Some More Words to the New Atheist Blogosphere on Unscientific America

The Intersection
By The Intersection
Jul 27, 2009 6:03 PMNov 5, 2019 10:29 AM


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As the two of us grapple with a book tour, other book projects, cross-country moves, and much else, we’ve been pretty hamstrung in our online replies to the “New Atheists.” So this post will try to make up a bit of that slack. At the outset, let us say that we always knew Unscientific America would be controversial. Indeed, we’re glad it has touched such a nerve in some quarters—to us, this underscores that its critique was much needed. In Chapter 8 of Unscientific America—just 12 pages of a broader book--we argue that an entire movement attached to “science” today is not really much invested in effectively reaching the U.S. public, but rather, has become radicalized around the counterproductive project of blasting other Americans’ religious faith. This movement is most vociferous on the Internet and, more particularly, on science blogs like Pharyngula, where its adherents seem unswervingly certain their way is the right way, and seem to little value civil dialogue with those who might disagree. (For one seconding of this opinion, see here.) Given that one point of Unscientific America is that this entire “dialogue” is not constructive, but rather destructive—not conducive to reason, nor to advancing the place of science in our society—it should come as no surprise that we do not keep up with it as much as many others do. This partly explains why we haven't said much for a week or more, as does the fact that (as shown in our recent Boston Globe article) there is much else in our book that we want to discuss besides the unending battle over science and religion. Furthermore, we have had more mainstream media audiences, as well as public audiences at book events, to address. The response to the book in such venues is, as a rule, starkly different from the “New Atheist” response on the Internet--where the vast majority of our critics do not seem to have read the book. This, too, has made us hesitant to respond, as it seems very unlikely that what will result is an informed, dispassionate, or civil debate. * * * * * * Still, there are some things that should probably be answered, at least in brief. Unfortunately, even some New Atheists who have read the book are reacting to it in a way we can scarcely comprehend--with a case in point being Jerry Coyne. For several months, Chris tried to engage in a civil debate with Dr. Coyne about the merits of “accommodationism.” There was some progress, perhaps, but nothing like what might have been accomplished in a simple in-person debate or discussion. Still, Chris hoped Coyne would give Unscientific America a fair reading. He became concerned a few weeks back, though, after posting (along with a few supporting words) a video of Eugenie Scott talking about science-religion compatibility. Merely for posting this video, Coyne accused Chris of "dissembling" and "using authority arguments." Scott was also accused of dissembling—simply for making an argument she believes in. Then Coyne began to review our book, and strongly misstated our views. While we won't respond to him on every detail, we’ll make a few remarks to underscore the nature of the problem. Take something like this from Coyne:

Where does the problem come from? In an earlier book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney laid it largely at the door of political conservatives. But, say M&K, we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves.

We’re baffled anyone could read us this way. The scientists are our heroes. Granted, we talk in the book about how they have not always invested adequately in communication, and we call for a change of mindset and of culture in this respect—but to claim that we depict them as the “enemy” boggles the mind. If that was the case, then why are our audiences full of scientists--wanting to hear how they can be part of the solution? Joshua Rosenau has dealt with another of Coyne's critiques, his assertion that he could find "little in Unscientific America that has not been said, at length, elsewhere.” Well, this is a popular book that synthesizes much past work (and cites it extensively); what's probably most new is the nature of the synthesis. As Rosenau notes, our book is not unlike many popular books in this respect--including many recent books about evolution and atheism. (It is not like there are many “new” arguments for atheism out there). Then Coyne continues:

And what is new—the accusation that scientists, in particular atheist-scientists, are largely responsible for scientific illiteracy—is asserted without proof.

We’re stunned anyone could read our book this way--and saddened anyone would seriously think we’re making such an obviously incorrect argument. As we describe it, scientific illiteracy—really, the gap between science and society--is a complex, multi-faceted, multi-decadal problem. As such, the idea that the "New Atheist" movement of the last few years could have caused it is incomprehensible to us. Not only do we not think this, but we cannot comprehend how anyone could think this. In the present moment, the “New Atheists” may be counterproductive, and may divert resources and energies that might be far better used elsewhere. The movement may also have the effect of making our society more, rather than less, polarized around science--of adding fuel to a longstanding and fruitless culture war with science trapped in the middle of it. We think these things are true. But they’re vastly different from blaming the “New Atheists” for decades of problems they weren't even around for--at least not in their current form. And we even say this directly in the book: "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 it" (p. 98). What we actually claim in Unscientific America is that longstanding habits of disengagement from the public, on the part of the scientific community, have contributed to the science-society gap that we now have. But such disengagement is only one contributing factor, and there are gobs of others listed and discussed in the book: political cynicism, public ignorance and anti-intellectualism, a poor educational system, media inaccuracy and irresponsibility, entertainment stereotyping, religious dogma, and so on. Scientists are only one part of this mix, but a key point of the book is that they are a crucial part of it. For too long, some scientists have pointed the finger at others--journalists, educators, and so on, and often with good reason--yet have not looked adequately at themselves. As you can see, ours is a vastly different and more nuanced argument than the one Coyne limns. Were we to go through his full review and respond on every point, you would just hear us stating over and over again this observation. There are some aspects to his critique that are thoughtful, but in saddling us with weak arguments that we do not hold (and so cannot possibly defend), Coyne is not fairly measuring our book. * * * * * * Meanwhile, we see PZ Myers has decided to comment on us again, and misrepresents our arguments even more than does Coyne: "Their explanation for scientific illiteracy in America is simple: it's the scientists' fault for being so aloof and distant." As just explained, this is false. What's more, Myers really doesn't seem to want people to read our book:

I will say one good thing about their op-ed, though. It contains the full content of their entire book. Read the essay, now you don't need to buy the book, since it covers it fully, including all the non-existent details for how to actually implement their solution.

We have a better suggestion: If you are interested in this matter, then read the book, read all the critics, and make up your own mind. Isn't that what a freethinker, a practitioner of reason, would do? * * * * * For our part, we believe the blog-based “New Atheist” reaction to the book simply reinforces Unscientific America's critique. This movement on the Internet--motivated not so much by science as by culture war instincts, and sadly, showing far too little investment in civil dialogue—isn’t helping us build a better relationship between science and American society. Someone had to say it--especially as it happens to be true.

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