A Trio of Responses to Jerry Coyne’s Attack on Unscientific America

By The Intersection | October 21, 2009 10:48 am

Two months have passed since the prominent journal Science published a highly misleading review of our book, Unscientific America, by Jerry Coyne. From the very first sentence, Coyne misrepresented the text, charging that according to Unscientific America, the problem of American scientific illiteracy “derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public.” This is not what we argue, nor what we think, nor a position we could possibly defend.

When the review first came out in August, we were surprised to see it, as Coyne had already attacked our book online, and we had felt compelled to blog a response that corrected several of his errors and misrepresentations.

However, we did not immediately respond to Coyne’s Science review, both because we didn’t want to blog our response to something published in a journal and also because we were very busy. Chris got married. Sheril completed a manuscript. But we were not the only ones surprised by what Coyne had written; Joshua Rosenau, who had read our book and reviewed it, felt compelled to rebut Coyne’s Science review at length, observing the following:

A review in the top scientific journal is a fairly rarified entity, one with various rules and expectations. Not least among those expectations is that the reviewer will give an honest account of the book as written, and will take issue with the authors’ actual claims, not with imagined enemies. I took classes with Coyne as an undergraduate at Chicago; I know him to be an honest and honorable man, a scrupulous researcher, and dedicated to thoughtful and open discourse. Thus, my expectations for his review were rather high. I hoped he would rise out of the muck which has surrounded the book online, and give a fair look at it, however assuredly critical it might be.

Instead, I cannot characterize his review as anything but bullshit [note: Rosenau is using the word “bullshit” in the sense made famous by Harry Frankfurt, e.g., not lying, but simply not caring about the truth or accuracy]….

Rosenau detailed the many ways in which Coyne misrepresented our book on fundamental matters–e.g., what is the problem it identifies, what are the causes of that problem, and so on. We encourage readers to go through Rosenau’s entire post, which contains numerous rebuttals, followed by more accurate descriptions of what Unscientific America argues.

And that’s just the beginning. On Friday, Science published two eLetters in response to Coyne’s review, one by a doctor and professor who has read our book and a second by us. Let us quote from the former first, for it parallels Rosenau’s reaction. The letter is from Donald Marcus, who is at Baylor College of Medicine and who opens with the following:

J. Coyne’s Book Review of Unscientific America by C. Mooney and S. Kirshenbaum (”Selling science,” 7 August 2009, p. 678) doesn’t serve the basic function of describing the scope and contents of a book. His review is a dismissive rant that misrepresents the text.

Marcus then substantiates his assertions; please read his own words. (Indeed, anyone wishing to really follow this matter should ideally read not only our book, but all of the links in this post.) Marcus concludes as follows:

The book [Unscientific America] is clear and lively, and it includes 66 pages of notes containing references and citations. In addition to providing little information about the book, the review is an example of an intemperate style that is an obstacle to civil discourse. It is unworthy of Science.

Finally, there is our own reaction. You can read it at the same link. It starts like this:

The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” A similar rule applies to book reviews: Every reviewer is entitled to dislike a particular book, but not to misrepresent its arguments and contents.

Unfortunately, J. Coyne has taken the latter course with our book Unscientific America (”Selling science,” Book Reviews, 7 August 2009, p. 678). He calls our work “shallow and unreflective,” but virtually every time he tries to describe it he makes an error–either attributing to us views and positions we do not hold, or claiming the book lacks content that it actually does contain.

We then proceed to correct Coyne on many points, but here is a typical example:

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Coyne’s review is his use of our own arguments to attack the positions he incorrectly attributes to us. For instance, take Coyne’s observation that “The public’s reluctance to accept scientific facts may reflect not just a lack of exposure but a willful evasion of facts due to conflicting economic agendas (e.g., the case of global warming) personal agendas (vaccines), or religious agendas.” Yes, but how is this a strike against our book? We deal with such factors from the outset; Coyne even quotes our observation that “college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.” Coyne writes that “the problem of an ‘unscientific America’ may be far more complex than the authors let on,” but in truth, we describe the problem with far more complexity than Coyne lets on.

You can read our full letter here. We regret having to respond at such length, but we felt that the need to set the record straight was that compelling.

Indeed, we are not the only authors who have felt compelled to respond in this manner to one of Coyne’s book reviews. As Robert Wright has put it:

Here is a partial list of false or misleading things Jerry Coyne says about my book The Evolution of God in his review of it in The New Republic. I want to emphasize that I think these are innocent mistakes…If Coyne wants to write a devastating review of my book—and there can be little doubt that he wants to—he’s going to have to start over.

Like Wright, we do not know why Coyne misrepresented our book so badly. But again: we had already corrected several Coyne’s misrepresentations online before his Science review appeared. Secondly, Coyne has been in a very heated debate with us (and was before the Science review came out); and has called our work “shallow, unreflective, and not worth buying or reading,” among other denunciations contained in the Science review and elsewhere.

In a forthcoming post, we plan to say more about the broader context in which Coyne’s attack on Unscientific America needs to be understood. For now, let us close by saying that we’re saddened at the need for these responses, but we’re also fortunate that others have come to our defense, unasked, and have been willing to further set the record straight.


Comments (76)

  1. bilbo

    I really hate to see someone who’s as good of a scientist and a writer as Jerry Coyne stoop to purposeful misrepresentations and out-of-context quotations in what should be an objective book review. And it also disappoints me that the editors of Science would let such blatant misrepresentations get published in such a respected journal. The parallels between how Coyne used twisted, out-of-context quotations in Robert Wright’s review and this one are far from coincidental: it’s fairly clear that Coyne has an agenda to push (or a vendetta to stoke?) against certain authors and topics.

    Now we all get the pleasure of watching Coyne post yet ANOTHER red-faced, huffing rebuttal where he only uses more out-of-context phrases and misrepresentations. I swear – the more the blogs, the less relevant he becomes.

  2. Gaythia

    Obviously a reputable journal would be expected to select experts in the field to review another work. However, I believe that more attention needs to be paid to the complex interrelationships between reviewers and the material being reviewed. At least in the case of a book review, the author of the review is listed, and a knowledgable reader would be able to infer a context.

    Perhaps the whole process of reviewing needs to be reviewed.

  3. Jon

    Coyne probably thought to himself (consciously? unconsciously?) “if I attack Mooney, even sloppily, who’s going to bother to defend him? No one that matters.”

    The tactic reminds me of some of the conclusions drawn by historian Rick Perlstein in his study of Richard Nixon. If Nixon attacked certain people, it didn’t matter if he was wrong, what mattered was exciting certain in-groups and out-groups.

    Nixon was the original culture warrior. On Coyne’s site I once saw him waxing nostalgic for that era (civil rights, Viet Nam, etc.). Some of us (perhaps because we don’t have the baggage of living through that era) would just like to get beyond the culture war spectacle (which I think serves certain parties), and actually get to a public discussion that makes sense, instead of one’s that’s all hopped up on culture war-driven sensationalism.

    Damon Linker put it well in the New Republic:

    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. The task for the rest of us–committed to neither dogmatic faith nor dogmatic doubt–is to make certain that combatants on both sides of the theological divide fail to get their destructive way.

