About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

PZ Myers is a witless wanker who peddles pablum

No, not really, but I got your attention, yes? On the other hand, these are precisely the words used by PZ in a recent post, aimed at criticizing Michael De Dora’s observations about a recent debate in Knoxville, TN on the wording of a biology textbook.
Let me start with a full disclosure: Michael is a friend, and of course one of the contributors to this blog. But this post has little to do with that, it deals with the substance and the tone of PZ’s remarks, both of which are highly relevant to the quality of discourse within the atheist community (currently, pretty low), something I deeply care about.
First the form. PZ’s post reads like it was written by an intemperate teenager in the midst of a hormonal rage. Among other things, he calls De Dora “witless,” “wanker,” “wishy-washy,” and “sloppy-thinking”; he accuses Michael of engaging in “cowardly intellectual dishonesty” and of using a “quisling” approach. So that we are crystal clear on just how low these ad hominem (a logical fallacy!) attacks go, let me refresh your memory about the dictionary definitions of some of these terms:
Quisling = a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country;
Wanker = a person who masturbates (used as a term of abuse);
Wishy-washy = feeble or insipid in quality or character, lacking strength or boldness;
Witless = foolish, stupid, to such an extent that one cannot think clearly or rationally.
If PZ thinks that this sort of language belongs within any thoughtful writing about rational discourse, he really needs to look up the dictionary definitions of rational, thoughtful and discourse. Then again, it is precisely this sort of theatrics that apparently makes him so popular, as nothing gets people’s attention on the internet so much as shouting as LOUDLY as possible, regardless of the vacuity of what one is actually saying.
And speaking of content, what was so witless, wanky, wishy-washy, and witless about De Dora’s post? Oh, he dared question (very politely, and based on argument) one of the dogmas of the new atheism: that religious people (that’s about 90% of humanity, folks) ought (and I use the term in the moral sense) to be frontally assaulted and ridiculed at all costs, because after all, this is a war, and the goal is to vanquish the enemy, reason and principles be damned. Michael had simply noted that the recent controversy in Tennessee was a bit less clear cut than usual: while of course creationism doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and of course biology textbooks should teach evolution without apologies, De Dora also noted that using the word “myth” when the book refers to the biblical story of creation was an uncalled for breach of the principle of separation of Church and State (if invoked in the context of a biology class in a public school). Therefore, on that narrow technical ground, and on that ground only, the creationist who complained had, in fact, a point.
Contrary to PZ’s invective, acknowledging this point is in no way a cowardly act of intellectual dishonesty. On the contrary, it is a paragon of intellectual honesty because one is able to maintain the nuance that is necessary in distinguishing positive science education from gratuitous religion bashing. (And please, do note that I’ve got plenty of credentials in the department of religion bashing, but I try to do it in what I consider the appropriate manner and context.)
In yet another example of his sledge-hammer approach to discourse, PZ states that De Dora’s contributions in several recent writings have been “notable only for their fuzziness and willingness to accommodate any nonsense from religious BS artists.” If by fuzziness one means subtle reasoning, well PZ can certainly not be accused of that. But nothing I have seen written by Michael in any way “accommodates” religious nonsense, on the contrary, he is very clear in his rejection of religion in general and creationism in particular. It is the principle of Church-State separation that is at issue, as well as the ethics of insulting people’s beliefs for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points with one’s own converts.
The other point that Michael raised, and that PZ loathes, is the one about the epistemological boundaries of science. I have written on this recently, so I will not revisit the issue except to add two quick points: first off, I really wish that scientists who write about philosophy would bother to take epistemology 101, that way they would avoid embarrassing themselves with naive statements about the proper domain of scientific inquiry. Second, surely we can agree that the epistemology of science is an area where we can have a reasonable exchange without having to resort to labeling our interlocutors witless, wankers and the like, yes?
Here is another example of how PZ gets it horribly wrong:
“Somebody says the universe appeared magically a few thousand years ago, I guess that has to be a valid answer on the test question, ‘How old is the universe?’. To actually state that it is about 14 billion years old, and make such an answer a necessary part of the student's grade...why, that is philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class.”
Wow, I counted at least four gross mistakes in just this one paragraph, a pretty high rate for a self-appointed defender of evidence-based rationality: 1) in the course of this discussion De Dora never said or implied that young-earth creationism is a valid answer to a test question; 2) he has also never argued that a student who gave that answer instead of the scientifically grounded one should somehow get a pass; 3) Michael has never said that this is a philosophical or theological issue (PZ is referring to a different statement by De Dora, about the epistemological boundaries of science, see comment above, but that statement cannot reasonably be construed in the way PZ unreasonably construes it); and 4) of course these issues should be discussed in a science class (here I do disagree with Michael), but no discussion is helped in the least by referring to what half of your students deeply believe as “myth.”
PZ finally goes on to criticize the Center for Inquiry itself, the organization for which De Dora works, as being guilty of giving a soapbox to a “milquetoast marshmallow” and of standing for the Church of Fatuous Incompetence. Which, as CFI’s Ron Lindsay drily observes, is a bit ironic: “I find it remarkable that in the space of a few months, CFI is alleged to have been taken over by ‘atheist fundamentalists’ and then by those who are wishy-washy about religion. Was there a coup and then a counter-coup of which I was unaware? Both aspersions, of course, lack empirical support, and it is regrettable to see them being made by two learned individuals, Paul Kurtz and PZ Myers, who claim to base their beliefs on evidence.”
And that is precisely why I bothered to write this post. It isn’t a matter of defending a friend, who is perfectly capable of doing so himself. Or to attack PZ personally — I never met the guy, and I occasionally enjoy his antics. But this to me represents the latest example of an escalation (downwards in quality) in the tone and substance of the discourse on atheism, and I blame this broadly on the rhetoric of the new atheism (the only “new” aspect of which is precisely the in-your-face approach to “reason”). With few exceptions (mostly, Dennett), what we have seen in recent years is much foaming at the mouth, accompanied by a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of one’s arguments. And now we have seen a new low consisting of childish insults to a fellow atheist and writer who is clearly fighting the same battle as the rest of us.
I am often told by my non-activist friends (pretty much all of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves) that the problem with the new atheism is that it looks a lot like the mirror image of the sort of fundamentalist rage that we all so justly abhor. I always shrugged at this accusation as being overblown and missing the point, after all we — unlike them — are on the side of reason and true human compassion. Now I’m not so sure.

116 comments:

  1. So you seem not open to call a myth a myth because a portion of the majority of the population could find it somehow disturbing. Oh, very well.

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  2. I have long defended the more brash atheists in our midst as people willing to occupy the needed fringe of our movement. Sure, they use tactics I don't like, but some people will only respond to that. It takes all kinds.

    So while I'm gratified that the bulk of the Skeptical movement is occupied by more temperate and tactful voices, I have been OK with PZ and his ilk rudely annoying the religious in ways I wouldn't want to do myself (at least in public).

    But once that kind of vitriol gets sent back in our direction, I wonder how wise that position actually is.

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  3. This debate about "tone" vis-a-vis religion is very complicated, to be sure.

    First, I think it is necessary to acknowledge that, whatever the faults of the new atheists, it is pretty much down to them that the public is talking about these issues now. They have created a space where anybody gives a damn what moderate skeptics think.

    The main people I'm very concerned about when it comes to tone are Myers and Hitchens, not Dawkins (who is pretty mild despite what people say). What Myers and Hitchens make clear is that it is possible to be an atheist for the wrong reasons, and in both their cases the reasons are palpably political.

    What also disturbs me, especially about Myers, is that he appears to be stuck on atheism *as a free-standing worldview.* I have never heard him mouth a word about philosophical, ethical or even scientific questions, except insofar as it relates to how terrible and stupid religion is. This is a perfect example of what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls an affective death spiral, where suddenly an idea becomes *the* idea and every issue is primarily about those damned fundies.

    Having said that, I'm still not on board with "accomodationalism." It seems to me that our credibility as skeptics rests on whether we are willing to accrue any costs for our skepticism. For example, the crop circle community needs to be opposed, but they are basically powerless. They make a very easy, very cheap target. Religious claims are just as ridiculous as theirs, but also common in the population. Opposing them might lose you a friend, might even "hurt the cause." So - are we going to do it or not? I think to go easy on religious beliefs is basically ethically indefensible. It's a naked bowing down to power.

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  4. Wow. You, Massimo, are remarkable. I've never knew somebody who could set aside his harsh emotions and attack an argument from the side of reason. Kudos to you!

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  5. Two points: I take PZ Myers insulting language as tongue-in-cheek rhetoric. Calling it 'a logical fallacy' is silly. He actually describes what he doesn't like about De Dora's post. He does not argue that 'because De Dora is a witless wanker he is wrong." That is he is not substituting insult for argument - he is pilling it on for effect. The insults he uses are silly - and the fact that you felt the need to define them goes some way to demonstrate that.

    Point two: The original meaning of Myth means creation/origin story. The reason that myth has a separate definition of a belief that is false is because experience has taught us that creation stories are not true.

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  6. I have to admit that I agree with De Dora's point on the importance of language. While I personally think such things are indeed myth, I believe I would be hypocritical to rant about separations on one hand while employing the same tactics we so abhor from the creationists. Sticking to the facts is the moral high ground in my opinion. If science texts are not the place to interject religious arguments about evolution, then neither are they the place to make value judgments about religion.

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  7. Massimo, both this article and most of P.Z.'s blog is pathetic.

    Pathos is a valid rhetorical technique, and one can't rely solely upon logic to convince an audience; the "new atheists" either realized this explicitly or inadvertently filled that missing niche. For far too long, the theist/creationist side have been alone in using all the available tools of rhetoric. I'm glad that the balance has been restored, even if the occasional philosopher has his feathers ruffled.

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  8. Well, it is a myth, so why not call it a myth? There are much harsher words that would also be appropriate but were avoided. And how would you teach that the universe is to the best of our knowledge 18 billion years old without saying that the 6000 years figure is to the best of our knowledge wrong? The first kind of implies the second, to say the least. So practically, I find de Dora's position as far as I have read about it incoherent (which does not mean that he has deserved these invectives, of course).

    Now the argument that Russell Blackford made over on Lepidoptera and Wheels is that yes, this is what your constitution says: a school teacher is allowed to say the first, but not the second. I presume as soon as some religion decides that Pi equals three (1 Kings 7:23), a teacher is also no longer allowed to say that it is not, eh? Well, if that is what your constitution says, then I will add that to the list of reasons why the USA need a new constitution, but I do hope that is open to interpretation...

    It should be noted, by the way, that PZ Myers has, several times already, posted on his teaching philosophy, and it always came across as if he were only interested in putting the facts on the table and not goading the believers among his students. If that is true, then in practice he does what de Dora wants as far as it is technically possible.

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  9. "no discussion is helped in the least by referring to what half of your students deeply believe as 'myth'."

    While I have no desire to defend Myers' post, I am unclear on what's wrong with calling Creationism a "myth." You've conceded that such would not be an appropriate response on an exam in a science class, but that seems to suggest that we take the scientific response to be, at least in some significant sense, correct. Creationism and the scientific response can't both be correct, so that looks like we're in the position of saying that Creationism is incorrect. In light of that, calling it a myth seems very respectful. It's certainly better than calling it a falsehood or something similar. What, precisely, would you have Creationism called in the classroom?

