –

    Erasmussimo made an excellent analogy with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, “accomodationist” organizations like NCSE have succeed with the celebrated Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial, and school board hearings across the country (Though I will admit that the jury is still out IMHO with respect to Texas.). You’ve also proven his point about online anger from atheists with your ridiculous ad hominen attack upon me.

  131. Erasmussimo

    Several people have offered statements regarding various religious beliefs, to the effect that religions do indeed make assertions of fact. I suspect that they underestimate the complexity of religion as a social phenomenon. Yes, there are plenty of believers who hold absurd superstitious beliefs. But there are also plenty of scientists who hold what are, IMO, absurd political beliefs. And you need only consult a smattering of Internet blog discussions to realize that the world is full of all sorts of people with all sorts of crazy beliefs!

    There are a number of religions with sophisticated theologies that have no problem accommodating themselves with science. The Christian versions of such religions, for example, interpret the Bible in metaphorical terms and concentrate their intellectual efforts on the moral and spiritual messages in the Bible. For example, they reject the story that God created the universe in six days, but they draw the metaphorical conclusion that God is the moving force behind scientific truth. But at the same time, many of these religions offer a spectrum of teachings for their adherents. For the simple-minded, they offer miracles, commandments as simple moral dicta, and so forth. For those who question more deeply, they offer intellectually richer theology.

    The fact that religions offer a spectrum of teachings suited to a range of intellects does not imply that religions are themselves simple-minded. Are schools intellectually childish because they teach first-graders simple-minded lessons? No, because we recognize that schools offer a range of teachings suitable for a range of students.

    Atheism requires a certain level of education and intellectualism that is not widespread in our society. I would very much like to see that level of education and intellectualism raised. But attacking religion is not the solution, just as attacking education because it teaches first grade is not the solution.

  132. Jon

    Atheists are not oppressed the way pre-civil rights blacks were. That is laughable.

  133. John Kwok

    @ Screechy Monkey –

    Unlike Malcolm X – prior to his taking the hajj to Mecca – Martin Luther King always subscribed to the principles of nonviolent protest as defined by Mohandas K. Gandhi (After Malcolm X came back from Mecca, he started to preach an “accomodationist” message of racial coexistence.).

  134. Jon

    Let’s put a stop on every public debate so we can deal with atheism. Then we’ll all be all set.

    Please.

  135. Chris:

    I am a theist. You might think that I would be well-disposed toward your criticism of Myers and the rest of the atheist echo chambers. But you would be mistaken. I think he has the better of the argument, and what is more important, I think he’s addressing the real problem, which is certainly not vocal atheists.

    In fact, I feel a growing irritation. How is muzzling the irreligious going to promote scientific literacy, which should begin with a little thing called ‘evidence’? Chris Mooney, surely you are not arguing that the scientific illiteracy of the American public can be laid at the feet of a handful of vocal non-believers? It’s not like there’s been a stampede of cracker violators in the real world!

    Yes, I suppose it is true that lurid tales of the public mockery of religion might dispose some of the faithful to dump on science, generally. But let’s get real: if the lurid tales didn’t actually exist, some of the faithful would make them up. Restraint on my part, or PZ Myer’s part, is not going to make the liars in the pews go away. The only way to make them go away is to call them on their lies in front of the other faithful, and a strategy that tries to defuse conflict by ignoring it will never succeed in exposing their mendacity to the audience that really matters: the believers.

    Really, when you come down to it, Chris, your position is an insult to believers like myself. Apparently, we are not capable of open dialogue. We must be catered to, pampered, given blissful vagueries of concord rather than treated like adults. Scientists, it seems, are expected to look the other way and go out of their way to avoid giving any offense that might place them in opposition to this or that pulpit, because, dontcha know, if they don’t, well then all those God-botherers like me are going to take what we’re saying out of context, quote-mine the more vocal and demonize the entire scientific enterprise.

    Well, that’s just crap and really a very condescending attitude toward religion in general, as far as I can see. You can’t promote real dialogue with anyone unless there’s a real possibility that both parties might change their minds about this and that. You are a professional communicator by trade, but you will never change the minds of those influenced by professional creationist by playing patty-cake with them! Do you really expect me to believe that the likes of Ken Ham will stop trashing biology if the vocal minority of atheists agrees to bite their collective tongue as a tactical concession?

    Case in point: the late S.J. Gould repeatedly expressed his view (NOMA) that science and religion per se were never in conflict, due to the nature of the domains in which their claims were authoritative (magisteria). This is surely a religion-friendly point of view, and one that will sits nicely within the sort of ‘framing’ you recommend. But the fact is, Gould’s olive branch bought him no good will with those peddling ‘Pandas’. Gould is arguably the most quote-mined, the most misrepresented scientist of the last half-century, Chris! He’s quoted quite a bit more than Dawkins, and (sorry PZ) vastly more than a certain Minnesota prof of our mutual acquaintance. It seems to me that if your prescription for science communication were true, Gould should receive better treatment. But, by and large, he remains the most-abused, the most-misrepresented. Doesn’t that suggest that there is something fundamentally lacking in your approach?

  136. ndt

    132. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Atheists are not oppressed the way pre-civil rights blacks were. That is laughable.

    I never claimed they were. I was just pointing out that nobody gets freedom by asking nicely.

  137. John Kwok

    @ Jon –

    But you don’t understand, atheists are “oppressed”. They’re not being promoted as the “one, true faith” by organizations like the World Science Festival, National Center for Science Education, Paleontological Society, Society for the Study of Evolution, National Academy of Sciences, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  138. ndt

    130. Jon Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    The problem is when religions claim their subjective spirituality represents an objective fact.

    We have a number of problems, and that is one. Not the *only* one, as I’ve heard some commenters on this blog imply.

    And this is why religion isn’t art. Nobody thinks you have to believe Mona Lisa was a real person to appreciate the painting.

  139. Marc

    Accomodationist as opposed to what? Eliminationist? Do the folks throwing this around as an insult think about how they come across at all?

  140. Jon

    If we had our battle royale of the new atheists vs. “the religious”, this guy has the right idea as to what would ensue:

    The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

    The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave.

  141. Wowbagger

    Kwok wrote:You’ve also proven his point about online anger from atheists with your ridiculous ad hominen attack upon me.

    That would imply you made an argument and that I dismissed it because of who you are. That isn’t true – because you haven’t presented an argument.

  142. John Kwok

    @ Wowbagger –

    You most certainly did dismiss me as the “Content-deprived name-dropper John Kwok “. If that’s not an ad hominem attack, then that’s the strangest way of saying “hello” I can think of.

  143. Erasmussimo

    ndt writes,

    On the Civil Rights movement, let’s remember that Malcolm X was as necessary as Martin Luther King. People don’t generally stop oppressing others just because they’re asked nicely.

    Again, I disagree with your interpretation of history. My interpretation is that Malcolm X (and later, the Black Panthers) created backlashes that slowed the progress of civil rights.

    As to your broader statement about the motivations for people to respect others’ rights, again, I disagree. Over and over we have seen in a variety of movements — women’s suffrage, civil rights, women’s lib, the anti-war movement during Vietnam, the environmental movement, gay rights — the same basic pattern. One group wants a change in society. Another group doesn’t want the change, and they always depict the change-desiring group as attempting to destroy society. Over and over again, the defense is “These people will destroy our civilization.” And yes, there are always the hotheads who blow up ROTC offices or animal research labs or power towers, take a confrontational approach, and use fierce rhetoric. Those people always give credibility to the conservatives who warn about the dangers of change. The center of the political spectrum is frightened by the harsh rhetoric of the militant advocates of change, and hesitates. If the society does change, it’s because the moderate advocates of change get their quiet, calm message through despite the high-volume rhetoric of the militants. The militants always slow things down.

    Screechy Monkey provides us with a number of quotes from MLK to support his claim that MLK was confrontational. First, let’s remember that MLK was a complicated man who said and wrote a great many things. He started his career quite lamb-like, but his militancy grew during the late 50s and early 60s. But as he grew in stature and influence, his dawning sense of responsibility tempered his words. There is broad agreement that his “I have a dream” speech is the pinnacle of his career (indeed, the speech is widely regarded as the finest political speech in American history). (Oh, and BTW, I was wrong in saying that he didn’t mention the word “racist” in that speech. He did. But again, read the speech to see how he handled the issue of confrontation.) After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, MLK continued his efforts but also retained his carefully inclusive approach.

    Lastly, I remind you that MLK was fighting against racism and oppression. The battle we face is entirely different. Atheists are not the victims of oppression. Our goal is not to achiever civil rights for atheists, but to better society by increasing the level of rationalism in its public discourse.

  144. Screechy Monkey

    Kwok @ 133: “Martin Luther King always subscribed to the principles of nonviolent protest”

    And your point is….? I haven’t seen any “New Atheists” calling for violence. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from tossing out the epithet “militant” every chance they get.

    Jon @ 133: “Let’s put a stop on every public debate so we can deal with atheism. Then we’ll all be all set. ”

    Yes, because that’s exactly what the rest of us have been arguing for. Sheesh.

    Aren’t you going to chastise Chris and Sheril for wanting to “put a stop on every public debate” so we can deal with scientific illiteracy? Or do you only misrepresent people with whom you disagree?

