Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[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.

P.S.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

  1. Chip Smith here, of Nine-Banded Books.

    For those who might be interested, the entire Counter-Currents interview with me (the page to which you linked is one of three parts) is posted on my blog, The Hoover Hog. Here’s a link to the main page:

    http://hooverhog.typepad.com/

    I’d also like to note that the central arguments in “The Myth of Natural Rights” are very much in line with much “genuine scholarship” in moral and political philosophy. Try distinguishing the foundational points developed in David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement, for starters, from Rollins’ more stridently pitched “amoralism.” Or compare Rollins’ position with Joel Marks’ recent hop-skip from hard atheism to moral nihilism. If L.A. Rollins isn’t your cup of hemlock, that’s fine. I think it is a mistake, however, to relegate his plainspoken critique of natural law theory (or “The Great God Natural Law,” to borrow Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase) to the lunatic fringe.

    Experience has taught me that there is little point in arguing with people who are quick to deploy the “denier” label in whatever context, but let the record show that I reject — or “deny” — the accusation, both with reference to my publishing venture and with reference to such of L.A. Rollins’ writings that I have published and with which I am familiar. If you should ever write a critical appraisal of Samuel Crowell’s work or of Rollin’s relevant essays on World War II history (the bulk of which, you must be aware, are highly critical of revisionist scholarship), I will be very interested in seeing whether and how you defend the charge that their views can be meaningfully described as “Holocaust denial.” Until then, I can only assume that your claim is based either on ignorance or a simpleton’s misreading of the work at issue.

  2. Good job regarding the Rollins book. Nerd of Redhead should apologize for that one. Unfortunate how Chip Smith the Holocaust-denier and racist shows up here.

    By the end, the Pharyngula regulars clearly stated that they believe the field of moral philosophy is junk in its entirety.

    Where “the Pharyngula regulars” are reduced, in your rhetoric, to Nerd of Redhead and Dalillama.

    N = 2.

    Not a representative sample, especially considering that Esteleth told Nerd he was not contributing to the conversation.

    Other points:

    If John Meredith was indeed a sockpuppet, do you not agree that that is good reason to ban him?

    The Order of the Molly (OM) is not an endorsement by PZ. It was awarded by community vote. PZ has threatened to ban at least two OM recipients that I can remember. Some recipients have changed considerably since their induction many years ago. The award is not revoked.

    Disagreement with natural rights theory is not equivalent to moral nihilism. Singer himself rejects natural rights, and that is a fairly common position among utilitarians like himself. Maybe you know this and I’m misunderstanding you.

    A contrasting thread from this year would be “I can defend both Lawrence Krauss and philosophy!”

    Also, moral philosophy is a common theme on the endless Thunderdome thread.

    It is clear to me that there was a series of misunderstandings between you and Ogvorbis. I’m not sure if they could have been avoided or not. There was no trolling, by either of you, and it is unfortunate that you directed that accusation against him. It is understandable that he responded similarly. Also somewhat unfortunate — but the fact remains that you shot first.

    You resorted to name-calling with your comment at 266. While your frustration with Nerd is understandable (hence David Marjanović’s attempt to intervene), I’m really not sure how you can expect the rest of the thread to go well after that.

    In many cases, I would hope that when a confrontation like this occurs, the newcomer can shake it off and try engaging in a different thread later, hopefully with different participants. But if you are the sort of person who invests heavily in generalizations from N=2, then I’m not sure we’d be missing much from your departure. If you come back, please quit the generalizations. If not, then sincerely, good luck in your future endeavors, and please quit the generalizations.

    • The core problem with this experience is that I wanted to agree with the original post, while still respecting respected scholarship. The fact that this was not possible is alarming. I should have paid closer attention to the comments before I injected my own. I tried many different ways to say, in effect, “I’m trying to agree with you in a scholarly responsible way!” Unfortunately I subscribed to the post by email, which caused multiple days of “ding” and “buzz” alerts from my devices, each one delivering a new dose of unnecessary invective, much of it naming me personally. Although this felt bad, I stuck it out. But after so many messages demanding “evidence!” and “citations!”, the only citation offered by the Pharyngula crowd (that I noticed) was that Rollins book, which I was honestly prepared to read until I checked into it further. You can’t imagine my rage at discovering that this was the only item offered to me as a critique of… of what? I barely got to say what my own opinions are because I was too busy arguing that scholarly theories should be treated with respect even if we don’t agree with them.

      Upon review of the thread, it is clear to me that the tone was set in the opening post, where PZ declares “It’s quite clear that libertarians are just ‘useful idiots,’ pawns of the far right wing deployed whenever they want some stooge to claim that inequities are rational.” This didn’t bother me initially, but the thread proceeds with increasingly harsh repetitions of this theme. The majority of participants engage in sweeping generalizations and stereotyping about persons and philosophies that anyone calls “libertarian.” The participants (N>10) don’t seem concerned that they are referring to an arbitrary class of people in sadly dehumanizing ways. The term “sociopath” came up frequently. Jxbean was unapologetic about the targeting of “people” instead of ideas:

      It’s quite reasonable to sneer at people who disbelieve in global warming, people who believe that vaccination causes autism, people who believe in creationism, and people who believe that Ayn Rand was an economic theorist. Those people deserve to be the object os sneering because they are clueless about their cluelessness.

