Unscientific America, the gift that keeps on giving

Mooney and Kirshenbaum have been so stung by my criticisms of their book that they have launched a multi-part rebuttal to my review. Here’s my reply to their reply.

  1. We didn’t get personal, and we didn’t attack atheism in general! Hmmm. Here’s a sampling of what they do say: “Myers’ actions were incredibly destructive and unnecessary”. I “set the cause backward”. New Atheists believe that “religious faith should not be benignly tolerated”. The “New Atheists” are “nasty bullying”. They’re “shrill”. In last year’s voting for best science blog, I was the “devil’s choice”. Blogging brings out the “loud, angry, nasty, and profanity-spewing minority”. When he refers to Pharyngula, he refers to it as a “science” blog — in quotes. It’s the “most alienating” of the blogs.

    Sure, you can call it just “criticism”. But the peculiarity here is that the only people he targets are me particularly, and “New Atheists” in general. If you’re making an objective case for a genuine problem, just hammering on one example is peculiar. If I’m representative, you’d think he’d marshal lots of examples; if I’m an outlier, he’s building a case on an exception. Which is it?

    But the biggest problem here is the uselessness of the critique, that word I used before to summarize his whole book. He provides no solutions in chapter 8, other than a general complaint that the “New Atheists” are bad. What does he propose to do about Pharyngula? Shut it down? Others will take its place. He doesn’t seem capable of recognizing that it is popular because it fills a popular niche.

  2. Myers doesn’t grasp our point about Pluto! This is true. I don’t. I spelled out my complaints about this section in my previous review.

    Well, Chris and Sheril, what should the astronomers have done? Should they have had a binding referendum delivered to the public to get their say? Are there other scientific matters that should be decided by popular vote? (Let’s put the truth of evolutionary biology up for decision in a poll!) Should scientists take the time to explain with a little wit and humor and sound scientific reasoning why they made that decision? If so, they missed the boat: they should read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files for exactly that. How about some discussion about exactly why they think that failed?

    Those questions have been ignored. The Pluto section of the book is available online, go ahead and look. You won’t find them saying anything about what ought to be done in the future, or where the astronomers went wrong. Again, useless.

  3. Myers fails to say what the point of the whole book was! Exactly. What is it? I said the first chapter was symptomatic, and it was. Mooney and Kirshenbaum grumble about those insensitive scientists and those uppity atheists, but their proposals are either absent or so general as to be pointless, like…let’s give more media training to scientists! I agree that would be a good idea, but it’s not going to resolve any of the issues they are so bitter about.

    Do they really think that will address their complaints? I’ve had no media training at all. Imagine how nuts it would drive Mooney if I were slick and polished and skilled at using a variety of media, because it wouldn’t change my message at all!

  4. Richard Dawkins is no Carl Sagan! Nope, he’s different. Woo hoo. So? That’s just the thing: we are not going to clone Carl Sagan, or raise him as a zombie. What we’re going to have is a collection of voices: a Dawkins, an Attenborough, a Tyson, a Suzuki, a Miller, and many others, all with different tones, different emphases. My objection here is that instead of diversity, Mooney and Kirshenbaum appear to want only one voice, and it’s got to be one that is conciliatory and deferential to religion and the public opinion in general.

Once again, I am unimpressed — they seem to think that I am a significant problem here, which misses the point. They’re supposedly writing about an American problem of a lack of scientific literacy. If they think I’m the root (or perhaps, the flower, even) of the problem, you can tell that they’re going off on the wrong track already.

But most importantly, they don’t answer the questions about the substance of their book. What next? Where are the answers in their book? If they really want to dig into the substance of the solutions they provide, they should try answering Ophelia Benson’s questions. I predict he won’t even try; they’re much harder.

Ultimately, this whole exchange illustrates the failure of Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s arguments. The demotion of Pluto, the rise of the “New Atheism”, PZ Myers, and blogging are all recent phenomena — they do not deal with the causes of the disconnect between society and science, and treating them is a distraction from dealing with the real problems. This book is more like a collection of poor rationalizations for complaining about stuff they don’t like than a serious and scholarly attempt to address a significant social problem. To useless, I must also add the adjective lightweight.

(I do have to wonder if they are going to feel compelled to make a reply to my reply to their reply to my review. And how are they going to cope with other critical reviews that will be coming down the pipeline? This could get fun!)