Culture & Ethics
How P.Z. Myers’ “Incendiary Rhetoric” and “Class-War Claptrap” Shocks His Fellow Evolutionists (Prelude to a Rebuttal)
This series began when ENV writer Jonathan M. asked some tough questions of PZ Myers about evolution and embryology at a Skeptics event in Glasgow, Scotland. As a recap of this series, below are links to ENV articles which have appeared on this topic:
• Part 1: Colliding With the Pharyngula: My Encounter With PZ Myers: Jonathan M. gives his firsthand account of what happened at PZ Myers’ lecture.
“I was not rude enough to MacLatchie,” writes PZ Myers, despite the fact that PZ recently told pro-intelligent design undergraduate student Jonathan M. that he should be “ashamed to have been responsible for this bulls–t.” Apparently PZ doesn’t feel it was “rude enough” to have alleged that Jonathan M.:
- is a “flaming moron”
- “is an idiot”
- is guilty of “ignorance”
- is “completely ineducable”
- promotes “ludicrous nonsense”
- “doesn’t know word one about basic biological concepts”
PZ closed his supposedly “not rude enough” comments to Jonathan M. by stating, “You should be ashamed. This is disgraceful.” PZ’s treatment of a Darwin-doubting undergraduate student of course led to great applause from PZ’s audience during PZ’s recent talk in Glasgow, Scotland. Is this the type of dialogue that new atheist evolutionists stand for?
Such harsh personal attacks from PZ and his followers are nothing new. In fact, the rhetorical strategies of Professor Myers and his colleagues are so uncivil that they have earned criticism from mainstream academics and writers who are otherwise pro-evolution.
In 2009, an article titled “Blogging Evolution” was published in the pro-evolution journal Evolution Education and Outreach by Adam M. Goldstein, a scholar in the Department of Philosophy at Iona College. Goldstein reviews Myers’ popular blog Pharyngula, noting that “Myers’ antipathy for creationists often takes a personal turn,” commonly resulting in PZ “insulting” his opponents. Goldstein continues:
I do not mean to claim or imply that Myers provides no useful information about evolutionary science. Having said this, I do want to claim that the blogs listed in the “Amateurs” category above are a better source for information about science.
(Adam M. Goldstein, “Blogging Evolution,” Evolution Education and Outreach, DOI 10.1007/s12052-009-0149-9, July 2009 (emphasis added).)
What’s that? A credible academic reviewing evolution blogs in a leading evolution-educational journal just said that “amateur” blogs are a “better source of information about science” than P.Z. Myers’ renowned Pharyngula.
Another scholar who has attacked PZ is Chris Mooney, an ardent Darwin lobbyist and an outspoken defender of left-leaning politics. In his recent book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, Mooney co-writes:
The most outspoken New Atheists publicly eviscerate believers, call them delusional and irrational (“demented f***wits,” as [P.Z.] Myers put it in the Webster Cook case), and in some cases do not spare more liberal religionists, or even more conciliatory fellow scientists and atheists, from withering denunciation. … If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. (p. 97)
So according to Mooney, PZ’s uncivil style is not conducive towards making a society that is “more friendly toward science and reason.”
Even left-leaning media outlets like the NY Times and LA Times have taken notice of PZ’s uncivil methods. A 2009 op-ed in the LA Times observes PZ’s colorful rhetorical style:
Then there’s P.Z. Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus, whose blog, Pharyngula, is supposedly about Myers’ field, evolutionary biology, but is actually about his fanatical propensity to label religious believers as “idiots,” “morons,” “loony” or “imbecilic” in nearly every post. The university deactivated its link to Myers’ blog in July after he posted a photo of a consecrated host from a Mass that he had pierced with a rusty nail and thrown into the garbage (“I hope Jesus’ tetanus shots are up to date”) in an effort to prove that Catholicism is bunk — or something.
Likewise, in 2010 the NY Times took PZ to task for his uncivil methods. The NY Times article was striking:
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.
(Virginia Heffernan, Unnatural Science, NY Times (July 30, 2010).) )
Readers should not miss the gravity of what was just quoted: The NY Times is probably the most prominent of all the adamantly pro-evolution media outlets on the planet. One cannot imagine a major media outlet that is more predisposed to be favorable towards someone like PZ Myers — a professional biologist at a respectable university, and creator of perhaps the most popular pro-evolution science blog on the internet.
Yet the NY Times doesn’t see Myers’ methods favorably. Instead, the paper compares PZ Myers’ blog (as well as his fellow science bloggers) to “Fox News”–the ultimate insult in the left-leaning world of the establishment media. The article makes this comparison because of the “incendiary rhetoric” and “class-war claptrap” which permeate the writing of Myers and his fellow Sciencebloggers. For the NY Times to turn against one of its own to such a great extent would seem to imply not just that something is amiss, but that something is radically distasteful about PZ’s methods.
Sadly, PZ’s behavior is really not very atypical for the Darwin lobby. Is it a coincidence that what is probably the most popular evolution blog on the planet also happens to belong to a leading “new atheist,” who wields incivility to such a great extent that it shocks his own allies in the Darwin-friendly media? No, it’s not a coincidence that PZ has risen to a huge level of popularity, because his style and behavior are tragically common among hardcore members of the new atheists and the Darwin lobby.
Other scholars have noted the Darwin lobby’s generally uncivil and less-than-scholarly methods. In a 2009 paper in the journal Journal of Science Communication, Inna Kouper explains how tribalistic name-calling is used on evolution blogs to intimidate people from joining “them”:
In the excerpt below evaluations serve as a technique for reinforcing the boundary between two opposing groups of actors: “us,” the pro-evolution authors of the blog and those readers who agree with them, and “them,” the members of the creationist movement.
Excerpt 4 – Panda’s Thumb
It is another mark of the incompetence of the ID movement that they actually hand out an award named after Casey Luskin. Pick the most ineffectual, uninformed, pathetic loser on the creationist side, and use his name to inspire the next generation of IDiots. It’s actually amusingly appropriate.
Emotional and often insulting evaluations are very common for this and some other blogs that seem to be eager to demonstrate not only their rightness, but also to distinguish their group of reasonable and worthy individuals from others, who are wrong, unintelligent, and overall worthless. The frequency of such evaluations and mockery undermines the goals of rational debate and criticism. Such activities can foster solidarity among the like-minded individuals, yet at the same time, they may spur hostility in those who are undecided or hold a different opinion.
(Inna Kouper, “Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities,” Journal of Science Communication, Vol. 9(1) (March, 2009) (emphases in original).)
Aside from the fact that Kouper wrongly lumps “them” as “the creationist movement,” her analysis is spot on. Kouper’s thesis helps us make sense of PZ’s rhetorical style: by creating an “us” vs. “them” environment, PZ’s continuous mockery of the opponents discourages his fellow evolutionists (“us”) from becoming sympathetic to Darwin doubters (“them”).
But there’s another important reason that so many evolutionists use personal attacks, mockery, and other such incendiary rhetoric as a primary rhetorical strategy. Not only does PZ’s incivility discourage members of his own tribe from thinking about switching sides, but his harsh style also effectively intimidates many who are already skeptical of Darwinian evolution from speaking out, lest they become targets of that mockery. PZ’s harsh rhetorical style is, in effect, a deliberate method of silencing opposition.
In subsequent articles, I’ll examine how PZ tried to use such tactics against Jonathan M. in a failed attempt to win a debate over embryology and evolution. This debate must be very important to PZ because it hits at the very existence of the concept that gives his blog its title: the pharyngula.