  4. bilbo

    “The tactic reminds me of some of the conclusions drawn by historian Rick Perlstein in his study of Richard Nixon. If Nixon attacked certain people, it didn’t matter if he was wrong, what mattered was exciting certain in-groups and out-groups.

    Some of us would just like to get beyond the culture war spectacle and actually get to a public discussion that makes sense, instead of one’s that’s all hopped up on culture war-driven sensationalism. ”

    Absolutely. About 90% of everything Coyne writes (or PZ Myers, or any New Atheist, for that matter) is only done to get a rise from the peanut gallery and to piss the other side off. There’s very little “meat” to any of it once you wade through the fecal-pool of hyperbole, out-of-context bunk, and ad hominems.

    I, for one hand, fall into the group of those who would actually like to see some change for the better rather than seeing how many points we can keep from our childish blog snot-throwing. After all this time, it should be clear that shocking rhetoric does a piss-poor job of changing anyone.

  5. Daniel J.

    As a fellow evolutionary biologist, I can’t help but see Jerry Coyne’s actions as a reviewer as nothing else but as a disgrace to science, in general. After this review and Robert Wright’s, it’s clear that Coyne is letting personal feuds get in the way of what should be a professional, objective assessment. Although I don’t personally side with Robert Wright or Mooney/Kirshenbaum in many of their assessments, I also see that Dr. Coyne has blatantly used out of context quotations and misrepresentations in his reviews of both books. There’s little debate that this is a personal agenda on the part of Coyne.

    If the goal of Dr. Coyne and others like him are to promote an understanding of science, they are doing a pathetic job of representing the field by stooping to levels that would be sub-standard in any discipline, much less a field as lofty as science. Dr. Coyne’s shoddy reviews and immature blog posts regrettably lower my respect for him as a writer, researcher, and overall scientist…despite his prior achievements in the field.

    What a waste.

  6. Davo

    On a somewhat related point, here is a talk PZ Myers gave at the humanist association. It is a refreshing and pleasant change from much of the vitriol and rhetoric. Quite reflective and reasoned.

  7. gillt

    Lets clear a few things up. Mooney said Coyne “attacked” his book online when in fact Coyne criticized the book, the multiple post-spanning theme being general lack of content.

    Next, Mooney quotes Donald Marcus who said he didn’t like Coyne’s review in Science because of the tone. Additionally, the professor, in grand pedantic form, gave the review an F because it didn’t follow a proper book review format (apparently all book reviews should be general summaries and not critiques over specific points). That’s all Donald Marcus had to say.

    Mooney quotes from Rosenau from a post Rosenau wrote criticizing Coyne’s Science review. The last half of the post is Rosenau quoting Coyne, then insisting Coyne is misrepresenting UA. Good for him. All it would take to convince the rest of us would be for Rosenau to quote Coyne THEN quote where in UA Coyne went off the rails. Well, that’s a lot of fact-checking and sourcing for Rosenau and the post was already quite long-winded as it was.

    Next, Mooney brings in Robert Wright, who also received an unfavorable book review courtesy Jerry Coyne. and not because Robert Wright’s book of Christian apologetics is relevant, but for the sole purpose of disparaging Coyne as untrustworthy in reviewing books in general. Is Coyne untrustworthy; is he given to ranting when he should be reviewing? Are Mooney and Wright biased because they’re the authors?

    Whatever Mooney’s message here, he makes clear that he uses a double standard. It’s fine to call Coyne’s book reviews attacks and play the martyr card–as Mooney did when he picked out one random comment from a thousand from Pharyngula as evidence of personal attacks–and then go after Coyne by building an anecdotal case against him as an untrustworthy person.

    This whole thing sounds far too personal to be taken seriously. It should be mocked mercilessly for what it is…a case of hurt feelings.

  8. Tom Johnson

    Seeing a scientist like Coyne lower his professional standards like this just to avoid admitting a fault is sure to do wonders for those in the public that already assume scientists are shifty characters that willingly cut corners to promote their work.

    And we wonder why the public is distrusting of scientists. All one needs to do is take a look at Jerry Coyne. So much for objectivity….

  9. bilbo

    “Next, Mooney brings in Robert Wright, who also received an unfavorable book review courtesy Jerry Coyne. and not because Robert Wright’s book of Christian apologetics is relevant, but for the sole purpose of disparaging Coyne as untrustworthy in reviewing books in general. Is Coyne untrustworthy; is he given to ranting when he should be reviewing? Are Mooney and Wright biased because they’re the authors? ”


    Chris has a valid point here. Whether you agree with Wright or not, his rebuttal to Coyne was extraordinarily damning, as Coyne’s arguments about why Wright’s book was bad fall apart completely when the quotes Coyne used are put in their original context.

    Coyne did the same thing with Chris and Sheril’s book: taking statements (or, in their case, an entire chapter) out-of-context and misrepresenting them as the views of the authors. This is the second time this pattern has shown itself and illustrates that Coyne is using disingenuous tactics when reviewing others’ books (also, both of the books in question are ones that oppose Coyne’s ideology. Coincidence?). Chris is very rightful in pointing it out.

    Jerry Coyne is bucking professional integrity in lieu of self interest. It’s as plain as that.

  10. Thomas Jane

    Wow. I was a somewhat frequent reader of Coyne’s blog until a friend emailed me this post and Robert Wright’s response. Not anymore; Coyne is a worthless fraud.

  11. gillt

    I read both Wright’s response and Coyne’s counter-response. Wright was playing games, arguing both sides of the same issue and he used this to accuse Coyne of misrepresenting him. If anything Coyne fell into the trap of not initially treating Wright’s book like a game of wack-a-mole. It’s the classic apologetic retreat into the “Ground of all Being” nonsense when the noisy skeptics are around.

  12. bilbo

    Wright’s book was more of a review of opinions and beliefs rather than an opinion piece itself, so of course Wright was arguing both sides of the same issue: that’s what a good, comprehensive review of any issue does!!! Coyne simply picked the sides that Wright presented that conflicted with Coyne’s (often with Wright even saying they weren’t reflective of his own beliefs) and misrepresented them as Wright’s opinion. I think that’s what Wright meant when he said that he honestly didn’t think Coyne misrepresented him purposefully. Coyne simply had an agenda to push and an ideology to support, and he used what should have been an objective, professional book review to argue ideology at Wright’s expense. He’s done the same thing with UA: the book lays blame on literally everyone, but Coyne took one small part of that blame, latched onto it like a pit bull while ignoring the rest, and pretended to shake it into submission. The trouble is – as it was with Wright’s book – that it’s all out of context.

  13. Sorbet

    Coyne was perhaps unduly harsh in using certain words in parts of the review and some of your resentment about that is perhaps understandable. And yet in your letter you are focusing only on some of his criticism without regarding other parts which appear more reasonable. For instance Coyne asks you how exactly Sagan’s problems were indicative of the problems with scientific communication, in spite of the various recognitions and awards he received. More generally, he asks you in two places why, contrary to some evidence, merely increased exposure to science (which as he indicates is actually ample in books, the internet and on TV these days) would contribute significantly to more scientific outreach. It’s disappointing that you don’t address these points in your letter nor in your book.