  145. It’s nice that Mooney can hook onto the popularity of Pharyngula, well done sir. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. Here’s hoping that you’re simply not blowing hot air and that you will lead the US away from fanaticism and towards a scientific mindset. I really hope that is the case.

  146. Erasmussimo

    Screechy Monkey, I agree that the term “militant atheist” is a bit overdone, but I also maintain that “new atheist” is a bit euphemistic. This school of thought is nonviolent, but it is also verbally confrontational. Perhaps “confrontational atheists” would be the best label. What do you think?

  147. Jon

    Nobody thinks you have to believe Mona Lisa was a real person to appreciate the painting.

    The purpose of the best art isn’t to capture physical reality. In fact, that’s inferior art. You might look up Coleridge on fancy versus imagination.

  148. “The only place where it seems there was controversy of the re-designation of Pluto was the US. ”

    This is a myth promoted by supporters of Pluto’s demotion, including Tyson. The reality is that the petition signed by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern includes signatures from planetary scientists all over the world. In astronomy groups and forums on the Internet, there is opposition to the demotion of Pluto expressed by people in many different countries including England, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, and many other nations. These are people who are more scientifically literate than the average members of the public, as they actively take part in discussions about astronomy, and they include professional and amateur astronomers. I have had numerous discussions with many such people. As a student in the Swinburne Astronomy Online program, I have had the benefit of getting to know people involved in astronomy from all over the world, and found that many from nations other than the US oppose the demotion, just as some Americans support. Opposition or support for the IAU decision has no correlation to nationality. In fact, the European Geophysical Union continues to have its own discussions on the definition of planet.

    Myers comes off as dogmatic as the religious groups he so criticizes. He refuses to acknowledge that there is any scientific support for keeping Pluto as a planet, in spite of the fact that some of the world’s leading planetary scientists can provide that support. He does not get that the IAU decision was a political rather than a scientific decision and blindly supports adherence to it in spite of its many problems.

    The 2006 IAU General Assembly showed scientists behaving in the worst possible light, and Alan Stern accurately described the outcome of the vote by four percent of that group, in violation of its own bylaws, as “an embarrassment to astronomy.” For the general public, seeing scientists behave like politicians and attempt to force highly problematic definitions on the whole world only discourages interest in science altogether.

  149. Screechy Monkey

    Erasmussimo, the “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t a model of politeness and gentility, either.

    “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

    “And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

    “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists . . .”

    Source: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

  150. Wowbagger

    John Kwok wrote:
    You most certainly did dismiss me as the “Content-deprived name-dropper John Kwok.”

    Indeed I did. Are you asserting that that description is inaccurate? Because I can point to a lot of evidence to the contrary.

    But you’re missing the point (several, actually) in that, in order for it to be an ad hominem, it has to be used in place of providing a substantive reply; my post included an explanation unrelated to my observation of your well-demonstrated tendencies.

  151. Jon

    Yes, that horrible, theologian-reading Dr. King. If he were alive today, I hope PZ Myers would set him straight. Dawkins could tell him what a credulous fool he is and how he’s abusing his children by raising them as Christians.

  152. Screechy Monkey

    “I agree that the term “militant atheist” is a bit overdone, but I also maintain that “new atheist” is a bit euphemistic. This school of thought is nonviolent, but it is also verbally confrontational. Perhaps “confrontational atheists” would be the best label. What do you think?”

    I know this will shock those who believe that all Pharyngulites think alike, but I don’t have a huge problem with “new atheist.” I agree with you that it doesn’t really say anything meaningful, and it’s not technically accurate (in that most so-called “new” atheists have been atheists for a long time), but I don’t find it obnoxious or hateful. And I think Anthony McCarthy is correct to note that some so-called “new atheists” have used the term, even if reluctantly.

    I do object to “militant,” because it’s clearly an effort to frame (heh) certain people as violent or dangerous.

    “Confrontational” is reasonably accurate. “Outspoken” works, too. But generally I think we should use less labels, not more. PZ is not Dawkins, who is not Hitchens, who is not… etc. It’s probably better to direct criticisms at specific people (and, preferably, specific things they have said) rather than talking about what an entire loosely-defined group of people supposedly think.

  153. Screechy Monkey

    Jon, all you’re doing is showing how ill-informed you are about the views of the people you’re criticizing.

  154. Jon

    Jon @ 133: “Let’s put a stop on every public debate so we can deal with atheism. Then we’ll all be all set. ”
    SM: Yes, because that’s exactly what the rest of us have been arguing for. Sheesh.

    That’s what we would get if we got the culture war battle royale that some New Atheists seem to crave.

  155. tomh

    @ #145 Screechy Monkey wrote: “Kwok @ 133″

    This is the most astounding post yet. No rational person would believe it, but here is the proof in virtual black and white – this means that someone is still actually reading Kwok’s comments. Unbelievable.

  156. Feynmaniac

    What’s this nonsense about using the term “militant atheist” to any atheist who merely questions religion? Unless the atheist in question is calling for violence the term shouldn’t be used. Using it otherwise is just defamation.

  157. Screechy Monkey

    Point taken, tomh.

  158. Anyone who thinks we now have a clear definition of planet is in serious denial. If this really were true, why would so many planetary scientists refuse to use that definition and actively oppose it? Out of 10,000 IAU members, 424 voted on the planet definition resolution. Most of those were not planetary scientists. The vote was conducted in violation of the IAU’s own bylaws, which state that a resolution must first be vetted by committee before being brought to the floor of the General Assembly. This was not done. Most of the 2,500 participants in the General Assembly left before the vote, which was taken on the last day, thinking that a different resolution, one recommended by the IAU’s own Planet Definition Committee, which would have added Ceres, Charon, and Eris as planets, would be the one on the table.

    Why then should this decision, arrived at via a flawed, highly political process, become gospel truth? Why not instead take the proceedings of the Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD, in August 2008, as the basis for planet definition? That conference was dominated by planetary scientists, unlike the IAU vote, where most who voted were not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers. I encourage anyone interested in this to listen to the audio proceedings at http://gpd.jhuapl.edu/ . These proceedings clearly show there is a lack of consensus on any definition of planet in the scientific community.

    Why is there objection to our solar system having hundreds of planets? How is such an objection scientific? In fact, the need to limit the “planet club” could itself be said to be based on emotion, as some what to keep that group down to a small number. What would be wrong with amending the IAU resolution to make the term dwarf planet represent that which the creator of the term, Alan Stern, intended: a small planet that is a planet due to being in hydrostatic equilibrium but of the dwarf variety because it does not gravitationally dominate its orbit?

  159. John Kwok

    @ Screechy Monkey –

    If you think of militant as someone condoning physical violence against others, then your objection makes ample sense. However, I am using the adjective “militant” to emphasize, the harsh, often confrontational, anti-religious – and indeed often bigoted – rhetoric expressed by the so-called “New Atheists”. My apologies in advance for you to assume that I thought you and your fellow atheists were American versions of Al Qaeda or some other Islamic terrorist group. Nothing even remotely like this has ever entered my mind, period.

  160. Jon

    Feynmaniac in 154: Unless the atheist in question is calling for violence the term shouldn’t be used.

    Not if you go with the dictionary definition (see number 2). People’s stereotype for the term is not the same as the definition. The dictionary definition fits, in this case.

  161. Wowbagger

    Jon wrote: That’s what we would get if we got the culture war battle royale that some New Atheists seem to crave.

    Seriously? Are you saying you actually believe this? You’d better be careful around a strawman that size; if it topples over you’ll be crushed.

  162. Jon

    Seriously?

    We’ll see what happens. Many people don’t seem very self aware, or curious outside their own narrow set of things they’re interested in.

  163. Heraclides

    @136 Scott Hatfield,

    I agree with some of what you write, but I would like to point out one thing I think needs to be expressed differently. You wrote “is not going to make the liars in the pews go away”. I used to think that most of the problems lay with followers (i.e., those “in the pews”). Since then I have been involved in several direct “conversations” with church leaders and revised my view. I now think it’s more correct to think that while the physical acts that attract media attention are generally from followers, the intellectual rot is equally strong, if not stronger in the church leaders. With this in mind pointing at those “in the pews” serves to perpetuate something of a myth. (A myth, one has to note, that can be conveniently called upon by the church to save face.)

    It’s my impression, too, that statements that attempt to accommodate or appease the religious— or words that can be twisted or lifted out of context to be construed to have the same meaning—are those that are most widely quote-mined by the right-wing crowd. It’s a good point to raise.

    (I’ve replied to Chris & Sheril earlier in post 73. My apologies Sheril for not including your name: I replied to the article above, which was signed off by Chris, hence the response.)

  164. Screechy Monkey

    “Not if you go with the dictionary definition (see number 2). People’s stereotype for the term is not the same as the definition. The dictionary definition fits, in this case.”

    Ignoring the connotation of a word is disingenuous.

    When I was 15, I discovered that at least one dictionary defined “wench” merely as “a woman.” I spent a week teasing my female friends by calling them “wenches” and directing them to the dictionary if they were offended.

    Again — I was 15. And I learned better quickly. What’s your excuse?

  165. Jon

    My excuse is that you guys are militant. What can I say?

    As in militant feminist, militant labor organizer, etc.

    I don’t use the word. I think just saying “New Atheist” captures things just fine.

