28 July 2008

Of course there's a double standard!

Bilbo has become a regular commenter here, and he is a very welcome addition. He is a semi-regular contributor to the ID blog Telic Thoughts, and I've had the pleasure of meeting him in person. A layman who is willing to acknowledge his limited understanding of evolutionary science, he's thoughtful and direct.

I'll address his comments and questions regarding Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution in a separate post. Here I'll tackle his peevish accusation that I employ a double standard when I lambaste the punk Dembski but (allegedly) give a pass to the Atheist Ayatollah PZ Myers. The reference is to Crackergate, the brouhaha surrounding Myers' effort to desecrate a Roman Catholic communion wafer. (Greg Laden put together some good links, and the good folks at the Boar's Head Tavern are discussing the saga and its recent conclusion.)

First, it's not true that I haven't been critical of Myers' behavior. Over at Clashing Culture, where I blog on science and belief with three others, Mike (who also blogs at Tangled Up in Blue Guy) started a discussion of the then-unfolding dustup, focusing on the juxtaposition of Myers' offense with the death threats he subsequently received (one of which cost someone her job). The ensuing conversation was quite interesting, I thought, and included three comments by me. I didn't re-post them here, for various reasons, and I don't think it's necessary to do that (in full) now, especially since some of the references to other comments will be confusing. Instead, I'll just summarize with some excerpts.

On why PZ's "desecration" is not mere "criticism" or even "ridicule":
If PZ’s behavior is notable at all, it isn’t notable for being critical or dismissive of the beliefs of others. In fact, I would be opposed to an ethos that discouraged the critical appraisal of “beliefs” or that considered any kind of “desecration” to be somehow anti-social or hate-inspired. Some of the things I believe are nothing short of outrageous in the eyes of certain other kinds of believers. No, there’s nothing notable about attacking religious belief.

What would make PZ’s statements disturbing would be if it was apparent that he wasn’t aiming to attack or criticize ideas – or at least not solely intending such – but was plainly hoping to hurt people. [...] I’m afraid that I found PZ’s words to look too much like hate, too much like the kind of thing that is specifically and solely intended to cause harm. That the harm is not physical in nature is only relevant when comparing it to, say, a death threat...

It’s a fact that PZ’s denunciations occasionally veer into territory that is reasonably construed as hate speech, and his lusty participation in the Culture War (TM) necessarily leads him into questionable conduct. Truth, after all, is the first casualty of war, and Crackergate is incomprehensible outside the framework of Total Culture War.

On why mere unbelief can't justify desecration:

What’s worse, a death threat or a desecration threat? The answer is obvious, but the question is a lot more interesting than it appears, because (in this crowd, so far) the combination of transubstantiation and sanctification of mass-produced wafers is considered to be ludicrous. [...]

But let’s change the sacred cow, and see what happens. Let’s try a picture of Dr. King, or an account of his legacy, or a transcript of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and let’s do our desecration on his birthday, on the spot where he was assassinated. Or let’s try a Holocaust memorial, or a Jewish graveyard in Poland. Don’t worry: we’ll use water-based spraypaint for the swastikas so the desecration will be temporary. And of course no one will be injured. Can you think of anything else? I sure can.

On why, specifically, I thought PZ's stunt was reprehensible:
...my problem is with the occasional lapse into something more plainly destructive. PZ’s proposed desecration was not designed to “ridicule” an idea. It was meant to enrage, to hurt, to do damage. It wasn’t merciless criticism. It was hate. It wasn’t aimed at an idea. It was aimed at Catholics. People.

Now, for the record, I’m a Christian and I think transubstantiation is codswallop. I think it’s incorrect, and I could even explain why I think it might be a non-innocuous incorrect belief. If I had the time or inclination, I could write a lot of things about the Catholic eucharist that would be scandalous at best in the eyes of a good Catholic. If I was in a bad mood, I might ridicule the idea - I certainly don’t give it high regard.

None of those things, in my view, is even comparable to the stunt that PZ was discussing.

Mike, the vast majority of PZ’s brutal criticisms of religion are legit. They’re the kind of bare-knuckled roughing-up of ideas that I think is not just tolerable, but welcome. But every now and then, he steps in it. It’s one of the hazards of Culture War. The only way to win…is not to play.

So yes, Bilbo, I did condemn PZ's actions, and I was quite specific about why. I should add that PZ's recent post in which he announces the "desecration" (and shows the results) is worth reading. The desecration, in my opinion, was unnecessary and ultimately contemptible. But Myers' commentary is illuminating. As I've said before, the critiques and attacks of the New Atheists are good for the church.

