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Mar 10 2014

David Silverman’s “Darwin Was Wrong” Moment

Surely New Scientist’s terrible choice in creating the “Darwin Was Wrong” cover happened not so long ago that the skeptical community has forgotten the sturm und drang that rightly came after it. And yet, here we are.

To explain: the science rag’s cover was designed to tease an article wherein the phylogenetic “tree” shape is explained to be less accurate than the more web-like structure with speciation and cross-pollination that we now understand to be the case today. So, Darwin was wrong, yes — but he was not wrong about evolution. And yet to this day, you will find creationists who use that misleading cover to suggest that evolution did not happen, therefore God. Despite being technically correct, the messaging was so poor as to cause splash damage, and atheists and skeptics were pretty mad despite the right-on-a-technicality nature of the problem.

So it’s honestly surprising to me that so many people are so bent out of shape over David Silverman’s poor messaging very recently at CPAC — no, not the people who are upset that what he said caused splash damage to women and was worth criticizing. I mean, the people who are bent out of shape over the CRITICISMS of such.

Silverman recently attended CPAC, after attempting to reserve and being denied a table, as an outreach effort for American Atheists.

Looking around the web, you’ll find any number of people who are making terrible arguments — assuming that Silverman is personally anti-choice because of his words at CPAC, for instance. You’ll also find any number of people who are misconstruing the arguments and criticisms against him as a “witch-hunt”, as well.* So there’s a lot of wrong to go around here. But not all of it is made equal.

Silverman’s actual words, to put this in the proper context, were:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

People are upset about this, and I strongly feel, rightly so. I’m pretty upset about it too. Not that Silverman is explicitly anti-choice, because he’s later apparently multiple times clarified that he’s not personally convinced by those arguments. I’m mostly upset that he raised the issue of secular arguments for conservative social causes, thus painting himself into a corner where he could be trapped into having to weasel out of a specific counterpoint that easily undermined what he was saying. I’m further upset that by hedging on this issue, he gives cover to people who think he means there’s a valid, cogent argument against the right of a mother to choose whether to be pregnant.

He did not say that there was a valid, cogent argument against abortion. Only that there’s a secular one. I’m willing to wager that the reason he elided that the secular argument against abortion is bad, thanks to being emotive and contrafactual, is because he was right there, at CPAC, and could not be seen taking a strong stand against something that “values voters” would consider polarizing. And since the only such argument that I’ve seen generally goes “science says life begins at conception because science”, “because nerves”, “because heartbeat”, et cetera, without much backing, it’s a pretty shaky argument to begin with, and thus given far more credibility than it deserves here. (I’d like to see someone steel-man that sometime, actually. I bet it could make a compelling and eminently linkable post.)

I will admit that it is entirely possible that he DID say he’s not convinced by those arguments because they’re awful, but then asked the reporter not to print it — though this requires assumptions not in evidence. I will also admit that he may have elided that fact because he IS convinced, but that would require him being a liar later. There are lots of things one can assume about this situation to mitigate or damn him. But my criticisms are entirely predicated on the face value of what he said, without reading anything extra into it.

First, he shouldn’t have taken that particular tack to begin with. I know, it’s a very convenient argument to suggest that most right-wing values are religiously-motivated or predicated on entirely religious values. It’s actually very true that most of the things that right-wingers claim as their “side” of social issues, they believe to come directly from their religion. However, we also know that most of these values don’t actually come from the Bible.

Frankly, even if they had biblical provenance it wouldn’t give them any extra value — but first they have to be in the Bible to begin with, and with questions like gay marriage and abortion, they don’t even rate a word! Not a parable, nor law, nor proscription, nor assigned tariff for having done. In fact, even the Old Testament has a mitzvot against putting to death your children — and yet other laws explicitly demand putting to death your children. (With 613 commandments, the Old Testament really did have the ability to argue every side of a case.)

Beyond it being incorrect on its face, it’s also incorrect on another level. There are, in fact, secular (meaning, non-religious, worldly, no-deities-involved) arguments for and against everything.

Yeah, that’s right. There’s even a secular argument for prayer in schools. But first you have to have a secular prayer, to eliminate the religion from the context of the consequence as well as the argument. When you do that, you’re left with, essentially, arguments for the American Pledge of Allegiance, which is still said in most states. It’s a vocal exhortation to an entity that is not a deity, said mostly to remind yourself and others around you that you are affiliated with that entity. Only in this case, it’s a country, not a god.

