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« Bagatelles | Main | Publishing Elsewhere »

January 01, 2007


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

GNXP's Razib interviews Heather Mac Donald -- clear thinker, tough gal, brainiac, and (IMHO) major cutiepie. One thing that makes Heather my kind of intellectual is her willingness to admit that she doesn't know everything, let alone have all the answers. Isn't that a refreshing change from the usual?

Incidentally: What a coup for GNXP. And take that, mainstream media outlets. Don't you wish real-live magazines and newspapers would do things like gab with Heather Mac Donald? I wonder why they don't. Are the conventional media terrified of ideas? Are they just completely unresourceful? Once again, thank heavens for entrepreneurial bloggers. Journalism may need Razib more than science does.



posted by Michael at January 1, 2007


Well, in a much less thought threw way than Heather MacDonald, I'm an atheist too.

If the word, God, tastes like ashes in your mouth; in other words, if it has no reality for you -- then you're an atheist.

Problem is, for most folks this translates to hostility (on the part of the atheist) toward religion and the religious. Not so. It just means that the concept of a deity has no grip on your sensibility. None. Nada. Fini.

Why others almost always read a hostile stance into atheism is something I can't understand.

Posted by: ricpic on January 1, 2007 7:35 PM

Oops. That should be thought through. Such a stupid!

Posted by: ricpic on January 1, 2007 8:13 PM

In the community where I grew up, for somebody to say "I don't believe in God" would typically be closer to "I'm so pissed off at God for some reason that I don't want to honor Him and the people on His side." So, yes, I can easily understand why Christians in similar areas would associate "atheism" with cultural anti-Christianity. The real atheists (in your sense) from such areas probably go to church, not having a big enough grudge to rock the boat.

In my adolescence, I became a Randian zealot, so I don't exaclty fit.

Anyway, belief in the human brain isn't true/false, but myriad and mysterious. It's intimately connected with hopefulness, self-identification, and the courage to get out of bed in the morning, along with their opposites. IMHO, we're supposed to learn that from the Santa Claus experience, but many of us manage not to.

Posted by: J. Goard on January 2, 2007 5:12 AM

Michael – Reason Magazine, both the online and the “real live” magazine, interview people like Heather MacDonald all the time. Same is true with magazines like Skeptic and The Skeptical Inquirer. As Ms MacDonald herself notes, one of the larger issues is that conservative media outlets (from mainstream Fox News to pundits and bloggers) keep pushing the big lie that conservative values are synonymous with religious faith, and particularly Christian religious faith. How else could you explain a charlatan like Ann Coulter getting cheers from ignorant boobs by equating liberalism with godlessness?

Also, I note from her online biography that Ms MacDonald’s writings have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, The New Republic, Partisan Review, The New Criterion, Public Interest, and Academic Questions. She also appeared on the PBS show “Think Tank,” so I think to suggest that she has been shunned by mainstream media is a bit of a stretch.

By the way, a transcript of her appearance on the Think Tank program “Is There Help for the Homeless?” can be found here,

I have to confess here that I found her ideas to be unoriginal and unfocused.

The LA Times recently ran a front page article by Sam Harris on “10 Myths and 10 Truths About Atheism,” which may still be available online here,,0,2719494.story?track=mostviewed-homepage

The letters to the editor responding to the Harris column, some attacking, some supportive, also make for interesting reading,,1,5321340.story

Also, one of the most under-reported stories of the past few years continues to be the degree to which the Bush Administration actively suppresses science in order to support creationism and a particularly narrow minded and irrational Christian fundamentalist view of nature. For example, at the Grand Canyon, park officials and guides are not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. And the park is forced to sell a book claiming that the canyon is only 6,000 years old.

One obvious conclusion here is that it is the Bush Administration in particular and many conservatives in general, not simplistically the “mainstream media,” that are terrified of ideas.

Posted by: Alec on January 2, 2007 2:34 PM

Ricpic -- I kinda like "thought threw" myself. I wonder if the reason that some theists find atheists hostile is that some of the most public atheists -- people like Dennett (let alone Madalyn Murray O'Hair -- am I spelling that right?) -- have been hostile? I'm with you, in any case. Either the idea of "god" grabs ya or it doesn't, and what's the big deal either way?

J. Goard -- Eager to learn more about that Randian period of yours. Religious in its own way? I never had a Rand moment myself, but I can't figure out why. Theoretically she should have appealed to me a lot at a certain age. But maybe it's that "at a certain age" thing -- maybe I just missed the right age.

Alec -- I'm not sure The Skeptic qualifies as a mainstream publication, are you? Reason might qualify, I guess, and it certainly deserves credit for the q&a's it runs. BTW, I'm not out to score some conservative point here, let alone endorse Heather on atheism. (I don't find her all that interesting on The Big Questions, though I love a lot of her journalism.) It's just to wonder out loud why the mainstream press seems so averse to good idea-driven q&a's. Tons of people get a kick out of discussing ideas. Seems like a big opportunity that the media bosses are overlooking.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2007 4:20 PM

I read the interview and then MacDonald's article wherein she repudiated the conflation of religious belief with conservatism and found myself in agreement.

