Saturday, June 09, 2012

Why PZ Myers won't debate.

Fly, fly away!
A few weeks ago, biologist and atheist blog-king, PZ Myers, explained on his popular web site, Pharungula, that if for no other reason, we should "tear down" cathedrals because Christianity (and other religions) harm women.  I challenged PZ here to debate the subject in person, and also e-mailed him the challenge directly.  He knows who I am.  I predicted, though, that he would not respond at all, or would respond with mere vitriol and mockery.  He did not respond.  Curiously, PZ has just responded to another Christian, a popular blogger and video game afficiando named Ted Beale, who calls himself Vox Day, on this very same issue, indeed Beale had challenged him over the very same post.  Myers took the occasion to explain why he does not "do debates" anymore, at least not with "the other side," apparently meaning people who are not doctrinaire atheists. 

The funny thing is, PZ's "response" to Beale actually does show why he doesn't do debates, and why that may really be a wise policy for him.

Let us take this in small bites. 

"I don’t do debates anymore.  One reason is that they give the other side far too much credibility; another is that the format rewards rhetoric, not honesty.  But the other big reason is sheer disgust at the spectacle these loons can put on."

Since I probably know more about the subject than PZ does -- make that definitely -- wouldn't the real danger be that a debate between the two of us would give PZ too much credibility, than the other way around?  It's not as if PZ starts with oodles of extra credibility, here.  We both did our undergrad study at the University of Washington (me also, MA), the difference being, I studied things somewhat related to this issue, while PZ studied sea cucumbers or something.  One would think the debate would only give more credibility to the person who won.

As for "spectacle" and "loons," read on. 

"Imagine this metaphorical situation: you’re at a debate, and your opponent stands up and in the first round, starts punching himself in the face. Punching hard, until the blood spurts in great red rivers out of his nose.  You’re aghast, but when your turn comes up, you try to make your points; in rebuttal, he pulls out a knife and starts gouging out one of his eyeballs.  You just want to stop the whole debacle, call an ambulance, and have the poor warped goon hauled away.  But then afterwards, he crows victory."

What a colorful imagination our friend PZ has. 

"That’s a bit of hyperbole, but not by much.  Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day, has leapt upon my post in which I used the status of women as evidence that religion does harm to humanity, and eagerly tries to rebut me in a spectacular act of self-mutilation.  I won’t link directly to poor sick Theodore Beale — he needs psychiatric help — but fortunately Dave Futrelle quotes him extensively, so you can get the gist without feeding Beale’s pathology directly."

Now here's the real reason why PZ is a biologist and not an historian, and why he probably is better off not doing debates. 

Given a choice between (A) reading a blog by an ally who quotes your opponent, and (B) reading the opponent for himself, which is the course of reason and empiricism?  Which is less likely to leave you with egg on your face when you misread satire for straight argument? 

If you think (A) is the correct answer, please do read on (but warning: the debate takes a detour to the grotesque).

"But there’s enough bile to make you wonder.  I was arguing that many features of religion clearly don’t benefit women, so I asked:

"How does throwing acid in their faces when they demand independence from men benefit women?

"So Teddy rebuts that in the most appalling way.

"[F]emale independence is strongly correlated with a whole host of social ills.  Using the utilitarian metric favored by most atheists, a few acid-burned faces is a small price to pay for lasting marriages, stable families, legitimate children, low levels of debt, strong currencies, affordable housing, homogenous populations, low levels of crime, and demographic stability.  If PZ has turned against utilitarianism or the concept of the collective welfare trumping the interests of the individual, I should be fascinated to hear it.

"Say what?  So his answer to how this benefits women is to say it’s bad for society for women to be independent, and that honor killings, stonings, and mutilation of women is a small price?

"I think he just made my case for me."

I'm sorry to inflict the macabre on my readers.  But notice that PZ just ran off the road, here.  No doubt Beale was bating Myers in this passage.  But was Beale really advocating burning the faces of women with acid?  Read carefully, and there is no genuine sign of any such Taliban-like advocacy in the paragraph Myers cites.  Did PZ overlook the words "using the utilitarian metric favored by most atheists."  Does Beale accept that metric?  He does not say so.  In fact, in the comments section he clearly states that he does NOT accept that metric:

"Who said anything about supporting the proposition.  PZ was asking for an answer to a question, not a personal opinion.  In case it has previously escaped you, I'm not a secular atheist utilitarian."

