Massimo, you are funny when you are angry

by Neil Rickert

An open letter to Massimo Pigliucci, should he happen to read it.  I doubt that Massimo even knows that I exist, and there is probably no reason that he should.  So I doubt that he will actually read this.

There seems to be a war of words going on in the atheist blogs.  First, Massimo posted a negative obituary for Christopher Hitchens.  Then Jerry Coyne posted a reaction to this.  So now Massimo has posted a reaction to that reaction.  To top it off, PZ is now reacting to Massimo’s posts.  Well, okay, PZ is actually reacting to a different post by Massimo, but a post that criticizes the gnu atheists.

This is mainly a response to Massimo’s reaction to Jerry.  I suppose that I shouldn’t find Massimo funny, but it was impossible to take his post seriously.

Apparently, that simple list managed to completely unhinge my colleague Jerry Coyne (as well as Richard Dawkins), in the process precisely making my point that some atheists suffer from hero worship and a selective dearth of critical thinking.

Jerry unhinged?  No, I don’t think so.  You are reading far too much into his reaction.

“Give me a fricking break, Dr.3 Pigliucci!”

(Jerry appears to have a complex of inferiority in my respects, at least as judged by his constant jeering of the fact that I have three PhD’s and he only one. What’s up with that, my friend?)


Jerry is laughing at you, Massimo.  Okay, you are not a native English speaker, so perhaps that was not obvious.  Like many scientists, Jerry judges people by their achievements, not by their credentials.  Having one doctorate is forgivable, as it seems to be a requirement for working in academia.  But having three of them – that’s something that Jerry sees as excessive pointless adornment.

“I find Massimo often wrong in his philosophical positions, including those about scientism, free will, and the way we atheists are supposed to behave.”

(One of those ways includes treating colleagues and fellow atheists with a minimum of respect, even when one disagrees with them. Oh well.)

That’s a rather funny thing to say.  If you had given that minimum of respect to Hitchens, this tiff would never have broken out.  I’m a bit surprised at your reaction.  Perhaps you are unaware that most physical scientists view philosophy with disdain.

“If I had a choice of having a drink and a conversation with Hitchens or Pigliucci, or having to choose to read an essay written by either Hitchens or Pigliucci, I know exactly what I’d do.”

(And yet, Jerry apparently even reads my lists of links, let alone my essays! And of course with that statement he foreclosed forever the possibility of tasting my killer dirty martinis.)

Again, I find your reaction surprising, and laughable.  Perhaps that’s because I, too, would rather have a drink and conversation with Hitchens (or with Coyne or with PZ or with Dawkins) than with you.  But then I’m sure that there are other people who are bored by science and scientists, and who would put you higher on their drink and conversation list.  We all have our preferences and interests.  And, for most scientists, philosophy is not high on that list of interests.

Finally, we get to Dawkins. Here is his comment on Jerry’s rant, in full:

“Bravo Jerry. Hitch wasn’t always right — who is? — but he was a giant, and irreplaceable. As for Pigliucci, who would even bother to replace him?”

Ouch. Not exactly a gentlemanly remark, particularly from a Brit of supposedly high class as Richard Dawkins. (And this, of course, is his second faux pas this year, after the debacle caused by his infamous comment to Rebecca Watson about “Elevatorgate.”)

Again, I see that as a laughable overreaction.  Sure, Dawkins made a brutally honest comment about you.  But if you were unaware that scientists don’t value philosophy, perhaps it is time that you hear about it.  And what Dawkins said about you was considerably more gentlemanly than what you said about Hitchens.

Look, I have been guilty of my own share of critical and sarcastic comments about both Coyne and Dawkins. But I don’t think anything I wrote has ever (and, I hope, will never) come even close to this debasing level of anger and pettiness. It is a shame, and it only further lowers the level of discourse within our community, inflicting additional damage to the way the outside world perceives us. A sad way to conclude the year, and no particular reason to expect better next time around, I’m afraid.

Honestly, you need to take yourself less seriously, and learn how to not take offense at the mild criticisms you have received.


2 Comments to “Massimo, you are funny when you are angry”

  1. “And, for most scientists, philosophy is not high on that list of interests.” Not quite true. Dawkins actually says: “My interest in biology was pretty much always on the philosophical side.” See:

    The debate is not at all about the value of philosophy, despite your numerous claims to the contrary.


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