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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Mooney goes to Point of Inquiry

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) has just announced three new hosts for its popular Point of Inquiry podcast. They are to replace D.J. Grothe, who has left the CFI to take up a top executive position with the James Randi Educational Foundation.

The new hosts of Point of Inquiry will be Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price. Mooney will be doing about half of the interviews, while the other half will be divided evenly between Stollznow and Price. Before I go any further, allow me to make it clear that I have nothing against either Stollznow or Price. I know relatively little about Price and very little about Stollznow, but I've heard nothing to make me doubt their competence or fairness, and I wish them every success. Still, even if I could say the same about Mooney, D.J. Grothe's act would be a hard one to follow.

I was interviewed by Grothe last year, and I totally enjoyed the experience. He was friendly, skilled, and gave me every opportunity to explain my views about the imperative to scrutinise and criticise religion. The interview was not done live or uncut - it was quite heavily edited. However, I was always assured that the editing would not present me in a bad light ... and, of course, it didn't. Since I had confidence in Grothe, I was able to talk very frankly to him knowing that hesitations, false starts, and so on would be okay. There was no need to be on my guard, so the final product, if somewhat artificial, is a truer presentation of my views than comes across in most interviews, where the opportunities to open up are fewer and it is necessary to maintain a degree of suspicion and caution.

Thus, when Grothe asked me to re-answer a question because I'd brought up a point he wanted me to come to later, I was fine with it. I didn't say anything I didn't want to say, but I could trust him to do some shaping of the podcast, knowing I'd still be allowed to get across what I had in mind. With two people cooperating on producing the best possible product to get the interviewee's ideas across clearly, there is a feeling of mutual confidence and trust. The interviewee can open up because he or she is confident of being treated more than fairly in the end product.

I have every confidence that D.J. Grothe would likewise have treated someone with very different views from mine: i.e., help them to present their best case. He would not set out to undermine anyone with editorial tricks. I've listened to his interviews with a wide range of people holding an equally wide range of views, always being more than fair.

My concern is that I simply do not trust Chris Mooney to take the same attitude. Doing a heavily-edited interview with him could be dangerous. Even if he did not edit the recorded material unfairly, to put the interviewee in a bad light, he could make the interview a hostile experience. Sometimes, of course, we must all do hostile interviews, but that is not what Point of Inquiry is for. It's supposed to provide outreach into the community with messages that are broadly congruent with CFI's positions (even if not totally consistent with each other). That should specifically include messages that criticise religious doctrines, leaders, and organisations. Even prior to Grothe's departure, there were few non-print outlets for someone with views like mine - few places where we could explain our views in an atmosphere of friendly cooperation with skilled media professionals. Contrast the immense funding available to religious apologists, and the many sympathetic outlets they have for their views across the full range of electronic media.

Now the situation is worse.

Why is that so? Why is Mooney so dangerous? Because he opposes robust public criticism of religion, or at least of supposedly moderate religious viewpoints that are not fundamentalist in character. He opposes that kind of criticism even if it is civil and thoughtful. He is well known for his unfair and vitriolic attack on P.Z. Myers, in his book Unscientific America. More worrying, however, and perhaps more easily forgotten is that he has used this New Republic review by Jerry Coyne of books by Kenneth R. Miller and Karl W. Giberson as an example of the sort of thing that should not be said in public. If you have not already done so, I suggest you read Coyne's review for yourself. Consider it in its entirety before reading on. ...

Coyne's review is highly critical of Miller and Giberson, particularly their attempts at Christian apologetics, but it discusses the perceived strengths as well as weaknesses of their books. It certainly does not travel beyond the area of robust, yet thoughtful and civil, public discourse about ideas. Authors should expect this sort of criticism when they venture into print, much as they might hope for unqualified praise. Indeed, an author who received no review worse than this would be very fortunate. In short, whether you agree with its conclusions or not, there is nothing wrong with Coyne's review, i.e. nothing discourteous, irresponsible, unprofessional, or uncivil.

Yet, Mooney has claimed that this sort of thing should not be said. If you find that difficult to believe, check for yourself. Here is Mooney:

In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, "be nice." Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are "epistemological and civic humility" – providing the groundwork for "civic friendship." To which I can only say: Amen.


Note, of course, that Mooney hides behind a series of statements allegedly made by Barbara Forrest. However, it's clear that he agrees with her analysis. He is offering Forrest's thoughts for our edification. He cites them as something that we should accept, does so without any qualifications, and ends up saying "Amen", to indicate his echoing agreement. Thus, all arguments attributed by Mooney to Forrest can quite properly be taken as Mooney's own views, not just the views of "Forrest". Out of "epistemological and civic humility" we are not supposed to publish the kinds of criticisms that Coyne makes of Miller and Giberson.

The three supporting points allegedly made by Forrest are so naive that I must call them foolish. If Forrest, as opposed to Mooney, really did say these things, I have to inquire what planet she has been living on in recent decades. I can only deal with these points briefly, or an analysis of them will end up taking over the whole discussion. First, however, even supposedly moderate religion must be subjected to criticism for all the reasons that I have stated so often, including in my article in The Philosopher's Magazine, and it is nonsense to say that supposedly moderate churches do not try to force their views on everyone else. The quintessential "moderate" religion that Forrest/Mooney refer to is Roman Catholicism, which continually attempts to impose its barbaric ethical views on the rest of us through its influence on secular law-makers.

Second, just because we criticise fundamentalists, we do not have to give a free pass to non-fundamentalist religion, which can be just as socially dangerous, or even more so. Once again, the political power and influence of the Catholic Church, in particular, is immense. Year by year, it draws upon this in every country, wherever it can, usually to promote a morally despicable social agenda - attacking gay rights, abortion rights, the use of condoms for safe sex, the conduct of stem cell research, and anything else that does not fit into its miserable and medieval worldview. When it seeks to do this, it is natural and proper to ask what authority it really has. Where does it get the authority that it claims? From a god? Well, does this god exist? From a sacred tradition? Well, what sanctity does it really have? From holy books? Well, what is their provenance? Are they divinely inspired or are they all-too-human constructions?

Third, of course there are many different religions, but many of the so-called "moderate" ones are just as determined as the fundamentalist ones to translate their ideas into public policy. Often, as I've stated, the proposed policies are morally reprehensible. Once again, it is natural and proper to ask where the claimed authority to do this comes from. Do the gods of these religions even exist, let alone say what is attributed to them?

But, leaving aside the three reasons put forward by Mooney, the bottom line is that he does not think that we should write material that is critical of non-fundamentalist religion. Thus, Jerry Coyne's moderate and civil book review is held up as an example of the sort of thing that should not have been written. Worse, Mooney has since defended his views acrimoniously and often unfairly.

I have no idea what the CFI managers had in mind when they decided to employ someone with views like this - which are contrary to the CFI's entire mission - and such a one-eyed approach to defending them. But in any event, I cannot imagine working on CFI-related business with somebody who has such views and such an approach. They're free to employ him, of course, as he is to accept the job, but I'd not be happy to be interviewed by Mooney. If I did do an interview with him, I'd be in a situation of having to treat CFI's interviewer as hostile. I'm sure that many other secular public intellectuals would feel the same way.

It's an inappropriate, divisive, damaging choice. The controversy may help Chris Mooney sell more copies of his book, but it will not help the cause of reason. What on earth were the CFI people thinking?

