Thursday, January 24, 2013

Michael Shermer is an important figure in the atheism and skeptical community, but of late he appears to have gotten a wee bit...grumpy. In a recent screed for Scientific American he goes after what he sees as a liberal war on science. Rebecca Watson and PZ Meyers have done a great job of attacking the substance of the claims Shermer makes, but I want to look at the many fallacies he commits over the course of his article.

The first fallacy is the enormous Straw Man contained in the title of the article. Shermer is claiming that there is a liberal "War" on science, but the first major piece of evidence he cites is the fact that 41% of Democrats appear to believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago and 19% deny anthropogenic global warming. These statistics are certainly disturbing, but it is unclear how they constitute a "War." As Rebecca Watson astutely notes:
Does this equal a “liberal war on science”? Hardly. A lot of people believing something inaccurate does not mean there’s a war – a war requires action, and conservatives are the people who are performing the actions: namely, introducing and sponsoring antievolution bills. While I’m sure that some Democrat must have introduced an antievolution bill, my Google skills have failed to turn one up. Bill after bill in state after state, conservative Republicans are the ones who are attempting to legislate their religious beliefs.
The next major fallacies arise when Shermer discusses liberal attitudes towards energy policy: liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”
First, Shermer seems to be guilty of Missing the Point, because for each of the sources of energy on the list, the objections raised are legitimate and significant concerns. No one is denying the reality or effectiveness of these energy methods, but there are clear, scientifically documented side-effects for each of them. There is a waste-disposal problem for nuclear power, fossil fuels do contribute to global warming, etc. Any sensible energy policy should needs to take these scientifically proven problems into account when figuring out how best to provide for the nation's energy needs. That people point out that these problems exist is clearly not anti-science as Shermer would have us believe. Shermer is also guilty of a serious Inconsistency when he mentions global warming. A few paragraphs before he had criticized liberals for their anti-global warming attitudes, and now he is criticizing them for their concerns about global warming. So, according to Shermer, one is engaged in a war on science if one ignores global warming and one is engaged in a war on science if one acknowledges global warming and seeks solutions to mitigate it. Finally, the passage also commits a straw man in accusing people who seek a more sustainable energy system of committing the naturalistic fallacy.

The last topic Shermer address concerns attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and it is here that his argument makes the least sense. He writes:
Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. Comedian Bill Maher, for example, on his HBO Real Time show on October 19, 2012, asked Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg if he would rate Monsanto as a 10 (“evil”) or an 11 (“f—ing evil”)? The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection. It's the only way to feed billions of people.
This one is a bit subtle, but Shermer appears to completely miss the point. First, he claims that liberals are anti-science about GMOs, but all the examples he provides are not of people being opposed to GMOs, but of people being opposed to the activities of a particular corporation, Monsanto.  Shermer seems completely ignorant about the difference between these two sorts of criticisms, and thus his entire attack in this paragraph is a massive Straw Man. This is quite surprising because there is a great deal of incorrect information about GMOs that often gets repeated by folks on the left, but Shermer doesn't discuss any of this, instead presenting arguments that address completely different points.

I must say that after reading Shermer's post I am, frankly, disappointed. I have read and liked Shermer's work in the past, but when I see an essay like this that commits so many logical fallacies in such a short space, I am forced to rethink my earlier opinions of the man and his work.

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