Not scrupulously fair


What was that I was saying about managing disagreement ethically? I must have been dreaming.

There’s a new article at the Richard Dawkins website, by one “Notung” who is a blogger at Skeptic Ink. So the article is pseudonymous, so it had better be scrupulously fair in whatever it says, right? Because surely it’s dirty pool to be unfair and be pseudonymous. Isn’t it?

An article on Religion News Service by Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer) asks whether Richard Dawkins is an asset or a liability to atheism. Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. 

Nope, not scrupulously fair. Rudely inaccurate about a named journalist, rather than scrupulously fair. Jesus, Richard – this is how you take your revenge? You let A Nameless smear a named journalist on your website?

Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. Of the eight people who were interviewed, seven said that he’s a liability (though Hemant Mehta’s statement appears to have been misrepresented), and only one (Dennett) said that he’s an asset.

Nope, not scrupulously fair. That claim is not true. It’s false. Four of the seven said Richard is both: both an asset and a liability. I did, and so did Phil Zuckerman and Hemant Mehta and Adam Lee.

“Richard Dawkins has done a lot to bring atheism to a whole new generation,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor who studies atheism and who also credits Dawkins with speaking out against the pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church. “On the other hand, Dawkins seems to embody everything that people dislike about atheists: He is smug, condescending and emits an unpleasant disdainfulness. He doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the good aspects of religion, only the bad. In that sense, I think he doesn’t help atheism in the PR department.”

See? That’s not hard to understand, is it? The “on the other hand” helps. Both.

So when his recent tweets about rape and pedophilia hit the Twittersphere two days after the release of the civility agreement with his longtime critic, the debate started anew.

“Perhaps he was testing it,” Benson said of the agreement, which she characterized as a positive step in repairing a rift over feminism within atheism that she traces to Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment.

Benson said Dawkins attracts people to the movement with his well-reasoned arguments against religion and superstition. But he then repels them with what many see as an unwillingness to listen to ideas other than his own.

“In his two or three recent Twitter combats, the most striking thing is he does not listen to anyone except his fans, no matter how reasonably things are put,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to represent long-term, healthy atheism.”

Both.

And it isn’t only women atheists whom Dawkins upset. Writing on The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta said: “I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins. I know he means well. But damn, it’s annoying having to defend him. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to!”

Adam Lee, who blogs at Daylight Atheism, said: “I don’t think (Dawkins) has done more harm than good to the atheist movement, but the balance has been shifting towards harm. He has made comments about women and minorities that give people a bad impression of what atheism stands for. I wish he would stand back and let other people add their voices to his.”

Both and both.

And then there are some of the comments about Kimberly Winston…

Like this from “aquilacane”

Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer)

That’s like being an expert on the effects of different bird calls on the deceased. The first line of this article just screams “don’t read this crap written by a delusional and fraudulent moron”. If she were an expert she would admit the effects are zero as prayer has been demonstrated to have no effect. So, she must be a fraud a the very least.

Not cool.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Actually, I was curious about that last dig at Winston and prayer beads, and looked up her book on Amazon (on their history and making rosaries) and it sounds very interesting.

  2. Derec A says

    He doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the good aspects of religion, only the bad.

    And thus atheism goes out with a whimper and not a bang. Congratulations religion, you’ve won the battle.

  3. says

    aquilacane sounds just a tad uneducated and boorish. It’s pretty obvious (correct me if I’m wrong because I haven’t looked it up) that Winston is an expert on the cultural effects of prayer beads on the practice of prayer, or something along those lines. Which sounds pretty interesting to me by the way, as someone who’s studied religion academically myself.

  4. Derec A says

    Oh yes. The whole thing has been decided in one sentence from one paragraph by Phil Zuckerman quoted in one article by Kimberly Winston. You bet.

    Perhaps not just that one sentence by Phil Zuckerman quoted in an article by Kimberly Winston. But that kind of thinking is pretty much endemic with the accommodationist movement that has gained traction the last couple of years and produces such nonsense as the idea that atheists somehow need to be nice to religion because well, I have no idea why but there you go.

    That kind of wooly thinking is what made me walk away from the whole atheism thing. And I can’t help but think there are more people who’ve done the same thing than anyone is willing to admit.

    Atheism is dead! Long live the accommodationists!

  5. says

    What makes you think the accommodationist movement has gained traction over the last couple of years?

