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Rate My Professors: P.Z. Myers

David Klinghoffer

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.
Part 2: Rate My Professors: P.Z. Myers: David Klinghoffer asks whether PZ Myers should be bullying undergraduate student Jonathan M. simply for asking some hard questions of evolutionary biology.
Part 3: Revisiting Those Early Developmental Stages: A Response to PZ Myers: Jonathan M. responds to PZ, reiterating that he isn’t simply critiquing Haeckelian capitulation, and re-explains why the evolutionary funnel model of vertebrate development is wrong.
Part 4: How P.Z. Myers’ “Incendiary Rhetoric” and “Class-War Claptrap” Shocks His Fellow Evolutionists (Prelude to a Rebuttal): Casey Luskin investigates PZ Myers’ heavy use of personal attacks, and why they expose PZ’s lack of scientific rebuttals.
Part 5: Demystifying the Debate with PZ Myers Over Evolution and Embryology: Luskin breaks down the embryology debate between Jonathan M. and PZ Myers into three simple points and counterpoints, revealing that PZ is not responding to our arguments.
Part 6: Haeckelian Recapitulation Is Not the Issue: Luskin explains, for the Nth time, that PZ Myers is wrong to consistently misrepresent ID arguments as only attacking Haeckel’s recapitulation model.
Part 7: Caught in Contradictions, PZ Myers Claims “Evolutionary Theory Predicts Differences as well as Similarities” (and Therefore Predicts Nothing: Luskin discusses three contradictions in PZ’s arguments, showing PZ has changed his tune over what evolution says about vertebrate embryos.
Part 8: PZ Myers Replies With Incendiary Rhetoric Instead of Scientific Arguments: After PZ writes a name-calling filled reply, Luskin explains that PZ uses personal attacks instead of scientific rebuttals.
Part 9: Challenging the Precious Pharyngula: Luskin discusses mainstream scientific papers which challenge the existence of the idea which gives PZ’s blog its name–the “pharyngula”.
Part 10: Three Flawed Evolutionary Models of Embryological Development and One Correct One: Luskin recounts various models of embryological development which have been discussed during this debate, concluding that evolutionary biology has failed to explain the data.
Is this how they educate young people at the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota? Touring Scotland, atheist biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers spoke to the local “skeptics” society in Glasgow. After the talk in the Q&A, which you can and should watch here starting at 3:44, a young man questioned Myers on homology and the evolution of developmental pathways, to which the biologist responded with a string of angry abuse:

Aren’t you a little bit ashamed to have been responsible for this bulls–t? So you have no sense of shame that you’ve concocted this series of questions that are built on ignorance. What you’ve done is classic creationism. You’ve thrown about a dozen different things at me in one question. Could you possibly be lucid enough to distill it down to one question?

The young man, who writes here under the pen name Jonathan M. and is fresh out of college on his way to grad school, goes ahead and does so. This is all going on amid jeers and attempts from the audience to shout Jonathan down. Myers responds by misconstruing the question — making out as if Jonathan was arguing about recapitulation, which he wasn’t — meanwhile offering further abuse:

The first answer is simply that the question is bulls–t. This isn’t a real question. You should be ashamed. This is disgraceful.

Let’s say you had no opinion on evolution and no background in evolutionary developmental biology but were simply presented with a video of this exchange. What would it tell you about the character of the individuals involved and the respective strength of their positions?
The exchange is between an older man, heavy and bearded, hardly a distinguished scholar but a professor nonetheless who’s a popular writer on atheism and science, speaking before an adoring audience at a Glasgow pub; and on the other hand, a physically slight young man setting out to embark on his own professional training in the same field. The young man is earnest and nervous. He talks a little too fast and seems unaccustomed to public jousting. The older man, on being challenged, is bullying, abusive, and personally insulting.
Is this the way an educator behaves when he’s got the truth on his side? As the exchange proceeds and the young man tries to formulate responses despite continuing jeers and shouts from a crowd of other bullies all around him, you can just feel the poor guy’s heart galloping in his chest. In his place, that’s how I would feel.
Yet putting feelings aside and considering it as a specimen of scientific discussion, the interchange is telling. When Jonathan references a sheaf of peer-reviewed research papers he has brought with him, Myers mocks him for it. Presumably, if he offered no documentation, he would have been mocked for that too. When Jonathan fully articulates his challenge, Myers ridicules him for going on too long. When Jonathan compresses it to a sentence, Myers mule-headedly misrepresents what Jonathan is asking. In his prodigious written posts here, including a recent response to P.Z. Myers, Jonathan has already amply demonstrated that, despite his youth, he is impressively on top of his subject matter.
Again, does this sound like the professor has science on his side? To me, it sounds like a secular version of the old stereotype of the domineering, oppressive religious-school teacher who tolerated no questioning and gave faith a bad name.
I keep emphasizing Jonathan’s youth contrasted with Myers’s age and, in the eyes of this audience of so-called Glasgow Skeptics anyway, his status. That’s because there is something outstandingly contemptible about such abuse in a case like this where it’s being directed so clearly down the ladder of rank.
There was a time when with one of our kids had a bit of a bullying issue going on with other kids. I told him if he wanted to mess with considerably older and bigger boys and tease or challenge them, I would let him learn that lesson for himself. But causing distress to a smaller or younger kid, or a girl, was sheer, disgusting bullying and I would not tolerate it for a minute. All my professional life I’ve been involved in fighting bullies and defending unfashionable causes and people that get picked on. I would not, not ever, let my son get away with playing the bully.
So too in other situations where there’s a power differential. In an employment context, if you want to try intimidating your boss or supervisor and see how far you get, you’re a fool and will have to learn that for yourself when you get fired. However there’s nothing morally contemptible about it, as there would be when the intimidation is aimed downward in the opposite direction.
You can see how Myers plays it up for the audience not by straightforwardly answering Jonathan’s challenge or correcting his misconceptions but by ridiculing and intimidating him. The next questioner timidly apologizes for asking what she says she’s afraid may be a “stupid question,” but this time Myers is gentle and accepting because she, unlike Jonathan, hasn’t actually challenged Myers or his views.
So I return to the question I began with. Is this how they educate young people at the good old U. of Minn. Morris? It’s a highly effective way of enforcing groupthink, which is why Myers has advocated it to fellow Darwinists, but what about as a method of honest pedagogy? You may question your professor in order to get clear in your mind and thus to accept and digest his opinions — that’s OK. But if you question him and intimate that you’re not entirely convinced that he’s right in what he teaches — if you are, in a word, a skeptic — then you can count on being met with a barrage of obscenity and abuse.
Several years ago, in a press release highlighting his advocacy of abuse and intolerance toward Darwin skeptics, we mistakenly credited Myers with being a professor at the much more prestigious University of Minnesota. Subsequently we received an email from the public relations gal at the Morris campus, protesting not our description of his bigotry but the fact that we failed to credit him correctly with teaching at UM-Morris! The college actually seemed to be proud of him and anxious not to lose a share of his reflected glory.
How pathetic, all around.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.