72 comments:

Charles Sullivan said...

Mooney seems to be in the Michael Ruse mode of atheists.

They seems like throwbacks to me, to another time.

Jason said...

Russell I received the CFI newsletter email this morning with the announcement. I've been a huge fan of POI from the beginning. DJ Grothe is an amazing host and will be sadly missed. When I read that Mooney of all people would be (majority) hosting as DJ's replacement I had the exact same reaction you did. "What the hell are they thinking?" I can only imagine the shit storm this is going to cause in the Atheist Blogosphere. I've followed the whole Mooney saga from WEIT to Pharyngula and I'm a huge supporter of both Coyne and PZ.. What a terrible decision. CFI...say it ain't so?

I subscribe to both the Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazine and POI was the one podcast I always looked forward to. One of the best Podcast's out there period!. Regardless of how Mooney does I'm going to have to unsubscribe to POI in principle. Sad day for me. Time to say goodbye to POI.

J.J.E. said...

I share your trepidation. But may I suggest reserving judgment?

Not that you don't have tons of prior information. Mooney's opinion is clear. But maybe it would be more convincing after collecting one more data point by encouraging a religion critic to go on and then evaluating the posterior, so to speak?

Richard said...

LOL @ choosing Mooney, certainly in light of recent controversies. The man has trouble reading (things into statements that aren't there), so I doubt he'd do better at listening.

Too bad that most podcasts can't keep up with the quality. Still, I'll be listening when the 'new' POI appears, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Miranda Celeste Hale said...

Fantastic post, Russell. Mooney's an awful choice to host POI and you've laid out exactly why that's the case.
It really is a ridiculous move on CFI's part.

Bruce said...

What I find really odd is that one the one hand, atheists are being blasted for criticising moderate religion. Yet on the other hand, there's this popular trope doing the rounds that "The New Atheists" are compromised in that they don't address the finer points of moderate religion.

I say "address" advisedly, because that's what is expected - not criticism, but flattery. Which is a silly expectation by any sensible standard.

Good post, BTW. :D

Lee-Anne said...

As an Artist I was engaged with an Artist/Academic in a debate on critiquing religion in art, strongly or otherwise. To counter my (pro critiquing religion) arguments re: freedom of speech, thought and that the validity of criticism can/does contribute to healthy cultural/human growth (why should religion be any different? I asked.) I was warned I should first wait for an "invitation" to critique religion. It was a... "what tha!?"... moment. So Atheists sit tight and wait for all those "invitations" which shall come if we are polite and well behaved enough. There is support out there for this line in academia, journalism and popular press (see anything by Fairfax's "Godless Gross" - so moderate as to be completely sanitised). We must be nice and quiet and respectful. All blinkered rubbish of course. thanks for the post, good to know.

Chris Lawson said...

@JJE...

Russell only quoted one example. In fact Mooney has a very long history of this behaviour stretching back several years now. And Russell's chosen example was one of the least egregious. There is no need to wait and see.

J.J.E. said...

@ Chris Lawson

I'm well aware of Chris's record. (The framing nonsense with Nisbet, Chapter 8 of Unscientific America, the claim that "expelled from Expelled" was a PR debacle, the great accommodationist vs. new atheist debate, etc.)

But none of those examples were of the "disinterested journalist variety". They were all of the "opinion maker/pundit" variety. POI is much closer to a traditional journalist niche and would constrain any journalist with an ounce of respect for the vocation. Everybody knows that Mooney is wrong, biased, and spares nothing in his polemics against new atheists. What remains to be seen however, is whether he can leave his baggage at the door in a different environment.

I suspect that he won't, but I can't assume that. That's just downright unfair. And quite frankly, evidence of such unjournalistic proclivities is much more valuable ammunition against the accommodationists than is simply assuming it and walking away without a fight.

MichaelF said...

The sad thing is from what I've read/heard of Stollznow and Price they seem wonderful, and in fact either of them would make a great primary host.

The situation seems best described by a Simpsons moment: lobster stuffed with tacos; I'll leave sorting out who's the lobster and who's the taco as an exercise...

NewEnglandBob said...

Thanks Russell, this is a good post. It sums up my thoughts on why Mooney is a terrible choice as host of POI. Many will avoid being interviewed there in the future on principle alone.

latsot said...

Thanks Russell. Ophelia has some good stuff on this as well, especially in the comments.

Sigmund said...

Great, they've hired the Joe Lieberman of atheism as the new host.
Presumably they'll now be able to have interviews with astrologists and homeopaths showing us how these subjects are compatible with science.
Does the CFI have no idea of how Mooney has disgraced himself in the skeptical community over the past couple of years?

Michael Meadon said...

Good post, and agreed. I aint listening with Mooney on the show. We're already spoiled for choice wrt great podcasts, so I doubt I'll continue to listen.

Luckily, the JREF has launched a podcast, For Good Reason, which is essentially a POI replacement, with DJ at the helm.

RIP POI.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

As president & CEO of the Center for Inquiry, I am confident that all three of our new hosts will do an excellent job at what they were hired to do -- namely conduct probing interviews on topics of interest to those within the CFI community and many outside this community.
All three, including Chris Mooney, were hired as hosts and interviewers, not advocates. Chris's depth of knowledge on issues of science and public policy is almost unmatched among science journalists -- as evidenced by his best-selling books and successive fellowships at Princeton and MIT.
There seem to be two concerns about Chris. One, Chris will be "unfair" in his editing of interviews. I am dismayed that atheists -- individuals who supposedly adhere to the ethics of belief and strive to conform their beliefs to the evidence -- are so quick to pass judgment based on assumptions and suspicions. Can't we leave dogma to the relgionists? Listen to Chris's podcasts first and then make your judgment.
The second is that Chris may put some of his guests to the test and force them to defend their views. Actually, we expect him to put all his guests to the test. At CFI we maintain that all views, including views critical of religion, should be subject to examination. I'm disappointed that Russell (whose blog posts I have generally found insightful) thinks having Chris as a host is a setback for "reason." In what sense? If "reason" cannot defend itself in the crucible of intellectual debate then it doesn't deserve that name. "Reason" thrives in the light of scrutiny; it is only dogma and pseudoscience that shrinks from and withers in this light. We expect Chris and all the other hosts to shine a bright light on all views, including views with which they may agree. Finally a footnote: a few months ago, CFI was excoriated by some, principally "accommodationists" in the matter of critique of religion, for sponsoring Blasphemy Day. Now we are being criticized from the other side, by those who believe in a very robust, not to say harsh, critique of religion. Both criticisms miss their mark and show a misunderstanding of what CFI is about. We don't pull punches at CFI and we don't just preach to the choir either. We hold nothing sacred. Everything must be examined and defended -- including our own principles, values, and views.
Enjoy the podcast. By the way, it's called Point of Inquiry.

Michael Meadon said...

@Ron Lindsay. Respectfully, you really should have expected consternation. Mooney has destroyed his own reputation among people likely to listen to POI. His exchanges with PZ put him to shame.

Given that DJ really made the show I simply can't understand why you didn't take him up on his offer to continue hosting. So he's now the president of another organization - who cares? We're all on the same team, right? What's with this stupid internecine strife among skeptical/atheist organizations? Really now.

Sigmund said...