    And ultimately, a central point raised often on this blog still remains unanswered after several readers of different ilks having repeatedly asked you about it. In the letter, when you say “Yet this admission does nothing to weaken our argument that the confrontational tactics of Dawkins and the New Atheists (including Coyne), in the present moment, are counterproductive”, you need to be very clear about the word “counterproductive”. The beef that a lot of honest critics on this blog have had with this issue is not that adopting a Dawkins-like tone is the best way to win over religious people- it may not be- but that one has to examine the net effect of Dawkins-like writings on the general populace. So there are three variables here:

    A. The number of people, including religious moderates, who have been alienated and offended by Dawkins’s writings.

    B. The number of people, including agnostics and atheists, who have become more vocal and proud of their atheism because they have been influenced by Dawkins-like writings.

    C. The number of religious people who have actually “converted”, to various extents, to Dawkins’s point of view after reading his book (this number would be decidedly small).

    The problem is that you never really demonstrated that A is more than B + C. There are certainly people who are going to be offended by Dawkins-like writings, but are we really sure that on balance their proportion is going to be more than those who have been positively encouraged by it? If their proportion, no matter how large, is less than that of the latter group, than on balance Dawkins’s writings cannot be “counterproductive”.

    Now it’s understandable that without a detailed statistical survey it is difficult to judge each of the above proportions, but in the absence of such a survey wouldn’t the prudent thing be to withhold judgement? The whole gamut of statements continue to sound like personal opinions rather than informed judgement based on facts. Perhaps you need to reiterate to yourself Senator Moynihan’s quote which you cited at the beginning of the letter. You are entitled to your views and personal opinions, but you cannot be entitled to your own facts…

  14. Tom Johnson

    Sorbet, I’m certainly not as reliable as the poll results that the New Atheists tout to support their rhetoric, but I deal with your variable “A” above on a daily basis, and as I said in a comment to another post on this blog the other day, I have personally watched many religious moderates become offended and turned off to science when my collegaues (strident fans of Dawkins, Mayers, Coyne, and the rest) attack them with mockery and ridicule. My collegaues and I often get invited to outreach events by moderate/progressive religious groups, and many of my collegaues make it their job at these events (quoting Coyne and Dawkins) to attempt to alienate believers for their belief and laugh in their face, despite the believers’ willingness to help scientists support evolution, combat global warming, and so on and so forth. When this happens, the believers clam up and discussion is over. My collegaues claim victory…although from that point onward we’re essentially unable to get a dialogue going about the important issues because the believers have been so offended.

    This is why, no matter how attractive I see the New Atheists make their “mock everyone regardless of the nature of their belief” rhetoric, I’ll alwyas stand by my opinion that it’s a useless approach to changing minds and advancing science. When it’s applied outside of books and the blogosphere, it fails miserably.

  15. Anthony McCarthy

    D. Atheists who had decided to call themselves agnostics because they don’t want to be associate with atheism of the new atheist variety. I know of at least one and suspect there are others.

    E. Atheists who think the new atheism is obnoxious folly. I’ve read a number of those.

  16. bilbo

    F. Atheists who think new atheism is childish bigotry dressed up in intellectual clothing

  17. Thomas Jane

    G. Atheists for whom New Atheism makes them regret being associated with atheism in the first place.

  18. gillt

    Tom Johnson: “This is why, no matter how attractive I see the New Atheists make their “mock everyone regardless of the nature of their belief” rhetoric, I’ll alwyas stand by my opinion that it’s a useless approach to changing minds and advancing science. When it’s applied outside of books and the blogosphere, it fails miserably.”

    Your simply conflating two agendas. One concerns raising awareness of atheism and lessening the knee-jerk deference given to religion. Advancing science is orthogonal to the former agenda for some (not all) who call themselves New Atheists. It’s what Dawkins speaks of when he talks of wearing two hats.

    bilbo: “Wright’s book was more of a review of opinions…”

    What book of Wrights are you talking about? The one Coyne reviewed? That one wasn’t a bunch of opinions but a general thesis on how religions evolve through history toward moderation. I haven’t read it; that’s only my take from the reviews.

  19. gillt

    H. The waling and gnashing of teeth of all righteous and spiteful so-called moderates.

  20. Sorbet

    I. “Moderates” who depict New Atheists as a fanatic radical fringe whose group count equals seven

  21. Sorbet

    Tom, I don’t doubt that this happens, but I think you will agree that there is another side to the mockery and derision, that of promoting a rational and unabashedly atheist world view. Just as you have met religious belief who have been disillusioned by the NAs, I have also met mildly agnostic or atheist people who have found support and a newfound sense of community by meeting like-minded people who are tied together by such writings. Let me also emphatically say that in spite of being inspired by such writings these groups are not as vociferous or combative as Dawkins or Hitchens, but it is also undoubtedly true that it’s Dawkins and Hitchens who, even with the flaws in their approaches, nonetheless inspired these people to clear their throats and make their point.

  22. gillt

    J: The rise of the Accomodationists

  23. Anthony McCarthy

    J. Silly new atheists…. no, that would that already be covered by B.

  24. John Kwok


    Both yours and Sheril’s reply and Marcus’s are well-reasoned rebuttals. However, you have ignored legitimate concerns raised by some of us – who would otherwise be your supporters – with regards to making such a fuss about Pluto’s re-designation, and your steadfast instance that Carl Sagan was the most important science popularizer of our time, when clearly, there are – or were – others far more important, including, not only Stephen Jay Gould, but also E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Have made some rather legitimate points in my Amazon.com review of your book, but have yet to see any effort from you or Sheril in trying to come to terms with them.

    Respectfully yours,


  25. Tom Johnson

    @ Sorbet: I seem to have missed the part where one promotes a worldview by bashing another. And if “mildly atheist people” are tied together by New Atheist writings, what does that say about the merits of atheism if it needs mockery to spread? I get what you’re saying, but you’re promoting solely the “we need to stand up and be counted” portion of New Atheism that I have no conflict with. You’re failing to address the “but we also need to make it our life’s goal to hurl feces at the faithful” part. That would be the part of New Atheism I take issue with (And yes, one can assert themselves and their beliefs without being a bigot. It’s not that difficult.)

    @ gillt: I understand that Dawkins wears “two hats.” But a common argument made by many New Atheist-scientists is “Look. we aren’t doing any harm. In fact, I bet we’re doing good. And you can’t provide any evidence to the contrary, so shut up.”

    Well, I’m providng evidence, based on the personal experience of working with New Atheist scientists who make it their sole purpose at outreach events not to even talk about science but to mock the religious. And the religious clam up, and outreach/dialogue grinds ot a halt, when they do it. Jerry Coyne always talks about how a New Atheist rhetoric will draw more peopl to science. In the real world, where I work applying science, it does the opposite.

  26. Vindrisi

    “Just as you have met religious belief who have been disillusioned by the NAs, I have also met mildly agnostic or atheist people who have found support and a newfound sense of community by meeting like-minded people who are tied together by such writings.”

    Vociferous extremes always draw in converts with tendencies in that direction, and provide the sense of community and support. That does not make them good. I have met moderate racists who became more extreme, but found support and companionship upon finding their way to extreme racist groups. I am not drawing a parallel, but just pointing out that the relationship you describe does not a good position make. Extremes polarize, meaning that they generate sorting tendencies, drawing in those with moderate tendencies toward the position of the extreme, while repelling those further away from the position, usually causing opposite and hardening reactions in them, and generating stronger in-group-out-group dynamics that tend to give a sense of social satisfaction while being corrosive on the larger level. Are you saying that polarization is good?

