P.Z. Myers: Fearful Hypocrite?

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 19, 2009 in Creationism,Criticism of Atheists

comfort origin of speciesRay Comfort (the Banana Man) is giving away 50,000 copies of Darwin’s The Origin of Species to universities. What’s the catch? The book includes a 50-page introduction written by Comfort, filled with Creationist bullshit.

P.Z. Myers rages against…

…this new sleazy tactic by Ray Comfort: he produced an abridged edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and then had the gall to tag on a preface that he had written himself, full of the standard creationist misconceptions.

But don’t worry! P.Z. has a plan:

There is a strategy to address this obscenity. They’re giving the books away for free: just get one or a few. Take them away… or rip out the introduction and donate the rest of the book to charity… let the intelligent, rational community sop up these sad mutilations of a great book and tuck them away from the gullible.

There is already a 1,000-member Facebook group focused on interfering with Comfort’s distribution of The Origin of Species.

Christian blogger Vox Day reacts to this plan, calling Myers a fearful hypocrite:

This is hardly the first time a book has been abridged or that an introduction is written by someone who a) isn’t the author, and b) doesn’t believe in the sacrosanct nature of the work being introduced, but of course, this is the sacred text of Saint Darwin of the Galapagos with which we are concerned here.

Vox is right. One famous example of a book introduction written by someone who doesn’t agree at all with the content of the book is Noam Chomsky’s preface to Mémoire en défense by Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Of course, Chomsky does not deny the Holocaust, and in fact thinks Holocaust denial is a despicable position, but he defends Faurisson’s freedom of speech.

Actually, I think it would be great if more books were written with an introduction arguing against the central claims of the book itself. This would contribute to the dialectic of humanity. It could also prevent people from reading only that which confirms their existing beliefs.

(By the way, Vox also calls Richard Dawkins a fearful hypocrite for this post on RichardDawkins.net, but this is a mistake. Dawkins didn’t write the post.)

Here’s what I think. I think Creationism is idiotic. I think Ray Comfort is demonstrably ignorant and deceitful. But I also think freedom of speech is really, really important. I think no book is “sacred” – not The Bible and not The Origin of Species.

Let’s try a quick hypocrisy test. Atheists: would you like to see somebody publish a Bible in which the introduction to each book is written by an atheist, pointing out the inconsistencies and absurdities within the Bible? I certainly would. I think other atheists would, too. But then, if we think an atheist-commented Bible is a good idea, it would be pretty hypocritical for us to deny someone’s right to publish a Creationist-commented Origin of Species.

Let Ray Comfort exercise his freedom of speech.

Also, exercise your freedom of speech by lambasting the deceitfulness and ignorance of Creationists.

(By the way, I do not think Myers is fearful. He is quite courageous. I’ve enjoyed his blog for a long time. I just disagree with him on this issue. His call to deface creationist texts amounts to a call for book-burning of literature we disagree with.)

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Hylomorphic September 19, 2009 at 10:43 pm

My own reaction to the news of what Ray Comfort is doing was a hearty eye roll. It’s a waste of emotion to get outraged about the kinds of things that man does.

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lukeprog September 20, 2009 at 12:03 am

Hylomorphic,

If I wanted to read the best case (in analytic philosophy) for polytheism, what would I read?

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NiroZ September 20, 2009 at 1:58 am

I disagree. This is not about freedom of speech. Once someone owns a book, they’re well within their rights to modify it as they wish. If an atheist wrote an introduction to the bible, and Christians bought it/owned it somehow and ripped out the introduction, then donated it elsewhere, I don’t think anybody would cry foul.
Provided everything is done within the law, and preferably done honestly, I don’t see the problem.

In fact, to not doing anything in the name of ‘free speech’ I would see as letting down our cause. Just because they have an opinion doesn’t permit them to announce it uncontested.

Additionally, Noam is stretching ‘freedom of speech’ too far. Holocaust denial is anti-sematism.

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Andy September 20, 2009 at 2:01 am

Luke,
I hear what you’re saying, but I can’t agree with you.

