Are the So-called New Atheists Turning People Off to Science?

Last week, the blogosphere played host to a pretty lively flame war between two high-profile science communicators: PZ Myers and Chris Mooney. The subject: Are scientists partly responsible for the widespread ignorance of science that Mooney (along with his partner in blogging and book-writing Sheril Kirshenbaum) document in “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future?

Well, are they? The answer is probably, yes. Scientists don’t freely offer easy-to-digest sound bites on their work, and are sometimes media shy to the point of just not wanting to talk about it at all. Most have the technical expertise and innovation down, but not the marketing. (Mooney, on the other hand, is quite good at promoting his work–and this Internet battle probably won’t hurt sales of he and Kirshenbaum’s book.) Instead of debating the finer points of that argument, Myers favored invective and finger-pointing after he happened upon a chapter in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book where he (along with fellow new-atheist Richard Dawkins) is called out specifically as part of the problem.

Are the So-called New Atheists Turning People Off to Science?

I think I could safely characterize Myers, who maintains the popular, often-rollicking Pharyngula blog (which he parlayed into a column in SEED magazine), as more or less dismissive of religion and religious people. Mooney and Kirshenbaum assert that it’s not just being dismissive of religion but antagonistic, adversarial and cruel to those who practice a faith.

What followed is a point-counterpoint that includes the disturbing desecration of a communion wafer, the migration of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog The Intersection from the SEED-operated Scienceblogs to Discover, Myers accusing the “Unscientific America” authors of “bigotry” and his damning conclusion: that the book “utterly useless.” I could give you the play-by-play, but you can read it yourself. (Here is Myers’ side; and here’s Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s.)

Just a note on where I fall here: I enjoy hearing Dawkins and Myers pontificate, but I also take much of what they say as entertainment. They are willfully provocative both in thinking and expression. In political terms, their role would be to galvanize the base–those of us who are sold on science, a big-tented organization of which Mooney and Kirshenbaum are card-carrying members. Dawkins and Myers, however, are not who we science-evangelists would trot out to try to persuade people to take a second look at the scientific evidence regarding evolution, vaccines and autism, climate change or any of the other subjects that have migrated into the culture wars. Would the Dems dispatch Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow to sell universal healthcare? Frankly, they just wouldn’t have the patience required for the task. Hell, since he penned “The Republican War on Science,” I don’t know if Mooney could fill that role.

Who’s left then? Obama’s nominee to take over the NIH, Francis Collins, who lead the Human Genome Project and is an evangelical Christian? Needless to say, Mooney’s for him and Myers is less enthused.


Nikhil Swaminathan is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He was a reporter at Scientific American and an associate editor at SEED magazine. His work has appeared in both of those publ ...read more

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