Ron, as a demonstration of your faith (ahem!) in Chris Mooney perhaps it would be useful to start off his series of interviews with the likes of Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and our host here Russell Blackford.
That way we could immediately see you were serious about your points of expecting him to put all his guests to the test.
"At CFI we maintain that all views, including views critical of religion, should be subject to examination."
Well I certainly agree with that statement.
Does Chris?
The point is that he refuses to put his own assertions to the test. He has responded to reasonable questions by banning people from his blog (including at least one of the aforementioned suggested guests). As skeptics we are not taking your hopes on faith, rather we are simply following the evidence of his behavior of the past few years.
Please do not treat us as fools.

Greywizard said...

I received the same note from Ronald Lindsay (as his comment here), courtesy of Nathan Bupp, when I wrote to complain of the choice of Chris Mooney, which I had done before reading Russell's comments. It was his note that directed me to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. As to reserving judgement, since CFI is clearly determined to persist in its bad choice, what else can one do? But this does not change the fact that Chris Mooney has pretty well shredded his own reputation by a failure to do just what Ronald Lindsay says we must do; namely, to examine his own principles values and views. I am surprised that Lindsay did not himself recognise this. If his judgement that Chris Mooney's "depth of knowledge on issues of science and public policy is almost unmatched among science journalists" is based on either his co-authored book (with Sheril Kirschenbaum) Unscientific America, or his LA Times or Newsweek articles, where this depth of knowledge is not significantly on display, then one begins to wonder just what 'depth of knowledge' or, indeed, rational criticism, really mean at CFI. In view of this, I cannot really believe that this man is capable of serious thought on important issues. Making him a host of POI, which I have listened to with interest from time to time, is a mistake. But we must, I suppose, wait and see. The damage is already done.

Martin said...

Mr Lindsey, Mooney has consistently displayed a lack of intellectual honesty since at least the Scienceblogs 'framing wars' of some years ago. He has assiduously avoided answering substantive (and 'civil', since he's so hypocritically precious about that) questioning and criticism of his pronouncements on the "New Atheists". This alone should disqualify him from representing any organization serious about critical inquiry.

Paul said...

Looks like the CFI president and Mooney have a lot in common. Let's start with a penchant for unsunstantiated assertions:

Chris's depth of knowledge on issues of science and public policy is almost unmatched among science journalists -- as evidenced by his best-selling books and successive fellowships at Princeton and MIT.

Book sales don't show depth of knowledge, especially when one cannot defend the viewpoints when challenged in anything approaching an intellectually honest manner.

Now equivocation between NA's and fundamentalists:

Can't we leave dogma to the relgionists?

Unfortunately, our misgivings on Mooney are based on past evidence, namely the way he plays fast and loose with the truth in the media when it comes to selling his point of view. Dogma has nothing to do with it. We welcome inquiry, but it's telling when your choice of inquirer seems to prefer the role of inquisitor.

Next, apparently poor reading comprehension:

The second is that Chris may put some of his guests to the test and force them to defend their views.

The issue isn't having to defend one's views. The issue is the concern that the interviewer will be pushing a certain agenda and taking what you say out of context. For fuck's sake, Mooney has in the past tried to pass off the words of a commenter on Pharyngula as something PZ himself said. Talk about taking things out of context. While one has to expect this sometimes, when a formerly honest and amiable interviewer is replaced by someone more interested in selling something one is less motivated to speak with them.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I am dismayed that atheists -- individuals who supposedly adhere to the ethics of belief and strive to conform their beliefs to the evidence -- are so quick to pass judgment based on assumptions and suspicions. Can't we leave dogma to the relgionists?"

I am dismayed that Ron Lindsay would 1) jump to that conclusion and 2) say that.

This has nothing to do with assumptions and suspicions, it has to do with reading Chris Mooney's recent book and his journalism and blog posts over the last eight months. It has to do with eight months of experience trying to get Chris Mooney to respond to substantive criticisms and/or answer questions. It has to do with the fact that, for instance, Chris Mooney (or he and Kirshenbaum, or Kirshenbaum with Mooney's tacit approval) banned me from commenting on the Mooney/Kirshenbaum blog - were you aware of that, Ron? He's never bothered to explain - I was just summarily silenced, period. It has to do with the fact that there is a sidebar on their blog that says 'Reviews' but in fact it's only favorable reviews - the unfavorable ones are just silently ignored, while the title gives the impression of giving reviews in general. It has to do with things of that kind. It is emphatically not a matter of dogma. The reason I kept asking Mooney questions on his blog was because I simply could not believe that he would go on ignoring reasonable questions forever. I still find it hard to believe - surely some day the dawn will come...

"The second is that Chris may put some of his guests to the test and force them to defend their views."

Oh no it isn't. It is that Chris will do what he has been doing, which is to misrepresent what we say - 'we' being anyone Chris disagrees with, or what he chooses to call 'the New Atheists' or 'the New Atheist Noise Machine.' It is that Chris will use the host's advantage to misrepresent us and otherwise distort the dialogue. It is that he will avoid answering any questions we put to him.

Ron - have you read the articles that Chris has been publishing over the past few months? The one in the LA Times for example? Have you really read all the relentless scapegoating of atheists he's been doing? If you have, your comment above is incomprehensible (to me at least). If you haven't...I wish you had.

latsot said...

@Ophelia Benson

What she said.

IreneD said...

As a subscriber to the Point of Inquiry podcast, let me add my dismay and frustration regarding the choice of Chris Mooney. And doubly so because one of the other new hosts, Karen Stollznow, sounds like a much better proposition. She may not be as well known as Mooney, but she's in her own right a respected writer, blogger and and interviewer in the skeptic community. Read (and hear) her at Skepchick, The Skeptic Zone, MonsterTalk, Naked Skeptic and the Bad Language blog... Sorry, though, I think I'll go on following these and drop Point of Inquiry. I doubt I'll miss much, anyway, since Stollznow will have only 1/4th of the airtime in the podcast's new incarnation.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

I cannot respond to all the comments, but let me state at the outset that I do not regard any of the commenters on this thread as “fools.” I believe those objecting to Chris Mooney as a host are hasty in their judgments, but that’s an altogether different characterization.
And why are they hasty? Well, as previously indicated, no podcast with Chris as a host has yet aired. It seems to me that at the every least he should be given the benefit of the doubt. Did D.J. Grothe have an established record as a fair, objective host and skilled interviewer prior to the launch of POI? Not to my knowledge. D.J. established his credentials through the show. People listened and many (rightly) concluded he was a good host. I think Chris is entitled to the same courtesy.
Ophelia Benson mentions some bad experiences she has had with Chris. I cannot comment on those without knowing all the facts (I am not questioning Ophelia, who I consider a friend and supporter of CFI – I just don’t have access to all the evidence that would allow me to make an informed judgment.) I can say the Chris Mooney she describes is not the Chris I know who, in my dealings with him, has shown a commitment to journalistic integrity. In any event, I can assure everyone that CFI will control the POI forum and any CFI blogs relating to POI. Negative comments about the show will not be deleted (nor will favorable comments). Anyone who has had occasion to look at the principal CFI blog, Free Thinking, and some of the comments that have been made about me, should have no doubts about my commitment and CFI’s commitment to free and open debate.
I am an atheist and believe criticism of religious belief is almost always a worthwhile activity. If I thought for some reason having Chris as a host would be prejudicial to CFI’s ability to subject religious belief to critical scrutiny, he would not have been hired. But Chris was not hired to be an advocate for or against “new atheism.” He was hired as an interviewer.
Finally, it warrants mention that Chris’s shows will focus on his specialty, namely science and public policy. There will be little occasion for him to address the new atheism, accommodationism and similar topics. Bob Price will be the host who will focus on critical examination of religion. We have three hosts with distinct areas of expertise to cover the range of topics that we believe will be of interest to actual and potential listeners to POI.