But much more importantly, I assert that it doesn't matter whether I ever said boo about Crackergate. Because Bilbo, there is indeed a double standard, and the moral distinction I see between Pharyngula and Uncommon Descent is hard to exaggerate. (Not to mention the scientific difference: Myers has recently posted superb summaries of snake segmental development and evolution, and of epigenetics; UD just put up a hilarious pseudonymous post in which the writer extrapolates from a misattributed abstract about fruit fly gene formation to a calculation about how "man" could have "evolved from the monkey." Just posting the link is savage mockery.) Briefly:
  1. As DarwinCatholic has already noted, the bloggers at UD are largely (if not exclusively) Christian, and Dembski is a professor at a Baptist seminary. These folks aren't just Christians; they're public Christians and apologists. PZ Myers is an atheist. Does anyone need a list of proof texts for why I think Christians should be held to higher – much higher – moral standards than pagans?
  2. The sickest crap at UD isn't the usual dishonesty and shoddy pseudoscholarship. It's the religious propaganda, a toxic mix of normal everyday bullshit (about "Darwinism") and the pearls of our lives as Christians: scripture, our confessions, even the name of Jesus, the chief cornerstone. What's worse, I ask: Myers' desecration of a piece of matter that he reckons a mere cracker, or Bill Dembski's malicious use of Christ as a lame polemical device? I'm sure you already know where I stand.
Uncommon Descent is a moral cesspool, a festering intellectual ghetto that intoxicates and degrades its inhabitants. Kudos to you, Bilbo, for denouncing Dembski's idiotic post, but let's have no more talk of "double standards" when it comes to criticism of the ID movement's pervasive pathology. I'll see you at Telic Thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Good exposition on UD, and its relation to the crackergate affair. I followed the link to PaV's post at UD and the most disturbing element is this quote from a comment:

This objection reminds me of the claim that calculations cannot be made regarding the origin of life. Those making such a claim are simply trying to keep anyone from even attempting a calculation. They know that if such a calculation is attempted, their theory will appear ridiculous. Thus the spin that this area of science is beyond calculation. I guess that in these areas of science, only just-so stories are acceptable.

I followed the embedded link in the commnent to Ian Musgrave's "Lies, Damned Lies and Probabilities of Abiogenesis Calculations." It appears that the comment completely distorts the content and the theme of the article. Musgrave doesn't say that the calculations can't be done, it's that they have been done wrong. Horribly wrong, and from incorrect premises. And that is the problem with the entire post.

Dembski has to know the problems with the entry, yet he has failed to step in and correct it.

PZ was on my radio show this last Sunday, not talking about crackers but about Evo-Devo. Btw, he asked us to put up a link to one of your posts here How the Bat Got its Wing on our page for the radio show.

In my intro I talked about how creationists are desecrating science, and that the controversies in evolution are far more informative than creationists would the public think. By going back over data using bad math from poor premises they are masking the discoveries that are being made, especially in evo-devo.

The writers at UD are either incompetent in genetics or they are lying. Whatever one may say about PZ, you can't call him a liar.

Anonymous said...

I think what keeps PZ's actions on this side of hate is the just cause for his anger: the effects on real people of the events at UCF, which you don't mention in the quotations above (apologies if you've covered this elsewhere). If PZ had embarked on crackergate as a spontaneous act of provocation, it might qualify as hate; but to stand up and yell "It's only a cracker" when two students face suspension or expulsion purely because some claim that it's more than a cracker, an angry reaction is justified.

Your Holocaust memorial analogy doesn't work either. In that case the desecration is accompanied by a positive statement of an opposed (evil) value: the swastika. Myers mocked that approach by "desecrating" The God Delusion along with the host.

Bilbo said...

Thanks for posting your criticism of PZ at your blog, Steve. We pretty much agree, regarding the double standard: Yes, Christians should be held to a higher standard. However, I think there is a base standard that all human beings should be held to, regardless of their religious beliefs, and PZ has sunk below it.

Now I'll probably sound a bit pesky by asking this, but have you posted this at PZ's own blog?

John Farrell said...

Two other posts that PZ wrote that I always appreciated: one was his takedown (last year) of James Cameron's hyped Jesus Tomb 'documentary'. It was hilarious. He also wrote some months before that a very poignant and blunt denunciation of eugenics, purely from the view of a working scientist. So I think Steve's point is well taken.

(sorry I'm not linking directly, but they're easy to find if you search on his blog).

I'm not dropping PZ from my bloglines subscription; he's worth checking out every day. I just skip when he starts ranting about non-science issues.

BTW, Steve, for an interesting take on the codswollop of transubstantiation, I recommend Herbert McCabe's piece here.

For what it's worth.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I am a Calvin alum (computer science '03).

PZ’s proposed desecration was not designed to “ridicule” an idea. It was meant to enrage, to hurt, to do damage. It wasn’t merciless criticism. It was hate. It wasn’t aimed at an idea. It was aimed at Catholics. People. [...] The desecration, in my opinion, was unnecessary and ultimately contemptible.