Or, say, any argument against marriage as a whole could very easily be made against gay marriage specifically, without invoking any gods. You could make an argument that gay folks have other contracts available to them to delineate all the marriage rights and that the word “marriage” has special meaning to religious folks, so you should let those babies have their pacifiers and just use another word. These aren’t GOOD arguments, but they’re certainly GODLESS.

And it’s not like I’ve never heard these arguments before, in the wild! So, you can make an argument for or against anything without invoking a deity. Thus, when the reporter pinned him down on the fact that there’s some argument against abortion that doesn’t involve religion, he was right, and Silverman was forced to acquiesce. By giving special privilege to the arguments against abortion, letting them slide as “existing” when directly questioned on that point, Silverman did splash damage to women, because women are disproportionately affected negatively by arguments against choice.

At this point, he could have mitigated that splash damage from his already derailed messaging, by saying, “oh, yes, those arguments do exist, though I don’t find them particularly convincing.” However, he did not, because as I’ve suggested, he likely felt he COULD not. He was there, after all, to attempt to peel atheist conservatives away from the unending religious circle-jerk that is the right-wing political sphere. And some of those conservatives might actually believe in pro-life as a plank value, despite not believing in the Christian religions that have chosen in recent memory to side against abortion. But those people might also be anti-gay, despite not believing in the religions that tell them it’s a sin — not because they’re religious, but because the culture they were brought up in said so. And that culture, I’ll remind you, is expressly conservative.

So because he was there to cozen to conservatives, to attempt to win them over despite fundamental disagreements, it’s no wonder many women generally see this framing of the topic as dishonourable and as them being thrown under the bus. If Silverman had the courage of his pro-choice convictions and was still caught witlessly in the same trap, he would have, then and there, saved us all a lot of grief by simply stating that these arguments — while extant — are not good.

If you claim an argument exists, this is the equivalent of “some people say”. It is implied to have more weight than it might actually have. Claiming an argument exists is insufficient to determine whether or not an argument is good — and if someone tries to use “an argument exists” and you don’t challenge the validity of the argument, you’ve allowed people to presume that the argument is valid enough for general use. It’s well possible, even, to have a wholly valid argument in the sense of it logically following from all premises, that still turns out to fail because these premises depend on a fact that turns out to be false.

Every time from now on that you hear a conservative say “even Dave Silverman admits that an argument against abortion exists!”, we’re all on the hook to refute what they say now — just like we still are to this day with that “Darwin Was Wrong” cover. All because Silverman was given an opportunity to craft his message in such a way that he didn’t inadvertently throw women — who are affected primarily by that argument — under the bus, and he failed to do so out of what might easily be interpreted as cowardice or misprioritizing.

He may not have intended it to be this way, and he may (and probably does) regret what he said and how. But without acknowledging his error, admitting that the way he phrased it was a mistake and that he should have cut down the argument there despite the potential fall-out to his efforts to woo away the conservatives present at CPAC, he’s continuing to do damage. And with all the skeptics banding together to attack people criticizing him for what he actually said by strawmanning those criticisms, the damage is being redoubled, because now there’s a sense that anyone daring to criticize the man over his efforts are obviously feminazis who are drama-blogging.

There were at least two opportunities for him not to screw up the conversation with that reporter: first, by not suggesting that no secular arguments exist for conservative values, and second, by not tossing aside the abortion argument when it became inconvenient to him without at least challenging the actual argument. There is at least one easy way he can save a lot of face here, likewise, and curtail the damage that continues to be done to women by these anti-abortion arguments foisted by the conservatives he was cozening to earlier: challenge them NOW. Do so in a loud enough and splashy enough and evidence-based way such that you’ve set the record straight with all those people who maybe came away from the article thinking they now have an “in” with the atheist community that already has a problem with women, so that you make inextricable the atheist movement with abortion rights.

After all, the religious arguments against abortion are all based on the idea of a soul, and even if you remove the belief in religions and souls, the rest of the arguments that remain against abortion are simply justifications, artificially created scaffolding to attempt to retain arguments that were previously held aloft on the skyhook that is God. So burn that scaffolding down. It’s made of cardboard tubes and bailing twine anyway — should be easy enough for anyone with the courage of their convictions, right?

This criticism is easily enough rectified by Silverman simply making an appropriate effort right now. But it’s amazing how little of this actual criticism is reaching him, or the skeptics and atheists rallying to his defense.


* Pro-tip: don’t refer to women being upset about something a man said which directly hurts them as a “witch-hunt”. You probably also shouldn’t call black people being upset about a white person’s actions a “lynching”, or a Jew criticizing someone a “nazi”, for much the same reasons.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    It’s also disappointing how defensive he got and how quick he was to throw his critics under the bus. It very strongly smelt of “Don’t attack your allies, except I’m doing so, which implies that some allies are better than others and, guess what, it’s not you guys.”