Paul said...

Finally, it warrants mention that Chris’s shows will focus on his specialty, namely science and public policy. There will be little occasion for him to address the new atheism, accommodationism and similar topics

Curiously, much of Chris's science and public policy opinions in the media in the past several months have been directly related to "new atheism" and how they harm the science dialogue. He has hardly treated "new atheism" as a separate topic from "science and public policy". This is, I assume, why Ophelia asked if you were familiar with many of his published opinions.

Russell Blackford said...

Ron, it's nice to hear from you and to be flattered by you in that you've generally found my blog posts insightful. That's all good.

But you misunderstand the concerns. Point of Inquiry as it has existed has been a cooperative effort in which interviewees have been free to start answers again, hesitate, etc., unlike a live radio interview, and the interviewer has been free to start again without objection or suspicion. It's more like making a documentary than like a live radio interview.

To operate along those lines as an interviewee, you need to have a lot of trust in the interviewer. If, however, I am confronted by an interviewer who is known to be hostile to New Atheists and has used plenty of unfair tactics to wage his ongoing campaign against us (have you read his chapter about P.Z. Myers?) it will not be possible to have that trust. No matter how much he thinks he's fair, we can't trust someone who is so strongly biased against us as to have all sorts of blind spots.

That means that the character of the podcasts will change: if he ever interviews me (for example), I'll have to treat it as if it's a live interview with a hostile interviewer.

Which brings us to the second point. There is no shortage of radio stations that are prepared to interview "New Atheists" in a hostile way. Point of Inquiry was an oasis where we could expect to be interviewed in a sympathetic way, with more chance to expand on our views freely and frankly. That oasis has now gone if the interviewer is going to be someone known to be hostile to us. I think that's a pity.

In my post I didn't even go into issues about who is likely to be chosen for interviews, who might get an easy run or a hard run (do you seriously think that the experience would be the same for P.Z. Myers or Jerry Coyne or Ophelia Benson as for Sheril Kirshenbaum or Eugenie Scott?).

Like it or not, the decision to use Mooney will tend to push Point of Inquiry more in an accommodationist direction, and make life that little bit harder for the non-accommodationists. You're quite entitled to make a decision that will have that effect, but we're also entitled to point it out and to wonder whether that's really the best decision for CFI to take.

What might have mollified me, and might still mollify me, would have been an assurance that Price and Stollznow are more hardline non-accommodationists than D.J. Grothe was, that you now want the interviewers to put more of themselves into the interviews than previously, and that you planned for it to balance out. That's not the path I'd take, but it would, I freely concede, be a legitimate experiment. Unfortunately, it's not what you've told us.

If you came back with that story, I'd say, "Fair enough, we'll wait and see."

Of course, we'll have to wait and see in any event. The test will be whether Point of Inquiry actually shifts in an accommodationist direction or not. And specifically, whether we get good, fair interviews of P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson, Richard Dawkins, and the numerous others who differ greatly in their viewpoints and projects but share non-accommodationist attitudes to religion. Meanwhile, it's quite appropriate to express worry about how things will pan out.

Russell Blackford said...

And Ron, our latest comments crossed. Your comment about division of responsibilities does actually mollify me more than your original comment did. So, we'll wait and see. If you like, I'll publicise that comment, as it may calm at least some concerns if I do so, though it might also make things worse to have another post on all this, so just let me know.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Did D.J. Grothe have an established record as a fair, objective host and skilled interviewer prior to the launch of POI? Not to my knowledge. D.J. established his credentials through the show. People listened and many (rightly) concluded he was a good host. I think Chris is entitled to the same courtesy."

But DJ also didn't have Chris's history - he hadn't been going out of his way to "demonize" (not one of my favorite words, but sometimes there's no good subsitute) atheists for months before the launch of POI, at least not that I know of. Chris does have that history. I really don't think he is entitled to the same courtesy that DJ was, precisely because he has forfeited that entitlement by being so aggressive yet evasive for the past eight months.

"I can say the Chris Mooney she describes is not the Chris I know who, in my dealings with him, has shown a commitment to journalistic integrity."

I know. I was very taken aback, and went on being very taken aback. It seemed all wrong for the Chris I knew of via his books (and a few friendly email exchanges). I think it was all wrong for the pre-"framing" Chris - but something went awry.

But the part about his specialty is reassuring. If POI won't be yet another megaphone for shouts about "the New Atheist Noise Machine" then it's not so terrible.

Meanwhile, Ron - at least take a look at the LA Times article (which came after a slew of similar ones) and maybe you'll see why some of us are (cough) dubious. Criticism of atheism is one thing and name-calling is another.

(I wrote that before seeing Russell's two posts - so there's some overlap. Not too much though.)

Josh Slocum said...

Mr. Lindsay -

I appreciate that you're taking the time to read these blog posts and comments. Russell Blackford and Ophelia Benson are among the most prominent critics of some of Chris Mooney's work - and they've done a great job articulating why his appointment to POI is troubling - but make no mistake, they are not a few lone voices.

This has nothing to do with dogma, and I'm disappointed you used that rhetorical device. The negative reaction to Chris Mooney is based on months of evidence . I won't rehash what Russell and Ophelia have already laid out, but you only have to read the paper/pixel trail to see that their (and our) complaints are justified. Chris Mooney has been misleading, unjustifiably provocative, inaccurate, and, in my opinion, downright dishonest in his characterization of those he considers "strident new atheists." He is very much a "Company Man," if you will: intellectual rigor takes a backseat if it interferes with his agenda or brand image.

You ask,

"Did D.J. Grothe have an established record as a fair, objective host and skilled interviewer prior to the launch of POI?"

That's not apposite. What DJ Grothe did not have is a long, public record of accusing prominent scientists, critics, and writers of being "strident," or part of "The New Atheist Noise Machine." Grothe did not have a record of ignoring - repeatedly, for months on end - quite reasonable, specific, non-tendentious questions. Grothe did not have a record of banning said questioners from his blog, no justification offered. In short, Grothe had none of the baggage Mooney does.

Mr. Linday, you eloquently defended CFI's decision to engage in Blasphemy Day, even against Paul Kurtz, who was less than pleasant about it, especially to you. You argued correctly that blasphemy, and organized instances of it, are an essential part of the societal critique of religion and part of public discourse. I believe that you believe that, but I ask you to consider whether Chris Mooney really does. Yes, that's quite relevant when you're talking about the host of a show devoted to free inquiry .

Again, you need only read the links provided to see that none of us are jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

As President of CFI, I know your job is not to second-guess staff decisions publicly, and it is your job to defend your organization's decisions. While few would expect you to publicly denounce Mooney's appointment - whatever your personal feelings may be - please consider this issue again before you decide to unqalifiedly defend it. Even if you only mull it privately without saying anything.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

Russell, Thanks for asking. Your choice entirely, of course, whether to do another post on the topic, but my view is that the instant post and the various comments thereon are sufficient to air out this issue.
Your blog is one of the few I read on a semi-regular basis, which is one reason I decided to comment. No, I don't always agree with you (I guess that's obvious now) but I find your treatment of topics fair,objective and instructive -- which is what our aim is for POI.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, Ron, thanks. I guess I'll leave it at this for the moment - i.e. no further post on the issue for now. I don't want to give the impression that I'm completely mollified, because Paul makes a very important above:

Curiously, much of Chris's science and public policy opinions in the media in the past several months have been directly related to "new atheism" and how they harm the science dialogue. He has hardly treated "new atheism" as a separate topic from "science and public policy".