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  10. There's no scientific evidence for creationism, so why should it be referred to as anything but a myth in a science classroom? It has no more scientific merit than the idea that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from outer space, or that men think about sex every seven seconds. These things are flat-out myths, despite the fact that the majority of the population believes them... why on earth should a religious idea be somehow protected from scientific inquiry, and HOW do you seem to think that letting a science textbook label it for what it is is somehow a breach of separation of church and state? If ANYTHING, it's holding up that separation. Keep in mind, science is not a religion, and as such its findings don't fall under separation of church and state. There's nothing illegal about the state using science to make decisions.

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  11. Massimo,

    Well put! Rationality, if it's going to be heard requires communication, and communication requires some degree of civility, even if it's not as entertaining.

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  12. around and around the rabbit hole we go. first this stems from redefining of the term creationism. Michael de dora agrees with massimo that science cannot reject religious claims because they are properly philosohical and creationsim is religious so there science cannot and shouldn't attempt to do so. this runs up against the decades of usage of the word creationsm associated with its natural claims about the world (earth was created 6000 yrs ago, noah flood story etc, on which science has plenty to say).

    secondly PZ is on a campaign to expunge (or at least make it irrelevant) religious ideology from public life and as such will use various strategies to convince persons of his aims, sometimes logic and reason, sometimes ridicule, sometimes endorsement, sometimes outrage, etc. he has had a clear message of highlighting the absurdity of religious claims and being hard on those with who defer to these religious claims. enter michael de dora who make claims like:

    "Governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion"

    "some have argued that teaching the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the same as denying the Earth is 6,000 years old. But one clearly imparts scientific knowledge; the other clearly denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not."

    "can’t imagine teachers have had to seriously entertain this argument, but suffice to say that the belief 2+2=5 is not a religious belief."

    giving serious deference to religious claims even when it is contradicted by fact. so while PZ language is over the top (made especially so, i think, because Michael agrees with PZ on the substance of the issues) the message would be the same , stop privileging religious claims.

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  13. I must admit that post has utterly failed to disappoint me. I must be getting softer.

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  14. re. the definition of myth

    It may be that myth has more than one meaning, and that the creation story in the Bible may accurately be described as a myth.

    But if I am not mistaken the schoolbook text defined *Creationism* as a myth.

    This would not be accurate. Creationism is a belief. If it is described as a myth, then the colloquial meaning of myth is the only meaning that makes sense.

    So I think Michael was right on that one.

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  15. Ian,

    It sounds like you're saying that it's good that the "new atheists" are stooping to the level of the theists/creationists. I say "stooping" because while pathos is indeed a valid rhetorical technique in the sense of valid meaning "effective", I don't think that pathos is a valid rhetorical technique in the sense of valid meaning "justified". Appealing to one's emotions in an argument seems to indicate a desire only to "win" said argument, whereas the goal of any argument should be to convey and discover truth. If the audience can't be convinced by logic alone, that doesn't mean they should be tricked (via pathos or ethos) into believing the "truth".

    Although it's true what the article you linked says, that "our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree," it has also lost the ability to be persuaded by anything but pathos and ethos, thence rendering the most important persuasion musketeer, logos, ineffectual. Pandering to the masses' rational apathy will only exacerbate that rational apathy and push our society further toward idiocracy.

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  16. Pathos is definitely a tool in our arsenal, but sorry, Myers is not merely being a wise practitioner of rhetoric. He is genuinely angry about a disagreement and he is being deliberately abusive and childish - not for the first time.

    Our movement will be judged on whether it can criticize itself, and we should not fail to do so in this specific instance. Myers is the Rush Limbaugh of atheism.

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  17. It is always fascinating to me that this particular debate (whether to be brashly "honest", or diplomatically sensitive, much less starkly abusive)is typically carried on with extraordinary psychological naivete. Almost as though the respondants had done well in their classes in physics, philosophy, and formal logic, but somehow managed a flunking grade in psych 101 (never mind Anthropology).
    The arguments are generally about such things as epistemology and rational analysis of arguments as though these things have much to do with the way beliefs are conditioned and transmitted in culture.
    One might presume (with an insouciant and amusing logic in this case) that atheists are interested in promoting their worldview in an effective fashion. Of course that is demonstrably not the case, as they continue to do their ideas more efficient collateral damage decade by decade.
    They, like their opponents are motivated (as are we all) by essentially unselfconscious emotional factors, which all their intellect, slavishly supports.
    In this case the desire to ridicule and abuse an opponent as stupid (oops, am I doing that? ;-))is rooted in small group primate behavioral dynamics where it often works in defining a dominance hierarchy where you are on top (if and only if you don't have the wanker beat the living crap out of you afterward). Of course outside of a small group dynamic it has no such effect on the dominance hierarchy and tends to emotionally galvanize and solidify the esprit decorps of one's opposition, who are not persuaded by science in the first place and will progressively think of you as either irrelevant or dangerous.
    It might be better if atheists were more serious about actually furthering their cause and understanding the powerful (and pretty obvious) psychological dynamics that make most people believers. Until those dynamics are addressed atheism will continue to be a marginalized perspective, far below what it's demographic base would otherwise make possible.

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  18. Massimo,

    I agree PZ uses a direct low-brow approach to disparage his perceived opponent. Is that worse than the high-brow approach you (seemingly to me) take when attacking someone to defend a friend? One can be just as insulting in one's attacks by being indirect. BTW name calling is not an ad hominem attack, and you know that. The suggestion that we should not consider Michael's ideas because he is a wanker is, the suggestion that Michael's ideas should not be considered and that he is a wanker is not.

    Regarding substance: In a science class, one can be taught that the earth is billions of years old and that all life appears to have evolved from a common ancestor. You and your buddy are ok with that. However, one can not say or even allude to the idea that the earth is 6000 years old and all life was magically created is a myth? Talk about intellectual disconnects?!?!

    I guess you assume that kids are too stupid to figure out there is a disconnect between Sunday school and science class. or is it only Sunday school that gets to be the final decider?

    For the life of me, I do not understand how you and Michael defend this position? Ok, we can never say creationism is a myth, but why can we say anything that might make kids think its a myth? "It is the principle of Church-State separation that is at issue, as well as the ethics of insulting people’s beliefs for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points with one’s own converts." Also, Michael appears to have completely missed the context of the sentence in question which was about court rulings regarding evolution-creationism. Did Michael look further than the FOX news report? The definition (I thought philosophers thought it was important to define terms) is from a discussion of evolution vs creationism. I would think it is important to define what creationism is when one is talking about it.

    OK, so Massimo wants to ban the word "Myth" but only if some undefined number of students believe something. Is this true for considering AIDS a gay-disease? It seems like popularity carries more weight than truth. Should teachers walk delicately around the germ theory of disease? the 3 dimensional qualities of the planet? radioactive decay? plate techtonics? modern medical practices? basically anything that might offend the ignorant of our society?

    Finally Massimo, you say that this isn't personal and "a matter of defending a friend" but end by stating that "now I'm not so sure." Really? so you missed crackergate? expelled? I guess its possible, but the simplest explanation seems to be you are taking it at least a little bit personally.

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  19. Yes, I was surprised to see Myers' attack on a CFI blogger no less. It's a shame because the issue incredibly minor. What a senseless flailing of the fingers. There This is what I said on the CFI forum:

    It does seem like a tempest in a teapot. The entire textbook, if it serves its purpose, is supposed to refute creationism. Whether the word “myth” is used is irrelevant and, more importantly, superfluous.

    Now it would be a different matter if the controversy was over the term “guanine”. Then we would have to say that, sorry, your kid needs to know about guanine. It stays. But a needless sociological/literary term in a textbook about biological evolution? Who cares?

    Suppose a few students in a biology class had a psychiatric disorder in which they experience panic attacks when they hear the word “pentameter.” Should the biology teacher refrain from using the word “pentameter”? The word is not needed in biology, so why the hell not?

    So even if we take the view that creationists have some sort of handicap (in fact I think it is a handicap of sorts, a cultural one), the way to overcome that handicap is through education. Buzzwords have nothing to do with education, and if they freak out on certain buzzwords--even if we agree that they are mentally ill for doing so--then we can exercise some politeness by not using them. The goal is education, which is hindered by gratuitously poking them in their psychological private parts.

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  20. "Therefore, on that narrow technical ground, and on that ground only, the creationist who complained had, in fact, a point."

    No, they did not. The genesis story is exactly what a myth is, a traditional story used to explain something. The fact that some (or many, or most) people do not know the proper definition of myth in that context is not relevant.

    BTW, countless people have explained that to him already.

    As an intro to philo teacher I get paid to explain different types of discourse: mythological, philosophical, scientific and religious. Students would loose points if they answered that myths are stupid made-up stories written by ignorants.

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  21. Although I think that Massimo and De Dora tend to be on the wrong side of Science/Religion/Creationism issues, Massimo is right that PZ is being immature. He calls De Dora a "wanker"?!? Seriously.

    For once, I am in favor of the "polite society" idea.

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  22. It appears my previous comments about Michael and atheism were somewhat prescient.

    ---

    Massimo said,

    "Do you have serious doubts about it or are you just being contrarian for its own sake?"

    I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I do break ground from time to time.

    What I wrote was that it didn't matter that Michael was right to be dismissive of Chopra. You can read my post again if you're skeptical :-)

    If his snide one word sentence had sat by itself without any other immature rhetoric on a recommendation page I wouldn't be..."vitriolic."

    So, your protege(?) ends his brief description of the most easily dismissible claim since the resurrection of Jesus with a sneer. Why?

    I propose a dichotomy. He's either trying to impress you (cause you're smart and damn charming). Or he's a piglet suckling at the sow of fashionable atheism, passing himself off as a "bright" and doesn't even know it.

    I hope I'm wrong, but he'll probably be about as good at reasoning as any believing atheist can be.

    Which unfortunately raises a larger issue. What are rational thinkers going to do with cultural atheism? ...when atheism becomes social fabric and not just a reasonable conclusion?

    Well Massimo, I couldn't think of a more prickish way of answering your question. Here's to being a contrarian for the sake of others and not just my own pleasure.

    April 08, 2010 6:10 PM

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  23. Contra, what you say sounds good superficially. However, using your approach, then science is really nothing more than a collection of facts (but only those facts that don't offend someone). These kids are people that actually live in a society that actually deals with real issues. Science has much to say about many if not all these issues. Should students not be made aware of this because of the "offensive" card? Should global warming be discussed in science class? Evolution? Clearly from your perspective, history and science are completely separate entities, so there can not be discussion of evolution and creationism in science (because that's history, which is where the "myth" term came from) or in history (because it deals with a biological issue). If "myth" is removed, do you actually think the "offensive" card is off the table? Do you think any discussion of the Dover trial would be acceptable to all creationists? Because if there is some offense then we have to back pedal some more. At what point do we stop cow-towing to the offended?

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  24. Quinn,

    You've set up a false dichotomy. By no means did I imply that appealing to emotions should be the skeptical (or atheist) community's exclusive method, just that it is a valid approach. Furthermore, I disagree (slightly); the goal is to "win". The reason? We're attempting to open up a space to _find_ the truth, via scientific inquiry free from religious wishy-washiness. I do agree that logical argument must always be paramount, but it doesn't need to be the sole strategy, especially considering your tacit linking of emotional arguments to the movie Idiocracy show your own use of pathos.