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Note also that Silverman said the Democratic Party – by now obviously and totally beholden to the corporate sector and unwilling to change Bush policies from Iraq to the NSA – is “too far to the left” for his taste.

    That indicates either a dyed-in-the-wool right wing perspective or such blatant ignorance and naivete as to disqualify him from leadership in any sort of national organization. (Yeah, I know: those options are not mutually exclusive.)

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Yes — either an obvious lie as a sop to the conservatives, or totally wrong-headed. Neither looks good on him.

  4. 4
    brenda

    It does seem as though the Libertarians are poised to play a greater role in the GOP but if they do I don’t see it remaining a national party anymore. There is no way they can win national elections without the religious right. As a result you get all this double talk from libertarians on social issues. They don’t want to lose the religious vote.

  5. 5
    Brad

    How much do we know about Silverman’s actual political beliefs? If I were in a position to destroy the republican party, I’m having trouble thinking of a better pressure point than getting the libertarians and religious conservatives out of the same bed. Is he capable of that kind of master plan long game, or is he just naive enough to think conservatism has legs to stand on it’s own without religion in the face of functional socialists who like roads, schools, health care, job security, and retirement?

    I’d say something about not being so harsh on people dealing with the media, especially hostile media, but he goes on Fox regularly and is the head of a national advocacy organization and should damn well be able to message better than he did.

  6. 6
    rapiddominance

    I’m further upset that by hedging on this issue, he gives cover to people who think he means there’s a valid, cogent argument against the right of a mother to choose whether to be pregnant.

    By your use of the word “mother”, are you implying that what she carries inside her is “a child”?

    Perhaps you slipped and betrayed your own viewpoint.

    Scott Morgan

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Considering all the various language surrounding this that always refers to the pregnant woman as “the mother”, no. I did not. You’re right, though, that that language is biased and I should endeavour to rectify that bias.

  8. 8
    Jadehawk

    there to cozen to conservatives

    I approve of this. You possibly meant “cosy up to”, but I like this version better.
    Unless you did mean “cozen”, in which case I approve even more, but I suspect Silverman might be offended by this implication of trickery :-p

  9. 9
    oolon

    @rapiddominance, I’d object to “mother” on cissexist grounds as well, the person gestating the fetus could be a trans man. Oh noes, I’m criticising Jason, it’s a witch hunt!

  10. 10
    LykeX

    I feel like this is similar to the people who say “Sure, you can believe in god and still accept evolution. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

    The statement is true… technically. Unfortunately, it completely ignores a lot of the intricacies and it does so deliberately in an attempt to avoid controversy and disagreement.
    The problem with that approach is that the intricacies don’t disappear just because you don’t mention them. They’re actually real issues and they’re still waiting there, ready to cause problems later down the line (such as the “god guides evolution” nonsense).

    Same thing with this. It’s true that there are, technically, secular arguments against abortion. However, if anyone gives secularism a try because of this, they’re going to get a very rude awakening when they try making some of these arguments. Because they’re crap and the person will be torn a new asshole.

    At that point they’d perhaps start to feel as if they were lied to. They’d be right.

    The alternative, and much worse option, is that we continue the charade after they join and start to avoid criticism of very bad arguments in order to keep the peace in the movement. That would be very bad indeed.

  11. 11
    Jason Thibeault

    I absolutely mean cozen, because I am assuming he knew he was leaving out the fact that the argument is crap.

  12. 12
    Lou Doench

    “I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

    Being tin eared about women’s rights isn’t the only thing Silverman has wrong. He’s also wrong about conservatism. By that I mean real American conservatism as it has been practiced politically for the past 40 years, not the “Pass the bong around the dorm room” conservatism that only exists in the hazy dreams of spoiled glibertarians or the Whig Fan Fiction of Andrew Sullivan (ht/ Driftglass for the metaphors). American Conservatism has based it’s national political strategy on the triple foundations of; white racial fears since Reagan kicked off his election campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi extolling his belief in States Rights; the homo-bigotry and misogyny the Christian Right since the founding of the Moral Majority; and the budget busting expansion of the military industrial complex. To claim that you can peel off the segment of Republicans who just believe in slashing taxes, cutting government services to the poor and middle class and eliminating regulations on big business (the supposed libertarian wing of the GOP that Silverman contends is full of closeted atheists) and come away with a viable and somehow noble political philosophy that is worthy of space in our political discourse of a national party with the size and clout of the Republicans is ludicrous.
    The modern conservative movement is for all intents and purposes inseparable from the modern GOP, warts and all, and pretending otherwise speaks to a childlike ahistorical view of American politics.