    I (for example) have seen their point more than I once did, because it became clear to me that there are far too many movement atheists whose main motivation is just the chance to bully and/or ridicule people. But that hasn’t caused me to become “nice to religion” or to argue that we should be or anything like that. I just think people shouldn’t be flaming shits to other people, that’s all.

  6. chasstewart says

    From the description of Kimberly Winston ‘ book: A thorough introduction to both the Catholic and Anglican rosaries, complete with stunning photographs and instructional diagrams, rounds out the historical portion of the text. The second part, which is even more inviting, reveals myriad ways to use the tactile to reach the spiritual.

  7. Al Dente says

    Ophelia Benson @9

    I just think people shouldn’t be flaming shits to other people, that’s all.

    Mean ol’ Ophelia never lets us have any fun. :(

    Seriously, I agree that all too many atheists mock and jeer at theists. I’ve done it once or twice. However, all too many theists see questions like “got any evidence for your god?” to be bullying.

  8. Athywren says

    Should Richard Give Up Twitter and Retreat to His Ivory Tower?

    I don’t know? Are those the only options? Twitter or the tower? He could pass his tweets to a proof reader before posting them? He could give up twitter and post on tumblr? Ok… maybe not that, but is he really limited to twitter or the tower? I’m not in his position, I don’t have anyone hanging on my words as far as I’m aware, but I manage to avoid hiding away in my own ivory tower, despite not using Twitter more than a handful of times in a decade.

    I know of nobody else on Twitter that meets with this kind of resistance. Even Ann Coulter and her British counterpart, Katie Hopkins do not seem to have the same chorus of outrage whenever they tweet, and they regularly come out with some pretty horrifically immoral stuff.

    Inorite? People don’t expect reasonable, well considered discourse from Ann Coulter, so why, oh why, oh why do we expect it from Dawkins?! It’s not as if Dawkins is supposed to be a thoughtful, rational person or anything, is it? I can only speak for myself but, while Dawkins had no influence over my path to atheism, I’ve long considered him to be a force for rationality in the world, so… yes, I hold him to a higher standard than Ann Coulter. I didn’t realise that was a bad thing? Don’t get me wrong, my good opinion of him has taken a bit of a beating over the last couple of years, but I still want to hold him to a decent standard, because I still believe he can live up to it.

    Dawkins is being singled out. If you don’t think this is the case, then try a thought experiment. Transplant his exact tweets onto the timeline of any other commentator, author, or scientist on Twitter. Take Matt Ridley as an example. He’s written popular books on evolution, and writes regular opinion columns for the newspaper. Most informed people who have heard of Dawkins have also heard of Ridley. Can you honestly imagine the same reaction to Ridley if he tweeted the exact same things? I don’t mean that people will suddenly agree with him – I mean that there won’t be the same old “oh look – Ridley’s put his foot in his mouth again! He should really stay off Twitter. We should stage an intervention!”. What would probably happen is that there would be a bit of disagreement, but just the usual “person offers controversial opinion on Twitter”-style disagreement. I’m not sure why Dawkins is singled out, but he is singled out.

    I guess I must not be informed, because, while Wikipedia informs me that I must have at least heard his name at some point, Matt Ridley is meaningless to me. I might criticise his comments if I hear that he’s said something ridiculous, but nobody’s likely to hold me accountable for his words – he doesn’t, to my knowledge, speak on behalf of atheists, nor is he considered a thought leader by any secular councils that I’ve noticed recently so, no matter what Ridley says, while I may find it objectionable and may be moved to criticise it, I’m extremely unlikely to be presented with his words as something I must defend. Granted, I don’t have to defend Dawkins either, and I absolutely won’t if I find his words to be indefensible, but I am often presented with his words as if they are my own. For better or worse, Dawkins’ words have an impact on how others view atheism. Despite my desire to hold him to a decent standard, if it were not for his effect on people’s opinions of me, I probably would have just written him off as a lost cause by now. Much as I like him, much as he often writes interesting things, I don’t need his words to determine my own thinking, and I don’t particularly have the patience to sort the overly simplified, black and white statements and unsympathetically expressed trivialities from the gems.

    The culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” is anti-intellectual. Many of his controversial tweets bring up serious and difficult questions in moral philosophy.