    And, you should note I've concentrated on a logical argument, and attempted to show why I think your conclusion is incorrect. On PZ's site (or in a discussion with an aggressive theist), I'd probably use a different argument. Now, I'm quite sure PZ hopes for the day when religious arguments occur in heady and sterile philosophical discussions; until then, we've got to push.

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  25. PZ Myers is usually a great exposer of religious nonsense but for some strange reason he now thinks that religious supernatural claims do not constitute nonsense after all, that they are falsifiable and empirically testable... So that apparently science has nothing better to do but try to refute them.

    But supernatural claims are not even wrong -what kind of experiment could support them or refute them?

    Religion falls alone simply by being unnecessary to understanding the natural world, morality and aesthetic experience.

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  26. Jim: "While I have no desire to defend Myers' post, I am unclear on what's wrong with calling Creationism a 'myth.'"

    Jim, as made perfectly clear in DeDora's post, the issue is not whether one can in general call creationism a myth, but rather about the content of a science curriculum of a school run by a government that is constitutionally obligated to be neutral on religion. Public school teachers and textbooks can, of course, teach the science, and if it happens to clash with religious beliefs as a secondary effect, so be it, but as part of government neutrality, teachers and their texts aren't supposed to directly either promote or attack religion.

    What private individuals and groups can do, of course, is another matter entirely.

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  27. The shriek seems to have become the preferred way of stating positions of all kinds in this increasingly emotional world. It's always a pity when those who profess to be the supporters of reason act in such a fashion.

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  28. While I agree that PZ's use of language may have been a bit over the top, I'm completely behind the substance of his argument. Here are just a few examles where I think you, Massimo, are wrong in your criticism of PZ

    Massimo: "I really wish that scientists who write about philosophy would bother to take epistemology 101, that way they would avoid embarrassing themselves with naive statements about the proper domain of scientific inquiry. Second, surely we can agree that the epistemology of science is an area where we can have a reasonable exchange without having to resort to labeling our interlocutors witless, wankers and the like, yes?"

    The second point here calls for a nicer tone in the debate, i.e. that calling your opponents witless, wankers and so on (referring to PZ's post) should be avoided. The first statement, however, is equivalent to calling PZ an idiot who should to go back to school if he wants to be taken seriously. Hence the two statements completely contradict each other (unless your point is that it is okay to diss people, just not by using PZ's kind of language) - not very clever Massimo.

    Also, your statement about epistemology 101 strongly suggests that philosophy has determined once and for all what the "proper domain of scientific inquiry" is. This, I think, is not the case and you should not try to conceal that there is legitimate disagreement about the epistemology of science.

    PZ: “Somebody says the universe appeared magically a few thousand years ago, I guess that has to be a valid answer on the test question, ‘How old is the universe?’. To actually state that it is about 14 billion years old, and make such an answer a necessary part of the student's grade...why, that is philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class.”


    Massimo: "Wow, I counted at least four gross mistakes in just this one paragraph, a pretty high rate for a self-appointed defender of evidence-based rationality: 1) in the course of this discussion De Dora never said or implied that young-earth creationism is a valid answer to a test question; 2) he has also never argued that a student who gave that answer instead of the scientifically grounded one should somehow get a pass; 3) Michael has never said that this is a philosophical or theological issue (PZ is referring to a different statement by De Dora, about the epistemological boundaries of science, see comment above, but that statement cannot reasonably be construed in the way PZ unreasonably construes it); and 4) of course these issues should be discussed in a science class (here I do disagree with Michael), but no discussion is helped in the least by referring to what half of your students deeply believe as “myth.”"

    I completely disagree with you on all four points here:

    Re 1) It is correct, that De Dora did not explicitly state that 6000 years should be a valid answer to a test question about the age of the universe. This is, however, a logical consequence of his position, that it is not allowed to state that creationism is wrong. How can you tell the student that her answer is not wrong but that it is also not valid?

    Re 2) But if the students cannot be told that their answers are wrong (because they are religiously motivated), how can they flunk the test? On the other hand, if their answers are not valid (from a scientific point of view), how can they pass (without getting a pass)?

    Re 3) Here is a quote from De Doras post (the footnote): It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy

    Re 4) But the beliefs we are talking about ARE myths.

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  29. Oh, he dared question (very politely, and based on argument) one of the dogmas of the new atheism: that religious people (that’s about 90% of humanity, folks) ought (and I use the term in the moral sense) to be frontally assaulted and ridiculed at all costs, because after all, this is a war, and the goal is to vanquish the enemy, reason and principles be damned.

    Sorry Massimo, but that is over the top. No new atheist holds the above. At least not that I've read. Maybe you can provide quotes?

    I think you ought not engage in strawman arguments (logical fallacy!) unless you have quotes that show this is not a strawman. Your obvious dislike of the new atheists leads you to poor arguments. This is a shame, because it does you a disservice.

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  30. Massimo, you say that the new atheism has dogma, but later you say that the only thing new is the brashness. Logically, you hold the other dogmas you impute to the new atheists then?

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  31. Um, hate to ruin the party but seriously it was used as funny rhetoric. His argument wasn't based on the insults, he added them in as an attention grabber, flair, whatever you want to call it. However, he did state his problems with the person's article in a logical and reasonable way. The fact that you can't see that is very sad. It does matter that these myths are treated as myths. I am in a very red, conservative state and I can tell you how sad the science education is here. It hinders education when you allow myths to be taught as facts (since that is clearly was creationists and IDers are proposing.) It hinders the students because you are not teaching them how to think critically and scientifically. It doesn't matter if students get offended, science is science, facts are facts. If they get offended they can go to their local place of worship or the parents to reinforce their deluded state of mind. The public education system is set in place to educate, not allow the public to wallow in their ignorance.

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  32. Allow me to jump into the nit-picking. Creation stories are the myth. Creationism is a religious doctrine. Neither are supported by any evidence.

    Religions spend a lot of time on what they call epistemology without actually having any epistemology. There is no way to know anything about religion.

    The next step is to make sure that students understand that slavery was as morally corrupt and corrupting as Naziism, yet it lasted much longer.

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  33. I know that it has been mentioned before, but I really think that it bears mentioning again because this has really become a nuisance on the Internet.

    Insults are not automatically ad hominem attacks. The way you explicitly say that PZ is using a logical fallacy by being insulting is akin to something I see much too often nowadays. Baseless accusation of ad hominems seems to be the warcry of a highly annoying style over substance crowd.

    To be perfectly clear, the two statements: "You are wrong because of [argument X]" and "You are wrong because of [argument X], you witless wanker" both hold the same substance. The only thing that differs is the style - the addition of the insult at the end does not turn it from a rational argument to an ad hominem attack.

    PZ never said "De Dora is wrong because he is a witless wanker" but when you accuse him of an ad hominem like that you imply that he did. That is dishonest and I think that dishonesty has much less place in a rational discussion than some simple bad/insulting language.

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  34. "religious people… ought … to be frontally assaulted and ridiculed at all costs, because after all, this is a war, and the goal is to vanquish the enemy, reason and principles be damned."

    Are you charging that this is how P.Z. sees it? Reason and principles be damned? I think you are mistaken.

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  35. "insulting people’s beliefs for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points with one’s own converts"

    Is that what you think P.Z. is doing? How do you know? And if you don't know, why are you insulting him? is it for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points?

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  36. "no discussion is helped in the least by referring to what half of your students deeply believe as 'myth.'"

    How do you know that? It might be just what the doctor ordered. It also happens to be true.

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  37. "I am often told by my non-activist friends … that the problem with the new atheism is that it looks a lot like the mirror image of the sort of fundamentalist rage that we all so justly abhor. I always shrugged at this accusation as being overblown and missing the point, after all we — unlike them — are on the side of reason and true human compassion. Now I’m not so sure."

    Before, you shrugged. But now you're not so sure.

    But you'll repeat the accusation anyway, because heck, it sounds pretty clever.

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  38. If only you would be as accomodating to fellow atheists as you are to those who believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.

    Them we must treat kindly and not, in a science class, address the many creations myths which exist that science has proven false; but should an atheist point out the utter hypocrisy of such a position then let loose the dogs of war!

    Bullocks. At least PZ has some convictions and is willing to point out what he sees as a problem without trying to sooth those whose feelings are hurt because we don't believe in their imaginary friend.

    It is a myth. That the world was created 6000 years ago, or was cracked open from an egg, or someone blinked and the world came into being...those are myths.

    And myths should only be an interesting footnote in a science class.

    And those who think otherwise are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole in order mollify those who aren't capable of enough reason to overcome their emotional reliance on an imaginary friend.

    I have a friend who is bipolar. She occasionally will see things or hear things that aren't there. There are many ways to be kind and compassionate, but pretending her delusions are real is certainly not one of them.

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  39. Usually the anti-"new atheist" argument is that harsh invective is wrong because it will fail to sway believers who might be amenable to calm, cool, factual, reason-based give and take.

    Now, apparently, the anti-"new atheist" argument is broader: skeptics must be kind, considerate, and even-tempered at all times even when squabbling amongst themselves.

    Neat!

    We must be polite, decorous, and courteous in all cases ... or? What will happen if PZ's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad manner of rhetoric infects even the gentle climes of the skeptic-freethought community?

    People will get upset? Cry? Forget where they left their car keys? Gawd forbid, stop reading?

    Perhaps they'll become passionately engaged, find themselves forced to think it through and take a side? Nah, that's crazy-talk.

    Grow up. Man up.

    If you don't want harsh criticism, say nothing. Or make better arguments, or don't make any. As the old saying goes, if you want a friend, get a dog.

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  40. Contra Positive:

    Ah, but isn't the problem that the religious can decide to make any which word a "buzzword" simply by believing the next crazy thing and becoming offended once you mention it? In principle, insisting that your religion is threatened when it is mentioned that Pi = 3 is wrong or that the earth is not flat is no more silly or implausible than insisting on the same thing for special creation. Once you go down that road, you hand religion a free pass to make reasonable discussion of any topic they want impossible.

    This whole issue is interesting from an accommodationism perspective, isn't it? The oft-mentioned problem that yes, religion and science (education) can live happily side by side, but only if religion never makes any empirical claims whatsoever. Of course religion never lets itself be restricted in that way, but when they start claiming that the earth is 6000 years old, should really the science teacher be punished because the priests have "overstepped the bounds of their magisterium"?

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  41. Take away the insults and the rhetoric and there's a good point of contention that does need to be discussed.

    Firstly I don't really see the problem with the word myth. Abandoning it because of its colloquial implications would be like removing the word theory from science so as not to mistake it for a hunch or guess. It might be misleading, but it's descriptive.

    Though the more important issue at hand is whether teaching something that contradicts a religious belief is itself a violation of the separation of church and state. The implicit nature of saying that the science shows that the earth is 4.5 billion years old negates any claim to the contrary, even if that is not explicitly mentioned. Is the distinction between implicit and explicit merely to avoid establishment clause issues?

    Meanwhile it seems creationists are taking issue with this implicit contradiction of their sacred beliefs. They can see that by teaching evolution the school is making an attack on their religious faith.

