Mooney snatches victory from jaws of defeat

Most of us know that Ron Lindsay, the head of the Center for Inquiry, pretty much took apart Chris Mooney’s feeble arguments for accommodationism in a Point of Inquiry podcast made during a Mediterranean junket (see Ophelia‘s and P.Z’s takes on the podcast).  The only one defending Mooney, apparently, is Josh Rosenau, who didn’t hear the podcast.

I did, and Mooney’s performance is embarrassing, especially where he claims that there’s plenty of evidence that atheism turns people away from science but then admits that he can’t cite any.  Mooney, of course, is incapable of admitting he screwed up, and tries to defend himself in a new post at the Intersocktion (you know it pains me to send you over there).  His defense is twofold, and hilarious:

1.  He’s created a Rorschach test.  If you’re familiar with Mooney, you’ll know that every time he says something dumb, temporarily raising traffic at his blog as people get angry at him, he claims victory, arguing that he’s “struck a nerve” or created a Rorschach test for disparate beliefs.  This podcast is no different:

The response to the show is, typically, polarized. The more I study how we reason on contested issues, the less it surprises me that on this topic, the things I say become a Rohrschach. (That includes this comment, by the way.)

Yes, A Rorschach test for whether you’re slick and willfully ignorant.  How self-important can a guy get?

2. Confrontational arguments won’t work because worldviews, coded in the brain, are there for keeps:

I’m not saying it [the grip of religion on America] can’t change, by the way. Societies do change; US society is itself becoming more secular, although I doubt New Atheism is the reason. I’m just saying I have pretty good reasons for doubting there will be change in response to confrontational arguments among those for whom religion is a core of their identity. Maybe PZ will be more persuaded if I quote George Lakoff, from his book The Political Mind, p. 59:

“One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change–for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely.”

Does Mooney not realize that everything we believe is physically coded in the brain, and that every time we form a new memory or have a new and remembered thought, that also causes physical changes in the brain?  If you thought all day that you were going to have roast beef for dinner, but then see that turns out to be duck, that’s a change in a physical part of your brain.  Do Mooney and Lakoff know how many interrelated changes in brain structure are involved in accepting Jebus?  And why, exactly, are physical changes in the brain refractory to confrontational arguments but malleable to congenial ones?


138 Comments

  1. Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Rorschach. Though Mooney got it wrong first.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      That was meant to be surrounded by <pedant>…</pedant> but WordPress ate the pseudo-HTML. I wonder whether this will come out any better. If not, I give up. Jerry, I don’t suppose it’s trivial to make there be a comment preview facility?

  2. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    “One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change–for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely.”

    I believe this to be generally true – but people do change. Some people give up smoking or drinking. Some undergo religious conversions or deconversions. Some change their politics.

    What Mooney needs to provide is evidence that accommodationism is more effective than confrontation (plus defining those terms). Just saying so doesn’t make it so – such unconstrained pronouncements have been the hallmark of religion, philosophy and politics. And we still don’t know what is best…

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Yup, if this is true, it’s going to be just as true for accommodation as it is for confrontation.

    • Moewicus
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Mooney’s argument treats world views like they are bits that are flipped on or off, but they are more like a series of points which can be transformed into differing arrangements over time. Some Jesuits, for instance, turn to atheism because they were taught to value truth. I have drastic disagreements with the me of ten years ago, but many of my values are the same or similar.

  3. Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey, wait…

    If decided minds can’t be changed, then how does this douche-nozzle Mooney justify sucking up to theists? If we accept that decided minds don’t change, and we’re competing for the minds of the undecided, then agreeing with theists gives them an automatic advantage. The only logical move, according to Mooney’s latest stupidity, is for atheists to be aggressive and show complete confidence in their position, since that’s something that definitely sways undecided people.

    • MoonShark
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      That was my thought too.

      Mooney’s tripe is so tiresome. He can’t be bothered to cite evidence or spend a few minutes *thinking* before waggling his fingers on a keyboard? For as much as he carries on about communication, he’s clueless when it comes to conversing with outspoken atheists. Why does he still think the dumb emotional appeals will work with us? It’s like he deliberately avoids the most straightforward and reliable solution…. evidence.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      +1

      Though my initial thought was: if it makes no difference why won’t he shut up?

    • gillt
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      If decided minds can’t be changed, then how does this douche-nozzle Mooney justify sucking up to theists?

      By telling people they don’t have to give up their beliefs (change of mind) because there is no conflict between science and so-called moderate religious belief. There just isn’t. Any further questions or issues are addressed by pointing at Francis Collins and also telling other scientists like Jerry Coyne to shut-up.

      • articulett
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        And by asserting alarmist claims about what will happen if they don’t shut up:

        The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come.

        I agree with Dawkins that Sam Harris response to this claim was excellent: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/626387-sam-harris-on-accommodationism

        That’s a pretty strong claim for the self-appointed science communication expert to make without ever providing any actual evidence (and giving a notpology for the libelous Tom Johnson story which he originally claimed to be “Exhibit A” in support of his claim.