  166. Feynmaniac

    Not if you go with the dictionary definition (see number 2). People’s stereotype for the term is not the same as the definition. The dictionary definition fits, in this case.

    Yeah, and there’s a reason why definition ” engaged in warfare or combat” is number 1. Erasmussimo has suggested “confrontational atheist” and I think that’s more appropriate. The only reason I could see in sticking with “militant” is to defame the atheist since the term does have violent connotations.

  167. Wowbagger

    I don’t use the word. I think just saying “New Atheist” captures things just fine.

    But it’s obvious you’re using it because the negative connotations – ‘new’ to mean ‘untried’ or ‘inexperienced’ or somehow invalid compared to ‘old’, i.e. ‘traditional’, ‘respectable’ or ‘worthwhile’.

    Like ‘new money’.

    Just like if I were to describe certain people here as ‘old atheists’ – implying ‘lame’, ‘doddering’, ‘incontinent’ and ‘ineffectual’.

    The term ‘confrontational’ is more accurate and far less – dare I say – ‘militant’.

  168. benjdm

    Scott Hatfield in 136 FTW.

    Oh, and thanks for posting the excerpt. It let me better make up my mind whether I wanted to read the book or not.

  169. Marion Delgado

    I know I’m already a broken record, Chris (and Sheril), but frankly, your situations and those of the science bloggers criticizing you aren’t parallel. You’re the ones asserting you have the better way, and you have to apply it to the science community just as much as the public.

    I think your stance is right, but so far, you’ve not even considered anthropology and diplomacy dealing with the science bloggers, public atheists, etc., who are also human.

  170. I’m an astronomer and IAU member and clearly know more about Pluto and its designation, scientific and otherwise, than the authors of “Unscientific America.” The IAU brought in educators and historians as well as research astronomers concerning the Pluto classification. That cannot be characterized as being “insensitive,” can it? This seems like a poorly researched example at best.

    Furthermore, as others have pointed out, science does what it does for its own sake. Popular culture can do what it wants and keep calling Pluto a planet, just as companies sell stars. Do the authors have a problem with companies who sell stars as gifts to relatives? Many people who buy them don’t. Astronomers only care if people think it has been officially sanctioned by astronomers (via the IAU which governs official names).

    And finally, for consistency, keeping Pluto as a planet would result in probably HUNDREDS of new “planets” in the future as the Kuiper Belt is better studied, not just a few as implied in the book. And those designations would be hard to do, and take years to do properly.

    In the future, kids brought up without Pluto as a planet won’t have a problem. This is a temporary bit of trivia about Pluto, the decades when it was regarded as a planet. If the public wants an official designation, then they shouldn’t worry about what the scientists decide. If the public wants to continue calling Pluto a planet, they can, and shouldn’t worry about what the astronomers decide.

    It really seems like a terrible example to start with.

  171. Sagan on religion and pseudoscience in his own words:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2181165206611526024

    Aside from the obvious fact that Sagan didn’t write a book that solely addressed religion, I fail to see how he was any less harsh than Dawkins.

  172. Jewbacca

    Scott, you are a candle in the dark here. You argued your points carefully and in good faith, which is probably why those who shall go unnamed are ignoring you. Unfortunately, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. I put the odds of Chris actually addressing any of it about on the level of the chance it will snow in LA tomorrow.

    Wowbagger wrote: Seriously? Are you saying you actually believe this?

    I read it more as a threat than a prediction. Shut up and vacate the marketplace of ideas, or we’ll fling so much poo you won’t have time to do anything but dodge it.

  173. José

    @Anthony McCarthy
    How come everyone’s forgetting Sheril? Chris is a co-author with her. They just launched a book, for crying out loud.

    Nobody’s forgotten her. But it seems Chris is the one that’s been responsible for most of the questionable behavior, so of course more criticism will be directed at him.

  174. latsot

    “Atheism requires a certain level of education and intellectualism that is not widespread in our society. ” — Erasmussimo

    Excuse me? It takes education to not believe in gods? If so, then it is only because religious indoctrination is so widespread. Most of us are told from birth that some variety of religion is true and we have to learn for ourselves that it doesn’t make any sense. If nobody shoved this nonsense down our throats to begin with, we’d have nothing to unlearn.

  175. Bruce Gorton

    Erasmussimo

    Anger, is not irrational. It is actually a very rational response to being insulted, to being denigrated and being told to shut up. The gay pride protestors who go out fighting for the right to get married are extremely rational in their anger, Martin Luther King, though his strategy was non-violent protest, was extremely angry and rational in his anger.

    Now I am not saying atheists face the same degree of nonsense that the black civil rights movements or the gay rights movements faced, but to dismiss “anger” as being automatically irrational do you know what that makes you? The “good man who does nothing.” It is a way of dismissing what people are angry about because you are too cowardly to confront it – so you say they are “angry” and therefor irrational.

  176. From what I remember of the legislative record of how the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s got passed, Erasmussimo’s evaluation of the roles of Martin Luther King jr. as opposed to Malcom X is accurate. Malcom X was very important for many reasons but passing federal legislation then wasn’t one of them. In the 60s, the things he’d said about white people and his association with Elijah Muhammad would have been more useful to segregationists and racists than to people trying to form an effective coalition to pass legislation.

    If he was still alive and engaged, I’d imagine he would have a few things to say about Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens on the basis of their anti-Islamic bigotry. I’d imagine he might notice PZ’s Koran stunt. The recourse to Malcom X by the new atheists is pretty shallow, considering he was a fully devout Moslem whose religion was a major if not the source of his activism. Just as his religion was to MLK’s.

    Bruce Gorton, I’m gay. I’ve been involved in the gay rights movement for almost forty years. One of the most effective tools of those fighting against getting gay rights legislation passed were the over the top images from Gay Pride parades and the most absurd things that the loud, angry attention getters spouted. I remember one rather effective quote form some legend in his own mind that the goal was to seduce the sons of our enemies. The last thing we need is more of that kind of attention getting anger as we try to protect the recently passed gay marriage law.

    In a lot of states gay people don’t have legal protections that atheists have had against discrimination since they were included under bans on discrimination due to religious belief since the major civil rights legislation was passed. Atheists weren’t excluded from those provisions passed, I’d guess, by congressmen and senators who were all professed believers. I don’t recall any announced atheists in either body in that period.

    If Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are the public face of evolutionary science, you might as well forget wider public acceptance of the science. There are a lot worse things than “doing nothing”, doing what’s counterproductive is one of those.

    It’s the angry ranters who do nothing, because they don’t really care about doing anything except asserting their obnoxious personalities and being a problem for the people who actually do, do something. The new atheists are a dead end, they’re more interested in insulting the public than in getting them to support science education in the public schools.

    I think there is almost no bravery required to be obnoxious atheists online and not all that much more in public. PZ might have some enhanced danger through his most famous publicity stunt just as that dope who desecrated the host at a Catholic church did. There’s nothing brave about being stupid, that’s just being stupid.

    About “new atheist”, yet again. Hands up, all you new atheists who have criticized the big names of new atheism who have used the term in their writing, because that’s where I first saw it used. You get them to stop using it and maybe you’ll be able to get the rest of us to stop using it.

    I’m using it because there are a lot of atheists who don’t follow the shallow, bigoted, counterproductive, intellectual fad and I don’t want to insult them by associating them with Dawkins, Harris, et al. There are atheists who are opposed to the fad, if they come up with a term to distinguish themselves from the new atheists I’ll use that one. That is unless I decide to be more specific and accurate and say atheist fundamentalists.

  177. — But it’s obvious you’re using it because the negative connotations Wowbagger

    Not when I use it, all those negatives are denotations provided by the bright lights of the new atheism.

    I don’t think there is any way for a group to escape the traits of obnoxiousness, rudeness, loudness, offensiveness and stereotyping that they’ve explicitly embraced. As I’m quite familiar with the new atheist practice of denying what’s right there for everyone to see, asserting the absurd idea that those things are effective political strategy constitutes quite a bit of this thread.

    If you think other people don’t understand they’re being insulted and stereotyped obnoxiously, you really do think the mass of humanity are the stupid ones.

  178. cd

    The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

    The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave.

    I’m reminded of the political arena in this country during the past three years, in which it was alleged by the punditry that ‘moderate Republicans’ in Congress would save us from the Awful Partisan Extremists by coming up with well-intentioned compromises. Curiously, these so-called moderate Republicans never actually showed up when the voting happened, though a number were glad to advertise themselves as such. (Now we’re repeating the game, with marginally better success, with conservative Democrats. To whom the 2010 elections do not look kind.)

    In short, accommodationism advocated by pundits sells books and papers when sufficiently admixed with controversialism. In real life, the moderates are all cowardice and rarely meaningfully mediators. Change comes by one side breaking down, by its supporters slowly dying out and failing to recruit true believer replacements in sufficient numbers.

  179. Barry

    I’m tired of the term “new atheists”. If you have ever carefully studied the complete lectures and works of the 19th century “old atheist” Robert G. Ingersoll you would be amazed at how little originality the new atheists have added in the past 120 years. Indeed, it’s my suggestion that should you ever compare the writing of a new atheist with Ingersoll’s works using plagiarism detection software, you’d turn up so many red marks on each page it would give a color blind man the biggest ass migraine he ever had. New atheists have done little more than add a few updated science facts to 19th century Ingersoll. Yet, no one ever cites Ingersoll.