    What I wonder is how one would go about making that distinction between scientifically held beliefs and philosophical ones. While PZ may not have taken epistemology 101, I'd be willing to wager that neither have the students. Should it be a scientists' job to explain the philosophical distinction? If not, who's job is it?

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  42. micheal is wrong because he is a wanker- ad hominem fallacy

    Micheal is wrong( ..because xyz...) and he is a wanker- insulting language

    I'm sorry but when you start by confusing these two you have already lost the argument. Whether PZ should be using language like this to describe his oppponents is a different issue

    another example for you- irony

    Using an ad hominem argument to complain about using an ad hominem argument.

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  43. I find it disturbing to see how many people are willing to condone insults hurled around by their champion. Once again, people, reasonable discourse is poisoned by abusive language, and I'm pretty sure you would walk out of anyone who were to use it personally with you.

    Logical fallacies: if we want to get technical:

    "Ad hominem abusive usually involves insulting or belittling one's opponent. This tactic is logically fallacious because insults and even true negative facts about the opponent's personal character have nothing to do with the logical merits of the opponent's arguments or assertions." (Wikipedia)

    Or perhaps what PZ wrote can be better characterized as poisoning the well (a related fallacy):

    again from Wikipedia: "Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a logical fallacy where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. Poisoning the well is a special case of argumentum ad hominem."

    Notice the last sentence. Moreover, focusing on what kind of fallacy PZ committed, if any, distracts from the main point, which is the use of unacceptably abusive language. That in itself is a fallacy, the red herring:

    "A "red herring" is a deliberate attempt to divert a process of enquiry by changing the subject." (Wikipedia)

    Telling PZ that he needs to take epistemology 101 is not equivalent to telling him that he is an idiot, since many intelligent people don't take epistemology classes. And it most certainly is *not* in the same category as witless wanker peddling pablum. But it makes the point that this is the case of a scientist who is writing about epistemology, apparently without knowing much about epistemology, a technical field in a discipline not his own.

    Finally, while there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about the substance, people should suppress their knee jerk reaction and first make at least an attempt to follow the distinction that Michael and I are making: nobody here has said that creationism is not based on myths, nor that students should not be told that the earth is not 6000 years old (ok, there were a bit too many negatives there!). The point is one of separation of church and state: no biology textbook or teacher has any business in belittling religion, not even in a philosophy of religion class. We are supposed to provide students with the tools for critical thinking, not dismissively tell them what to think.

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  44. As much as you might not like the naughty words PZ was using, they were not central to his argument. He may have pissed you off, but he was right, and for all your pearl-clutching you haven't actually refuted him.

    Anybody who has seen a modern science textbook knows that there's usually a section in each chapter which relates science to politics, history, culture, etc (part of the whole inter-disciplinary thing). The attack on evolutionary theory by creationists is an extremely necessary part of understanding the role of the theory in our culture.

    So that justifies the discussion of creationism, as far as the word in question, the use of "myth" has the same effect as if you had said "story" and the usage is completely justified. Unless you think it's ok for creationists to dictate the meaning of words, you have no ground to stand on.

    For those upthread, they didn't say "creationism is a myth" they said "creationism is based on the myth..." which is entirely true. PZ didn't dismiss his Michaels claims BECAUSE he was a wanker, he called him a wanker because he said some dumb things that were unnecessarily accomodating to people who are trying to destroy the fundamental understanding of science in this country.

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  45. So Massimo, from your last post I take it that you figure that because PZ has been nasty you can open fire with a load of bulldust? That's sad. I don't mind your prissy posts, just as I don't mind PZ's kick-arse posts. But when all you can do is strawman the 'new atheists' and contradict yourself 'new atheism is just brash atheism, like your atheism, and it has dogma, which unlike yours doesn't have dogma' and so you put yourself in a reductio. The game is up. It's really sad that you've chosen to act this way, but perhaps there's no free-will and so you can console yourself that what you did was inevitable and what I'm doing likewise. Thank you for the opportunity to post on your blog. I'll do my best to never post on it again. I think that philosophers can do better than you have done and thus you should be censured more harshly. Especially given your haughty tone.

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  46. The Wikipedia article on 'Ad hominem' explicitly states under 'Common misconceptions about ad hominem':

    "Gratuitous verbal abuse or "name-calling" itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy.[4][5][6][7][8] The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker, not personal insults in the middle of an otherwise sound argument or insults that stand alone."X's argument is invalid because X's analogy is false, there are differences between a republic and a democracy. But then again, X is idiotically ignorant." is gratuitously abusive but is not a fallacy because X's argument is actually addressed directly in the opening statement." [Bold and italics original]

    Insults may or may not be the right approach, but using them is not itself committing a fallacy.

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  47. Wait, since when is calling something by its description belittling? Calling a creation myth a myth is a true statement.

    Calling a pig a pig is a true statement. It is only belittling to a few people who find any mention of their particular world view insulting.

    There is a difference between a science class discussing creation myths as an intro to what is now known to be true and belittling a religion. The one first only does the second in the minds of a few, and I think science class should be concerned with, you know, science-what is known to be true. Not with hurting the feelings of a deluded man who wouldn't know a scientific theory if it bit him on the bum.

    Science belittles religion by its very existence. Should we just stop teaching it at all, to avoid the possibility of someone's fragile ego being damaged?

    This reminds me of the hoopla over books in other classes, where some dolt decides that Anne Frank or Huckleberry Finn is too much for their precious child.

    Textbooks and teachers need to be protected when telling the truth. We shouldn't allow lies to be supported by silence in an attempt to appease the fringe. That is the way of a coward and a hypocrite.

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  48. Darlene: There is a difference between a science class discussing creation myths as an intro to what is now known to be true and belittling a religion.

    Well said!

    The biggest problem I see with de Dora's pea counting is that the following inane conversation would have to result from it...

    Teacher: Earth is 4.5 billion years old.
    Student: But my church says it is only 6000 years old, and they also seem pretty certain. So what is true?
    Teacher: I am not allowed to comment on that and don't want to lose my job, sorry.

    They cannot both be true, and it must be allowed to say that the wrong one is wrong. If the religious do not want a textbook to tell them they are wrong, they should not believe counter-factual things, easy as that.

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  49. Brian said:

    .....I don't mind your prissy posts, just as I don't mind PZ's kick-arse posts.... Thank you for the opportunity to post on your blog. I'll do my best to never post on it again......

    Yes, Brian, we'll miss you.

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  50. The Lorax and Mintman,

    I already anticipated this objection and covered it with the guanine example. If the students are uncomfortable with anything whatsoever that is necessary to the subject of the class, then tough cookies. They have to deal with it.

    On the other hand, if they are uncomfortable with totally superfluous, unnecessary statements then we should consider acquiescence. Why? Because that will help them learn.

    And this is the most important distinction between science in general and science in the classroom. In the classroom, the goal above all is to teach the subject. We can accommodate students to enable their learning. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the accomodationism debate in science verses religion.

    Millions of kids are suffering from creationist beliefs. Call it a mental illness if you wish. High school teachers have to take care of these sick patients. These students are often sick for life, but occasionally, slowly, with fear and trembling, get better. If there is irrelevant cruft which is hindering their recovery, then we can exercise compassion and acquiesce. Why? Because they are ill and they need to get better. In the classroom (only), that takes precedence over a pursuing a hard-nosed debate about science and religion.

    If that doesn't convince you, consider that high school students have frontal lobes which are still in development. For the most part they don't even understand sarcasm. The biology classroom is indeed not the place to pursue these debates. But perhaps a separate class which introduces skepticism and the philosophy of science in a systematic way would be appropriate.

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  51. Massimo P: "The point is one of separation of church and state: no biology textbook or teacher has any business in belittling religion, not even in a philosophy of religion class. We are supposed to provide students with the tools for critical thinking, not dismissively tell them what to think."

    A biology curriculum is not "belittling" anything by separating science from non-science. Many things have historically and discursively stood in for science, but they are distinct from science -- most importantly, in method -- and it is very much within bounds, even in the context of a public school, to draw this distinction.

    This distinction cannot be made without "naming names" of the many things that compete with science -- myths, fables, traditions, stories, tales, old wives' tales, rumors, common sense, intuitions, speculations, prejudices, superstitions, guesses, oral traditions, and so on.

    There are thousands of creation myths, the Biblical creation tale and the Noah's Ark tale being only two. They're worth mentioning in biology class in precisely the context given here: as non-scientific explanations of the origins of species. These myths had their uses, appeal, and cultural resonances, but science gives a different explanation, one that has been pieced together in the last two centuries using a principled and consistent method.

    A clear and bright line must be drawn between science and the various forms of non-science. Not to do so would be pedagogical malpractice.

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  52. If creationists don't want their myths called out in a science book they shouldn't pursue baseless legal action to insinuate their beliefs into the science curriculum. They can't have it both ways.

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  53. Contrapositive:

    I see what you mean, and maybe that is also all that de Dora wanted to say. If that is so, then we are probably agreed. If I were a teacher, I would also not glower at the students on day one and tell them that they are stupid if they believe in creation. But is it really so problematic to discuss creation myths as a pre-scientific alternative that was once considered a viable explanation but is now rejected by the data?

    I understand how you can see that as an unnecessarily confrontational approach, but here is the problem again: nothing keeps the religious from deciding tomorrow to become offended at another outdated example you have now picked to explain the superseding of theories and advance of knowledge. Most probably they won't, but in principle they could turn all of science into a minefield of forbidden topics: no more mentioning ye olde miasma theory, no more mentioning the flat earth as outdated, just because somebody has convinced themselves that their religion depends on these ideas.

    It is a general problem, by the way, that too many people today get to decide themselves what is offensive to them. Seen Janet Jackson's nipple for a microsecond? Offended! Somebody uses the word "niggardly", etymologically completely unrelated to the racial slur? Offended! Sorry, but there must be some objective, impartial basis for offensiveness or we enter Gagaland. Those believers being "offended" by reading that their beliefs are factually wrong is no more reasonable than me being offended by a colleague wearing a yellow shirt. There are things you have to accept, especially if they were obviously and objectively never meant to offend.

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  54. Well, I don't think Massimo has done anything worthy of a boycott or censorship. I did think PZ was a bit over the top, but he did have an argument.

    Its been pointed out in threads before by other comments, but what PZ and the 'new atheists' are always trying to do is undermine is the privilege that is granted to the ideas held and maintained by certain people - not the people themselves. Hitchens and Dawkins, for example, can be heard or read to make this point clear.

    In reality, I'm sure PZ and Michael, in person, would be swell and treat eachother with respect - but no idea should be respected simply because they are held by people, even if they makeup a majority. In fact, I think Austin Dacey makes a good point about this: "the way you respect a person is not by agreeing with everything they say, but by holding that person to the same intellectual and moral standards to which you hold yourself. Anything less is not respect, its indifference."

    Now, the way PZ jumped on Michael in that post is not upholding that principal as two members of the same team, but what I would argue is that whats coming from the likes of Michael (at least in that article mentioned), Massimo (at times), Eugenie Scott, Chris Mooney and the like is that they also do not uphold that principal when engaging the other side - even if they more polite.