Reading the man second-hand as he does, PZ ignores such piddling details as Beale's actual point, and pretends he is, in fact, advocating violent attacks on women:

"But how about this: Beale has not made the case that destroying women’s lives is a necessary price to pay for social stability.  I reject his bargain; I say we can have a more stable, healthier, stronger society if human beings live in mutually loving and respectful relationships.  I do not have to hover over my wife with a threatening jar of acid in order for both of us to live together happily; in fact, a life where I had to compel a partnership with terror would be a horror and a nightmare."

What's really going on here, is two popular bloggers, a Christian and an atheist, are both maneuvering to portray the other as morally reprehensible.  To do so, both ascribe to the other positions that they do not consciously hold -- either a desire to commit violence against women (Beale), or a moral philosophy (PZ's presumed utilitarianism) that could not explain why it is wrong.

Now of course, I agree with Myers that Taliban-like violence against women could be argued against in good conscience on utilitarian principles.  It could also be argued for -- "the end justifies the means" is a highly fungible guideline.  I'm not a Vox Day scholar nor his psychologist, so I won't try to figure out why he chooses such violent language to make his point -- my interest lies in PZ Myers, and how he reacted to challenges against his primary claim. 

For one thing, having been challenged by two Christians to debate his claim that Christianity is bad for women, why did PZ choose to respond to Beale and not to me? 

I wrote one of the first rebuttals of the New Atheism, a rebuttal that some say (and I agree) remains one of the best.  My other books, some of them related to this topic, have received excellent reviews from great scholars, and my research lies largely in the field of history. 

Beale is an entertaining and often clever blogger, but seems to be mainly a computer game geek. 

So why did PZ respond to Beale, and not me?  And why did he do that second-hand, and garble Beale's actual point? 

The answer is obvious enough.  PZ would rather mock and slander Christianity than engage those who believe it in a serious intellectual way.  Beale left himself open to that kind of slander, especially if one reads with one's emotions rather than with one's head.  The images he uses to argue with are like a red flag in front of an angry bull.  PZ uses Beale's imagery to wave the red flag in front of his own disciples, egging them on to rage, never in any case far from the surface on that site.

Debating me would not achieve that end.  It would "lend Christians legitimacy" in the sense that a real, adult conversation would undermine PZ Myer's libelous purposes.   

PZ then waves an even brighter red flag for his readers, which Beale furnishes, for his own purposes:

"One more. I also asked this:  How does letting women die rather than giving them an abortion benefit women? Here’s his answer.

"'Because far more women are aborted than die as a result of their pregnancies going awry.  The very idea that letting a few women die is worse than killing literally millions of unborn women shows that PZ not only isn’t thinking like a scientist, he’s quite clearly not thinking rationally at all.  If PZ is going to be intellectually consistent here, then he should be quite willing to support the abortion of all black fetuses, since blacks disproportionately commit murder and 17x more people could be saved by aborting black fetuses than permitting the use of abortion to save the life of a mother. 466 American women die in pregnancy every year whereas 8,012 people died at the hands of black murderers in 2010."

Let me say, reading this stuff, that I didn't much care for this Beale character.  I saw what he was getting at, but it's an ugly, nasty way to make a point.  But even disliking him, to rebut a person, one has to follow what he is saying accurately.  That's why, when PZ was studying sea urchins at the University of Washington, I was reading Marx and Stalin, whose works I loathed.  PZ Myers fails at this essential task, a prerequisite of philosophical discourse:

"A fetus is not a woman.  I’m used to hearing those wacky anti-choicers call the fetus a “baby”, with all those emotional connotations, but this is the first time I’ve heard them called “women”."

PZ is engaging in a form of equivocation, here.  When we talk about the effects religion has on the status of women, age is not the issue, gender is.  If Mohammed was wrong to marry a 9 year old, one cannot excuse his treatment of women by saying, "Oh, but she wasn't a woman!  She was just a little girl!  That doesn't count!" 

