Thursday, 18 June 2009

The New Boring

Well hey, if it isn't my favourite complete waste of time, Andrew Brown, writing another thunderingly non-committal shrug-piece in the Guardian. Brown's creationist-friendly 'let's all get along, you meanies!' witterings put me in something of a quandary. I read Melanie Phillips and Littlejohn and I get angry at all the deliberately myopic hyperbole; with Brown I get angry because his articles don't really say anything, or serve any real purpose other than mildly winding up atheists by continually missing the point.

So, there's this new creation museum in Kentucky, and Brown has got an email about it from Michael Ruse. You might think Brown, who seemingly spends his entire life examining the intersection between religion and science, might have a look at the science in this museum, and deliver a tentative verdict on it from atop his carefully-erected fence. Instead, Brown charges fearlessly into a field of carefully-erected straw men, shattering largely irrelevant arguments with the full force of his 'interesting' semi-conclusions:

For a start, it is not nearly as high-tech, he thought, as the Field Musem of Natural History in Chicago, or even the Museum of Science and Industry. This is interesting because one imagines that creationists are using slick multimedia displays to sell their ideas since reason clearly won't do the trick. But no.
So, despite having a fair bit of money, the Creation Museum isn't quite the Universal Studios tour. Great. Now we've got that out of the way, onto the meat!

The other point, easily overlooked, is that this was a very racially mixed place. I had not known that the modern creationist movement, from its very beginnings in the works of Henry Morris, was adamant that the human race was all one. This is a very interesting sidelight on the complications of modern American fundamentalism.
Ah, so not only does the museum have mediocre production values, it's also not explicitly racist! That's certainly one in the eye for The New Atheists, probably. Hey Guardian readers! They're not racist! They're okay!

Ruse adds that

"Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit ...I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people"

That is the second interesting and unexpected part of the story: that he should want to understand – indeed, to feel – how his opponents feel.

Whether that's 'interesting' or not is for you to decide, but I can't help feeling that calling Ruse's touchy-feely desire to reach out to creationists 'unexpected' is a tad disingenuous, given that that's essentially been Ruse's niche for years. You don't need to research much further than his Wiki page and his list of books and articles to know roughly where he sits in this debate. Personally, I find the 'framing' debate tedious; Dawkins and PZ Myers aren't going to change their combative styles, nor should they as long as their reasoning is sound and their passion is intact. I think a mix of bulldogs like Myers and less divisive but intellectually sharp figures like Ken Miller and Eugenie Scott are required to get evolution across, so I can respect Ruse wanting to take a more gentle approach, but there's still no excuse for him writing meandering crud like this:

It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false – that eating turds is good for you is [also] false but generally people don't want to [whereas] a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.
Yes, it's silly to merely dimiss stuff as false, but it's also silly to afford creationism respect because more people want to believe in than want to physically eat shit. Criticise Dawkins all you like, but he's done plenty to try and actually explain the science of evolution. Atheists have talked plenty about the psychology of creationism, but at what point do you stop saying 'well, we need to get a feeling of the psychology behind the Creation Museum', and start saying 'Holy fuck! They're claiming that there were dinosaurs and humans together in the Garden Of Eden!'? I'll be honest, if you feel like being a tad rude towards the kind of people so deliberately ignorant and entrenched in their worldview that they'll start building museums around their utterly unproven claims, I'm not going to stand in your way. Andrew Brown will (but you can probably just walk around him):

The new atheists recoil instinctively from the idea that they should get a feeling for the ideas and psychology of creationists. To them the essential point about believers is that they are stupid and crazy and wrong. So why waste your one life trying to inhabit a mind smaller and more twisted than your own?

I've copied the links Brown inserts there, where he portrays Guardian commenters as calling believers 'stupid', 'crazy' and 'wrong'. You can follow them and see if you agree with Brown's characterisation of them (suffice it to say that none of them use the three words he does; the 'stupid' one for example merely calls another commenter out on an apparent logical fallacy). It's time for the last paragraph now, and having failed to examine any of the Museum's ideas, repeated some of Ruse's comments about framing, and had his now-customary dig at the 'new atheists', Brown lines up his knockout punch:

But this constant identification of religion with irrationality, stupidity, cruelty, and ignorance is doubly self-defeating. It doesn't of course work to persuade anyone out of religious belief. But it also promotes some quite grotesque self-deception. For if all the bad traits in human nature are religious, and I am not religious, then I am surely free from all the believers' faults. Sometimes I think this explains the attractions of that style of atheism.

And here we run into one of the problems you can encounter in journalism when you call for others to stop bloody well stereotyping people; it kind of makes it difficult to then crudely generalise about others, which is one of the primary functions of the commentator. Having railed against the new atheists for conflating religion with irrationality, he then goes on to suggest that these atheists are self-deceptive and convinced that they are free from irrationality and fault. When I read this kind of wet-blanket journalism from the likes of Brown, it ironically kind of makes me want to run into his office, wanking frantically over a picture of an ape-like ancestor and screaming 'Dawkins is the new Messiah!' while I bash him over the head with a Tiktaalik bone. I mean, at least the creationist nutjobs are vaguely fucking entertaining.

Shorter version of this blog: Andrew Brown tells 'new atheists' to lay off creationists without really giving a compelling reason why. Again.


  1. Instead of
    "Shorter version of this blog"
    use tl;dr and then all the cool kids will love you.

  2. I almost did, but then I remembered that I hate the cool kids.