Nonsense. The desecration was a statement of solidarity with the Florida student and a protest against the idiotic Catholic worldview in which failing to eat a cracker at the appropriate time is worse than any actual harm which could befall an actual human.

I don't deny that Catholics felt directly hurt, as people, by PZ's announcement and subsequent actions, but that doesn't mean that he was specifically targeting people. The doctrine of "the host" is batshit insane, and if criticizing it is interpreted as hate speech, that's all the more reason to protest the associated worldview.

Darwin said...


Though unquestionably some Catholics behaved very badly in response to the actions of the UCF student, the student's actions are pretty clearly not without blame. It's pretty well known (and generally published on the back of the misallette available in all the pews) that only current Catholics in good standing are considered able to receive the Eucharist, and that it is to be consumed immediately. When the ushers at the mass initially approached the student about this, he showed he clearly understood that by pretending to consume (but then later removing from his mouth) the host. Hard as it may be for non-Catholics to believe, the student's subsequent actions were roughly as respectful of Catholic beliefs as it would have been for him to go to a Mosque and start reading from Ruschdie's Satanic Verses in the middle of prayers.

Now PZ would most certainly be within the bounds of acceptable discourse if he had lambasted, even in the most over-the-top and profanity-riddle possible fashion, the Catholic response to the this event. However, his actively encouraging people to steal hosts from Catholic masses for him, and then his public desecration of one on the web, showed about the respect for his fellow human beings as if he had gone to Synagogue and then gone up and urinated on the Torah.

As others have pointed out, he's at times entirely rational as a scientist, and even humane about certain public moral issues -- but unfortunately his utter disdain for theism seems to lead him to the idea that actively seeking to assault the sensibilities of theists is socially acceptable. And to my mind, that level of rudeness never is.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an evangelical Christian and I find your criticism of UD/Dembski to be exceedingly harsh.
Quoting Matheson “Uncommon Descent is a moral cesspool, a festering intellectual ghetto that intoxicates and degrades its inhabitants.”
If the church has something to learn from the criticisms of the new atheists then perhaps evolutionary science has something to learn from the criticisms of the Idists.
Quoting Matheson “As I've said before, the critiques and attacks of the New Atheists are good for the church.”
Why would you consider the one good but not the other? I do not know any of the individuals who comment at UD personally and am not impressed by the politics of the ID movement but I still think we need to hear the underlying dissent there because it represents the questions and viewpoints of real people. I do think the science=atheism assumption is pervasive in the science blog world. I find myself becoming more skeptical of everything and everyone. Everyone has an agenda. Sometimes I hope that in the final analysis the way that the natural world came to be is not the way that any theory predicts and that everyone is wrong. God would have the last laugh.

John Farrell said...

Anon, one reason that I and Steve and alot of Christians don't take the UD people seriously, is that it has been shown in detail over the past decade that they are not honest in their arguments.

The shame of this is--as St. Augustine so well said 1600 years ago--that when Christians talk nonsense about science, they expose the faith to ridicule. Enter PZ Myers and Co., and I don't blame him.

William Dembski is not a scientist. He clearly rejects not just evolution but the entire methodology of science, in spite of the fact that this methodology was heartily approved of in the medieval universitites, i.e., when studying the natural order, it's reasonable to look for natural causes--not supernatural ones.

Dembski and co (not Michael Behe necessarily) rejects this outright.

Anonymous said...

To John Farrell. Christians have always faced ridicule in this world and always will, it doesn’t matter what UD says or does, that will not change. If UD went away tomorrow PZ would still rant about religion. No one is without fault in the culture war but where are the peacemakers? Is there no one who can interact with the other perceived camp without throwing stones?

John Farrell said...

That doesn't excuse some Christians for being morons.

As has been said before, we are held to a higher standard.

When Mark Perahk wrote a good critique of Dembski's Specified Complexity on Talk Reason, avowed Christian Dembski responded by ridiculing his Russian background. He never addressed Perahk's substantive points.

You tell me who's throwing stones.

Bill Hamilton said...

Steve, you peg Myers exactly right when you point out that his "demonstration" is intended to insult Catholics rather than make any legitimate criticism. As a Reformed Christian I can't for the life of me understand where the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation comes from or how it is justified. But to mock it and show disrespect for it shuts off communication with Catholics -- exactly the opposite of a university professor's job.

John Farrell said...

Well said. Actually, transubstantiation isn't really a doctrine, meaning something RCs have to believe. McCabe's article, which I mention above, points out that the Council thought of it as a good way to grasp the Real Presence (at the time). Needless to say, since we aren't Aristotelians anymore, it isn't....