Ethics Dunce: PZ Myers

PZ Myers, according to his blog, Pharyngula, is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Yesterday, however, he was just one more arrogant, mean-spirited bully (if this were not an ethics blog, I would have used the term “jackass”), ridiculing Catholics who chose to follow the traditions of their church by displaying a smudge of ash on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

Like all bullies, he chose the weakest and most defenseless targets for his attack: “little old ladies,” whose religious devotion made him want to “pull out a hankie, spit on it, and clean them up.” Little old ladies, of course, are probably among the nation’s occupants least likely to go on the web and read the self-satisfied rantings of a professed “godless liberal.” As a liberal, revealingly, Myers didn’t have the guts to aim his bile at ash-wearing Catholic liberals of more societal heft, like, for example, Vice-President Joe Biden, whose gray smudge was on prominent display yesterday as he stood behind President Obama during his remarks on the anniversary of the stimulus. This is because, I guess, Biden redeems himself in Myers’ eyes for blindly believing in Jesus Christ by also blindly believing that polar bears are going extinct and the Himalayan ice caps are about to disappear.

I know that many scientists hold a grudge against the Catholic Church–Galileo and all that—and I take the title of Prof. Myers’ blog to be ridicule of the  Catholic dogma that a fetus is a human being at conception, since the pharyngula stage embryo looks about as human as a sea slug. (I should mention, however, that the widespread pro-abortion position that an embryo isn’t a human being until it takes its first breath out of the womb is at least as dubious, and a whole lot more revolting.) I know that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made it fashionable to be an anti-religious bigot, and to argue that all the worlds ills, or a lot of them, issue from the curse of organized religion.

Sneering ridicule of an individual’s religious beliefs, however, has no place in civilized discourse, or in uncivilized cyberspace. Nobody was more critical of religious zealotry than the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow (though Darrow was an agnostic masquerading as an atheist, I believe), but even in his essays debunking the myths of the Bible, he never descended into mockery of the sincerely religious. Myers is preaching to his own like-minded godless choir, of course: the comments to his nasty post mostly up the ante in gratuitous little old lady-bashing by people who clearly could use a good dose of “that old-time religion.”

Do scientists really think the way to convince skeptical non-scientists that their research is good, their conclusions are fair and their intentions are honorable is to insult their grandmothers and fantasize online about assaulting them? Wow–good plan! You guys really are smart! You know what else is good? Throwing poop at their houses!

The fact is that the decline of religion in America is a far greater societal problem than its prominence. Children do not learn ethical principles by reason and analysis; they learn them by rote, just as George Washington memorized his 110 rules as a child. Bible stories, as absurd as they are to take literally, are superb and vivid morality tales, and the core principles of Christianity like kindness, charity, sacrifice, generosity, mercy, and love–all of which Clarence Darrow embraced whole-heartedly, incidentally—should be part of every child’s education, just as they should be part of every adult’s conduct. In the absence of religion, with both parents working, schools prohibited from mentioning God, and the world of pop culture, TV and video games dominated by violence and crudeness, how does a young PZ Myers learn about what it means to be a good person?

Based on his last post, he doesn’t. It is high irony that those little old ladies who annoyed him so much could have explained to him something more useful than all his scientific knowledge, if only he had the respect and patience to listen to them.

It’s called “the Golden Rule.”

[Many thanks to Ken at Popehat for flagging the post in question.]

13 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: PZ Myers

  1. “I should mention, however, that the widespread pro-abortion position that an embryo isn’t a human being until it takes its first breath out of the womb is at least as dubious, and a whole lot more revolting.”

    I would like to know who actually holds that position. With references and citations, if you please.

    “Do scientists really think the way to convince skeptical non-scientists that their research is good, their conclusions are fair and their intentions are honorable is to insult their grandmothers and fantasize online about assaulting them?”

    What does an article about one’s opinion of a religious tradition have to do with scientific research? Nothing. I don’t have to like a person in order to view them as correct in their views about science. That’s what evidence is for.

    “Children do not learn ethical principles by reason and analysis; they learn them by rote”

    Because that’s how it’s taught in too many places. Are you suggesting they couldn’t learn by reason and analysis? Or even, we teach them the ethics that WE learned through reason and analysis, making sure at some point they understand that analysis as well.

    “Bible stories, as absurd as they are to take literally, are superb and vivid morality tales”

    Some are. Some are revolting. Mainly the ones dealing with genocide and murder. (Noah and Abraham.)

    “It’s called “the Golden Rule.””

    And it existed long before Christianity or Judaism. (Just not under that particular title.) And I’m sure P.Z. would be fine with the little old ladies ridiculing him if they wanted to. It’s called “Free Speech”.