  180. SteveF

    @ Scott Hatfield:

    “Case in point: the late S.J. Gould repeatedly expressed his view (NOMA) that science and religion per se were never in conflict, due to the nature of the domains in which their claims were authoritative (magisteria). This is surely a religion-friendly point of view, and one that will sits nicely within the sort of ‘framing’ you recommend. But the fact is, Gould’s olive branch bought him no good will with those peddling ‘Pandas’. Gould is arguably the most quote-mined, the most misrepresented scientist of the last half-century, Chris! He’s quoted quite a bit more than Dawkins, and (sorry PZ) vastly more than a certain Minnesota prof of our mutual acquaintance. It seems to me that if your prescription for science communication were true, Gould should receive better treatment. But, by and large, he remains the most-abused, the most-misrepresented. Doesn’t that suggest that there is something fundamentally lacking in your approach?”

    I think you’re missing a key point here. Gould’s words were mistreated by full blown creationists, the likes of AiG, CMI and other assorted jokers. They are never going to be persuaded otherwise and I doubt Chris is that interested in strategies to target the hardcore (of whom, admittedly, there are quite a lot). He’s more interested in the fluffier sorts, the middle ground.

  181. Davo

    Scott Hatfield:

    BRAVO!

  182. We need both the accommodationist and the vociferous atheist views to deal with different kinds of religious thinking and people. Of course neither one of them is perfect and is going to put a certain subset of people off. But the other view will take care of that.

    Why is everyone here trying to pitch this as an Either/OR question?? As far as I see it is Either/AND. This need not be a binary choice at all and we need both approaches. Both Mooney and Myers have their place in the fight against religious dogma. And yet each side is screaming at the top of its lungs, “I am right, you are wrong!”

  183. Paul Hands

    All the bluster aside, the book is rubbish. Most of the content is meandering drivel and says little or nothing.

    Religion is not science and the two cannot and should not accommodate each other, as there is, again, no point. Religion is superstitious, thought-stifling, inflexible nonsense backed by nothing. Science is thoughtful and flexible and willing to change, given evidence, and is backed by lots of real, repeatable evidence.

    Religion should not be allowed to shape public policy, and should be kept strictly personal.

  184. Woody Tanaka

    Andrew McCarthy stated:
    “Sagan also wasn’t anywhere near as vicious and uninformed when he talked about religion, ”

    Imagine a world where the entirety of Star Wars fandom was exactly the same, with the books and costumes, and myths and stories, except for the small detail that they believe that it depicted actual events that really did occur “long ago in a galaxy far, far away” and that the Force willed the knowledge of these events into the creative mind of George Lucas and all the other people responsible for the Expanded Universe. One would not need to know the details of mitichlorians or force lightning or Jedis or the history of the Sith or anything else to opine that these people are almost certainly wrong and misguided in the factual foundations of their beliefs.

    Likewise with Christianity, Judaism, and all the rest of the world’s religions. That’s all Dawkins is doing.

  185. gingerbeard

    so is the real problem, you asked PZ to review your book, he disliked it and now you are trying to cover up the bad review?

    I read posting, it was in his usual method of treating anything (but hey YOU ASKED HIM TO REVIEW IT, you knew ahead of time how he would phrase his response). While he was a bit rude and abrupt, and pointed out quite clearly you pissed him off by attacking him in two chapters, he actually was fair about it; rude but fair.

    He said it was well written, pointed out what he thought was poor about the book and said it was useless. He gave you your review, just like you asked him to do, stop whining.

  186. QuantumMechanic

    There is nothing wrong with Richard Dawkins being the public face of ecvolution. The Extended Phenotype, The Ancestor’s Tale and Climbing Mount Improbable are masterful expositions of evolution. Dawkins the evolutionary explainer is different from Dawkins the evangelical atheist. Let’s separate the two. About PZ Myers I agree. He has not written anything substantial that explains evolution to the layman and is mainly known for his atheist stance.

  187. Craig B

    Clarification about MLK and Malcolm. Since I was the first person (I think) to bring this up by way of metaphor, let me clarify a couple of things. First, my point was simply that having an angrier voice as an alternative can help people hear the moderate voice. The angry voice does not “harm the cause” as M & K assert, but helps it by presenting a notion that “well, I’d better listen to A because it’s better than B if I have to pay attention to this issue.”

    Second, MLK was not an accommodationist. In fact, that term is seriously loaded in racial history and study. Booker T Washington was an accommodationist; MLK was far from it. But he did argue for civil disobedience and rejected violence, which presented a less frightening voice than Malcolm’s. MLK’s success had many causes – his own effort first and foremost, the effort of tens of thousands of others, and the reality of television broadcasting images of brutality a close third. Down the list a ways is the “angry alternative” presented by Malcolm and others.

    Third, Malcolm himself was badly misunderstood and tends to have his statements cherry-picked as badly as anyone I’ve ever known of. There was a ton of nuance to Malcolm even pre-Mecca.

    To bring this back to the actual subject here, I’d suggest that one of the problems that M & K have, in fact, is a similar problem understanding and acknowledging the same sort of nuance and complexity in PZ, Dawkins, and others. That, perhaps, is the biggest shame in all this matter.

  188. Woody Tanaka, I don’t think it’s much to the credit of Dawkinsism that the best it can come up with against religion is an analogy to Star Wars fans. But, they did seem awfully impressed with his jr. high level knowledge of theology, history and other topics in TGD.

    As I’ve been saying, the new atheism is shallow as well as bigoted.

    — Religion is not science and the two cannot and should not accommodate each other, as there is, again, no point. Religion is superstitious, thought-stifling, inflexible nonsense backed by nothing. Science is thoughtful and flexible and willing to change, given evidence, and is backed by lots of real, repeatable evidence. Paul Hands

    I don’t have my copy of Unscientific America yet. Does it say that science can accommodate religious content in its material? I’d be very surprised if it did, quote it to that effect.

    Many religions have had no problem incorporating information about the material universe that science has produced. I’d guess even some of the most scripturally fundamentalist ones have incorporated at least some ideas from science.

    Religions change, they change over time and even the religious beliefs of individuals change over the course of their lifetime, both on the basis of changing experience.

    The monolithic abstraction “religion” that the new atheists are always talking about is a cartoon they create in order to mock it, it is a straw man they create so they can knock it over. THAT is what Dawkins is really doing.

    —- I’m reminded of the political arena in this country during the past three years, in which it was alleged by the punditry that ‘moderate Republicans’ in Congress would save us from the Awful Partisan Extremists by coming up with well-intentioned compromises. Curiously, these so-called moderate Republicans never actually showed up when the voting happened, though a number were glad to advertise themselves as such. (Now we’re repeating the game, with marginally better success, with conservative Democrats. To whom the 2010 elections do not look kind.) cd

    About as bad an analogy as has been posted here. I’ve been telling other Democrats to forget working with “moderate Republicans” for the past two decades or so, it has nothing to do with this argument. You are pretending that we’re talking about placating inflexible religious fundamentalists when no one is doing that. We’re talking about people who might go either way.

    There are an enormous pool of independents in the voting population, it’s in them that the margin of electoral victory lies. And in the mean time, you’ve got to avoid unnecessary actions that will help the right organize and mobilize their voters.

    As to the 2010 elections, I am pretty confident that not a single politician on any side will be looking for PZ’s or Sam Harris’ endorsement. If I was running in a marginal district, I’d keep as far away from the voter insulting, obnoxious new atheists as possible.

    — Change comes by one side breaking down, by its supporters slowly dying out and failing to recruit true believer replacements in sufficient numbers. cd

    Oddly, religion doesn’t seem to be disappearing. It didn’t in the Soviet Union, or Albania or even North Korea. Even in Harris’ alleged atheist paradise, Sweden, 40% of teenagers choose to be confirmed in the state religion, and that’s just the Lutherans. His numbers don’t add up. I’ve read the figures of church membership in Sweden were more influenced by the change in the law that exempted those who weren’t Lutherans from being taxed to support the official church, than by any great atheist surge. I’ve heard that a lot of those who have left organized religion hold some kind of alternative belief in some supernatural but haven’t followed that up with research.

    There is no real world evidence to support the pipe dream that religion will disappear here. As mentioned above, Ingersoll didn’t do it. Neither did Voltaire, Twain, Russell, etc. You just can’t convince people that their own experience is less valid than yours.

  189. Woody Tanaka

    “The purpose of the best art isn’t to capture physical reality. In fact, that’s inferior art.”

    LOL. It is interesting when a wholly subjective thing (such as valuation of art) is discussed in absolute terms. “Blue is inferior as a favorite color. Every thinking person knows that red is far superior as a favorite color…”

  190. — There is nothing wrong with Richard Dawkins being the public face of ecvolution. QuantumMechanic

    Well, other than his political tone deafness, his love of insulting the large majority of voters, his inane assertions about them being child abusers, etc. There’s also this issue:

    Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature5 rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia. Dawkins’s vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution.

    Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.

    Again, Richard Lewontin Billions and Billions of Demons ibid

    And Lewontin is far from the only eminent voice in genetics or related fields who has been critical of Dawkins.

    I’m glad I copied that review, which can be found online.

