Monday, January 01, 2007

Appeaser Ed Brayton Asks Dawkins to Back Off

There's been a bit of trouble over the fact that Richard Dawkins signed a petition he shouldn't have signed. Ed Brayton attacked Dawkins and Dawkins explained that it was all a mistake.

Now, Ed Brayton has published his letter of apology to Dawkins. In that letter Brayton criticizes Dawkins for making it more difficult to oppose American creationists. This is the classic appeasement position and I'm delighted that Brayton has made his position clear. I reject it entirely. Writing to Dawkins to ask him to tone down his criticism of religion is a really, really stupid thing to do. Among other things, it shows us that Brayton doesn't understand the fight between rationalism and superstition.

It shows us something else as well. Ed Brayton needs to learn that the world does not revolve around the USA. People who live in other countries don't react well when they're told to put a muzzle on because their ideas might not play well in America.

Here's what Brayton says,
Let me address, as well, a more general subject. You and I agree on a great many things and disagree on a few. We are both staunch defenders of evolution against the ignorant attacks of creationists of every stripe, but I genuinely do believe that your aggressive anti-theism makes it more difficult for those of us engaged in the daily fight to protect science education to make our case. I hope that you understand what I believe to be the single most important aspect of this dispute, which is that the vast, vast majority of those who reject evolution do so solely because they believe it disproves their religion. The average person knows as little about evolutionary biology as I know about Sumerian architecture, which is to say virtually nothing. The only thing they know, on an almost reactive level, is that evolution = no god = no morality. Now, I think it's important to attack this misconception at the levels you do as well, by pointing out that atheism does not lead to immorality, and I make that argument loudly and often. But I assure you that for those of us "on the ground" in the battle, so to speak, every anti-theistic statement you make is amplified by our opponents and used as a sort of prophylactic to guard against the infiltration of not only evolution but of virtually all scientific thought.

I am in full agreement with Dr. Tyson, in his admonition to you at the recent Beyond Belief conference, that if you would just be more circumspect in your hostility toward religion, at least in regards to those who are largely on our side in the evolution conflict, it would help a great deal. I hope you will accept that criticism from me as graciously as you accepted it from him at the time ( and I say that with full recognition that I could also learn a thing or two about being more reserved and less bombastic from time to time). I can tell you with no hesitation that it would make my work in this regard a good deal easier and would help avoid the kinds of emotional distractions that are fed and amplified by the anti-evolution movement.
I'd like to make one more point. I find it very offensive for Ed Brayton to state that he is "on the ground" in the fight against creationism, implying that Richard Dawkins isn't. Brayton is not a scientist and he is not an expert on evolution. Yet Brayton is lecturing Dawkins on the proper strategy to pursue in order to defeat the forces of superstition and anti-science. That's hubris.

11 comments:

  1. Happy New Year!

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  2. Isn't it also rather amazing that he had the gall to call that pompous posturing on a pedestal a "letter of apology"? It's a lecture and a self-righteous proclamation that he was right all along.

    The only hint of an apology is weakened with a qualifier: "If I was uncharitable in my interpretations of your position, I do apologize for that." Of course, if you read what else he has written, he does not consider himself uncharitable in his accusations, but 100% justified...so in other words, he didn't apologize at all.

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  3. Brayton does have one small point, even though he makes it using Chamberlain rhetoric. Make even the most innocuous criticism of their beliefs, and theists will instantaneously deafen themselves to anything factual you have to say about science and use your statement as fuel for a "poisoning the well" fallacy. "Why listen to that guy about evolution? He obviously hates God." I've had Christians react in this way many times; all they have to do is find some reason to say "This person just hates all Christians" and they can justify ignoring your rational arguments in favor of science. This is the nature of irrationalism; they do not, in fact, want to listen to you, or to have "equal time" for "debate" — they just want you to clam up and believe what they believe.

    Unlike Ed, though, I don't think the answer is to stop criticizing religion and its innate unreason. This gets back to the Courtier's Reply. "Criticizing religion is 'just not done,' religion is privileged and above all reproach, even if it is wrong. So shut up, you atheist meanies!

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  4. Larry wrote:

    "Ed Brayton needs to learn that the world does not revolve around the USA."

    Thanks for making that point. And, more specifically, he needs to learn that the world does not revolve around Ed Brayton. His letter was an exercise in pomposity.

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  5. "I find it very offensive for Ed Brayton to state that he is "on the ground" in the fight against creationism, implying that Richard Dawkins isn't."

