Articles

The Signal in the Noise

In About on June 12, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged:

Much of today’s thought (most prominently journalism) is predicated upon the idea that impartiality is preferable to advocacy. Lazy commentators often place ideas or personalities essentially side-by-side – which can be very helpful when comparing and contrasting reasonable competing ideas, concepts or approaches – even when one makes sense and the other is just plain nuts. Doing so creates a false equivalency and artificially elevates the nutty idea or personality in the process and may even be the purpose behind the supposed impartiality. Watchwords like equality, fairness, tolerance, and objectivity seem to rule the day. And those are fine virtues, in their proper place and perspective.

When I worked in Manhattan, I often commented, only partly in jest, that I preferred the Post to the Times because of its lack of pretense. It didn’t claim to be above the fray. I don’t want to be entirely above the fray either. Where reasonable alternatives exist, my goal is to be generally fair and balanced, even when I have a clear preference. But when I think there is a clear right answer, I won’t be afraid to say so, clearly and without apology.

In our current environment, with alleged experts seemingly everywhere and apparently everything available on-line, credibility is likely to move toward people and sources that demonstrate their understanding of events and situations via predictive accuracy and qualitative understanding rather than by mere claims of objectivity or expertise – by finding, becoming and providing The Signal in the Noise.

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10 Responses to “The Signal in the Noise”

  1. Signal, I mean this as very honest feedback and please take it as such.

    I don’t think you are ready to tackle the topics you promote here. Most of what you say has been said widely and discussed to a level of refinement. Your fundamentatheism (I’m sure I misspelled it) is just a rehash of “militant atheism” “new atheists are aggressive” “atheists can be fundamental too”. You will find lots of this around.

    If you want to have a strong blog that is interesting to read I have two suggestions:

    1) Start with topics where you feel very confident that you understand where current discussions are and you feel you have a contribution.
    2) Don’t pick topics that have been widely discussed, but rather start off participating in discussions that already exist. That way you will learn what people’s views are, how they see things, how they argue and so forth. Eventually, if that topic still interests you later you can bring it to the blog.

    Currently I basically post responses to your topics of religion/science/atheism which is standard. Nothing new. All of what I say can be easily researched. You saw that also someone noted that even the apologetics side could be stronger. I did enjoy your post on red tape quite a bit, though I’m not sure what your message was (it doesn’t need a message if that’s how you like to blog!).

    In any case I’m trying to say that some topics you are spearheading may have a good core, but it really feels like you could use some immersing with the discussion culture. Don’t take first and literal readings but see how it evolves. Ask questions more than provide counter arguments. Eventually you’ll have a sharper view on what people think and you can have a strong, exciting and interesting blog on the topics you care about.

    I hope you read this as what it’s meant, honest feedback and a little bit of advice.

    • No offense taken, Hitch, but if I’m “not ready” now I never will be (straight line acknowledged). I’ve been discussing and arguing about these issues (been part of “the discussion culture” as you say) on-line for nearly 15 years. My old friends at the dearly departed Psycho Dave’s Atheist Discussion Board from the mid-to-late 90’s will recognize some of my arguments and see a fair number of positions that have changed a lot.

      I write about what interests me here beyond what I write and blog about professionally and more publicly, and that’s a fairly ecclectic mix of things. You’re of course free to visit or not, agree or not, and/or appreciate or not as you wish. In one form or another I have been writing professionally for about three decades. I don’t expect my general style to change much. My positions will — I hope as the evidence requires.

      With respect to what I call “fundamatheism” (a term coined by two of the smartest and best atheist advocates I’ve ever come across — at PD’s), I think you’re misreading me. Aggressiveness is irrelevant. Criticism is irrelevant. Tone is irrelevant. That said, the similarlity in style and behavior between fundmentalist and fundamatheist is striking to me. I have tried to be specific in this regard, something I haven’t seen elsewhere. You are of course free to disagree with my position.

      Thanks for caring enough to comment.

