Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Skeptical Current Events

Despite my absence from blogging lately, big happenings are…happening in the skeptical world. Here’s a brief run-down of some of them:


First, my good friend Akusai of the Action Skeptics will be appearing on Skeptically Speaking this Friday next Friday, March 5th, at 8 PM EST to talk about the Skeptic Symposium we’re doing at Gen Con this year. Give it a listen; I certainly will!

Did I mention the Skeptic Symposium at Gen Con? Because it finna be off the chain, yo! Akusai, Magus, myself, Jon Maxson, and various other skeptical folks will be gathering together for a variety of presentations, talks, and events, including an awesome vaccine fundraiser. Akusai has done all the heavy lifting to get this whole shebang together, while I’ve slacked off so much that I can’t even return e-mails to important organizations in a timely fashion, so make sure to give him oodles of kudos for his efforts while I ride his coattails to skeptical stardom.

Speaking of me riding coattails, Akusai has also been working on Skepchicamp, a Chicago-based event featuring presentations by some of the biggest names in the Skeptosphere, including Akusai, Bug Girl, various Skepchicks and Hemant Mehta! Also, I’ll be there to talk about something or other, but you can skip that bit if you want. Heck, I might even skip it, depending on how long the book-signing line around Hemant is, so I can’t blame you. In any case, you know you want to come, so get your ticket and show up at the Brehon Pub in Chicago on March 6th (next Saturday) from Noon to 10 PM CST.

In other news, the forums over at RichardDawkins.net have shut down amidst a great deal of drama. I first learned of this from Peter Harrison, a former moderator on the blog who provided an in-depth look into the ugly politics and dirty dealings surrounding the whole event. He presents a level-headed account backed up with direct quotes from people involved, and it doesn’t look good for the administration team at the Dawkins site.

Which is why I was so puzzled when PZ wrote a post about it, saying he didn’t want to get involved, and making a series of irrelevant points that displayed either an ignorance of the complaints (despite linking to the Peter Harrison post) or an amazing strawman of the complainants. The situation was exacerbated when Dawkins himself did much the same thing, painting all the disgruntled commenters with the violently colorful and abusive language of a few, and citing those over-the-top comments as justification for the forum’s closing when, in fact, the comments came from a different forum after the RD.net forums had been closed and mangled.

I didn’t have a horse in this race, really. I haven’t ever been a regular visitor to those forums. If I’d heard about the situation from PZ first, I likely would have just rolled my eyes regarding another overreaction by peoples on the Internet to trivial wrongs. But reading the Harrison account gave me a different perspective, and (as I mentioned in the Pharyngula comments) made me want to find out both sides of the story.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. See, apparently in shutting down posting on the RD.net forums, the admins deleted several users, thousands of posts, and at least one thread critical of the coming changes. So, as much as I would have liked to have seen if the critical threads on the RD.net forums were as abusive as they supposedly were, I couldn’t. The evidence had been destroyed, which further confirmed at least part of the Harrison account.

This made me realize something important: nothing will cause me to distrust a person or organization faster than seeing them hide or destroy relevant evidence. The moderators and posters who have since flocked to boards like Rationalia may have all been overreacting potty-mouthed nutcases, whose abusive behavior led to the premature locking of the board, but without the offending thread, no one but the admins has any way of knowing that. Given the dearth of evidence to support what little explanation or argument has been put forth by the admin side, and actions like destroying evidence that at least seem quite dishonest and do nothing to promote trust or the appearance of trustworthiness, it seems to me that the only justified position would be to accept the moderators’ account of the events. Which, again, reflects rather poorly on the administration.

Ultimately, yes, this is a trivial thing, but it’s a microcosm for similar behaviors and situations outside of the Internet. If we’re being good skeptics, then our natural drive should be to doubt any story regarding events, examine the evidence, and draw our own conclusions about whom to believe. Consequently, destroying evidence–even (or perhaps especially) if that evidence is of hateful comments and angry dissent–should be anathema to the skeptic. If anything should be sacrosanct to skeptics, it should be evidence.

So when a major voice in the skeptical movement engages in apparent quote-mining and at least apparently suborns the destruction of evidence, it really casts them in a negative light, more than most things they could do (kind of like when they fail to quickly or adequately respond to a pseudoscientific buffoon being given a science award in their name).