  27. Sorbet

    Tom, I already said that some do not buy wholesale into the vociferous tone that the NAs adopt. But neither does that mean they despise them. One can share the sentiments of a community without adopting specific tactics. Some that I have met explicitly say that they would not be as combative as some of the NAs, but they still call themselves NAs. There are shades of new atheism just like shades of liberalism or christianity. As you know it is always simplistic painting anyone with a broad brush. Vind, that should address some of the points you raised too.

  28. Sorbet

    And perhaps Hitchens and even PZ Myers do, but neither Dawkins nor Coyne fall into the category of those you are citing whose sole or even dominant purpose is to mock religion. Dawkins may criticize religion, but he does an even better job of extolling and explaining evolution and science. One only has to take a look at his newest book The Greatest Show on Earth to see evidence of this, and every one of his books except The God Delusion focuses on explaining the beauty of science to the layman. He may have become more famous for his atheism recently, but he remains first and foremost a peerless expositor of evolutionary concepts (I say peerless because the only man who could match his explanatory powers, Stephen Jay Gould, is sadly not with us anymore)

  29. Tom Johnson


    Good points, actually. I myself identify a good bit with many New Atheist points, but I, for one, despise the mocking rhetoric for its effect, which I have seen firsthand. That doesn’t mean we should abolish New Atheism, of course. But (and this addresses your second point), the good qualities of the New Atheists are quickly becoming overshadowed by their vitriol and rather hate-filled ridicule. In other words, the message is getting lost in all the forced shouting. Are we here talking about what a good job Jerry Coyne does presenting the case for his philosophy? No. We’re talking about how hateful and bitter he comes off, and how for whatever reason he’s using what are undeniably half-truths and misrepresentations in book reviews that (heaven forbid) criticize that philosophy in a rather civil manner (see Chris and Sheril writing that they disagree with the NAs, but don’t think they should “shut up”).

    What would be refreshing is to see New Atheism get renowned for its well-thought out philosophical stance (which, believe it or not, it actually has) without having to resort to hyperbole and parlor tricks to do so. Unfortunately, however, it seems like the mockery is self-reinforcing: it’s funny to those to whom it doesn’t apply, so they cheer on those doing the mocking, the mocking gets worse, and so on and so forth. And thus, it’s what they’ve become known for.

  30. Anna K.

    @ Sorbet (and I apologize in advance for being unable to follow up after this post, as I’m under a deadline)

    When we’re talking about lay audiences, it doesn’t matter what Dawkins’ purpose is.
    What matters is what the media and lay audiences (who are mostly religious, and mostly non-scientists) SAY his purpose is. What matters is how he’s labeled and branded (and I mean ‘brand’ in the sense of marketing). I’ve seen interviews he’s done within the last year where he’s been tagged on screen as ‘atheist’ rather than ‘scientist.’

    I have some of Dawkins’ books, and I agree, he is a fantastic science writer. But he is now identified in the popular media as an atheist activist. It’s branding at work — the man has become the popular media’s go-to atheist. I suspect he is known more by the general public for being an atheist than being a scientist.

    Recently I saw two interviews he did attempting to discuss ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and the hosts kept going back to the ‘God Delusion.’ It sounds like the other interview that the Intersection posted about went the same way — people just want to keep rehashing TGD. Controversy sells. If he was just peddling books on evolution and had never written TGD, I doubt he would have been a two-time guest on the Colbert Report. I don’t recall seeing lots of Dawkins interviews on popular talk shows when he came out with ‘The Selfish Gene’ or ‘The Blind Watchmaker.’

    The problem is again that if evolution= atheism is getting fixed in the general public’s mind, his books on evolution are going to be cast in people’s minds as just the sort of thing an atheist would write . . .

  31. Vindrisi

    Sorbet, yes, you do address some of my points, and you are correct in that not everyone will buy into the entire position of the NAs. However, the polarization charge is still relevant. Rational discourse is not advanced by a polarized climate. No matter the salubrious effect on individuals due to the sense of being part of an in group, it is outweighed by the corrosiveness of the polarization. And Tom makes a very good series of points: those outside of the NA fold are far more struck by the childish obnoxiousness that characterizes what passes for NA discourse with those outside of the ingroup. If the resulting reactions their tactics provoke were limited to being directed back at the NAs, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue (though it doesn’t help the NAs on the broader level, either), but what they provoke doesn’t just color perception of them, but of scientists, atheists, agnostic, and skeptics in general. As a scientist who also sees education as part of his mission, I have seen this. My job is much harder now in trying to convey science to religious people who are already a bit uneasy about science in general, and about evolutionary biology (my field) in particular.

  32. Tom Johnson

    I think what we’re seeing in these comments and others recently is that the NA tactics are finally starting to show some tangible effects in the public-science relationship mess – namely, bad ones.

  33. Vindrisi

    Anna K. Very good point. It used to be possible to direct religious students who don’t really understand evolution to Dawkins’ books on the subject (The Blind Watchmaker in particular, as it is by far the best explication of the power of natural selection that I have ever read). No more. Generally now the moment Dawkins’ name comes up, minds slam shut. Really too bad. Sorbet is absolutely correct that Dawkins’ ability to write about evolution for a general audience is unsurpassed (and while I dearly love Gould, I think Dawkins was always better in this role because of his greater clarity and focus on a given topic, while Gould could be, to say the least, a bit too discursive and baroque).

  34. Sorbet

    Agreed. I personally think and hope that at least some of the attention from Dawkins the atheist should get deflected towards Dawkins the evolutionary explainer with his marvelous new book on evolution. I would still like M and K to address some of the other points that Coyne has raised in his review which I pointed out above. I believe that the net result of Dawkins and other new atheists was to shake up the science religion debate. We should also remember that a lot of the rhetoric in The God Delusion or God is Not Great is directed against true religious fundamentalists whose rather obnoxious religious authoritarianism and extreme beliefs deserve such scorn. My beef is with people who slot in every person with Hitchens and Dawkins even if those people might buy into the new atheists’ philosophy without buying into their style. But more importantly, I think we have to stop marking every supporter of Dawkins or Harris as some radical, foul mouthed rebel, because as I mentioned above, there are shades even among the New Atheists and I have met several (including myself) who call ourselves new atheists without buying wholesale into the combative style. We also have to remember that every philosophy has its heyday and the years after 9/11 were generally propitious for new atheism to express itself more forcefully. And I too personally think that while Gould’s writings had a special sophistication about them, for sheer clarity I think Dawkins’s explanations of evolutionary concepts are unmatched. Anna K, evolution certainly does not equate atheism. But I do believe that it is more likely for a neutral person who has studied evolution carefully to lean towards atheism. Also, I don’t think you can blame Dawkins after a certain extent for being branded as an atheist by the media, since the media delivers what sells. But I do think Dawkins should make some attempts to deflect the attention away from his atheism and towards his evolutionary science.

  35. bilbo

    Why are the comment conversations exponentially more useful and intelligent here than they are over on Jerry Coyne’s blog? All you get over there are shades of “you’re just an idiot!!!!”, followed by zero dialogue.

