Thursday, July 16, 2009

Atheist Slap Fight

P.Z. Myers is quite properly taken to task in Chris Mooney's new book Unscientific America. Mooney is the guy who wrote The Republican War On Science, so you'd think his "New Atheist" secularist bona fides would be secure. But no, not with Myers. From Mooney's blog:

10. The Trouble With PZ Myers. In his review, Myers doesn’t address our criticisms of him–of his public writings and actions. But we will end by elaborating upon why, in the wake of the communion wafer desecration, we decided we had to speak out about Myers in a way that would really be heard.

Though we have not said so until now, Myers is among the central reasons we left ScienceBlogs. There were many factors involved, of course, but one was our shock at what he calls “Crackergate.” We describe the full incident in the book, but let us quote from Myers’ words when he closed off comments (there had been over 2,000) after posting his picture of the defiled eucharist with a rusty nail driven through it:

What effort I put into [the desecration] was not in response to the reality of your silly deity, but in response to the reality of your dangerous delusions. Those are real, all right, and they need to be belittled and weakened. But don’t confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted, and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god.

Now I’m afraid I’m going to have to close this thread. Its purpose has been well served: the fanatical Catholics and their crazy beliefs have been fully exposed. Over 2300 comments on this subject in 20 hours is quite enough.

Watching all of this, we were appalled. We could not see what this act could possibly have to do with promoting science and reason. It contributed nothing to the public understanding or appreciation of science, and everything to a nasty, ugly culture war that hurts and divides us all.

We recognize that Myers writes entertainingly and sometimes hilariously; we know he’s kind and soft-spoken in person; and we realize he describes science accurately and insightfully. And we understand he’s a very good teacher as well.

Nevertheless, in his online persona–and nowhere more than with the wafer desecration–we believe he cultivates a climate of extremism, incivility and, indeed, unreason (the opposite of calm and respectful debate and exchange) at ScienceBlogs. And it is past time that someone spoke out about that, as we did in Unscientific America.

For too long, people in the science blogosphere have tiptoed around Myers. After all, he can send a lot of angry commenters your way. And he, and they, are unrelenting in their criticisms, their attacks, and so on. Just read our threads over the last week–it’s all there, the vast majority from people who have not read our book and do not seem inclined to do so.

But we’re not afraid of Myers or his commenters. They can leave hundreds of posts on our blog–we readily allow it–but our book will be read by a different and far more open-minded audience. It’s already happening. And that audience will largely agree that Myers’ communion wafer desecration was offensive and counterproductive, and that more generally, he epitomizes the current problems with the communication of science on the Internet.

We know how many others agree with us, because we have heard from them. We also know the standards of intellectual decency, fairness, and so on that we’ve learned from years of journalism and in academia. And if, as our book proposes, we are going to be training young science communicators, they must learn at least two basic lessons they will not be getting from Myers: civility and tolerance.

Our core concern, though, isn’t really about Myers or his blog. What worries us is what they say about the world of American science as it appears on the Internet. For Myers is, as we all know, the most popular blogger on the most popular science blogging site–and has a horde of loyal followers who see themselves as the disciples of reason, and swear by “science” (when they’re not just swearing).

And this is his most famous performance: Desecrating a communion wafer.

That doesn’t just say something unflattering about Myers–it says something devastating about all of us.

Amen, brother.

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