To the sharks with ye both!
The point Beale is making, in an admittedly nasty way, is that either aborting unborn females counts as abuse, or it doesn't.  If it does not, then presumably on utilitarian grounds, "the end justifies the means," and the abhorant racist suggestion he makes would be morally justified.  It seems far more likely that he is maneuvering PZ into an abhorant position, or a choice between abhorant positions, than endoring them himself. 

What we see here is a crude fencing duel on the moving deck of a galleon in heavy seas, both sides manuevering the other towards a gap where his opponent can be forced into the salty brine.  Beale is relying on logic and crude caricatures; Myers is relying on emotion and impressionistic but fallacious readings of those same caricatures:

"The racist tirade is just sickening.  So now Beale wants us to lump all black people together as “murderers” to justify forced sterilization, as a logical consequence of my values?  I’ve heard of that tactic somewhere else before."

If you don't like to be sickened, PZ, why not debate me, instead?   But we've already established the true answer to that question: PZ DOES want to be sickened, so he can illegitimately sicken his following against Christianity.  Unfortunately Beale seems to find bating him in such a way useful for his own purposes, as well. 

"Again with the logical fallacies.  Here’s a hint: the death of women in back-alley abortions can be directly addressed by legalizing abortion and providing responsible medical treatment; the socioeconomic conditions that create an environment of crime are not addressed by racially-defined forced abortion.  If we want to end murders by any population (yes, please), the answer is not the extermination of that population, but the correction of social and economic inequity and providing opportunity for advancement."

This man badly needs to read Dostoevsky.  The naivity of this argument, and the palpable failure of these remedies, is evident (he really seems to be saying that murder is caused by "economic inequalities!" -- is that why Hitler invaded Poland?  Is that why Al Capone paid off hit men?). 

But answering that misconception would take us far afield.  For the record, let us merely note that probably no one here is really advocating genocide-by-abortion.   Their swords are blunted.  The two gentlemen are again just dancing. 

"And with that, I’m sufficiently repulsed not to want to continue. Beale/Day has apparently been whiningly demanding to debate me for the last few years; now you know why I won’t even consider it.  Getting his words as second-hand text is nauseating enough, I’d rather not have to deal with the poisonous little scumbag directly."

Getting your opponent's words second-hand is not only nauseating, it is a grade A intellectual mistake.  PZ might not have misread Beale so badly, if he'd read the post for himself, and Beale's explanation in the comments. 

And that is fundamental for the "human sciences."  That's why I read Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in college, obnoxious as I found Marx and his followers.  I have found a lot of "poisonous" materials on Pharyngula, too, but one cannot intelligently critique what one does not know.

So we see why PZ doesn't do debate, and why that might not be a bad thing.  Instead of implying that he won't debate because we're all racist, women-hating savages (most Christians these days actually are women -- in the age-inclusive sense of female -- and most of us are now non-white), or because PZ Myers owns this vast stockpile of credibility and doesn't want any of it leaking out to nourish undead believing memes, PZ might just admit, "My whole schtick involves pretending that we atheists are a breed apart, and that the solution to religion is to mock it, deride it, and slander those who believe it.  I would lose credibility with my crowd if I were found on stage reasoning -- really reasoning, thinking and discoursing and looking at evidence and trying to really understand, rather than just slandering and dancing and posturing -- with the other side." 

He wouldn't even need to add, "Besides, I might lose."


Chris said...

Someone notified PZ that Vox's arguments were supposed to be referring to an atheist's morality so I'd agree with you about that. It needs to be said that Vox made one long strawman argument but that's beside the point here.

I would disagree with your take about PZ's point when he brought up such a colorful debating scenario. He was making a sarcastic jab depicting an apologist's over the top stunts and rhetoric during debates, instead of sicking to the facts of the subject at hand. He wasn't describing what he thinks someone would actually do.

For the record, I believe you'd lose the debate with PZ or with anyone for that matter since you're not sticking to the facts.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: I'd lose to "anyone?" That's, uh, sticking to the facts, which I (never?) do?