Can you imagine a maths book that has this in it:

Area of a circle = pi x radius squared
where pi = 3.14159 (Although some dispute this value of pi. Some say pi=3)

The problem with what you’re stating is that untruths should be allowed to muddy the waters of the truths being stated because they’re all equivalent points of view.

You’re erecting a straw man when you call PZ a hypocrite. I’m sure that PZ would always hold an unwavering view that it’s fine for a book featuring untruths to be prefaced with an explanation as to why it’s untrue. He, like most reasonable people, would always deplore a book featuring truths to be distorted by a preface of untruths.

The problem is that you’re holding evolution and creationism as equals. As two points of view of equivalent value. This is blatantly incorrect, and is something that proponents of creationism play on constantly to elevate the importance of their ridiculous assertions.

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Pete September 20, 2009 at 3:53 am

“it would be pretty hypocritical for us to deny someone’s right to publish a Creationist-commented Origin of Species.”

I think your missing P.Z.’s point: He’s not denying Ray Comfort’s right to publish this book; what he calls “sleazy” is Comfort’s plan to get school libraries, public libraries etc. to order it. Of course, even that should not be illegal, but i think atheists (and friends of science in general) have good reasons to interfere with this disinformation campaign.

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Michael September 20, 2009 at 4:54 am

I’m with Pete. Even if you disagree with Myers, I don’t see how this would make him a hypocrite — and your argument seems to be saying he’s treating the Origin as a sacred book.

If intros by people who disagree with the book are good because they “prevent people from reading only that which confirms their existing beliefs”, is that what you think Comfort is doing?

I think your dislike of Myers is showing.

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steven carr September 20, 2009 at 5:25 am

So there is nothing wrong with producing abridged versions of works, edited to suit your own private agendas?

Of course, there is nothing wrong, with me taking out all the bits of , say, the Blackwell companion to Natural Theology that I can’t answer , writing an introduction to whatever I feel like leaving in, and then giving the result away.

but would people think that was a fair way to introduce people to that work?

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Mike aka MonolithTMA September 20, 2009 at 5:29 am

Someone at work leaves gospel tracts lying around for others to find. I throw them in the recycling bin whenever I find them. Would I do the same if it was atheist literature? Probably. I don’t think proselytizing like that belongs in the work place.

As to the Comfort intro it is certainly his right to do that. Rather than tear it out I’d like to see notations and highlighting indicating where he is wrong. I don’t read enough PZ Meyers to decide if he’s being hypocritical. Are the writings of Darwin more true than those of Comfort? Given the intellectual deceit I’ve seen Ray practice I would think so. Equal or not all ideas should be at least examined before they are cast out. Maybe Comfort’s info should be on perforated pages to allow the reader to tear them out once they’ve accepted or rejected them. ;-)

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Gordon September 20, 2009 at 5:54 am

Apples and Oranges, Ray is lying to people and that’s what makes it offensive.

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JackC September 20, 2009 at 6:06 am

PZ is an instigator. He is good at that. The responses to this instigation are many and varied, with the one I most like being (should these books be given away in person, rather than ordered as indicated above – tactics may have changed) to essentially “soak up” as many versions as possible – 50k shouldn’t be too hard.

There is much resistance to such things as defacing (ripping out the intro) and such – with a number favouring just letting it get out – so it can be suitably laughed at.

PZ is an activist – and a darn good one. Doesn’t mean he is always right, but he gets people moving.

As far as a suitably modified bible with Atheist intro, I would probably want to go with the Jefferson, with subtractions added per intent through modern understanding. Heck – it would probably be a nice, short read.

JC

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Slugboi September 20, 2009 at 6:44 am

The problem here isn’t that Comfort disagrees with “On the Origin of Species,” it’s that he is using lies and an appeal to emotion to deny a proven scientific text. There would be an uproar if someone tried to do this to a book about astronomy, or if a holocaust denier wrote a forward to a book about the holocaust. To say that this text should be protected because it is for some reason holy leads me to believe that you know very little about this situation, and maybe even the scientific method itself.