      I might almost have agreed with this before being the subject of ridicule myself. But ridicule isn’t a substitute for measured criticism.

      As for the low sample number, I would respond with two points. First, I’ve been reading Pharyngula (and its comments) for a long time, and I’ve encountered similar critiques before but withheld judgement. For a while, I even thought there was something beneficial about the denunciation approach. Second, this experience wasn’t just an accident of the people who happened to participate at that time. This is part of Pharyngula’s design. Anri put the matter clearly at 188:

      If you don’t want to be called an idiot, stop saying idiotic things. As far as being treated nastily, it says in the rules that this is a rude blog. If that hurts your fee-fees, you’re not commenting in the right place.

      I’m not sure this is the right place for anyone who wants to advance the interests of science and critical thought. This place is just a vacuous shout box. I should acknowledge the presence of a few level-headed participants, like mx89, who said

      I think the an-caps and Objectivists are as unrealistic as they come, but a whole thread of content-free insults shows little in the way of an informed attack in the ideology.

      I had thought this community was supposed to be about promoting science and rigor, and combatting pseudo-scholarship. What I saw in this thread is absolutely the opposite of that. I don’t know what specifically to do about sock-puppeting, but the effect of Pharyngula’s forum rules is to promote the shouting and — at least in this case — to exclude some reasonable scholarly citation from the discussion.

      You are right to note that this is only one thread, and it seems like a hasty generalization to blow off the whole site as a result of one experience. But as I’ve said, I’ve been reading the blog for a long time. I don’t comment often because I don’t generally have time for online discussions (certainly not like this). Upon reflection, I think that ridicule and denunciation are very much a part of PZ’s style, and I just can’t support that as a reasonable way to promote rigorous thinking. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve imitated elements of that style once or twice; I feel much enlightened now. I don’t understand how these participants had the time to invest in posting so many pointless insults. I have zero time for this kind of garbage.

      • I’m going to limit my reply to the things which I care most about.

        N>10 Pharyngulites who you think are unfairly dismissing libertarians generally? I don’t care; repeat yourself about that again if you must, but it’s not what I’m addressing.

        N=2 refers to this statement of yours: “By the end, the Pharyngula regulars clearly stated that they believe the field of moral philosophy is junk in its entirety.” That’s misleading. I have argued moral philosophy with lots of people at Pharyngula, many times. I think I have a fairly good sense of how many people hold this or that position. The stance that natural rights theory is incorrect? Quite common, possibly a majority. The stance that moral philosophy in general is junk? Very uncommon — out of several hundred regular commenters, my sense is that there’s between five and ten people who believe that.

        But after so many messages demanding “evidence!” and “citations!”,

        From N=1 or 2. I’m looking at the thread right now. You’re talking about Nerd, and then Dalillama sort of picks it up at 322, with the request that you give evidence for the existence of something you affirm. (Cf., perhaps, the burden of proof.)

        the only citation offered by the Pharyngula crowd (that I noticed) was that Rollins book,

        From the same N=1, Nerd of Redhead. Again, not “the Pharyngula crowd.” Again, the Pharyngula crowd are not monolithic in their beliefs — probably least so on the subject of metaethics.

        You needn’t feel like you have to justify to me your choice of reading or not reading the blog; it’s not my concern. What I’m most interested in are the broad generalizations you’re making from Nerd and Dalillama. If you want to criticize those individuals, criticize those individuals.

        And yeah, it’s always a mistake to subscribe to email notifications. I can see how that heightens tensions. I’m going to try to point out again that there were multiple interpersonal exchanges. While you may get the feeling that it’s “me vs them,” the fact is there is a two-way exchange between you and Nerd, another two-way exchange between you and Ogvorbis, and so on. Regardless of what you thought about other people, the fact is that in the exchange between you and Ogvorbis, you are the one who initially stooped to name-calling.

      • Fine, you’ve made some good points and I’ll consider revising my post to more carefully target my criticisms. I don’t like re-hashing “who started it,” but I’ll just note that Nerd first addressed me in this remark: “Funny how liberturds always think they always have the most informed choice, when they are very ignorant in real life.” This statement was a direct response to me (although he failed to properly address me in the comment), and I took it to be trolling. I still take it to be trolling. I didn’t call him a troll until after this point, and I didn’t call Ogvorbis a troll until after he called me an “asshat.” In a normal universe, I would consider those behaviors to be trolling.

        As for the generalizations, I think there is a general pattern of ridicule, insulting and dehumanizing language, and this is encouraged by the commenting rules. I believe this is a bad representation of science and reason, and I don’t want to encourage it by reading or referencing the site.

      • I didn’t call Ogvorbis a troll until after he called me an “asshat.” In a normal universe, I would consider those behaviors to be trolling.

        I wouldn’t — rather I’d assert that you’re both wrong about each other — but I retract my claim about who started it. I overlooked “asshat” earlier; mea culpa. Farewell.

