tone matters--but not as much as content

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Carlin Romano's review of Massimo Pigliucci's book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk has garnered a fair amount of attention for this passage about scientific dismissals of mysticism:

Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.

The problem with polemicists like Pigliucci is that a chasm has opened up between two groups that might loosely be distinguished as "philosophers of science" and "science warriors."

In contrast to what he sees as the reasonableness of Thomas Kuhn's "philosophers of science," Romano demonizes the "science warriors" who "often write as if our science of the moment is isomorphic with knowledge of an objective world-in-itself--Kant be damned!--and any form of inquiry that doesn't fit the writer's criteria of proper science must be banished as 'bunk.'" Later, Romano writes that Pigliucci "mixes up what's likely or provable with what's logically possible or rational:"

The creation stories of traditional religions and scriptures do, in effect, offer hypotheses, or claims, about who the designer is--e.g., see the Bible. And believers sometimes put forth the existence of scriptures (think of them as "reports") and a centuries-long chain of believers in them as a form of empirical evidence. Far from explaining nothing because it explains everything, such an explanation explains a lot by explaining everything. It just doesn't explain it convincingly to a scientist with other evidentiary standards.

This example proves Pigliucci's case far more than it does Romano's. The existence of scriptural creation MYTHS (and, tone be damned, THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE) and the history of belief in them has ZERO EXPLANATORY VALUE in a scientific discussion. Many people believing in something--fervently, over a long period, whatever--may have sociological interest, but this information is WORTHLESS when it comes to evaluating the myths of scripture.

PZ Myers went on a rhetorical rampage over Romani's complaints about the "tone" of arguments:

The only thing I agreed with in Romano's cranky review was [...] "Tone matters." It certainly does, but not in the way he imagines. [...]

Tone matters, because too many have been insufficiently fierce in their criticism of pious excuses for sloppy thinking. Tone matters because we haven't been rude enough in the face of special claims of privilege for religious inanity. We need to flip that tone argument around 180°--the problem isn't that our tone is so harsh, it's that yours is so inappropriately soft towards people who lie to children, who want to gut our educational system, and who want to taint science with a bias for magic.

Here's a great comment from Myers' post:

1. No matter how gently you phrase your criticism, someone will be angry that the content of their claim is being attacked, but they will disingenuously complain about your tone.

2. The complaint is almost never really about tone, it's about being wrong and called to account for it publicly. (Josh, Official SpokesGay, #37)

Here's another:

It's not tone. It's obeisance.

What pisses the religious people off is that real atheists aren't first willing to bend the knee before they state "I humbly beg to differ, acknowledging that your divine will guides me in all things." (Kirk, #65)

These thoughts were swirling around my cranium when I read Russell Blackford's open thread and longer post on the subject. I'm in agreement with Blackford that tone is "a very important part of communication," that "discussions of tone should not written off as automatically illegitimate or intellectually bogus," and that "intelligent discussion of tone is always in order:"

The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent - how many reviews of The God Delusion have you read that show a tin ear for Dawkins' control of tone? Many reviews don't show any sensitivity at all for the varied tones: the humour; the quiet thoughtfulness and introspection; or the comical intoxication with language itself in Dawkins' famous denunciation of the Old Testament deity. Generally speaking, the reviewers just don't "get" it. But the cure for that isn't less discussion of Dawkins' tone; it's more intelligent discussion of Dawkins' tone. A hackneyed adjective such as "strident" doesn't cut the mustard.

Let's not, in our quest for civil civic discourse, assume that all participants have similar goals. Some are in search of truth, where others want to protect their current position. As described by Quine and Ullian in The Web of Belief, "The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are:"

The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all accounts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

Many people are far more interested in prideful position-protecting than they are in the ideal of a "more intelligent discussion." To return to Blackford's God Delusion example, they've determined that the atheistic Dawkins is a heretic, and their sole goal is damage control. Since his arguments are harder to attack than his tone, they go for the easier target. (Few of them will find any criticism acceptable because what they object to is that any criticism is being made.) The "problem" of tone is something with which I've struggled, with varying degrees of success, since I began blogging in the wake of 9/11:

How does one disagree with something without taking the chance at "offending" others' sensibilities? What may come across as needlessly confrontational - perhaps from my writing too many letters to the editor, where being brief and confrontational is desirable - is simply my refusal to give silent consent to things (such as freedom-hating televangelists) that I see as anathema to civil discourse. [...]

To make my writing palatable to everyone, I would have to mirror the preconceptions and prejudices of Christian fundamentalism; this would put me in an untenable position, for it is precisely those things with which I disagree. Why would I bother putting pen to paper at all if the end result would merely reinforce the systemic problems of the religiously correct mass-media echo chamber?

All too often, complaining about tone is an intellectually dishonest way to avoid discussing the substance of an argument. I've come to the conclusion that although a complaint about my tone indicates that my argument may be lacking tact, it also indicates that my opponent's argument may be lacking evidence, logic, and coherence.

Tone matters, but not as much as content.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 5, 2010 1:57 PM.

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