  191. Damian

    187. QuantumMechanic Says:

    “He has not written anything substantial that explains evolution to the layman and is mainly known for his atheist stance.”

    Apart from several hundred science posts — which, incidentally, are as clear, concise, interesting, and educational, as anything that I and many others have ever read — on a blog that attracts 70,000 hits a day, which is roughly 2 million per month. It’s the most popular science blog on the internet. So, it’s entirely possible — probable even — that PZ has reached and educated more people with at least one of his science posts than Sagan or Dawkins (through books sales) combined.

    And that is what makes this whole debate so ridiculous, particularly with respect to Pharyngula. PZ is reaching millions of people — which I suspect is part of the problem for some people — but there are millions more for others to attempt to reach using methods that PZ can’t or won’t. Rather than rage against a success story, you’d have thought that it would be more productive to attempt to emulate the success that PZ has had, but with an entirely different audience in mind.

  192. QuantumMechanic

    That has to do with Dawkins’s atheism, not with his explanations of evolutionary theory. As for PZ the fact that he draws 70,000 viewers a day hardly means that they visit his site for his writings on evolution. Most people relish either religion or atheism bashing; it provides good entertainment. Notice the large number of visitors drawn by the atheism-bashing posts on this blog.

  193. Jon

    CD in 179: I’m reminded of the political arena in this country during the past three years, in which it was alleged by the punditry that ‘moderate Republicans’ in Congress would save us from the Awful Partisan Extremists by coming up with well-intentioned compromises.

    The most brilliant discussion on this subject is with Cass Sunstein and Mike Farrell:

    http://crookedtimber.org/2008/03/03/deliberation-vs-participation-in-blogs/

    Farrell is right about progressive coalition over the past three years. But Sunstein is right that a bunch of like minded people can get together and act like dolts on any end of the political spectrum. Things can get anti-intellectual, you tune out everyone but the in-group, you can lose basic respect for the merits of other positions on difficult questions (I said “merits”, not that you had to agree with them), etc.

  194. articulett

    To me, “new atheist” describes people who are passionate about the truth– people who treat religion like the superstitious propaganda that it is.

    Naturally, believers and those who “believe in belief” must malign them. The believer understands that the new atheist feels the same way towards their religion that the believer feels towards cults, superstitions, and those “other” religions (and for good reason). Those who “believe in belief” imagine themselves peacekeepers and moderators of some sort, but the the truth doesn’t need moderators. It’s dishonest and arrogant to promote the idea that there are “higher truths” that can only be obtained via “faith” or other non-empirical means. It’s harmful to promote delusional ideas as “higher truths”. The “new atheists” are those who understand this and refuse to enable the entitlement some people feel is due to them because of what they BELIEVE.

    I don’t really care about the beliefs and opinions of Chris Mooney and his supporters any more than they care about the opinions and beliefs of “new atheists”. I care about what is true. I find PZ Myers a much more credible deliverer of the truth. Moreover, I think the catering to delusion that M and K indulge in is far more to blame for “unscientific America” than anything the “new atheists” have to say. I am appalled along with my fellow “new atheists” (though I’m middle aged and have been an atheist for more than half my life) by Chris’ failure to address this issue. His criticisms would be better aimed at himself.

    Faith is not an avenue towards knowing anything true, and C and M’s book appears to be a pleas for “new atheists” to coddle a certain brand of superstition and treat it differently than science would treat similar “non-god” type claims. But god belief is no more valid than demon belief. Further, it gets in the way of understanding the hard won truths that science discovers, hones, and shares.

  195. Jon

    It is interesting when a wholly subjective thing (such as valuation of art) is discussed in absolute terms.

    I disagree that it’s “wholly subjective.” Then again, I’m not surprised that you say that, because “wholly subjective” tends to be a slam in the sciences, which is consistent with what I said above.

  196. Erasmussimo

    Change comes by one side breaking down, by its supporters slowly dying out and failing to recruit true believer replacements in sufficient numbers.

    I agree with this, but let us remember that confrontational approaches are precisely what keep the opposition alive, because they prove to fence-sitters that the advocates of change are dangerous radicals. Sure, Sarah Palin had lots of enthusiastic supporters — but she also pushed a lot of people to vote for Mr. Obama. The net result, I suspect, is that her overall effect was to the benefit of Mr. Obama. I suggest that the confrontational atheists are the Sarah Palins of atheism.

    One of our correspondents defends anger as rational. Certainly anger is an *understandable* reaction to an undesirable situation. But that doesn’t make it rational.

    Finally, Latsot expresses surprise at my claim that atheism requires a certain degree of education. My claim is easily supported with the observation that religious belief is a universal cultural feature. I’m sure that there have been a few cultures with no religious beliefs, but I cannot recall any. The history of human society is full of religion. That suggests to me that religious belief is the natural state of homo sapiens, and the rejection of that belief requires education.

  197. Greywizard

    Chris and Sheril, this is perhaps the silliest storm in a teacup ever produced by words! You go on and on trying to justify your position, but, so far as I can tell, you have not really responded to the questions that are being raised by Ophelia Benson (see her list of questions in a recent note on her blog), Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers.

    Every time they respond to you, you jump back within a few moments – it seems – with some undigested reflections, and you have failed, in a big way, to take account at what your critics – whose opinions you sought – have to say in response to your book. Indeed, your responses have been so unsatisfactory that I have decided not to buy the book. If you can’t deal more responsibly with criticism, then the book itself must be a dud. It just has to be.

    Even if you are right that there are some atheist scientists who are muddying the waters for religious people, making science less attractive to them, you still haven’t made your point. You have not showed this. You have not provided evidence. I can remember the Pluto non-event, and I wonder why this is at the centre of part of your argument. I’m not an astronomer, and I had no idea what the basis identifying an object in a solar system as a planet was. I still don’t, not really. I merely assumed that it was a matter of semantics, and Pluto didn’t satisfy the semantic criteria for the word ‘planet’. I was not disturbed, and, ignorant enough about these criteria, I did not, at the time, think that finding out was a priority. If there was a serious public outcry over this, did this have to do with the lack of cultural sensitivity of scientists, or with a widespread failure of science education? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really seem all that important to me. When astronomers speak of super-novas, I have a vague idea about what they mean, but only very vague. If they were to decide that a particular identified object in the nightsky was not, after all, a super-nova, I don’t think I’d be particularly disturbed about it. I don’t understand why the question of Pluto becomes a definitive stage in defining a chasm between science and the public.

    But, now, you are saying that some scientists’ atheist views are strident and counterproductive in the culture wars. Have you shown this to be true? Or are you just assuming that it is true? What is the status of that claim? Right at the moment religions are quite literally getting away with murder, and, at the same time, claiming the right not to be offended. Some scientists are beginning to say that their scientific point of view calls many standard religious views into serious question. Indeed, they are saying, I think, as Sagan claimed, that religions tend to underwrite a lot of silly non-religious supersititions, like belief in astrology, ghosts, UFOs and so on, and he proposed a number of crap detectors for exposing this kind of unfounded belief. The crap detectors also, as a side effect, undermine religious beliefs as well. Did Sagan not want that to follow? Did he not, in fact, say, that it followed, so far as he was concerned, and that science and religion were to this extent conflicting with each other?

    I guess my question is: Can scientists really fail to point out from time to time that there are conflicts here? And this becomes particularly urgent when some scientists are using completely unsatisfactory arguments (as Francis Collins, for example, does, when he uses CS Lewis), to show that religion and science are compatible. Should no one point out that many of Lewis’ arguments about naturalism and religion are completely without foundation? Should someone not point out that, in fact, Collins’ religious beliefs are in apparent conflict with his scientific beliefs? The suggestion, for example, that God somehow fiddles with the evolutionary process in order to guarantee that human beings are the result of the process, really undermines the evolutionary process itself. I’m not a biologist, but this seems pretty clear to me. “Fiddling with the process” would be a major intervention, and it should be detectible. If it’s not, then it’s very doubtful that any fiddling has taken place. And if it has taken place, then, it seems to me, it makes the problem of evil so intractible that it has no answer, and the problem itself subverts religious belief. (I’m not sure that the problem of evil has an answer anyway, but this would really make it impossible to deal with, in my view. And religious people are permitted the freedom to dance lightly around some of the most egregious problems about religious believing. Does this not in itself tend to undermine science?)

    My point is this. Trying to make religion and science compatible requires so many theological assumptions that it makes a complete nonsense of any theology that now exists. A lot of people say that atheists don’t understand theology, and if they did, they wouldn’t think religious belief so easy to defeat. But the problem is that religion, if it’s not to be taken literally, is involved in such an enormously complicated and unstable series of theories about theories about myths, that it is doubtful that ordinary religious belief could even get going. If you think that redefining Pluto was an occasion for cultural dislocation, really attending to what theologians are up to, based on what science can demonstrate with a reasonable degree of certainty, will lead to such a deep seismic shift of understanding that religion would not recover from it.

    Obviously, you have no idea what is involved in theological understandings of the world. Trying to find a point of contact between theology and science is difficult. Finding a way of making them compatible is virtually impossible, not because they deal with different ways of knowing, but because theology is not, on any credible foundation, a way of knowing at all. Disagreement within Christianity alone is sufficient to show that Christians do not know anything, theologically. Add the other religions, with all their schisms and disagreements, and it is clear that knowledge is not the issue here, and so long as we continue to think that it is, we will continue to go round and round the mulberry bush as you – Chris and Sheril – have been doing for the last few weeks.