The real point, besides such sophmoric jabs, is that "the facts" are mostly on our side, however well or poorly you might imagine me hypothetically representing them. The pop meme bubble is on PZ's side, and it merits bursting.

Chris said...

I surely don't know what you mean. Yes, the facts that you ignore are if you look at every study that deals with female status in a given society the societies that rank the highest are the most secular and those that rank the worst are Christian. Examples: Secular and highly no religious European countries like Norway are far ahead of the very Christianized United States. These facts are easy to look up which is why I am surprised by your statements and is why I said you're ignoring facts.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: There's a difference between sticking to facts and being comprehensive in mentioning all the facts. I do the first, pretty well: I don't claim to do the second.

What you say is nonsense, though. As Part III of my series clearly shows, societies that rank BEST on a United Nations survey of 99 countries almost all have Christian backgrounds, those that rank WORST have Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, with Buddhists in between.

As for Norway and other secular European societies, I assume, of course, that cultures are formed over centuries, not in one moment. See my previous post entitled "The Face of Norwegian Christianity: Tale of Two Activists" for a clue as to how Norway got the way it is today.

Chris said...

If as you say Christianity helps women then wouldn't we see women being treated better in Christian countries, as in those countries that are Christian now? Not countries that had Christianity forced on them in the past? In that case the United States and Norway would be perfect examples. Norway is not Christian now. It has one of the largest secular populations, as does most of Europe. The United States is ranked as one of the worst in regards to the treatment of women. And this comparison is not isolated to Norway. Most other European countries out pace the United States in their treatment of women.

Ross said...

Chris, how exactly does one country "outplace" another in its treatment of women? How is that quantifiable at all? Where does this information come from?

David B Marshall said...

Chris: No. Moral ideals take time to catch on in a society, and they take time to erode. Even the rawest secular humanism in the West -- say, that of Richard Dawkins -- is deeply influenced, in a variety of ways, by the moral influence of the Bible over thousands of years. And how could it be otherwise? Just limiting myself to the Oxford University that Dawkins taught at, and that was founded by Christians, how could he not be influenced by Grosseteste and Bacon and Wycliffe and Boyle and Wilkins and Cranmer and Penn and Wesley and Locke and Tolkien, who have changed the whole world?

What utter nonsense, "The United States is ranked as one of the worst in regard to the treatment of women!" Where did you obtain such an idiotic bit of utter tripe? What, compared to India and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, or even Japan or Thailand? What are you smoking, man? If you haven't studied the history for yourself, please do study the UN survey results in Part III of my series.

David B Marshall said...

Ross: We're going by a 1988 United Nations survey of the status of women in 99 countries around the world (including 92% of the world's female population), that studied some 20 variables, having to do with health, education, work, childbirth and family, and social equality. Please see my earlier blogs, "How Jesus Liberates Women," especially Part III.

Chris said...

David Marshall:

Re: “Morals take time to erode therefore we will see morality decline in secularized Europe soon enough.” How can one test such a thing? I suppose I can respond by arguing that we will just have to wait and see. But this doesn't really answer my argument. As I said, if as you say Christianity betters women status in the world why do Christian countries like the U.S. have such dismal records compared to less religious countries?

Re: “Am I smoking dope?” I don't see how this attack can qualify as an argument. How did I come up with the fact that the U.S. has a poor record of treating woman? Easy. I compared studies about women by government agencies. When compared to the secularized nations Christian countries fare worse. I didn't say anything about Afghanistan, or that the U.S. had *the* worst ranking. I only said *one of the worst* which is a very different statement. I agree with you that there are degrees and the U.S. treats women better than in the Middle East (that's an understatement!) but that is an example of another religion that is oppressive to women. It's only because Islam has not been influenced by secularism that it treats women as badly as it does. Not true for Christianity, or else Christian and Muslim countries might be similar otherwise. This response doesn't answer my argument. Your argument is that Christianity betters women's lives. If this is true we should be able to see it. When we compare different countries by how well their women are treated we see that secularized countries treat women better than their more Christianity infused counterparts.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: I don't intend to be mean. But your claim that the US is "ranked as one of the worst" in the world when it comes to treatment of women, simply boggles the mind. If you really believe that nonsense, then do try to explain it, and back it up with something more than rank, empty assertion.

