Does Chris Mooney Even Know What Is In ‘Unscientific America’?

For the past few days, PZ Myers and Chris Mooney have been going at it on their respective blogs over Mooney’s new book Unscientific America. I haven’t read Mooney’s book, but apparently it includes a chapter that is uncharitable toward Myers and other so-called “New Atheists.” Myers argues that Mooney’s book is “useless”, while Mooney has decried Myers’ alleged distortions of his claims in Unscientific America.

So far the debate has been marked by Myers raising substantive objections to Unscientific America followed by Mooney either changing the subject or urging interested parties to go read the book. However, there was a telling exchange between Myers and Mooney over at Daily Kos which cast Mooney in an extremely unfavorable light.

In the comments section of a review of UA, a commenter accuses Mooney of distorting the views of Richard Dawkins. The commenter quotes Myers’ critique of UA,

Following this, he proceeds to damn the “New Atheists” for “collapsing the distinction” between methodological and philosophical naturalism, and argues that Dawkins is taking a philosophical position and misusing science to claim it “entirely precludes God’s existence.”

This would be a misrepresentation of Dawkins’ views. Dawkins has written that he thinks the existence of God is a scientific question, and while Dawkins thinks the existence of God is highly improbable, absolute certainty on the question is impossible. Not to worry, though, Mooney replies that this is just another one of those distortions of UA from Myers,

we use that phrase

although it is not attributed to dawkins.

i’ve read dawkins book in some detail, and our objection is to his making god’s existence a scientific question. i realize he does not ascribe full certainty to his atheistic conclusion–but he claims he can reason scientifically about god’s existence. we’re saying that a lot of theologians, philosophers, etc, would say that’s a category error.

i really have to ask that you read our book, rather than its misrepresentation in skewed reviews.

by Chris Mooney on Sun July 12, 2009 at 07:05:48 AM PDT

Well that sucks — you’d hope Myers and the New Atheists wouldn’t go around distorting Mooney’s views. Except, well, they’re not as Myers notes in reply to Mooney,

Yes, you did (13+ / 0-)

Tsk, tsk, Chris. Here’s the quote in context.

But much like the anti-evolutionists do, the New Atheists often seek to collapse the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. In The God Delusion, for instance, Richard Dawkins makes the dubious claim that the existence of God is, as he puts it, “unequivocally a scientific question.” Quite a lot of philosophers — and scientists — would disagree. It is one thing to say that scientific norms and practices preclude ascribing any explanatory force to God in, say, the movement of atoms, or the function of DNA. It’s quite another to say they entirely preclude God’s existence. In rejecting God or any other supernatural entity, Dawkins is taking a philosophical position.

You unequivocally assign that view to Dawkins. He’s the only person you mention, twice, in that paragraph, and you are using him as your sole example of the attitude you are trying to illustrate.

Your comment is remarkable in that not only do you claim it is others that are misrepresenting your views, but right here you are misrepresenting what you actually said. My paragraph is a very accurate summation of what you wrote.

by pzmyers on Sun July 12, 2009 at 11:15:05 AM PDT

Mooney then concedes the point,

PZ,
I’ve looked at the passage again (should have been a lot more careful before), and you are right–and I made an error. It does clearly ascribe this view to Dawkins.

Now that I’ve read your criticism on your blog, I think “entirely preclude” states too strongly Dawkins’ position, and we should have been more nuanced here. However he does still try to claim that God’s existence is a scientific question.

Thanks for catching this.

by ChrisMooney on Sun July 12, 2009 at 01:35:59 PM PDT

Wow. What a dunderhead.

And leaving aside Mooney’s confusion about his own damn book, for a book about scientific illiteracy to suggest that part of the solution is to simply wall off this or that particular problem as beyond scientific investigation is insane.

Post Revisions:

22 thoughts on “Does Chris Mooney Even Know What Is In ‘Unscientific America’?”

  1. What a joke. Mooney as a child: “It is one thing to say that scientific norms and practices preclude ascribing any explanatory force to Santa Claus in, say, the givinig of gifts, or the migratory patterns of reindeer. It’s quite another to say they entirely preclude Santa’s existence. In rejecting Santa or any other supernatural entity, Dawkins is taking a philosophical position.”

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  2. “So far the debate has been marked by years raising substantive objections….”

    Doesn’t make sense unless you replace “years” with “Myers”.

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  3. Thanks for catching this.

    Now, all he’s got to do is acknowledge the rest of the “catches”. 🙂

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  4. Wow. What an absurdly silly debate. It highlights the severe egotism that is often involved in online discussions. This is evident in the juvenile cursing, and strawman arguments that are being employed by people who should know better.

    What strikes me, is this bizarre creation of an Atheist hierarchy, where the most dogmatic Atheists feel it is worth their time to create labels for those who they perceive as being the “softer” members of the group. Sometimes they even feel inclined to wear silly, cult-like adornments for the purpose of social-proofing within the clique.