  3. P.S.

    With regard to natural rights, I stated repeatedly that I think its fine to believe they don’t exist, but it isn’t irrational to believe that they do, and that it is a subject with a venerable scholarly reputation. I think I established that by pointing to John Mitchell Finnis, an Oxford scholar who has made a successful Nobel Prize nomination. You don’t have to agree with him, but he and his theories are not suitable objects for ridicule. In the last 100+ comments, this thread seemed to perversely pit Finnis against Rollins (those are the only two external citations in dicussion), and even this contrast is not seen as relevant in any way. No one has changed their tone, no one has softened or qualified their position. Even the Rollins advocate keeps pounding away on his drum.

    There is really no clear analogy between ethical theory and science, but I might point out that if there are multiple competing theories in an established discipline, each of them with respectable scholarly support and none of them is a clear winner, you don’t proceed by simplistically ridiculing the ones you dislike. That’s not how its done.

    • “that Rollins book, which I was honestly prepared to read until I checked into it further”

      So you haven’t actually read it? Yet you call it “trash”? Because … what? Because “Holocaust denial”? Per Nizkor? Grow up, man. Or grow a pair. Read a book before you condemn it. That much is elementary, I should hope.

      Seriously, It’s a fun book to argue with. It made a big impression on me when I was young, which is why I brought it back into print. And I didn’t stop there. Nor should anyone.

      If Rollins is wrong, it shouldn’t be so hard to explain where and why his argument fails. But first, Jeeze, ou have to read the book.

      Wow.

  4. Chip Smith translated:

    “Give me money so I can get my 14/88 tattoo retouched. Oh and spend your time spreading mindshare for my company. If you don’t, then I’ll protest by hijacking this thread for the cause of white nationalism. Win/win for my Google ranking!”

    • I’ll leave, but it was never my intention to hijack the thread. I was responding in objection to specific claims made about L.A. Rollins and my publishing venture. I think that’s fair.

      I also hold to this quaint notion that a person should read a book before dismissing it as “trash.” I think that’s reasonable.

      Anyone who knows me knows that the “white nationalist” smear is ridiculous. The best you can do to support it is to play the Kevin Bacon game, plotting by degrees my “association” with folks who hold views that I do not share. That’s a childish rut.

      I have an abiding interest in intellectual controversies that provoke insight and challenge epistemic assumptions. The books I publish are to some extent a reflection of this interest and of my intellectual temperament generally, but it would never occur to me to publish material simply because I agree with it. That would be boring.

      • You’re a Nazi symp and even if you don’t consider yourself a white nationalist, it’s literally just one degree of separation, right? From your website:

        “[A white nationalist] recently interviewed me for his lively and interesting Euro-traditionalist website/bookshop”

        When people who aren’t Nazi symps get asked by a white nationalist site to do an interview, they either trash the invitation without replying, or they tell the WNs to buzz off. But you go to the WNs and chat about Holocaust denial over tea. Elsewhere you have a paean to Arthur Jensen, interviews with so-called “race realists,” and a sidebar link to AmRen.

        For somebody who isn’t a white nationalist, you sure spend a lot of time promoting white nationalism. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you actually think it’s bad for the world, maybe you should find something else to do with the time and energy you currently devote to promoting white nationalism. I’m sure you can find other ways to get your thrill of being a controversialist.

      • I think pest is accurate here. Even if you claim not be a white supremacist, your writings indicate clear sympathies toward holocaust revisionist thinking. One has to question your motives for pursuing discredited alternative histories that are well outside the established norms for historical scholarship. Perhaps you don’t believe any of this stuff; maybe you believe deeply in freedom of expression for unpopular views. In that case, here in the age of weblogs and ebooks, it seems that unpopular views can propagate themselves without the aid of print publication and distribution. Your publishing activities do provide material support to anti-Semitic interests, and are anti-scholarship. There’s a key difference between scholarship and what you do: scholarly materials are not published and distributed because of “free speech”; the are published because they pass a process of critical peer review. (I don’t mean to dismiss all forms of independent publication here; but without review, correction and endorsement from recognized scholars, it isn’t scholarship).

  5. You know, when I made my original comment on Pharyngula, I honestly expected it to be a one-off blip that no one would notice. I am now laughing audibly — not in the funny “lol” sense, but more in the incredulity sense — over just how far this discussion is from the one I expected.

  6. Pingback: Pseudo-scholarship and the Libertarians | Chris Winstead

    • It is not really relevant. I appreciate that nobody wants to be called “racist,” and I try to avoid getting into the business of saying who is or isn’t racist, sexist etc. With respect to the ideas, holocaust revisionism is repudiated by nearly all professional historians. The motivation for pursuing or promoting such fringe theories is automatically suspect. If asked “why haven’t mainstream historians endorsed these revisionist views,” revisionists commonly land squarely in racist territory when they try to answer. The possible answers are (1) something resembling a Zionist conspiracy, or (2) historians are afraid to challenge established views within their ranks. The first reason is racist in every shape and form. The second reason is simply incorrect, and is a generic crutch for wrong ideas.

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  8. Pingback: Pseudo-scholarship and the Libertarians | Fair Coin Toss

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