Back to the barricades

October 22, 2009 • 7:11 am

Oh dear, the Twins have got their knickers in a twist again about my review in Science of their book.   As is their wont, they mostly argue from authority, dragging in as many like-minded people as they can find.

I’m not impressed, and absolutely stand by my review and its conclusion that Unscientific America is “shallow and unreflective.”  I don’t intend to argue further about this, as I’ve become convinced that in their desperation to show that their book is really good despite widespread criticism of it,  the Twins seem to have become intellectually dishonest.  One of many examples is their citing Robert Wright’s beef against my New Republic review of his book The Evolution of God, which they do to prove that I habitually misrepresent the books I review.  Yet they fail to mention my long response to Wright, showing that his beef turns out to be thin gruel.  (See a shorter give-and-take here.) So it goes.

Anyway, Jason Rosenhouse dismantles the Twins’ Big Whine over at EvolutionBlog.

41 thoughts on “Back to the barricades

  1. Thanks for letting us know what to think about the responses to your review. Without your extensive help in evaluating their criticisms, I might have thought something “InteLLECTually Dishonest” about them.

    1. Do you have the same reaction to their post? Do you notice the repeated use of the word ‘attack’? Do you recall that it was Mooney who picked a fight with Coyne last May, not the other way around? Are you being selective at all?

      1. I don’t have a paid subscription to Science, so I couldn’t look at the review itself. Their biggest point seems to be that he misrepresented the book in the review. Whether or not that’s the case (something that isn’t entirely clear from the snippets they quoted, or from Rosenhouse’s link), “I don’t intend to argue further about this” hardly even counts as a reaction.

        The phrase “shallow and unreflective” applies to a lot of things I’ve read. It isn’t my impression that it fits UA.

        The rest… well, I don’t really have a cat in that fight.

      2. …..So you don’t know that they’re right about the review, and you don’t know that the review is inaccurate, but you’re happy to mock anyway? That seems odd.

        It isn’t your ‘impression’ that ‘shallow and unreflective’ fits UA – so that means you haven’t read the book? I have, with care and attention, and I think it fits exactly. It doesn’t please me to say that, because (as I’ve said many times) I thought Mooney’s first two books were terrific. UA is radically different from TRWoS, and the shallowness really does just jump out at the discerning reader. (Yes, I’m saying that no discerning reader could think UA was unshallow.)

        If you don’t have a cat in the fight, why drop in to mock?

      3. I’m sympathetic to M&K’s remarks about the review based on what I can know of the review without paying to read it except for snippets reproduced on blogs, and the criticisms or defenses posted along with them. Their remarks jibe with my experience of the back & forth I’ve seen on the blogs. Yes, I read UA, and my impression of it was that it was reasonably good, given the type of book it was. Nothing earth-shattering, but more or less on target. I’m not sympathetic toward the “shallow and unreflective” view of it, but that may be because I set the bar differently.

        “Mock” is a harsh word, but when I saw that Jerry responded to their remarks the way he did – without defending his position except to say he was still right and wasn’t going to argue it. And when I saw him put a phrase into service that should have a Godwin’s Law corollary associated with it – here I mean “intellectually dishonest” – I did see an opportunity to tweak him over it. It may be a sign of poor character on my part that I gave in to the temptation. In my defense, my original post was briefer and limited to the use of that phrase… to the effect of “I bet that somewhere in the distant past phrase once had meaning, and looked pretty in a sentence. Damn the internet.” And I left it at that. But Jerry deleted that post. Well, maybe I should have just held my tongue. I accept your criticism.

  2. My first thought when reading the new post by M & K was to question whether or not they were trying to revive this fight to boost flagging sales of UA.

    Reading in the comments brought something else to my attention that has been disturbing me greatly. And this is the growing agreement among a larger and larger segment of atheists that you, Myers, Dawkins and the other “New Atheists” are nasty people (that part isn’tnew,) but after protestations and demonstrations to the contrary, there is little defense against this meme being tirelessly raised.

    I have nearly given up on trying to get these faitheists to be able to separate between dismantling and mocking of ideas that are supposed to be held sacred as opposed to actually expressing enmity towards those who hold those ideas.

    Massimo has expressed a very fine point on this issue that I frankly don’t grok, and perhaps it is because I only have 16 credits of philosophy under my belt so that I can’t see where the difference between attacking the various forms of creationism, as almost all scientists do; and carrying forward to attack the beliefs that succor and even engender creationism.

