Oh look there we all are

This is entertaining. I was browsing through stuff trying to recall previous disagreements with Shermer (I know I’ve had some, though only unilateral ones) and I found a post of Jerry Coyne’s from more than three years ago. It’s about Shermer as accommodationist.

Amusingly, I start by arguing that Shermer can be read as describing a view rather than endorsing it. Funny, isn’t it! Since now I’m getting shouted at for confusing the two in the case of “it’s more of a guy thing.”

Then there’s the whole pragmatism question.


  • Posted November 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Shermer is a bit weird on this topic. At the Beyond Belief conference a few years ago, he practically blew up at criticisms of the Templeton Foundation. I don’t think he is receiving money from them, but at the time it was striking in how loudly and angrily he reacted to complaints about an organization to which he didn’t belong.

    • Posted November 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      He also seems to be afflicted with the one-eyed practical or ‘political’ approach that is so noticeable in Chris Mooney. He talks about what ‘works’ without pausing to say what he means by ‘works’ – apparently thinking that absolutely everything boils down to some kind of campaign. What if (at least sometimes) we don’t care about what ‘works’ so much as we care about getting it right?

How it takes me back.

But then, even more entertaining – I find myself saying yet again, or rather not again but way back then, that Shermer said what he said and not something else. I say it to, of all people, Russell Blackford. The ironies.


  • Posted November 28, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Ophelia says: “What if (at least sometimes) we don’t care about what ‘works’ so much as we care about getting it right?”

    I’m going to keep batting for Michael here, because I think this gets things a bit backwards. Michael could reply: “What if (at least sometimes) we do care about what ‘works’ as much as we care about getting it right?”

    Now, maybe we should always care more about getting it right, but that’s not the argument. I can’t speak for Michael, of course, but I doubt that he’d deny the following: “sometimes we don’t care about what ‘works’ so much as we care about getting it right”. I think he’d say, “Yes, sometimes … but not all the time. I’m talking about those other times.”

    If so, is there really that much disagreement?

    • Posted November 28, 2009 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      But Russell, he said what he said. I’m arguing with what he said. Maybe he would rephrase it if you asked him, but he did say what he did say. He said “There are multiple ways [to respond to theists and/or theism], all of which work, depending on the context.” I’m saying they don’t all “work” (unless he means something very odd and idiosyncratic by “work”) and whether or not they “work” isn’t the only question to ask about them.

Do admit. That’s exactly what I’ve said about nineteen times during this dispute, when people keep saying what he could have said or what they’re sure he meant, and I keep saying he said what he said and that’s what I’m arguing with.

And the same disagreement. Let’s not pin him to exactly what he said. But why not, since he did say it?

Posted November 29, 2009 at 6:18 am | Permalink

But Ophelia, he does seem to think that sometimes we just plain straight out should tell the theists that their views are wrong, or are not rationally grounded, or are merely a human construction, or whatever. That’s consistent with his modus operandi in the past … and it’s a funny sort of accommodationist position. He’d probably think that this “works” approach in some sense, but presumably not in the sense of getting theists to fight global warming, etc.

I don’t think the pieces are written with the kind of rigour that justifies trying to analyse them like statutes or like poems, and they wouldn’t stand up to that sort of analysis. But to me, the question is whether Michael is telling us that religion and science “just are” compatible in some broad, sloppy sense, without all the needed caveats that you and I and Jerry like to insist on (which tend to eat up the claim itself), or whether he wants us to stop criticising religion – things like that. I can see problems in the original piece (I discuss some of these at more length over at Butterflies and Wheels) as well as in his attempt to defend it. But I don’t think he’s doing either of those things. The problems I see are quite specific (some of them are actually theological!). At this stage, they don’t add up to reason to think that Michael has gone over to the accommodationist side.

And – to everyone – I freely admit that I’m looking at these pieces charitably. But I think we should always do that until we have enough cumulative reason to do otherwise, and especially with someone who has Michael’s sort of track record of opposing irrationalism.

  • Posted November 29, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Russell, I don’t want to claim that Michael himself has gone over to the accommodationist side (and anyway, as I said in replying to you at B&W, even if he has he can always come back again). I just want to dispute some (much) of what he says in this particular piece.

    It’s an argumentative piece, after all, and a personal one at that – so I really don’t see why we shouldn’t take its claims at face value and disagree with them if we disagree with them.

And here it is three years later and I still don’t see why we shouldn’t take particular claims at face value and disagree with them if we disagree with them. Is this consistency or sheer bloody stubbornness?


  1. says


    Shermer is a bit weird on this topic. At the Beyond Belief conference a few years ago, he practically blew up at criticisms of the Templeton Foundation. I don’t think he is receiving money from them, but at the time it was striking in how loudly and angrily he reacted to complaints about an organization to which he didn’t belong.

    The Templeton Foundation is actively evil. They corrupt science to promote religion, award and fund AGW denialism, and sponsor a network of rightwing organizations around the world. I can understand some people having participated in their events or programs in the past without realizing what they’re about, but there’s been no excuse for ignorance for quite a while. No one should take money from them, and anyone in the atheist-skeptic-freethought movement who energetically takes up their defense is a sell-out, a market fundamentalist, or a dolt.

  2. Aratina Cage says

    Reading others charitably is another thing often demanded of us (and often out of place in the context) and then denied us by those demanding we do it.

  3. Godwinator9000 says

    And here it is three years later and I still don’t see why we shouldn’t take particular claims at face value and disagree with them if we disagree with them.

