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The Negative Influence of PZ Myers

July 16, 2009
An unexpected connection between webs creates a gravity well.
Photo (cc) Automania.

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 or 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.

  1. July 17, 2009 12:37 am

    Presumably your mother is not one of those three…

  2. July 17, 2009 11:43 am

    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. July 17, 2009 4:59 pm

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

    • July 17, 2009 5:55 pm

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

  4. August 22, 2009 10:37 pm

    I would still read Pharyngula if he wrote about nothing but science.

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