Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Slow Descent Of Pharyngula: Why I'd Take A "Dawkins" Over A "Myers" Any Day

I freely admit to finding PZ Myers blog, along with his radical commenters (known as The Horde), fascinating.

His entire blog reminds me of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her book Infidel, describing how muslim communities can end up in the grip of radical scholars. Each scholar, in turn, denouncing any less radical to create an inexorable purge towards ever more hardline and intolerant perspectives.

In some ways the saving grace for the blog has been a steady stream of outsiders, the cathartic process of outgroup derogation sparing the fate of the more tolerant regulars from the savage inflexibility and hyper-intolerance of the ideological nutjobs and socio-conspiracy theorists. It seems to me that, starved of a sufficient number of such foolhardy interlopers, there becomes a constant attrition as the most conciliatory and reasonable 10% get verbally and intellectually savaged. Then another 10%. And another.
Eventually, perhaps like some kind of ideological black hole, all that may be left is one ultra-ultra-hardline commenter, so intolerant and full of rage, that reality may not quite chime with their expectations, that they can't even tolerate their own comments and they pop out of online existence! .........I can but hope :)

On a serious note, the blog seems to be on a path along which it is now long since past the point of no return. Even if Myers was to suddenly have a Damascene converion, as all but the most socially radical and intellectually intolerant have gone, the residual horde would be no more likely to offer him even the slightest intellectual wiggleroom as they would anyone else.

So this brings us to the latest installment of the ongoing Myers vs Dawkins saga.

This is such an interesting little battle with so many subplots, so much posturing and things hinted at (yet never quite said) in choice of phrase. What is clear is that these two gentlemen, once friends, now regard one another as absolute cunts: pure and simple.

What the left-wing liberal Dawkins must think to be held in such utter contempt by Myers and his Horde for not being socio-politically radical enough I can only guess. I dare say, if you go back just a handful of years, he could never have believed for one second that his major detractors would be from the political left. He must constantly have to pinch himself at how radicalised and intolerant things have become.

So, the latest disagreement concerns abortion, once more, and specifically an impossible hypothetical dreamt up by Myers involving an unborn baby in the womb:

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

To which Dawkins responded in 2 tweets:

 Blogger said woman's rights over own body extend to abortion even if fetus conscious & writing poetry in womb. I profoundly disagree. 1/2

That really would be murder most foul. I'm pro-choice precisely because (to the extent that) the fetus has no brain to be conscious with.
As a result of those tweets PZ Myers responded to Dawkins in a blog A logical thought experiment about abortion

The comments section is the usual mess, lightened only by Beatrice (comment 22) who amusingly failed to notice that it was Myers, not Dawkins, who initially raised the hypothetical, leaving her raging at the idea that anyone would trivialise and sidetrack issues with such examples, clearly not realising that her volley was hitting Myers not Dawkins. If only she had realised the true origin of the hypothetical then the issue would have melted away: hypocrisy is always justified when you wield the true sword of righteous justice (the blade wielded by thousands, each the one true sword).

For my part, I agree with Dawkins. A foetus of the hypothetical kind described by Myers clearly would have cognitive faculties that far outstrip a newborn baby (maybe a mental age of a 5-10 year old, or more). I don't find that an inconsequential fact and I don't see any reason to be any more cavalier with such a conscious thinking (and capable of pleading for us to spare its life, the same as any child could) human being as I would had it already been born.
True enough, birth is a very useful discontinuity for how we treat and regard human life on the developmental process but, as things stand, we already grant late-term foetuses many legal rights because we recognise their cognitive development. Clearly Myers and his Horde are no great fans of this, one assumes by their statements that they would have no issue with pregnant women deciding to abort at any time up until they go into labour. After all, the life they would be terminating would have but a fraction of the cognitive awareness of Myers' hypothetical and they give no truck whatsoever towards any factors outside of their ideological mantra:

A woman's right to bodily autonomy is all.

The scary part about the comments on the blog is the number of references to the foetus as simply a parasite*, seemingly (as in Myers awful analogy, more on that later) qualitatively no different in origin as if it had been unknowingly injected by an alien species. No recognition is given of the fact that the foetus is as a result of a consenting sexual act presumably undertaken by people who are aware of how babies are made.

