May 12, 2009
More on “Creationist Liars”: Ben’s Plea for Civility
I suggested the following guidelines for whether atheists should call a particular creationist a liar:
I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.
Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community.
When you bypass all of that … I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”
Commenter Ben responds:
I was actually thinking of that same distinction in the car yesterday and trying to decide whether it’s justified or not. I definitely agree the “expert” is much more responsible for the intellectual integrity of their claims, and I definitely agree that your three criteria are reasonable expectations for them that they should be held to. But it still seems to me that this forces you into a perspective rut where virtually every single “expert” creationist is now an official liar. Round them all up and in all likelihood every single last one of them supports some position paper on their side that you and I might agree misrepresents the source material. Surely they’ve even read some response from our camp that points that out. Are they really ALL liars? Even most of them? That’s just implausible like the whole mainstream creationist movement is composed of charlatans.
As it is, this gets instantly complicated because one of your criteria opens up the “Expelled”-esque can of worms and rather than focusing on the issue (whatever it happens to be), we now have to deal with defending against auxiliary politics and conspiracy. That’s a lot of work and a lot of yuck to sort through. Decision theory, in my opinion, would favor, A: Not calling even creationist “experts” liars even if they might be lying since laity typically rally around mainstream position pieces that get lots of attention. B: Politely encouraging and giving partial credit for honoring criteria 1 and 2 since that in and of itself would be progress. C: Allowing our criticism of their papers even in their own journals to partially count as criteria 3 since that’s basically what it is. In other words set aside the “this sucks because it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal” talk and just show qualitatively why it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal.
I could be wrong and granted I’m not always that polite myself, but I am working towards that goal in the long term and it seems to me that we would be better served that way. We could surely test it. The next big quote-mining fiasco or the next big news splash on PZ Myers blog that has “creationist” and “liar” in the same title…try out a different approach and see if you like those results better. Can’t really hurt can it?
I think it’s worth a shot. Thoughts?