  36. Anna K, what you say in your opening lines will no doubt be convincing to many. A slightly more radical way of stating your view, if I have understood it correctly, is Vindrisi’s recent maxim, “The message received is the message sent”.

    Respectfully, I think that it’s not something that would-be science strategists ought to agree to, and also I think it is also too simple a story of what we can expect from people. We know that folks are capable of much more: that is the entire point, after all, of using alternatives to the deficit-model (as Chris and Sheril rightly do).

    There are two kinds of arguments: those that appeal to “central” part of a person’s mind, and those that appeal to the “periphery” of the mind. Rhetoricians who are “PR-centric” as a matter of principle, i.e., people who engage in attempts to persuade by engaging using peripheral arguments (a bit of sugar to make the nasty pill go down easier), are wise to a point. However, when they start to lose sight of the difference between changing the manner of presentation with changing its content, it is like substituting medicine for all sugar. Once you pass that threshold, you lose all hope of any genuine change of a culture for the better. And once people start to expect that you expect this of them, both you and your audience are locked into a cycle, where they are expected to be diffident and you walk on eggshells. The inevitable outcome is that some folks are now prone to talk about “culture wars” when what is actually needed is an honest debate. In this environment, of course, clever Republicans exploit liberal guilt by telling them they’re shrill and strident and mean when they’re just making an inconvenient argument.

    I worry that we have passed that threshold some time ago. Now if there were some fact of nature that forced people to be this way, then it would be one thing. But I suspect that it’s actually a product of the ways that people have come to expect us to expect things from them.

  37. Yay, more needless attempts by M & K to further divide our community of fairly like-minded individuals with the same goals. Just what we need.

  38. Anthony McCarthy

    — Yay, more needless attempts by M & K to further divide our community of fairly like-minded individuals with the same goals. Just what we need. Skepacabra

    You clearly haven’t been following the goings on at CFI this year or have much knowledge of the history of the “community”.

  39. Anthony McCarthy

    — Jerry Coyne always talks about how a New Atheist rhetoric will draw more peopl to science. In the real world, where I work applying science, it does the opposite. Tom Johnson

    It’s not only in science, I’m finding more and more people in political circles are getting tired of it. Even among people who would have never expressed anything negative about atheists a few years back roll their eyes when one starts spouting off.

  40. @ Sorbet #35:

    But more importantly, I think we have to stop marking every supporter of Dawkins or Harris as some radical, foul mouthed rebel, because as I mentioned above, there are shades even among the New Atheists and I have met several (including myself) who call ourselves new atheists without buying wholesale into the combative style.


    I agree, but here’s my challenege:

    Here, and elsewhere in the blog-o-sphere, when I’ve tried to discuss this issue as an openly moderate Christian (Who happens to be a scientist), I get run over by an Atheist express train that refuses to separate me and my practice of Christianity from the more fundamentalist and apostate so-called Christians who do regularly and publicly reject science and evolution. I’m not going to say that I won’t do as you ask until they do, but realisticly, it’s unfair (at best) to go around advocating that the tactic (and its implied nuances) be applied to only one side of the debate.

  41. bilbo

    Good point, Phillip H. I’ve noticed the same thing happening in the blogosphere. Somebody gets on the blog as a Christian scientist (truthful or not, I don’t know) and all they get from the NAs is “There’s no way I’d trust your science, as long as you’re a Stone Age moron” and the like. PZs commenters usually just call them a ‘fuckwit’ and say there’s no way they should be allowed to remain a scientist. Classy.

  42. gillt

    bilbo, do you expect anyone to believe that “There’s no way I’d trust your science…blah blah blah” as the accurate generalization of the NA response to Christian Scientists? Has any prominent NA said that, or are you pulling a Mooney and quoting some anonymous person spouting off in the comments section?

    Classy indeed.

  43. Sorbet

    Philip H., I won’t be surprised if you find such people on Myers’s blog. One thing I have noticed about the blogosphere is that almost every blog ultimately gets overrun by people who agree with the author’s views. And this is a sad thing. I do agree that blogs overall get populated by the more vocal and combative agents because by definition the milder and quieter folks don’t make their opinions heard that often. Bilbo, I too would be interested in seeing an example.

  44. bilbo


    Those people are all over the New Atheist blogs. Go read their comment pages.

  45. bilbo

    edit to previous post:

    They ARE anonymous people, but they’re whom the NA’s are influencing (and doing nothing to silence). PZ even gives awards to the most abrasive commenters on his blog. Don’t forget that.

  46. gillt

    Oh I see. Because you envision New Atheism like a religious cult, you think it’s “leaders” should silence the laity. So why doesn’t the arch-accomodationist Chris Mooney silence McCarthy during his monotonous Dawkins inspired conniption fits here on this blog? By your rationale Mooney influenced McCarthy into calling everyone he disagrees with bigoted New Atheists.

    Really, why don’t you go read through the Pharyngula comments since you’re the one who brought it up in the first place and deliver on a quote that accurately represents the overall NA position toward Christian Scientists,which was your original charge.

  47. Observer

    I’ve read plenty of the NA’s, although I don’t consider myself one of them. They’re certainly no more strident than most of the commenters here. Many of you are looking for a devil to blame for the woes of science education, and clearly you’ve found one.

    Coyne’s review was not perfect, but it pretty much captures the essence of the Unscientific America that I read. Do any of you honestly believe it’s a coinicidence that so many articles about UA in the popular press portray the book as blaming scientists for the scientific illiteracy in the USA? Coyne charactrerised the book as being shallow and unreflective. He’s right. It is.

  48. M.

    While Coyne’s review was more harshly worded then most, it captured the essence of bad reviews you guys receieved from pretty much everyone. It is quite manipulative to pick his review, try to dissect it, and then claim that it misrepresented your book.

    For example, I don’t read Coyne’s blog, and I read his review in Science long after checking out your book (which I did on the strength of Chris’ previous two books). He pretty much summarized my own opinions – weak, no data, placing blame in horrendously wrong places (New Atheists have been active for a few years; creationism hasn’t budged for decades; the argument is as insane as ‘evolution caused racism’ that creationists love so much).

    Jason Rosenhouse has a nice analysis of this attempt:

    Altogether, your behavior regarding this has thoroughly discredited you in my eyes. It is really too bad for Chris. What the hell happened? How did we lose him?

  49. Skeptic

    Coyne’s review may have used some harsh words but that’s not the real point here; he also had some substantial points about misplaced blame and scientific illiteracy which you ignored entirely in your letter to Science. Shame on you for failing to respond to the more substantive points.

  50. Richard H.

    I’m confused with your letter to Science.

    As I understand it, your position is that you have provided evidence showing a connection between the New Atheists and science illiteracy. In particular, people like Richard Dawkins talking about religion makes people less open to science, and hurts society on aggregate.

    But, you also object to the claim that you want anti-religion scientists to “keep quiet” (which, I’m reading in context to be “keep quiet regarding religion”).

    These positions seem to contradict one another. Publishing a book about how Dawkins/PZ are bad for science literacy seems like a way of asking them to keep quiet (at least, regarding religion).

