The Beginning of a Crazy Week: Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Seattle

By Chris Mooney | August 2, 2009 9:47 pm

While SK is bringing in hometown headlines, I’m on the road. I just got to California, and have the following events this week:

Monday, August 3
6:30 PM
The Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley
Kellogg Auditorium
3005 Tasman Dr.
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Talk followed by discussion moderated by Kevin Padian, President, National Center for Science Education. Cosponsored by the Yale Club of Silicon Valley.

Wednesday, August 5
7:00 PM
Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD Event
630 W. 5th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Chris Mooney in conversation with NPR’s Margaret Wertheim

Thursday, August 6
7:00 PM
University Bookstore
4326 University Way N.E.
Seattle, WA 98105

We’re also doing umpteen radio interviews and other media, more on all that soon. Stop in if you’re in LA, Seattle, or the Bay Area….

Comments (17)

  1. Peter Beattie

    I was just wondering if you were planning to say a word or two about the second part of Jason Rosenhouse’s rather thoughtful review of UA.

  2. Jon

    Jason got some pretty basic things wrong in his review. He omits the fact that Chris mentioned the death threats. And also Rosenhouse dealt with the issue of religion pretty superficially, not addressing the difficult nature of public dialog about religion (it’s not a question of “privilege,” just difficulty), and conflating monotheism with the belief in ghosts (your knowledge of religion has to be pretty thin to put Spinoza and seance mediums in the same boat).

  3. Sent out a local notice for the session tonight. I note that the Commonwealth Club managed to promote the session leaving out two of Chris and Sheril’s criticisms: that of the religious issues and the effect of the pseudo science in the entertainment industry. Par for the course as Silicon Valley is always chasing the next entertainment big new thing.

  4. Peter Beattie

    » Jon:
    Jason got some pretty basic things wrong in his review. He omits the fact that Chris mentioned the death threats.

    Jason never said M&K don’t mention them. The point he makes is that M&K got “some pretty basic things wrong” in their book, namely stupidly or maliciously misattributing PZ’s “demented fuckwits” comment as being directed at belivers in general when it is as plain as daylight that the remark was directed at the people making the death threats. If you want to complain about people getting the most basic things wrong, I suggest you start with the owners of this blog.

  5. Jon

    “Mooney and Kirshenbaum, hereafter M and K, provide no specifics of this overreaction.”

    Yes, he said they made death threats.

  6. Peter Beattie

    Jon, I read that differently, to the effect that M&K didn’t explain how the context made PZ hatch his desecration plan. But your reading isn’t unreasonable, I’ll happily grant you that. Would you then agree that M&K’s distortion of pretty basic facts (the Myers quote about “demented fuckwits”) is at least as reprehensible?

  7. Jon

    I’d have to read the full context of the “demented f——” quote.

    I do feel like M&K weren’t fair earlier in the book when they casted a false equivalence between the new atheists and the Christian right. I think the new atheists are ham handed, tin-eared and not well informed about religion. I think they’d do horribly in a public culture war. But they aren’t the equivalent of the Christian right by any stretch.

    One thing to think about–maybe M&K might have put in these kinds of hip checks because they knew they’d get this kind of overblown reaction? I don’t think they’re fair (the equivalence between the new atheists and the Christian right peeved *me* when I read them, and my sympathy level for the new atheists is pretty low) but they did get a reaction–perhaps intended?

  8. Jon

    Overall, though, I have to agree with Miller that there was nothing all that personal about Chris’s “crackergate” description.

    I think Chris could have fixed the “demented f——” thing, and the false equivalence I mentioned earlier, and he *still* would have gotten an overblown reaction.

  9. Paul

    I think the new atheists are…not well informed about religion

    You keep accusing New Atheists of not being well informed about religion. I’m really curious where you’re pulling that from. Most of the New Atheists I’ve come across are more versed in religion than the vast majority of the pew fillers I encountered during my church years (and more than most of the clergy). Arguing that there is no more evidence for YHWH than there is for the FSM does not show a failure to be informed about religion, it only reflects the refusal to buy the premises set forth by religious types without any supporting evidence (which is a well-known double standard that was politely allowed before the New Atheists started getting more vocal, and probably the root of most ill will towards them).

    IOW, [citation needed]

  10. Jon

    I’m really curious where you’re pulling that from.

    I keep saying it over and over and over, with very few intelligent replies.

    The New Atheists read religion as a type of science. That’s a category mistake, as Terry Eagleton said. You can’t read religion as a substitute physical science. Trying to know the physical universe and trying to save souls (epistemology and soteriology) are different businesses. Not to say that they can’t collide, but they’re not the same either. I think the New Atheists want to say that soteriology doesn’t exist, and their epistemology (science) cancels it out–even though just about every civilization that has existed has had a version of it.