    I have experienced much of the same behavior while visiting Libertarian forums. In fact, these “New Atheists” seem to love manipulating reason by heckling anyone who attempts to provide nuance. You see this in many “New Atheists” with the creation of titles meant to diminish any “soft” sentiment outright. This mentality is a template for other online echo chambers as well, such as some Libertarian forums.

    I knew very little about this “New Atheist” sub culture that is said to have risen. However, after reviewing the discussions, it all makes a bit more sense now. It’s just more online punditry that has gradually become the norm across the Internet since its inception. He who shouts the loudest wins the argument. I’ve yet to find a topic that seems immune to this effect.

    Whatever the cause, they need to grow up. It’s embarrassing.

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  5. “Now, all he’s got to do is acknowledge the rest of the “catches”.”

    Or you could simply provide a meaningful response to the subject matter that is clearly laid out, instead of playing “I Spy” with his typos.

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  6. Did Mooney even write it, perhaps he got his former bf Nisbet to ghost write it for him.

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  7. “god” said: “What strikes me, is this bizarre creation of an Atheist hierarchy, where the most dogmatic Atheists feel it is worth their time to create labels for those who they perceive as being the “softer” members of the group.”

    Then “god” said: ” In fact, these “New Atheists” seem to love manipulating reason by heckling anyone who attempts to provide nuance. You see this in many “New Atheists” with the creation of titles meant to diminish any “soft” sentiment outright.”

    Dear “god,” who do you think it was who created this term “New Atheists”? Here’s some nuance for you, it wasn’t them (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Myers) it was “people” like you who wish to dismiss what they say because of the very inconvenient cognitive dissonance it roils to the surface of your mind.

    Ever heard of Madalyn Murray O’Hair? She gave no quarter to religious insanity.

    Ever heard of Emma Goldman? “No Gods, No Masters.”

    There is nothing new about the “New Atheists” as they themselves have said many times, over and over again…so who is it who is creating these new titles?

    I apologize for “manipulating reason” to your disgrace but what better fate for despicable deities anyway?

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  8. I appreciate everyone who pointed out the typos. I wrote this at the end of a long day and didn’t realize PZ himself would end up linking to it.

    @God wrote: “What an absurdly silly debate. It highlights the severe egotism that is often involved in online discussions. This is evident in the juvenile cursing, and strawman arguments that are being employed by people who should know better.”

    Yes, Chris Mooney has created an absurd strawman in claiming that the “New Atheists” are an obstacle to achieving scientific literacy in this country. As Myers has pointed out, what little evidence (rather than anecdotes) is provided in Unscientific America doesn’t even support this hypothesis.

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  9. “Dear “god,” who do you think it was who created this term “New Atheists”? Here’s some nuance for you, it wasn’t them (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Myers) it was “people” like you who wish to dismiss what they say because of the very inconvenient cognitive dissonance it roils to the surface of your mind.”

    I don’ t care who created the term “New Atheist.” I see this irrelevant argument cast again, and again. I’m employing the terminology that has been used within the discussion, which is why I placed quotations around the term. Personally, I find “Assholes” to be a more fitting description, but tastes vary. What I have witnessed myself is a group of rabid role playing atheists, and a Biology teacher who should be ashamed of the way that he has conducted himself online. It’s cartoonish.

    I won’t be buying the book, and I certainly won’t be returning to Myers’ website.

    “There is nothing new about the “New Atheists” as they themselves have said many times, over and over again…so who is it who is creating these new titles?”

    You’ re right, there’s nothing new. These “cults of reason” groups have been around since ancient times. There are different ways to engage in the discussion. Some are more productive than others.

    “I apologize for “manipulating reason” to your disgrace but what better fate for despicable deities anyway?”

    Is this where you try to convince me that I’m a “deist.”

    Either way, get over yourself.

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  10. collapsing the distinction” between methodological and philosophical naturalism

    Well, isn’t that at the same time a revelation of the accommodationist theme and a complete mis-characterization of the issue.

    It is a revelation, because to the best of my knowledge these concepts were founded by religious apologists.

    And it is a mis-characterization, because they doesn’t describe science well in general (surprise, surprise), and the position of a “naturalist” (here: atheist on empirical grounds) as Dawkins especially. Stenger who himself flirts with on empiricism non-applicable philosophical ideas never the less clarifies all this BS eminently.

    Yes, as “methodological naturalism” alludes to science is a method which itself is tested on its usefulness. But it is based on observation. That is, as we find that material systems are those who react on action, so we can if need be discern between them and non-material (say, supernatural) systems.

    Moreover we find a posteriori that to keep science useful we have to base our theories on the observed subset of material systems. As we can still study non-material propositions (prayer studies is a swell example) “methodological naturalism” is a description of the methods image codomain where its explanations can be found. But not, as apologists and accommodationists want to claim, a description of its source domain where its objects of study can be found. Its an incomplete description, on purpose.

