HuffPo “science”

February 2, 2012 • 8:00 am

As I predicted, the new “science” section of HuffPo has turned out to be almost a tabloid-like selection of puff pieces and soft science.  I’m disappointed but not surprised. Here’s a screenshot of its latest headlines (click to enlarge):

Note Christopher Lane’s piece at the left: it’s about agnosticism, Hitchens, and Dawkins, and has virtually nothing to do with science. Rather, it’s a defense of agnosticism as the “reasonable” position on faith, much as we heard recently vis-a-vis David Attenborough.  It’s laughable how Lane uses weak evidence to show that Hitchens was much more approving of agnosticism than was Dawkins.

. . . one might assume Hitchens would’ve been similarly uncompromising about agnosticism as failing to reach his own level of certainty in “antitheism,” his preferred self-description. Yet, of the seven brief references to agnosticism that appear in “God Is Not Great,” all are unmistakably supportive. What’s more, Hitchens’s book did something increasingly rare among atheists and critics of religion: whenever possible, it grouped agnostics with atheists and freethinkers, as allies with shared arguments against monotheism, zealotry and fundamentalism.

In “Putting It Mildly,” his opening chapter, Hitchens wrote: “Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least.” Among other things, the sentence abounds in inclusiveness: “we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics…”

A later chapter reinforces the point when Hitchens discusses “American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists” with almost ostentatious use of the connective “and.”

Yeah, it abounds in inclusiveness!  And the word “and” is so meaningful here!

Another gem from the column:

For Dawkins, all the same, agnosticism’s embrace of a similar unknown [the existence of God] points not to its stringency or capaciousness, but to its “poverty.” “I am agnostic,” he later quips, “to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” At such moments, the vast, considered history of agnosticism slips into caricature. The dignity and candor of honest disbelief morph into the cop-out of weak tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitting. We are left with playground taunts, where rigorous skeptics are mocked as namby-pamby while unbelievers crown themselves “brights.” (Hitchens, of course, winced over such regrettable moves.)

Still, when doubt is acknowledged, even embraced, it sharpens conviction, strengthens resilience and modulates extremism — among other ways by testing beliefs and asking us to consider in what they really consist. Agnosticism also makes it possible for people to change their minds, a prime element in the rise of secularism and freethought, as I detail in “The Age of Doubt.” When a culture is polarized over such matters, however, it tends to shun the possibility of moderation through religious and intellectual doubt. And though in doing so it seems to gain an illusion of certainty, in the frequent flight to extremes it risks losing the considered center. There, where freethought inevitably meets agnosticism and atheism, shades of gray are unavoidable — and sometimes even welcome.

Curiously, when it comes to considering those who are entrenched and thus unable to change their minds, it is the atheists who are chastised, not those who are certain that there is God, Mohamed, or Baby Jesus.

49 thoughts on “HuffPo “science”

    1. But Hitchens has one huge “advantage” over Dawkins: he’s dead.
      This means they can make him say almost anything they want and he can’t shoot back.

  1. “I am agnostic,” he later quips, “to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” At such moments, the vast, considered history of agnosticism slips into caricature.

    I am very curious as to how all the “vast, considered history” gets around such “caricature”. How are the various faiths’ gods not like Dawkins’ fairies?

  2. Curiously, when it comes to considering those who are entrenched and thus unable to change their minds, it is the atheists who are chastised, not those who are certain that there is God, Mohamed, or Baby Jesus.

    This does seem to be the sad state of affairs.

    1. It’s a linguistic game. I don’t mind if people are atheists or agnostics, as long as they care about separation of church and state; and avow that evolution is superb science. Most deists are not god botherers – and rarely care about a specific god. I tell people that I rotate mine for fairness – today Juno, tomorrow Apollo.

      1. Dawn, do you mean that today Juno is the god you don’t believe in, tomorrow Apollo, and so on?

        If so, cute.

        But I can not believe in seven different gods before breakfast! 😉

        /@

        1. Alan, you have outwitted me – superb. I was musing about what I generally tell people about my theological position. ‘Yes, today, I’ll pray to Apollo for you’. The thought of being atheistic towards certain gods on certain days, is even better!!

      1. Yeah, soon he will have been “secretly a christian.” Then the deathbed testimonies will come forth. Appalling, turning the deceased Hitch against Dawkins.

