Thursday, March 13, 2008

A pox on Vox, I say

PZ Myers asks the question, "Why do we even stoop to mentioning Vox Day?" and then, of course, he answers his own question this way:

because he is an appallingly freakish idiot, and always a reliable source for the most amazingly inane claims.

Thus, PZ is giving away one of the secrets of many of us "unfriendly" atheist bloggers; we focus on the most freakish and stupid of our opponents and ignore the more reasonable and science friendly theists. For example, Michael Heller, the Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest who was recently awarded the Templeton Prize, or perhaps someone like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a geologist and paleontologist who was also a Jesuit priest who came up with some ideas about a noosphere and a vision of the Omega Point. He was a proponent of orthogenesis, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way. That's where the lines between neo-Darwinian evolution and ID get blurred and complex.

But even when dealing with conventional evangelicals we don't take on a fair sampling of the less well known blogs like "Thinking Christian"or "Reasonable Christian," that also set themselves up as defenders of the faith. And they even defend faith from the attacks of reason:

...attacks on the doctrine of sola scriptura have weakened the church and placed reason and experience above holy scripture as the final authority in matters of faith and practice.

Instead, we follow PZ's lead and devote our posts to Ben Stein, Vox Day, Mike Huckabee, Rev. Ted Haggard, and we might even get taken in by fake evangelicals like Tristan J. Shuddery. I suspect that doing so could lead to missing out on the real attitude and political shifts that are happening among the fundies and evangelicals.

Are the targets we take on a fair representation of fundy, evangelical or Christian thought? To some extent PZ's blog has documented the large amounts of ignorance, delusion, foolishness and oppression he finds in the news. But how much of that is cherry picking of the evidence? Polls do reveal that there's more than PZ's cherry picked evidence to go on. Large majorities believe in a personal God, an afterlife, Bible stories, the Devil, Hell, Heaven and miracles and there is a very low level of scientific literacy and acceptance of human evolution in America when compared to other developed nations. But that still doesn't make Vox Day and Ben Stein the sample representatives of this group.

Of course, Vox Day goes out of his way to invite our attention by making his attacks personal and insulting. There's an old saying that goes "no publicity is bad publicity." To some extent that's true; any time you can get your name out in front of the public you will generate name recognition and possible interest in your work. It might be bad for politicians, but for actors, writers, and other artists a bit of a dark and crazy side helps sell your art. Just getting people to know you exist is the first hurdle in marketing.

Vox Day has at least figured out how to get over that hurdle even if he's figured out little else. He knows how to manipulate people to get name recognition. His name is frequently popping up on atheistic blogs. It's getting increasingly obvious that Vox is consciously trying to manipulate atheist bloggers by insulting them and daring them to read his book. For example in a recent post on Vox's blog, "PZ whines about Expelled," Vox complains about Ben Stein getting more attention from PZ than he does. He complains that, "Not even a woman scorned is as upset as the would-be scientific expert who is ignored as irrelevant." And that line might be projection with Vox being the real scorned woman:

Because, PZ, as we've already seen with TIA, whenever someone does make a strong case against secular scientists or atheists, these self-proclaimed champions of intellectual discourse suddenly go silent and try to pretend they've never heard of it.

See how Vox Day tries to provoke PZ into reading and commenting on his book? He claims that the book, TIA, is a strong case against secular scientists and atheists based only on his own insistence and the echo chamber of reviews he's gotten. So far, if we ignore for the moment Brent Rasmussen's review, the bulk of atheist reviews have been pointing out that Vox's book is really just a rehash of his old blog posts and World Nut Daily articles and that the book doesn't really accomplish what it claims to.

Certainly none of the positive reviews Vox has gotten have pointed to his quote mines, lies, straw men and distortions. For example, John M. Lynch at Stranger Fruit has noted Vox Day abusing Darwin with a quote mine. In chapter 1 there's the epigraph "Vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science" attributed to Charles Darwin. But Darwin doesn't actually say that Vox Dei (meaning the "voice of God") is not to be trusted. The quote in full context says:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.

And that's not a comment about God, it's about the fact that popular opinion, taken as if it were the voice of God, cannot be trusted. And that is quite different from the words Vox puts in Darwin’s mouth. It's an obvious quote-mine used to create a straw man argument, a tactic often used by creationists and ID proponents. Darwin was more agnostic than atheist and wouldn't make such a direct judgment.

And of course, I caught Vox in a rather bald faced lie here.