    The defense appears to be that you’re not asking anyone to be quiet because you recognize their right to free speech. I am not able to follow this logic. Recognizing someone’s right to (say) smoke doesn’t preclude me from thinking that they should quit smoking. Nor does it keep me from asking them to not smoke near me.

  51. Notagod

    As a child I learned about science and evolution by watching television programs. Gladly (but also sadly) those programs were generally only broadcast on PBS channels. I think most of those programs were excellent at presenting the scientific topics. Good quality scientific information has been available to the public for a long time. The problem has been that the christians have always ignored the scientific conclusions because those conclusions are in direct conflict with the foundations of their god-idea. The quality of scientific information presented to the public has not been a general problem in my lifetime, which represents an order of double the age of Mooney or Kirshenbaum. The problem is, the method that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are advocating has and is being used and always has been, however, it isn’t enough, it doesn’t break the bonds of the mythology that is being sold by christian advocates. That isn’t intended to suggest that every scientist is able to present information in a way that can be easily understood by those who don’t have a basic understand of the concepts. It is simply impossible to express ten years worth of study and education in a press release or even an hour long presentation. The real underlying problem is that facts and evidence has been uncovered that weren’t available to authors of books that were written two thousand years ago, that shouldn’t surprise anyone except that christians insist on believing that the authors of two thousand years ago were infallible.

    There is also a problem with teaching scientists the currently accepted principles of marketing because those principles are based on a desire to maximize profit and aren’t interested in fact based presentations and honesty, I don’t know if Kirshenbaum and Mooney understand that. When information is presented as science; fact, reason, reality, and honesty should always rule over entertainment value. I have seen a number of wildlife programs recently that present animals as being motivated by clearly United States capitalist christian values, surely as an attempt to enhance the entertainment value to a perceived audience. There may be some similarity between wildlife and christian capitalists but the reasoning is clearly not the same with respect to reality. The solution to unscientific America is for the christians to take a step forward not for the scientists and atheists to step backwards.

    There are good reasons why atheists have begun to point out the fallacies inherent in the foundation of christian faith and religion in general. The “new atheists” aren’t new but are atheists that see the damage that is caused by religion having an unjustified position of honor within society. Those atheists have finally decided that silence doesn’t work within the confines of our current societal structure. Religion needs to be challenged because, if it isn’t society will fail to be based on facts and reason but will be based on mythology and deception.

    The danger inherent in societies based on religion should be obvious from history both old and recent. 9/11 was a religiously enabled attack as was the attack on Iraq that followed. There are many other instances where unchecked religious intrusion upon society has unacceptable results. The unchecked power of christianity allowed the Bush regime to function as an unquestioned entity without the very much needed oversight that it sorely lacked.

    The “new atheist” has been born out of necessity not out of a desire to bash christians. Christians are being mock because of their dangerous dismissal of honesty, reason and, reality. Kirshenbaum and Mooney advocate a policy that failed, in much the same way as some christians are trying to re-advance the failed policy of the Bush regime. The error lies with the christians that wantonly deny the reality of fact based evidence not with the scientists that present that fact based evidence.

  52. Jon

    But which “Christians”? Which “religious”? All of them? We need no allies but scientific materialists? And should have no worries about alienating anyone else, by calling what they believe “mythology and deception”?

  53. PZ even gives awards to the most abrasive commenters on his blog.

    Come now Bilbo, that’s a bit misleading. Those who win the Order of Molly are voted for by other commenters of the blogs. It’d be hard to look at the likes of Scott Hatfield or Digital Cuttlefish and call them abrasive.

  54. Vindrisi

    It is interesting coincidence given this post from Chris and Sheril about a reviewer getting a book intentionally wrong so as to attack what he wants to attack given that PZ Myers just posted an attack on Karen Armstrong’s latest book that seems to bend over backwards to avoid trying to understand what she actually means. His review seriously reads like creationist reviews of books on evolution. I have yet to read Armstrong’s latest, but I have heard her speak about it, and I have read a number of her others, and based thereupon, I find it hard to recognize the Armstrong I know in what he says of her.

  55. Notagod

    Jon@53, if a person believes that a man became a zombie, that water can be zapped into wine, that snakes talk, that a human female was fashioned from a male human’s rib that was magically removed, then no they are not allies to a healthy society. Similar reasoning would apply to other “religious”.

  56. Heraclides

    Irrespective of what Coyne did or did not do, that you seemingly endlessly perpetuate this I think is worthy of self-examination.

    As you must surely know, the “correct” response is to let reviews stand.

    The actor(ess), opera singer, sports star, etc., who disses a review, factually correct or not. A prima donna. The better ones diplomatically say that people are entitled to draw their own conclusions, correctly or not, move on and let their performances speak for them. Isn’t it the same for writers?

  57. Anna K.

    Heraclides @57,

    You must not read literary review journals much. Writers are infamous for long, vitriolic public spats. 😉


    Anna K., getting ready to get offline again and back to her deadline

  58. Paul W.

    If M & K aren’t trying to get so-called New Atheists to keep quiet, what is their point in constantly criticizing them when they do speak up?

    They clearly have no intention whatsoever of trying to convince New Atheists that science and religion are actually compatible in any sense that the New Atheists actually claim. They avoid that subject like the plague.

    Not one New Atheist they’ve ever mentioned denies the kind of compatibility that they actually argue for.

    Nor do any of the New Atheist bloggers or commenters on their own blog—the scores of people who’ve disagreed with them hundreds of times over the last two or three years.

    It’s absolutely clear that Mooney’s argument for the New Atheists is that whether or not they’re right about conflicts between science and religion, they should shut the hell up because voicing their honest views in public is counterproductive.

    Mooney quite clearly cares not at all about the truth of the matter. He only cares about strategy, truth be damned.

    And on the matter of strategy—whether to speak the inconvenient truth—he’s equally deceptive.

    Mooney constantly makes “intuition pump” arguments, essentially of the “catch more flies with honey” type. He repeats that sort of thing over and over, milking that commonsense intuition for all it’s worth, and never, ever addresses the important counterarguments and counterexamples.

    Most importantly, he never addresses Overton Window arguments. And tellingly, he pretends that they don’t exist.

    If he’d only done this two or three times, we might just think he didn’t understand, or was a little slow.

    It’s not that. Mooney is dishonest.

    Mooney knows full well that there are important arguments against his position, and systematically implies that there are not.

    He does this by pumping the same old being-nice-works-better intuition, and then expressing mystification as to how anybody could come to different conclusions than him.

    That’s a lie right there.

    That isn’t just a lie of omission. It’s a positive lie by implication—he knows that there are quite serious arguments against them, and implies that there are not.

    And he does that by telling a straightforward lie—that he’s just mystified as to how anybody could disagree with his admittedly commonsense honey for flies argument.

    He’s not that mystified. He knows that there are serious arguments against his preferred strategy, which he is avoiding, and that they result in disagreement. No mystery there. And his opponents aren’t being that willfully ornery about it—he is, by attacking them and refusing to stop misrepresenting them.

    If Mooney were honest, he’d acknowledge those arguments, and argue about the relative strengths of the arguments each way, trying to show that his argument is stronger. Ideally, he’d explain when accommodationist argumenst are stronger, and when anti-appeasement arguments win out.

    But he is unable to do that—because we’ve understood his position and argument all along, and he’s willfully ignored our points.