Unfortunately, she seems to be enamored of other dogma, as in her astonishment that here liberal friends still attribute the poor's economic status to anything other than their lack of character. Oh yes, the poor, undeserving poor!

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on January 2, 2007 8:48 PM

Why does it matter if she is a "major cutiepie" and does this influence the reception of her ideas?

Posted by: Joared on January 3, 2007 11:50 PM

Michael – RE: whether the Skeptic qualifies as a mainstream publication.

For me, mainstream publications are not just the usual suspects, but magazines that are popular and easily and regularly available where I live. Skeptic Magazine is carried at all the newsstands near me. Also, Michael Shermer, the editor/publisher of Skeptic regularly appears not only on one of the public radio stations in my area, but also on one of the mainstream AM talkradio stations.

Also, one of the talkradio stations I sometimes listen to while doing computer work gave me a possible answer to your question, “are the conventional media terrified of ideas?” No, they are terrified of boring listeners and readers, and thus losing advertisers. A talkshow host who is usually fairly thoughtful talked about what makes “good radio,” and all his examples featured confrontation, controversy and heightened emotions, never ideas. This also reminded me of another host once who let the cat out of a bag as he lambasted a caller who asked why his show cut off some callers who weren’t engaged in the typical talkshow jousting, bashing their ideological opponents and butt-licking their ideological heroes. The host admitted that thoughtful conversation wasn’t interesting, and further noted that since the caller was older than 50, the station didn’t give a rat’s ass about his opinion since his demographic was not important to the station. I also remember this episode because the host went out of his way to mock the caller, violating even talkradio’s sometimes loosey goosey rules of decorum.

TV shows that deal with ideas are typically ratings and money-losers, and there are countless examples of newspapers dumping some of their formerly prized writers and columnists in favor of younger blood with edgier writing styles, even when these newcomers have nothing particularly interesting to say. They are responding to readers, viewers and listeners who tell the media time and time again that they want to be entertained, not challenged.

Some blogging sites can deal more with ideas because, for now, they don’t have to deliver eyeballs to advertisers to the same degree as do the mainstream media, and because the web allows some (obviously not all) sites to exist without a large or steady revenue stream.

Posted by: Alec on January 4, 2007 6:31 AM

Peter L. -- There's always the possibility that she *lost* her dogmatism when she encountered the reality of many poor people, isn't there? I had an uncle, for instance, who was an angry leftie-radical for years. Then he got a job as a welfare officer. Within a couple of years he'd flipped completely -- he became super-conservative. He'd seen too many poor people who were lazy, self-destructive, lying about being injured, milking the system, taking advantage, etc ... But he didn't become dogmatic -- he was no dittohead. He'd simply lost his leftie-dogmatic sentimentality about the poor, and had become more realistic about the reality of them, in a tough-love kind of way. There was still plenty of room in his heart for the real unfortunates. Point being that his new conservatism was based in experience, wasn't heartless, and was undogmatic. (His views on policy may or may not have been right, I have no idea.) I wonder if the same is true of Heather ...

Joarad -- It matters to *me* that Heather's a major cutiepie. Her appearances makes me feel delight -- how pleasant is that? It also matters to me to maintain a non-ponderous, unofficial tone at this blog, which is one reason why I toss stuff like that into the mix on a regular basis. I. Am. Not. The. New. York. Times. Let. Alone. A. Government. Agency. Incidentally, you don't think Susan Sontag would have had the career and rep she did without looking so striking, do you? Anyway, so you *don't* think Heather's a cutiepie?

Alec -- That's a great tale about talk radio, tks. I know what the reasons are that media people give for staying away from ideas -- that it's just good business to do so. I question whether they're good reasons. Not even in a moral sense, but in a commercial and audience sense. With so many mainstream outlets shunning ideas, surely that leaves a market (the market for discussing ideas) underserved. Even if it isn't the hugest of all potential markets, it's obviously a real one -- much of the blogosphere wouldn't exist otherwise. American businesses do a pretty good job of catering to some niche markets these days after all. Why not the niche market for ideas? So I wonder why someone in the mainstream media doesn't take a flyer on it. (Actually, between you and me, I suspect that the real reason for this is that the people who own the major media outlets don't like ideas themselves, and don't want their consumers to be engaging with ideas. They want them being good consumers instead. Prior to the 1980s, "Ideas" columns and intellectual discussion were easy to find in the mainstream. These days, they're quite hard to find. What changed? Curricula got dumbed-down, conglomerates took over many media businesses ... I'm starting to sound like Gore Vidal!)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 4, 2007 8:50 AM

Regarding the Grand Canyon bit that Alec mentioned above, Tom Maguire has a fairly extensive post on the subject (the story appears to be more complex and ambiguous than PEER is letting on).

Posted by: David Fleck on January 6, 2007 10:07 AM

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