    Further, there are other methods of knowing things other than the physical sciences, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out:

    http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf

    They are entitled to their opinion, that the physical sciences encompass everything, but they should at least be aware of the merits of the other views, and not treat everyone else like they’re stoopid. Because there are some very intelligent, informed people who disagree with them. And if you can’t even win your arguments in ivory towers, good luck in the public square.

    I think if they ever took one side in a public culture war they’d be like bulls in a china shop. And we can’t afford that.

  11. Peter Beattie

    » Jon:
    Overall, though, I have to agree with Miller that there was nothing all that personal about Chris’s “crackergate” description.

    I can’t comment on that, since I haven’t read UA. But what abou’t Miller’s latest salvo? He says: “As a result, Myers and his supporters have reacted to these 12 pages of Unscientific America with extraordinary levels of outrage (see, for example, Myers’ final response to the book).” Do you see any outrage in the “final response”?

    I think Chris could have fixed the “demented f——” thing, and the false equivalence I mentioned earlier, and he *still* would have gotten an overblown reaction.

    He would still have got a reaction to his claim that the Uncompromising Atheists hurt the cause of scientific literacy, because the evidence for that would still be missing. Or are we missing something?

  12. Paul

    Jon,

    You don’t get to make that claim unless you’re a Deist. Religions make assertions about natural events and phenomena. It’s not a category error to point out there is no evidence for the many assertions religions make, and many of them are rather easy to show as implausible or even impossible.

    New Atheists want to say that soteriology doesn’t exist, and their epistemology (science) cancels it out–even though just about every civilization that has existed has had a version of it.

    Nice hatchet job on the strawman. New Atheists will say there’s no evidence for a soul, therefore no need for salvation. You’re basically saying “New Atheists don’t believe religion exists, and therefore are ignorant” when it is actual religious beliefs they disbelieve, and expect nobody to call you on it since you’re pulling out words with more of a theological basis. New Atheists don’t believe in a soul, so that would imply soteriology is as bunk as Christianity. This does not mean that they lack any sort of theological grounding or basic religious knowledge (which is what you keep saying, they lack information about religion). It is just another case of New Atheists refusing to buy unproven premises without evidence — which is, again, ostensibly why so many people are rubbed so wrongly by them. You haven’t shown New Atheists to be ill-informed about religion, even by analogy or anecdote. All you keep complaining about is how they do not grant special respect to certain beliefs over and above what you would expect for other beliefs.

  13. jon

    Chris is what you call an “opinion journalist.” He writes opinion based on his experience on his beat and supporting facts.

    I think the opinion that ridiculing, often with ill informed, categorical statements is bound to alienate people that you might otherwise reach. I don’t have a Pew study that says that, but I think it’s within the bounds of common sense, and I think it’s a warranted conclusion for an opinion journalist to reach. Disagree? Do a study and publish it. If it proves Chris wrong, I’m sure he’d have to take it into account.

  14. jon

    Here’s the problem withe some of the comments above: There are many ways you could define the word soul, many of which (if you’re arguing in good faith and not just being contrary) you might accept. Also, not everyone is a strict scientific empiricist when it comes to epistemology. There are many people who are very well informed and intelligent who don’t base all they believe on scientific style empiricism. There are a lot of possible, reasonable views.

    My point in saying this, since there are a lot of possible views, some of them very personally held, is that many of these things are viewed as matters of conscience. There is a tradition of not discussing them in the manner of talking heads on Fox News, because everyone would tear each other apart. And the fact that not everyone has the same level of education throws another factor into the mix.

    Also, everyone on these boards seems to have the idea that only deism comports with science. I don’t think that’s right. Just throwing out some words from what little I remember from undergrad: Pantheism? Panentheism?

  15. Peter Beattie

    » jon:
    I think it’s a warranted conclusion for an opinion journalist to reach. Disagree? Do a study and publish it.

    Are you for real? I can make up any BS if it helps me publish my opinion, and other people would then have to do a study to prove me wrong? You should go read a book about scientific illiteracy. No, wait…

  16. jon

    If I tell you your religious views are stupid, and by the way you should listen more to people like me, do I need to do a study before I can have an opinion about how effective that will be? If so, that doesn’t seem like science, it seems like autism.

  17. Paul

    I think the opinion that ridiculing, often with ill informed, categorical statements is bound to alienate people that you might otherwise reach. I don’t have a Pew study that says that, but I think it’s within the bounds of common sense, and I think it’s a warranted conclusion for an opinion journalist to reach. Disagree? Do a study and publish it. If it proves Chris wrong, I’m sure he’d have to take it into account.

    You’re missing the main reason for the criticism. If the criticism was “offensive atheist bloggers turn people off to atheism”, we wouldn’t be asking for evidence for the assertion. We might be arguing the degree of damage they do, and weigh it against the positives for being noticed and letting closeted atheists realize they are not alone. But it would be a different argument. The criticism was “atheist bloggers turn people off to science”, which is nowhere near as clear or straightforward, and damn well better come with evidence (see: extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, this isn’t a new concept). And asking church pastors if they think atheists turn people off of science isn’t exactly a good form of evidence; I’ve known pastors that will blame atheists for anything from their numbers dwindling to the war in Iraq.

