Unscientific America and Crackergate — a study in willful ignorance.

Anybody who reads The Intersection or Pharyngula knows that at the moment there’s a storm brewing in the blogosphere, and it looks set to wipe the credibility of anyone in silly enough to try and batten down the hatches with specious or fallacious reasoning. Of course, I’m not one to name names…actually wait, yes I am. And believe me — you couldn’t pay me to be Chris Mooney or Sheril Kirshenbaum at the moment.

I’m not going to bother dealing with what PZ Myers has said of the book, nor am I going to deal with Chris and Sheril’s responses except to say that they very poorly defend themselves against the criticisms levelled by PZ. They provide very little substance in their rebuttals, leaving me with the feeling that if they had a substantive reply they would have just come out and said it rather than blathering on for three blog posts assuring us that PZ was wrong but refusing to provide any evidence to back up their case. I can’t make a fully informed judgement for or against, as I haven’t yet read the book, but from the way all parties have presented themselves in the wake of the review the pair at The Intersection come off looking woefully underprepared.

What I would like to focus on is the criticism levelled at PZ for ‘Crackergate’ and what seems like a deliberate attempt to both misrepresent the context of the incident and what it was that PZ did.

First, the context. Chris and Sheril appear to have conveniently forgotten to mention what it was that prompted PZ’s actions in the first place, so I’ll recap here:

A University of Central Florida student named Webster Cook removed a communion wafer from a Catholic church after being assaulted when he returned to his seat with the cracker unconsumed. The removal was compared to kidnapping and hate crime, and complaints were filed that could have led to his suspension or expulsion. He was impeached from the student senate (though later unimpeached) while his own complaint against the church was dismissed. Finally, he returned the wafer — after receiving both death threats and threats that people would break into his dorm room to forcibly remove the cracker.

It was these events that prompted PZ to put out the call for a cracker to desecrate — as the title screams, “IT’S A FRACKIN’ CRACKER!” His goal was to bring to light the absolute insanity of the situation, and despite the criticism that he was being needlessly insensitive, it worked. Sometimes, you have to break a wall to find the termite nest behind it, and if nothing else PZ shone a light past the overtly mystical nonsense and on the craziness lurking just underneath the everyday surface of the Catholic church.

So, what was it that PZ did that was so outrageous? He shoved a rusty nail through the cracker and then threw it in the trash with some other rubbish. He wasn’t without inspiration, however — the idea of nailing the cracker came from this woodcut of Jews engaged in host desecration, appropriate given that PZ prefaced the ‘desecration’ with a brief history of how alleged host desecration has been previously used by the church to justify massacres. PZ didn’t let the cracker suffer alone, however — pierced and in the bin with it went a few pages from both the Quran and The God Delusion. Myers explained his reasons for this at the end of the article,

“…I didn’t want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-​​out pages from the Qur’an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity’s knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-​​satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.”

Was what PZ did provocative? Undoubtably, yes. Did it attract attention and publicity? No shit. But PZ was launching a protest and making a point — and what the hell is the point in a protest that no one disagrees with, or that no one pays attention to?

Personally, I’d like to see Chris and Sheril at least to try to back up their allegations with evidence — particularly the allegation that PZ is actively harming the cause of science communication (which would have serious implications if true) — but I’ll probably have to be satisfied with the intellectual drubbing they’re continuing to receive all along the intertubes.