The Negative Influence of PZ Myers

Does a super­massive blog illu­min­ate or des­troy?
Photo (cc) Dana Berry.

There’s a new flap going through a few Science blogs fol­low­ing the pub­lic­a­tion Unscientific America. One chapter of the book* argues that New Atheists in gen­eral and PZ Myers in par­tic­u­lar are dam­aging sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion by being out­spoken athe­ists. Religious people will flatly reject sci­ence if they’re told by people like Myers that sci­ence and reli­gion are incom­pat­ible, say Mooney and Kirshenbaum. There’s plenty of prob­lems with state­ment. Are reli­gious people really that fra­gile? There’s also the prob­lem that Mooney believes that sci­ence and reli­gion are com­pat­ible, though he’s never made it clear exactly what he means by com­pat­ible. I think he’s demon­strably wrong, and I’ll show that in the future. For the sake of argu­ment I’ll con­cede his point. If this is the case then Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s asser­tion that athe­ism need­lessly turns people off sci­ence is plaus­ible. It’s pos­sible Myers is hav­ing a neg­at­ive effect on sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion by pick­ing an unne­ces­sary fight. Even so, it’s not a certainty.

I can’t remem­ber how or when I star­ted blog­ging. The earli­est entries in this blog have been re-dated to later dates. The ori­ginal reason was that a blog was an easy way to keep a note of what I was think­ing. Lots of people start a blog, but con­tinu­ation is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. One of the fea­tures of blog­ging is you tend to read more blogs to see what other people are writ­ing. One of the entries I read was this The proper rev­er­ence to those who have gone before. It a post on deep time, the dis­tance back to the earli­est human ancest­ors. It’s pretty much what Mooney and Kirshenbaum would argue against. Myers com­pares the two thou­sand years of Christian his­tory to the time scale of Nariokotome boy and con­cludes that the Bible comes up short in describ­ing the pro­fund­ity of the human jour­ney. You may agree or dis­agree. Mooney thinks that Myers’ defin­ing moment was his muck­ing about with a cracker. Someone else in one of the com­ment threads thought it was him get­ting thrown out of a show­ing of Expelled. When I think of Pharyngula I think of the writ­ing on posts like that or Niobrara Sometimes I try and put up some­thing like that, but not often because get­ting it wrong frus­trates me. That may change in 2010 (not the frus­tra­tion, the lack of effort).

There were other early influ­ences like Early Modern Notes and Respectful Insolence. It’s an ongo­ing pro­ject so other blogs come and go which have an effect, like Northstate Science. There’s also plenty of oth­ers. If you’d said in 2004 that other major influ­ences would include a blog on the Levant or another on Military History I’d have thought you were mad. I have a par­tic­u­lar pit of loath­ing for tele­vi­sion pro­grammes about the American Civil War. Yet in all these cases the writ­ing by blog­gers has shown me how wrong my super­fi­cial impres­sions about these vari­ous fields are. My use of images reflects Aydin Örstan’s work on Snail’s Tales. I don’t have his skill, so I work round that. This web­log doesn’t exist solely because of PZ Myers, but it is part of a diverse eco­sys­tem. I’m happy it’s that way. I’d hate to be writ­ing Pharyngula II, but this site would be a dif­fer­ent place if Pharyngula didn’t exist. So would many oth­ers like the Digital Cuttlefish, which is another site I’d highly recom­mend if you’re inter­ested in writing.

In turn I’m told this web­log has influ­enced oth­ers. Like any good eco­sys­tem there’s a series of inter­ac­tions in food web, and some parts are subtly con­nec­ted to oth­ers in ways that are not obvi­ous. That doesn’t mean that because my web­log exists Pharyngula is a Good Thing. I know someone two three+ people who deeply dis­like this web­log. However, it does mean that simplistic state­ments about social effects are opin­ions rather than being remotely close to facts. It becomes even more dif­fi­cult to say if you con­sider the pub­lic as a diverse group in their own right who may respond to the same mes­sage in dif­fer­ent ways.

I can say that PZ Myers one of many people who has caused my writ­ing to improve, It’s pos­sible that if he never exis­ted I’d still think it’s a won­der­ful life, but I’d need evid­ence for that rather than an assertion.

*If you want to read it it’s chapter 8. Visit Amazon​.com or .co​.uk and use the Look Inside fea­ture to search for Bruising their reli­gion. The res­ults, and use of the back and next but­tons will enable you to read most of it.

+I’m temp­ted to apply for mem­ber­ship of one of those tribes which doesn’t recog­nise any higher num­bers and just describes them as many.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. sm says:

    Presumably your mother is not one of those three…

  2. AJ Cann says:

    I stopped read­ing PZ ages ago. he is a great writer, but I’m not inter­ested in reli­gion, so I stopped read­ing when he stopped writ­ing about science.

  3. AJ, PZ still writes about sci­ence — he is pretty good at tag­ging the posts, so you should be able to find them pretty easily

  4. ajcann says:

    But if I sub­scribe to his RSS feed, I am burdened with all the reli­gious crap. Easier to go elsewhere.