[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
I’ve been reading Pharyngula for a long time, and I generally find that I agree with PZ Myer’s statements about science, pseudoscience and most other things. During the recent debacle over allegations of sexual harassment and assault, I concluded that PZ had contributed positively toward raising consciousness about a serious problem. But there’s one aspect of PZ’s writing that I can no longer support: the growing prevalence of non-rational denunciations that are presented as supposed defenses of scholarship, reason and decency. At first, this style of confident denunciation seemed novel and appealing. But even if PZ is often correct in his choice of targets, he is now a role model for an anti-rational “shout first, think later” subculture in Atheist and skeptical circles. By resorting to hot-headed denunciation over careful analysis, PZ has encouraged a style of critique that is unable to distinguish legitimate scholarship from quackery.
While I’ve been mulling over this critique for several months, I must admit that I made up my mind after participating in a Pharyngula comment thread over the past few days. My critique might understandably sound like sour grapes over a bad forum experience. Also, a site host usually shouldn’t be blamed for the activity of participants. But Myers is fairly active in “policing” his community, and I think he has led the way in creating a style of discourse that tends to careless shout down scholarly contributors and quacks alike. To support my hypothesis that this is a “devolving” situation, I’ll compare my dismal discussion to a much more productive Pharyngula thread from three years ago.
The first discussion concerns libertarianism. The original post was a quick re-post of an excellent Salon editorial on Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”. Several individuals, including myself, lamented that the Randians have stolen ownership of the word “libertarianism,” which also refers to a lot of genuine scholarly philosophy that has nothing to do with Ayn Rand. As examples, I’ll point to Civil Libertarian organizations like that ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the GNU Foundation, which I believe do a lot of good even though they are sometimes called “libertarian.”
The discussion went quickly downhill. Participants ganged up against what they seemed to think is “libertarianism,” saying that all of it is junk — not just the pop-philosophy, also the scholarly works, the classical literature, the legal theory — everything that sounds libertarianish is junk. By the end,
the Pharyngula regulars a few participants clearly stated that they believe the field of moral philosophy is junk in its entirety. They rejected the very idea of reasoning about moral and political ideas. They rejected the concept of natural rights as “theological” gibberish. And they did it all in a very rude and insulting way (in the style promoted by PZ).
By the discussion’s end, I thought perhaps that these folks had adopted some radicalized version of Sam Harris’s “scientism” theory of morality. I was repeatedly assaulted with ambiguous demands for “evidence,” which was strange since I had not made any strong claims other than my belief that “rights” and “morality” and “reasons” are real things. One of my hecklers finally offered some “required reading” to set me straight: a 1983 book called The Myth of Natural Rights authored by “freelance writer” and holocaust denier L. A. Rollins. That’s it? This book is offered as scholarship after they rejected a lengthy bibliography of respected literature. This book is a piece of pulp trash from a holocaust denial publishing house, Nine-Banded Books (see this interview with its founder Chip Smith). To finish out the discussion, I noted that the phrase “Natural Rights” returns 71,700 results in Google scholar, so one might reasonably conclude that it is a legitimate concept for real scholarship.
I would still hesitate to place blame on PZ for all this, except for one thing: there was one contributor in the thread who invested significant time to offer lengthy discussions of the scholarly background on this topic. His posts were well informed and highly valuable to the discussion. PZ blocked the user and deleted all of those posts (for what, I’m sure, were Good Reasons™). What’s more, the guy who trotted out the holocaust denial literature is evidently a recipient of
PZ’s Pharyngula’s community-selected “Order of the Molly” award, which would seem to imply an endorsement of his general competency. PZ has managed to create In this instance, Pharyngula functioned as a system that deletes genuine scholarship, while holocaust denial and moral nihilism rise to the top. That’s some great work.
I promised to contrast my experience with a previous discussion on scientism and morality, from 2010, back when Pharyngula was hosted at scienceblogs. This discussion attracted many reasonable participants who provided detailed commentary on meta-ethics, and who demonstrated a real respect for scholarship. This was the kind of discussion I’d hoped to have at Pharyngula, but perhaps those conscientious participants have found better places to be. Now I’m finding better places to be as well.
The discussion thread continues, and
the Pharyngula regulars hecklers are still not convinced that ethics is a scholarly subject. They also keep asking me to make apologies for free-market libertarianism, even though I have stated repeatedly that I am not a free-market libertarian. This is one of the most exhausting conversations in my life, and I’m pressing on because of my love for philosophy, and perhaps also out of a perverted sense of duty as an academic educator. They want me to prove that my “claims” have a basis in scholarship, and have rightly observed that a large number of hits in Google Scholar is not in itself a demonstration of scholarly reputation. Here is my best attempt: my knowledge of ethical theory is derived from a university ethics curriculum. I had opportunity to study under faculty who were trained at Stanford and the University of Chicago, among others. (Before this, in high school, I had an amazing opportunity to attend a summer program in philosophy at Stanford; it was one of the greatest experiences of my young life). I completed all but one course to finish a philosophy degree (I skipped ancient Greek), and I was okay with that since I also completed an engineering degree. While it has been a long while since my days as a part-time philosophy student, there were two important textbooks that should still be quite relevant today:
The second of these texts is really an abridged selection of important historical texts from Plato to Marx.
The Pharyngula childrenThe hecklers might be shocked to learn that Kant and Locke were real philosophers who significantly impacted history, including the foundations of modern science. They are not just “fringe libertarian sources.” To my tormentors at Pharyngula: go read a book or two. If you study diligently, you should find at the end that you have a lot less certainty about your opinions.