Sunday, August 16, 2009

Oh, PZ Myers Won't Like That...

Science blogger Josh Rosenau denounces "bullshit" arguments

For those concerned about the state of scientific literacy in the United States, one would have assumed that Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney's Unscientific America would be a welcome entry into the debate.

One would think that any book that decries the lack of scientific literacy in the American public and offers potential solutions would be welcome.

But one would be wrong.

Many fundamentalist atheists have objected to book, claiming it denounces them as responsible for the spread of this scientific illiteracy.

Part of the problem is the way these individuals respond to any criticism at all. The rapid response to Unscientific America is an example of this. For for many of those who orbit the Scienceblogs universe -- particularly the most fervent Pharyngulites -- one has to imagine that Scienceblogger Josh Rosenau may very well be off the reservation with these particular remarks:
"Sam Harris' famous and oft-repeated claim that religious moderates enable fundamentalists also strikes me as bullshit. How can the Rev. Barry Lynn's work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State be taken as enabling fundamentalism? How can the efforts of religious moderates to end the enforcement of school prayer be taken as tacit endorsement of fundamentalist modes of thought? How can the hundreds of clergy who specifically defend evolution as compatible with their faiths be seen as clearing the ground for creationism? Could someone with actual awareness of the viciousness directed by those of Dembski's ilk toward serious scholars like Nancey Murphy really think that moderates enable fundamentalists? What can we call this line of argument but bullshit?"
For the purpose of his argument, Rosenau defines "bullshit" in the vein of Harry Frankfurt as an argument made in utter indifference to the truth -- they making the argument know full well it isn't true, but simply don't care. They say it anyway because it helps them fulfill their own purposes.

Harris isn't the only atheist Rosenau takes to task using this argumentative framework. He also targets Sciencebloggers Abbie Smith and Jerry Coyne for their own bullshit arguments in regard to Unscientific America:
"And in the latest fight, Mooney and Kirshenbaum were personally maligned, and their book misrepresented to a degree that raises questions about whether critics actually read the book. Abbie Smith claimed that the book was inherently dishonest because it does not, being a printed object, have a way for critics to include their responses in the book itself. Like others, I find this rather bizarre. I love Abbie like a sister, but I cannot fathom her hostility to a book which, at least when she began her fusillade, she admitted to not having read."
Not only did Rosenau dismiss the kind of arguments that individuals like Myers and his followers tend to absolutely love for precisely what they are -- bullshit -- but he even took on a fellow Scienceblogger for their simpering outrage at being criticized.

But even more troublesome for critics of Unscientific America may be that Rosenau simply isn't toeing the line regarding this book at all:
"Most worrisome, though, was Jerry Coyne's review of Unscientific America in Science [magazine]. A review in the top scientific journal is a fairly rarified entity, one with various rules and expectations. Not least among those expectations is that the reviewer will give an honest account of the book as written, and will take issue with the authors' actual claims, not with imagined enemies. I took classes with Coyne as an undergraduate at Chicago; I know him to be an honest and honorable man, a scrupulous researcher, and dedicated to thoughtful and open discourse. Thus, my expectations for his review were rather high. I hoped he would rise out of the muck which has surrounded the book online, and give a fair look at it, however assuredly critical it might be.

Instead, I cannot characterize his review as anything but bullshit. His opening sentence claims that 'Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America's future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public.'

In fact, Mooney and Kirshenbaum specifically do not claim that atheists are responsible for scientific illiteracy, nor do they claim that scientists alone are to blame. In my review (which the authors feel 'characterizes our argument in great detail and with the utmost accuracy'), I noted that 'The solution Chris and Sheril advocate is, broadly, to bridge key gaps. ...Science is not just separated from academic disciplines across the quad, but from the media, from journalism, from religious communities, from politics, and (they observe in an endnote) from the law. ...Americans as a whole are increasingly disconnected from what science is, and what scientists know. This is a problem not just for the general public, but because of the increasing specialization of science, a problem for scientists themselves.' This assessment blames scientists
and the public. Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame the emergence of 'evangelicals a political force' not just for many broad problems, but specifically for the conflict between science and religion. They write: 'Of course, the New Atheists aren't the origin of the cleft between religious and scientific culture in America– they're more like a reaction' to the emergence of politically active fundamentalists.

To claim, as Coyne does in Science, that they offer two solutions to these several gaps is simply false, and if Coyne had read the book with an open mind, he would know that they do not blame atheists for those gaps, nor do they think bridging the science/religion gap is some silver bullet.
Certainly, this is true.

After all, it isn't as if the science/religion gap has never been bridged before. Many of history's greatest scientists were also religious individuals. That individuals such as sir Isaac Newton and William Thomson Kelvin could make fundamental breakthroughs in science while believing in God demonstrates that science and religion are not incompatible.

Not that individuals like Myers would care to admit that.

If anything, the science/religion gap is being invented by various "cultural warriors". Right-wing Christians who oppose evolution being taught in classrooms are certainly one side of that invented cultural war. PZ Myers and his followers find themselves on the other, and like the religious right, they have largely invented their pretext for war.
"Coyne's review proceeds to badly misrepresent the core of the problem that Mooney and Kirshenbaum identify. Coyne writes as if the scientific illiteracy which the book's subtitle warns 'threatens our future' is about what facts Americans can recite. In fact, the book criticizes this view of scientific illiteracy at length, replacing it with a definition of scientific literacy involving how people perceive science's relevance to their lives. Coyne claims to be showing that the problems of public perception of science are 'more complex than the authors let on' when he writes: 'The public's reluctance to accept scientific facts may reflect not just a lack of exposure but a willful evasion of facts due to conflicting economic agendas (eg, the case of global warming), personal agendas (vaccines), or religious agendas.' But this is the point of their whole second chapter, and is a theme they return to throughout the book; this is the point of their emphasis on disconnects between scientific culture and the cultures of politics, of journalism, of popular entertainment, etc. Again, if Coyne had read the book with an open mind, he would know this.

Chris and Sheril go to great pains to show that the deficit model (the 'people are stupid' form of scientific illiteracy that Coyne addresses in his review) is inadequate, and that the real issue is a disconnect between what science shows and what people think is relevant to their own lives and what they think is worth knowing. Coyne, thinking he is problematizing
Unscientific America's claims, is actually repeating the authors' thesis. Again, I don't know how he could do that if he actually read the book and engaged with it on its own terms, and set out to write a fair and accurate review. His review is bullshit, and as such, brings shame to him and to Science."
Of course, PZ Myers -- whose Pharyngula blog has become something of an unofficial flagship for the Scienceblogs site -- probably won't like to hear Rosenau's thoughts on the matter.

Myers has made his thoughts regarding Unscientific America quite clear -- and, unshockingly, his complaints seem to have more to do with his personal agenda vis a vis atheism than with any actual arguments contained in the book.

It isn't the first time that PZ Myers has placed his personal agenda ahead of science. It almost certainly won't be the last, either.

All one can really do now is keep their fingers crossed for Josh Rosenau. One has to imagine that the onslaught by PZ Myers' toadies is going to be rapid and fierce. Hopefully, he won't be intimidated out of the forum of debate.

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