    Although I wouldn't use the same language PZ did, I do sympathize with his frustration with some of our 'teammates'. As I've said in another thread - trying to put on a cheap suit and say NOMA can work so as long as you don't make any specific claims about the world that could be subject to testing is not a form of respect to the people you're trying to 'court'.

    This is a very big problem when dealing with church vs state issues - the context within which we are 'supposed' to be in is giving religious beliefs privilege. Would the person in question surrounding this whole ordeal be treated with as much respect if his complaint was that a textbook referred to astrology as myth?

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  55. I read both your and Myers blog, Massimo, so this has been an interesting discussion for me.

    I think yours and Michaels position on this issue are still pretty vague, though.

    You say we shouldn't 'belittle religion' and instead focus on just teaching science. But the point being made here (over and over again, a cogent reply still lacking), is that sometimes teaching science automatically belittles religion. Do you not agree?

    Do you think the paragraphs on creationism should not have been present in the book at all? As many others have already mentioned, I'd say its worth mentioning in this book because creationism its constantly being touted by its supporters as a valid scientific alternative, in a country where more than half the population does not believe in evolution. Do you still think mentioning it is out of place?

    Or do you just disagree with the use of the word 'myth'? Michael has said on his blog that, if the phrasing had been 'biblical story', he wouldn't have written his first blogpost (reply 70 on article.) Is that really the point of divergence between 'your' opinion of this issue and PZ's? That 'myth' is somehow insulting but 'biblical story' is fine? What words should be allowed and what words are not? And what dictionary definitions shall we use to distinguish between these categories?

    Could you answer these questions? At least that would make it clear to me exactly on what grounds two of my favorite bloggers disagree.

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  56. Creationism is a myth.

    Massimo, De Dora and the rest, you guys want to have your cake and eat it. Religion is evil, it represents the greatest threat to science, logic and freedom that we have in our society. Yet you guys are more concerned with appeasing its proponents that fighting it.

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  57. Massimo:

    I am somewhat taken aback. You are a philosopher, according to the sidebar, so it should be absolutely clear to you what an Ad Hominem is and is not.

    It was pointed out in this thread several times what an Ad Hominem is, yet you claim to quote wikipedia in defense of your position, without providing the link to the page. A cursory glance over the wikipedia page does not show the definition you are working with.


    "Looked at from the point of view of the fallacy approach to informal logic, this is a classic case of ad hominem. Kahane [1995, 65], for example, describes ad hominem as a fallacy that occurs when an arguer is guilty "of attacking his opponent rather than his opponent's evidence and arguments." In this case, the debater in question attacks the motivation and the character of the person promoting a separate Danish church instead of showing what is wrong with his evidence for the claim that this is a good idea. On these grounds, the proposed reasoning is fallacious."

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-informal/#One

    Attacking the arguer *in place of* their argument is an instance of the Ad Hominem Fallacy.

    Attacking the arguer *in addition to* their argument is not an instance of the Ad Hominem Fallacy. Lacking in civility and decorum: yes; Ad Hominem: no.


    I read your blog with interest from time to time, but I'm somewhat surprised at this rudimentary error in basic Critical Thinking.

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  58. Great. So now you suspect that new atheism "looks like" fundamentalist rage. What comes next? Declaring that you think those believers might just be onto something after all?

    Neither you nor De Ora nor the CFI are fighting the same battle that is being fought by the people I respect. Time to step out of the lecture hall and into the real world, Professor.

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  59. Contra, I understand that argument at face value. However, I strongly recommend you (and many others commenting on the use of the term MYTH) to go read the section of the textbook that led to this whole issue. I expect that once you see the actual context, not the one made up by Faux news and disseminated everywhere else, including here, I am willing to bet you will alter your opinion (about the actual issue, not the imaginary one raised here and elsewhere).

    The issue is NOT whether a teacher should come into class and tell the students that their religious beliefs are bogus. We can argue about it until we're blue in the face, but that is not the issue.

    It bothers me greatly, the De Dora basically takes the Faux news viewpoint and completely ignores the context of the entire issue. I can see why rapid atheists and free thinkers would take exception. De Dora's piece was opinion attacking a strawman set up by the other side but sold as some kind of scholarly viewpoint about something that actually exists.

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  60. First of all:

    "So that we are crystal clear on just how low these ad hominem (a logical fallacy!) attacks go"

    This is a pet peeve of mine. "ad hominem" is NOT equivent to "insult." It's a logical fallacy that occurs when someone tries to refute a point by addressing a person's character in place of a logical refutation. In other words, the presence of insults neither renders an argument invalid nor does the lack of insults render it more valid. It is only when those insults are presented as a refutation of a point that it is an ad hominem (e.g. "you're a woman, so obviously you're wrong"--no insults, but definitely an ad hominem). I would think a philosophy professor, of all people, would get that right.

    Second, I cannot understand this craven unwillingness to say or do anything that might upset a religious person, especially from atheists. Science and religion are NOT entirely seperate, non-overlapping magisteria. Religion is full of fact claims that are unquestionably in the domain of science. The claim that the world is 6,000 years old or that evolution did not take place is simply wrong. Education should not be shackled by religious dogma. I would have thought that members of CFI and similar institutions could at very least agree on that.

    Finally, it's ironic that so often--this post included--people who complain about someone's tone end up actually being sorts of ad hominems in themselves ("PZ is so rude! There, his post is refuted!").

    For shame.

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  61. Massimo, I am a fan of yours and a fan of PZ's. I have both of your blogs in my RSS feed and I read all of the posts from both of you.

    On this particular point I agree with PZ. We should not be afraid to call a myth a myth. Science shouldn't rule on PURELY religious or philosophical questions but the claim that the earth was created in six days 6000 years ago is a scientifically testable claim, and we should not shy from discussing the conclusions and implications of science.

    I will continue to be a fan of yours and of PZ's!

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  62. A respectable blog corrects it's mistakes or at least acknowledges them. Several people have pointed out your incorrect use of the Ad Hominem logical fallacy (among other things), and you must have read the comments since they are moderated.


    Just sayin'.

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  63. ".. why I bothered to write this post ... isn’t ... to attack PZ personally"

    I suppose that's why you entitled the post:

    "PZ Myers is a witless wanker ..."

    The important matter here is that De Dora's position serves no other purpose than a feeble attempt to make those who hold beliefs unsupported by evidence feel better.

    He holds the totally illogical position that "that it's OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it's wrong to teach them that the earth isn't 6000 years old"

    Which makes absolutely no sense and shows no respect for the intelligence of students.

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  64. Massimo Pigliucci says,

    I find it disturbing to see how many people are willing to condone insults hurled around by their champion. Once again, people, reasonable discourse is poisoned by abusive language, and I'm pretty sure you would walk out of anyone who were to use it personally with you.

    Nonsense. Some of us really enjoy the cut and thrust of fierce debate. Even if—especially if—it comes with sarcasm, irony, and insults.

    Do not try and impose your personal standards of behavior on the rest of us. That's a fallacious argument. There's probably even a word for that fallacy.

    Telling PZ that he needs to take epistemology 101 is not equivalent to telling him that he is an idiot, since many intelligent people don't take epistemology classes. And it most certainly is *not* in the same category as witless wanker peddling pablum. But it makes the point that this is the case of a scientist who is writing about epistemology, apparently without knowing much about epistemology, a technical field in a discipline not his own.

    You know what really pisses me off? It's when philosophers try to tell scientists how to do science.

    I understand that there's a long history of epistemology in philosophy departments but sometimes the field seems to be far too isolated for its own good. Lately, many philosophers have taken to defining science and how it should be done. When scientists object they're told to take Epistemology 101.

    Think about what you're saying Professor Pigliucci. You're saying that philosophers know more about what science is supposed to be than scientists do. Scientists are not stupid. They can make a valid contribution to the debate on the meaning of science. Even if they disagree with a philosopher!

    Now I realize that you are a real scientist who engages in philosophy but that's not the case with many of your philosophy colleagues. Maybe you should have them look up "hubris" on Wikipedia.

    You should also be prepared to admit that there are philosophers who disagree with your personal views on what distinguishes science from non-science. I hope that the Epistemology 101 course would present both sides of the current controversy. Maybe you should invite PZ Myers to give some of the lectures at your school?

    Finally, while there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about the substance, people should suppress their knee jerk reaction and first make at least an attempt to follow the distinction that Michael and I are making: nobody here has said that creationism is not based on myths, nor that students should not be told that the earth is not 6000 years old (ok, there were a bit too many negatives there!). The point is one of separation of church and state: no biology textbook or teacher has any business in belittling religion, not even in a philosophy of religion class. We are supposed to provide students with the tools for critical thinking, not dismissively tell them what to think.

    I'm not an American so this argument is of no interest to me.

    Can you clarify your position by answering a simple question? Imagine that the textbook in question was published in Canada where I live. Canada does not have a constitutional requirement to avoid mentioning creation myths in public schools.

    Does that mean that you and Michael would have no objections to the following statement in a Canadian textbook?

    “In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for ‘equal time’ for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the ‘equal-time’ bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.”

    I'm pretty sure you have to answer "yes" to this question.

    BTW, are you an expert on American Constitutional law? Did you take the appropriate course in university?

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  65. How embarassing. You need to look up the word "myth," for your failure to know the meaning makes you look silly. Remember, please, this is a SCIENCE textbook, so we can expect it to use words correctly.

    Myth- 1. A traditional story that deals with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve a primordial types in a primitive view of the world. 2. A real or fictional story that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultrual ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions. 3. A fictitious or imaginary person, idea, or thing.

    See definition 2, "A REAL OR FICTITIONAL story that appeals to the consciousness of a people ..."

    The word was used correctly.

    You are wrong.

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  66. If you offer respect to people or ideas that are not worthy of respect, you validate them.

    I am sorry, the only way to get people to think is to ridicule that which they think is rational. If not for the New Atheists we would still be living in our closets. This imperative to question does not only focus on religions, we have the right to question everything.

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  67. Richard: "the only way to get people to think is to ridicule that which they think is rational."

    The only way? You mean that we can't get people to think by teaching them critical thinking or pointing out what the facts really are? Ridicule can be useful as an attention getter, but it is no substitute for logic, and it can also be used as a rhetorical weapon by the intellectually dishonest.

    Speaking of which, PZ Myers has now adds this bit of distortion: "If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we're doomed." Sheesh! No one ever said that a science teacher can't say that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Quite the opposite. Indeed, it's telling that Myers isn't dealing with what either DeDora or Pigliucci actually said, but with a straw man. But hey, who needs facts and logic when you can just use ridicule?

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  68. People,

    the reason I don't respond immediately to comments, other than I have a day job and am not paid for this, is that I am in the Netherlands for a conference. I'm working.

    One more time: "myth" does have multiple meanings, but one has to be seriously out of touch with the reality of this particular debate to think that it wouldn't be taken as an insult to one's religious beliefs.

    And no, the point is not that religious people cannot be insulted, or that creationism is not a collection of myths; the point is that that word should not be used in a science textbook because it violates church/state separation. The fact that *some* religious people repeatedly try to cross that line too is not excuse at all. That's like saying "well, they steal, so it's ok for me to steal too."