No, the mantra is all; the mantra trumps everything. That is the thing about ideologs.

I've long contended that an ideology should be something that describes your position, the summation of your views having been so arrived at by taking all factors into account - every nuance, complexity and situational specific. Ideologs are people who don't do that. They set out their ideological stall and apply it to everything regardless of how gross or wrong-headed the results seem. For them, ideology is the starting point: it does not describe their position it mandates it.

You see a lot of Ideologs online, less so in real life where they are drowned out (thank fuck) by the vast majority of sane normal people who accept that different situations require different approaches. Online, I have spoken to Capitalist ideologs who are so wedded to the model that anyone who doesn't accept a competitive, marker-driven privatised model for anything and everything are not true Capitalists; Libertarian Ideologs who demand everything, even the road outside your front door, outside the scope of government and taxation. These are people who take ideological positions that have merit in context and in the right measure and determinedly apply them to everything with levels of justification that would make a biblical literalist blush.

So it is with abortion.

That the right to bodily autonomy is an aspirational right fundamental to the debate is not in question. Of course it is. In most circumstances most reading this blog will agree with me that it trumps the other factors. The problem with the Ideologs is that it becomes the only issue with the debate surrounding abortion becoming effectively reduced to a function of just one variable (an ironic mirroring of the Christian right they so despise who, again for ideological reasons, deem the rights of the foetus everything and of the mother irrelevant):

The life (in this hypothetical) of a conscious human being with a mental age approaching that of an adult? Irrelevant. Responsibility for your actions? Irrelevant.

One wonders if they'd get similarly angry if Dawkins had claimed it immoral for a pregnant woman to take up heavy drinking and injecting heroin half way through pregnancy? It is her body after all. Her autonomy that is the issue. Nothing else matters, apparently.

The worrying thing on Myers' blog, to get back to the start of this rant, is not so much that Ideologs exist there or that they are so inflexible with their own thinking. No, the worrying thing is how intolerant they are for anyone else who is not also an ideolog. Not only do they limit their own thinking to the level of nuance of a simpleton but they have nothing but bile, vitriol and absolute intolerance for anyone who doesn't follow suit.

Lastly, I must give quick mention to just what a fucking awful analogy PZ Myers chose with which to respond to Dawkins. Here is Myers in his own words:

"How about a thought experiment? Scientists are supposed to like that sort of thing. Imagine that an alien species envelops the earth in a cloud of infectious DNA, and little needles carrying embryos rain down on us. If you’re struck by one, you’ll start growing an alien cyst in your body; it will fester for a bit less than a year, draining you of energy and making movement awkward, before rupturing and releasing a semi-autonomous intelligent creature. This process kills roughly 20 in 100,000 infected individuals, so it only has a small but very real chance of being lethal. The released creature is also going to demand approximately 20 years of full time care from its host."

The analogy rambles on a little longer but you get the gist.

As someone who likes a good analogy and has probably made far more than most, I think I probably have some idea of what not to do and this analogy is almost an object lesson in how to completely fuck things up. One of the most important things to do when analogising a contentious issue is not to use an example which confounds our thinking by adding something additional (and irrelevant) which is equally as contentious....... such as the granting of rights comparable to human rights to non-human sentient agents of comparable cognitive abilities. Should we care equally about the fate of a clever Martian as we do for one of our own species? Maybe, maybe not, but this is hardly the fucking place to start adding that issue into the mix! Next is the bizarre fact that PZ's example is analogous to rape, not to a consensual sexual act that results in pregnancy. Perhaps that alone tells you something about where Myers' state of mind is right now. So very many blog posts on rape and rape culture that he clean forgot that most sex is not actually rape and most pregnancies, unwanted or otherwise, are not the result of the bad that men do. This is highly problematic for the analogy because the parasite, in this instance, is not as a result of an action (or act of omission) committed willingly by the host but something entirely outside of their control and it is not something the host themselves has created (it is another organisms embryo ffs).