I've done that with my claims. Again, by the imperfect, but far better-than-nothing UN study, the US ranked not as one of the worst, but as tied for fourth BEST in "gender gap," tied for tenth BEST in overall employment, Number ONE BEST in "Education," tied with several countries for eighth BEST in "Marriage and Children," and tied for fourth BEST (with several countries) in "Health."

I also describe how Christianity has elevated the status of women around the world, historically.

So if you're not smoking anything, and you claim to know something about the subject, do try to back up your claim objectively. And don't just ignore the arguments already given. I would expect that from PZ Myers.

Chris said...

Rank assertions? I'm citing U.N. government studies. Look them up. No I think you are trying to be mean. Youre only upset because I've exposed *your* rank assertion and you have nothing to come back with so you're calling me names. For someone who calls PZ and Richard Dawkins and others out for debates you sure suck at them. I think I can see how any debate with you might go. Your opponent man handles your arguments and you then resort to name calling. Looks like I got your number. No wonder no one takes you seriously. Too bad I didn't listen to all your critics. I could have saved myself a lot of time.

Ross said...

Chris, he's citing counter-statistics, and is telling you where you can find them. If you ignore that and then declare victory without doing so, you're actually only just proving your own lack of debating skill.

Chris said...

Ross: You don't seem to have been following this discussion. David isn't citing "counter" stats. His stats also show that the European countries rank above the U.S. Just look at his posts about Christianity and women its right there. He's just ignoring the facts is all. Kind of sad when you think about it. My debate skills are fine thank you.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: I think the person who is not following even his own part of the discussion, is you.

* You claimed that I don't "stick to the facts." When challenged, you changed this to the claim that I "ignore facts" -- as if these two assertions were equivalent. Of course they are not, any more than "You don't limit yourself to eating food" is the same as, "You don't eat all foods." In the first case, the person in question also eats, say, soil, or wood chips, or small plastic toys. In the second, he may only eat nutritious food, but he denies himself kimchi.

Similarly, your first formula implies that I tell falsehoods; your second that I fail to tell all truths. You have not substantiated the first, and the second is banal.

* You claimed that "every study" has shown that "the societies that rank the worst are Christian." You seem now to want to back out of this obvious absurdity, but have a hard time admitting you were wrong. In any case you have offered no support for it. Instead, when pressed to support your assertion, you keep on pointing to Europe, as if Europe constituted all the rest of the world, and as if it were somehow self-evident that women have it better in all of Europe. (It is NOT self-evident, nor evident from the UN survey cited in Part III. In fact, the differences between the best European countries and the US were so minor, they probably signify very little of importance.)

* You also claim that the "US ranked as one of the worst in regard to treatment of women." This has been refuted with solid United Nations data. In fact, in every single area surveyed, the US ranked among the top ten out of 99 countries. Are you ready to admit this error, too, or shall we dance some more?

* Nor have you offered any evidence, even, that "most European countries outpace the US in the treatment of women," or even explained what you mean by this.

In fact (counting), on the UN survey, 6 European countries ranked higher than the US on employment, 16 lower, and one tied. All European countries ranked lower on education. 6 European countries ranked higher on "Marriage and Children," 12 lower, 6 tied. On health, 3 ranked higher, 11 lower, 10 tied.

So by this massive study, the evidence is that the US does better than the norm, even among European countries.

I think it's about time you started to come up with a little evidence to back up your claims, or be honest enough to back off from them.

Anonymous said...

Where are these data so I can see them for myself? You blog post said nothing of the kind. The study I provided showed the opposite and I showed my work. Where is yous?

David B Marshall said...

Who am I talking to? What study are you talking about? I refer above mainly to a UN study of 99 countries around the world, containing 92% of the world's women, called "Country Rankings of the Status of Women: Poor, Powerless, and Pregnant," from June, 1988.

David B Marshall said...

The information is posted on this site in the article entitled "How Jesus Liberated Women III." You can follow this address: