Could This Get Any Stupider?

I’ll save you the suspense: the answer is no.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote this book called Unscientific America.  One of the things they argue is that public understanding of, and willingness to understand, science is impeded by the perception that scientists are intolerant of religion.  In particular, they criticize PZ Myers and other “New Atheists” (a ridiculous term, in my opinion) for their aggressive approach and their insistence that religion and science are incompatible.  Mooney is himself an atheist, but is the sort Myers and others deride as an “accommodationist,” and has been having an ongoing argument with Jerry Coyne on whether or not science and religion are necessarily incompatible (Coyne agrees with Myers and others that they are).

When review copies of the book went out, Myers didn’t receive his immediately, and some other people had already put up their own reviews, from which he learned that he came in for criticism.  He assumed this was why he hadn’t received a copy — which would be a breach of good etiquette if true, though one might equally consider his assumption of bad faith on Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s part to be such a breach — and Mooney and Kirshenbaum responded that the process of sending out review copies had just been disorganized, and that he had always been on the recipient list.

Myers then received his copy, and posted an extremely negative review.  Then Mooney responded, citing other, positive reviews, and promising to have “much more” to say about Myers’s review.  Up to this point, it was a pretty dumb blogfight, but far from the stupidest ever.  Responding to negative reviews is a foolish thing for an author to do, I think, unless the reviewer made gross errors of fact that need to be corrected — obviously outright falsehoods should be challenged.  But if the reviewer simply didn’t like the book and didn’t agree with its argument, responding just makes the author look thin-skinned and petty.  There’s an established mode of interblog communication that involves a lot more back-and-forth, of course, but responding to reviews is still a bad move; at most, Mooney and Kirshenbaum should have put up a post or a sidebar linking to all reviews of Unscientific America to date, positive and negative, with minimal comment on each.  If reviewers raise important criticisms, add a section to the next edition of the book, or write an entirely new book, in which you address them.  If their criticisms aren’t important, just ignore them.

What made this really, really stupid was this post, where Mooney pulls a comment attacking him from Myers’s blog — but not a comment made by Myers — and one praising the book from RealClimate.  Initially, however, although he linked to the comments, nothing in the text of Mooney’s post indicated that they were comments, not the words of the respective blog authors.  It took some five and a half hours and 150-odd comments before Mooney grudgingly added a note to the post indicating the quotation was not from Myers.  With no acknowledgment that, intentionally or not, his original post was misleading to the point of being unethical, and no apology for that, it’s really too little too late.  It is surely one of the most basic principles of writing anything that you should always make it clear who you’re quoting.  Did Mooney really not know that?  I don’t have any idea.

That same day, Myers put up another post on Unscientific America, this time specifically taking on the chapter in which Mooney and Kirshenbaum criticize him and the “New Atheists.”  One thing I found interesting about this particular post was how Myers refers to the authors: sometimes he says “Mooney and Kirshenbaum,” but more often he just says “Mooney” or “he” — I don’t believe he ever refers to the author of any of the passages from Unscientific America he quotes as “Kirshenbaum” or “she,” or indeed mentions Kirshenbaum by herself at any point in the post.  Now, I’m not trying to point fingers and yell “PZ Myers is a sexist!” — both because he has explicitly defended Kirshenbaum against sexism in the past, and because I’m opposed to calling anyone “a sexist” — and it’s not really related to my main point, but I think it’s important to point out how structural bias infects even the most well-intentioned, aware people, and the subtle elision of women’s voices is often a difficult problem to combat.

To return to what I meant to be talking about, however: this Pharyngula/Intersection blogfight is so goddamn stupid.  It’s degenerated into nasty personal sniping on both sides, it looks (from my limited readings) most of the commenters on both blogs have divided themselves into opposing camps, and actual reasoned arguments about why one position or the other is right or wrong are few and far between.  The Mooney/Coyne exchanges showed that it’s actually at least somewhat possible to have a respectful, if not actually productive, discussion about whether or not science and religion are opposed, but there seems little interest in doing so here.

Personally, I agree with Myers that the only religion that isn’t explicitly and overtly incompatible with science is the rarefied, god-of-the-gaps view of Deism, which I don’t think very many people these days actually subscribe to, because all other religions, as actually practiced and believed by their adherents, no matter what other interpretations of their texts may be possible, make positive claims about history and about the way the natural world works, and those claims are all demonstrably false.  On the other hand, I agree with Mooney that to be aggressively confrontational about decrying religion as nonsense — even though it is nonsense — is usually both unnecessary and counterproductive.  There are a lot of religious people.  If you attack religion directly, they will often tend to simply go into defensive mode, hunker down, and disregard anything you, or anyone they associate with you, say.  I believe it’s more productive to avoid directly confronting religion, and work to improve education and especially science education, and to lead people to conclude on their own that religion is nonsense.  If your opponent has a large force, a frontal assault is obviously suicide; it’s much smarter to work around the sides, undermine the other side, spread doubt among their ranks that their leadership really knows what’s best.

I’ve gotten distracted again from my point, though.  The point is that Myers, Coyne, etc., etc., on one side and Mooney, Kirshenbaum, etc., etc. on the other, all agree on atheism and on the woeful state of scientific understanding among the American public.  They don’t all agree on how to fix the problem, and they could be having productive debates about that, and if they’re ultimately unable to reach agreement they could each go on about trying to address the problem in their respective ways: it’s not as though Mooney and Kirshenbaum writing their blog and their book somehow prevent Myers from writing his own blog.  Instead, it seems to be turning into a People’s Front of Judea situation, each side acting as though the other is the real problem.

Dumbest. Blogfight. Ever.


Late update: as I was getting ready to post this, Mooney posted this:

People seem to be wondering why we haven’t responded to PZ yet. We’re sorry, and we will do so…
However, we’re setting a deadline for responding to PZ and plan to post sometime on Monday.

Not that I’m under any impression I was one of the “people” he’s talking about — I haven’t been involved in the comment-thread knife fights at either blog, because I wanted to put my thoughts together at greater length and because I didn’t think they were going anywhere useful — but I might not be the only one who would like to respond by saying: no, Chris, I’m not wondering, and I was really hoping you wouldn’t respond further.  Please don’t post more on this on Monday.  This whole thing is already dumb enough!  Let it die!  Stop making yourself look bad, and let it be up to PZ to stop making himself look bad, or not, as he chooses.  What possible use is this?  Why do you think it’s a good idea to continue it?

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