        • wonderer
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          Yes, Mooney’s claim there is such BS. I myself have gotten two Christians to read Jerry’s book, and subsequently stop spouting the anti-evolution talking points which they had previously been spouting.

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 19, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

            Wow, that’s quite the coup! Do you think they’re really convinced, or just watching their mouths around you, now?

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

      Besides, if Mooney really believed this, he would stop confronting the New Atheists and start accommodating them.

  4. Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    [T]hey are unlikely to change–for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain[....]

    Oooh! Oooh! Let me try! Let me try!

    The reason my engine seized is because the oil can’t be changed because it is physically part of the engine.

    No?

    The reason my kitchen stinks is because the garbage is physically part of the under-sink area.

    Still no?

    The reason Mooney is so full of shit is because it’s physically part of his intestines.

    There we go — I think that one works!

    Oh, and in all seriousness, Lakoff and Mooney both need to take an introductory-level psychology class that includes a week or two on cognitive dissonance. Then maybe we can pretend to have an intelligent conversation.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Glad you include Lakoff there. I got so sick of hearing about him a couple of election cycles ago..

  5. Scote
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    ““One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change–for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain,”

    Mooney seems obsessed with a simplistic view of religion and the conversion of people from religious view, as if all people have the same degree of religiosity, and as if un-binding people from that religiosity is a single stage operation which benefits only from Accomodationism.

    In the real world, religiosity is heterogeneous and what works to change the minds of individuals may require multiple types of interactions, from gentle nudges to no-holds barred honesty. And, studies that talk about changing the mind of an individual may not take into account social influence of groups and outside expert opinion.

    Mooney professes that if one approach works for a single stage of influence that that approach precludes all others.

    Sigh, it is supremely ironic that Mooney is working on a book about “motivated reasoning,” aka cognitive dissonance, since he is such a perfect exemplar of the behavior.

  6. Tulse
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Confrontational arguments won’t work because worldviews, coded in the brain, are there for keeps

    Thus making religion truly child abuse.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Nice one. In that case, I wonder if we’d ever get to a point where religion is prohibited for people under a certain age like porn is today. And if not, why not?

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Moonbeam: :for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain…”

    WEIT: Does Mooney not realize that everything we believe is physically coded in the brain, and that every time we form a new memory or have a new and remembered thought, that also causes physical changes in the brain?

    Is Moonbeam a dualist?

  8. Screechy Monkey
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Damn, Mooney is starting to enter Scott Adams territory. “You see, when I said that idiotic thing, I was totally trolling you! Dance, monkey, dance!”

  9. Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Mooney seems incapable of admitting that there could be a slight possibility that he might be wrong.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      There were so many places in that interview where he could have done that – without even necessarily humiliating himself. But even if it did humiliate him – he should be able and willing to do it. But no; it was just “yes but I’m right” all the way. And he thinks he’s a science communicator. Oy.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      what advantage to Mooney, at this point in his career, would there possibly be in admitting error?

      Would that result in another Templeton award, do you think?

      No.

      He’s made his bed very carefully and intentionally, and lined it with green sheets.

      Not to say he’ll get rich with this approach, but I can see why he did it. There’s still more money available for accomodationists than gnus.

      Notice he made the switch from essentially being a gnu himself to being an accomodationist right around the time he met Sheril and Nisbet.

      My guess is he was thinking long term career.

      -new relationship means need more money
      -Nisbet talks about the future and value of accomodationism, points out the many sources of funding available.

      profit.

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 4:40 am | Permalink

      Mooney should be familiar with the research on the psychology of belief – it’s much much much harder to go back on something one’s said publicly than something that was a private conviction.

      Of course the hope with learning about the psychology of belief is that one would be more willing to try to apply it to oneself.

  10. Tim Martin
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I, for one, would love to see some actual research on how people come to change their minds or religion or any other issue.

    We know that the Gnu method works. I’m also willing to bet that a more hand-holding method works better for some subset of the population. Who are these people? Why does it work better for them? Is there anything we can do about it, or is the hand-holding method simply the best for these people? Is there a yet unmentioned third option for the style in which we argue against religion?

    The answers would be illuminating, and most probably useful in fighting irrational beliefs. Are no psychologists working on this?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      No, because [mooney]it is obvious[/mooney].

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        And obvious answers are never wrong.

  11. Josh Slocum
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Subscribing, because there’s no better way to procrastinate than a Mooney-down!

  12. wilzard
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    “I’m just saying I have pretty good reasons for doubting there will be change in response to confrontational arguments among those for whom religion is a core of their identity.”

    As if people with deeply entrenched beliefs, or people who have been very public proclaiming their belief are the only people gnu atheists are trying to reach with our arguments.

    What about the silent majority who read gnu articles, blogs and books but never or rarely comment?