    When people don’t agree with him, he promises to address their concerns, then repeats the same old crap, clearly implying yet again that we didn’t understand his argument, and just need it explained better.

    That has never been the case. Mooney has never told us anything important we didn’t already know. He’s also never explained anything important that we didn’t already understand.

    I, for example, used to be much more of an accomodationist than I am now, but I am much less so due to Overton Window arguments and a few telling examples.

    (For example, the rise of the religious right in the U.S., achieved using a lot more vinegar than honey. The single most important political shift in Mooney’s lifetime is inexplicable by his commonsense model of politics and rhetoric. Common sense is often wrong about exactly this sort of thing, and the backlash that the accommodationists fear so much is often worth it in the long run.)

    Watching the accommodationist-vs-New Atheist controversy fairly closely for years has only eroded my opinion of the accommodationists and increased my respect for the New Atheists. They do take into account everything that Mooney says, and do understand his arguments, and he constantly stonewalls about the counterarguments. How incredibly lame.

    For example, Dawkins has said for years that he’d be the wrong guy to testify in a case like the Dover case, and made accommodationist points a la Mooney. Of course he knows that stuff—who the hell doesn’t?

    When Dawkins writes something like The God Delusion, he’s knows and says that he’s not the guy to make the easy, short-term argument for a short-term win on a narrow issue.

    He’s not oblivious to accommodationist reasoning, or simply immune to it, and never has been.

    Yet when he says that sort of thing again, Mooney professes astonishment, and optimism that Dawkins has finally come to understand the value of accommodationism.

    How ridiculous.

    Obviously, when Dawkins is speaking on the specific subject of the evidence for evolution, while promoting a book on the evidence for evolution, he doesn’t want to get too sidetracked into the science-vs-atheism issue. He wants to stay more or less on point, and fight a particular fight.

    That isn’t because he’s had a Mooneyesque or Mooney-inspired epiphany. It’s because he’s not stupid, duh!

    Chris Mooney should address the serious issues we’ve raised for years, and tell us something we don’t know.

    If he can’t do that, he should at least stop misrepresenting the situation and misrepresenting us.

    (That’s not civil, Chris. Lying about people is uncivil, even if you do it by omission and implication. You’re the least civil person involved in this contretemps, and most of us recognize that—you’re more than deserving of getting flipped off for it, and you have no right to complain about incivility until you demonstrate some basic intellectual responsibility.)

  59. Diogenes

    Speaking of misrepresentation – I’ve noticed that the sidebar under ‘Our New Book’ has ‘Reviews’ followed by links to some reviews; it is noticeable that none of the unfavorable reviews appear in that list. That’s bad practice, you two. Surely you know that. It’s naughty to offer a list titled ‘Reviews’ as if it were all of them when all the more critical ones are weeded out. The list should be titled ‘Favorable Reviews’ at least – but much better of course would be just to include all available reviews. Not doing so looks…dishonest. Or perhaps like the Frankfurtian kind of ‘bullshit’ which you sweetly reference.

  60. Janine OM

    I made the same point as Kel did in comment 54 yet I was deleted twice. Also, just to let you in a dirty little secret, Kel also has an OM.

  61. Jon

    That’s a lie right there.

    Hmm. I was wondering how long this would go on before impugning the opponents’ motives. Why is the other guy always lying, deceiving, etc. ? When was the last time I heard people regularly arguing like that? I think it was some time before high school.

  62. Paul W.


    I wasn’t impugning his motives, I was impugning his actions. (And in some sense I think his motives are good; I just think he’s willing to cut ethical corners to accomplish his goals, as most people are in one way or another.)

    Accusing someone of lying is a big step, and it’s not something I do lightly.

    As for “I was wondering how long this would go on before impugning…” well, it’s taken me two or three years of Mooney’s stonewalling and chronic straw-manning before I got to this point.

    It’s not exactly like I’m quick on the draw in that regard, is it? Years, man, years.

    I just don’t see any alternative conclusion. Chris is not stupid, he’s not ignorant, and he’s certainly not lacking in people willing to help him understand why they do not agree with him.

    And it’s not like Chris doesn’t himself impugn people’s motives. He basically accuses the New Atheists of being something like selfish, unwilling to shut themselves up for the greater good. He willfully ignores reasoned explanations that that isn’t what’s going on. (Or at least isn’t all that’s going on.)

    Paul W.

  63. Steve M

    Sheril and Chris are attractive, smart young writers who have a decent future in publishing ahead of them… IF they learn to accept (and address) legitimate criticism without constantly attacking the negative reviewers, playing the martyr and failing to address the substance of these reviews.
    Certainly, Jerry Coyne’s review slammed “Unscientific America” in the harshest terms, but the core of his criticism is in-line with the mountain of poor reviews this book has received.

  64. bob

    You children need to get over yourselves. So people didn’t like your lame book. Let it go.

  65. Bob Thomas

    Paul’s right, but around here no one will respond to these comments. People like Jon will just call Paul childish and stomp off. Maybe Mr. Johnson will come in and complain AGAIN about the big meanies he works with. Yeah, we really believe that a bunch of scientists like going to moderate church groups to mock people (only Mooney would think that is believable and worthy of promoting to its own comment). There is no substance to the anti-new atheist movement. Yes, sometimes the NAs say some inappropriate things, who doesn’t? Most of the time the NA folks are making quite reasonable comments, but that all gets ignored while Mooney and others wait for the next opportunity to jump on a politically incorrect 1 sentence comment. Let’s start a conversation on big strategy issues instead of playing atheists against each other.

  66. Jon

    Bob Thomas has not been reading any of my comments, anyway. I won’t repeat them all here because I’d be typing all night.

  67. #39 “You clearly haven’t been following the goings on at CFI this year or have much knowledge of the history of the “community”.”

    Actually, I’ve been following the goings on at CFI quite closely. So your position then is that since some division exists already, we might as well maximize it as much as possible for the sake of maybe a few extra book sales?

  68. Jon

    It’s absolutely clear that Mooney’s argument for the New Atheists is that whether or not they’re right about conflicts between science and religion, they should shut the hell up because voicing their honest views in public is counterproductive.

    No, it’s more like, “do you realize with all that bluster you look like Bill O’Reilly? Do you think it does science any good? Do you think that does your *own cause* any good?” (By “bluster,” I mean habitually overblowing the conflicts between science and religion.)

    That’s an attempt at persuasion, not “STFU”, or whatever is the term of art on the hyperventilating intertubes these days.

  69. Paul W.

    Gosh, Jon, it seems to me that you’re blustering a bit yourself, by comparing New Atheists to O’Reilly. That’s in line with Mooney’s habit of misrepresenting New Atheists as uncivil.

    Have you ever heard, say, Dawkins or Dennett or Harris actually be uncivil, other than forcefully stating their opinion of religion? Do you think they’re actually the kind of devious creep O’Reilly is?

    (Would you like me to compare Chris’s “framing” and vilification of his opponents to you-know-who’s and Godwin the thread right now? I don’t think that would be fair or advisable, and you’re getting pretty close to that. Please don’t indulge in the kind of incivility you’re accusing the New Atheists of.)

    Have you noticed how those guys can be as civil as you like, but if they voice anti-religion opinions and make actual arguments in support of them, they’re misrepresented as uncivil.

