To a louse

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Robert Burns, “To a Louse”

It never ceases to amaze how Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and their clones in the blogosphere routinely display exactly the sort of ignorance and bigotry of which they haughtily accuse their opponents.  How might one get them to see themselves as others see them?  Perhaps the way Nathan got David to see that he was guilty of adultery and murder.  Let’s give it a try.  If you’re a “New Atheist” type, consider the following hypothetical exchange between a scientist and a science-hating skeptic:

Skeptic: Science is BS.  Physicists believe in these things called “quarks,” which are little flavored particles that spin around and work like magic charms.  Their evidence is that they read about them in a James Joyce novel.  Some of them think the universe is made up of tiny shoelaces tied together, though they admit that they have no evidence for this and have to take it on faith.  Einstein said morality is all relative – which is why he stole his ideas from this guy who worked in a patent office, and why Richard Feynman stole atomic secrets during WWII.  Meanwhile, the chemists contradict the physicists and believe instead in little colored balls held together by sticks.  Biologists believe monkeys can give birth to human beings.  What a bunch of crap!  It’s child abuse to teach kids about this stuff in schools.

Scientist: Are you joking?  If not, I suggest that you actually read some science before criticizing it.

Skeptic: I’ve already read a lot about it, in blog comboxes like this one.  And why should I waste my time reading anything else?  I already know it’s all BS!  Didn’t you hear the examples I just gave? 

Scientist: No, you’re missing my point.  You’ve completely distorted what scientists actually say.  It’s not remotely as silly as you think it is.  In fact it’s not silly at all.  But you need to actually read the stuff to see that.

Skeptic: So you deny that physicists believe in quarks?  What flavor are your quarks, chocolate or vanilla?  Do you deny that they think we came from monkeys?  Which monkey was your mother?

Scientist: No one says that monkeys gave birth to humans.  That’s a ridiculous caricature.  And of course I don’t deny that physicists believe in quarks, but you’re badly misunderstanding what they mean when they attribute “flavor” to them.  They don’t mean that literally…

Skeptic: Oh so it’s just empty verbiage, then.  See, you’re just proving my point for me.

Scientist: No, it’s not empty verbiage.  It’s technical terminology.

Skeptic: I see, like magic spells.  That’s why they talk about “charm.”  Really, you’re just digging the hole deeper.

Scientist: Actually, it’s you who is digging your own hole deeper.  That’s not what they mean by “charm.”  If you knew anything at all about physics, you’d realize that.

Skeptic: See, every time I debate people like you, you always whine about how everyone misunderstands what you mean.  You always say “Go read this shelf of books and come back when you know what you’re talking about.”  It’s like one of the naked emperor’s sycophants telling the kid who sees that he’s naked that he needs to read the learned works of Count Roderigo concerning the fine leather of the emperor’s boots, etc.

Scientist: What a ridiculous analogy.  You’re just begging the question.  Whether science is really comparable to the naked emperor is precisely what’s at issue.

Skeptic: OK, I’ll bite.  Explain it to me, then.  Prove to me here and now in this combox that science is worth my time, as opposed to being the tissue of superstition, lies, and bigotry that I already know it to be.  And don’t get long-winded like you people tend to do, or start throwing around references to this scientist I should know about or that book I should have read.

Scientist: What is this, an invitation to the Star Chamber?  How am I supposed to explain fields as complex as quantum physics, or evolutionary biology, or chemistry to the satisfaction of someone as hostile to them as you are in a combox comment, or even a blog post or series of blog posts?  Besides, there are so many things wrong with what you’ve said I don’t even know where to begin!  And if I keep it short, you’ll tell me that I’m dodging whatever issue I don’t address, while if I respond at greater length you’ll tell me I’m a windbag.  I can’t win!  But why are you wasting time in a combox anyway?  Why don’t you just read the work of some actual scientists?  It’s right there in the library or bookstore if you really want to understand it.

Skeptic: I knew it.  You won’t defend yourself because you know you can’t.  But then, arguing with people like you just gives you credibility.  That’s why you uneducated, irrational fanatical bigots need to be shouted down by reasonable, open-minded, well-read, tolerant people like me.  Science is BS, and you know it.  It’s just so obvious.  So why don’t you go back to eating your tasty flavored quarks and tying your vibrating 11-dimensional shoestrings over at your Uncle Monkey’s house, OK?  I’ll be here in the reality-based community reading my copy of The Science Delusion.

Naturally, a Dawkins or Myers would be appalled at our Skeptic.  And rightly so.  But replace terms like “science,” “physicists,” “quarks,” etc. with terms like “theism,” “philosophers,” “God,” etc. and you’ve suddenly got in our Skeptic a typical Dawkins or Myers fan – indeed, you’ve got someone pretty much indistinguishable from Dawkins or Myers themselves. 

Don’t expect the scales to fall from their eyes anytime soon, though.  It is hard enough for anyone to say “I was wrong.”  But the New Atheist has to say much more than that.  To admit his errors really amounts to saying “I am exactly the sort of person that I have loudly, publicly, and repeatedly denounced and ridiculed, and the hating of whom gives me my sense of identity and self-worth.”  That requires a nearly superhuman degree of honesty and courage.  So, while this or that New Atheist loudmouth might, like David, finally see himself for what he really is, I think we can expect the bulk of them to continue their spiral into intellectual and moral darkness.  All in the name of reason and morality, of course.
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