    So we can take the “TAM is just like Nazi Germany” quote as a truly candid Ophelia moment and ignore all the subsequent weaseling?

  4. says

    Ah isn’t that just perfect. I never said that. That’s not a “quote” at all. It’s an outright lie, zealously spread around all over the place, and thus of course believed and repeated by many uninformed people. That’s how the slymers roll.

  5. JeffWright, LoverOfStarFish says

    Yes Grothe liked his Facebook post. QUICK, GET THE PITCHFORKS. You see, Ophelia, the MAJORITY of the atheist/skeptic community sides with Shermer, not that you would realise outside the FfTB bubble.

    Have you ever wondered why an increasing majority hate you and are hostile towards you? It’s too bad that the pushback is getting you down. Get used to it – it has only just begun.


    PS – Stop “cyberstalking” Shermer.

  6. says

    Jesus, Ophelia, you sure are attracting the psychos. And I had no idea engaging in criticism was “cyberstalking,” because as a skeptic myself, I thought criticism was just something we were allowed to do. I guess there’s nothing like an argumentam ad populum fallacy to shut that little illusion down, eh? I guess you shouldn’t have threatened Shermer’s life….oh wait, you never threatened Shermer’s life? Well, now I’m just all confused. It’s almost as if dudely dudebros like JeffWright and Godwinator9000 actually…lie or something. I’m speechless.

    Anyway, I guess it’s helpful to be informed of the correct definition of “cyberstalking” by someone who has announced he has “only just begun” to do it to you.

  7. AsqJames says

    Sorry to go off topic, but have you seen this Ophelia.

    Iowa Court: Bosses Can Fire ‘Irresistible’ Workers

    A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

    The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong.

  8. Marnie says

    It’s interesting how two men can disagree within the skeptic community and it’s seen as standard discourse. There is no way you can say that Stephen Jay Gould viewed religion the same way as Dawkins but the community has always accepted that men within the community can share opposing views and still be civil.

    Somehow, when women disagree with men in the community, their disagreement is seen as divisive and problematic. When they try to work within the community, they are hounded relentlessly and blamed constantly. When they take their work elsewhere, they are seen as splitting the community. And men who agree with these women are seen as turncoats.

    Women are expected to toe the party line. They are welcome to be in the community as long as they keep nodding at what everyone else says. They are allowed to agree with and confirm the things their male counterparts say. What they aren’t allowed to do is point out ways in which a traditionally white, male, straight group might unconsciously have created a group most welcoming to white straight men.

  9. says

    I’m not in the FTB bubble, and I agree with you about Shermer’s words in this case, Ophelia. Also don’t hate you or plan on “pushing back” against you.

    I’m sure you and I don’t agree on every single thing EVAR. But that’s not the point.

    Shermer did say what he said, and a response on a blog isn’t the equivalent of a tennis match or Halo multiplayer where we can track who wins.

    I own a couple of Shermer’s books, and they’re pretty good IMO. Did his comments about women in atheism make my opinion of him go all-explodey after hearing them? Yeah, kinda. The books are still good though.

  10. says

    My last comment was less than articulate.

    I keep thinking about Shermer’s comment in the context of my art history background. When I was taking first year foundation courses, we were required to pick up Janson’s massive History of Art, 4th edition. I had friends who owned previous numbered or the Gold edition, but we were not to use those in class. It’s expensive, and some students complained.

    The reason we were switching to the 4th edition, the story went, was because previous editions didn’t contain any art made by women or contemporary non-white artists (ancient art gets fuzzier to identify who made it).
    Not even Artemisia Gentileschi who ought to be included for not only being the anomaly in a male-dominated artistic renaissance, but for her fighting back through painting multiple versions of Judith the slave beheading Holofernes.

    The 4th edition improved things. We discussed in class throughout the next 4 years how women have been excluded from the art world, and how that exclusion gets manifested in the artwork itself in the 20th century.

    Shermer’s comment, by analogy, would suggest that women just weren’t good at or interested in fine art. Reading the Janson proved it. The lack of women speaking at conferences proved it.

    It’s a bad argument, and it’s good he’s being called out on it.

  11. says

    Yes – it’s circular. As several people have pointed out, it doesn’t answer the question – why isn’t atheism more 50/50? – and instead of answering it, it enacts the very problem that is behind it.

  12. says

    The history of Abbie Conant vs. the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
    is instructive. But her struggle for the position she had earned, or even equal pay and treatment, is a long story. Here’s the summary:

    “In Blink, Gladwell tells the story of a female trombone player (Abbie Conant) who participated in a blind audition for the Munich Philharmonic Opera and floored the judges… twice.

    After she played (behind a screen), the judges were so impressed that they sent the remaining contestants home. They knew that they had found their trombone player after just a few notes. [In fact, the director cried out, “This is genius!”]

    Or so they thought…

    Orchestras at this time (1980) were largely male enterprises. And trombone is the most powerful, most manly instrument in an orchestra. When Ms. Abbie Conant stepped out from behind the screen, the judges were no longer so sure that they had found their trombone player. Their eyes could not believe what their ears had heard. The judges had spent their entire lives training their ears to hear perfect pitch. They didn’t need to do extensive analysis to know that Conant’s audition was pitch perfect.

    Their eyes didn’t have the same training. Their eyes had simply never seen a female Trombonist, and so they couldn’t make sense of it.”

    Further: “Using data from audition records, researchers found that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent. The likelihood of a woman’s ultimate selection is increased several fold, although the competition is extremely difficult and the chance of success still low.”

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