    No, it isn’t anti-intellectual. Yes, his controversial tweets bring up serious and difficult questions in moral philosophy, but his commentary on them certainly gives the impression that he is not taking those serious, difficult questions seriously, or recognising them as difficult. Yes, he’s limited to 140 characters, but that’s no excuse for boiling complex questions down to black and white assertions.
    “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”
    That is not an intellectual statement. It is logically trivial. It’s also kind of a strawman and, frankly, deeply insensitive. Yes, I know, emotional arguments are bad, but dismissing the emotions of the people you’re holding up in comparison of one another (and make no mistake, when you compare “mild” and violent pedophilia, you are comparing the experiences of the people who have experienced what you consider mild and violent) is both disgusting and unnecessary to make a reasonable point.
    It would be anti-intellectual if he was laying out considered opinions in as neutral a way as reasonably possible and we were still telling him to shut up. As it is, any actual thought is being hidden from our view, and all we see is blunt generalisations and bizarrely framed trivialities. We’re not telling him to shut up because his conclusions are too radical, but because they’re, apparently, thoughtlessly thrown together without consideration of whether he’ll be understood, or how many people he’ll needlessly hurt with his clumsy statements.

    Take one that happened today; his claim was that aborting Down Syndrome fetuses should be acceptable (in addition to an offhand remark in a reply to someone else that he thinks not aborting a Down Syndrome fetus is immoral). These are the sorts of questions and opinions that moral philosophers like Peter Singer are famous for.

    Is Singer famous for reducing these serious and difficult questions to imperative-sounding statements on twitter? I suppose I should check his twitter feed to be sure….
    ….
    …seems not. Though I did miss a course on practical ethics through Coursera? Balls. This is what I get for not following twitter closely enough. :(

    I agree the latter claim is contentious even to a liberal, but I myself think that there are good arguments for supposing it to be true. It’s at least defensible.

    I’ll quickly outline one of them:

    P1: It is immoral to give birth to a child (when you have the choice of an abortion) who is likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.

    Significantly? Sure, yeah, it’s definitely immoral to give birth to a child, if you have other options, if you know they’re likely to experience significantly more suffering than usual… possibly… what do you mean by “significantly”? That’s actually a pretty vague term here.

    P2: Children with Down Syndrome are likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.

    I might have an easier time accepting this one if I knew what you meant by “significantly”… mind you, I’m not convinced that shifting my definition of significant to such a point where I could agree to this would maintain my ability to agree to P1. I don’t think I can agree with both premises if I have a consistent definition of significant suffering.

    C: Therefore, it is immoral to give birth to a child with Down Syndrome (when you have the choice of an abortion).

    If I could agree with both premises at the same time, I might agree, but you seem to be equivocating different definitions of significant between your premises… either that, or, from my point of view, you have a pretty low bar for what kind of suffering is tolerable.

    The conclusion is distasteful to some, but to deny it you have to deny either P1 or P2. Are they as distasteful? Perhaps you can deny one or both of them, but it isn’t clear to me that either premise is obviously false, downright absurd, or distasteful. Now, this isn’t an argument that Dawkins used, but it reaches the same conclusion; it is his conclusion that people are red-faced about (and I don’t see that any of his angry critics have bothered to find out what his actual argument is).

    Sure, I agree that both premises can be true, but I don’t see how they can both be true at the same time with the same definition of significant suffering, and so I can’t see how they can reliably be used to reach the conclusion.
    I can’t speak for anyone else, but a large part of why I was “red-faced” about his statement was that it provided no argument, simply claiming that it’s immoral not to abort. How did he reach the conclusion that a life spent raising a child with DS was so intolerable as to make it immoral to put yourself in that position? Where did he make it apparent that his expressed position was not actually his position? He has a website where, presumably, he could throw an article together to express his view, make his arguments and be clear. Instead he gave a difficult and serious question a soundbite. How is it even remotely anti-intellectual to point that out?

  9. says

    Derec A says,

    the last couple of years and produces such nonsense as the idea that atheists somehow need to be nice to religion because well, I have no idea why but there you go.

    Well, my opinion is: you absolutely don’t have to be nice to religion or to us, its practitioners. Say whatever you like. Just try not to be boring.

    That kind of wooly thinking is what made me walk away from the whole atheism thing.

    The pattern of “this is what made me walk away from [blank]” is a copout. A weakness. A crude attempt to make others feel guilty if they don’t agree with your superior position. An appeal to emotion. And, worst of all, it’s boring.

  10. John Morales says

    [OT]

    heddle @14:

    Well, my opinion is: you absolutely don’t have to be nice to religion or to us, its practitioners. Say whatever you like. Just try not to be boring.

