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

Friday, December 23, 2011

My magnificent 7 posts of the year

These are not necessarily my own favourite posts of the year. But they are the ones that have scored the greatest number of views (and will doubtless now score even more, lol). Still, they give an idea of the mix of this blog and the mix of what people seem to want:

1. Interpreting Deuteronomy - with sophisticated theology. How (some) theologians try to rehabilitate an offensive text.

2. Islam and "Islamophobia" - a little manifesto. This issue of what you can say about Islam, and what counts as Islamophobia, is obviously on a lot of people's minds, since the post sent my views through the roof (by this blog's very modest standards of what counts as the roof).

3. Coyne vs. Haught - advantage, Coyne. This was a long post on the kerfuffle related to the Coyne/Haught live debate (or whatever it was). Haught was out of line here, and rather precious. Jerry and I have different concepts of science, free will, and "fact" - but we don't get involved in fights about it. Perhaps it's true that our main disagreements are semantic, but, really, people are entitled to disagree. Haught seems to be someone who doesn't like being disagreed with and quickly makes it personal. I get the same flavour from his books.

I'll say it again: Jerry Coyne did nothing wrong in the discussion that Haught got so upset about ... and by getting so damn upset Haught made things worse for himself.

4. A very short introduction to non-overlapping magisteria. A perennial topic on this blog. I guess I'll go on criticising the surprising influential - but in my view utterly meretricious - concept of non-overlapping magisteria.

5. IQ2 debate on "Atheists are wrong" - the results (Lions defeat Christians). My initial report on this debate, which was a big thing in my life back in September. It was subsequently televised on ABC 1 and made available on video on the internet.

6. Jean Kazez on Gnude Clothes and shutting up. This issue is ancient history by now, and yet it still rankles. I need to say a bit about it.

I guess Jean and I are going to have to agree to disagree about some of this, though I wish I could persuade her, especially as my respect for her has risen immensely as the year has gone on. The way she handled herself over the issue that we don't talk about here was exemplary - if you want to see some actually useful discussion of, sigh, Elevatorgate, track down the relevant threads on her blog.

I suspect that we're not in total disagreement about the Mooneygate issues, etc. Like Jean, I do prefer civility, and I dislike personal attacks, pile-ons, and witch hunts. I'm happy to admit that I said some things that I regret in the thick of the battles over Chris Mooney, etc., etc., and I probably even owe Mooney an apology for some of it.

But please note this important point. Much of the anger against Mooney was based on his claim that some views should not be expressed in the public square even in a civil way. That may not be telling someone, directly in the second person, "Shut up!" But it is saying that someone should shut up because their views, even though they are arguable and civilly expressed, are politically inexpedient. I can't accept that.

For me, the argument has never been about whether we should normally try to be civil. Generally speaking, I think we should be. It's better for intellectual progress if a wide range of ideas can be discussed in a civil manner without people losing their tempers, provoking each other to lose their tempers, typecasting and dismissing each other as not worth listening to on the basis of their ideas, and so on. There is a place for satire and mockery of absurd ideas, but there's also an important place for listening to each others' viewpoints and welcoming thoughtful critiques of our own views.

What annoyed me so much about Mooney in the first place was the suggestion that we should not express certain ideas - at least in more public places like The New Republic - even in a thoughtful and civil manner (which is what Jerry Coyne did in the book review that Mooney objected to). Anyway... let's move on...

7. Some Saturday supervillainy: Zeus vs the Hulk. This brief post about heroism and villainy in pop culture attracts a significant number of readers month after month. It's obviously a hot topic for a demographic that I tapped into. And, hey, why not? It does less to raise my blood pressure than worrying about Chris Mooney or Wally Smith or Elevatorgate some of the other rubbish we encounter in the blogosphere. That has to be a plus.

6 comments:

@blamer said...

Am I the only one hoping this recap post gets enough views for it to be added to the list...?

Russell Blackford said...

That would be an interesting outcome.

Anonymous said...

Probably the reason why your blog has a "modest" number of views is because it's so bloody reasonable. How can you start a good flame war that way?? If you can't even offend me, you're doing something right. Merry Christmas :D Thoraiya.

Russell Blackford said...

You, too, Thoraiya.

Ken Pidcock said...

On Mooneygate, I have a particularly American perspective.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, some party or another claimed to have seen video documentation of Michelle Obama addressing some group where she made reference to "whitey". Anybody with any access to black professional Americans knew that assertion to be ridiculous; she wouldn't even use that word among friends while drunk. Nevertheless, there were numerous conservative commentators willing to assume that the claim might have some validity. Needless to say, it turned out to be bullshit.

And that's how Exhibit A felt to those with access to American scientists. Those who assumed that the claim might have some validity (including, I'm afraid, Jean Kazez) revealed themselves to be uninformed.

Russell Blackford said...

The Exhibit A thing always seemed very implausible to me. It set off my bullshit detector.

Here, I do disagree with Jean. I just couldn't see this story as anything other than clumsy fiction - perhaps confabulated from real incidents, but in a way that was grossly false overall. It didn't add up psychologically.

It's interesting that some people - including Mooney but also others such as Jean - found it plausible. In my view, that showed bad judgment, and it would have been nice if Mooney could simply have admitted this.

Now, I'm sure I have also showed bad judgment now and then. I can think of examples. But this was a rather egregious case. It was a case where the bad judgment was fairly important, and Mooney had gone a long way out on a limb in his unwise reliance on Exhibit A. His later attitude, when the story fell apart, of, "How was I supposed to know?" is not impressive. I can't think of a case where my own bad judgment has mattered so much, but I can certainly think of cases where it has been bad.

Importantly, Exhibit A was supposed to be a key exhibit in the case for shutting up about some things, such as alleged tensions or incompatibilities between religion and science. Although I'm not an absolutist about it, I do think you should be pretty sure of your ground before you start publicly telling people to stop expressing their viewpoint on a topic (as opposed to arguing against their viewpoint).

I suppose we should commend Jean for her attempts to get people to moderate their language, but I do think this was a case where her bad judgment about an important aspect undermined those efforts. Many of us felt - with some justification - the impulse to say, "But, but, Exhibit A was always obviously bullshit." If only there had been some admission of this from Jean's side it would have helped a lot.

But that doesn't excuse the most excessive language from "my" side, including my own at some of the most heated moments. Even my initial taunting of Mooney over Exhibit A was unnecessary: I could have made the same point in a more civil way. On the gripping hand, attempts to be civil didn't get far with Mooney and his supporters, either.