Still, we can watch out for how much that proves to be a problem in practice, and obviously some of us will be making noises if it does turn out that way. In any event, your explanation of the division of responsibility is very helpful.

Peter Beattie said...

If you had needed any incentive to stay away from POI, Ronald Lindsay's comment here would surely have given it to you. But never mind the self-righteousness and complete lack of engagement with the substantive criticisms (remind you of anyone?), at least he answered Russell's main question, 'What on earth were the CFI people thinking?' Simple: CM is a best-selling author and a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Now, if that's the best the head of a Centre for Inquiry can come up with, then we are really in trouble. But it's actually worse.

» Ronald Lindsay:
As president & CEO of the Center for Inquiry, I am confident that all three of our new hosts will do an excellent job at what they were hired to do …

Even seasoned politicians would find this hard to beat for self-congratulatory vapidity. Nobody should give a rip about his confidence as long as he can present good reasons. But I suppose he knew that when he wrote this.

Chris's depth of knowledge on issues of science and public policy is almost unmatched among science journalists

What exactly is the point of this ludicrously over-the-top praise for Mooney's expertise? Could he not just have pointed to some relevant work where Mooney demonstrated that he would be a good choice for POI? Why is he "almost unmatched"?

as evidenced by his best-selling books and successive fellowships at Princeton and MIT.

*facepalm*

So he's got a piece of paper from Princeton and MIT each and has published a collection of pieces of paper himself. That's it? That's your "almost unmatched" expertise? No substantive arguments at all? How utterly pathetic.

There seem to be two concerns about Chris. One, Chris will be "unfair" in his editing of interviews.

Not what Russell said at all. Go back and read it properly. Somebody from a Centre for Inquiry should know how to do that.

I am dismayed that atheists … are so quick to pass judgment based on assumptions and suspicions. Can't we leave dogma to the relgionists?

So "judgment based on assumptions and suspicions" equals "dogma"? One is led to conclude that you don't know what you're talking about. Quite apart from the fact that Russell based his opinion neither on assumptions nor on suspicions but explicitly on the evidence of actual behaviour in relevant fields of inquiry. But apparently Lindsay is either unaware or chose to ignore Mooney's evident unwillingness to suffer his critics' inquiries into his own opinions, including subsequent evasion, stonewalling, and even censoring. All of which, it would seem, is entirely apropos to the question of Mooney's appropriateness for POI.

Ophelia Benson said...

Here, at any rate, is the post in which Chris kicked off the...discussion.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/05/31/civility-and-the-new-atheists/

"[Barbara Forrest in a conference talk] challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?"

The short answer is that Coyne was doing that because The New Republic commissioned him to write a review of books by Miller and Giberson, and he wrote it. He didn't "take on" Miller and Giberson, as Chris so tendentiously put it; he wrote a review of books that they wrote. He's allowed to do that - yet Chris writes about it as if it were wholly illegitimate. I pointed that out at the time, and a good many times later, and never got an answer. I think I had a perfectly reasonable point, and I think Chris should have answered - not least because his claim as it stands is simply bizarre. Tactics are not usually uppermost in the mind of people writing book reviews for magazines like TNR - or at least they shouldn't be. It's not taken for granted by everyone that tactics are the whole point. If it were, who would bother to read such reviews?

"Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else."

But that is inane - because what Jerry Coyne was reviewing was a pair of books about religion - so it wasn't a very private matter! It wasn't a private matter at all; it was entirely and deliberately public. I said that at the time, too, but got no reply.

And on it went from there. Does our frustration begin to emerge from the fog, Ron? As far as I could ever tell, Chris was chastizing Jerry Coyne for writing a (good, serious, thoughtful) book review in The New Republic on the grounds that it messed with the private matter of religion as published in two books (with funding from the Templeton Foundation). At that rate, nobody would be able to write anything except purely anodyne head-pats. As far as I could tell, Chris was setting a grotesquely high standard for "civility" and publicly rebuking people who didn't meet it. I thought then and I think now that that is illiberal in the extreme, and inimical to free inquiry.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

Thanks, Ophelia, for the information. I believe I better understand your perspective (which doesn't mean, of course, that I agree with your conclusions).
At this stage, I don't think any further substantive comment from me would advance the discussion. I continue to believe Chris will prove an excellent host for POI with respect to the topics in his area of expertise.
The proof will be in the pudding, of course, and I invite everyone to listen to Chris's (and Karen's and Bob's) podcasts and form their own judgment.

Mark Jones said...

Wow, this is a real shame. I've thoroughly enjoyed the POI podcasts under the scrupulously fair Grothe. Despite Mooney's track record, I can believe that he *might* also conduct himself well when interviewing the great and the good - that proof would be in the pudding, as Ronald Lindsay says.

Unfortunately there may be something that the CFI and Mooney cannot now control that renders him a hopeless choice; many of the great and good have no confidence in him, so his talks with those will be banjaxed as a consequence?

Jeff Chamberlain said...

Am I to understand from Mr. Lindsay's latest comment that he was unaware of Mr. Mooney's response to Mr. Coyne's book review, and the criticism that provoked, until reading OB's post here? What kind of, um, inquiry do you suppose he did before appointing Mr. Mooney to PoI?

Michael Meadon said...

Ron, there is a bunch I could say, but I just want to focus on one thing. I would appreciate if you addressed it.

Why did you replace DJ? He offered to keep hosting. He's a fantastic interviewer. People love him. And yet you replaced him. Why? It seems the only reason you did so is because he's now at the JREF. But why is that a problem? The JREF and CFI are on the same team, right?

(I know there's a history of hostility. But surely we can move on).

tomh said...

Ronald A. Lindsay said...
Thanks, Ophelia, for the information. I believe I better understand your perspective (which doesn't mean, of course, that I agree with your conclusions).

That's an amazing statement. You actually read the facts that Ophelia laid out, yet you don't agree with the conclusion that Mooney was way out of line in criticizing a book reviewer because he didn't slant the review to fit Mooney's accomodationist tactics and strategy? Unbelievable.

I'll help you out, since you don't seem to understand Mooney at all. Mooney's attitude toward outspoken atheists can be summed up with a line from a short story by the American author, Ring Lardner. Long ago, Lardner wrote,

"Shut up", he explained.

Jerry Coyne said...

I am both surprised and distressed at Mr. Linday's response. Despite the reasonable arguments that people here have made (Mooney's history, the absence of the "depth of insight" that Lindsay so highly touts, etc), Lindsay simply digs his heels in and says "listen to the podcasts." Isn't that reminiscent of Mooney himself, both in the failure to address substantive concerns and the self-serving response "listen to our website"?

The fact is that Grothe had no such baggage when he came to POI, and Mooney does. Lindsay chooses to ignore it, wilfully or not. Mooney has a history of avoiding substantive engagement with views opposing his own, Grothe did not.


