Friday, April 16, 2010

 

Of Cats and Dogs


Damn! I hate it when people who I like get to talking past each other and I have to go and straighten out the mess.

Such are the trials of being the only reasonable person on the intertubz.

PZ Myers started it off with a post about Kurt Zimmerman, a Tennessee man who objected to the phrase "the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days" in his child's biology textbook.

Michael De Dora, director of the New York Center For Inquiry, demurred, saying:

This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a "myth," the public school classroom doesn't seem to be the place where our message should be pushed. More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a "myth"; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally.

PZ responded in full Pharyngulista style, calling De Dora, among other things, a "wishy-washy, sloppy-thinking," "witless wanker."

Massimo Pigliucci rose to the defense of De Dora, who he acknowledged is his friend. Pigliucci's main point was that:

[T]his to me represents the latest example of an escalation (downwards in quality) in the tone and substance of the discourse on atheism, and I blame this broadly on the rhetoric of the new atheism (the only "new" aspect of which is precisely the in-your-face approach to "reason"). With few exceptions (mostly, Dennett), what we have seen in recent years is much foaming at the mouth, accompanied by a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of one's arguments. And now we have seen a new low consisting of childish insults to a fellow atheist and writer who is clearly fighting the same battle as the rest of us.

PZ then responded that Pigliucci's complaints about "tone" were belied by the fact that that Pigliucci insulted him.

There is much more that I could address but that's enough for a rain delay in the Yankees game. I may take the rest on later, if I can work up the energy.

First of all, De Dora and Pigliucci seem to be assuming that the word "myth" is the equivalent of "superstitious nonsense." This is not necessarily the case. Merriam-Webster Online defines "myth," in relevant part, as:

1 a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : parable, allegory

3: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
The first definition clearly does not go to the "truth" of a myth and the second is certainly ambiguous on that point. Indeed, at least one of the school board members, who have not (at least yet) upheld Zimmerman's complaint despite some indications that they share his sensibilities, noted that "myth" was appropriately used to describe the Genesis story.

As we recently saw in the case of James Corbett, under our Constitution it is one thing to for a government employee or school to say that something is "scientific nonsense" and quite another to say that it is "religious, superstitious nonsense."

The problem here is that PZ also seems to accept that "myth" is the equivalent of "superstitious nonsense":

This is all about a dunderheaded creationist complaining about a textbook that called his superstition a "myth".

If that is so, then describing Genesis as a "myth" is not permissible for a government employee.

Furthermore, PZ was torching strawmen when he claimed:

If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we're doomed.

Neither De Dora nor Pigliucci suggested any such thing, as far as I can see.

Nor did Pigliucci "insult" PZ, as least in the same way that PZ insulted De Dora. Pigliucci did entitle his post "PZ Myers is a witless wanker who peddles pablum" but immediately took it back by saying:

No, not really, but I got your attention, yes? On the other hand, these are precisely the words used by PZ in a recent post, aimed at criticizing Michael De Dora's observations about a recent debate in Knoxville, TN on the wording of a biology textbook.

The only other "insults" Pigliucci "perpetrated" were to say:

PZ's post reads like it was written by an intemperate teenager in the midst of a hormonal rage.

And:

[W]e have seen a new low consisting of childish insults to a fellow atheist and writer who is clearly fighting the same battle as the rest of us.

Neither goes to PZ as a person, but to his tone.

I think Pigliucci's point about tone is well taken. I take a back seat to no one in the ridiculing of creationists. Nor do I think it necessary to be gentle with those who I generally agree with when I think they are wrong (as Jerry Coyne can attest). Pigliucci is wrong to suggest that the difference in tone should turn on who is "fighting the same battle as the rest of us."

The real difference is: when dealing with unreasonable or dishonest people, their personalities are fair game; when dealing with reasonable and honest (but possibly wrong) people, then the focus should be their arguments, instead of their personalities.
.

Comments:
I agree; I think PZ has gone too far this time. It's quite possible to say quite forcefully "You are wrong, and this is why...." without adding "...and you're ugly and you smell too".
 
Sometimes I think PZ has become a prisoner of the hurricaine that is his blog. He was never like this back in the day on t.o. He wasn't even this way when he started his blog. It's almost like he feels he has to keep out in front of the rabidness of his commentariat or risk losing them.
 
Why is the phrase in a biology book at all?

Teach the biology as science reveals it in science classes.
If the students raise questions, then they can be answered in the vein "what science has shown is this is how the world/universe wroks".
If that conflicts with religion that's tough.

Passing the exam means answering the questions based on the scientific findings, if you answer otherwise you'll fail.

If they're going to call the bible or genesis a myth, why not do the same for all religious creation claims/stories/myths.

Does seem to go against promoting particular theologies/philosophies etc in state funded schools.
 
John, I draw your attention to this comment from the relevant CFI blog:
(Sorry, I'd link directly but there's no permalink anchor there).

#49 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:48pm

@Deen,

“Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.
 
I have a couple of other reservations about what I've seen quoted from this textbook. For example, when they say that creationism is the idea that the world was created in 7 [sic!] days. That is Young Earth Creationism, and there are other varieties of creationism: Old Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design. OEC and ID are also anti-evolutionary. I can well imagine an anti-evolutionist gladly complaining that this is a straw man.

TomS
 
John:

I didn't go through all the comments on these various posts but it would appear that De Dora's comment came after PZ's "wanker" post, so PZ can't claim that as a justification for his tone.