    I will point out that I have never heard, read or seen Richard Dawkins be nasty towards an individual whose ideas he thought intellectually vapid. Perhaps pointing out fallacies in logic and argument are not to be done on certain subjects, and even if couched in the politest language and delivered with a respectful smile it is considered nasty.

    Why aren’t people defending him on this issue nor challenging the now standard accepted notion that the “New Atheists” are nasty people?

    I have tried in previous threads at their blog and somehow got trapped into the Kwokmire.

    1. Why aren’t people defending him on this issue nor challenging the now standard accepted notion that the “New Atheists” are nasty people?

      Anthony McCarthy who comments (a lot!) over at The Intersection once claimed Dawkins was uncivil. I asked him to provide an example. Despite repeated requests he has yet to come up with one.

      Oddly McCarthy’s lack of civility in lying about Dawkins, and later lying about being banned from commenting at PZ’s blog, was not commented on by either M or K. I guess civility for them is a one way process.

    2. Why aren’t people […] challenging the now standard accepted notion that the “New Atheists” are nasty people?

      I don’t perceive that exactly the same way, and would readily challenge the notion that Dawkins, Coyne, or Myers are nasty people if I felt that it was raised. What I perceive of them – especially Coyne & PZ – is that they have a very nasty attitude about religion, and about religious people.

      I don’t know any of the three of them, but I have corresponded with PZ before… I’ve read *a lot* of what he has written, and I’m pretty well exposed to Dawkins. I think they are neat, smart, and usually warm people.

      I do perceive an element of tribalism. My mom is a neat, smart, and usually warm person, too… but she is a GOP voter and a fundamentalist Christian. She’s from *that* tribe.

      When culture war issues come up she can say and do things just as nasty in warring for her tribe as anything I’ve seen coming from the New Atheist tribe. Doesn’t mean I think she’s a nasty person. She’s not. She’d give you the shirt off her back. She’d give PZ Myers the shirt off her back. She’s done more good for more people than anybody I know. But nobody is immune to tribalism. And when engaged in it, Myers, et al do and say some nasty things. There’s nothing to challenge there – that’s just life.

      1. “they have a very nasty attitude about religion, and about religious people.”

        But those are two different things, with different implications, and shouldn’t be treated together – not least because it mostly isn’t true.

        It’s not a crime or even naughty to have a ‘very nasty’ or highly critical attitude to religion. Religions aren’t people, they don’t have feelings, we can’t hurt them by having attitudes to them. Many people choose to identify themselves with ‘their’ religions in such a way that they can claim to feel hurt if their religions are criticized – but that’s not a legitimate move.

      2. Your perspective on that has merit, but religion isn’t a stone. It’s a set of thoughts & feelings inside a person.

        It’s certainly fair game to criticize it, and to suggest an alteration to those thoughts and feelings. But…

        People, to my view, are more or less the sum of their various processes, including the processes of thought and feeling. So, from that point of view, religion is actually little pieces of a person. Maybe not the most important pieces. Maybe pieces they’d be better off to shed. But pieces none-the-less, and hooked up to all the other pieces in such a way that taking a blow-torch to them carelessly is likely to be injurious at least to some connective mental tissue.

        In other words – you want to get the kid to figure out 2+2 ain’t equal to 5, but it’s not a matter of screaming “2+2 is 4” at the top of your lungs and rolling your eyes with disgust when somebody gets it wrong. You want to do it so the kid feels smarter for figuring out why it’s 4 instead of like you’re belittling him for having held the notion that it’s 5.

      3. P.S. – when I said that religion is a set of thoughts and feelings within a person, that wasn’t an analogy. It may be faulty in some ways, but I present that as a literal definition.

      4. “People, to my view, are more or less the sum of their various processes, including the processes of thought and feeling. So, from that point of view, religion is actually little pieces of a person.”

        True enough – but then that applies to a lot of other things too (political commitments, tastes, opinions, etc) and we don”t generally think we have to be deferential to all (or even most) such things. Furthermore, we think that for a reason – we think it’s not worth inhibiting open discussion as drastically as that would require. I think the same thought should apply to religion, rather than religion getting more deference than any other such item.

        Agreed about 2+2 of course! But then…if there is a whole ideology around claiming that 2+2=5 and a huge amount of social pressure to be deferential to that ideology…things seem a little more complicated. For some people, shouting ‘2+2=4!!’ will be liberating – will throw open a door. So that’s part of the picture too.

