“Well look,” Kazez says,
either the NAs [the so-called “New Atheists”] have an impact on the general population, or they don’t. If they don’t, why do they bother writing books and chatting with each other on blogs? Surely it’s not just for the pleasure of talking to each other. So all parties ought to agree that they do have an impact on the general population.
This is a bit confused and/or disingenuous. “Have an impact” on the general population in what specific way(s)? Of course, it’s unlikely that Dawkins and Myers are affecting people’s choice of house paint. If we’re talking about effects, we should be very clear about the specific effects we have in mind, not to mention the fact that “the general population” consists of a wide variety of people – this needs to be broken down if we’re to talk about actions and effects intelligently (for example, “religious folk” below, now replacing “the general population” for some reason, needs to be defined).
So take the NAs who both bash religion and teach science–folks like Dawkins and Myers.
Again, we need to be clear about what “bash religion” and “teach science” mean in the context under discussion. Moreover, we need to take into account that, however defined, these might not be the only two activities in which these individuals (who specifically beyond one or two, and what characteristics specifically define them as “NAs,” are still unclear) are engaged.
How does the general population react? Well, there are the fence-sitters who might buy into both the bashing and the science. But what about the religious folk? How do they react to the coupling of science and religion-bashing? We all have experiences to draw upon. We don’t react well to a message with coupled with something we find insulting. So at the very least, C&S have very plausible hypothesis.
No. They – and you - have at best incipient conjecture based on a simplistic understanding of human psychology, itself grounded only in anecdote. A hypothesis, in contrast, would be based on an understanding on the relevant historical and sociological evidence, its terms would be clear, and it would specify the social mechanisms through which the (specific) actions of one group affected the (specific) attitudes or actions of another. And it would still be a hypothesis, which means it would set up a research program which could lead to its being found incorrect.
It just happens to be one [sic] they haven’t proven true by amassing empirical evidence.
But should we hold that against them? Should they try to get some NSF money and do a study before they make the conjecture that religion-bashing scientists probably alienate science students? Er, I’d think not.
And this is where I get angry. Yes, Jean, we should hold their failure to do that against them. That’s exactly what they should do if they wish to make claims about the social world and have them accepted or even taken seriously. As someone who has received NSF money for social research on a theoretically-related subject (and I can tell you, having gone through that tedious process, that a proposal that doesn’t do what I’ve described above would be laughed out of it), I very much resent Mooney and Kirshenbaum making claims that they’ve neither investigated themselves nor based on secondary literature on the social dynamics involved. (Here’s Austin Dacey on the subject a little while ago. Have they undertaken this research?)
Claims about the social world are – and should be! - evaluated on the same broad terms as those in the natural sciences: Are they based on logic and evidence? How was that evidence obtained and what is its quality? Have important aspects been fully considered and alternative explanations dealt with adequately? Like the great C. Wright Mills, I don’t care if people consider the social sciences as a “true science” or “social studies.” Nor do I believe that only professional social scientists can or should write about the social world (indeed, many of the most thoroughly-researched and illuminating articles and books I’ve read have been by journalists). I do, however, object to the idea that claims about history or social change can simply be plucked out of the air if they suit one’s prejudices and do not have to be subjected to rigorous questioning or defended. History and the social sciences are longstanding disciplines with developed methods by which empirical evidence is collected and analyzed.
In this sense, they don’t differ in methodological essence from the natural/physical sciences. Indeed, as Bricmont and Sokal point out in this piece I’ve mentioned recently (p. 6), science doesn’t differ fundamentally from the rational way of proceeding in any area of life; it simply systematizes the methods used and constructs research institutions in which human fallibility in knowledge acquisition is minimized to the greatest extent possible.
This fact is touched upon by the many individuals – none social scientists to the best of my knowledge – who have been asking Mooney and Kirshenbaum to provide evidentiary support or simply to define their terms (like “scientific literacy” – what the book is ostensibly about), to elucidate the mechanisms through which they believe change has occurred, is occurring, and might occur, and to address objections or alternatives to the historical and explanatory frameworks they’re proposing.