    Logical fallacies: once again, read before firing:

    "Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a logical fallacy where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. Poisoning the well is a special case of argumentum ad hominem." (You can look up the Wiki article yourself, just type 'poisoning the well'.) This is *precisely* what PZ did, and it is a subset of ad hominem. Granted, it is not the main definition of ad hominem, because it is a subcategory, usually filed under the different name of poisoning the well. And this is important how?

    What *is* important is that some people keep missing the point that their complaining about the terminology of logical fallacies is a red herring: the trust of my post was that insults ought not to be part of reasoned discourse, period. (PZ did it again, by the way, today he explicitly called Michael and myself "idiots," real mature, PZ.)

    Complaining about the title of my entry is missing the obvious sarcasm: those are exactly PZ's words, verbatim. And please notice that my post starts with "No, not really," to make the joke clear. Obviously, not sufficiently so.

    Again, it is really disturbing that so many people don't bother to read what I actually write (or think about it for two seconds before firing a "response"), and that it is apparently accepted practice now to use foul language in place of reasoned argument. And talk of "boycott"? Really.

    Someone commented that PZ is the Rush Limbaugh of the atheist movement, except that Limbaugh could give PZ (and several of his followers) lessons in etiquette. And that's really sad.

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  69. There is no way to teach science, particularly biology and geology, in the United States or anywhere else without teaching that Young Earth Creationist doctrines are false. The difference is that no one in the rest of the world cares about how YECs will respond when their false claims are shown to be false to the children who have had those lies about science taught to them.

    It appears to me and to many others, including PZ, that you and Michael De Dora are allowing those who lie about science to hide behind a second lie, that this is a religious question. It is not. It is only a scientific question. There is no reason to let them avoid being called on the carpet for their first lie. Young Earth Creationism is false as science. There is no need to make excuses for YECs. None. YECs are making a scientific claim. It is a scientific claim that is demonstrably false. They don't get to play a First Amendment card when they are not teaching religion. Their falsehoods about science are worthy of discussion in a science class.

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  70. I don't understand why it isn't important or valid for Massimo to solely criticize Myers' tone. Abusive language is the arsenal used by weak intellectuals to disguise holes in their arguments. They use it to turn disagreements over propositions into personal battles. Insults are distracting. They're annoying. They don't have any legitimate role in intellectual conversation.

    Tone matters. Get over it, people.

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  71. Granted, it is not the main definition of ad hominem, because it is a subcategory, usually filed under the different name of poisoning the well.

    If it is a type of ad hominem then, as the Wikipedia article you linked to earlier states: "gratuitous verbal abuse or "name-calling" itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy".

    Forget about terminology. Look at this:

    A imples B
    A
    Therefore, B, you moron.

    Now, the "you moron" may be rude or not, may be warranted or completely inapproriate, but it doesn't make the above a fallacy.

    And this is important how?

    It's important because 1)it's about what's right and 2) you brought it up. Trying to portray insults as necessarily being fallacious is simply wrong.

    This of course is completely independent of your main point. Using insults may not fallacious, but it could still be hurting the cause of scientific advancement (or not). Nonetheless, as a public intellectual you should be striving to give correct information, even if it's tangential to your main arguments. No one will think the lesser of you if you simply acknowledge a minor error.

    it is apparently accepted practice now to use foul language in place of reasoned argument.

    Yes, that's bad. But to dismiss reasoned arguments because they happen to use foul language or insults is also absurd.

    Someone commented that PZ is the Rush Limbaugh of the atheist movement, except that Limbaugh could give PZ (and several of his followers) lessons in etiquette. And that's really sad.

    Comparing someone to Rush Limbaugh is civil how? (No, you don't get to use the Pope's "I was only quoting someone" excuse.)

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  72. Massimo: > "the point is that that word [myth] should not be used in a science textbook because it violates church/state separation."

    It seems clear from what I have read you are wrong on the law on this matter.

    it is really disturbing that so many people don't bother to read what I actually write (or think about it for two seconds before firing a "response")

    There are a lot of thoughtful and clear thinking comments on this blog post. This statement you make appears to be a way of not addressing their substance - a fine example of poisoning the well.

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  73. Massimo: "myth" does have multiple meanings, but one has to be seriously out of touch with the reality of this particular debate to think that it wouldn't be taken as an insult to one's religious beliefs.

    You are missing the entire point of the debate. Church/state separation does not imply that, if a religious audience could be insulted, a secular topic must be avoided. Similarly, "taking insult to a word choice" is far removed from the state actively proscribing a religious viewpoint. To give the creationists/theists that ground is to cede too much.

    And between PZ's colourful language, he makes the same point. Except that when I say it, I don't have half the skeptical blogs discussing it.

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  74. The other point that Michael raised, and that PZ loathes, is the one about the epistemological boundaries of science.

    Designating science as only concerning with evidence-based thinking is both descriptively inaccurate and extremely limiting prescriptively. Science is NOT just evidence-based. Scientists frequently employ Occam's razor and rational analysis.

    Let's take the example of creationism and the age of the Earth. We have two hypotheses: the world is the way it looks and there's a God making it look that way to deceive us. Now the two hypotheses look exactly the same empirically. Yet scientists have almost universally rejected the latter. Why? Occam's razor. It is much more convoluted and complicated than the former explanation.

    Personally, I take the view of Bertrand Russell on the division between philosophy and science:

    [T]hose questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy. [Problems of Philosophy, Ch. XV]

    This seems like less arbitrary way to divide the labour.

    While there are boundaries and limitations to science, I don't think it's anywhere near as clear or universally accpeted as you make it out to be.

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  75. "Hm ... maybe Coyne's blog, dubbed "Why Evolution is True," should be named "Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong.""

    Nice "tone and substance." tu quoques all around.

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  76. ... a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of one’s arguments.

    Salutations and gracious good day, sir! I reread this post, but was unable to find the part where you engaged with the substance of Myers' issue with De Dora.

    I would be most grateful if you would be so kind as to politely direct me, esteemed sir, to the key passage.

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  77. Massimo says: "And no, the point is not that religious people cannot be insulted, or that creationism is not a collection of myths; the point is that that word should not be used in a science textbook because it violates church/state separation."


    Um, in what law book did that come from?

    That has to be one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. Anything that is not documented history or proven science is a myth. Myth is exactly what happens to religions when the world moves past them.

    Are you suggesting that schools cannot discuss Greek and Roman myths, since that would also violate this separation? Calling somehing that has been proven wrong a myth is simply stating a fact. And I believe that is quite constitutional.

    I'm sorry, I've respected a number of your posts, but it seems to me that you are defending your line in the sand simply because you made it, and you now refuse to even see the rest of the beach.

    This is nonsense. The biblical creation story is a myth. Along with all other creation stories. That one story should somehow be held to a different standard then others is bull.

    Saying that something is a story, a myth about how this group of people at this time thought or imagined their world was created is not a violation of church and state.

    Allowing one religion a free pass is.

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  78. "Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a logical fallacy where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. Poisoning the well is a special case of argumentum ad hominem." (You can look up the Wiki article yourself, just type 'poisoning the well'.) This is *precisely* what PZ did, and it is a subset of ad hominem. Granted, it is not the main definition of ad hominem, because it is a subcategory, usually filed under the different name of poisoning the well. And this is important how?

    This is important because you are:

    a) claiming to be a philosopher
    b) claiming that PZ Myers is committing a fallacy
    c) claiming, specifically, that the fallacy in question is Poisoning the Well


    The entire family of Ad Hominem Fallacies hinge on the speaker dismissing an argument because of the irrelevant personal attack. By claiming that the argument is bad because of the personal failure/problem/whatever of the arguer.

    Exemplar of Poisoning The Well:

    "Before my colleague speaks on the topic, please bear in mind their propensity for lies."

    (cf. The trial of Socrates from Plato's Apology)


    The fact that you're sticking to your guns on this foundational 1st year Philosophy definition undercuts any likelihood that I might have in reading your blog in the future.

    *That's* why it's important.

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  79. Ian: "Church/state separation does not imply that, if a religious audience could be insulted, a secular topic must be avoided."

    For the umpteenth time, no one is saying that secular topics are to be avoided. That's a straw man. Rather a clear distinction is being made between teaching the science and letting the chips fall where they may with regard to how they affect religion, and specifically going out of the way to attack a religion. The former belongs in a public school that is neutral about religion, while the latter does not.

    Again, if you are going to criticize DeDora, criticize what he actually says instead of a phantom invented by PZ.

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  80. Please tell me that a professional philosopher didn't just appeal to Wikipedia as an authority on logical fallacies.

    Please?

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  81. J. J. Ramsey: "For the umpteenth time, no one is saying that secular topics are to be avoided."

    Re-read Massimo's post I quoted. He states that the use of the word "myth" in describing the history of a science topic (i.e., a secular topic) is to be avoided, due to church/state separation issues. At the very least, one person is saying that.

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  82. "Rather a clear distinction is being made between teaching the science and letting the chips fall where they may with regard to how they affect religion, and specifically going out of the way to attack a religion. The former belongs in a public school that is neutral about religion, while the latter does not."

    What a load of poppycock.

    Mentioning in a SCIENCE class that many other people thought X was the how the world was created but science has shown, instead, that Y was actually, in fact, how it happened is a major part of how one describes the evolution (Am I allowed to even say that word?) of scientific thought.

    I am calling the BS flag to be thrown. Calling something which is a myth a myth in a science class should be applauded! What a bunch of cowardly lions. Darwin forbid we should OMG OFFEND A RELIGIOUS PERSON BY TELLING THE TRUTH. Horrors. Jesus wept.

    It is very much a part of any basic science class to describe what was thought v. what is now known.

    As an aside, this is why I homeschool. Because there is too much nonsense to even teach a basic science class.

    Bullocks. I let my kid read Darwin and make up his own mind which, btw, is not at all offended by calling a myth a myth.

    A rose by any other name...

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  83. "Comparing someone to Rush Limbaugh is civil how? (No, you don't get to use the Pope's "I was only quoting someone" excuse.)"

    He was quoting me, so I will come to my own defense. First of all, nobody is advocating a form of civil discourse where nothing pointed is ever said, and we all join hands to sing Kumbaya. But Myers' comments were really gratuitously rude. "But he's right!" you say. "Address the argument, not the tone," you say. Sorry, it's not that simple. *Even if somebody is RIGHT, that does NOT give them an automatic get-out-of-being-an-asshole-free card.*

    Why is Myers sort of like Rush Limbaugh? Because *even if* you are a conservative, you should be able to see that Rush Limbaugh is a big problem. He is less interested in the truth than in scoring points against the other team, by hook or by crook. And *even if* you are an atheist and *even if* you agree with him about the textbook question (I'm not sure what I think), he is still being a huge jerk for no good reason.

    Being *gratuitously* abusive may not be a fallacy in itself, but it is (1) ethically indefensible, (2) strategically stupid in terms of persuasion of opponents (as opposed to cheerleading for the home fans).

    One meta-suggestion for this discussion: the issue of the textbook and the issue of tone should be totally separated. They are two completely different questions, and the fact that they are still convolved together 70 comments in is kind of sad. It shows we are approaching this argument like politicians, not rationalists.

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  84. By the way, if anybody doubts that tone matters, I invite them to read this exchange between de Dora and Ophelia Benson: (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/sam_harris_is_back_arguing_science_can_answer_moral_questions/)

    Benson is defensive and rude at first, then comes round and has an actual exchange of views with de Dora. I am not here to pick on Benson, we all make mistakes like this. But what the exchange illustrates is that *some* degree of civility is really necessary for most good discourse.