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lukeprog September 20, 2009 at 7:39 am

Andy,

I most certainly do not consider evolution and creation as equals. This does not call into question my commitment to freedom of speech.

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lukeprog September 20, 2009 at 7:41 am

Michael: I think your dislike of Myers is showing.

Huh? I really like Myers!

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Haukur September 20, 2009 at 8:22 am

Luke: The truth of polytheism is self-evident :) At least according to several of the ancient philosophers.

See here for instance: http://egregores.blogspot.com/2009/09/akhenaten-brief-history-of.html

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Brett Bavar September 20, 2009 at 8:39 am

I think the main problem with Ray Comfort’s approach is that the cover of the book is misleading. The book is advertised as simply The Origin of Species, with no mention whatsoever of the additional content and no mention of his name as having edited or added to the text. That is deceit, pure and simple.

Taking your analogy further, I’m all for something like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, if it is published with clear indications about the additions to the original text. However, if someone released the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and released it with a cover that advertised itself simply as a plain KJV Bible, that would be deceitful.

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Alex September 20, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Luke – I don’t see how you could interpret PZ as attacking anyone’s freedom of speech. I don’t like his remarks about ripping out the introduction (it’s uncannily reminiscent of book-burning), but nowhere did I see any advocacy of interfering with the distribution of these books.

I think you are conflating a commitment to freedom of speech with a commitment to neutrality, respect etc. PZ agrees with the first but utterly scorns the second. You are committing the same fallacy that Robert Crowther did in describing PZ as advocating censorship: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/09/its_funny_how_a_little.html

And of course the whole idea is a lie by omission.

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tom September 20, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Andy:
You’re erecting a straw man when you call PZ a hypocrite. I’m sure that PZ would always hold an unwavering view that it’s fine for a book featuring untruths to be prefaced with an explanation as to why it’s untrue…The problem is that you’re holding evolution and creationism as equals

Insofar as Luke takes this to be a free speech issue, he’s right to treat evolution and creationism as equals. Truth does not (and should not) offer a privileged position in questions of free speech; the concept of “freedom of speech” is meaningless unless it applies to nonsense and pseudoscience.

As it happens, I think NiroZ’s reply to Luke:

Once someone owns a book, they’re well within their rights to modify it as they wish. If an atheist wrote an introduction to the bible, and Christians bought it/owned it somehow and ripped out the introduction, then donated it elsewhere, I don’t think anybody would cry foul.

is the right one: this isn’t really a question of free speech, and once that’s pointed out PZ is free to answer the charge of hypocrisy in something like the way Andy describes. That is, PZ could simply reply “Yes, I would like to see an atheist produce the Bible edition you describe. And yes, I will make fun of, and ‘edit’, Comfort’s version of Origin of Species. The difference is that the latter is nonsense, worthy of mockery and in need of editing.”

But if PZ were to “deny someone’s rights to publish” (as Luke puts it) or invoke “freedom of speech” in any of this, he’d be on thin ice.

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Michael September 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm

The impression I get from some of your other posts (esp. the why your blog is different, and the post about not cheering for the tribe) is that you think Pharyngula is the classic example of populism without substance and cheering for the tribe.

I guess this doesn’t preclude you from liking Myers personally but that’s the impression I got.

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Yair September 21, 2009 at 12:31 am

Brett Bavar: I think the main problem with Ray Comfort’s approach is that the cover of the book is misleading. The book is advertised as simply The Origin of Species, with no mention whatsoever of the additional content and no mention of his name as having edited or added to the text. That is deceit, pure and simple.Taking your analogy further, I’m all for something like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, if it is published with clear indications about the additions to the original text. However, if someone released the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and released it with a cover that advertised itself simply as a plain KJV Bible, that would be deceitful.

Quoted for truth.

I don’t trust Comfort to make an honest abrdigement, or to make comments that do not distor the scientif acceptance of the text. Publishing as if it was the original thing is therefore misleasing.

