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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  • eric

    Admittedly I read Full House a long time ago, but what I do remember doesn’t really support Yudkowsky’s point. My memories of it are that it was targeted towards popular misconceptions of progress, not that it was asserting or arguing that professional biologists had this misconception. Now,I don’t remember any mention of Williams in it, so Yudkowsky is likely right that Gould didn’t give proper credit to him. But Yudkowsky’s main point – that Gould is giving a mistaken impression about what biologists think – no, I didn’t get that from the book at all.
    Could be there’s a mismatch in sensitivity here. As a nonbiolgist reading it, I may not have noticed or cared about some subtle dig at (other) biologists, some phrase that Yudkowsky, with his background, took major issue with. But by the same token, I could easily argue that my nonexpert background makes me a better representative/judge of what nonbiologists take away from the book.

  • L.Long

    I have and have read most of Gould’s books and popular articles.

    Does he give the impression that he thought all that up on his own and is taking credit?? If you are a ‘non-thinker’ you may think so but anyone in science knows that NO ONE does schite on there own, everyone stands on the shoulders of many other people. And his writing left no doubt about what he considers his, i.e. Punctuated Equilibrium.

    I never heard of this Yudkowsky but I have heard of Gould, so stop whining and start really putting out material and show the evidence.