    The reason is really simple: although we should try to be rational, we should *trust* ourselves to be rational the same way we trust the cat to babysit the canary; i.e., not at all. In principle, I would love to be a perfect bayesian updater who could see a good argument even if I was being berated at the same time. In practice, I hear an insult and I start cooking up a good retort. I don't care about substance anymore. My adrenal glands have taken over.

    De Dora and PZ could have had an exchange and come to some sort of agreement, or at least clarified their disagreement. Instead we get a big blogo-shitstorm, most of which is about tone, which some say is important, some say isn't important, but all agree is BORING.

    So basically, don't be an asshole.

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  85. Really, this whole article is very poor. I find it astonishing that a philosopher takes it upon himself to stand up for a friend who has been criticized by a scientist - and does it so badly.
    The whole post - a piece about "tone" for heaven's sake (and with an undercurrent of jealousy - "how come he's a more important thinker than we are...") just reeks.
    You borrow his language, verbatim, including his sometimes felicitous phrases "milquetoast marshmallows" is sweet - but your piece is dull and flat from the first sentence.
    I defy anyone to read PZ's original piece, and yours, and to conclude that you are the better writer, or thinker. For whatever reason, probably constant practice, PZ is now writing better philosophy than you philosophers.
    And he's wittier.
    It's a shame you wrote this pile of toss (and all in criticism of a science book for calling creationism a "myth" - great cause!) because it exposes you, and with a little extension, all philosophers, to the charge of being left behind by "new thinkers" and new thought - and one of the stars just happens to be a Minnesotan biology professor.
    Please, criticize PZ all you like but next time - make sure you do it with a modicum of wit and comprehension. Otherwise, as here, you just end up looking stupid.

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  86. Ian: "Re-read Massimo's post I quoted. He states that the use of the word 'myth' in describing the history of a science topic (i.e., a secular topic) is to be avoided, due to church/state separation issues. At the very least, one person is saying that."

    Ian, reporting the history of a science topic in a neutral fashion by, say, using the more neutral term "account" rather than "myth," is hardly the same as avoiding it altogether. So no, one person is not saying that, at least not one person on DeDora's side.

    Darlene: "What a bunch of cowardly lions."

    Oh, yes. The idea of simply teaching children the science and leaving it to them to figure out whether it contradicts their religious beliefs is so cowardly. Please.

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  87. Guys,

    ok, I still maintain that my reading of PZ's original piece as including examples of poisoning the well is reasonable, but if you don't buy it, fine, we disagree (and I do admit that my interpretation is not consistent with the main definition of ad hominem, only with the poisoning well subset). But I insist that focusing on that issue is avoiding the big elephant in the room, and I wonder why so many people do it.

    Second, directing people to Wikipedia is perfectly fine, it is a generally reliable source for most topics, as shown even in peer reviewed studies. This is a blog for the general public, if I started directing people only to technical treatments this would become a philosophy blog, which is not the intention.

    Third, I don't really care whether individuals think that my writing is dull, flat, lacks humor, or whatever. It's a matter of opinion, I'll warn my publisher about it, so he is not going to be disappointed by my next book. But it is still astounding to me that so many people think that rude and debasing language is acceptable at all, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the substantive point. And yes, tone does matter in civil discourse, unless you simply don't care about civil discourse to begin with.

    This whole exchange, both with PZ and with some readers, has been highly educational, and the lesson I've learned is a rather dispiriting one. Oh well, moving on...

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  88. @iansp and @Massimo P: For me, the bottom line is the bottom line of why we have a fallacy called ad hominem. Suppose PZ Myers is a complete "asshole," to use iansp's word. So what?

    We are not robots. We will have our emotional responses, but critical thinking demands that we go deeper and ferret out the substance, and then address that substance.

    You're free to take the view that too many people are too mean and uncivil, and good luck with it. Rest assured it's a brutal, small-minded world out there in a thousand ways, and in contexts far and wide of the freethought commentary circles. Surely you've noticed. We learn this as kids, or we should.

    The substantive question is whether characterizing biblical creation myths as "myths" in a tax-funded classroom constitutes a breach of church-state separation -- more specifically, whether this textbook in Tennessee carries such a breach.

    Many in this commentary thread and beyond have explained why it is not a problem for church-state separation. Whether we are assholes or not, we are right, and you and De Dora are wrong until you demonstrate otherwise with reasons and evidence. Period.

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  89. There are number of people here who are missing the point. The whole discussion about what an ad hominem is or is not misses the larger point that Massimo was originally trying to make- tone matters!

    Do you really expect people to listen to whatever else you have to say if you start off by insulting them? This is not just a matter of "sensitivity" but of etiquette. It is particularly important when people disagree that they do not engage in personal attacks; doing so shuts down the line of communication as people stop listening to each other and become defensive because of the insults.

    Besides which, adding insults adds nothing to the validity of the argument. The only point is to undermine the character of the speaker. That may make you feel good and vindicated for the moment, but it is distracting and also endangers you of losing members of your audience. A person can be "an idiot" but still correct about a particular point.
    The bigger picture issue here is that if we atheist/ agnostics want things to change we have to engage in civil discourse with the religious. We especially, IMO have to watch our tone as the minority point of view. Religious people who may be open to hearing our point of view may stop listening to us if we are perceived as being belittling or insulting them. I think we need to pick our battles wisely.

    Yes, "myth" has many meanings but the main point of Michael De Dora's post is that in common usage many people take it to mean "falsehood". Yes this may seem like nitpicking semantics, but sometimes it matters. I doubt the words "creation story" would have garnered as much criticism.

    Changing the language a bit may be a minor concession if it means that the larger issue of addressing evolution is done. In this fight we have to pick our battles carefully.

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  90. Only addressing the least substantive points made in the thread and dismissing everyone who made them because they've been so gosh darned mean to you. Awesome.

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  91. Dale: "The substantive question is whether characterizing biblical creation myths as 'myths' in a tax-funded classroom constitutes a breach of church-state separation -- more specifically, whether this textbook in Tennessee carries such a breach."

    This is pretty much correct.

    "Many in this commentary thread and beyond have explained why it is not a problem for church-state separation."

    This is not. There have been false claims that DeDora had said religious ideas can't be contradicted at all. There has been much about the meaning of the term ad hominem. The closest things to a discussion of church-state separation have been things like the non sequitur, "science is not a religion, and as such its findings don't fall under separation of church and state. There's nothing illegal about the state using science to make decisions" (as if DeDora had thought that simply stating scientific findings was a problem), or your own unsubstantiated claim that one cannot separate science from non-science without confronting religious myths.

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  92. @JJRamsey: "This is not"? No, what I said is true: many in this thread and beyond have, in fact, explained why the use of the word "myth" under discussion is not a breach of church-state separation. Maybe you should re-read the thread if you still disagree.

    As to this -- "your own unsubstantiated claim that one cannot separate science from non-science without confronting religious myths" -- are you at all familiar with the ongoing cultural controversies over science teaching, especially re: evolution? Is it news to you that people are being fed religious tales and being told, over and over and over, that scientific accounts, especially from evolutionary biology, are sinister lies? This should not be news to you.

    In a saner world, yes, it would not be necessary to bother mentioning the alternatives. Chemistry books don't need introductory chapters calling out the point that the alchemists of old were not practicing real chemistry. This is because alchemists aren't currently spending vast amounts of time and money organizing and agitating to subvert chemistry teaching by muddying the borders between alchemy and current-day chemistry. Biology is not so lucky.

    We could quibble over whether "myth" was the perfect word choice, but one way or another, the textbook would have been a failure if it had not made the point that many candidate explanations out there -- call them what you will, use as gentle a set of phrases as you wish -- don't belong in science class and will not be given equal time or even broached as this book continues because they are not science.

    Whatever words you select, the point will need to be made that the [pick your gentle word] from the [Bible, Koran, Native American creation myths, Aesop's fables, Egyptian mythology, Kipling's Just-So Stories, etc.] do not belong in science class because they are not science.

    Any worthwhile high school biology textbook is going to have to make this point. If it fails to do so, the teacher will need to make the point instead. "You've been taught a lot of [pick your gentle word] from various sources. Those aren't science."

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  93. No people, the main point here is not tone, nor is it separation of church and state. The real point - and the real problem - is accomodationism. Nobody here knows for sure whether the textbook sentence about creationism being a myth violates the separation of church and state. Not De Dora, not Massimo, not any of the commenters, not anybody. Only the legal system can decide this question and as far as I know they haven't. In this situation, where the question is open, and given that it is of course true, that creationism is a myth (and, by the way, false that the age of the earth is only 6000 years) the last thing needed is that part of the rational, reality-based community sides with the creationists. This betrayal - I think - is the main reason that PZ got a bit worked up and I certainly understand his frustration.

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  94. Dale: "'your own unsubstantiated claim that one cannot separate science from non-science without confronting religious myths' -- are you at all familiar with the ongoing cultural controversies over science teaching"

    Of course I am familiar, but that is a non sequitur to the claims that you had made in your earlier post about not being able to separate science from non-science without mentioning such things as Noah's Ark. Furthermore, the cultural controversies in question tend to involve creationists trying push their views into the school curriculum, and creationists are legally blocked from doing so by the very governmental neutrality on religion that you would undermine if your suggestions were implemented.

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  95. JJ Ramsey et. al., I want to be certain I understand the proposal.

    The setting (I think you’ll recognize it): large numbers of students will enter the classroom believing that current biological science is a hotbed of controversy between “atheist materialist Darwinists” and “cool-headed ID theorists.” Many students will enter the classroom believing the latter and despising the former; their parents and church leaders will see it the same way.

    As they page through the textbook, they see only the “Darwinist” view represented, and in abundance. They check the index for the leading lights of ID and creationism, but don’t find them. They check for “Genesis,” and again, no entries. They check for “creation,” and it, too, is absent. Indeed, the text contains not a single mention of anything they’d understand as “their side” — god, Jesus, Bible, scripture, etc.

    So long as they also don’t find the word “myth” in the text, they’ll go merrily forward with the cirriculum as given, untroubled with the thought that their deeply-held convictions have been excluded or denigrated in an unfair, let alone unconstitutional, way. Their parents and church leaders will agree: “Yep, they didn’t call it a myth, so it’s A-OK with us.” For that matter, the courts (as you take them to understand church-state separation) will likewise see no undue denigration or exclusion of religion in this.

    Is that about right?

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  96. @Lorax

    You say that we ought to consider the use of "myth" by looking at the context in which it is used in the textbook. I agree but I have read about this issue on several blogs and haven't been able to locate it. If you can provide a pointer please let us know.

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  97. A little bit of actual legal research would go a long way here.

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  98. Morton,

    So if the legal system decided that creationism is not a violation of the separation between church and state then creationism is not a violation of the separation between church and state?

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  99. The issue should not be if we like or dislike someone's approach, but whether or not it is effective. The answer to that question, however, depends on who you ask.
    Did PZ achieve his goal(s) with his irascible approach or was he just venting his spleen to no effect other than to feel better? Did he get the desired response? Did he effect any change in another person or groups way of thinking? Did he even WANT to do so? Too many assumptions based on very little information. In the meantime, let the guy rant.
    Too much is being made of very little. 'nuff said.

