All posts filed under: Right of Reply

Right of Reply: Our Response to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne has offered a response in the pages of Quillette to David Gelernter’s provocative article, “Giving Up Darwin.” Gelernter rejected the standard model of neo-Darwinian evolution for a simple reason: he looked at three pieces of scientific evidence that appeared to be incompatible with that model: The sudden appearance of new body plans in the fossil record. The extreme rarity of protein folds. The absence of early-acting beneficial mutations, the kind that would be needed to generate new animal body plans. In knowing where to look, Gelernter had help from Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, and David Berlinski’s The Deniable Darwin. These books both contain many references to the literature. Gelernter also highlighted the book Debating Darwin’s Doubt, which responded in detail to all notable critiques of the arguments that swayed him. For all that, Coyne faulted Gelernter for not examining counter-arguments to his own position. “One simply can’t do good science,” Coyne wrote, “by spouting only one side of an argument and ignoring the claims of the other.” A certain measure of irony is conveyed …

Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager. This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism. In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s …

Is Liberal Immigration Anti-Democratic?—A Reply to Gadi Taub

In a recent Quillette essay, Gadi Taub argues that restricting voters’ power undermines the “ability of citizens to protect their hard-earned liberal rights.” He also says this is “bound to hurt these very rights, since their only real guarantee is the fact that we can dismiss our governments and appoint their replacement.” We may believe voting is an unreliable guarantor of liberal rights because more voters are turning to nationalism or socialism. We may also believe liberal rights and democracy, properly understood, imply wide restrictions on voting. The second reservation gives us a sense what’s wrong with Taub’s central argument. He says the debate over immigration is a “proxy for a far larger struggle over the future of democracy itself.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But this struggle is more complicated than he admits.   Taub claims there are two sides to the debate over immigration: one says the state may restrict immigration, and the other says the state may not. This is a caricature. Pretty much everyone believes states may exclude known …

Secular Morality Does Not Depend on Faith

In his piece ‘Values: Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne,’ John Staddon denies he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. Yet in Staddon’s original article, ‘Is Secular Humanism a Religion?,’ which I criticized in my response, ‘Secular Humanism Is Not A Religion,’ his very first sentence is this: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.” Has he already forgotten this? But forget Staddon’s rewriting of history. In his new piece, he concentrates on one similarity he finds between religious and secular morality—both, he says, are based on faith: . . . in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion. Nevertheless, he sees religious morals as superior because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths: The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are …

On the IDW: A Response to Eric Weinstein

Over the past few weeks, I’ve published two Quillette articles encouraging the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) to engage more with the ideas of identity, privilege, and structural oppression (often referred to collectively as “social justice”) that have become prevalent on the left. On Friday, YouTube media channel Rebel Wisdom released an interview with IDW member Eric Weinstein—conducted by journalist David Fuller—responding to my two articles. Weinstein’s response, as I understand it, explains why the IDW hasn’t engaged more with these views through the following: An “upgrade” has occurred recently on the left, redefining social justice activism as authoritarian, bigoted, and anti-intellectual. This has split the left into two parts: a part that has embraced the upgrade and therefore become authoritarian, bigoted, and anti-intellectual themselves (thus making them impossible to engage with productively); and a part that rejects the upgrade but has been intimidated and pushed out of the discourse. This second part has itself split into two parts: a part that thinks the left is never going back to what it was and has moved …

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading. I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion. Coyne asks us to believe that secularists are somehow above the fray: “In contrast [to religious morality], the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason …

Alessandro Strumia: Another Politically-Correct Witch-Hunt, or a More Complicated Story?

In recent and even not-so-recent years, the quest for gender balance in science and technology has taken some troubling turns—from the collection of male scalps over trifling offenses (such as the pillorying of British physicist Matt Taylor over a shirt adorned with comic-book-style scantily-clad babes) to the squelching of dissent on whether gender gaps in STEM are caused solely by discrimination (heresy that got software engineer James Damore fired from Google two years ago and cost Lawrence Summers his post as Harvard president in 2005). In this climate, it’s easy to see another “politically correct” witch-hunt in the recent drama surrounding Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Last month, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, elected not to extend Strumia’s guest professorship after previously suspending him over a controversial presentation at a CERN gender diversity workshop in September 2018. From the start, the Strumia scandal elicited warnings about an orthodoxy that disallows questioning claims of pervasive anti-female discrimination in science. In a recent article in the French weekly Le Point (reprinted in translation in Quillette), science …

The Case for a Second Brexit Referendum Revisited: A Response to Madeline Grant

In her article “The Case Against a Second Referendum,” Madeline Grant has written an extensive critique of my “The Case For a Second Referendum.” Restrictions of space preclude a detailed consideration of the numerous objections she raises. I ignore altogether the personal comments she makes in the section portentiously titled “Bias,” and elsewhere, on the basis that they are irrelevant. It is worth standing back and re-iterating the basic, and quite simple, position set out in my article—that the best argument for a second referendum is that the “Leave” proposition in the first referendum in 2016 was, necessarily, extremely general, and that the terms of Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement are, by contrast, very specific. The Withdrawal Agreement provides a glide-path to a future which many Leave voters did not and indeed could not have anticipated in 2016. The two most prominent advocates for the Leave proposition, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, have both said in terms that the Withdrawal Agreement is worse than staying in the EU. They also insist that the electorate not be …

Population and Policy—A Rejoinder to Szurmak and Desrochers

I cannot imagine an event that could cause a ship to founder. Modern ship building has gone beyond that. ~E.J. Smith, captain of Titanic In a recent essay in Quillette, I criticized the one-sided view of global development in the Roslings´ Factfulness. In their response, Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers (hereafter S&D) whose new book Population Bombed! is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the UK’s most high-profile climate denier group, disparage my critique by branding me an “eco-pessimist,” and present themselves as clear-eyed optimists. This dichotomy is a poor guide to analysis. Captain Smith of Titanic was obviously also an “optimist.” Were his critics mere “pessimists”? Three aspects of the S&D-paper require particular scrutiny: 1. The Contradictory View of Technological Development S&D argue that market economies will fix all negative side-effects of technological development spontaneously because of the commercial value of the effluents. This claim ignores all the research and policy-making related to external economics, where the cost of emitting hazardous substances is negligible for the producer but dire for society.1 If the LA or …

The One-sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists

This essay draws in part on the authors’ new book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018). The Pull of Environmental Narratives In his critique of Hans Rosling’s optimistic take on the human condition (which Rosling co-authored with son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund),1 Christian Berggren scolds the late professor of international health for ignoring negative trends and for dodging the “preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime” as well as the risks inherent to “continued global population growth.” As Berggren further argues in the longer paper on which his Quillette essay is based, the Roslings illustrate the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s apocryphal statement that “You do not see with your eyes; you see with your interests.” In this, he claims, the authors of Factfulness failed to present “the world and how it really is.” Are Berggren’s critique and worldview any more accurate? His facts and positions are squarely in the lineage of thinkers such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), William Vogt (1902–1968) and Paul …