  13. 13
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    This is a perfect, apt analogy to illustrate why Silverman’s statements created problems.

  14. 14
    brenda

    Colbert destroyed David Silverman on last night’s show. Objecting to a cross at the 911 memorial museum “This atheist protest offends me as a lover of good public relations”. I don’t know why the atheist community is so unrelentingly tone deaf but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to pick exactly the wrong thing to protest at precisely the wrong time.

    “We need no god…. but a plaque would be nice.”

  15. 15
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    I don’t know why the atheist community is so unrelentingly tone deaf but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to pick exactly the wrong thing to protest at precisely the wrong time.

    I think too many people in the atheoskeptical community are way more concerned with “being right” than with “being a decent human being.”

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    One can make an aesthetic argument against it; i.e.: that it’s a matter of personal preference. That’s entirely appropriate. Yes, it’s OK to dislike the color green.

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    Follow the money and it’s really an issue of disempowering minorities while funnelling money to the military/industrial/congressional complex.

  18. 18
    jesse

    @Unknown Eric

    I don’t think it’s hard to figure out why so many in the atheo-skeptical community get a hard-on for being right rather than decent. It makes you feel smart, when you say you are an atheist who (by definition) accepts science when people around you don’t. Because science sounds smart no matter what it is you say, you know?

    I mean, when I was 18, I thought being an atheist was a sign of how intelligent I was, along with being a physics major. Because only ignorant (and therefore by definition stupid) people had religions at all. And having been picked on a lot as a kid being right was all I thought I had. When you feel alone, that can be a comfort.

    Obviously I missed that stupid and ignorant are not the same. And my later exposure to marginalized populations gave me a more nuanced view of religion in people’s lives, and how it isn’t just because people are stupid. (Let’s just say that most of the things that online atheists say about religion, while technically true, sound a mite less good when speaking to Tungusic people or Lakotas. Modernism isn’t always self-evidently wonderful in every context).

    So, we have privilege, a sense of need, and tack on a bit of social awkwardness and superiority. There’s a recipe for caring about other people. Not.

    There’s another blogger on this network, at Godlessness in Theory, where he outlines the ways to make atheism that works for poor people too in a way that it often does not do now. His criticisms are to me spot-on. If atheism is to “sell” you have to offer some of the same benefits — real-world concrete benefits — that religion does. You can be right all day long about the existence of god, but if the local church helps Joe or Jane down the block get to a hospital for their illness and you don’t, what good is being right?

    But many atheists (especially white males) of a libertarian bent see it all as an issue of personal autonomy and “winning” an argument. As though being right made you a better human being all by itself.

    Heck, Ed Teller was right about a lot of things in physics. He threw many fellow scientists under the HUAC bus, notably Oppenheimer. Being right didn’t make him a better person.

  19. 19
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    Very well said, jesse. And full of truth.

    And on that topic, here’s an (old) article I tripped over earlier than the organized atheoskeptical movement should read and seriously take to heart: http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2013/06/lets-do-equations-involving-assholes/

  20. 20
    Flewellyn

    Lou Dench @12: YES. THIS.

  21. 21
    hjhornbeck

    Two comments here, the first of which is a copy-pasta from one of mine over at Almost Diamonds:

    In some sense, it’s been great to bring out pro-choice arguments to an audience that hasn’t heard of them. But there’s a strong political angle to this as well.

    Anti-choice groups love manipulating people by language. Ever heard of “partial-birth abortions?” They invented that term to score easy points, even though the most similar medical procedure was very rarely done and has morally-acceptable usages. Likewise, they’ve realized that approaching abortion from a religious angle is a losing proposition as it brings up inter-denomination fights.
    So much like creationists, they’ve tried to take advantage of the science’s brand power and wrapped themselves in the flag of secularism. If you try bringing up religious arguments with their protesters, they’ll dismiss them and repeat the mantra of having solid secular arguments, even though spending a little time with them reveals the church attendance rate hovers approaches 100%, the leaders of their groups all have strong religious backgrounds, and they are well-funded by churches.
    As a result, saying there are secular arguments against abortion is an act of support for religious groups, by your endorsement of coded language. It’s just another form of the Southern Strategy, directed against women’s rights.