    Claiming that religion and science are compatible is not enough. To be credible at all, you must show that they are, and I do not believe that that is something that you can do.

  198. TTT

    Bit of a non-sequitur here, but…. I find M&K’s fixation on Carl Sagan to be really offputting and unhelpful. He is not the be-all, end-all of science communication. I deny that mainstream America’s scientific literacy was better in his day than it is now; indeed, as Jerry Coyne pointed out, those numbers have actually been just about flat since 1982. There was no “golden age.”

    I love Sagan’s books, but they didn’t spawn revolutions of mass understanding or make tens of thousands of little kids want to grow up to be scientists. Our best ambassadors to the young were, are, and will always remain zoos and dinosaur bones. This reminds me of Republicans who say the solution to all of today’s problems is to be more like Ronald Reagan, who was elected 29 years ago and died 5 years ago and you really had to experience yourself in order to “get.” It seems like nothing more than a nostalgia-driven push for conformity and a retreat from new approaches and new ideas.

  199. Sven DiMilo

    Nice post, Greywizard.
    McCarthy: There are lots of interesting discussions–biological (several), sociological, political–that could be had to contrast the positions of Lewontin, Wilson, and Dawkins. Those discussions are only marginally relevant here, but my point is that a quote from Lewontin about Wilson and/or Dawkins fails as an argument from authority.

  200. John Kwok

    @ articulett –

    It is for the very reasons you’ve expressed that eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has dubbed atheism a “stealth religion”. You’ve demonstrated what I have thought for a while, that, in reality, atheism is a faith in disguise, and I am glad that someone as prominent as Wilson had the courage of his convictions to write extensively about it back in late 2007 and early 2008 at the Huffington Post.

  201. John Kwok

    @ Damian –

    Dawkins has done a much better job via his books, especially “The Ancestor’s Tale”, “Selfish Gene” and “The Extended Phenotype”, in conveying to the general public all of the excitement and wonder that he, as a former evolutionary biologist (He hasn’t published scientifically since the late 1980s), has seen within his science than your favorite Morris, MN-based evolutionary developmental biologist. Moreover, in stark contrast to a gifted writer like Carl Zimmer, the Minnesotan comes across more as slightly pedantic. IMHO if I wanted to learn more about evolution, I would read Zimmer first than reading your hero.

  202. John Kwok

    @ Greywizard –

    Chris and Sheril aren’t the only ones with the message that atheists scientists are “muddying the waters”. Two weeks ago at the 9th North American Paleontological Convention, there was a technical session apparently inspired by the “accomodationist” attacks made by some Militant Atheist scientists against professional scientific organizations. Eminent marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson condemned several of the likely suspects, including Coyne and Dawkins. On February 12th of this year I heard noted philosopher of science Philip Kitcher accuse Dawkins – though he said this is a plain, matter-of-fact way – of hurting the cause of promoting valid science by his anti – religious attacks. In early May I attended part of the Saturday session of a two-day commemorative symposium commemorating Darwin’s life and work, in which several expatriate Britons, including historian of science Janet Browne condemning atheists like Dawkins. So Chris and Sheril haven’t been the only ones condemning the “New Atheists”.

  203. Sven, you might have noticed I was addressing a challenge to something I previously said in bringing up not only the political disaster that having Dawkins as the face of evolutionary biology would insure, but that his position within evolutionary biology was far from uncontroversial. I’ll determine what is and isn’t relevant to my point that Dawkins is a lousy figurehead for evolutionary science.

    Some of the major figures in the ID industry have thanked him for being such a good foil for them.

    I think Dawkins’ popularity is due to his habit of over simplifing complex issues, both as to religion and as to evolution. His being a political disaster is due to his arrogance and bigotry.

  204. – 70,000 hits a day, which is roughly 2 million per month.

    I wonder now many hits per month the average PZ reader makes. Start with an average of one a day, and as you can see from reading his threads and comparing time stamps, that’s probably a low per day figure. When you start analyzing it, the readership figures are probably a lot lower than those numbers would lead an arithmetically challenged reader to believe.

    Last week someone here said two million people a month.

  205. — Ultimately, of course, spirituality reduces to neurology, which is just extremely complicated chemistry. ndt

    Can you produce a paper which appears in a reputable scientific journal which makes that assertion? I don’t mean Daniel Dennett’s mish-mosh of a book.

    While I strongly doubt those alleged neurological and chemical mechanisms are real, there would be absolutely nothing to preclude a God providing a neurological or chemical mechanism to make people aware of their presence, you know. Anyone who holds that God created the universe would immediately hold that if those mechanisms are there, it’s because God put them there. If they were there, any religious person would be justified in taking that as evidence that God exists and wants people to know it in the most intimate and subjective way.

  206. Opus

    One essential fact is being overlooked: If the goal is to convince people to respect science then science needs good communicators. Unfortunately Mooney & Kirshenbaum are unable to meet this need. If one looks only at the first two pages of the book one can find

    – Poor framing: Pluto wasn’t “excommunicated;” the definition of a planet was refined.
    – Lack of research: the IAU didn’t act without consultation in the Pluto issue.
    – Lack of analysis: much of the anger at Pluto’s “excommunication” was a joke, yet the authors could not pick up on that basic fact. Redefining planet could have added hundreds of planets to the list of eight/nine, yet they couldn’t discover this.
    – Inability to place facts in context: Yes, less than 5% of the astronomers voted, but astronomers who were not planetary astronomers did not to vote.
    – Pointless writing. Even if the Pluto story closely resembled their simplistic, fact-free description it would have little to say about the rift between Americans and science.

    The simple fact is that Myers, Dawkins et al are far better writers than Mooney and Kirshenbaum. It’s truly unfortunate; there was a need for a book about Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum just weren’t able to write it.

  207. TTT

    atheism is a faith in disguise, and I am glad that someone as prominent as Wilson had the courage of his convictions to write extensively about it back in late 2007 and early 2008 at the Huffington Post.

    It fit in nicely next to all their articles about how vaccines cause autism.

  208. John Kwok

    @ Anthony –

    I would guess that the daily readership for that Minnesotan biologist’s blog is far, far less than either he or his zealous acolytes would care to admit. That’s why any assertion by them claiming that he is more important than Dawkins, Miller, Wilson (E. O. Wilson, not David Sloan Wilson) and Zimmer in educating the public on modern evolutionary biology has to be taken with a proverbially large grain of salt.

  209. John Kwok

    @ TTT –

    You can’t blame David Sloan Wilson for the editorial content of the Huffington Post. However, his point that atheism is a “stealth religion” is not only well-considered, but especially, in light of the online antics of some of its adherents, quite valid.

  210. J.D.

    I find it interesting that so much venom is directed at PZ and the “new atheists” for being so “disrespectful” and overall meanies and crackergate is used as an illustrative example. In fact the authors refer to this post where PZ went into some highly sarcastically critical recounting of some history:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/07/the_great_desecration.php

    For those unfamiliar however, crackergate started with this post on an incident where a parishioner walked out of mass with a Eucharist:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/07/its_a_goddamned_cracker.php#more

    The said parishioner was subsequently set upon by Bill Donohoe and his holy houndlings and the boy actually received death threats for walking out of mass with this cracker. PZ’s post sounded off on the stupidity of this and offered to illustrate said stupidity by holding one of these crackers hostage if someone would send one. This is what initially set off the firestorm, not the original impetus of the young man receiving death threats and endless harassment for taking a cracker, but that PZ “threatened” to get his hands on one of these crackers to again illustrate the insanity of these zealots. Said insanity was promptly demonstrated when Donohoe then decended on PZ and PZ was the target of countless threats. Nowhere else was the original insanity of a boy being harassed to the point of having his life threatened over taking a cracker ever addressed. It became about PZ “disrespecting” Catholocism which your book continues with. So I ask, why no condemnation or calls for accomodation or respect from Bill Donohoe or his zeolots? You seem to demand PZ’s and others silence on matters of religious belief out of “respect” but apparantly the religious have no responsibility to do so in kind ( turn the other cheek indeed… ). No, PZ dealt with the original insanity of A BOY RECEIVING DEATH THREATS FOR TAKING A CRACKER with appropriate scorn. The religious voices in this matter did not offer any condemnations for those threatening the boy but instead did exactly what you continue to do, attack PZ for pointing out the insanity.

  211. Greywizard

    John Kwok.

    I never once suggested that Chris and Sheril are the only ones suggesting that ‘militant’ atheists are muddying the waters. But I did suggest that they haven’t shown that this is true. Neither has anyone else, to my knowledge. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that it may, in fact, have helped with bringing the priorities of science to people’s awareness. Religious people are not, by definition, stupid, so, other things being equal, I should have thought that those who do take religion seriously, and want to have a belief system that is not obviously conflicting with the findings of science – the God of the gaps has a long history, remember – will at least try to find out more about it, and try to determine whether or not the claim is true. It is not obvious to me that the refusal to be accommodating, in the way the Coyne, Dawkins (and others wrongly characterised as being ‘militant’ atheists) do, should have a negative effect on scientific literacy. If it does, this needs to be shown; it is not self-evident.

