Academics are bad at warning the public about charlatans

I recently reread Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Beware of Stephen J. Gould,” and the last paragraph in particular stuck out:

And so as not to be accused of plagiarism myself, many others have said much of what I said here – only in politer academic language, with longer sentences, and without that specific example.  I thought it deserved a sharper presentation, for the benefit of the popular audience that Gould deluded; and a clear-cut example of Gould’s “work”, to show what the fuss is about.  Many academic writers on Gould could not speak as sharply as Gould deserved.  As I have no fear for my own reputation, I will say it plainly:  One way or another, knowingly or unknowingly, Gould deceived the trusting public and committed the moral equivalent of deliberate scientific fraud.

It seems like academics are pretty good at warning other academics about charlatans, but they do it in polite academic-speak that the general public won’t pick up on. This is a problem I’ve run into a lot when dealing with Christian apologists. Here, for example, is a quote from the beginning of William Rowe’s commentary on the Craig-Flew debate:

Immediately after saying he will leave the case for atheism to Flew, he then asserts, ‘But notice that although atheist philosophers have tried for centuries to disprove the existence of God, no one’s ever been able to come up with a successful argument’. Surely, all the arguments against the existence of God are unsuccessful is not something that we can ‘notice’, like we might notice that the weather has been unusually warm? That the arguments for the non-existence of God are unsuccessful is something one needs to establish; it is not something that Craig and all the members of the audience (including, presumably, Flew) can simply notice. Imagine Craig’s reaction if, after he presented his five reasons in favor of the existence of God, Flew were then to stand up and simply declare: ‘Notice that although theist philosophers have tried for centuries to prove the existence of God, no one’s ever been able to come up with a successful argument.’ Of course, we must remember that this is a live debate where a rhetorical flourish, now and then, may play a useful role. But one cannot help but be surprised when Craig begins his second speech by remarking, ‘You will remember that, in my first speech, I argued that there are no good reasons to think that atheism is true and that there are good reasons to think that theism is true’. It is, I submit, one thing to simply assert your view (no one’s ever been able to come up with a successful argument for the non-existence of God), but quite another thing to refer your audience back to your assertion and then tell them that you have argued that there are no good reasons to think that atheism is true.

To me, this reads as scathing, though Rowe never quite gives an easily-quotable verdict on Craig’s rhetoric. The actual discussion of Craig’s arguments has a similar flavor. For example, on Craig’s moral argument:

Although some atheists think that objective moral values exist, many believe in objective moral values as firmly as theists do. Surely, Craig knows that this is so. It is, therefore, question-begging and misleading, at best, for him to simply declare, without even the hint of an argument, that ‘On the atheistic view there is nothing really wrong with your raping someone. Thus, without God there is no absolute right and wrong…’

It’s worth reflecting on that phrase “misleading at best.” It suggests that the claim in question is probably worse than misleading; it comes very close to calling the claim a lie while making it hard for your enemies to complain at the cost of making it easy for your audience to miss what you’re really saying.

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