        1. I heard someone on the radio the other day say that if Hitchens spoke on one side of an issue one day, it was likely he’s be on the other side after a while.
          I only recall him changing his mind with definite reasons, like water boarding.

  3. When a culture is polarized over such matters, however, it tends to shun the possibility of moderation through religious and intellectual doubt. And though in doing so it seems to gain an illusion of certainty, in the frequent flight to extremes it risks losing the considered center.

    The canard of equidistance and evenhandedness!

    Pierre Desproges, the closest pendant to Christopher Hitchens that France had in recent decades, gave devastatingly short shrift to this fallacy of balance in a mordant sketch in 1986:

    “During the last war, many Jews harboured an unabashedly hostile attitude towards the National Socialist régime. It is also true, on the other hand, that the Germans barely hid a certain antipathy towards Jews. But that was hardly reason enough for the Jews to exacerbate said antipathy by flaunting a yellow badge on one’s lapel…”

    So much for moderation and the ‘considered center’.

  4. When people tell me to “have an open mind” about god I tell them to have an open mind about the FSM.

    1. Indeed. I think the point of an open mind is to make sure the right things can get in and the wrong things can get out. If you’re not maintaining any control over entrances and exits, it’s not really a mind – it’s more of a gutter.

  5. Most media now is/are little more than grocery store tabloids. I no longer expect or hope that they’ll get better. Well, I see Searching for Big Foot is on a “science” TV station now. Later.

    1. Because running one picture, rather than a story of 1,000 words is far cheaper. People still expect a story to say something or be accurate or… to have better sentences and spelling than lolcats.

  6. You probably already know this, but you’re better off not bothering with HuffPo. It’s pretty close to being the most vapid site on the internet that has any pretensions at all to being more than a TMZ-style gossip site.

  7. …while unbelievers crown themselves “brights.”

    Oh, for f*ck’s sake, how many times can that be thrown into our faces? It was a small internet movement that peaked probably a decade ago. The number of new atheists I’ve seen who currently self-identify as a “bright” is exactly zero.

    But what really galls is the hypocrisy of taking offense at such an innocuous term. Christians regularly label themselves “saved” or “blessed” and in a “special relational” with the Almighty. The Jews call themselves “the chosen people” (how exclusionary is that?) Where’s the outrage over those self-aggrandizing titles?

    1. I was wondering about the “Brights” moniker. Daniel Dannett described himself as a Bright in “Breaking the Spell” as recently as 2006.

      1. I first became aware of the Bright movement around the time Dawkins published his Guardian piece way back in 2003. As I recall, the blow back was almost immediate. Half the community didn’t see any point in labels anyway and were perfectly content to keep calling themselves simply “atheists.” (The term “new atheism” was not yet in vogue.) Then you had the tone trolls like Chris Mooney (who would later make a career out of being an accommodationist) who loved to bleat about what a bad PR move it was to use such a positive-sounding word. (It gives the religious yet one more thing to take offense at, don’t you know?) Dennet did try to defend the term, correctly pointing out that simply adopting a positive-sounding word for non-believers needn’t be taken as an attempt to put down the religious, but his point has been largely ignored. I don’t think any of the prominent new-atheists who did endorse the term “Bright” have done anything as drastic as renounce the movement, but the conversation has definitely moved as the initial enthusiasm fizzled. Not that you’d know that from the critics of new atheism, who seemingly have to include a reference to the word in every article they write.

        1. The irony is that the “Brights” themselves tend to fall on the accomodationist side of the atheist spectrum.

          And yes, I really do think that they thought that they dealt adequately with the concern that people might think atheists were arrogantly claiming to be smarter than other people by explaining upfront that no, they didn’t mean that at all.

        2. I prefer to simply call myself an atheist. Why clutter the meaning of THAT? As Eliza Doolittle proclaimed: “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words . . . Is that all you blighters can do?”

    2. The number of new atheists I’ve seen who currently self-identify as a “bright” is exactly zero.

      Dennett, Dawkins, and I are feeling are feeling quite unknown, then.

      1. They signed on as brights in the past. Currently I don’t think either of them go around touting that label, but I’m willing to be shown wrong.

        1. Maybe not, but they allow themselves to be prominently featured by The Brights. At any rate, that’s certainly more than “exactly zero.”

  8. What’s more, Hitchens’s book did something increasingly rare among atheists and critics of religion: whenever possible, it grouped agnostics with atheists and freethinkers, as allies with shared arguments against monotheism, zealotry and fundamentalism.