This should be an object lesson in skeptical advocacy, especially in the Internet age. Skeptical blogs shouldn’t be afraid to allow negative and dissenting comments, and skeptics should be aware that allowing idiots and assholes to speak for themselves ultimately shows them to be idiots and assholes to any reasonable person. We often talk about how debates aren’t for the people involved so much as they are for the audience, and this is true even when it’s not actually a debate. Silencing critics, banning dissidents, and throwing evidence down the memory hole is what they do on Age of Autism and Uncommon Descent and Natural News. It should not be standard practice on any site that values reason, evidence, science, and skepticism.


Finally, for tonight, I stumbled on a post at an apparently recent addition to the ScienceBlogs community, Universe. I’ll admit that the blogs I follow on Sb are relatively limited; I rarely venture outside of Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Sure, I hit up ERV occasionally, and I’ve recently become a fan of Tomorrow’s Table, but I don’t usually tool around the Seed Media conglomerate looking for new hangouts.

But I followed a sidebar link to a post called “No Skepticism Policy” that was about the last thing I would expect to find on the media group which plays home to so many skeptical and scientific voices. It’s ignorant in the purest sense, in that I don’t think there’s a lot of malice involved, just a general unawareness of what the skeptical movement is about (and a lack of desire to find out) and what the harm is, coupled with a willingness to smear an entire intellectual movement with the same Doggerel we hear from every quack with a blog and a degree in pomposity. I posted a comment in response to the post, but it hasn’t made its way out of moderation yet. I’m reproducing the comment below because I’m kind of proud of it, and I think it underscores something that even budding skeptics often forget: that debunking is the first step, not the last. Enjoy!

I can’t recall which skeptical luminary said it (I’ve heard it repeated several times, however), but the point of good skepticism shouldn’t be just “debunking,” and good skeptics understand this. Debunking is a necessary step, however; it clears out the garbage so that something better can be built. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t people in the movement who forget this essential second step, but to broadly paint all skeptics with the “just debunking,” “you just want to tear things down” canard is ludicrous and ignorant. Go to any of the major skeptical sites, shows, or podcasts, and what you’ll find is exactly what the advice I started out suggests: debunking presented alongside or as an introduction to quality education and enthusiasm about reality and good science. For instance, the UFO video you present was also “debunked” by Captain Disillusion, who discussed the same point as the video above while also demonstrating just how impressive the CGI artistry was, providing an object lesson in how knee-jerk skepticism can be just as wrong as blind belief, and being damned entertaining.

And you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the same thing on any skeptical site, forum, or outlet, whether it’s Brian Dunning’s concise explanations of real science or the Novella brothers’ infectious enthusiasm about birds and nanotechnology and solar power or PZ Myers’s pictures of beautiful aquatic fauna or Orac’s Tales of the Hitler Zombie, I propose you’d have to do a pretty thorough search of the skeptical movement before you found any major voices who were just “debunkers.” Those who are, I suspect, are much like the author of the video you cited: uninteresting. There wouldn’t be a skeptical movement if it were just about “debunking.” I have a hard time imagining anyone buying a book or attending a convention or booking a cruise to hear nothing but people lambasting pseudoscience.

It’s all well and good to “believe in good science,” but the layperson cares as much about that as she does about UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system. The goal of good skepticism–and the practice of each and every popular skeptic–is to correct that latter problem, by being unashamed promoters of reality and hoping that their enthusiasm will infect others.

So it’s come to this

It’s taken quite some time, but the camel’s back is officially broken. I fucking can’t stand Bill Maher.

I don’t know where to begin, really. I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, but Religulous was a mixed bag. And now, between the AAI debacle and his renewed rampaging against basic medicine, as well as the frothing and infighting he’s inspired in the skeptic and atheist communities, I’m finally done with the asshole.