    But I do have some original content to share over here, too. From the OP:

    And since the only such argument that I’ve seen generally goes “science says life begins at conception because science”, “because nerves”, “because heartbeat”, et cetera, without much backing, it’s a pretty shaky argument to begin with, and thus given far more credibility than it deserves here. (I’d like to see someone steel-man that sometime, actually. I bet it could make a compelling and eminently linkable post.)

    You can’t. The primary argument of the pro-choice side comes courtesy Judith Thompson’s Violinist argument, which can be summarized as:

    P1: All persons have the right to protect the integrity of their body.
    P2: This right is ranked higher than the right to life.
    C1: Ergo, all people have the right to protect their body from intrusion, even if that would cost someone else their life.

    Disputing the first or second premise permits non-consentual organ harvesting. Countering that sex is automatic forfeiture of bodily integrity, even narrowly, is ridiculous given that anyone with a working uterus is only fertile for 1/12th their life. Arguing the fetus has full human rights, can feel pain, or possesses consciousness are non-sequeters and do nothing to defeat the argument. Asserting that forfeiture is automatically granted via inaction ignores that sometimes people don’t realize they’re pregnant, in rare cases right up until birth. From a different angle, adverse possession arguments don’t fly because fetal use of a uterus doesn’t exclude the owner of that uterus from using it as well.

    In several years of pro-choice activism, I haven’t heard a single successful counter to the bodily integrity argument. Steel-manning does nothing against it.

  22. 22
    brenda

    “P1: All persons have the right to protect the integrity of their body.”

    A fetus is not a person. Person hood is a legal construction and not scientific fact. Indeed, one line of legal attack attempted by anti abortionists is to declare a fetus a person from the moment of conception. They would even have the right to property.

    “P1: All persons have the right to protect the integrity of their body.”

    It took me seconds to refute it. I can’t imagine anyone familiar with the law surrounding abortion not knowing the abortion dispute is over the legal status of the fetus.

  23. 23
    Ing

    I think you are giving Silverman too much credit. In context it clearly meant what everyone interpreted it as, it’s only after when people are upset that he’s slipping back into a smarmy defense. Basically Silverman expects us to believe him not our lying ears.

  1. 24
    Which atheists get exemption from criticism? » Pharyngula

    […] anti-abortion? I know I wasn’t one of them. Ophelia Benson wasn’t, either. Neither was Jason Thibeault. Who called David Silverman an enemy to atheism? I think he’s usually a good advocate; I also […]

  2. 25
    What really matters…The So-Called Secular Arguments Against Choice » Ace of Clades

    […] liberal secular types including PZ Myers, Sarah Moglia, Steve Ahlquist, Ophelia Benson, and Jason Thibeault. And too, there has been support for Silverman from no less liberal sources such as JT […]

  3. 26
    The Secular ProLife Argument is Poop » Biodork

    […] Jason Thibeault writes about why he supports the criticism of Dave Silverman’s off-the-cuff, misleading comments about secular prolifers at CPAC. […]

  4. 27
    You Made Your Bed, Now Burn in It » Almost Diamonds

    […] While I’m talking about the completely predictable knock-on effects of an atheist movement that’s been hitting many of its prominent female activists for years, it’s time to talk about Dave Silverman’s comments about abortion at CPAC. I support Dave’s decision to represent conservative nontheists to theocratic conservatives. I support his decision to do so at CPAC as part of American Atheists strategy to turn conflict into media attention, and don’t assume he expected to find “his people” there. I think “fiscal conservatism” is short-sighted in someone who wants to see atheism grow, given that the top countries for atheism are mostly socialist democracies, but whatever. We all contain contradictions. I even agree with Jason’s analysis that Dave’s abortion message was mangled and not representative of his views. […]

  5. 28
    The Basic Problem is They Don’t Respect Our Agency |

    […] So dogmatic? What’s so horrible about allowing debate or other viewpoints about abortion? It’s not as clear cut a secular advocacy issue as equal marriage rights, after […]

  6. 29
    Secular Anti-Abortion Link Roundup » Almost Diamonds

    […] David Silverman’s “Darwin Was Wrong” Moment–”Surely New Scientist’s terrible choice in creating the ‘Darwin Was Wrong’ cover happened not so long ago that the skeptical community has forgotten the sturm und drang that rightly came after it. And yet, here we are.” […]

  7. 30
    Pro-Life Humanists » Yes There are Pro-Life Atheists (Part 1: David Silverman controvery)

    […] David Silverman’s “Darwin Was Wrong” Moment - Jason Thibeault […]

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    Pro-Life Humanists » Yes There are Pro-Life Atheists (Part 1: David Silverman controvery)

    […] David Silverman’s “Darwin Was Wrong” Moment - Jason Thibeault : […]

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