It's a shock to me that somebody so interested in airing dissent is so unwilling to consider entirely reasonable dissent on this website.

Jason said...

Jerry I've been watching my RSS feed for WEIT like a hawk, eagerly awaiting a full post from you on this issue. Russell has done a good job here and maybe there's not much more to say. Are you going to be discussing it over on WEIT? I really enjoy the regular contributors over there.

Ophelia Benson said...

Ron, so it's just a matter of my "perspective"? Sounds a bit postmodern...

Never mind my perspective. You could just read Jerry's article ("Seeing is Believing") and Chris's post and see what you think.

One of my questions to Chris was along the lines of "What exactly are we supposed to do? How exactly should Jerry Coyne have written this review?" I don't think that's a matter of perspective, it's a request for clarification of instructions. It was never clear to me in what sense Jerry's review was not "civil" and so it was never clear to me exactly what Chris was urging us to do. I still don't know - Chris has never explained.

The following is "perspective" if you like - but I think it's at least reasonable, all the same. I think the combination indicates a problem with Chris's repeated rebukes to "new" atheists.

1) Jerry's review was "civil" in any ordinary understanding of the word.

2) Chris has never explained in what sense it was uncivil or how we (we "new" atheists) could go about meeting his standards.

3) The result is that Chris has made a mini-career lately out of calling "new" atheists uncivil (and aggressive and other violence-tinged words) without responsibly and reasonably elucidating what he means by "uncivil."

4) The combination of the rhetorical campaign against "new" atheists and the refusal to specify the rules makes the whole thing look like mere ungrounded unwarranted mudslinging.

5) It's well known that atheists are the one minority group (in the US at least, home of POI and CFI) that it's still socially acceptable to sling mud at. You know the stats - atheists come last in lists of "would you vote for this kind of person?" on surveys; also in lists of "would you want your daughter/son to marry this kind of person?". It's easy to "demonize" atheists.

The upshot of all the above is that Chris's campaign looks much less like a thoughtful substantive disagreement with outspoken atheists that would be interesting to discuss on POI than it looks like an unpleasant Fox-esque majoritarian appeal to nasty unthinking anti-intellectual prejudices.

J.J.E. said...

@ Ronald Lindsay

Your response leaves a lot to be desired. Arguments from authority/fame (e.g.: Mooney will be a good interviewer despite his lack of experience, he's written famous books and has held positions from hoity toity university programs!) go over about as well as a turd in a punch bowl among this crowd. You of all people know that.

Why not just offer to meet the challenge head on? Arrange to have Chris interview at least one "new atheist", and let everyone judge. After all you did say the proof is in the pudding.

If Chris is able to conduct a wide-ranging interview that gets at all of the topics without privileging his own biases, I'm sure he would do a lot to improve his reputation in the eyes of a lot of old/soon to be former fans of POI.

Come to think of it, such a course of action could only help. Chris'd either suprise a lot of people and do POI some good, or else he'd be predictable, in which case I doubt people would be any more put off than they already are.

How about it? Set something up?

Ophelia Benson said...

Well now here's something I didn't know. Apparently it's not just that I'm banned from commenting on Mooney's blog, it's also that all my comments have been deleted. At least, there are none on that "civility" thread that I linked to, and there certainly were some at the time. I went to take a look at them 1) to see how uncivil or aggressive or irritable I had been, and 2) to check my memory that I had asked something along the lines of "what exactly was Jerry Coyne supposed to write in that review?" I can't check the record, because it has been expunged.

This is irritating. I wanted the information. I wanted to say "well, admittedly I was quite irritable there" if that turned out to be the case - or "I wasn't all that irritable" if that did (from my perspective, of course). I can't even do that, because the record has been altered.

I delete some comments at B&W myself, so it's not as if I think no comments should ever be deleted - but my intention is to delete time-wasting trollish stuff only. I don't think my comments were merely time-wasting trolllish stuff...but of course I can't check that now.

Paul said...

Ophelia,

Oddly, the list of questions which eventually got you banned is still up in here. My imperfect recollection of events has you getting more "irritable" as Mooney went on with the criticism without supporting his statements, with you being rather calmer in the initial thread. But that is just my imperfect recollection, and it is too bad we do not have the record to refer to.

Paul said...

Ah, apparently my hrefs are powerless here.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/06/03/do-i-contradict-myself-very-well-then-i-contradict-myself/#comment-18342

Is a comment on yours in a followup from the civility thread. There are a few others in the thread.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/07/14/in-newsweek-on-science-and-religion/#comment-25461

Is the comment I referenced finding it curious that it was still there, since it contains the list of questions whose repetition was ostensibly the reason you were banned (we can only assume, since it was an underhanded affair). This is, of course, a month after the initial flare-up, and assumptions of good faith on Mooney's behalf had well gone by the wayside.

Scote said...

RA Lindsay wrote:
"Finally, it warrants mention that Chris’s shows will focus on his specialty, namely science and public policy. There will be little occasion for him to address the new atheism, accommodationism and similar topics. Bob Price will be the host who will focus on critical examination of religion. We have three hosts with distinct areas of expertise to cover the range of topics that we believe will be of interest to actual and potential listeners to POI."

And therein lies your problem, science and public policy and religion intersect and conflict. Mooney's stance is that we should pretend they don't and that atheists need to keep their mouths shut for the good of science.

For you to claim that Mooney's area of specialty will keep him out of taking a position on POI about accommodation is ludicrous and counterfactual in a way that I thought only Chris Mooney capable of. It seems that the reason you defend Mooney is that you think and argue like he does. You take a position and stick to it, regardless of what the evidence says. But I'm hopeful that you'll prove me wrong in my contention and that you will take an objective look at the well founded, evidence-based criticisms of Mooney that have been brought up in this thread and recind his invitation to host POI. Chris Mooney is a poor choice of host, as evidenced by his hostility to open inquiry.

Ophelia Benson said...

Aha - thanks, Paul. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I never did comment on the "civility" post - in which case I'm dead wrong about my comments having been deleted.

I withdraw that charge! Sorry! Mea culpa.

I was sure I must have, because I'm so familiar with the post - I couldn't believe I could have failed to comment on it. But it now occurs to me that I may not have seen it until June 3, and by then it could have seemed too late to comment there and more useful to comment on the newer one.

And it was during that rising irritation (which is indeed obvious in my comments) that Chris emailed me. Sadly, we had a civil exchange...He was surprised at my tone, and I acknowledged it and tried to explain why and to persuade him to deal with the objections on his post. He thought they were all tangential, and said he was working on a long post in reply instead. I tried to persuade him to do both, but with no success...and he confirmed my address because he wanted to send me the book - which he did. Alas alas I could not give it a good review.

But we were on perfectly good terms for years, until the framing thing got going. What can one do?! I simply thought he was being consistently and insistently unfair - and I still do. He's being it in that very post and his reply to Jerry Coyne - he makes a broad accusation in the post and then pretends 'I didn't mean you' in the comment. I simply don't think I was being excessively irritable about that...all the more so now, when the pattern has been repeated so many times, often in mass media that most of us don't have access to.

But to repeat: I was wrong about deleted comments; I withdraw the charge.

Ronald A. Lindsay said...