More importantly, there are subtleties in Constitutional law in this area (not to mention the somewhat justified criticisms that SCOTUS has not been consistent in its approach), as the Corbett case shows. It is certainly permissible to teach that science shows the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Most likely, it is permissible to answer a student's question along the lines of "Doesn't that mean the Bible is wrong?" with some variation of "The scientific evidence for the age of the Earth is strong but different people interpret the Bible differently. I suggest you talk to you parents or your pastor about that." It is certainly unconstitutional for a government teacher to set out to affirmatively show that science disproves the Bible. I suspect De Dora had the latter in mind but I really don't know him.

I suppose I should say that, not knowing De Dora, it is possible that PZ has other reasons for thinking he's a wanker. I was just going by these posts.

Tom:

Indeed, the IDers already make that claim, in a backhanded way, by associating the "creationism" outlawed by SCOTUS only with young-Earth, Bible-specific, creationism. For the textbook to take the same approach simply reinforces the IDers' claim.
 
John,

I was curious if you'd seen Ophelia's post on this. She remarks (ever the logician) that it can't be illegal to call religious ideas false in school because she went to a publicly funded college where people do this all the time. Besides being a MacGuffin (Has anyone applied the Lemon Test to public universities, which are only partially funded by state dollars, and whose adult students attend without state compulsion?) this elides the question of whether the Establishment Clause has any merit. PZ clearly feels it is an anachronism (as does Larry Moran). I don't think we can blame that on the hurricane. It's an anti-pluralistic stance that none of the NAs have been very shy about endorsing. The ironic thing is how unnecessary this stance is. Not calling creationism a "myth" (or nonsense) doesn't impede the teaching of science in any way--if that, and not demonstrating science's omnicompetance-is really your goal.
 
As accurate as the definitions you quote are, I think the objection arises from "myth" being popularly associated with obsolete beliefs like those of the Greek and Roman gods.
IMHO, all this is actually proof of the value of a good copy editor. A correct word isn't necessarily the best one to use.
 
Has anyone applied the Lemon Test to public universities, which are only partially funded by state dollars, and whose adult students attend without state compulsion?

That's precisely right. The courts generally exercise much less, if any, scrutiny over university curricula because the students are, for the most part, adults who are voluntarily attending and who have much more in the way of courses to choose from, so they can avoid subjects they are uncomfortable with.

It's amazing how people who are so scornful of those who babble incoherently about science are themselves willing to babble incoherently about the law.
 
I just waded into the comments there. Russell Blackford makes a very nice analogy to the teaching of poetry in high school. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Houseman are both on the curriculum, but a teacher can't use their poems to endorse (or attack) either Catholicism or atheism.

He also makes the basic point that even if saying "the earth is not 6,000 years old" is not a categorical infraction of the Establishment clause, it runs the risk of being taken as disparagement, and given that it is unnecessary (when we can easily make the positive scientific claim that the earth is, as best we can tell, 4.5 billion years old), it is just due diligence to avoid statements like that when possible, which is what DeDora is arguing for.

Reading over Peazy's comments again, that he longs for a time to come when science textbooks can present religious doctrine as wrong, makes it all the more clear that he thinks the EC is moribund. This has nothing to do with critical thinking. Teachers can "discourage people from believing in stupid and fallacious mush" indirectly, by promoting good intellectual hygiene. You would think that someone who believed in the transcendent power of Reason would think that was enough, and not ask teachers to take the further step of indoctrinating students against metaphysically incorrect beliefs.
 
"It's amazing how people who are so scornful of those who babble incoherently about science are themselves willing to babble incoherently about the law."

They're not really babbling about law but about principle. They're happy to have the EC as a crowbar to pry creationism out of American schools (I kind of wish we had one) but see no reason why it has to work both ways.

Essentially, theirs is the position that 'Error has no right.' Now where did I first hear that one?
 
They're not really babbling about law but about principle.

Well, if Chris is right that Benson said that "it can't be illegal to call religious ideas false in school because she went to a publicly funded college where people do this all the time" (I haven't found the comment yet), then she is babbling about the law.

And if it isn't about the law, then why is PZ calling De Dora a "witless wanker" for expousing what is basically the law?
 
From here:

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/the-club-of-friendly-inhibitionists/

Federal and state governments cannot prefer non-religion to religion, therefore, according to De Dora, as long as a mistaken claim is religious, it is against the law for public schools to say the claim is mistaken. That’s interesting. I went to a state university and I recall plenty of teachers who said particular religious claims were mistaken. I never knew that they were breaking the law by doing that. As a matter of fact I don’t believe that they were breaking the law by doing that; I think on the contrary that De Dora is talking creepy nonsense. Maybe he’s been reading Michael Ruse and Andrew Brown – they both love to announce that the Constitution forbids evil secularists to open their mouths within 500 yards of a public educational institution.
 
Thanks.
 
[PZ] was never like this back in the day on t.o. He wasn't even this way when he started his blog.

I've been hanging around the godless blogosphere for about five years now, and I have the feeling that the gestalt (in some quarters) has moved from despising the extremists on the other side, through despising the moderates on the other side, to despising those on our side who don't sufficiently despise the folks on the other side. It's getting rather toxic and tiresome.
 
"And if it isn't about the law, then why is PZ calling De Dora a "witless wanker" for expousing what is basically the law?"

Because PZ _wants_ textbooks to expressly deny religious beliefs and despises anyone who disagrees whether they are right about the law or not?

You just don't get so worked up as PZ is just because someone disagrees on a technical point of law unless there's something else that is the real motivation. Essentially, we're seeing a Colonel Nathan R Jessep moment.
 
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