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      For that matter, look at all the Gnus who themselves once were Bible thumpers with deeply entrenched beliefs….

      b&

      • Tulse
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Mooney seems unfamiliar with the concept of “existence proof”.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      What about the fact that it’s not a yes or no thing – it’s a whole complicated range of opinion and degree of conviction. Some people won’t (immediately) be convinced; some will die before they’re convinced; so what? Nobody knows who or how many, so why even bother to say it once, let alone 40 thousand times?

  13. frank sellout
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Although it’s all ready been said, I think it bears repeating that the Gnu Athiests are trying to reach those who are all ready doubting religion with their agruments. Who really thinks that the truly devoted creationist is going to be easily turned away from their beliefs by arguments from either accomidationism or the Gnu’s

    The day Mooney brings Ken Hovind to believe in Evolution is the day I say that he is right. Until then, good luck!

    Cheers!

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      The day any of these professional fence-sitters can convince people like Hovind they’re wrong using only nice, soft arguments that don’t offend any deeply-held religious sensibilities is the day Hell will spontaneously pop into existence out of quantum foam just so it can immediately freeze over.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        the day Hell will spontaneously pop into existence out of quantum foam just so it can immediately freeze over.

        Genius! :)

  14. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Why does he assume that large percentage of Americans “define their very identity” by religion? Lots of Americans who are religious just aren’t that strongly into it. According to a recent Pew Poll, only 37% of Millennials who are affiliated with a religion consider themselves “strong” members of that religion. And 25% of Millennials are unaffiliated. He’s making these arguments on the basis of atypical members of society. It would be great if the deeply religiously committed were convinced by arguments, but it’s not clear why you would base your argumentative strategy on them.

  15. gillt
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    And why, exactly, are physical changes in the brain refractory to confrontational arguments but malleable to congenial ones?

    Mooney’s already addressed this: there is plenty of evidences to support this notion but he can’t cite them because the studies are impractical. Slick!

  16. Buzz
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    “Does Mooney not realize that everything we believe is physically coded in the brain, and that every time we form a new memory or have a new and remembered thought, that also causes physical changes in the brain? If you thought all day that you were going to have roast beef for dinner, but then see that turns out to be duck, that’s a change in a physical part of your brain.”

    Thank you! I’ve been harping on this particular point for years, and the inability of so many people (including some psychologists!) to understand it is both puzzling and infuriating. It’s also one of the frustrations drove me away from neuroscience.

    There’s actually an even worse form of this idiocy (promoted most prominently in the media by David Brooks), which argues as follows: Some people have mental trait X. We can observed differences in the brains of people with X and without X. Therefore, X is an innate property, determined by genetics rather than environment.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      David Brooks the political commentator? I’ve decided anything he says on TV is definitely crap.

  17. littlejohn
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Is the cat’s belly a vase or two faces?

    • gruebait
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      A chalice, actually. Ooh, no, wait! It’s a grail! (crap, my brain went and changed again…)

      • Michelle B
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink

        Thread winner!

  18. Josh Slocum
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    And lo, only one comment so far at the Intersocktion. I guarantee that this, the one topic that actually brings any number of people to his place to argue, will have very few comments. Cuz they’ll be moderated into oblivion. Except Anthony McCarthy’s, TB, and Gurdur.

    • Scote
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I love the non-falsifiable part of his claim. Apparently, if nobody comments it is because people agree with him, which proves he’s right, and if lots of people disagree with him, it also proves he’s right. His “heads I win, tails you loose” excuses are a classic sign of crank argumentation.

    • Jolo5309
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      I just refuse to go to his website, if his sole purpose for making his claim (aka making shit up) is to drive traffic, I leave it to better, more resilient minds to read it.

      • Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        Maybe the Templetons pay Mooney per hit and maybe Mooney’s figured out he won’t get any traffic unless he intentionally pisses people off.

        Speaking of Templeton (aka the First International Accomodationist Bank): there’s got to be a brilliant pun referring to the “Mooney-changers in the Templeton” somewhere in this discussion!

  19. Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Guess Mooney has just explained to us why he will never admit he’s wrong. Being the “reasonable middle” and the “expert communicator” is just too much part of his identity by now.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      He’s such an expert communicator, that his expert communication skills would be wasted on you.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      You know, that’s actually true.

      So he’s been describing himself all this time! That’s funny.

  20. Andy Dufresne
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Subscribing

  21. Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    …He’s created a Rorschach test. If you’re familiar with Mooney, you’ll know that every time he says something dumb, temporarily raising traffic at his blog as people get angry at him, he claims victory, arguing that he’s “struck a nerve” or created a Rorschach test for disparate beliefs. This podcast is no different…

    Ah yes. The ole’ ‘struck a nerve’ gambit. Beloved of incompetent surgeons, dentists in over their heads, internet trolls, and, of course, bullies of all stripes…

    The implication being, clearly, since, for some utterly mystifying reason, you’re incredibly pissed I said something stupid or nasty or stifling or even all of the above and just way-too-often repeated, well, clearly, there’s some truth behind it.