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  100. Dale, the concerns that you are raising now are far different from the ones in your original post on the subject. Earlier, you had simply said that it was necessary to bring up myths such as Noah's Ark in the science classroom in order to teach science, and you did so without regard to whether the students believed in Noah's Ark, etc. or not. To put it bluntly, you were saying that the science classroom should go out of its way to not be neutral on religion, period, regardless of whether the students were interested in picking a fight about creationism. If you wish to change your stance, fine, but don't pretend that what you are arguing now is what you had been arguing earlier.

    Dale: "So long as they also don’t find the word 'myth' in the text, they’ll go merrily forward with the cirriculum as given, untroubled with the thought that their deeply-held convictions have been excluded or denigrated in an unfair, let alone unconstitutional, way."

    I don't care if the parents or students feel snubbed by the lack of mention of the rogues' gallery of creationists. I just care if they have any legal basis to start a fight. If their feelings are bruised, that's their problem. Let them stew.

    Dale: "For that matter, the courts (as you take them to understand church-state separation) will likewise see no undue denigration or exclusion of religion in this."

    Of course the courts would see no undue denigration. What makes you think that they would?

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  101. "Creationism" is a story which has been positively contradicted by science. To say that a science textbook cannot, therefore, call "creationism" (note: not "religion") a "myth", and then going on to show the evidence that it is, in fact, a myth, is patently absurd. And that is what is being proposed by those who are objecting to the use of the word.

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  102. I'm too busy to look back over this enormous collection of comments, but I just want to say the following: Massimo, I disagree with you often, but occasionally you surprise me by stating my own views better than I could have.

    I've realized over time that you have taken a philosophical position that opens you to attacks from "both sides" (but surely there are more then two!) of the epistemological aisle. There's something brave about that. Thank you.

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  103. Scott,

    thanks for your comment. First of all I appreciate the ability to agree to disagree while keeping talking in a civil manner. Second, yeah, I noticed the strange position in which I put myself of late, but I'm quite comfortable with it, and I hope to productively contribute to the overall dialogue.

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  104. I figured it out: subtract 14 days and it all makes sense: our favourite philosopher was just just having fun two weeks late (April Fools day). Otherwise, one is compelled to question the content of his local herbal inhalants, or, instead, the fact that he prefers to defend a friend that said something so remarkably stupid that even P.Z. felt correctly that it had to be mocked. As much as I like our favourite philosopher, P.Z. got it right, and our favourite philosopher should just admit it, and move on.

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  105. John: "P.Z. got it right"

    Um, let's see now:

    DeDora: "The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge"

    PZ Myers: "If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old ..."

    If that's what PZ Myers getting it right looks like to you, I'd hate to see what you think getting it wrong looks like.

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  106. WTF Ramsey, that's one of the worst pieces of quote-mining I have ever seen - even from creationists. Here is the whole sentence from PZ:

    "If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we're doomed."

    NOT 6000 - get it? De Dora and Massimo are claiming that it would be a violation of the separation of church and state to tell students that the earth is not 6000 years old and that is exactly what PZ is addressing. And of course he gets it absolutely right.

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  107. Um, Morten, what you added to the quote doesn't really help PZ:

    1) Even under DeDora's stance, science teachers can teach that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, so PZ's claim that DeDora is suggesting that "a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old" is a lie, or at least a gross untruth.

    2) DeDora's objection to singling out specific religions claims for contradiction, such as the Earth being 6000 years old, is based on concerns related to separation of church and state, not philosophical matters of epistemology.

    In short, not only does PZ Myers attribute to DeDora views that DeDora himself does not hold, but he is muddled about what DeDora is even arguing.

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  108. Ramsey, I didn't ADD anything to the quote - I just showed the whole sentence that you quote-mined.

    1) Yes, according to De Dora (and Massimo) science teachers can (of course) teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. However, they cannot teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND that it is not 6000 years old - which is exactly what PZ was saying. I'm baffled that you would insist on claiming something else on the basis of half a sentence ripped out of context.

    2) PZ is of course not talking about De Dora in that last part of the sentence. He talks about "philosophers" and De Dora is no philosopher. Actually, the blogpost that the quote is taken from is a response to Massimos post, where he defends De Dora, so PZ is of course referring to Massimos philosophical babble.

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  109. Morten, PZ phrased his words so that he was indicating that, according to DeDora, science teachers could not teach that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old. Good grief, in his earlier post, the one to which Massimo linked, he even said, "To actually state that it is about 14 billion years old, and make such an answer a necessary part of the student's grade ... why, that is philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class." So, yes, PZ Myers is indeed asserting that according to DeDora and/or Pigliucci, the facts of science cannot be taught in science class.

    Morten: "Actually, the blogpost that the quote is taken from is a response to Massimos post, where he defends De Dora, so PZ is of course referring to Massimos philosophical babble."

    Neither DeDora nor Pigliucci justify not going out of the way to disparage religious claims in science class on philosophical grounds but on constitutional ones, so PZ doesn't have any actual "philosophical babble" to refer to. Sorry, but PZ is still muddled here.

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  110. No Ramsey, PZ is crystal clear and he has never said that "according to DeDora, science teachers could not teach that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old". You just tried to make it look like that by seriously quote-mining him.

    And now you're at it again. Let's look at the context of the quote you mention. PZ says:

    "Great. Creationism? Can't criticize it in our science classes. Somebody says the universe appeared magically a few thousand years ago, I guess that has to be a valid answer on the test question, "How old is the universe?". To actually state that it is about 14 billion years old, and make such an answer a necessary part of the student's grade…why, that is philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class."

    PZ is talking about the ridiculous situation - that would be a consequence of De Doras position - that a science teacher could not mark the answer "6000 years" to the question about the age of the earth as wrong and therefore give the creationist student a lower grade on the test. This follows quite clearly from the part of the sentence that you conveniently left out: "and make such an answer a NECESSARY part of the student's grade".

    And of course there is philosophical babble to refer to. Here is some from De Doras original post (quoted by PZ just above the above quote):

    "It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy (bad theology and philosophy, but that's another matter). Hence, science cannot reject them in full -- for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there's been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher's cap to continue."

    And here is something similar from Massimo:

    "Consider again the example of a creationist who maintains in the face of evidence that the universe really is 6,000 years old, and that it only looks older because god arranged things in a way to test our faith. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that could contradict that sort of statement, but a philosopher can easily point out why it is unreasonable, and that furthermore it creates very serious theological quandaries."

    And of course this kind of philo-babble is the basis of the claim, that criticizing creationism in science class is a violation of the separation of church and state (because it says that no matter the amount of evidence, science cannot show with absolute certainty that creationism is false).

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  111. Morten: "And of course there is philosophical babble to refer to. Here is some from De Doras original post"

    Uh, Morten, you really shouldn't use that as a counter to a response I made to the following claim of yours:

    "PZ is of course not talking about De Dora in that last part of the sentence. He talks about "philosophers" and De Dora is no philosopher. Actually, the blogpost that the quote is taken from is a response to Massimos post, where he defends De Dora, so PZ is of course referring to Massimos philosophical babble."

    So is PZ referring to DeDora or not? Indeed, the quotes that you gave of supposed "philosophical babble" support my claim that PZ is horribly muddled. DeDora writes:

    "It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy (bad theology and philosophy, but that's another matter). Hence, science cannot reject them in full [emphasis added]"

    Note the "in full" there, with no parentheses and no commas. This is not a parenthetical aside, but a modifier, and one that implies that science can reject creationism partially. And what are DeDora's examples of creationist ideas that science cannot reject?

    "for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there's been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith?"

    Here DeDora speaks of a version of Last-Thursdayism, a view that is consistent with any empirical evidence whatsoever--which makes it immune to scientific disproof. And then there's this example:

    "Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution?"

    That's basically a vague kind of theistic evolution.

    Both of these are examples where empirical evidence has no sway, and neither example supports the idea that the age of the universe--on which evidence has a lot to say--is "philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class."

    Morten: "And of course this kind of philo-babble is the basis of the claim, that criticizing creationism in science class is a violation of the separation of church and state (because it says that no matter the amount of evidence, science cannot show with absolute certainty that creationism is false)."

    This is nonsense. Suppose that science could provide such absolute certainty. It would still violate separation of church and state to go out of one's way to single out a particular religious claim for disparagement. (Teaching science in a religion-blind fashion, however, even if it happens to conflict with a religion, is perfectly legal, however, and DeDora said as much.)

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  112. Morten: "And now you're at it again."

    Yes, I know. It's so awful for me to recognize "not 6000" as a parenthetical phrase, that is, a phrase that adds information but otherwise doesn't change the meaning of the sentence if removed. In other words, both this statement,

    "If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we're doomed."

    and this statement,

    "If a science teacher can't even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we're doomed."

    mean that PZ is speaking of a situation where a science teacher cannot say the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

    Morten: "This follows quite clearly from the part of the sentence that you conveniently left out: "and make such an answer a NECESSARY part of the student's grade"."

    Um, take a look at what I wrote in the post just above yours:

    "Good grief, in his earlier post, the one to which Massimo linked, he even said, 'To actually state that it is about 14 billion years old, and make such an answer a necessary part of the student's grade ... why, that is philosophy or theology, and not to be discussed in science class.' So, yes, PZ Myers is indeed asserting that according to DeDora and/or Pigliucci, the facts of science cannot be taught in science class. [emphasis added]"

    If you are going to accuse me of conveniently leaving something out, you should check that I actually left it out.

    As for the "ridiculous situation" of which you speak, it is entirely a phantom of PZ's mind. It's tenuous enough to deduce it from DeDora's "science-only" approach, and it certainly does not follow from a comment by DeDora (#69 in the original post) where in a hypothetical discussion between a teacher and a creationist student, the student is reminded that he/she will be held to account on the content taught in the classroom, not the church: "remember that your exams are about what the science says, not about what you believe".

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  113. Hm Ramsey, I think further discussion is futile. You seem to be so completely in love with De Dora and so determined to argue that PZ is wrong that it affects your reading skills. Nothing much I can do about that I think.

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  114. Morten, Ramsey, all -- Several days back, Russell Blackford put to rest the notion that using the word 'myth' automatically violates church-state separation:

    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/04/capistrano-case-qualified-immunity.html

    Standing constitutional jurisprudence does not support De Dora / Ramsey view.

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  115. Dale: "Morten, Ramsey, all -- Several days back, Russell Blackford put to rest the notion that using the word 'myth' automatically violates church-state separation"

    Fair enough, Dale. That said, the broad strokes of Blackford's views and DeDora's are the same, that is, a public school teaching material in a religion-blind fashion is fine, while going out of one's way to attack religion is a church-state breach. Where DeDora and Blackford differ is largely in the details of how much leeway a teacher has, and I'm quite content to go with Blackford on the matter.

    More importantly, Blackford actually sought to deal with the facts of the matter as fairly as possible. Contrast this behavior with that of PZ Myers, who acted in bad faith and grossly misrepresented DeDora.

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  116. Funny. Last July I attended PZ's speech and following discussion at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and was amazed by the difference between his face to face conversation (calm and polite) and his writings.

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