Myers v. Rosenberg- What an 18 Yr. Old High School Senior Can Tell Us About Misques, Mobs, and Melodrama
I read things. The last few days I have been caught up in the Tempest in a Teapot that is Myers v. Rosenberg, a fascinating case of letting a smarmy 18 year old high school graduate get the best of you.
For those unfamiliar with PZ Myers (and that is admittedly a small group in the blogosphere), or those not up on the facts of Rosenbergate, I will offer a quick primer.
PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He also has a blog. Pharyngula (so called, I presume, to prevent illiterates from thinking anything interesting will be found there) is what can generally be described as a good atheist slanted science/pop culture blog. Its failing is that it is a victim of its own success. Many posts receive comment counts in the several hundreds, many by Pharyngulites- a mob of loyal followers who sometimes appear to be in a competition to try to out-crazy each other. Oh, there are some thoughtful comments- but you will likely scroll through a fair chunk of tripe to find a useful tidbit.
Enter Andrew Rosenberg of Racine, Wisconsin. Andrew is a self described 18 yr. old High School Senior who is “an intelligent individual, whose thoughts go beyond the typical 2010 senior’s tangents.”
Andrew has questions. Deep, philosophical, existential questions- specifically ones that require a firm grasp of physics. He decided to take these questions to an “expert”. And by philosophical and existential expert, I mean a witty and sarcastic Associate Professor of Biology with a hard on for cephalopods. His original e-mail is here.
My name is Andrew Rosenberg, I am 18 years old and I live in Racine Wisconsin. I have been raised in the Lutheran Church since I was born and view myself as a Christian. Recently I have been pondering the universe, especially the existence of God in general. I have the belief that if God exists, then Christianity makes the most sense for me to follow. But that brings up the question…does God exist?………
My first question for you is this: Christianity aside, what makes you an atheist? I know I could probably find the answer deep in your blog, but to me, atheism is just ignorant of the universe around us. Existence….just the simple existence of a hydrogen atom gives me the thought that something had to, and I hate to say this, create it. With something to create, how could the materials and fabrications that make up the universe–atoms, protons, neautrons, electrons–come to be? What cause the theories such as the big bang? Put the universe’s energy into action. As easy as it is to say that a God does not exist, its just as easy to say that one (multiples?) does.
These are all good questions. Questions that deserve to be answered. Is PZ Myers the person who should be answering them? No. Rightfully, PZ decided to toss this e-mail aside and move on with his life.
Here’s where tone comes in to play (from a second follow up message):
I also have another concern about you. I have been following your blog and youtube videos for a little while. I think that it is extremely rude of you to constantly criticize religeous groups on your blog. You do it everyday. I don’t know if lashing out at people gives you confidence because your followers laugh at your witty, little remarks, but I certainly think its rude. Especially when you get in person and you are just a little man with a quiet voice. Yet on the internet you spew forth brash criticisms like a volcano. (Emphasis mine)
Provocative words. Words that Mr. Myers surely hears on a fairly regular basis. A bigger man (ie. not little) might have written him a personal e-mail back, telling Andrew to tone down the rhetoric and offering resources for him to answer the questions himself. PZ instead chose to post it on his blog. He also chose not to shield the identity of Mr. Rosenberg- and this is where I take issue.
To be clear, no blogger has a responsibility to hide the identity of someone who comments or sends e-mail via their public domain blog. If a commenter does not wish their personal information to be made public, then offering that personal information is certainly not suggested. It is, however, a courtesy that we all should extend-especially on the e-mail end of the equation. An e-mail is really intended to be a two-way conversation. There is a greater expectation of privacy in an e-mail than in a public comment, even if the point of contact is a public domain. So although I don’t believe PZ had an absolute responsibility to shield Andrew’s identity, I think that a self-policing, responsible blogger would make every effort to do so. Especially when the ramifications could be so easily foreseen.
There is a third e-mail from Andrew after the public lashing on Pharyngula where he laments about his facebook account being hijacked by Pharyngulites eager to give him a piece of their mind. There are also reports of google searches for his address and relatives. I cautioned against reading too much into the google statistics over at Camels With Hammers and You’re Not Helping. The mob mentality over at Pharyngula is a sad case of too many personalities with perceived interests escalating too far. It is the main reason that I love to read PZ’s blog, but almost never read the comments. The sheer volume of comments prevents any post from not derailing into a clash of egos and nasty rhetoric. PZ Myers is a smart man. He certainly had to know that publishing personal information would play out this way.
What bothers me most though, is that people in the blogosphere have hijacked this story to try to paint atheism as nasty and condescending. This story is an aberration, a case of an obvious miscue, an abnormal mob, and obnoxious melodrama by those who see it as the logical denouement of the “New Atheism”. Though there are certainly segments within the atheist internet community that are rude, preachy and condescending, those groups are the exception- and usually reacting to similar behavior at the other end. To inflate this into a major problem in practice with atheism is just plain wrong. We can all disavow those people who crossed the line and actively stalked a smarmy 18 yr. old High School student, but their actions do not define the direction of atheism.
As an aside, I think what is really lacking in the atheist community is an outward, visible persona. We have no churches, no large scale community groups- the ones we have lack the grandiose “public service” projects of religious organizations. We project ourselves mostly through the internet, that quasi-anonymous medium that allows and even nourishes our inner douchbag.
What I love about the internet is the truth that comes from anonymity, that we can feel free to express ideas that might not be broached in mixed company.
What I hate about the internet is that same anonymity, how it implies the right to be a bully and a coward.
Although neither PZ nor Andrew are afforded that anonymity, it was this none the less that brewed a tempest in a teapot.