    It’s odd to hear things like this, because just as often I hear the complaint that us outspoken atheists are trying to co-opt agnostics as part of our cause against their will. Oh well, damned if you do damned if you don’t I guess…

  9. It is incredible how many people believe agnosticism is the most reasoned position to hold in the God debate – despite the obvious fact that there is no reason whatsoever to think there is a God!

    With zero evidence for the claim on the one hand, and a body of science finding no use for this claim on the other, evaluation of the evidence bears only one conclusion.

    1. Agreed, and that conclusion is that we can be 99.9999% certain that there is no god. I think agnostics say that there is a vanishingly small possibility that there may be a god. There is huge gap between that possibility and theism.

        1. It isn’t limited to god. Anything that has not been disproved is possible. To choose to think that something that has not been disproved is true requires a leap of faith or evidence which will prove it to be true.

  10. Atheism vs agnosticism is about as meaningful and useful as liberal vs Democrat. The two concepts are related but neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive, as they deal with different concepts. (Basically belief/non-belief and knowledge/knowability)

    I’m not sure of which I am more tired, the two being portrayed as both mutually exclusive and in direct opposition or the way agnosticism is often portrayed as the more reasonable (acceptable to theists) position of the two.

    “Agnosticism also makes it possible for people to change their minds…”

    Actually, the position of actual agnosticism is that, to borrow from wikipedia, the truth value of claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.

    The only way this allows for people to change their minds is for them to abandon the position of agnosticism. In this way it is no different from atheism in which one can change their mind, start believing in a god, and thus abandon atheism.

    Agnosticism allows for both belief and non belief in god(s), and thus there are atheist agnostics and deistic/theistic agnostics.

    For myself, I am a hard atheist. I don’t believe in a god. I believe that there almost certainly is no god, and expressly reject the belief in the god of either the Old or New Testaments or any other theistic religion.

    I am also an agnostic to the degree that if there was a being that despite all reason and logic was somehow all powerful and all knowing, it would certainly be able to create a universe where it appeared that there was no god. In fact, such a truly all powerful being (as illogical as that concept seems to me) would be able to create a universe where its existence was logically prohibited by all evidence and reason. So technically, I am an agnostic, but don’t generally identify as such to others both because it’s not a particularly useful identification, and because most people seem to misunderstand what agnosticism is.

    I really which the people who don’t believe in a god but aren’t’ sure that there is no god would realize and admit they are (soft) atheists and stop identifying exclusively as agnostics. Frankly, many (if not most) of them aren’t even agnostics anyway.

  11. DANG TYPO:

    I really WISH the people who don’t believe in a god but aren’t’ sure that there is no god would realize and admit they are (soft) atheists and stop identifying exclusively as agnostics. Frankly, many (if not most) of them aren’t even agnostics anyway.

  12. I think it’s rather odd that Christopher Lane is comparing an in-depth analysis on agnosticism with the casual mention of the term in other contexts — and then drawing an inference on the difference between the stance of the writers. I wouldn’t do that. Context matters.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if someone discovered a Dawkins use of the phrase “atheists and agnostics.” Nor would it surprise me if Christopher Hitchens had read and agreed with Dawkins’ point regarding agnosticism. The problem with the term wasn’t with the lack of certainty or being open to doubt: it was with a double standard too often being deliberately applied to religious claims as a sort of apologetic technique.

    Hitchens would have met that sort of tactic with righteous scorn.

  13. If Dawkins disapproves of agnosticism that’s news to me. If anything, the last I’ve read of Dawkins he stated that the deist god cannot be revoked. I believe that that is utter rubbish and based on the incorrect notion that you can’t prove something doesn’t exist. If Dawkins cannot discard the deist god, how can anyone imagine that he would somehow disapprove of agnosticism? There’s also this presumption that Dawkins goes around telling people what to believe – I doubt he cares what silly people believe except for the rabid anti-science lot who are trying to drown out evolution and replace it with their ridiculous and vile fantasies.

  14. I think Dawkins has always been clear in stating his position as a 99% atheist. He clearly says many times that we cannot be 100% certain there are no gods, but he feels that with all the available evidence that the probability of such an entity or entities existing is miniscule. So basically he just shifts the threshold for “atheist” over from the impossible to ever have 100% certainty. I have never heard Dawkins to say anything against agnosticism whether it’s at the 99%/atheist level or the 50% certain level.

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