    At the same time, the refusal to accept an acccommodationist approach gives less and less room for know-nothing believers to stand. At the moment creationists can at least pretend to some kind of intellectual respectability, since there has been a fairly general acceptance of the compatibility of religion and science. If scientists take the high ground, claiming science as a way knowing which has no obvious links with religious forms of thinking, then anyone who wants to claim compatibility, starting from the side of religion, still has to work at it, to show compatibility. There is no intrinsic reason why they should not be compelled to do this work.

  212. TTT

    I can, I will, and I do. This is like when the JFK conspiracists praise Mark Lane for his keen insight, nevermind that it all gets published in the white supremacist “Liberty Lobby.” Lie down with dogs, and all that.

    As for atheism somehow being a religion, by that dumbed-down standard brushing one’s teeth has been a religion for decades. The amount of time, money, corporate activity, and social indoctrination expended by Toothbrushists to “save” themselves–and of course their children–is almost beyond calculation. And I think any Toothbrushist would agree that a Non-Toothbrushist is a dirty, primitive, almost certainly ignorant person whose childrearing skills are now suspect.

    And don’t even get me started on those people who put their money into banks. Mortar-Monetists, I call them. But nobody thinks of the poor stigmatized Mattress-Witnesses!

  213. John Kwok

    @ TTT –

    In the zealous defense of its principles and leading advocates by its acolytes, “New Atheism” shares several features in common with what I have seen from supporters and promoters of Xian “Christianity” such as William A. Dembski and Ken Ham.

    Were I to use your analogy to its logical conclusion, then I would have to blame Brown University for having admitted the likes of George Lincoln Rockwell (founder of the American Nazi Party), Charles “Chuck” Colson, David Klinghoffer and Bobby Jindal. The fact that all of them are alumni of Brown shouldn’t be seen as a major tarnish on Brown’s record. Nor should the fact that the Huffington Post has published ridiculous articles in support of pop pseudoscience should mean that David Sloan Wilson should be linked to these very articles.

  214. TTT

    And what about brushing your teeth or putting your money into a bank? Aren’t those principles zealously defended and advocated by acolytes? Extremely well-established and wealthy institutional acolytes, at that?

    Seriously. Do an experiment: tell a random stranger that you don’t bruth your teeth and you teach your child not to either. Talk about the (actually very real) matter of fluorosis–discoloration of the teeth due to overexposure to fluoride, as found in toothpaste. Mention any other method of dental hygiene one could possibly use. See how much brushing one’s teeth really doesn’t fit the “New Religion” criteria as much as atheism.

  215. Jon

    208: Tooth brushers don’t make metaphysical claims. Daniel Dennett *does* make metaphysical claims. He would like you to think they’re beyond dispute and he’d prefer you forget that he’s even making them. But they’re there.

  216. Jon

    (Whoops, should be 216.)

  217. TTT

    I’m sure a Toothbrushist “would like you to think” they’re not making metaphysical claims either. But how many of them know the chemical mechanism by which brushing their teeth protects their health? Would you say, 1%? For most intents and purposes, it’s a doctrinaire rote ritual. You are certainly more likely to find a Toothbrushist who believes some supernatural magic fairy is protecting their teeth than you are to find an atheist who believes any supernatural force is doing anything.

    And that’s the point, really. It isn’t enough to DO something. You have to do it because there’s a fairy involved. This is the problem with the attempted slippery-sloping of “religion” to refer to just plain ol’ anything that people just plain ol’ do. I’m an ecologist, I get this all the time about recycling or not buying rainforest hardwoods. Trust me, it doesn’t get any more clever the Nth-squared time.

  218. John Kwok

    @ Greywizard –

    No “religious” scientist I have either heard or met – with the sole exception of creationists, including those from the Discovery Institue – would ever consider putting their religious faith ahead of their obligations as professional scientists. This was especially brought home to me last month, when I heard both Ken Miller and Vatican Observatory astronomer and planetary scientist – and Jesuit brother – Guy Consolmagno observe that, whenever religion and science conflict, then science MUST HAVE PRECEDENCE over religion (World Science Festival’s Science Faith panel discussion, June 2009). If this is a genuine example of “accomodationism” that certain Militant Atheists have been screaming about, then I must respectfully submit that the charge of “accomodationism” against these scientists and professional science advocacy and scientific organizations like NCSE, NAS and AAAS is an exceedingly shallow one indeed, and one not worthy of comment, except in the form of harsh condemnation by an eminent scientist like marine ecologist and paleoecologist Jeremy Jacskon.

  219. John Kwok

    @ 220 –

    Darn it, some more typos:

    1) World Science Festival Science Faith Religion panel discussion
    2) marine ecologist and paleoecologist Jeremy Jackson

  220. Sorbet

    When did RD oversimplify evolutionary issues? In which book and which paragraph?

  221. ndt

    I think the authors of this book are making the same mistake Democratic politicians have been making for the past eight years – they are assuming the other side consists of reasonable people who are arguing in good faith. The truth is there are powerful people who want to keep the population ignorant, because they know an ignorant population is more easily manipulated. They know good science education empowers people to make informed decisions, and they don’t want that.

  222. Greywizard

    John Kwok, this is irrelevant. The point is an epistemic one, not a matter of whether this or that scientist is at once a scientist and a religious believer. The problem of accomodationism, that is, actually holding that science and religion are (epistemically) compatible, is that it hasn’t been shown, and until it is shown, it is an improper claim for a scientist to make. That work still has to be done. So, it makes no difference whether the scientists you mention are or are not religious. This is wholly irrelevant. The claim of the accomodationist is that there is an epistemic compatibility between science and religion. When you and Chris and Sheril and Guy Consolmagno and Ken Miller and Francis Collins have demonstrated this compatibility, not just asserted it, then I will be content, but until that epistemic work remains to be done, any claim to compatibility is an empty one. Not only is it empty, but it gives comfort to religious people which they do not deserve.

    PZ and Ophelia and Jerry Coyne and Russell Blackford have made this point over and over and over again. Is it worth pointing out that no one has yet answered them?

  223. Damian

    Dear Mr Kwok,

    I have not interacted with you, previously, but it would appear that pointing to a simple statement of fact (which can be checked with relative ease), as well as having an opinion about the quality of PZ’s science writing, is apparently enough to be labeled as having PZ as my hero. It’s factually incorrect, of course, but apart from that…..

    And you do realize that it says a whole lot more about you than it does about me? I’ll let the reader decide, in any case, because I’m not going to take the bait, quite frankly. I have better things to do.

  224. murci3lag0

    @C&S:

    guys you’re too much young and unexperienced (yes even if you have worked in the field for some years). It’s bad when your own book entitled “unscientific america” is perciebed as unscientific. It means two things: either you don’t understand science or you can’t manage to communicate your own message. Be humble and accept the critics. Maybe next time you’re going to make a better job.

  225. John Kwok

    @ Greywizard –

    I think Ken Miller and Guy Consolmagno demonstrate their commitment to science, recognizing, quite appropriately, that their religious views should remain on the “back burner” whenever they are considering scientific issues. As for “accomodationism”, I think that is an increasingly hollow – and quite shrill – charge voiced by a few who have been demonstrating eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s contention that atheism is a “stealth religion”. IMHO their behavior is increasingly no different than, for example, the likes of such “notable” Dishonesty Institute characters as William A. Dembski, David Klinghoffer, Casey Luskin, Paul Nelson or Jonathan Wells.

    @ Damian –

    You certainly came across as someone who regarded as his hero, my “favorite” Morris, MN-based biologist. Had you not phrased your comments in the manner that you did, I wouldn’t have jumped to such conclusions. So please accept my apology. But I do stand behind what I said with regards to Dawkins and Zimmer being far more effective communicators of science to the general public than he shall ever be.

  226. John Kwok

    @ murici3lago –

    Assuming that even half of the criticisms of “Unscientific America” are valid – and I must note that Coyne seems to have begun a rather extensive, perhaps quite effective, harsh review over at his blog – I think it may speak more to the inexperience of both C & S. Personally while I believe this book is long overdue, someone more notable, such as, for example, philosopher Philip Kitcher, sociologist Dorothy Nelkin, skeptic Michael Shermer, in collaboration with a scientist well-versed in public relations outreach, might have made this into a much better, more insightful, book. However, I will not weigh in formally until I have had a chance to read and to review “Unscientific America”.

  227. Erassmusimo @132: You open your post with these sentences: “Several people have offered statements regarding various religious beliefs, to the effect that religions do indeed make assertions of fact. I suspect that they underestimate the complexity of religion as a social phenomenon. ” which leads me t believe that your aim with the post is to refute the sstatements.

    Then you say: “Yes, there are plenty of believers who hold absurd superstitious beliefs. But there are also plenty of scientists who hold what are, IMO, absurd political beliefs. […]”

    The […] means the rest of your post, which, along with the quoted sentences has nothing to do with the issue you proposed to address, namely whether religions make assertions of fact or not.

    They do: Prayer heals the sick is as much an assertion of fact as the Laws of Newton. One of them was shown to be false, by the way. Care to guess which one?