    Nice catch, since I missed that.

    Dawkins came up on top with Brayton on bottom - as usual he can't in the end resist attacking people (Moran, Myers, Dawkins) from a negative read, or worse, straw man, even if he sometimes manages to get some of the prior analysis correct.

    I note that Brayton has himself slipped in his chamberlaining. "I don't care about getting along; I care about what's right." ( http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/12/dawkins_repudiates_signature_p.php#comment-303603 )

    You should stop your parading and at least listen to yourself, Ed.

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  6. That was comment-303603if anyone was interested. Evidently this site doesn't like too long expressions.

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  7. Larry,

    Thanks for making the point that America is not the center of the universe. Too many Americans seem to assume that what works for America works everywhere (witness our nation-building blunder in Iraq). I'm sick of hearing that intransigent atheists like Dawkins, Dennett, Stenger (speaking of which, I've heard he's got a new book coming out *checks for pre-order availability*), etc., need to shut up because they might piss off ignorant religionists in America.

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  8. I would have been prepared to consider these words - "If I was uncharitable in my interpretations of your position, I do apologize for that" - an apology to Dawkins, and to take that as the end of it, even if the words are obviously a bit weaselish. I said something to that effect on Ed Brayton's blog.

    But I see he is still claiming that his original interpretation of Dawkins' positions, motives, etc., was the only rational one in the circumstances.

    Funny that it didn't seem like the only rational interpretation to me at the time. It looked to me like something crying out for clarification.

    So, maybe I did actually learn something in law school about being careful how you interpret things - don't jump to conclusions, look at the context, look at all the indicators, look at the likely purpose behind the words (not just the literal wording), etc. Hmmm, now I do know that lawyers are notorious for being able to discover ambiguities, but maybe even non-lawyers should do at least some of those things. In the actual circumstances, it might have been good manners. And when you've been caught out not doing them, well ...

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  9. Bear in mind, though, that the assumption that Brayton made when coming to his initial conclusions is that Dawkins, as a rational man, understood the petition that he was signing and what its implications were.

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  10. JJ, rational people regularly sign petitions without understanding the various ways they may be interpreted outside of the immediate context. Lawyers should know better than to do this, being trained to be aware of ambiguity, but most people just do not think like lawyers. Dawkins is not legally trained. Confronted with the words that Dawkins signed, and agreeing with the general sentiments behind them, an intelligent person who is not a lawyer, operating in the British context, would assume it was "really" about restricting goverment actions, e.g. by stopping compulsory religious education. Leaving aside the context, some words of the document itself give that impression, though of course not all of them. The damn thing is very poorly drafted.

    The assumption that Brayton should have made was that Dawkins would have read the petition in the way that it would tend to be read in the British context. Instead, he foisted his own literal-minded reading on it and attributed it to Dawkins, accompanied by some extreme rhetoric attacking Dawkins.

    Worse, when it was pointed out, by people with an obviously better understanding of the British context, how the petition would tend to be interpreted in the UK, Brayton was quite nastily dismissive. At that point, he began to look pig-headed as well as uncharitable.

    When Dawkins realised how the document could be interpreted outside of the context in which he was thinking about it, he explained himself and withdrew his signature. At that point it was clear that Brayton had been literal-minded and uncharitable, not only to Dawkins but to anyone who'd tried to explain how Dawkins was probably thinking. He had egg on his face big time, and should have made some unequivocal apologies.

    He gave an equivocal apology to Dawkins but not anyone else. That might have been the end of it, but he continues to claim that he was right on the information he had. I'm sorry, but he was not right, especially when he continued after being offered reasonable explanations of the context. Right now, he looks like a man who believes that any admission of error is a humiliation. I have no idea what he is really like, but that's the impression he is creating for me; I wouldn't be surprised if some others are getting the same impression.

    Yes, Dawkins should have been a bit more careful. Most people who sign petitions should be more careful. But Dawkins has come out of this looking a lot better than his attacker.

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  11. To be perfectly honest I consider just as guilty of jumping to conclusions as Ed was, and I am one of the biggest Dawkins fanboys out there. But after it was explained to me via Dawkins' clarifications, I realized my hysteria was unfounded.

    It seems as though Ed didn't want to accept such, and instead used his "letter of apology" to shore up his position instead of admitting fault.

    But in the end, the whole incident is going to be paraded by religious propagandists anyway...

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