    Let’s see what we can do with this masterpiece of reasoning… I mean, I know: I’ll repeat a nasty but standard slander about some minority group at random… like, say:

    Oh, hey. Here’s one. Them Jews, they’re just so damned tightfisted, y’know…

    … aaaand when the objections pour in, well, obviously, I ‘struck a nerve’. Bow before my rhetorical brilliance.

    Ah Mooney. Truly a dazzling intellect. Award the man one (1) internets. He’s clearly earned it.

  22. pjmad
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I think in that last quoted graph, Lakoff (and Mooney by extension) seems to be trying to ascribe more rigidity to people’s worldview by implying it’s somehow indelibly manifested in brain structures. He’s probably talking about religious tribalism and people’s tendency to interpret criticisms of their religion as personal attacks.

    How he thinks we can alter this worldview by being transparently manipulative and dishonest about our own beliefs is anyone’s guess.

  23. Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The problem is, they’re not really “thinking” in the sense PZ means–there are reasons to believe they are responding automatically, emotionally, and then subsequently rationalizing.

    More of that “respect” for the religious. With friends like these…

  24. Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    The more people disagree with him, the righter that shows him to be. Why? Because they laughed when Howdy Doody sat down to the piano. Something like that.

  25. Sastra
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m just saying I have pretty good reasons for doubting there will be change in response to confrontational arguments among those for whom religion is a core of their identity.

    But “religion” is a broad category, and there are a lot of different aspects which make up one’s “core identity.” Social, communal, psychological, personal; love of God, love of truth, love of one’s neighbor, love of virtue, love of contemplation, love of nature.

    In order to persuade someone to change their mind, I think you have to appeal to values they already hold and show them an internal conflict: you can’t have X if you want Y … and you want Y more than X. Point out that they are at war not with us, but with themselves — and that changing their mind can be more of a victory than remaining at status quo, but in dissonance.

    Sure, people often value their religious identity for the comfort they can get from supernatural beliefs, explanations, reassurances, and certainty. But they also highly regard things like honesty, strength, plain-speaking, humility, curiosity, reason, consistency, and wisdom — which they have wrapped up in religion unnecessarily.

    In fact, religion may even conflict with these virtues, and often does. The upright secular aspects of their worldview, narrative, or mode of thought may be even more fundamental to their ‘identity’ than the rather trivial and crooked truth claims of their religion.

    Push comes to shove, don’t be so sure how they will choose or where they will jump. The best persuasive tactic might not be so conciliating as Mooney thinks. The clear-thinking, straightforward confrontational manner of the gnu atheists may actually be appealing to many of the same drives and emotions which got people into their religion in the first place — and kept them there.

    We’re assuming more common ground with the religious, than Mooney is.

  26. KennyJC
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Mooney is by far the most contemptible character in the skeptic/atheist movement. It’s of course a lie that plain speak can’t change a persons mind or at least advance the cause if not persuading a person. I have several annecdotes when I changed a persons views just by hammering on about how ridiculous the particular belief is.

    Mooney is working from a cartoon-like scenario which he created in his head in which a conversation between a new atheist and a religious person always results in the religious person running away crying becoming more religious as a result. Bullshit!

    Activism works. The loudest atheists just like the loudest gays have advanced the cause and changed minds and for those who haven’t changed they at least know we are out there.

    Furthermore, Mooney doesn’t practice what he preaches from what I’ve heard when it comes to climate change. I wouldn’t know because I can’t stand reading or listening to him.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      …and the loudest blacks before them, and the loudest women before them…and on and on and on.

      Nothing gets done if people sit by silently and don’t challenge the status quo.

      I wonder what Mooney et al think of the popular uprisings in the Middle East? After all, you can’t change the minds of the people in power merely by protesting — in other words, by using only your voices — can you?

      Ask Mubarak.

      • Magicthighs
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        “…and the loudest blacks before them”

        Not according to people like Rosenau and McCarthy, apparently. Malcolm X for instance played no appreciable role in the civil rights movement, according to them, or so I’ve read on Rosenau’s blog recently anyway.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          I suppose he thinks MLK was an accomodationist for racism???

          • Kevin
            Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

            …and never heard him SPEAK!

            Jesus H Christ on a cracker, what a dumbfuck thing to say.

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

            There was a period during the civil rights struggle when the MLK approach was considered too appeasing by the militants.

            I agree with Kenny & Kevin above, but every struggle has internal disagreement along similar lines.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

              OK, since you mention this:

              exactly how close would you compare the approach of MLK regarding the promotion of equality with that recommended by Mooney for promoting science?

              It’s not my recollection that these two figures would be comparable much, but hey, maybe you’ve got historical data I don’t?

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

                Don’t be ridiculous.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:14 am | Permalink

                no, seriously, don’t make comparisons like that lightly.

                people might get confused.