I guess the place to begin is AAI. I don’t know, I think there’s some tackiness involved already with their Richard Dawkins Award, and the criteria don’t help assuage my concerns. Here’s what the award was supposed to honor (according to the Wikipedia page):

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Wikipedia cites the Atheist Alliance website as their source for that quote, but the site is poorly designed, and neither the search function there nor Google can find anything about the Dawkins Award anywhere on either that site or the convention site. I’ve heard charges that the criteria were changed after the Maher controversy started, but I can’t confirm that. What I can tentatively confirm is that there’s no apparent mention of the criteria on their site. There is this telling bit:

We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and co-producer of the 2008 documentary movie Religulous, will be in attendance Friday evening to receive the 2009 AAI Richard Dawkins Award for his efforts to further the values science and reason in the world.

Here are the problems: first, Maher is avowedly not an atheist. While all the direct quotes addressing his agnosticism, disavowal of the term “atheist,” and vague spirituality come from years back, I seem to recall even in “Religulous” he claimed that atheists were just as dogmatic, or something along those lines. It wasn’t until just before the convention, when he had Dawkins on his show, that he claimed that title for himself.

Second, there is no way that anyone can claim Maher “further[s] the values of science and reason.” There wasn’t any science in “Religulous,” and even the reason was a bit light. I don’t watch “Real Time,” but I’ve seen enough clips of his antivaccination, antimedicine views to know what an antiscience kook he is. I’m convinced that the only reason Maher buys into global warming and evolution is because his political opponents are against them, not because he understands or trusts the science. His views on medicine have been and continue to be insane and dangerous–and probably spurred again by his anti-corporate political beliefs. He thinks that vaccines are a less settled science than global warming, overestimates the role of nutrition in disease prevention, subscribes to various flavors of detox woo, and generally distrusts “western medicine.” All this should rather disqualify him for any award based around the promotion and advancement of science.

And I’m sure that there were others in 2008 who would better deserve this kind of award. What about the people who organized the London bus signs? How about Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who made serious waves with the Washington Christmas sign, have expanded their billboard campaign, and have continued their radio show and other ways of promoting both atheism and reason. What about Simon Singh, who has taken on the British Chiropractic Association in an ongoing campaign against pseudomedicine? These are just a few, off the top of my head, and there are others who have done more–and consistently–for science and reason than Maher.

Which has skeptics in an uproar, and rightly so. And no one has been roaring louder than Orac, one of my favorite bloggers, who has discussed Maher’s woopidity in the past. Unfortunately, I think Orac got a little overheated in one of his last posts on the subject. For context, Orac’s discussing a post by PZ at the AAI convention. PZ talked about Dawkins’s introduction of Maher, and how Dawkins had to walk a tightrope in the speech between acknowledging Maher’s contributions to the atheist movement and dissociating himself and the AAI from Maher’s stupid views on science and medicine.

I don’t envy the position that Dawkins was put in, there. AAI fucked up in their choice of Maher, and it’s not as though Dawkins was in on the decision. He’s also on a book tour, and apparently wasn’t familiar with either Maher or his views (outside of “Religulous”) until fairly recently. He could have disavowed Maher and refused to present the award, in which case I imagine AAI would have replaced him with someone who would give a glowing boilerplate introduction. By staying involved, Dawkins was able to throw a few punches in as well as acknowledging Maher’s contributions.

Anyway here’s what Orac had to say about it:

As for the “tightrope,” well, suffice it to say that I’m still less than impressed. PZ is right about one thing; it wasn’t enough. To me, this whole fiasco is pretty strong evidence that, if atheism and science come into conflict (unless, of course, that science happens to be the science of evolution, in which case I highly doubt that this controversy would have been so flippantly dismissed), for Richard Dawkins atheism wins hands down, and science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community. Atheism is clearly what’s more important to Dawkins now. As long as he bashes religion, Maher’s a-OK with him and only gets a brief remonstration for his promotion of quackery and anti-vaccine views.

Orac’s posts on the matter, especially some of the later ones, came across to me as mildly unhinged (such as where he criticized PZ for not complaining about Maher in a post that was clearly just a list of speakers–no one was commented on), and this quote is really the apex of that. Richard Dawkins cares more about atheism than science? Yes, I’m sure that’s why he just wrote a science book about science and is touring the country to read scientific excerpts from that science book. That claim, I think, is ludicrous.

