The Sciences

PZ Myers vs. Unscientific America: Part I

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJul 13, 2009 7:09 PM


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We now commence, as laid out earlier, our rebuttals to PZ Myers' review of our book:

1. Getting Personal? Myers claims that our book contains "very direct and personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect." It is hard to know precisely what he means by "very direct and personal attacks," as he doesn't back up the charge with any evidence. Certainly we do directly mention Myers. We describe the infamous desecration of the communion wafer, which we criticize. Later, we also talk critically about Myers in the context of discussing the face of science on the Internet. Even if these constituted "personal attacks"--and we don't see how--they still wouldn't be attacks on "atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect." Chris is an atheist. We're quite sure he did not attack himself in the book. As for Myers, he is a very public figure, and never was he more public than in what he refers to as "Crackergate." Does he not expect to be criticized when he puts a desecrated communion wafer on the Internet? Was everyone who criticized him on that occasion attacking him personally? 2. Pluto. Myers misreads our account of the famous 2006 Pluto demotion. He writes that we "come down on the side of Pluto being redesignated as a planet!" Well, perhaps half-in-jest we did. But that's hardly the point. We're not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn't mind if it happened). Rather, we're exploring what this incident says about the relationship between science and society--namely, that there's a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair is deeply illustrative of that divide, as we explain. (This part of the book happens to be freely available online, right here.) Myers doesn't appear to grasp this point; he seems to think we're saying science should have been decided by referendum in the Pluto instance. "Are there other scientific matters that should be decided by popular vote?" he asks. Of course not. The results of science should never be subject to popular vote. But that's a red herring, since the whole point is that unlike, say, whether an atom is larger than an electron, whether Pluto is a "planet" is not purely a scientific matter. It is, to a very large degree, a matter of semantics. Moreover, it also involves history (Pluto had been a "planet" since 1930) and culture--which the scientists involved in Pluto's demotion were pretty insensitive to. So right at the outset of our book, Myers takes the wrong message from the opening anecdote. 3. What the Book Actually Says. Normally book reviews first describe what an author is arguing or claiming, and only then proceed to takes issue with some of their claims. It is Myers' prerogative, but this is not how he proceeds. Rather, he judges the entire first chapter, which lays out the book's argument, on the basis of the opening Pluto section--and then goes on to say, "This chapter was symptomatic of the deficiencies of the whole book." Yet Myers never lets his readers in on what's actually being argued. 4. Carl Sagan. When it comes to the greatest science communicator of modern times, we get no disagreement from Myers about, er, his greatness. But then things go wrong. Myers writes with respect to Sagan:

...they fail to notice the peculiar disjunction in their story: while reciting the wonderful efforts of Sagan and praising his skills and efforts, they're also telling the story of the dismal state of science education at the same time. Strange…the object of their praise was influencing many of us growing up at that time, those of us who were already enthusiastic about science, but the culture was not improving, and was even getting worse. Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society? The religious right was not glued to their TV sets every night that Cosmos was on, you know. Sagan was preaching to the choir, and there's nothing wrong with that — it can be a powerful tool for motivating and informing a wider cadre of science communicators.

Cosmos reached 500 million people globally. This is "preaching to the choir"? More generally, Myers does not show any flaw or contradiction in our argument in the passage above. Sagan was massively influential, but still, there were forces larger than he--many of which we duly describe in the book. Myers asks, "Is it possible that perhaps the problem does not lie entirely in the minimal PR skills of scientists, but in greater institutional forces at work in our society?"--but why can't it be both? Why can't it be the greater forces, plus the detachment of many of the scientists, who did not detect the greater forces or did not adequately respond to them? Later, Myers tries to compare Richard Dawkins with Sagan:

They regard Dawkins with considerable distaste (but at least they spare him the outright contempt they give to me!), and at the same time they bemoan the lack of great science communicators since we lost Sagan. Wait, what? Are they aware at all that Dawkins is an excellent and popular writer, that he has sold millions of books and has made a number of documentaries? That he's taken good advantage of the web? I'd be curious to know who has sold more books, Dawkins or Sagan, but if I had to bet on one it would be Dawkins. He has critics and even enemies, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum, but that's irrelevant — they know that Sagan was also strenuously vilified by critics on the Right and among the religious, as well, yet somehow that opposition is regarded as the defining element of Dawkins' popularity, yet is overlooked in the case of Sagan. Scientists will always be delivering hard truths; if our hypothetical desired media-savvy science communicator cannot make anyone uncomfortable, then he or she is a failure at science.

We'd guess Sagan sold more books, though we wouldn't count Dawkins out if he keeps going like he has since The God Delusion. On reaching people through television (Cosmos) and the mass medium of film (Contact), Sagan vastly outdistances Dawkins. But a still bigger issue is that no matter how many people see him or read him, Dawkins is no Carl Sagan. In the book, we explain how Sagan approached religion very differently from Dawkins. Especially since The God Delusion, Dawkins has become a "divider." You either strongly like him feel otherwise. That's fine, that makes him very popular with some--but that wasn't Sagan's approach. Sagan strove to be a uniter--a vast difference. We can go further. When Sagan was most prominently under fire, it was because he was taking political stands relating to science--standing up for arms control, opposing "Star Wars," etc. And in these actions, he sought to form broad coalitions, including the religious. He was standing up for causes that everyone, every kind of person, could get behind. Dawkins, on the other hand, is standing up for a particularly uncompromising form of atheism. Again, that's his right. But it’s vastly different from a cause like nuclear disarmament. We encourage folks to consult our book for more on Sagan, Dawkins and religion.

In our next post, tomorrow, we will continue responding to the claims in PZ's review, as outlined here.

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