    As for “Chris is an opinion journalist, he doesn’t need evidence”, I doubt we’d have a problem if he stated at the beginning that his claims are unevidenced and he’s just “telling it how he sees it” and used language throughout that gives that impression. He makes fact claims, which are not matters of opinion. Making positive fact claims requires you establish the truth (or at least evidence for) your statements.

    Here’s the problem withe some of the comments above: There are many ways you could define the word soul, many of which (if you’re arguing in good faith and not just being contrary) you might accept

    I’d be curious for you to give me one. I’ve never heard one that wasn’t an unneeded proposition or at best a metaphor for physical processes (and we don’t argue over the existence of metaphorical descriptions).

    Also, not everyone is a strict scientific empiricist when it comes to epistemology. There are many people who are very well informed and intelligent who don’t base all they believe on scientific style empiricism. There are a lot of possible, reasonable views.

    I’ve known Wiccans. They disagree with the Christians. The Christians have no problem demonizing them. But we’re not even allowed to mention that their epistemology has no more grounding in physical evidence than the Wiccans? Do you see the double standard that New Atheists are fighting against? As for intelligent people who don’t base their beliefs on empiricism, I really don’t care. Whatever gets them through the day. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to point out that they’re for all intents and purposes filling their worldview with items that tend to not make logical sense and that they refuse to put through the slightest amount of objective critical thought (which is really the best tool we have for determining what is and what is not). They can believe whatever they want, but there is nothing wrong with pointing out that their beliefs are ungrounded.

    My point in saying this, since there are a lot of possible views, some of them very personally held, is that many of these things are viewed as matters of conscience.

    And you’re saying that’s a good thing? It’s sick that it’s considered a good thing for people to define themselves by ungrounded beliefs that are not subject to critical scrutiny. If they’re happy evaluating their beliefs with regard to how they reflect the real world they inhabit, that’s fine. I don’t care, they mean little to me. But that doesn’t mean we should refrain from trying to understand the real world, nor allow their refusal to educate themselves affect society at large.

    There is a tradition of not discussing them in the manner of talking heads on Fox News, because everyone would tear each other apart.

    Actually, the tradition of not discussing them is that they all believe the same thing at Fox News. That’s why they tend to be race-baiting, atheist bashing Christians. I’d also like you to explain why this “not discussing” beliefs doesn’t extend to not bashing atheists at large, who are just living with their “very personally held” beliefs. If you can answer that, you might realize why New Atheists can get angry. We’re the only acceptable group to attack when it comes to supernatural beliefs (or lack thereof).

    And the fact that not everyone has the same level of education throws another factor into the mix.

    I don’t see how this fits with your argument. I thought you were saying lots of intelligent people have beliefs that do not fall under “scientific style empiricism”. I don’t get why you mentioned this point.

    This is one reason I would not insult the intelligence of a religious person. Perhaps they were never introduced to critical thinking or logic. Perhaps they simply were raised soaked with god belief, and were so indoctrinated that they didn’t think there was an alternative, and bought the line that everyone not in their particular sect was a covert operative of the devil (I was totally in the former group, the latter was just too much though). There are many factors. It is unfortunate. One might posit that this is why the Religious Right are always pushing to abolish the public school system, as well as any programs for social welfare and birth control education (teenage pregnancy being correlated with lower education levels).

    Also, everyone on these boards seems to have the idea that only deism comports with science. I don’t think that’s right. Just throwing out some words from what little I remember from undergrad: Pantheism? Panentheism?

    Well, as far as I’m concerned, Deism fails parsimony and as such is unnecessary in a scientific model. However, I don’t care enough to criticize Deists for believing there was some entity or other that started up the universe and then promptly ignored it (there’s no counter-evidence, anyway). At the risk of oversimplification, Pantheism is saying that everything is part of God. At this point we’re just looking at a metaphor, and I have trouble actually considering it a religion or form of God-belief. It requires that everything is part of a greater, sentient whole, and that is not something that can be said to be compatible with science at this point (as far as I know, anyway). It’s just atheism for people who want the word God to still be relevant. Panentheism is ignored on the same grounds.

    If I tell you your religious views are stupid, and by the way you should listen more to people like me, do I need to do a study before I can have an opinion about how effective that will be? If so, that doesn’t seem like science, it seems like autism.

    You’re not out of straw yet? And you have the nerve to ask if I’m arguing in good faith. If I tell you your religious views are stupid, and by the way gravity makes things fall, are you going to start disbelieving gravity? Science isn’t a popularity contest. If you’re saying that people will refuse to believe in scientific principles because atheists think their religion is stupid, [citation needed].

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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