If Myers hadn't wanted to be a total prick he could have, instead, asked Dawkins what he would do if he had sex with his wife and, miraculously, ended up pregnant himself with this hypothetically super-intelligent foetus. I think we know why he never presented Dawkins with that much more useful example: because Dawkins would have had no hesitation whatsoever in giving Myers the answer he didn't want - he'd declare it morally wrong to kill this fully aware human entity he'd created.  

So instead Myers shoehorns in this awful dishonest analogy.

So this is why I'd take a Dawkins over a Myers any day. Dawkins may occasionally appear clumsy and unempathetic - I disagreed with him over the Down's syndrome tweets, after all - but he is intellectually honest; led by situational specifics not ideological dogma; and (most importantly of all) he clearly realises the world is a messy place requiring messy conclusions. Myers, radically and inflexibly ideological; viewing the world in simplistic monochrome (not even greyscale); and willing and able to distort and mislead. He is truly the atheistic equivalent of the worst the church has to offer. Freethoughblogs and his rabid Horde are welcome to him.

Thanks for reading,NP99

*Of course, technically, a foetus IS parasitic and dependent on its host (the mother) for its survival. However, to then talk about it as if it is scarcely different to the larva of some parasitic wasp I find deeply disturbing in how detached it is from what is an integral part of what makes us human.


  1. "hypocrisy is always justified when you wield the true sword of righteous justice"
    This line struck a chord. I was arguing with someone the other day who was sure that 1 in 3 women in the US are raped. People fundamentally don't care if what they're saying can be backed up by logic or fact. Why *not* resort to hyperbole or hysteria, is the cause not important enough? It's maddening.

  2. Hi Jim

    Blog post inspired by this here -


  3. The pharyngulite horde seem to base their fixed beliefs on the idea that a woman has bodily autonomy throughout a 9 month pregnancy, and that a fetus gains no rights whatsoever until the moment of birth. The age or development of the fetus makes no difference.
    There is a conflation between "abortion" (ending the life of the fetus), and the ending of the pregnancy, which could be done through abortion, or could be (and often is in late term medical emergencies) done through cesarean section or induction of birth.
    The pharyngulites insist that bodlily autonomy means that a woman must have the right to abortion right up until the moment of birth of a 9 month fetus. Others may suggest that a woman can still have bodily autonomy but lose the right to kill the fetus when it reaches a certain stage. When it is non-viable outside the womb the woman has the right to an abortion, and when it IS viable, at about 25 weeks onward, the woman has the right to end the pregnancy but not the right to kill the fetus, which must be removed through cesarean section or induced birth if the woman insists.
    This mirrors how most western societies view abortion rights and why we have time limits - specifically because of the idea that at a certain stage the development of the fetus confers to it certain limited rights (the right not to be killed in a non emergency setting.)

  4. I notice that Myers has even started to joke about his cultist authoritarianism, telling the horde to "obey or else", and so on. When I pointed out this Jim Jones-like tendency in an email (that I wrongly assumed he wouldn't bother reading), he wrote a long and tedious rebuttal which sent his commenters crazy -- they wound up in a lengthy debate over the capacity of carrots to feel pain -- but led to no introspection from Myers or his hangers-on in regard to their own march into the abyss of wingnuttery.

  5. Maybe it's just me but i honestly regard them as a sidenote (Should anyone ever write a book on the history of the "Movement"). "The Hoard", really? It's kind of sad to think they were ever taken seriously by anyone. If it wasn't for their outrageous shenanigans whenever their view count goes down, i can't imagine anyone outside their tiny clique ever visiting FTB. That said, it's a shame that a couple of folks that have decided to stay on their network haven't made a move, I've even noticed some buffoonery creeping into some blogs in the network, run by people i expected better of.

  6. There is only one blogger on that site that I have time for, Maryam Namazie. I presume she only stays so that people can find her. Stopped viewing pz after elevatorgate. I don't mind robust arguments, after all some people are passionate about some topics. But ftb comments appear designed to shut out dissenting views not argue against.

    1. Ally Fogg is my favourite on there

      I don't always agree with what he has to say but I admire his sense of balance, hie even-handedness. I think we are both intellectually similar in how we approach things, Ally is to the left of me politically, and not try and view everything as black and white (because 99% of the time they are not)