    • Ah, yes, free speech—the final refuge of the rude, the uncivil, and the constitutionally ignorant! “Free Speech,” you know—I guess—only refers to the fact that the government cannot infringe on speech, and in no way conveys approval of of meanspiritedness, bullying, incivility and gratuitous insults, or declares that innappropriate speech should carry social consequences, like being called such here. PZ is free to be a bullying jerk—it’s just wrong, that’s all. I didn’t say it should be illegal. Pretty lame, morsec0de—if that really IS your name. Frankly, I expect brave defenders of the truth to have the stones to say who they are. What are you afraid of?

      Ethicist Peter Singer, of course, makes the argument that no embryo is a human being worthy of the rights of personhood; so do several worthies in the bioethics law text book in front of me. (Dolgin, Shepard, 2nd edition) More directly, I was taught biology at Harvard by Nobel Prize winner George Wald, who also took this view—explicitly, in front of my face—I was there. But it is hardly rare. Every pro abortion group that defends late term abortions adopts this view, by necessity.

      “I don’t have to like a person in order to view them as correct in their views about science.”

      Well, good for you. Do you read or watch anything? Because the human tendency to listen to people one likes and respects and to distrust those one doesn’t is on constant, 24 hour display in politics, in the media, in the popular culture, on Madison Ave. That’s life, and that’s how opinions are formed by most of the population because, you know, we aren’t computers.

      Are you suggesting they couldn’t learn by reason and analysis?

      I’m not suggesting it, it’s true, everyone knows its true, we’ve known it was true for centuries, Aristotle knew it was true, B.F. Skinner knew it was true, and it is absurd to argue it isn’t true. Try ethical reasoning with a 4 year old. Go ahead. I dare you. Ridiculous assertion.

      OK, MANY Bible Tales are excellent morality tales. And the “Ugly Duckling” is a misleading fairy tale. Irrelevant to my main point, as you well know. (By the way, if God kills people, it isn’t “genocide.” It’s “housecleaning.”)

      Did I say that the Golden Rule originated with Christianity? No, and again, so what? Obviously PZ has never heard of it, or he wouldn’t be bashing little old ladies for their religious beliefs. Yes, those little old Confucians could ALSO teach him the same thing.

      All in all, a very lame defense of an admittedly indefensible article. But Darrow could have done better.

      • “PZ is free to be a bullying jerk—it’s just wrong, that’s all.”

        Which is your opinion, and you have the freedom to express it. Good for you.

        “Frankly, I expect brave defenders of the truth to have the stones to say who they are. What are you afraid of?”

        The extremely religious have a history of harassing, injuring and even killing those who they see as enemies. While I don’t view you as such a person, nor do I think myself sufficiently a nuisance to attract that kind of response, I’d rather not make anyone’s job easier.

        “Every pro abortion group that defends late term abortions adopts this view, by necessity.”

        Well, I agree with you that they’re wrong and take an immoral position. Thank you for giving specifics as opposed to a sweeping generalization.

        “Because the human tendency to listen to people one likes and respects and to distrust those one doesn’t is on constant”

        Certainly it is.

        Being a human tendency in no way makes it a good way to act.

        “That’s life, and that’s how opinions are formed by most of the population because”

        Which is why most of the population is very wrong about scientific issues.

        “Try ethical reasoning with a 4 year old. Go ahead. I dare you. Ridiculous assertion.”

        I certainly will. And many do. It starts slow, certainly, with simple explanations and assertions where needed, until they age a bit more and can understand. Children are smarter than you give them credit for.

        “By the way, if God kills people, it isn’t “genocide.” It’s “housecleaning.””

        Thank you for demonstrating that you are morally corrupt.

        “Obviously PZ has never heard of it, or he wouldn’t be bashing little old ladies for their religious beliefs.”

        Certainly he has. And what does it have to do with ridicule? Again, I’m sure PZ would have no problem if the little old ladies wished to bad mouth him. Particularly if it was for good reasons, as he thinks he has.

        “All in all, a very lame defense”

        Who said I was making a defense? I was responding to your mistakes. You can feel however you want about PZ.

    • Bob,
      Please forgive my intrusion. I know Jack can answer for himself, but I’m really bored and have no one to talk to…so I’m going to write to this vast “internet” thing and you can feel free not to read. I’m sure his response will be better anyway.

      It doesn’t matter what anyone believes. You can certainly believe that polar bears are threatened with extinction and that Himalayan glaciers are shrinking. It’s what you do that counts.