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:49 am | Permalink

                I made no comparisons. I would no more compare MLK with Mooney than I’d compare gnus with Malcolm X. I was reflecting on my memories of the US civil rights & feminist movements. Environmentalism too, for that matter, not to mention the anti-war movement. There is always a spectrum of dissent.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      “Furthermore, Mooney doesn’t practice what he preaches from what I’ve heard when it comes to climate change.”

      It’s worse than that. Mooney himself is a living example of someone changing his mind. He wasn’t always an accomodationist. Some of his early writings on religion were downright Gnu-ish. He’s admitted as much.

      • Paul
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        But then of course he read up on History and Philosophy, which resulted in his current disposition. No specific rational arguments, no evidence that he thinks might convince someone else. Just, reading History and Philosophy resulted in Accomodationism.

        At least he’s polite enough to not accuse Gnus outright of not being read in these topics, although his commenters have been happy enough to do so in the past.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

          “Just, reading History and Philosophy resulted in Accomodationism.”

          translation:

          He realized there was more money for him in the accomodationist niche.

          • Paul
            Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            That’s so strident of you, Ichthyic!

  27. Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I notice he carefully doesn’t mention me. I’m an Unperson. He hates PZ, but I’m an Unperson.

    • Marta
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      So true, but god forbid he should open THAT canofworms again. If the world, for Mooney, contained anything else in it besides Mooney, I have to think that his making you an unperson makes him writhe in embarrassment.

      I was shocked that Rosenau was able to write two posts on the matter–one about your post at B&W, and one about Mooney’s thrashing at PZ’s place–without trashing Coyne even once. I’d thought it impossible.

      • Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        Oh I really doubt that he’s at all embarrassed about it, he flaunted it in a post at the height of the “Tom Johnson”/Wally Smith meltdown. Did a lot of lying by omission about me, too.

        I think Rosenau had no choice; Jerry was busy in Banff and hadn’t said anything about it!

  28. Kevin
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    If we ignore him, will he go away?

    Seriously, who besides Mooney takes Mooney seriously?

    Sorry, but I have no context as to who he is or why he’s self-important other than the critiques of him I see here and elsewhere.

    I’m truly wondering why you don’t just treat him like another nondescript noncelebrity nonimportant nobody who’s wrong all the time. Sorta like Newt Gingrich.

    • Marta
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      The thing about Mooney, Kevin, is that there’s a HUGE context and backstory involving him. I think it can be fairly stated that it was Mooney who fired the first shot in the accommodationist battle. Others may disagree, but that’s my take.

      • Andy Dufresne
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        Well sure. When people complain about how “heated” these discussions get, I always point out that the accommos are just as responsible—if not more—for the heatedness. E.g., Maybe things wouldn’t be so heated if Mooney had handled the TJ fiasco better—issued a proper apology instead of his childish non-pology.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I have begun to wonder whether we’re past the point of diminishing returns with respect to talking to/about Mooney. He’s admitted he has no evidence that We’re Not Helping, he won’t respond to arguments about moving the Overton Window, etc.

      I don’t mean that to sound like I’m telling our host what to post about. Hell, I can’t resist posting comments to a lot of these threads. I just wonder if there’s a point where it makes sense to say, “you know what? We’ve tried to engage with this guy, we’ve responded to his criticisms, and it turns out he’s got nothing and won’t respond to our counter-arguments, so what’s the point?”

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        I deliberately refrain from posting about him, as you’re right: there’s not much new to say. But sometimes I snap . . .

        • Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          The best you could probably say is that he provides “teachable moments.”

        • Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

          Huh. I think the PoI interview was worth posting about. He couldn’t very well just brush Ron off (not if he wants to keep his PoI job), so this was one time when he really did have to try to justify his claims…and he failed miserably. I think that’s worth posting about.

          But maybe that’s because I’m a dog with a bone.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      who besides Mooney takes Mooney seriously?

      The Templeton Foundation.

      what else matters?

      • Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        No, unfortunately, lots of people take him seriously. They give him jobs and writing assignments and book contracts.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          I was being deliberately minimalistic there.

          joke fail.
          :(

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          Unfortunately, publishing being a for-profit industry, a lot of decisions seem to be made by determining what it is that people want to hear, and then providing it. (Though you’d think the success of the gnu books would have changed the thinking on that want somewhat…)

          • Ichthyic
            Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

            I’m pretty sure that folks like Mooney considered the market to be flooded with gnu thought at the time he made his decision to be a reactionary (to the gnus) accomodationist.

        • Kevin
          Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          Really? Well, the First Amendment guarantees him a voice — but not an audience.

          • articulett
            Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            Her sure doesn’t get much of an audience at the Intersocktion now that the socks have been eliminated.

  29. Aratina Cage
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    So so true about the brain changes. I can’t believe Mooney quoted that as if it were a deep thought.

    Another thing is that learning new knowledge that replaces old, incorrect knowledge isn’t like erasing the part of your brain that regulates breathing. Theism isn’t essential to our continued existence; we can individually live without it.

