Ivory Tower vs PZ Myers

As almost perfect examples of the Ivory Tower Atheism, that I outlined the other day in regards to another thoughtless rant in The Peak, we have Michael De Dora, the executive director of CFI:NY, defending creationists in biology classes, and then philosopher (and kick-ass debater for the UAAA) Massimo Pigliucci stating that tone and respect are trump-cards when dealing with religious claims as opposed to confronting them every once in a while. We also have Phil Plait asking skeptics to step aside be diplomatic. In response to these posts, we have PZ Myers using every bit of rehtoric he can to defend the so-called New Atheist approach (i.e. the rude one).

So, separated by argument thread and then in chronological order, here’s the debate so far (if you have some time, it’s worth the read):

Biology textbook calls creationism a biblical myth

  1. PZ Myers: Tennessee twit gets brief moment in the limelight of Fox
  2. Michael De Dora: Should Biology Textbooks Include “Biblical Myth” Language?
  3. PZ Myers: Witless wanker peddles pablum for CFI
  4. Ron Lindsay: CFI: Home to Both Atheist Fundamentalists and Religion-Loving Wankers?
  5. Massimo Pigliucci: PZ Myers is a witless wanker who peddles pablum
  6. PZ Myers: I shall be no friend to the appeasers
  7. PZ Myers: I support philosophy; I criticize philosophy

On whether the pope should be arrested

  1. Phil Plait: The Pope, the Church, and skepticism
  2. PZ Myers: As long as I’m criticizing my allies…

Now I don’t think that either of these arguments are over, and there will always be those in either the “warrior” or “diplomat” class, but it’s worth noting a few things.

First, PZ Myers acknowledges that both will always be needed. No movement that seeks change exists solely of conservative elements, there have to revolutionary and reactionary types. There is no one tactic that will change the world. Environmentalists need Greenpeace for stupid publicity stunts but they also need green economy business-types who invest in tomorrow’s technology. Without the former there would be less awareness of the issues, while without the latter there would be no change.

Next, I wonder to what extent postmodern philosophy has harmed science education in the USA and worldwide. Specifically I mean the sort of ideas that Pigliucci and De Dora talk about epistemological boundaries which prevent teachers from actually teaching. Do we expect students to understand the scientific method if they are continually told we don’t really know anything for sure and that everything we know (scientific or otherwise) is based off the circular logic inherent in inductive reasoning?

Nevertheless, the dispute will continue, and the mudslinging has either only just begun or eventually one side will give up and ignore the other (my money is on PZ never ceasing to respond to his critics).

Update: Adjusted wording.

8 thoughts on “Ivory Tower vs PZ Myers”

  1. I think PZ missed the point of Phil Plait’s argument. How I took it is that the “reasonable” catholics will be much more effective at leading the charge to change the church than the skeptics would. Not that the skeptics shouldn’t be involved. He didn’t go out and say it, but the logical extension to his post would be that, if there is a big movement in the catholic church to do something to right this and bring people to justice, the skeptical movement should support this, but let them lead the way. If they do nothing, then we should, but that since it is much more likely that catholics would listen to other catholics than the skeptics, if they want to do something, they will probably be more effective, and thus should do it. The ultimate goal is for justice, and change to the church so this doesn’t happen again, so the path most likely for success should be followed.

    That’s my take on it, and I think its perfectly reasonable!

  2. Pigliucci seems to be assuming that Myers is trying to engage in an intellectual dispute. He’s clearly not. (And, really, Jerry Fodor and Jaegwon Kim, to pick two, are infamous for some incredibly nasty personal attacks during intellectual conversations.) Pigliucci also assumes that ad hominem is always fallacious. It isn’t. (Someone in the comments nails him to the wall on that point, pointing that, in his terms, there’s a “fallacious” argument in the Apology.) I really have no idea what point Pigliucci thinks he’s making, except expressing some sort of weird prissiness.

    That said, there’s nothing postmodern about acknowledging the limits of human knowledge. It’s a modern claim — you can find it in Kant, for example (wherein we can’t know God exists or doesn’t exist, for God is not a possible object of experience). Furthermore, the problems with induction are identified by moderns, classically by Hume. The postmodern move is to deny the possibility of any epistemic privilege — to overgeneralize from the failure of the grandest projects of the early moderns (Hobbes and Descartes come to mind) to a kind of epistemological pessimism, or even nihilism.

    The funny things about postmodern philosophy are that, one, most of it isn’t done in philosophy departments (it’s more common in departments that end in “Studies” or English departments) and, two, it’s inspired by people (such as Hegel and Heidegger) who would find most of its claims shocking, if not offensive.

    I don’t want to be too parochial regarding the first point, BTW. Philosophy departments don’t have the patent on philosophy, no more than science faculties do on science. But when an entire set of theories are systematically, for the most part, weeded out of the traditional disciplinary sphere, that has to mean something.

    1. Right on all accounts.

      On ad hominens specifically I was thinking when I read that that Pigliucci got his definitions a bit mixed. An argument of De Dora is wrong because he’s a wanker is fallacious while saying he’s a wanker because his arguments are wrong is just an opinion.

      And yes, I was sloppy in my use of postmodern. I was more imagining the postmodern application of philosophy – where you have relativists abusing some basic philosophical ideas.

      1. Thinking about it, even “De Dora’s wrong because he’s a wanker” isn’t necessarily fallacious; it’s only fallacious if being a wanker is irrelevant to whether or not he’s right.

        Okay, that would be very unlikely, unless we were to read “wanker” literally, and were dealing with some sort of onanistic issue. (Pun intentional.) It works with “liar”, though, as being a liar often is relevant to whether or not someone is likely to be saying things that are true. Same with “troll”, in internet contexts. Some philosophers get a bit hung up on the fact of abuse, ignoring that sometimes abuse is (morally and epistemically) deserved.

        I think you may still be being a tish loose with postmodernism. Relativism isn’t a postmodern idea. Epistemic relativism is Protagoras, after all, and ethical relativism can be found possibly in Hume. The pragmatists are also somewhat relativistic, and I think they’ve taught us some very useful things. It’s more the deconstructivism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and all that business that’s problematic. (And even those may work, in limited scopes; it’s when they go global that, I think, they really lead us seriously astray.)

  3. Um. I asked skeptics to “step aside”? How the heck did you parse that from what I wrote?

    I never said that. I said that there are two issues, one that involves everyone (the crimes) and one that involves skeptics (the supernatural motives). In fact, in several places in my post I say that skeptics need to step in and tackle this issue.

  4. Well, except that I most certainly do *not* practice postmodern philosophy, and that my main point was that PZ has lowered the level of discourse to an unacceptable level by simply hurling insults. That’s neither good science nor good philosophy, seems to me.

    1. That was my first point. I don’t think Myers is trying to engage in an intellectual debate, so how is his failure to do good science or good philosophy even relevant? It’s like castigating Sidney Crosby for his inability to score touchdowns.

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