Furthermore, it’s not “atheism and science” coming into conflict, as Orac suggests. It’s an atheist group and science coming into conflict. It seems that by the time anyone knew about Maher’s receiving the award, the choice had already been made. So what to do, have all the prominent speakers pull out of the conference? Or use the moment to remind people that atheism isn’t a dogma, and that we can vociferously disagree with one another–and with the organizations that supposedly speak for us? Perhaps there wasn’t enough of that, but it’s not reasonable to claim that this was a conflict between “atheism and science.”

And then there’s this bit: “science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community” Quoi? I’m sorry, Orac, but I’m not entirely clear on this: which reality-based community are you talking about? Certainly not the skeptical community, which gets more vitriolic about antivaccinationists and the dangers of alternative medicine than any other subject. Certainly not the skeptical community who rallied behind Simon Singh in his legal battles. Certainly not the skeptical community who take every quack’s attempt to silence a skeptic and spread it like wildfire around the Internet. Certainly not the skeptical community who has tirelessly fought against the Mercury Militia and the Jenny McCarthy and Oprah followers. Certainly not the skeptical community who typically cut their teeth on debunking homeopathy. Certainly not the skeptical community who trumpets every child’s death due to faith healing and quackery. Certainly not the skeptical community whose top luminaries include a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a cancer surgeon. No, it must be some other reality-based community that Orac is talking about, because the one I’m a part of makes medicine a primary focus.

So, overall, I don’t think anyone comes out of this looking good. Maher is a contrarian idiot, and has reaffirmed that since the conference ended. The AAI made a boneheaded mistake and apparently is more concerned with covering it up than addressing it, which certainly doesn’t give me any desire to be associated with them. Dawkins comes across as someone who doesn’t pay enough attention to what’s done with his name and assumed endorsement (see also: the Brights). I think PZ makes it out relatively unscathed, though I’m willing to reconsider that. And Orac comes across as someone who wrote one too many insolent posts on this subject.

But while my opinion of the latter three isn’t enough to tarnish my opinions of them more than a little, Maher’s continued use of creationist-style arguments to promote his antiscience views has led me to the conclusion that he’s a world-class asshat, and I’m as done with him as I am with Ben Stein. At this point, I’m glad I haven’t bought “Religulous”: I don’t think I could stand to watch Maher for that long anymore. Fuck ‘im.

The crazy train keeps a-rollin’

PZ, bless his heart, posted a bunch of the angry e-mails that Bill Donohue’s clueless masses sent his way following Crackergate. I haven’t been able to read through all of them (bring a sandwich and find a comfortable chair if you plan to), but one of them got me thinking.

Well, actually, lots of them got me thinking. Most of the thoughts were “these people are utterly clueless if they think [PZ would hesitate to insult tenets of Islam and Judaism / Insulting the Eucharist is a “hate crime” / PZ is somehow using University time or resources to blog / PZ is a math professor]” and “these people have no idea what precipitated this post.” Also, “[any God who could be threatened in cracker form / any God who would get his followers so worked up over a snack food] is clearly sillier than either the “body mutilation” or “wear these clothes” gods.”

But, back to the point, one post got me thinking about something specific:

I know you are smarter than most people and probably even God himself, if you even believe in God.

Besides the obvious (hey, check the blog header or the big red A in the sidebar for Dr. Myers’ belief-in-God status), this got me wondering about being “smarter than God.”

See, my first inclination (and a couple of commenters in the original thread said it as well) would be to say that I’m smarter than God. After all, I don’t believe that God exists, and obviously I’d be smarter than something that doesn’t exist.

But then I thought, if someone asked me “do you think you’re smarter than Batman?” I’d probably say no. And yet, my position on the existence of Batman is exactly the same as my position on the existence of God.

Which brings me to the realization that while I don’t think God or Batman exist, the fictional characters of Batman and God absolutely do exist. And those fictional characters have defined traits–in these cases, exceptional intelligence.

So, how do you respond to such a question? Do you answer in terms of reality, and declare yourself smarter than everything that doesn’t exist? Or do you answer in terms of character traits, and respond that the fictional character possesses the greater intellect?

I guess the best response is the one that clarifies the answer. “Obviously, I’d consider myself smarter than any nonexistent person, but as the character is defined, I think he’s probably more intelligent.” Or something.

