Saturday, March 30, 2013

Some 'personal testimony' about PZ Myers

    The following is a guest blog by Skep Tickle. I assume I don’t have to remind you it is one person’s account of events. I will say from my experience Skep Tickle has proven to be accurate and reasonable when posting material on the internet, reliable would be a good description.

PZ Myers


PZ’s talk in Seattle, “Moving Atheism Beyond Science”, was ~50 minutes, followed by an hour of Q&A then an opportunity to stand in line to talk with him one on one.

Quotes herein are my paraphrasing and/or impression of what he said, unless I specify that I’m giving a direct quote. Obviously this is my “personal testimony” about my experience of the event. ;) About 199 other people attended and the talk was videotaped, so presumably one could track down details from my report to confirm or refute, if desired.

PZ opened claiming that science can’t form the basis of morality, then spent 50% of his talk bashing science for obviously unethical medical experimentation on disenfranchised groups of humans from 40-70 yrs ago, ending with a 1996 Pfizer trial in Africa on children with meningitis, in which he clearly implied that Pfizer’s drug killed 11 children who wouldn’t have died if they’d been given the standard antibiotic therapy. He touched on animal experimentation and how difficult it is to decide where, quote, “the line” is; that led to several of the questions in Q&A and I heard several people interested in continuing that conversation afterwards.

Two comments about the first part of his talk:

1) I think he could have much more effectively illustrated his point by briefly touching on the past atrocities then focusing on modern examples, for example from medical genetics or from reproductive technologies (gender selection, etc) if he wanted to continue the medical theme. The historical litany seemed pointless after just a few minutes.

2) During the Q&A, I pointed out that PZ’s comments about the 1996 Pfizer study had been misleading; the deaths were 6/100 children in the standard therapy group and 5/100 in the Pfizer drug group, so while Pfizer acted illegally and unethically [based on standards in human experimentation], their drug did not kill 11 children. He backed away from his claim by saying (paraphrasing here) “Oh sure, sure. I didn’t say their drug actually killed children.”

The next ~40% was about how there are problems in the world, particularly climate change and overpopulation, and we (atheists/nontheists) have to move beyond science to address these problems. He gave an example of people (as I recall, the emphasis being on “scientists”) enthusing over methane hydrates as a new energy source but missing the point that combustion of this new source of methane would cause more carbon emissions. D’oh!

It’s funny how comments that sound sexist/classist can sneak in, even when the speaker presumably tries to avoid them. In this part of the talk, PZ said (paraphrasing) that “if we give women opportunities, they will…” have fewer children, etc, in the developing world (“opportunities” being economic opportunities like small businesses, and apparently also condoms for birth control). It was probably just the phrasing that he happened to use, but “helping societies increase economic opportunity in ways that have been shown to achieve [insert goals we think are good for them to have]” would have sounded better to me. Besides which, there are lots of past studies that would have helped provide evidence for education and (woman-controlled or inserted-and-left-in) contraception reduce birth rates and improve economic conditions; there may also be such literature about microfinance (I’ve only ever looked superficially at those studies) – IMO it would have been interesting to have more evidence presented in this part of the talk.

In the nearly 2 hrs of talk + Q&A, PZ explicitly mentioned (but didn’t dwell on) the importance of each of these:

  • critical thinking and skeptical inquiry;

  • recognizing the equality of all people;

  • eschewing dogma; and

  • not demonizing (or accepting demonization of, I can’t recall) those with whom we disagree

Late in the Q&A, after someone else had brought up The Rift (& PZ semi-joked that his side was right, of course), I stood up & said I understood Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland was planning to mediate finding common ground & asked what PZ’s thinking was about that effort. PZ praised Michael but not this new project, then he (PZ) let loose with a demonizing appraisal of the other side (us, the slyme pit, etc). Paraphrasing here: “They’re people who’ve been banned from our [FtB etc] blogs and are mad about it, and they post the most awful photoshopped pictures of my head on gay porn, and they are horrible people, and they need to go away, and there is no point in trying to talk with them, and I’m going to tell Michael that in person in Ireland.” He made it sound like he was on the side of Truth, Justice, and Righteousness.

About half the audience applauded after this comment from him – presumably people already agreed with him on this and some who knew nothing of the rift and accepted his viewpoint.

Either in Q&A or to someone in the line ahead of me to talk to him afterwards, PZ said that he WANTS to see atheism split into 2 camps, 1 being the, quote, “right-wing, libertarian” people who only want to be atheists and (my interpretation) don’t care about anyone else; and the liberal people who want to work on what he had just spoke about (and, by implication, are the ones who care about people, humanity, the world, & ethical action).

More personal testimony from me, which of course may not reflect what an “impartial observer” might have seen and may not at all reflect PZ’s experience of our conversation: When it was my turn to talk with him in person after Q&A, I told him I’m liberal and I agreed with what he had said about critical thinking and equality and no dogma and no demonization, YET I am one of the people on the other side of the rift, and that’s because I/we do not see those things in his side online. Not surprisingly he did not appear to react positively to this, said that all the people on the other side of the Rift post awful crude things like photoshopping his head onto gay porn. I said I didn’t do that, and many of us don’t, we just see dogma & a lack of skepticism from the other side, and isn’t it interesting that we actually seem to be so close in views (based on that list of things above he’d said during the talk were so important). I interpreted what he said as completely rejecting that possibility.

He wanted to know whether I had spoken out against the photoshops, and I said something like people felt it was important for the ‘pit not to restrict content, and that people who post at his site are vicious (I used a softer word, like “aggressive”) and that he has encouraged them to use their knives (rhetorically). He said something like No they just apply skeptical inquiry to the awful people who show up there. I brought up the porcupine meme & “go die in a fire” and he said the former had stopped completely and the guy who’d written the latter had apologized. He appeared, not surprisingly, to be angry at what I had to say, and didn’t appear to allow as how there might actually be some common ground.

Some 'personal testimony' about PZ Myers

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