    Yeah, well, it’s fine and I’m happy to indulge — but then I exist in a neutered religious setting. Other times, other places, I’d be pretending to be one of your mob because I wouldn’t fancy the treatment I’d incur otherwise.

    (It’s not your god that’s scary, it’s you goddists)

  11. Tim Harris says

    Regarding the reference to Peter Singer, I read recently read a book of Peter Singer’s, and did not think much of it; it did not make me think, but seemed designed more to persuade one to adopt the moral rules that Singer himself, a utilitarian (with all the problems that utilitarianism involves), likes to follow. For a moral philosopher who really does make one think, one should read Bernard Williams, who seems to me to have been about the best mind around in recent years. As for Dawkins being a moral philosopher, well…

  12. Hj Hornbeck says

    chasstewart @10:

    From the description of Kimberly Winston ‘ book: A thorough introduction to both the Catholic and Anglican rosaries, complete with stunning photographs and instructional diagrams, rounds out the historical portion of the text. The second part, which is even more inviting, reveals myriad ways to use the tactile to reach the spiritual.

    Yep, she looks quite religious. Funny thing, though; if compare that to her published work on Religious News Service, you’ll see she doesn’t let her personal beliefs intrude on her reporting. From her coverage of a court victory for Humanists to the Supreme Court ruling on prayer, you’d never know she was a firm believer unless you went out of your way to look it up. That’s why you should put more weight on what someone says and does than who they’re affiliated with.

    [waits for the cries of “Hypocrite!” to die down]

    Yep, agreed, Stewart’s comment was just a springboard for what I was actually wandering back here for: to clarify that Notung’s affiliation with the SlymePit isn’t a bad thing per-se. If they made a good point or argument in their article, I’d be more than willing to overlook that.

    But they don’t. The trivial ad hominem is just the start of a downward slope. It’s basically just argument from assertion from there on in.

    Whenever Richard Dawkins tweets something contentious or controversial, we get what could be referred to as a culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” (appropriating Jon Lovett’s coinage). The idea that Dawkins “can’t do Twitter” or frequently “puts his foot in his mouth” is a now tired cliché, so much so that there’s an air of “oh, not again!” whenever he tweets something that people might dislike.

    If it really is that common, it should have been trivially easy to come up with an example. Notung doesn’t, instead asserting it as established fact.

    Dawkins is being singled out. If you don’t think this is the case, then try a thought experiment. Transplant his exact tweets onto the timeline of any other commentator, author, or scientist on Twitter. Take Matt Ridley as an example. He’s written popular books on evolution, and writes regular opinion columns for the newspaper. Most informed people who have heard of Dawkins have also heard of Ridley. Can you honestly imagine the same reaction to Ridley if he tweeted the exact same things?

    Sure I can. But that’s just matching opinion against opinion; a better test would be to fish out a similar comment from a similarly-famous person, and point out that the same level of outrage didn’t accompany it. Notung can’t be bothered, instead he just asserts this as truth.

    Now, this isn’t an argument that Dawkins used, but it reaches the same conclusion; it is his conclusion that people are red-faced about (and I don’t see that any of his angry critics have bothered to find out what his actual argument is).

    So there wasn’t a single thoughtful critique of that comment, which paid attention to the argument? Seems Notung didn’t check the evidence, but again just asserted.

    I’m not claiming that people shouldn’t disagree with Dawkins. Of course they should if they don’t think his claims stand up to scrutiny – I do this myself from time to time. What I’m complaining about is the attempt to get him to stop giving his opinions or asking questions.

    Oooo, two for one here; we’ve got a minor concession to paint the author as being reasonable, followed by yet another assertion without evidence.

    The goal of this article can’t have been to persuade, as Notung just assumes everyone takes their statements as trivially true without need of evidence. It’ll never convince someone who disagrees. No, the goal here must have been to reassure. Why else would Notung spend 842 words of the articles’ 1763 words “setting the scene,” or more accurately fluffing up their intellectual hero? This one was just for the fans, a pleasant reminder that they’re on the right side, and I’m sure it earned quite a bit of praise. The people who disagree? Who cares, they can’t possibly have a strong argument. No need to even try reaching them, or explaining to them where they may be going wrong.

    By this point, I find it all rather boring. The only thing worth noting about the piece is the SlymePit connection.

  13. Tim Harris says

    I’m glad you like Bernard Williams. I read him for the first time only recently, and found him exhilarating and extraordinarily encouraging (in the true sense of the word). He is remarkable.

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