  228. Greywizard

    Well, John Kwok, that is probably the emptiest statement you’ve made yet. No one is questioning Ken Miller’s commitment to science, for example. But he has made claims about the consistency between religious claims and scientific ones. This is something open to judgement, and certainly, he has not made his case. It may be your opinion that Jerry Coyne’s behaviour is not much diferent from Dembski’s, but that is, indeed, a very humble opinion, as it should be, because the claim is ridiculous.

    It is up to religious believers to show that the epistemic ground of religious claims is as secure as scientific claims, and that the two are compatible, in order to demonstrate compatibility. In the absence of such evidence, the accomdationist argument is damaging to science, since religious claims run the gamut from the belief that Rama was born in Ayodya, to the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. Now, it may be that the religious take these beliefs as myths, and therefore as making no claim about the world, but, if so, they are not compatible with science, they are simply irrelevant.

    It is pointless to go on with the discussion as it is being carried out here, and by Chris and Sheril, because the claim is an epistemic one. Those who are making the claim have to make good on the evidence. Whatever Kitcher or Miller of Collins say, there is something that religious believers must do in order to make the point that religion and science are compatible. They must show that there is an epistemic basis for this claim, and they must make clear exactly what religious beliefs do, and how they function in relationship to scientific claims. In the absence of this, unbelieving scientists are right to hold out for evidence for accomodationist claims, and it is silly to continue arguing in this way about it.

    So, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to show how religious claims function, and how they are compatible with the claims made by science. Failing this, it would be better just to shut up about it until you can do it, and that goes, in my humble opinion, for people like Collins and Miller too. This is all really like falling down the rabbit hole, you know, and joining Alice and all the dizzy crew of Wonderland.

  229. Marc

    #230: “It is up to religious believers to show that the epistemic ground of religious claims is as secure as scientific claims, and that the two are compatible, in order to demonstrate compatibility.”

    This is simply a fallacy, full stop. You’re trying to define religious questions as scientific ones, which is not at all the form in which religious people use them. I can define questions that you can’t answer with the scientific method. One can believe, for example, that God set the laws of physics in motion and caused the Big Bang. You *should* know that you can neither prove this nor the opposite.

    Now I suspect that you think such a claim is just self-evident nonsense, but your arrogant demand that your particular system of assumptions is the default true one has no logical basis whatsoever. It’s no different in kind than a religious person demanding that you “prove” there is no God, or “prove” that Jesus was not the son of god, or that Mohammed was not the prophet of Allah.

  230. MHB

    Jon, are the Mormons and JWs that show up at my front door “militant theists?” How about the Saddleback Church with their recruiting flyers? They’re much more “aggressively active” than any atheists in my life, including PZ – I only see or hear him when I look for him.

    How about the pope, and oh, maybe anyone who says “I’m a Christian?”

    The “militant atheist” tag is tossed at anyone with the temerity to suggest in public or even private conversions that they don’t believe in a deity. Why wouldn’t the same apply to theists, unless you only want to conjure up images of militant as in “militant Islamics” for atheists to help keep them in the closet.

    So you’re a militant accomodationist?

  231. John Kwok

    @ Greywizard –

    Why would I want to honor your request? I am not very religious myself, regarding Deism as my faith.

    But you should remember what the Dalai Lama has said about Buddhism’s relationship with science, which Chris Mooney posted here at the Intersection a while back. Even a great theologian like him recognizes that science is more important than religion on practical issues of the day. Last, but not least, I am convinced that the Dalai Lama, Philip Kitcher, Guy Consolmagno, Ken Miller, Jeremy Jackson, Eugenie Scott and other leading intellectuals on either side of the science – religion divide have been, ironically, far more rational in presenting their positions than any of the so-called “New Atheists”. Sadly, it is merely a fair comparison to state that “New Atheists” have sounded more like Dishonesty Institute mendacious intellectual pornographers than their fellow scientists who don’t despise religion.

  232. John Kwok

    @ MHB –

    If I am as militant an “accomodationist” as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams or even Charles Darwin was, then I gladly accept the label. Moreover, it is one that I wear proudly, having gone to college in a state well known for being an important early promotor of religious tolerance, Rhode Island.

  233. Tulse

    “You’re trying to define religious questions as scientific ones, which is not at all the form in which religious people use them. ”

    So the claim that the earth is 6000 years old is not a scientific question? The claim that all species were created independently is not a scientific question?

    “I can define questions that you can’t answer with the scientific method. One can believe, for example, that God set the laws of physics in motion and caused the Big Bang. You *should* know that you can neither prove this nor the opposite.”

    Right, and as many many atheist writers have said, such watered-down Deism is perhaps the only form of religious belief that does not conflict with science. But once you start adding in seas parting and dead people rising, you’ve entered into the realm of scientifically addressable claims.

  234. Marc

    #236: Grey didn’t make those distinctions. It’s quite true that some religions make claims testable with the scientific method; we have no reason to be timid when discussing the true age of the Earth, for example.

    That is very different from making sweeping claims about Religion. There’s far too much of that going on here. Saying that science has a problem with biblical literalism is true; saying that science has a problem with religion is equivalent to saying that science has a problem with philosophy or art. It’s not even wrong until you define your terms.

  235. tomh

    @ #237 Marc said: “It’s quite true that some religions make claims testable with the scientific method”

    No, all religions make testable claims. (Here’s a clue, Deism is not a religion. There is no Church of Deism, it has no tax-exempt status, it’s merely some wooly-headed worldview that can’t be defined.) Buddhism makes testable claims, lots of them, as does every other known religion. And every one of them fails every test.

  236. John Kwok

    @ tomh –

    Deism is a faith. I subscribe to it. I believe that GOD exists. If this isn’t a religion, in which I recognize a supreme deity, then maybe you don’t understand that there have been – and there still are – many people over the centuries who have accepted a concept of GOD removed from prevailing Judeo – Christian notions, including, of course, such notables as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

  237. Marc

    #239: *every religion fails every test.* Right – just like Palin reads all newspapers. Read “on questions not leading to enlightenment” from the Buddhist tradition and get back to me. Godel wouldn’t hurt either. Here’s a clue for you : Deism is a set of beliefs which people *within many religious traditions* hold. The wooly-headed person here is the one who doesn’t bother to define their terms and who makes sweeping claims with no evidence whatsoever.

    Scientists know not to spout off about things that they know nothing about, and we’re precise in our language. You don’t appear to understand the limits of a system of logic based on axioms. I’m seeing an awful lot of allegedly rational people saying deeply illogical, ignorant, and irrational things. Call your fanaticism what you will, but don’t pretend that it has anything to do with science.

  238. tomh

    @ #242 “Scientists know not to spout off about things that they know nothing about”

    And yet here you are, spouting off about religion.

  239. Woody Tanaka

    Andrew McCarthy

    “Woody Tanaka, I don’t think it’s much to the credit of Dawkinsism that the best it can come up with against religion is an analogy to Star Wars fans.”

    And I don’t think it’s much to the credit of Christian theology that there is little more of actual substance to it, in any rational sense, than there is in the collective fiction of fans of a thirty-year old B movie.

    “But, they did seem awfully impressed with his jr. high level knowledge of theology, history and other topics in TGD.”

    And interesting to me that of all the people who believe that Dawkins supposedly has such limited education on gibberish such as theology, and who decry his book on the grounds that Dawkins in no expert in such gibberish, has shown that the application of such arcane nonsense establishes the falsity of his argument.

    “As I’ve been saying, the new atheism is shallow as well as bigoted.”

    LOL… as compared to what? Old theism? New theism? Any theism? LOL.

  240. Woody Tanaka

    Errr.., should have read “none has shown that the application…”

  241. Knockgoats

    “When Sagan was most prominently under fire, it was because he was taking political stands relating to science–standing up for arms control, opposing “Star Wars,” etc. And in these actions, he sought to form broad coalitions, including the religious. He was standing up for causes that everyone, every kind of person, could get behind. Dawkins, on the other hand, is standing up for a particularly uncompromising form of atheism. Again, that’s his right. But it’s vastly different from a cause like nuclear disarmament.”

    Dawkins was an early, prominent and articulate opponent of the invasion of Iraq, alongside, to name but one, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has also worked together with religious leaders in opposing attempts to sneak creationism into British schools. Perhaps you should have made some effort to find out about these very public activities before publishing your snotty criticisms.

  242. Chris and Sheril write: in regard of their presentation of the Pluto affair” The results of science should never be subject to popular vote.”

    Then what were Chris and Sheril thinking of when they wrote: “The International Astronomical Union (IAU)… opted to poke the public with a sharp stick”, “Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such an outcry from the public? Did they simply not care?”

    And the IAU did care, they had numerous journalists briefed on the issue, detailed press releases with press- friendly images, web sites, video broadcasts, video interviews on the internet, alll leading up to the massive coverage of the final vote. The final vote took place with simple general-public friendly illustrations to show how everything fitted together. And there was a big lead up to this, the high profile discoveries of Sedna and Eris (“Xena”, the “10th planet”) kept the “is Pluto a planet” debate in focus, there were websites about the planet issue linked to these high profile discoveries, and articles in such obscure publications as “The New York Times” (that was humor, by the way) about the planet issue all leading up to the IAU meeting.

    Given the amount of public outreach that was devoted to this issue, in both traditional and non-traditional media, by both the IAU and concerned astronomers themselves what more could possibly be done?

    You can read a fuller history of the the Pluto Affair at this post on my blog

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