And now I’m going to spend the next day or so running over these weird “one hand clapping” questions in the back of my mind–“Am I taller than Superman? Am I more muscular than the Hulk? Am I as observant as Hercule Poirot?”

Heart Burned

Ooh, barracuda!Prompted by a recent post at Pharyngula, I got to thinking again about one of my more recent (and growing) pet peeves: “the heart.” Now, I’m as poetic as the next guy; I don’t have much problem with throwing around “the heart” as the figurative and symbolic center of emotion and passion (though I’m starting to). But I have a big problem with people who don’t understand the “figurative” aspect of that. I’m tired of being told to “think with my heart,” or that some quality “resides in the heart,” or that the heart has special powers of perception or thought or consideration separate from the brain. I’m tired of hearing that the heart is some magical receptacle of emotion-based ancient wisdom, which the brain is incapable of understanding.

The heart is an organ, like any other, with a set of functions, like any other. It’s a bundle of muscle and valves and other assorted tissues that pumps blood through your body. That’s it. All your feelings, thoughts, emotions, wisdom, and knowledge resides solely and completely in the wrinkly organ in your noggin. There’s nothing the heart does which cannot be understood by the brain. The heart does not think, does not experience or produce emotion, does not see or perceive, does not love, does not have tattoos on it, does not experience partial or total eclipses, is not like a wheel, and most certainly will not allow you to talk to animals or summon Captain Planet.

The heart is an amazing organ and a kickass band, but it’s not the magic four-chambered room where your wise and emotional soul lives. Any suggestions to the contrary are either metaphorical or misguided, and it would be wise not to mix the two.

Question Authority!

This is made of win. Be sure to read the comments, too.

Framed

I haven’t before really taken sides in this whole “framing” debate, which crops up occasionally on the ScienceBlogs. On one side, you have folks like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet calling for more competent framing of the science debates, calling for more outreach and softer language so as to get moderate Christians on the side of science and reason, calling for people to stop connecting science with atheism so strongly. On the other side, you have folks like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are very successful at getting their message out to the public, and who do their best to promote science and atheism to the masses.

Up ’til this point, I thought I could see the value in the framers’ side of things, but that they woefully misunderstood what Myers and Dawkins were trying to accomplish. Myers and Dawkins are working not only to promote science, but to (to borrow Dawkins’ phrasing) raise consciousness about religion and promote positive atheism. They’re doing darn good jobs on all fronts, from my perspective, and I think each front is necessary and has its utility.

Science does need better promotion; it seems to me that we’ve been somewhat adrift since Carl Sagan died and Stephen Hawking left the media spotlight. I’m not sure why Neil DeGrasse Tyson hasn’t completely overtaken that role, since he certainly seems suited and qualified, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with the current climate in the United States and prevailing attitudes regarding science and religion. People aren’t as excited about astronomy and NASA as they ought to be, and the only science that seems to make it to the front pages is what’s on the front lines against religion and conservatism: environmental science and biology. The pendulum has swung precisely toward Richard Dawkins, and his recent releases have been expertly timed to take advantage of the current climate.

Religion does need to be booted out of its privileged place in our social discourse. It does absolutely need to be opened up to question and criticism, and that need is underscored by its current role in American politics. We have a President who consults far-right Christian leaders on a weekly basis with regard to national policy, we have a bevy of political programs designed to promote specific religious organizations, and we have a concerted effort on all fronts to legislate conservative religious morals over people who don’t agree. Religious groups are fighting tooth and nail against education, science, and progress in general, and in many places they’re winning. If religion were the personal thing that it ought to be, this wouldn’t be a problem. When it inserts itself into the public sphere, when it tries to create policies that affect the rest of us, then it can no longer enjoy the untouchable place it might retain as a private process. Religionists can’t have it both ways; they can’t have their personal, private, untouchable convictions and also try to impose those convictions over the rest of us. Something has to give, and since it doesn’t look like the religion-genie is going back into its bottle, then it must be opened up to question, critique, and ridicule.