        (Also the relevant analogy isn’t actually with shouting ‘2+2=4’ at individuals, but with writing books and articles and blog posts shouting ‘2+2=4’ – which is a different thing.)

      5. P.S. – when I said that religion is a set of thoughts and feelings within a person, that wasn’t an analogy. It may be faulty in some ways, but I present that as a literal definition.

        I’d say your definition is faulty. Religion is more of a social construction than a set of subjective feelings. The subjective feelings certainly play a role, to be sure, but even if you had all the feelings typically associated with religion, you still wouldn’t have religion. All those feelings can be had apart from religion.

    3. Mike, I do not think it is a “larger and larger segment of atheists”. There are the accommodationists/faitheists who are afraid of their own shadow. Those people have no backbone so they chastise those who do.

      Massimo is off base, even though I had to read his post a couple of times. A few of the responses to his post sum it up quite well actually as they refute what he stated.

      Matt, Anthony McCarthy is nothing but a lap dog and his comments rarely hold any weight.

      I will continue to say everywhere I can that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have not acted professionally either as a scientist or a journalist. I used to have some respect for Mooney but that is now long gone.

      1. Well neither is actually a scientist.

        Kirshenbaum has a MSc in Marine Biology, but in my view to be called a scientist you have to do scientific research.

        Mooney is a straight out journalist, and seems to adopt journalism ethics. Journalism ethics seem to be somewhat looser with regards facts and misrepresentation than do scientific ethics.

        Kirshenbaum seems to be a writer/would be politician. Political ethics seem to even laxer than those of journalists.

    4. The “Intersection” comments section reflects the quality and substance of the posts: a slimy cesspool of smear tactics. The recent attempt to discredit Coyne was almost as bad as accusing PZ/Commenter smear.

      It’s sometimes fun to sharpen your rhetorical tools and mock McCarthy and Vindrisi and the rest over their spitting mad hatred of all things Richard Dawkins but that’s about it.

    5. if there is a whole ideology around claiming that 2+2=5 and a huge amount of social pressure to be deferential to that ideology…things seem a little more complicated.

      True this.

      On deference, that’s always a judgment call to me. There are times when a kind of tolerant patience is called for (whether you call that deference or not), time when gentle confrontation is called for, and times to just plain choose your battles. And my temperament and my view is that it is rarely the case that outright hostility is called for.

      There are two areas where I’m critical of new atheists. The first is attitude. That’s when, from a “superior” position of absolute “reason”, they cut short any debate over whether reason is owed a sole defining role in a person’s world-view and when they treat as not only non- or un-reasonable but also absurd and ridiculous any notions that do not – according to their own appreciation – meet the standard of reason.

      The second issue is when scientific types aren’t careful to avoid confusing the discipline of science with the philosophical position of atheism. But I guess we’ve been through some discussions on that already & it isn’t really relevant to much else in this thread.

      Anyway… those are my two issues. I’m not here to crucify Jerry. He has a reputation as a first rate scientist… If they made trading cards for academic types, I’d be sure to have him in my collection.

      I’ll confess I have a tiny anti-religious streak in me, too. I bristle at what I perceive to be non-sense. I get very upset over religious sensibilities that lead to hurtful actions or public policies. And I don’t always respond in an understanding and constructive way. So, maybe the reason I try so hard to combat anti-religious attitudes in others is because I’m struggling with them myself.

      1. I found it. Agreed or saw what was meant or both.

        (Though I might quibble with ‘it is rarely the case that outright hostility is called for’ – that seems too sweeping to me. Outright hostility to institutionalized subordination of women seems well justified to me, for instance, and there’s a lot of that, so I actually think outright hostility is called for quite often.)

      2. Yeah – I’ve read B&W enough to know you feel that way. And I do, too, though I feel that hostility when merited by things of that nature should be narrowly focused on the offending practice, and not generalized to “religion”. And that – more than western debates over global warming and evolution – is an issue where the good guys could use allies among religious people of good will. It makes sense to join religious moderates to isolate and marginalize morally indefensible practices where possible.

      3. True – but that was actually what I meant. I wasn’t sure if you were talking about hostility to Xs in general or to religion, so I picked the first; subordination of women was an example of general Xs rather than of religion.

        I think the connection between religion and the subordination of women is historic and contingent rather than inherent. On the other hand religion can (and often does) encourage or train people to think There is a Boss who wants us to do various things and that it is a sin to question or resist. That aspect of religion is mostly dangerous (‘mostly’ because if it’s ‘be kind’ that’s not being questioned, that’s not so dangerous).