    Part of the reason why religious worldviews are so hard to get rid of is because the forces causing people to individually be religious are external to each person–the big ones are the unearned respect, ill-gotten authority, and unbridled privilege that religions currently enjoy. Gnu atheism may not rewire people’s brains overnight but it certainly does tear religion a gnu one in those areas!

    Also, where do you get all those wonderful cats?

  30. Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    So… Mooney doesn’t think people change their minds, ever? It also appears that Mooney doesn’t handle criticism well or is incapable of admitting he is ever wrong. So, what Mooney is trying to avoid is that uncomfortable feeling you get in your brain when you find that you are wrong. In order to avoid this uncomfortable feeling you have to either not listen to people, or insist that people only engage each other in a non-confrontational, never say the other person is wrong, sort of way.

    Which pretty much describes the accomodationalist certified way of engaging in discussions: Never point out that the other person is wrong, so they don’t have to deal with the feeling of being wrong. Playing amateur psychologist here: Mooney’s coping mechanism for his fear of being wrong is to assert that no one must say that anyone is wrong, so he never has to confront the reality that he is ever wrong. You know, “don’t mention the war” and all that.

  31. Ichthyic
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    don’t know if this has been posted yet, but everyone interested in the psychological factors maintaining religious thought, and whether the accomodationist VS gnu approach will have more impact, should read this recent PLOS article

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0017349

    Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution

    interesting excerpt:

    In four studies, existential threat (induced via reminders of participants’ own mortality) increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET, regardless of participants’ religion, religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Effects were reversed by teaching participants that naturalism can be a source of existential meaning

    note especially that last bit:

    attacking fears of death is best done via a naturalistic approach.

    what does that tell you about whether the gnu approach is the right one or not?

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      attacking fears of death is best done via a naturalistic approach.

      And this is probably obvious to many gnu atheists who used to be theists and found the theistic approach severely wanting. Theistic concepts about death are shallow and immature.

      • articulett
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        Yes, compare Hawking’s recent statement about heaven being a fairy story for those afraid of the dark with the accommodationist position that belief in heaven is perfectly compatible with science because some scientists believe in heaven.

        Which statement leads to better scientific literacy? Which is more honest? Which statement plants a seed of reason in superstitious minds? Which invites further questions? Which is clearest? To me, accommodating the silly, just makes people imagine that their silly beliefs are worthy of accommodation.

        Heaven is no more scientific than Valhalla or reincarnation or hauntings or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And neither are any of the other supernatural beliefs that Mooney is bending over backwards to accommodate.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        Also, most of the traditional theistic doctrines about the afterlife (as opposed to the watered down, modern versions) propose a strong chance of everlasting torture. This is not exactly a “comfort”.

    • Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Nice catch, Ichthyic :) I guess the treatment of irrational or debilitating fears using the same techniques as phobia treatments may work very well too.

      The accomodationalist line that effectively reassures people that their irrational fears are, in fact, justified, is certainly no way to treat such a problem.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        I guess the treatment of irrational or debilitating fears using the same techniques as phobia treatments may work very well too.

        exactly.

        Accomodationists are actually getting in the way of treating the religion problem as what it really IS: a psychological one.

        Mooney is not only wrong in his ideas that these thought patterns are immutable, he is further delaying actual, provable methods of dealing with the issue in a truly positive, constructive fashion!

        Accomodationists are functioning just like someone who tells a person with cancer that it’s alright to avoid going to the doctor, if they feel more comfortable utilizing homeopathy as a treatment.

        this is exactly what they are doing, and you can show them step by step that the behavior is entirely equivalent, but they are in so much denial they just look at you blankly, accuse you of attacking them, and then simply reset as if you had said nothing.

        It’s beyond frustrating.

  32. Ichthyic
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    again, noting the paraphrase Jerry made of what Mooney said:

    “Confrontational arguments won’t work because worldviews, coded in the brain, are there for keeps:”

    Look at the evidence in the article I posted:

    Effects were reversed by teaching participants that naturalism can be a source of existential meaning

    so, EXPERIMENTAL EVIDENCE which supports the idea that Mooney, as usual, was wrong about this too.

    …has he ever been right about ANYTHING with a religious theme to it?

  33. jose
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    This guy is an expert in what, you say?

    • Kevin
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      According to Ophelia, in getting book contracts.

      Of course, that’s a claim to fame that Ann Coulter also possesses.

  34. Roger
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    “The response to the show is, typically, polarized. The more I study how we reason on contested issues, the less it surprises me that on this topic, the things I say become a Rohrschach.”
    Rorschach tests involved random meaningless inkblots. Any meaning found in them is a product of the viewer’s own psychology. It’s interesting that Sweeney supposes what he says is like a random blot. Something we can all agree on.

  35. Ichthyic
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I just got to really thinking about this:

    Maybe PZ will be more persuaded if I quote George Lakoff, from his book The Political Mind

    and thought…

    why in hells would PZ, or ANY biologist, be convinced about how the mind functions by the ramblings of a linguist?

    seriously, why would someone who:

    …is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking, political behavior and society.

    have an impact on cognitive biology?

    then I realized what Mooney’s problem has been all along:

    those books he claimed he read that changed his mind about being an accomodationist?