Mark Chu-Carroll's evisceration of Vox's recent World Nut Daily article, "The real assault on science," pretty solidly deflates Vox's bogus claims that "women are intellectual inferiors who can't teach biology or calculus and are incapable of practicing computer science or art." However, by way of example, I just want to pick up a side issue where Vox claims that; "secular scientists have concocted a narrative that postulates themselves as a noble collective of Galileos in peril of persecution from the God-addled, anti-science religious masses" by noting that, first, we're not just "in peril of persecution" because the threat to education and separation of church and state will have more dire consequences than that. Also, here is another lie from Vox:

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the empirical data shows that the predominantly Christian United States produces more science per capita than any of the many more secular nations, and Western military leaders are forced to rattle their sabers to prevent the scientists of the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing the latest in nuclear weapons technology.

Empirical data? What empirical data? And what exactly does it mean to "produce more science per capita than any of the many more secular nations"? If it's empirical, then how do you measure it? And wait another minute... Vox claims the USA produces large amounts of science either in spite of or maybe even because it is Christian. And yet even Vox admits that most of those scientists are "evil atheists." Aren't most of those scientists "producing" all that American science "secular scientists"? What about those surveys that show scientists are a very atheistic and agnostic bunch. It contradict Vox's earlier claims that science is a bad thing.

The first problem with that sentence is what does it mean to produce more science per capita than another group? I can think of a couple metrics; number of Nobel prizes won per capita, number of journal articles written per capita and possibly the number of patents granted might be considered a "production of science." And when we look up that data we find that Vox's claim that "the predominantly Christian United States produces more science per capita than any of the many more secular nations" is just Vox talking out of his ass, as usual.

So, who does produce the most journal articles per capita? Here's the most recent data I could find, thanks to a comment on PZ's blog: Per capita output of S&E articles, by country/economy: 1999–2001. It turns out that several of those European, secular countries Vox assumes we beat are ahead of the U.S., Finland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

As for Nobel prize laureates per capita, well, the U.S. comes in at number 11, again behind a bunch of those more secular nations; Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Even Austria, Ireland and Germany beat us.

As for patents per capita, the United States is number 12 on this list, again, those secular Europeans, Norway and Sweden beat us. Japan is number 8 there, but Japan leads the world in patents per million people on another list.

Switzerland, which is fairly religious for Europe, does well but other religious countries don't do so well, Israel is #20 on the list, just behind Australia and just ahead of Belgium, with 74 patents granted per million residents. Morocco is the only Arab county to crack the top 60, at #49, with 3 patents granted per million. There are some other Muslim countries in the top 60, but none are ethnically Arab.

And even when you get into the states within the United States, its the democratic ones that beat the Republican ones.

And I think that shoots down Vox's delusions about empirical data. It also ties into another post I wrote: "Religion as a force for ignorance and delusion," where I have some other charts showing that religiosity and denial of evolution seem to hurt a country's economy.

Still, all that was a side track. All I did was take apart an easy to take apart bad argument, I just questioned one of Vox's assumptions and found out where it lead. I began, and PZ began, by questioning whether we should focus much energy on people like Vox Day, (and Ben Stein). I would suggest that the only reason to do so is because he's such an easy target. Go ahead and have fun with ripping into him, but you probably shouldn't consider him as representative of the Christian community out there. If you're looking for more than easy exercises in taking apart bad arguments you'll need to widen your sources of information and stop following PZ's lead. And that's my advice to me.


windy said...

Who's "we"? Jason Rosenhouse of EvolutionBlog, for one, has addressed Heller's Templeton prize.

And I think PZ has many times in the past criticized the claims of moderate, science-friendly theists like Francis Collins (and taken heat for doing so), just not as much recently, for some reason.

PS: Love the "content warning"!

normdoering said...

windy asked: "Who's 'we'?"

We is any blogger who comes on here and identifies with what I'm saying to myself.

Peter Ashby said...

Um in the patents per capita above Morocco you missed: Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain etc, etc. Though I was surprised by how low secular Turkey is.

normdoering said...

Peter Ashby wrote:
"in the patents per capita above Morocco you missed: Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain etc, etc."

Whoops! Me thinks my prejudices may have distorted my quick and sloppy gaze at all those graphs.

Still, looking at the WIPO chart, with the highest rankers being Kuwait at #33 and Qatar at #35 the Arab world isn't doing all that well. Though Africa does worse.