      4. Mostly, or at least partly. The sociology of religion kind of prevents the Boss from telling everyone to be sociopaths. But you’re right that the whole program of projecting social mores of ordinary humans onto an “infallible” Boss is not generally conducive to right-thinking egalitarian society.

        I think every effort should be made* to push toward that stage of liberalization of at least the Abrahamic varieties or religion where believers are fully cognizant that they do not have an infallible inside line to the Boss’s head, and that they have to be careful to construct a code that is fully ethical. In other words, should there be a conflict between a story about the Boss and a moral principle, then they must at least be ready to decide that the story must be wrong, even if they aren’t ready to concede that the Boss might be. I believe that people who can reason well about the world and “correct” their stories about God in light of scientific knowledge, and who can empathize compassionately and “correct” their stories about God in light of solid moral reasoning can be good partners with the rest of us in almost any positive venture.

        *which is kind of a silly thing to say… the push toward that kind of liberalization really has to come from the inside. But for us, there are avenues to suggest it constructively to those on the inside, and of course, to avoid interfering with it from the outside.

    6. Well, with regard to being “nasty” I don’t think that is the real issue here. You are definitely pointing out a valid observation, but I don’t think there is anything inherently objectionable for a movement that contains “nasty” members. So, I don’t feel very bad about Myers being called “nasty” in principle. In fact, I agree in a trivial way with that characterization, and I actually want him to continue to be that way. (Overton windows and the fact that some people only listen to provocative criticism are two reasons why I’m glad PZ works in the way he does.)

      What I think is the real problematic issue is the double-standard applied to atheists. If you are political operative for a party, if you are an academic on one side of a contentious debate, if you are a movie or film critic, or even a celebrity, you have full license to be downright brutal in your assessments of your peers, as long as it doesn’t descend into ad hominem attacks, and even then you are sometimes allowed.

      However, if you are an atheist, even polite, explicitly issue-oriented criticisms are viewed as if they were ad hominem, and condemned in all cases. I can kinda see how people would criticize PZ (though, as I indicate above, I disagree), but definitely not Dawkins. In any event, neither should be criticized on the grounds that they are because it is so hypocritical. They are only being singled out because they are atheists, not because they are being “nasty”.

      Some day, I’m going to take a rather unremarkable movie review and substitute appropriate Christian references for the movie’s references and post it. I predict it will be immediately trashed as bigoted and dogmatic and fundamentalist, etc. Of course, the original review would never have received such derision…

  3. I think I speak for everybody from Minneapolis when I say that I was totally confused about why our baseball team cared about any of this.

  4. Been quite a while since I’ve looked over there. The comments section has turned into quite a shrill echo chamber, hasn’t it? It’s really a chore to wade through all the screaming.

  5. Sigh. It never changes. From the first sentence – from the very title, it goes off the rails, by calling a review an attack. And Mooney accusing other people of attacking him is just bizarre given the series of ‘attacks’ he published in major media outlets over the summer.

  6. Has anyone else noticed that when smijer does not have an answer to some criticism rather than admit as much he posts some comment asking how the person making the criticism is ?

    I presume he thinks it makes him look clever. To me it is just an unwitting admission on his part he has been talking out of his backside.

    1. HEY!! I’ve noticed that I do that! But not with criticisms. If you study my responding habits more closely, you’ll probably see two different trends. When there is a criticism to discuss, I usually try to discuss it. That’s the criticism trend.

      If somebody’s just throwing spitballs, I just try to say something friendly so they know I’m not ignoring them.

      1. Nah, you have that wrong.

        You just ignore the substantive criticisms and make a sarcastic post instead.

        I will grant the reason why you do so is up for debate, but I still favour the fact you are unable to answer.

        Either way, for someone who seems to subscribe to M & K’s call for civility, it comes across as rude. If you really do subscribe to their call for civility, it would also make you a hypocrit.

        Maybe you do not want to come across as a supercilious twit, in which case you might want to rethink how you reply to people, because at the moment I can assure you do.

      1. Matt (and Bob)…with all due respect, that’s not actually true. smijer doesn’t ignore all substantive criticisms/disagreements. (See above!)

        Just some then. The stuff he cannot answer.

      2. Oh, and I would just like to curse you for damaging my bank balance!

        I went a little mad on Amazon and have orders your “Why God Hates Women” and “Why Truth Matters”.

        I will be having words with Russell Blackford as well, since I also bought his new book at the same time.

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