    Moving on to “philosophical naturalism” it is incorporated in the study of the methods domain. Just as we can found, and falsifiably test, such hypotheses that there are material systems or that science methods works by using them, we can found and falsifiably test if all domain systems are material. I.e. we can study the question if we can find natural theories describing them, or if they are insufficient. (Again, prayer studies is an excellent example.)

    And lo and behold, that is what we can find beyond reasonable doubt. Using a binomial test we find that we need to have a mere 3000 successful tests of science theory prediction for 3 sigma confidence, which is a few weeks production these days. Or to disregard the nature of the tests and use max error safeguard we need 250 000 tests, which I get to 10 years world wide research publication if every 10th paper has an actual test.

    Dawkins is correct, the likelihood that supernatural phenomena exists are small indeed, and refuted by science. But in a philosophical view “certainty beyond reasonable doubt” is still a probability, an uncertainty at heart. Nothing can “entirely preclude” that gravitation doesn’t exist but is, say, an unfortunate series of quantum fluctuations masquerading as a force.

    But to apply philosophy in general, and theology especially, on working empirical methods is a category error and a matter of unreasonable faith.

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  11. Either way, get over yourself.

    Now that is funny, when someone who argues emotionally (“rabid role playing”) says that.

    I’m sorry, but I can’t find any more substance here than the usual accommodationist ‘argument’ of “shut up, we don’t want to hear you”. Even if there was any facts propping up the absurd notions of an “Atheist hiearchy” [why the large font?], generally “dogmatic” atheists, or a lot of labeling of others it would be no worse than the garden variety religious community. And the notion that “a Biology teacher” [again with the large font?] should be ashamed for standing up against death threats against a student as Mooney and et al suggested is revolting.

    But of course there are plenty of evidence that atheists are still starting to get organized at large. And one reason for this is summed up in the often used description “it is hard to herd cats”, i.e. atheists are an non-hierarchical bunch. That is compounded by them being undogmatic in general (and especially often rely on testable but changeable empiricism). There is a lot of labeling going on indeed, but it is self-labeling as I don’t know of any atheist which is entirely satisfied with others labels or definitions – there is too much variety and philosophical notions trying to shoehorn that mess into categories.

    As for the “accommodationist” label it is separate from the atheism issue, being a political matter.

    [True, I personally don’t like agnosticism, more specifically philosophical agnosticism, and I often say so by way of “labeling”. But that is because the latter is a dogmatic faith claim, a religious statement of the Church of Philosophy/Theology (“science and religion doesn’t conflict”, “science can’t say anything on supernaturalism”, “category error”), falsely masquerading as an _empirical_ atheist position. Pet peeves are different from “labeling”. :-/]

    These “cults of reason” groups have been around since ancient times.

    Oh, get over it. This isn’t ancient times anymore. Science is here now, and it is here to stay – it _works_. And by that token you can’t call people using empirical reason and its results cultists, they are very aware that there are uncertainty and change.

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  12. “And by that token you can’t call people using empirical reason and its results cultists, they are very aware that there are uncertainty and change.”

    Wonderful, now if only you could only grasp the human aspect of the discussion.

    It’s unfortunate that you’re mostly incredulous about mine, and others impressions of your group. Feel free to spread the word about Enlightenment 2000, brought to you by Darwin’s new disciples.

    I can assure that the effects will be minimal.

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  13. “the human aspect of the discussion.”

    Facts _is_ the human aspect of any discussion. Emotions is the animal aspect, they don’t know any better.

    “Darwin’s new disciples.”

    Nothing here concerns biology specifically. Also, Darwin is no more relevant to modern biology than Newton is to physics.

    What this reveals is that you know nothing about either science or atheism. You shouldn’t discuss either before you study up on the basics. And you accuse others of being “cartoonish”? LOL.

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  14. John Morales: “Now, all he’s got to do is acknowledge the rest of the “catches”.”
    Son of God: “Or you could simply provide a meaningful response to the subject matter that is clearly laid out, instead of playing “I Spy” with his typos.”

    SoG, Morales was quoting Mooney on the ‘catches’, not Brian Carnell. Therefore ‘the rest of the catches’ is about Mooney’s factual errors, not Carnell’s typos, or indeed anyone else’s typos.

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  15. I apologize. I thought John was quoting, and responding to Brian. I had been following the discussion on two different sites. Unfortunately, the discussion’s reputation preceded it. I forgave him, so he can forgive me.

    Anyway, does anyone know if there has been any new converts, or children rescued from child abuse by this heroic breed of Atheists since the whole affair began? I hope so. It would be a shame if this entire controversy was wasted on some juvenile sense of revenge.

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  16. You could try looking on ‘Converts Corner’ on Dawkins’ site – I believe there are plenty of stories there. There have been millions of these ‘new atheist’ books sold, I doubt they were all ‘preaching to the converted’. Not sure where revenge comes into it. All the revelations since their publication – about kids abused in Catholic schools in Ireland for example – have only backed up their points, as far as I’m concerned.

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  17. “So far the debate has been marked by years raising substantive objections….”
    Doesn’t make sense unless you replace “years” with “Myers”.

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