  2. It’s cool. You go ahead and do what you gonna do. I have rather serious issues with how atheists are branded and perceived, so please apologize when I will take a contrary position on cases where I don’t think the balance is right.

    Atheists in case you don’t know are the least trusted group in the US. 47% of Americans wouldn’t want to see their chilrden marry an atheists. That compared to 2% white americans. Muslims are somewhere in the thirties. Atheists are critical but good people and many are in the closet out of fear of the repercussions one can experience merely for adopting the label.

    Dictionary definitions used to equate atheism with evil all the way into the 70s. People are still taught that atheists are satan or the devil. Atheist children in schools frequently report bullying.

    It is not that atheists argue from a comfort position. We argue from a position of social distrust and discrimination.

    I don’t want to sugar-coat individual people. Some things are said that I disagree with, but I also don’t want to see negative branding on a group that already has the worst brand in the US, and studies show that the stereotype is unjustified. We have low crime rates, high rates of education and literacy and we rank high in tolerance.

    So when we get yet another label “fundamenatheism” I’m not jumping up and down, how great it is for us to improve the discourse and get a more realistic image for each other. Rather it is yet another negative label in a barrage of negative labels stuck on atheists. I hope you get where I am coming from this.

    Stereotyped groups really don’t need more nuance to discuss the extreme or single negative cases. We need realistic discussion which frankly is quite positive. I wish that Christians or other believers were among those who would start to see that and argue with us rather than against us. Find positive, neutral and negative labels.

    Why not “moderatheism” or “atheist with a heart”, or just “neighbor” or “friend”? There are really lovely labels to discuss!

    This is where I come from when I look that labels are applied fairly, or better yet we go beyond labels and discuss opinions.

    • I disagree with how atheists are branded and perceived too. At the risk of being a cliche’, I have a number of excellent atheist friends that I trust implicitly in all kinds of ways. They are terrific people and I don’t want them branded negatively in any way. Most atheists fit into that category, I think.

      To be clear, very few atheists fit my “fundamatheist” label. I have no right not to be offended and individuals can’t necessarily predict when and how they will offend (as I am particularly aware right now), but wouldn’t you agree that some prominent atheists seem to go out of their way to cause offense? In the usual course, I don’t think being labeled as anything like mentally ill, a child abuser, irrational, stupid, and not worthy of respect (even if the views at issue are irrational, stupid and not worthy of respect) is very productive or any way to build the brand.

  3. Well the brand thing has many aspects. I actually think you overread for example Dawkins (as I tried to indicate in another thread).

    I watched many debates with Hitchens for example. I cannot recall once that he called anyone stupid. An idea can be stupid without the person being stupid though. We all hold stupid ideas at times.

    But recall second wave feminism. Almost any woman who spoke out clearly and without sufficient diplomacy was called angry, aggressive, fundamental, militant, loud, shrill. I’m sure some were some of these, but the labels mostly served to help those who didn’t want more egalitarian treatment to be accepted to make their case.

    Atheism is by definition a critique of deistic world views. One cannot be an unbeliever and not implitictly criticise. Any criticism can be viewed as offensive.

    In fact the persistent homophobia in the US is offensive to me. I have friends who married couple that, because they now live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage license the are in danger of one of them being deported because they cannot get the spousal visa. But I don’t go around and try to identify the group who promotes that offensive few and brand them in some way. I also don’t brand outspoken LBGT activists as extremists.

    None of this is helping in my mind. I have agreements and disagreements with people. In fact not a single atheist has ever written a book that I 100% agree with. But do we have to demonize each other for the disagreements, even those that offend us?

    My hope is that not. And that rather we can find a more productive way to discourse.

    Let me take a difficult example. See I think there are cases where religious education is child abuse and that we have to be able to make that case, even if it is very difficult.

    This video was uploaded in praise of Islam for example:

    In it the child responds to question how the jews are the wrath of god and christians are misleading, and polytheism is the worst sin (Muslims see christianity as polytheism).

