Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is PZ Myers a Crank?

If you look to the right of this space you probably see Pharyngula in our blogroll. Pharyngula is the highly amusing blog of biology professor and atheist commentator Paul Zachary (PZ) Myers. PZ was good enough to come speak at our campus before my time here, and I understand he was well received. I usually enjoy PZ's flamboyant hyperbole because it is most often directed at the most absurd people and events. It's like when they make fun of the Pope on The Simpsons. Absurd satirical criticism goes with absurd reality like peanut butter and chocolate. A few days ago however, PZ turned his petulant wrath toward an undeserving Center for Inquiry (CFI) staffer.

PZ was way off base. Irrationally so. Here is the piece by CFI New York's Michael De Dora. De Dora discusses a case in which a parent is fighting to get a science textbook changed because it features the statement "the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days." De Dora argues that schools should remain impartial and not 'spin' religion one way or the other. I happen to agree, but even if I didn't, I wouldn't write about De Dora under the heading "Witless Wanker Peddles Pablum for CFI". PZ Myers did.

It's not that no one should criticize others on the "same team". I've often railed against atheists or even large organizations like American Atheists. I felt no hesitation to criticize PZ here and now. It's not just about tone either, even though PZ's tone is inappropriately abrasive and reckless. He calls De Dora "wishy-washy and fuzzy thinking", and the author of articles "notable only for their fuzziness and willingness to accommodate any nonsense from religious BS artists". Whether you agree or not with De Dora, his articles are in fact reasoned and thoughtful. They appeal to values we all accept, such as objectivity and fairness. PZ's post is, weirdly, just wrong across the board. It strikes a pointlessly puerile tone, takes the wrong (biased, untenable) stance on an issue, and levies unjustifiable charges against an undeserving target. In fairness, I should point out that the CFI director did quote PZ Myers in his article as an example of a 'common secularist answer' to the issue. This might be considered provoking PZ, but De Dora's remark is hardly critical.

In response, Massimo Pigliucci defended De Dora and reprimanded Myers for his childish ranting, saying "PZ’s post reads like it was written by an intemperate teenager in the midst of a hormonal rage. " PZ replied in turn yesterday with a blog post titled "I shall be no friend to the appeasers". In it, he insinuates that he is being attacked for daring to criticize the CFI sacred cow and that Pigliucci is just defending his friend De Dora. PZ goes on to reinforce his trope about the state of science being warfare against insane zealots, which means anything goes as long as science wins. I'm sad to say this whole little spat reminds me of another paranoid and conveniently delusional atheist who may have debated at U of I last February, and also appears pathologically unable to handle honest dissent.

As skeptics or atheists active in such circles we will at times be made to choose between our pragmatic political goals and our honesty.. between the allegiance we feel to allies and allegiance to the truth. The former is a temping road. It may seem the expedient or necessary path, but it does not lead anywhere you really want to end up. PZ and others have lost their bearing, and steadily isolate themselves from the thoughtful, those for whom reason is a lighthouse and not just a sword to be flailed spastically for the ego's defense.


Jason Macker said...

I'm an avid reader of PZ Myers blog and this particular post of his wasn't anything special. I happen to agree with him on this. This isn't slamming creationism in the least. Creationism IS a myth. This is a fact. The word "myth" is not being used as a pejorative here, for example "In the study of folklore, a myth is a symbolic narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form." Does creationism explain how the world and humankind came to be in their present form? Oh hell yes.

Edward Clint said...

Hey Jason. Accepted and typical meanings of "myth" include "invented" and "imaginary" which I find to be technically accurate but strike the wrong chord for a textbook that should have formal, objective language not language that is guaranteed to offend a large group of readers needlessly. There are at least four other ways that idea could have been expressed without losing meaning or being offensive.

This is aside from my main point though Jason. That point is that you and I can argue about this and neither one of us has to say 'you're fucking pinhead coward sympathizer' etc.., which is the tack that PZ takes.

Aquaria said...

You're complaining about how someone is called a pinhead coward sympathizer--when they are, but then you take an insulting tone and call someone a crank?

Come down to my local cineplex. You project enough to serve in their biggest theater.

Edward Clint said...

Aquaria, my issue with PZ isn't that he takes an insulting tone (though my own 'insulting tone' is hardly in the PZ ballpark-o-fiery-venom)- it's that the tone and the criticism is entirely disproportionate to what the situation calls for. It makes PZ seem a tad disconnected, and given to knee-jerk tirades.

Jeffrey Eldred said...

Ed's tone also makes a meta-point: "If you don't care whether or not Ed is right, but think that he has an inappropriately harsh tone - then you have to agree with the point that Ed is making about PZ."

In other words the only way you can criticize this post by Ed is to argue either that:
- tone doesn't matter.
- tone does matter, but in this case was justified by how right PZ was.

Also Ed, you are exactly right about this. PZ may have passion but he lacks the nuance that is a necessary prerequisite for that rhetoric. Compare with Christopher Hitchens who is frequently speaking in condemnation and always has good reasons for it.

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