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lukeprog September 21, 2009 at 12:49 am

Michael,

Hmmm… yes, you’re probably not far off.

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EvanT September 21, 2009 at 1:57 am

Once someone owns a book, they’re well within their rights to modify it as they wish.

Well, of course it’s within someone’s rights to do whatever they want with a book they own. Not liking a book and tossing it in the fireplace is not censorship. Doing it along with other people organized through a common channel as a means to limit its circulation kinda changes the picture, doesn’t it?
I’ve debated extensively on the subject of sensorship here (http://forum.atheia.gr/viewtopic.php?f=36&t=559). Anyone able to read Greek feel free to browse through the presented arguments.

If an atheist wrote an introduction to the bible, and Christians bought it/owned it somehow and ripped out the introduction, then donated it elsewhere, I don’t think anybody would cry foul.
“Tu quoque” doesn’t really qualify as a decent argument.

PZ is an instigator [...] PZ is an activist – and a darn good one.

I’d say he’s a little more than just that. His site is slowly turning into a personality cult and I’m not entirely convinced he’s realizing that. When one’s got an “army” of people who leave 100+ comments even on posts of downright trivial content and are ready at a moment’s notice to pharyngulate any poll PZ finds silly/offensive/objectionable etc, allow me to be even slightly concerned.

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Reginald Selkirk September 21, 2009 at 8:13 am

an abridged edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species

I would like to know how much abridging has been done before I solidify my opinion. Knowing a few things about Comfort’s past antics, I suspect that the result will not be consistent with a respect for the original author’s freedom of speech.

Actually, I think it would be great if more books were written with an introduction arguing against the central claims of the book itself.

From what I have read, Comfort’s intro does not effectively argue against the central claims, but rather attempts to trash Darwin by bringing up irrelevancies such as the alleged link to Nazism, Darwin’s religious inclinations, charges of racism and sexism.

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tom September 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

“Tu quoque” doesn’t really qualify as a decent argument.

I think you have the form of the argument (or perhaps the form of the fallacy) wrong, because the fallacy doesn’t apply to the argument you criticize. “Tu quoque” is supposed to take an objection and show that it applies equally to the person making it. I’m having trouble trying to make NiroZ’s comment fit that criterion.

Second, even if you have in mind some inversion of “tu quoque”, as in “Sure, atheists wouldn’t complain if Christians did it, but that doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t complain when atheists do it”, you’re still missing the argument being made. One of the charges is hypocrisy; NiroZ spelled out the proper analogy to demonstrate that there’s no hypocrisy at work.

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Meatros September 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

The bigger issue I have is the 50 page introduction. To be honest, I can’t stand books with overly long intros. I don’t know what it is – perhaps it’s the idea that had I wanted to read what the intro author felt like sharing I would have *bought* one of their books. To me, an intro should be between 1-3 pages long and be autobiographical or detail the times of the story. At most it should be 10 pages long, *at most*.

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Reginald Selkirk September 23, 2009 at 10:39 am
lukeprog September 23, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Great link, Reginald!

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Reginald Selkirk November 3, 2009 at 7:53 am

Ray Comfort Replies to Eugenie Scott


A major concern of Genie Scott was that the copy of On the Origin of Species sent to her by my publisher was missing “four crucial chapters,” as well as Darwin’s introduction. She will be pleased to know that the second printing of 170,000 copies (the one that we will give to students) is the entire book. Not one word will be omitted.

No point in sugar-coating it: Ray Comfort is a dishonest sleazebag.

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Reginald Selkirk November 4, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Ray Comfort: Plagiarist

I recently had a look at Ray Comfort’s “special introduction” to Origin of Species, and, I got to thinking that the first part of the introduction sounded a little too smart to be Ray Comfort. So I did some googling and found that Ray’s introduction looks suspiciously like “A Brief History of Charles Darwin” by Dr. Stan Guffey.

Posted by AIGBusted at 3:15 AM

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