Comment on Blackford

I want to thank Russell and all those who commented on Russell’s post for giving me their views. If I have not responded to everyone (some will claim I have not responded substantively to anyone – oh, well) do not think I am ignoring the comments. I have read them and will give them careful consideration.
However, as I indicated previously, I do not really have much more to say. I have given my reasons for CFI’s decision to offer Chris Mooney one of our host positions on POI, and one can either choose to listen to the podcasts and make a judgment after hearing the shows or decide in advance not to listen to the podcasts. Obviously, I hope you choose the former course of action.
One or two posts suggested I direct Chris to have P. Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, or others on the show. Sorry, but on principle I cannot do that. I did not tell D.J. how to run the podcasts and I am not going to tell Chris, Karen or Bob how to run their shows. I don’t think it’s proper for the CEO to exercise editorial control, absent extraordinary circumstances (e.g., a proposed podcast exhorting suicide bombing). Also, as indicated, Chris will be focusing on topics other than religion.
Speaking of D.J., CFI has good relations with JREF and D.J. Someone referred to past rancor between JREF and CFI. If there was any rancor, that was before my time. During my time, Randi has spoken for us in Amherst and Washington and will be speaking for us again this fall in Los Angeles. We were sorry to see D.J. go, but his parting was amicable. We knew about his decision weeks in advance and allowed him to continue to work for CFI while pursuing discussions with JREF. Both before and following his departure for JREF, we have had discussions about various collaborative projects. Re the hosting of POI, we were open to the possibility of D.J. hosting a substantial number of shows. We negotiated about that possibility and the negotiations simply did not work out. D.J. has his own podcast at JREF and we wish him well with his show; we’re sure he’ll have much success.
To Ophelia: I think this is the first time anyone has suggested I might have latent postmodern tendencies. Anyway, to make me sound less Derrida-like, just substitute “position” for “perspective.”
Now I really do have to move on to other matters. In a delicious irony, one of the things I must turn to is a speech I will be delivering soon – a speech in which I will be defending the new atheism.

Jason said...

@ Ronald Lindsay
Another comment and still no direct answer as to whether or not you new about the whole Mooney vs. the New Atheists saga before making the decision to hire him to host POI. Curious...

Scote said...

@ Ronald A. Lindsay:

My critical post seems to have been rejected over at Mr. Mooney's Discover Magazine blog.

So, if that is the way criticism is dealt with on Mr. Mooney's Blog, how well does it recommend Mr. Mooney as a host for the Center For Inquiry's interview program? I'd say that the way Mooney deals with criticism shows he is a poor choice of host for an organization that publishes **Free Inquiry** magazine and Skeptical Inquirer. Mooney's actions and positions seem to be antithetical to such inquiry.

Scote said...

Ronald A. Lindsay wote:
"Now I really do have to move on to other matters. In a delicious irony, one of the things I must turn to is a speech I will be delivering soon – a speech in which I will be defending the new atheism."

Yes, that actually is ironic, because you just hired somebody to host your interview show who thinks that you and everybody like you should shut up, for the good of science, of course. Not that he has any actual historical scientific **study** to back that contention up, though. Il-fitting anecdotes? Well those he has. Pluto anyone?

I wouldn't call your upcoming lecture "delicious" irony, though, merely the irony of a poor decision which you decline to review objectively, one I think is counter to the long term interests of CFI. I wonder if you think Mooney's perceived "star power" as an interviewer (if any) really makes up for his demonstrable faults as outlined in this thread and many, many others?

Russell Blackford said...

I should say that I'm not calling for the decision to be reviewed, if that means calling for Mooney to be sacked before he even starts work. I've been expressing my surprise at the appointment and my fears about it, but there's a sense in which what's done is done - and I'm not trying to get somebody sacked from his job. At least not unless he does something egregious in the future.

The good thing that's come out of this discussion is that we now know something we didn't know from the original announcement, i.e. that there will be a division of labour, not just an allocation of workload, and that Robert Price will have the atheism/religion beat. That does actually some change important things: for example, it suggests that if I or Ophelia (say) appeared on Point of Inquiry we'd be interviewed by Price. However, it doesn't change all things.

Not all things, because it has been Mooney's past interpretation of his science policy, etc., beat that it goes wide enough to include a relentless attack on the "New Atheism", including his witch hunt of PZ Myers, and support for various sorts of accommodationism.

At this stage, though, I don't see that we can do much more than be vigilant ... and outspokenly critical if it becomes necessary. As I read him, Ron has promised that we can say what we want, including critical things, on the site, once the new podcasts begin. So everybody should take that to heart. And if Mooney surprises us by keeping to a fairly narrow remit and being fair about outspoken atheism if the issue comes up ... well, the surprise will be a pleasant one.

Please continue the discussion, but that's how I'm looking on it this stage.

Michael Meadon said...

I was the one who asked why DJ wasn't kept on as host and, frankly, I don't find Ron's response at all adequate.

Great, Randi has given talks for the CFI. You guys didn't mind DJ negotiating with the JREF while working at CFI, etc. But then you say "Re the hosting of POI, we were open to the possibility of D.J. hosting a substantial number of shows. We negotiated about that possibility and the negotiations simply did not work out.". Well, why? What is there to negotiate about? DJ offered to host the show. Now you have to negotiate about... what? And if a merger of JREF and CFI podcasts was mooted, well, why the hell not go for it? Seriously now. We're on the same team. Dammit.

Peter Beattie said...

» Ronald Lindsay:
I have read them and will give them careful consideration.

Hm, more meaningless politician-speak.

In a delicious irony, one of the things I must turn to is a speech I will be delivering soon – a speech in which I will be defending the new atheism.

Yes, how ironic that you should agree with someone on point B who just criticised you on point A. The issue is not the Stupidly-So-Called New Atheists, it is your decision to put Chris Mooney on POI. Which you defend by pointing to his successful books and his attendance of programs at Ivy League universities. Oh, and by saying "listen to the podcasts".

That kind of thing goes over just as well as Mooney answering substantive questions with "buy my book!". Much too convenient a refuge for the argumentatively challenged to be taken seriously.

Ophelia Benson said...

To second what Russell said - I too am not trying to get Mooney fired. It is indeed too late for that, and hardly my place anyway, and so on. I am just criticizing the original decision, which is a different thing.

Ron has said he won't be able to reply further, so it's otiose to ask him further questions, but I do wonder if he and everyone else who made this choice actually read Unscientific America. I have a feeling that they didn't. In many ways that book is fundamentally opposed to inquiry as such - so surely if the powers at CFI had read it, the mismatch of Mooney and Point of Inquiry would have been obvious.

That's the problem with the whole 'wait until you've heard the podcasts' response. Mooney is not an unknown quantity, and that's the whole point. We already know what he thinks about many issues, so we already have good reason to think he's a perverse choice. CFI presumably wouldn't think Glen Beck or Bill O'Reilly or Sarah Palin would be good choices to host POI; for reasons; the same applies to Mooney.

And besides that, there's a principle involved. Mooney has positioned himself as an energetic opponent of certain kinds of free inquiry, and his appointment to this job amounts to an endorsement of that opposition by, of all places, the Center for Inquiry. As a longstanding fan of CFI, I find that depressing.

Papa John said...

I had some problems with D.J., but that did not keep me from immensely enjoying the POI podcast and respecting the tremendous contribution he made to society through the first years of POI. I expect I will find some personal criticism for the new hosts, but doubt it will keep me from looking forward to the show. I will reserve overall judgment until I have a feel for the new series.

IreneD said...