It is astounding that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have simply ignored the numerous requests for evidence to substantiate their claims, claims that form the basis of their verbal attack on particular individuals. These requests have come from PZ Myers (here, here, here, here, and here), Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, Peter Beattie, a vast number of other commenters, and even many if not all of those who reviewed the book relatively favorably. (They’ve also ignored repeated attempts to get them to understand that people have more than one goal here, but that’s an inherently-related topic for another time...)
This is particularly inexcusable as Mooney and Kirshenbaum have been bloggers for some stretch. I watched a year ago in utter exasperation as they ignored comments asking them to do all of these things, basically countering, if at all, with “I don’t think I care for your tone.” Blogs offer a remarkable opportunity for writers to present their ideas-in-formation to others and to gain feedback, and Mooney and Kirshenbaum had an intelligent and knowledgeable readership who, had they engaged with people meaningfully rather than treating the blog as a self-promotion platform, could have helped them to compose a solid work with well-developed and substantiated arguments. Of course, this would not have been unassailable – nor should any book be – but it would have been vastly better than what they have produced.
In fact, we’d all be hopelessly crippled if we didn’t let ourselves make and live by such conjectures.
This is simply ridiculous. Not only would we not be hopelessly crippled by not living by unsubstantiated conjecture, we should never live by it. You may be interested in this:
(a bit of which here) Coming up with ideas – and theirs is not original by any means – is merely a first step in the process of developing knowledge.
So there’s nothing wild and woolly about what C&S are saying.
It’s vague, substanceless conjecture based on nothing more than personal taste and a belief that they are right and hold the moral high ground.
Now, it’s another matter what they think the solution is.
You can’t talk about solutions with any confidence until you’ve clearly defined the problem and its causes. And then, the solutions you propose have to take into account existing conditions and practical issues. Proposing tentative solutions to their commenter base would have helped Mooney and Kirshenbaum to develop solutions and useful ideas for practical implementation. They missed that boat. (Or, rather, the boat waited for them at the pier for days, sounding its horn while other passengers trundled back to shore to offer to carry their bags on-board, while they insisted, inexplicably, on remaining on dry land.)
I think they go too far when they tell scientists to teach that religion and science are compatible (in chap. 8 of the their book). They simplify that issue far too much. Far better to advise that scientist educators to just teach science, and just put religion on the back burner.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean religion ought not be discussed by anyone. It just might not be the best thing for our best science educators to be religion bashers.
“It just might be” is meaningless. Is that the case? How do you know? I’m quite tired of this kind of assertion, which is essentially the same I’ve seen used by various religionists and purveyors of all manner of New Age woo (lately, the panexperientialists). It’s exactly the sort of thinking reasonable people should avoid.
I think this is far from an outrageous thing to say–in fact it’s not even terribly exciting (with apologies to C&S).
Whether a claim appears exciting, outrageous, wild, prosaic, or any other subjective assessment is really irrelevant to its validity. The only way this can be established is through evidence – through clearly stating the claim and all of its elements and checking it through systematic empirical observation and analysis.
The funny thing about this situation – which hasn’t been lost on others – is how easily Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s own lack of respect for empirical research and evidence and their reaction to questioning along these lines melds with their argument that a certain class of beliefs in the public sphere should be immune from this requirement and that requests to describe them coherently, explain the method(s) by which they were arrived at, or support them with evidence are unconscionably rude and unacceptable in public discourse. Weak.
*I remember a cartoon from years ago, when many restaurants had small smoking sections. It was titled something like “a restaurant owner’s view of physics,” and showed people at a table smoking and above them the smoke remaining within a seemingly walled-off space, never drifting over to the diners at nearby tables. I was reminded of it when reading one of Mooney’s comments about how “Crackergate” attacked the wrong target, and people should be focusing their energy instead [!] on contraception or stem-cell research. As if all of the beliefs involved weren’t promoted by the same monster of an institution. As if each incoherent, unsubstantiated belief must only be addressed individually, in piecemeal fashion, letting stand the larger architecture of uncritical thinking and intrusion of incoherent, unsubstantiated beliefs into the public sphere. This view is simply absurd. If you accord respect or deference to one form of unsubstantiated belief about reality, you accord it to all unsubstantiated belief, and therefore to the rejection of the reasoned, critical, and evidence-based approach to reality that is science. You therefore forfeit any claim to oppose those particular unsubstantiated beliefs you personally find problematic.