Saturday, April 03, 2010


Fightin' Words

Michael Ruse is a reliable historian of science and the philosophy of science. He's less successful as an original philosophical thinker.

He is also thin-skinned. Long before his latest rounds of whining against the "New Atheists" who have attacked him, he whined about his treatment at the hands of the eminent philosopher of science, Larry Laudan, over Ruse's testimony at the McLean v. Arkansas case. I personally thought that Laudan's criticism (basically, that "creation science" was "scientific" because its propositions are empirically testable and it is just bad science) is wrong-headed, primarily because its proponents do not accept the correction that comes from empiric evidence.

However, Ruse's latest example of petulance, "A Scientific Defense of the Templeton Foundation" at the Huffington Post, is really bad:

The Templeton Foundation was begun by the late Sir John Templeton, who made a great deal of money by starting mutual funds, and is essentially devoted to the promotion of the interaction and harmony between science and religion. It is hardly too strong a term to say that it is an object of derision by many of today's scientists, including my own colleague here at Florida State University, Sir Harry Kroto who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry (for discovering the structure of complex carbon molecules, "buckyballs"). Richard Dawkins has characterized the president of the Royal Society (of London), Sir Martin Rees, as a "Quisling" (after the war-time Nazi ruler of Norway) for his friendliness to the Foundation. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago biologist and a deservedly respected scientist for his work on problems of speciation, runs a blog (Why Evolution is True) where he writes of the foundation's "history of intellectual dishonesty." When it was announced that the National Academy of Science's premises would be used to introduce this year's prize winner he called it an "outrage." And then there is Minnesota biologist P. Z. Myers, who runs the blog Pharyngula, and whose splenetic keyboard surely qualifies him for the title of evolution's answer to Rush Limbaugh.

I've clucked over some of the excesses of the "New Atheists" but comparing PZ to Rush Limbaugh is over the top. Either Limbaugh is incredibly stupid or he says outrageously stupid things in a cynical grab for ratings. PZ, whatever his faults might be, is neither stupid nor cynical. He says what he really believes and the vast majority of the time he is right.

Ruse really needs to get the concept that, if you enter the arena of public debate, you have to accept that there will be criticism, some of it less than gentile. Even if you don't think it's fair, responding with unfair criticism of your own does nothing for your reputation.

PZ lost me when he declared that any religious moderate that prays is propping up a system that allows ignorant families to deny medical care for their children. He maintained that they shared responsibility for suffering and deaths that occur.
That was the very deep line in the sand that led me to stop reading him and eventually show up here. Recently, a flap about some particularly offensive comments (rape language) by his commentors on his blog led a few other fans to question his inadequate response. I certainly didn't support the silly calls for his hosting service to do something, but there were quite reasonable questions about why such comments were not contested. One person even linked to a comment by PZ a while ago that condemed a comment that he felt got out of bounds. And he was traveling at the time so a swift response was not possible.
But as far as I know he did not respond to it when he did return and even used the same kind of language to mock the protests.
PZ chooses to use the double-edged sword of offending deeply. When he's right, he waves off the critcism about tone. When he's wrong, it only compounds his error and in these instances I am sympathetic to the idea that one could make a comparison to the tactics of a Limbaugh.
I appreciate your point, but - after all - those are tactics that a PZ or a Harris are choosing to use. I think it's fair game to note that similarity.
I almost never read the comments at PZ's place anymore, so I can't say whether PZ has been deficient in reining in the excesses of his commentariat. Still, there is a difference between presiding over a free-wheeling forum of free speech and purposefully egging on the excess. With hundreds, if not thousands, of comments a day, on top of his frenetic schedule, I wouldn't be surprised that he lets some things pass.

I agree that the "guilt by association" "argument" is wrong and dangerous to boot. After all, scientists have been "proping up" tyrannies all along by giving them the technological means of repression. And how can we shoot down the claims that Darwin led to the Holocaust if we're ready to blame perfectly reasonable and law abiding people for terrorists and those who stone others to death for violating crude social norms? But being wrong sometimes (something we're all subject to) is qualitatively different than spouting nonsense nonstop to perpetuate bad thinking.
John, I didn't intend to make you feel the need to comment on those examples (especially the can of worms that is the latter), I only wanted to give some specific instances where people have concluded that he was not just wrong, but wrong in what to them was an unreasonable way.
I agree that we've all been wrong at times and as a father I've become better at understanding that people make mistakes without intending to make you angry (not that the knowledge makes it any easier to not be angry).
But this specific tactic, the use of vitriol, somehow takes things to a different level. That's what I meant by double-edged sword: you better be right because when you're not people won't have much sympathy.
As for Ruse's comparison, I went back, read his essay and I think his use of "splenetic keyboard" to describe his disagreement with PZ refers to his tactics, not his content.
There's the problem of how often Rush's content is wrong and how often PZ is wrong, but I think that's beside the point.
I think it's up to the individual to decide when someone becomes not wrong, but wrongheaded. It really only takes one instance to do that, and that instance may be different for each person.
"But being wrong sometimes (something we're all subject to) is qualitatively different than spouting nonsense nonstop to perpetuate bad thinking."

True, but it's not as if the problem is that Myers is wrong sometimes. He goes out of his way to be mean-spirited. This is the guy who claimed that the strategy of those we now call accommodationists is to "toady up to creationists and fencesitters and pious twits and ignorant theologians and little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys, and hope that mewling softly will win them over." This is the guy who writes:

"Isn't this a lovely map? It shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed. Oh, it's labeled as the frequency of religious adherents, but it's the same thing."

This is the guy who decided to protest against what happened to Webster Cook by doing something that would be an F-U to all Catholics, whether they agreed with what happened to Cook or not.

This sort of behavior is very similar to Limbaugh's. Now to be fair, Limbaugh compounds that sort of behavior by spewing illogic and misinformation along with the hatred, which Myers doesn't do nearly as often as Limbaugh. When Myers does do it, though, he goes off the rails just as badly as Limbaugh does. His portrayal of accommodationists doubles as both an example of mean-spiritedness and gross misrepresentation. He is also the guy who wrote that Ed Brayton "loathes atheists, and would like to see them silenced," which is based on no evidence at all. This is the guy whose response to a rape "joke" directed at Mooney and Kirshenbaum and the subsequent mansplaining is to misportray it as Mooney and Kirshenbaum merely being offended by dirty words.

(If I want to get personal, Myers is also the one who falsely claimed that I "made extremely inappropriate comments about my under-age daughter's sex life" in order to explain away the lack of evidence that I had even repeatedly insulted his daughter to begin with two years prior. Funny that only a year later, he appears to have forgotten these purported inappropriate comments, but then that only makes sense when he isn't telling the truth to begin with. Unfortunately, I hadn't realized that Myers had falsely claimed that I had made lurid comments until about a month ago.)
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