    I’m guessing not a single one of them had anything to do with actual science.

    it’s no wonder he has nothing of use to contribute any more.

  36. Sigmund
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I don’t want people with entrenched religious beliefs to change their minds.
    I want them to die…
    - of old age!
    Seriously, gnu argument strategy may have little to no effect on the highly religious older population. Mooney may even be partly correct here. The point is that the highly religious adult population is not the target group. There is little evidence that they are reachable by either gnu or accomodationist strategies.
    The target is the younger population.
    I’ve put it like this previously:
    I don’t want people to change their religion

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t want people with entrenched religious beliefs to change their minds.
      I want them to die…

      heh, reminds me of this scene from an old Bond film…

      I bet you can guess which one it is without looking at it.
      :)

    • Sigmund
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Oops, damn my stubby fingers on this iphone keyboard!
      I’ll finish that last point
      My reason for adopting the gnu strategy is not to convert the religious, it is to create an atmosphere in society where their children realize that there is a choice.

    • articulett
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I want future generations to question that which I was afraid to question in my youth.

      Religion (and accommodationism) has a way of thwarting certain questions that lead to greater scientific literacy (Mooney’s supposed goal– as well as the area where he keeps telling us he has expertise.)

    • Hamilton Jacobi
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Maybe this is an alternative strategy that would work with Mooney. Since he is so eager for Templeton handouts, maybe we could talk Todd Stiefel into offering him an all-expenses-paid bungee-jumping holiday. With unlimited jello shots and all-you-can-eat at the cholesterol buffet.

      • Sigmund
        Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

        Just lock him in a room with Matt Nisbett for a couple of hours – there is some serious bad blood between these two former framing kings as evidenced by the recent acrimonious exchanges on the Intersocktion comment section.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

          one wonders if that isn’t just Mooney trying to maintain his last shred of dignity by attacking Nisbet over an issue that really neither of them disagree on, global warming.

          dog and pony show comes to mind.

  37. MadScientist
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    “Maybe PZ will be more persuaded if I quote George Lakoff …”

    And then again maybe PZ would just find that so stupid that he writes a short paragraph and everyone laughs at Mooney.

    “The more I study how we reason on contested issues …”

    Oh, Mooney’s studying is he? Well he needs to study a hell of a lot more. He’s certainly not known for erudition or clarity.

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      No the bad blood is real – they parted ways two years ago or more. Mooney told me that himself, just before he stopped speaking to me altogether.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        I think I detect a pattern…

        • Posted May 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

          Heh. I had the same thought – but to be fair, Mooney and I weren’t friends in that sense. A few emails over a period of several years, that’s all. So it wasn’t buddies one minute, enemies the next.

  38. Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    For obvious reasons I might have to steal that kitteh pic.
    Mooney can’t supply any evidence for his idea of how science should be communicated, so maybe the shelf life of this particular science communicator has also run out.

  39. Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    I had such high hopes for Mooney as a science communicator (that niche of the writing professional always has abundant room begging to be filled with competent, thoughtful articulators) when he first arrived on the scene, and I really WANT to LIKE Chris Mooney — truly, I do — but he makes that SO HARD to do!

    If indeed we should treat/regard others as THEY sure seem to WANT to be treated/regarded, I reckon I should just accept Mooney’s implicit message and give up trying to like him…

  40. Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Am I the only one who didn’t view the Mooney-Lindsay interview as a crushing defeat for Mooney? Yes he waffled a bit and made a few irrelevant objections, but he was hardly spouting nonsense.

    WRT the issue of the evidence against New Atheism, his remarks were confused, but the argument he was rebutting, Lindsay wanting to see an experiment on this particular issue was, to my mind, rather weak. Mooney did his best to point this out, though he was not very clear on this point. (It’s possible I’m putting words in his mouth.)

    Mooney pointed to evidence that when people are challenged on their core beliefs, they harden those beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that religion be studied specifically, but it seems like Lindsay was saying, and Myers and Coyne and Benson have been repeating, that without such a specific study on religion the evidence for the general phenomenon is irrelevant. Doesn’t that seem very strange?

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      That’s not what I said at all. I said of course many people don’t change their minds [immediately] when someone challenges a belief that is important to them. That’s obvious. It doesn’t follow from that that nooo atheism is bad for [insert chosen item here].

      That was Lindsay’s point too – he said Mooney was making a general point about psychology and what he was asking about was evidence for the much more specific claim that nooo atheism is bad for whatever. That’s the claim that Mooney admitted he has no evidence for (only to interrupt Lindsay a few seconds later to say that in fact he does have evidence, and knowledge too, lots of them).

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        I can’t quite see the distinction you’re drawing between my characterization of Lindsay’s argument and yours. I agree that this one piece of evidence doesn’t prove that knew atheism is doomed out of the gate, but it seems to me that Lindsay and you both fail to acknowledge that the evidence appears to indicate a significant problem with the pneu atheist approach.