      Do you ridicule those who don’t believe those things? Do you try to impose your beliefs on others? Do you deride those who bring scientific fact to light that does not further your cause or even harms your cause?

      You of all people should know, and I think you do, that Ethics doesn’t have anything to do with one’s beliefs, but everything to do with how people interact with each other.

      I know you could be on my side if you believed Dr. Evil was real and actually was the princess of Canada. Just don’t ask me to believe it myself. You could even be on my side if you believed 2 + 2 = 4.

  2. In the two years I’ve been reading your writings, you’ve really advanced your craft. Good show sir!

    I’m curious what mark-up is enabled…you should have a little “pop-up” link next to where it says “Website” in the Leave a Reply section.

    One last question. What’s with the smiley face up top?

    Quote
    Bold
    Italicize
    http://www.ethicsalarms.com

    • Oh, you finally saw the smiley face, eh? My friend Loren Platzman pointed it out to me. It’s some kind of WordPress code thingy—I ggoled it once, and now I’ve forgotten. On some systems, you can’t see it at all.
      Thanks for the kind words.

  3. What does “science” have to do with religious belief? Faith is supposed to be the belief in the unprovable. Will Myers now go to India and rub off all the red dots on Indian women’s foreheads? Or tear off the turbans the Sikhs’ wear?

    Science run amok is the fear of many. And the recent proofs emerging about the many falsehoods supporting “global warming” and/or “climate change” (take your pick) will make it even worse. When science interferes with faith (or just outright chooses not to understand it) they are overstepping their bounds.

    There’s a great book written by scientists (I will have to find the name and write back) who say that the more they have learned about the workings of the human body and the earth the more they have come to believe in some kind of overarching intelligence that created such an intricate, working environment — both in the world and in the human body.

    Meantime, this is yet another case of one scientist with tunnel vision, who doesn’t see the world and the culture as it really is. When I was in college a brilliant young man I knew well was absolutely incensed that the MCATs included questions about culture, literature, and history. “Why do I have to know that? I’m going to be a DOCTOR, for God’s sake!” I told him, sweetly, “Because you’re going to be treating PEOPLE, for God’s sake, and you have to know more than what’s in the test tube, babe.” He failed his MCATs and is a highly regarded lab researcher. Lucky us.

  4. Thanks for the hat tip.

    I actually read Myers’ blog — uh — religiously. I find the science interesting. He’s good at explaining it to non-scientists. I agree with many of his points about excesses of religious communities.

    But despite the fact that I go to church, I can’t find it in my heart to be more than amused by his steady drumbeat of posts belittling people like me. As I wrote back during the host episode, it’s needy trolling, little more.

  5. To MorseCode’s last…

    All very peculiar comments, if you ask me.

    I love it when critics state an opinion is an opinion, as if that 1) elucidates anything that already wasn’t obvious and 2) somehow is an argument. It isn’t it’s an opinion, and it happens to be correct, whether you understand that or not. All points of view are not equally valid.

    Oh, you’re afraid that your comment will subject you to life-threatening attack? Right. The last time an individual was injured by a stranger for a blog post was—let me see—never. Inherently unbelievable answer.

    I am religious? What possible hint of that do you read here?

    I never said that the fact that persuasion is usually based on non-rational factors was a good way to act, or implied it. My “mistakes” are all in your distortions of my statement.

    “Thank you for demonstrating that you are morally corrupt.”

    1) That was a joke. 2) I was referring to a theoretical God’s point of view in what we agree are fictional stories. I strongly doubt that the God of the Old Testament felt he was engaged in genocide, and since “He” wrote the book, “He” gets to make the Rules. Clear?

    Uh, are you really saying that the Golden Rule, which refers to conduct generally, doesn’t apply to verbal ridicule of the religious? Or that its say “Do Unto Others As You Would Be Able To Tolerate Others Doing To You”? Or that PZ actively wants (“would have done”) to be ridiculed? Are we eveb talking about the same Golden Rule?

    Assuming we are, your devastating point is that he knows it, but PZ just doesn’t follow it? Oh. Touche.

    I have no idea what you think you’re doing. It’s not enlightening or productive commentary. Showing you like PZ’s blog, I guess. Oddly, usually I do too.

  6. I sometimes wonder what is wrong with biologists like PZ Myers. Too many of them seem overly preoccupied with the evolution vs. creation question and they don’t handle it very well. Instead of engaging in a rational discussion and then leaving it at that, they have made it a crusade to denigrate and destroy all religion. They won’t accept that people have to be allowed to disagree with them and go on their way. In the process, they have become the mirror image of what they oppose, the dogmatist.

    The physicist R.A. Millikan defined dogmatism as “certainty without knowledge”.

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