    Have you noticed that Mooney quote-mines and misrepresents them precisely to perpetuate and amplify that myth, and to cast himself as the voice of reasonable moderation?

    He even stoops to misrepresenting P.Z. Myers in the same way. P.Z. is more in-your-face than those guys, so you wouldn’t think that would be necessary, would you?

    And yet he does. He makes P.Z. out to be far less civil than he is. For example, P.Z. does not call religious people in general “wackaloons.” He likes and respects a lot of religious people, and frequently points that out. He reserves that kind of epithet for people that Chris Mooney himself would have to agree are dangerous wackaloons. (Pious fundamentalist hypocrites, mostly, particuarly who actively try to deny people civil rights, etc.)

    (I can give more examples about P.Z. if you want. All of the most damning things Mooney says about P.Z. are either false or out-of-context distortions, e.g., leaving out P.Z.’s stated reasons for Crackergate just as Bill O’Reilly would to make P.Z. out to be a totally irresponsible meanie. I myself criticized P.Z. about that, but Mooney is grossly unfair to P.Z.)

    Similarly, Mooney makes it sound like the New Atheists don’t get the distinction between methodological and epistemic naturalism, when they clearly demonstrate that they get it.

    Gimme a break. Dan Dennett doesn’t know the difference? Has Mooney even read Breaking the Spell—he sure writes as if he hasn’t. I’m pretty sure that he has, and to write as if he hasn’t is simply dishonest. Mooney knows full well that the New Atheists’ views are far more nuanced and better-argued than he lets on, and he misrepresents them in order to be the seemingly reasonable white knight.

    I’d like to commend you for at least acknowledging the existence of Overton arguments, and implicitly acknowledging that they have some validity in some sense—if only to dismiss them far too casually for my taste, with something I think turns out to be a lame non sequitur.

    To my knowledge, Mooney has never even done what you did. Mooney has stonewalled about Overton arguments for years on end. I might have missed something buried somewhere, but this is clearly an issue he systematically and quite intentionally avoids. He knows that it’s a major issue, and he sweeps it under the rug and professes mystification as to how anybody could disagree with his intuition-pumping argument.

    Given that that’s a major issue several other bloggers and at least a dozen of his own commenters have raised literally scores of times over two or three years, that’s just patently evasive. Given his professions of mystification about why anybody would disagree with him, that’s just dishonest.

    And yet Mooney dares to condescend to the New Atheists about philosophy and rigor. He’s a shameless axe-grinding propagandist who doesn’t want you to see the beam in his eye when he trots out the comparatively small failings of the New Atheists.

    Through all of this, Mooney has engaged in exactly the kind of oversimplification and broad-brush tarring that he accuses the New Atheists of, and evaded the substantive points people keep making. He’s fond of derailing criticism by criticizing people’s tone (often unfairly), claiming that they misrepresented him (often unfairly), etc. He never gets around to answering the real questions.

    The New Atheists’s views of religion are far more nuanced and fair than Mooney wants to let on, and vastly more fair than his habitual representations of the New Atheists.

    Maybe the New Atheists are wrong about the conflict between science and religion. Maybe they’re wrong about strategy.

    But if so, you’ll never learn how they’re actually wrong from Mooney. You’ll only see him resurrecting and demolishing the same old straw men.

    I notice that in defending Mooney, you’re not really addressing the important points either:

    1. Is Mooney misrepresenting the New Atheists views on science-vs.-religion? Aren’t his rebuttals irrelevant to the basic points they’re actually making? (I.e., that most popular religion—as opposed to rarefied theology—does conflict with scientific knowledge, and that the kind of religion that doesn’t conflict with science is pretty thin gruel by almost everyone’s standards, including Chris Mooney’s?)

    2. Isn’t Mooney evading a serious discussion of strategy by refusing to open the Overton can of worms? (I guarantee you he’ll make no headway convincing the New Atheists his strategy is better without addressing their primary reason for choosing a different one. And yet he acts frustrated with his NA critics, implying that they just refuse to get it.)

    3. Isn’t Mooney misrepresenting his detractors when he claims to be simply mystified as to why they disagree with him, without even mentioning Overton Arguments, even to dismiss them, as you have at least done right here?

    4. Isn’t that a clear pattern demonstrated over years, despite other people frequently calling him on all of the points above?

    5. What explanation is there besides dishonesty? Chris is not stupid, he’s not ignorant of these issues, and I don’t think he has evil goals. I think he’s just willing to distort things to serve his propagandistic ends.

    I think you’re wrong to dismiss Overton arguments so easily, BTW. We could go into that, if you want, but before we do, I’d like you address the issues I’ve raised.

    For the sake of argument, I’ll temporarily grant that I’m wrong about the strength of Overton window arguments, and that Chris’s strategic prescriptions are actually right.

    Even so, I stand by the points I’ve made about Chris. Maybe he’s right, but he refuses to win the argument fair and square. Isn’t that disturbing?

    By the way, I came into this whole thing, years ago, with a fairly open mind. I’d studied framing with Lakoff at Berkeley, and was quite concerned about framing, backlash, and all that. To a substantial degree, I still am.

    I had hoped that Mooney would actually clarify issues and help people understand issues of when and how Overtonning works, and when and how Lakoffian short-term framing works.

    I didn’t get that. I was pretty disappointed. After a couple of years of Mooney’s strawmanning and stonewalling, I’m simply apalled.

  70. Paul W.

    That’s an attempt at persuasion, not “STFU”, or whatever is the term of art on the hyperventilating intertubes these days.

    I agree it’s largely an attempt at persuasion, but of what kind?

    Overtly, it’s trying to persuade people to shut up about their honest views. The New Atheists think that almost all religions conflict with at least some of science. Mooney doesn’t want them to say that.

    Really, though, I think he gave up years ago on persuading the New Atheists. He overtly appears to be speaking to them, but he’s really speaking past them, trying to convince people who don’t understand the New Atheist position or their reasons for taking it.

    That’s why he never addresses the major reasons why the New Atheists actually disagree with him, and in fact misrepresents the New Atheists so that other people will disagree with them as he does, without evaluating the actual positions and arguments for themselves.

    There’s a name for that.

  71. Jon

    Overtly, it’s trying to persuade people to shut up about their honest views

    No, it’s a plea for honest self awareness. Completely different than “shut up.”

  72. Paul W.


    No, it’s a plea for honest self awareness. Completely different than “shut up.”

    I submitted a longer comment that hasn’t made it out of moderation (as I submit this), explaining in detail why I don’t think it’s an honest appeal for honest self awareness.

    Briefly, Mooney systematically refuses to sincerely engage with the New Atheists’ actual positions and arguments, for years, and appears to be talking past them in an insulting way, not to them at all.

  73. Michael Kingsford Gray

    I posit that “someone” has backed themselves into a corner, which is fenced-off by fragile macho ropes of his own making, and has not the cajones to admit fault an walk past them into the honest adults arena.
    I shall leave it to the gentle reader to determine his identity…

  74. For my part, I’m among those who don’t see Chris and Sheril as telling anyone to shut up.

    Of course, they are selling advice of dubious quality, and resist any meaningful attempts to let their arguments be put to test. Luckily, caveat emptor has won out.


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