And positive atheism does need to be promoted. How many of us have been or have known the person who says “I didn’t know there was anyone else who thought the same way”? The phrase is becoming less common, and that’s largely due to the easy availability of atheist thought through popular books and blogs. Atheism is moving from a shameful secret to an open movement, and that is a good thing for atheists, and for religious freedom in general.

So, it seemed to me that the framers either neglected to note that Myers’ and Dawkins’ goals were more widespread than their own, or that they did not see the value in the latter two goals, only that they seemed to undermine the first. They were talking past one another, because neither side seemed to realize what the other’s goals were. And so I more or less ignored the debate, having no particular stake in either side.

But things have somewhat exploded following the Expelled-from-Expelled debacle, and it’s become increasingly clear that there’s something wrong on the framing side of things.

First, we have a chorus of people claiming that this controversy helps Expelled‘s exposure, and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” or something. The existence of bad publicity is something of a matter for debate; both sides in this argument have brought up the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” though I think that pretty much proves the old adage wrong. I can see how this increased exposure might be beneficial for Expelled, but I think the overwhelmingly bad reviews might counteract some of that.

And it’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t the first time the film has gotten bad press in the New York Times, though some seem to think it is. For the scientists involved to get a chance to rebut the movie’s claims and call out the producers for obvious dishonesty and hypocrisy even before the film’s limited opening seems like a good thing for our side.

Anyway, Matt Nisbet wrote a screed (quoted here) telling Dawkins and Myers to “Lay low and let others do the talking” as Expelled hits theaters, and to defer any questions or comments to scientists more congenial to religion. He explicitly compares them to Samantha Powers and Geraldine Ferraro, as though either of them has specifically insulted someone on the other side (or worse, made explicitly racist comments) and should step down. He calls for other people to “play the role of communicator” of science, apparently unconscious of why Dawkins and Myers might be considered communicators of science (i.e., because they communicate effectively and people like their message enough to read it widely, not because of any top-down appointment), and apparently ignorant of the fact that Myers and Dawkins are speaking out because Myers and Dawkins specifically appear in the film. What message would it send if Myers and Dawkins sat out the movie’s release and subsequent commentary? I know just how the Creobots would frame it–that PZ and Dawkins were ashamed that they’d been exposed for the Big Science conspirators they were, that the claims in the film hit too close to home, that they were scared to admit that the Creationists were right. Silence from the participants would only help the message of Expelled.

PZ, understandably, replied, saying “fuck you very much.” I thought it was apropos. Short, terse, and dismissive, precisely what such a vapid sentiment warranted.

So the new chorus began, about how PZ was being impolite and uncivil, that he was acting like a spoiled child.

And then there’s this, which is fucking ridiculous. Somehow, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney’s blog partner, can say with a straight face that PZ should “mind his manners” and “That kind of language and reaction is simply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,” and then go on to accuse him of not acting like an adult, of being an adolescent. Mooney echoes the sentiments in the comment thread.

Really? Really? You people are actually going to cry foul at PZ because he used a naughty word? And you call him the adolescent? Last I checked, adults were supposed to be mature enough to handle the use of swear words. I was under the impression that adults recognized that words are words, regardless of how many letters they contain, and that all words were useful in certain contexts. I thought that adults could recognize that whether or not one uses so-called “bad words,” it’s the substance of one’s statement that matters.

That the Framing proponents would attack PZ for breaking some kind of blogosphere no-profanity rule smacks of missing just about every possible point, and it sounds as if they’re blogging in a vacuum (where is this Internet etiquette rulebook?), which seriously calls into question their expertise on how people will react to things.

That’s the heart of framing, right? So far as I understand it, it’s one part tact, one part spin, and one part bending over backwards to win approval.

