Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On labels...

I disagree with almost everything Chris Mooney says. Almost. In a recent post at The Intersection, he bemoans the use of the word "accomodationist", observing:

I also am tired of the label “accommodationist.” It seems to imply that there is something weak about my view, as if I’m all ready to just cave to some common enemy. On the contrary, I think that I’m being tolerant and pragmatic.

I actually agree, at least with the first two sentences. I have always had this nagging feeling that using the word "accomodationist" has a pejorative implication, harking back to Neville Chamberlain. Never mind that I think the comparison is at least somewhat apt; when there is serious debate to be had, I do not think it is fair to give the other side a label that contains implicit ridicule. (When there is not serious debate, e.g. when it comes to Intelligent Design-promoting "IDiots", I think a derisive label is quite appropriate -- but, as much as I disagree with them, many of the so-called accomodationists are serious thinkers and they have a point which is worthy of debate. This is why, as hilarious as I find it, I have studiously avoided the term "faitheist".)

A couple folks at Ophelia's blog mention the term "compatibilist", and that is not too bad, but it still leaves our side with either the problematic and over-broad "New Atheist" label, or else "incompatibilist", which I am not fond of because it seems to be a bit pejorative, e.g. implying we are being stubborn or intolerant. (Though it's accurate in a literal sense, in that we believe faith and science are incompatible, but I'm still not crazy about it)

I have a suggestion, though I'm sure I'm spitting into the wind here: "Tacticalist" and "Strategicalist". (sorry for the awkward constructions, the grammatically correct and succinct "tactician" and "strategist" seem to imply the wrong things)

Both schools of thought aim to improve public respect for and knowledge of science; and both recognize there is at present a divide between at least some people's faith as currently practiced, and the goals of furthering science and science education. This is, after all, exactly what the conversation is about.

A "Tacticalist" doubts either or both the feasibility and desirability of reducing the societal value placed on faith, and therefore seeks a tactical solution to the faith/science divide. This generally takes the form of seeking to emphasize and enlarge common ground, while minimizing or compartmentalizing areas of apparent conflict. It is also relatively focused in scope, generally focusing only on the evolution/Creation "debate" or on other science education issues.

(I have taken pains to try to use the most positive language possible in the above paragraph, but if my personal biases slipped through, I apologize)

A "Strategicalist" on the other hand has doubts about the longevity, scope, and/or intellectual integrity of the tactical approach, and instead favors a strategic solution of seeking to decrease both the role and the value of faith in modern society. Contrary to some people's impressions, the strategicalist does not forsake the exploration of common ground -- but unlike the tacticalist, she does not put any stock into minimizing or compartmentalizing areas of faith/science conflicts. The strategicalist's approach tends to be much broader, encompassing areas such as the moral distortions brought about by faith and the problems of sectarian political influence (the flip side of "broadness" is that it also makes the approach less focused). Her day-to-day "tactics" (after all, there has to be some tactics to any strategy!) are simply to assert what she believes to be the truth, to stand by her principles, and at times to engage in vigorous debate.

Finally, a strategicalist tends to have disdain for what they view as short-term tactical approaches. An example would be what might be called the "God of the Quantum Gaps" argument, i.e. that God could influence physical events by manipulating the apparently-random results of quantum interactions. The tacticalist, whether he believes in such a God or not, observes that this possibility is unfalsifiable and -- at least for now -- does not conflict with currently known scientific fact, and therefore provides a refuge for those who wish to believe in both miracles and empirical truth. The strategicalist points out that many such refuges have existed in the past and then collapsed, and that the same might very well happen for the quantum gap; and moreover, she argues that belief in an unfalsifiable possibility is in direct conflict with the philosophy of science even if it does not explicitly contradict any known facts.

I believe these labels are both descriptive and respectful of both sides. There is nothing inherently superior about strategy vs. tactics (try and win a chess game without any tactical knowledge!) and I do not believe either one has the implication of weakness that bothers Mooney (and myself) in the term "accomodationist".

I know there's not a snowball's chance in the Large Hadron Collider of these terms actually catching on, but I might start trying them out for a week or so and see if anybody likes them. Heh, why not...


  1. Hi, I haven't been here before, so... Hi. Again.

    This is an interesting post, and I see the logic behind it given the initial premise.

    But... I'm not sure the initial presence is given. "Accomodationist" isn't necessarily a pejorative term, is it? Describing someone as "accommodating" is generally positive...

  2. From a strictly etymological point of view, I agree with you, but the term has some undesirable overtones (actually, I was not even aware of the racial one until just now. Yikes...) There can be a hidden implication that the accommodating is done out of some sort of weakness.

    It's not a big deal to me -- I wouldn't have brought it up if Mooney hadn't, but since I share his discomfort with the term, I thought now was as good a time as any to voice my reservations :)

    It's not a terrible word, and we're probably stuck with it for the foreseeable future. And most people on the accommodationist side don't seem to mind it, so that's alright I suppose.

  3. Meh. You're giving Mooney too much credit. He's self-identified as "accomodationist" before without issue. He's just throwing a bunch of crap out right now and seeing what sticks, since he's unable to actually deal with the content of people's complaints with his behavior (it's wht he does).

  4. Probably :) But I had reservations about the term even before Mooney mentioned it.

    I have trouble understanding what Mooney's problem is. It's not even the accomodationism thing... as I've written about before I don't really have that much of a problem with accomodationists, even though I disagree with them. I think their approach is valid too. But Mooney seems to want to take it to another level...

    I have not read Unscientific America, so I can't criticize it in general... but anybody who relays Crackergate without the appropriate context is being a grade A asshole. Many people would still find PZ's actions unacceptable even in context(*), so Mooney could have presented the situation honestly and still have made his point. The only reason for leaving out the context is to attempt to slander.

    (*) Don't worry, that does not include me. I think PZ's response was 100% within bounds given the absurd nature of the original controversy.

  5. I can understand reservations about the term itself, and I think you make a good point (and as I recall, its current use did start out with a Chamberlain comparison in the first place). I just wanted to point out that Mooney and others have self-identified as Accomodationist in the past without issue. It is often the response when "New Atheists" complain that the term is needlessly offensive or contrary to point at Coyne or PZ using it and say "see, they use it so I'm not being a dick when I use it as a pejorative". What's good for the goose, etc.

  6. I agree.

    I've made my peace with the "New Atheist" label. While the principles behind it are not new, it's difficult to deny that there is a social movement afoot which is new, one represented by books, blogs, and increasing cultural visibility. For lack of a better label to define this social phenomenon, I'm fine with "New Atheism".

  7. I'm not up on the "new atheist" label, nor a fan of labeling strategies for caving in to religious interests. What is "new" in all this "new atheism"? Is there anything here that Bertrand Russell didn't say better nearly a century ago? No. Hence, not new. Most science doesn't require that you constantly rub the rubes' noses in the shit that is their ideology. However, to make that a principle for scientific discourse is hardly "accommodating." It is closer to capitulating than accommodating. The more we see from Mooney and his ilk, the more this should be clear. There is no accommodating these people, they want genuflection in the face of their gods, and to be granted special moral authority which cannot be accorded to godless heathens.