    It’s very difficult but I am inclined to agree with Dawkins that this might very well be a case of child abuse, and you can be sure that parents would be beyond offended if told that. After all they uploaded the video to praise their child and their religion.

    But this child has learned harsh negative stereotypes about other groups of people at an early age.

    Some topics are very difficult to discuss, and polluting those difficult topics with labels does not help us think through them.

    For example your children may be perfectly wonderful people. Perhaps Dawkins would agree that they were not abused. But we cannot find this out without first stopping to find labels and see things as extreme.

    I personally would prefer if moderate believers did some of the critiques that atheists do. Heck there are many believers who are pro-LGBT, who are not discriminating against atheists, who are not islamophobic and so forth. And there are believers, you have some nice posts on this, that promote evidence based decision making. Good! Dawkins would have to fight half as hard if Christians told Christians to knock it off trying to teach superstitions in schools and stirring controversy (in fact teach it).

    Instead we have this appearance “us” outspoken atheists vs “you” believers. And it’s a false dichotomy. We agree on most things. And in fact I dare wager that you agree with Dawkins and Dennett on most things, modulo a small sliver of topics.

    • Dawkins is an interesting case in that, when he sticks strictly to science, he is a brilliant communicator who is unfailingly reasonable and courteous. But, in my view, when he gets to religion, it’s as if something in him snaps and he goes off the rails. I see that in his public appearances (as reported anyway) and in his books. His books on science are wonderful and wonderfully persuasive (he has corrected my thinking many times), but I laughed out loud all the way through the exceptionally silly TGD.

  4. I think it’s fair to say that Dawkins is pissed off about religious people trying to torpedo science. But if you think that TGD is the only book that Dawkins has written against religion, you miss something. In fact many of his books are direct or indirect answers to challenges by religious people. Blind Watchmaker is a direct answer to intelligent design for example.

    Yes he presents science because that’s the right answer, but it’s still a reaction to religion.

    I personally find the argument of intelligent design a waste of time and maybe Dawkins feels the same, but in order to protect science from superstitious intrusions he has to write books on topics that really should be trivial. But then again it’s an excuse for complexity theory exposed to the lay audience which is a good thing.

    I would agree that there are better books than TGD, but there is also not bad (by my measure).

    I really think that the so-called new atheism is basically the outcome of two things, the evangelical revival of the 80s (which brouhgt cultural and anti-scientific sentiments back as well as a politicized evangeltical movement interested in bringing religion to the classroom and countering aspects of science they deem anti-biblical) and 9/11. Both regressive events attacking either science or just plain civilian human life. The excuses all the same, fervent religion.

    But as I said earlier, moderate Christians simply didn’t step up and oppose the Falwells and Robertson’s in educating the next generation students to fill boards of education. And moderate muslims hardly stepped up to oppose the culture of fear introduced by radical islamic elements.

    Is the reaction the best and most nuanced possible? Perhaps not, but perhaps the so-called “new atheists” should have to carry the baton alone anyway. And rather than appreciate that say Dawkins works hard to oppose regression in the school system, he gets more air time being demonized. It’s not so easy really.

    • I agree that The Blind Watchmaker is brilliant. His target may be creationism in various guises, but his method is science. That’s why it’s so good. It seems to me that Dawkins has no real understanding of faith and no “connection” with people of faith and why we find it important and valuable. He’s essentially tone deaf. He obviously “gets” science and brilliantly communicates it and makes it exciting even.

      “But as I said earlier, moderate Christians simply didn’t step up and oppose the Falwells and Robertson’s in educating the next generation students to fill boards of education.”

      That’s partially true. But it’s also true that when it happens it’s rarely reported. A reactionary voice (from any “side”) is news. A moderate response, even if vigorous, is not (sad to say).

  5. What I would suggest is that you explain in more detail how Dawkins’ is naive in his arguments, how what you think can be retained, what needs modifications and what is hard or impossible to reconcile. That seems to me a possibly constructive approach and certainly educational for someone like me.

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