In other depressing news... Chris Mooney's recent article on how to deal with vaccine rejectionnists calls for "building bridges" toward "the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement".

http://www.scienceprogress.org/2010/02/vaccine-saga/

Yes, his words. He did say that scientists and health authorities should reach out not only to frightened parents who have been hoodwinked by the anti-vaxxers, but also to the leaders of this deeply anti-scientific movement.

As Orac, at Respectful Insolence, puts it:

http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/02/building_bridges_to_the_leaders_of_the_a.php

"Chris's naïveté on this issue is astonishing in light of his excellent Discover piece last year. He appears utterly unaware that scientists have been trying to reach out and build bridges to leaders of the anti-vaccine movement for years, if not decades. It hasn't worked. It doesn't work. As Mike Stanton pointed out in a comment, public health bodies courted Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center (whom I've discussed recently here, here, and here). The only result is that it raised her profile. She hasn't budged an inch; she is still as anti-vaccine as ever."

maestro said...

I am late to this thread, saw it mentioned on the CFI site. I know D.J. from St. Louis Skeptics in the Pub, and actually got involved with skepticism and atheism because of Point of Inquiry, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

So now let me get this straight. Because D.J. took another job but offered to continue hosting POI for free, he was let go as the host by CFI for "business reasons." Sheer idiocy!

Also, Ron Lindsey is completely unaware of Mooney's attacks on free inquiry into the God question for the sake of "science education." Monney literally tells atheists to shut up, and the leader of CFI did not know this!? Also, half of all new episodes of Point of Inquiry are going to be focused on public policy, which is Mooney's area of "expertise"? (I won't even comment on the over-the-top language Lindsey uses to describe Mooney's pedigree.) Good grief! That will not be the Point of Inquiry I love. I wonder if Lindsey has even looked at the topics of the old episodes, or even listened to them.

Also, he states on the one hand that he will not exercise any editorial control on what Mooney says or who he interviews but on the other hand says Mooney will not be allowed to interview the New Atheists or do interviews on religion/atheism/secularism, since that will be Bob Price's focus -- even though Mooney himself argues that the New Atheism is directly relevant to matters of science policy and that is why he focuses on it. What double-talking politician Mr. Lindsey is!

Ophelia Benson said...

Oh dear oh dear - same old thing - build bridges, and meanwhile get in a shot at "medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty."

Jerry Coyne has a post too:

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/solution-to-anti-vaccination-controversy-build-bridges/

I think Mooney should just become an engineer and get on with building bridges. Not as glamorous as being The Scourge of Atheism, but much more useful.

Sili said...

Very devious to get three hosts.

I want to register my displeasure at the choice of Mooney by boycotting the podcast (which I've only recently started listening to), but on the other hand, I'd like to give Stollznow and Price a chance. Not to mention that *they* actually sound pretty interesting.

I guess I'll have to drop the subscription and try to download manually to send a message.

Gurdur said...

I think Blackford's arguments here are rather tawdry. I have replied in full to Russell Blackford (and also to Ophelia Benson here:

http://heathen-hub.com/blog.php?b=219

Both Russell Blackford and Ophelia Benson are quite welcome to discuss there the matter.

Link

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Gurdur, I thank you for blogging about it yourself if you want to discuss it at elaborate length. That's often a better approach than writing numerous long comments.

Unless you've been personally insulting or offensive in some way, or have misrepresented me in some way (a word such as "tawdry" is ominous), I probably won't respond there. I've had my say, I don't especially want to escalate this (which I don't think the thoughtful and rather mild discussion here is doing), and I've learned some important information from Ron Lindsay, as we all have. The proof of the pudding is now in the eating, as we're all pointing out.

Still, the rest of y'all are encouraged to go over to Gurdur's blog and have a look. I'll do likewise later on.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, I've now read Gurdur's misconceived post.

Richard Dawkins is fond of quoting WB Yeats in these situations:

You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another's said or sung,
'Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?

Ranelli Rants said...

Chris Mooney as the host of POI is inexorably a setback for the free-thought community, just as Michael Shermer's recent quixotic remarks about religion were an act of cognitive dissonance, as well as an act of intellectual prostitution to and for the Templeton Foundation in exchange for a healthy remuneration. Unfortunately, Mooney's appointment to Host POI is a clear indicator of an internal struggle at CFI (Ron Lindsay is at the epicenter of this tumult, while Paul Kurtz is abandoning his own core principles by allowing Lindsay to enter the wheelhouse at CFI and steer Kurtz's flagship into choppy weather), and a capitulation of reason in deference of bridging untenable gaps with dogma, in order to score political points. After all, Mooney is a political pundit and polemic, who is more suited for a job at Politico than Point of Inquiry.

Ophelia Benson said...

Really? Shermer is getting Templeton funding? Is that on the record?

Ranelli Rants said...

Ophelia, you may read my full riposte concerning Shermer’s act of “intellectual prostitution” by following the link below(1)—and the accompanying attributed references—but, to address your question first, I will allow Dr. Shermer to speak for himself. He writes in the Huffington Post, “For the record, I am not sponsored by Templeton, and I've never received a grant or fellowship of any kind from them. They did pay me to write and edit some articles for them (work-for-pay is okay!)” (See, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” - http://www.templeton.org/belief/ )

I take Dr. Shermer at his word, therefore I do not think “funding” is an accurate characterization, but he unequivocally states he has been paid by the Templeton Foundation for work. However, I find his recent remarks, along with his clearly stated remittance from the Templeton Foundation, a suspicious, if not a duplicitous act that, at minimum, undermines his exemplary work as a skeptic—it was either venal, for money, or it was an act of capitulation to reason and acquiescence to tepid religionists.

As you have vociferously, yet rightly pointed out in numerous posts here, Chris Mooney is unfit for a litany of reasons to host POI. Hence, I felt it germane to point out Dr. Shermer’s concomitant acute and anomalous accommodations to moderate of religion, as they eerily echo Mooney’s longstanding record of anathema for us so-called “new atheists.”

Finally, it is worth noting—for full disclosure and intellectual honesty—Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (both inexorably not apologists for religion) also participated in the Templeton Foundation “conversation” paper; however, my own trepidations lie not with where Michael Shermer wrote his piece, but what he said, chiefly, “Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.”

Certainly you will agree these are out of the ordinary words for Shermer, considering his otherwise venerable work in the arena of science, reason and skepticism?

The entirety of my position is the corollary to Mooney’s overt and well-documented stridency against people such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which is antithetical to true free inquiry and free thought, and Shermer’s surreal statements about God—the Abrahamic god, no less. (Witness the reverence of capitalization in the above quote by Shermer.) In short, Mooney and Shermer each seem to have adoptive motives—money and prestige—rather than an honest, uncontaminated inquest into free inquiry.

(1) Renowned Skeptic Michael Shermer: Deist or Just Disingenuous? http://www.opednews.com/articles/Renowned-Skeptic-Michael-S-by-Frank-J-Ranelli-091203-939.html

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Tyro said...

I'm listening to Mooney's first podcast. He says he wishes to cover the "intersection between science and public policy", specifically mentioning evolution. Sounds like how he describes his blog, and sounds uncomfortably like he'll be advocating his own views.

Really hoping he'll prove me wrong.

phil said...

Robert Price is also terrible choice. The man is a crank top to bottom and I'm sick of every atheist/skeptical podcaster trotting him out.

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