The first part is the one I can get behind entirely. The very basics of effective communication are knowing your audience, choosing your battles wisely, and using appropriate language for the situation. Here’s a brief example just from my experience tonight: I’m in a discussion-based class, and at one point we were supposed to discuss what some of the key problems are in society. I could have piped up with “religion;” about half the class (teacher included) knows I’m an atheist, so it wouldn’t be unexpected, but I decided to let it be. I didn’t want to have to get into why I was saying it, or into the twisty word games of “well, not all religious people, but certain organizations, and…” that would almost inevitably have to follow. I knew my audience (and moreover, didn’t see any reason to offend most of them unnecessarily) and chose not to fight that particular battle. Later in the class, we were discussing why women were marginalized by society. Now, this was a more worthwhile battle, in part because it was far easier to justify. But while I could have said “religion,” or “the Abrahamic faiths, which have throughout history characterized women in a negative, inferior, subservient light,” I didn’t. In part, this was because I (again) didn’t want to unnecessarily offend my class; in part, it was because I knew the problem went farther than just the Abrahamic religions (Greek mythology does it too, and there are some particularly odious doctrines of this sort in Buddhism). So what I said was “various patriarchal religions” (there may have been slightly more to it, but that’s the bulk of the comment). If I were blogging here about the question, I would’ve been a lot more long-winded and less diplomatic in my assessment.

So I get the call for being tactful, and I’m sure Myers and Dawkins do too. Both are clearly generally aware of their respective audiences; it’s a large part of why they’re so popular.

The spin aspect is something I understand, but I don’t support it quite as readily. It’s important, especially in politics, to be able to present information in a way that supports your position, that works to persuade and present your side of a given debate in a positive light. The problem is that spin doctoring often only works through subtle misrepresentation and lying by omission, neither of which are particularly in the scientific spirit. It’s fine to present scientific findings and the scientific method in a positive light, in order to win supporters, but the spin ought to be minimal, lest it come back to bite us in the collective ass. And there’s certainly a problem with the repeated exhortations that we tell religionists how there’s no conflict between science and religion: it places reality in the subservient role. Granted, there are plenty who would do that anyway, but when we say “no no, you can fit evolution into your religious beliefs!” we’re making a mistake. It’s the religion that needs to fit reality, and not the other way around. The process may be tough on religion (it always is; see also: Galileo), but eventually mainstream religion must adapt to our changing knowledge of reality, not the other way around. It happened with Galileo and heliocentrism, it happened with Ben Franklin and lightning, and it’ll happen with Darwin and evolution as well. Mainstream religion will fit their worldview to the scientific facts, and the conservative fundamentalists will be left behind to deny reality on their own, just like the flat-earthers and geocentrists. But for that to happen, science needs to stand its ground and say “look, here’s the evidence, e pur si evolve,” not “well, if you just look at it from this point of view, reality totally fits into your worldview.” Let the progressive religionists and theologians tell their flocks how religion and science mesh; it just looks like grasping at straws when our side does it.

It’s the “don’t ever offend anyone” attitude of the framers that I can’t stand. It’s at the heart of their calls for someone else (i.e., someone who isn’t an outspoken atheist) to be the “spokesperson” for science, it’s at the heart of their criticism of PZ for using naughty language, and it’s at the heart of their misunderstanding of effective communication, so far as I see it. There is a value in stopping the buck, in being blunt, in calling spades spades and bullshit bullshit. It’s why James Randi has been gainfully employed for the last several decades, it’s why Penn and Teller are getting a sixth season of their award-winning series. There’s a time for being diplomatic, for playing good cop and making friends with the other side and smoothing out the difficulties, and there’s a time for being terse, for playing bad cop and shocking people out of their complacent little bubbles. There’s a reason that “straight talker” is a compliment. The Framers seem to think that people never learn unless you slather the information in honey and sugar to help it go down. They don’t understand that sometimes it works to say “take your damn medicine.”

So until this point I haven’t put much thought into the whole “Framing” debate, but Sheril and Chris’s Puritan “Mommy Mommy, PZ made a swear!” outrage, their holier-than-thou “shame on you” attitude, really made me consider the issue. And it seems to me that the only things they bring to the debate are either common sense (being tactful) or misguided (spin, being totally unoffensive, not seeing the good in promoting atheism and attacking religion).

And the result of all that advice to increase successful science promotion? I can only speak for myself, but I’ve long been planning to pick up Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science,” though I hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Mooney was even at the top of the short list of people I wanted to invite to speak for Darwin Club a couple of years back, though that didn’t pan out. My opinion of him has plummeted; at this point, if I do ever read his book, I’ll just borrow it from a friend.

I can’t help but think that wasn’t the intended effect.