        If there is evidence that direct arguments reinforce mental defenses generally, why is it so important that this be proven for the specific case of direct arguments against religion?

        As you intimate, Mooney’s line of argument here relies on experiments that apparently focus on very short term effects, where we niu atheists are clearly in this thing for the long term. I don’t think this objection is sufficient to dismiss the relevance of these experiments, and I’ve seen only meager attempts to argue against Mooney’s straightforward interpretation of these experiments (but lots of back-patting and scoffs at Mooney’s exasperated “lots of knowledge” quip). In particular, Lindsay hardly even addressed Mooney’s argument: his follow up questions just changed the subject.

        • Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          Another problem with Mooney’s argument is that it focuses on people for whom religion is part of their core identity, and you don’t need modern psychology to tell you that these people will be nigh impossible to convince. If we concern ourselves more with people who aren’t ardently religious to begin with, then Mooney’s argument appears irrelevant. This is a sort of excluded middle problem, and in fairness I should say that I’ve seen it pointed out in the comments on your blog and probably elsewhere.

          I think my general point that Mooney’s argument isn’t getting enough attention, in particular from Lindsay, stands up given, for instance, this post by Coyne.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

            I’ve given Mooney’s argument plenty of attention over the past few years, so what you say here is simply wrong.

            • Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

              Fair enough. My original point was that I didn’t get why everyone thought Mooney got trounced. I don’t see it that way, and I can’t understand why anyone would. He may have made arguments there that have been addressed elsewhere, but Lindsay didn’t give proper attention to this point at least. So much of the commentary harps on Mooney’s “lots of evidence”, but it seems to me he was clear enough about what evidence he was referring to.

              • Sigmund
                Posted May 19, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

                The reason why many of us see Mooney being trounced in this interview is that he is directly asked about the targets of the gnu atheist tactics, not the fundamentalists but the younger or more moderate religious individuals. He really didn’t have a response to this line of reasoning and was forced to stick to saying that the gnu tactics will not work with those with entrenched beliefs. Well, we know that. Many of us are willing to concede that point and it is never the argument that confrontation works on a significant amount of fundies. Mind you, accomodation doesn’t work on them either – just ask Miller, Collins or Giberson.

          • Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            Right…That’s why I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the claim that “[some] people will be too entrenched to be convinced otherwise [at least in the short term]“: because I take it for granted that that’s true and because I don’t think it’s a defeater.
            Given both of those, I don’t feel much need to dispute Mooney on that point.

            • Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              [Sorry; I was answering George's second point there, not Jerry's comment.]

  41. Duncan
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t really know this Mooney character, but I thought I should defend the Lakoff claim, and in doing so suggest the above is correct and ‘Mooney’ just doesn’t understand it. The basis for Lakoff’s claim about the fixidity of worldviews (other things being equal) is not, of course, simply based upon the fact that they are ‘coded in the brain’ (whatever that means; I’ve several years of neuroscience under my belt and I’ve yet to discover a ‘brain code’. Perhaps Jerry Fodor can offer some help?) is, whatever the quote may appear to be asserting out of context, an extension of his work on metaphors. Beliefs about the world broad based enough to be considered part of my ‘world view’ are implicated in almost everything I think and say about the world, and as such it’s not unthinkable they would be very difficult to shake, in some cases. Likewise, you might think about the earlier (Festinger etc) work on cognitive dissonance in which it is not so much the wide cognitive embeddeding of worldviews which make them incorrigible but their significant integration with a persons social life and community practices.

    Taken as an empirical claim, of course, the idea that no one can or does every change their worldview is preposterous. We all know atheists who have become theists and (more, I think) theists who have become atheists. The question secularists ought to be asking themselves is what the conditions are which facillitate this change, given the reasons for thinking it is going to be difficult. A lot of the work being done on the psychology of religion is done on precisely this question; the psychology of conversion and deconversion. For someone to claim, by entailment, that this work simply doesn’t exist, and so so by pointing at the brain and saying ‘look, look, squishy’ when some of the most active programmes in neuroscience at the moment are devoted to neuronal plasticity is just plain crazy.

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      very enlightening post.

      Im particularly interested in what you say about psychology of religion – I don’t think I even knew it existed. Can you point me to where I might find some of papers on the psychology of conversion and deconversion? Or, even better, can you think of a popular science or scientific-american style article or book on the subject? (A review article might be just as good.)

      Anyway, psychology and neuroscience are fields I know little about, and i’m not sure where to start looking.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted May 19, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        m particularly interested in what you say about psychology of religion – I don’t think I even knew it existed. Can you point me to where I might find some of papers on the psychology of conversion and deconversion?

        google is your friend, just search on “psychology of religion” and the papers will come at ya.

        also, this site might be helpful:

        http://www.psychwww.com/psyrelig/

  42. MosesZD
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    He still has blog traffic?


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