Monday, November 20, 2006

Larry Moran: Stupid is as stupid writes

Anyone engaged in online debating knows of people on their side that they wish would just stay quiet, those whose writing is an embarrassment to the cause. And of course this is subjective: I know for a fact (because they've told me) that some of my fellow IDers wish I would stop expressing my maverick views on ID. I am the embarrassment for some.

Broadly speaking, there are two types writers who do more harm than good. First, there are those who embarrass based on the content of their writing. And then there are those whose style and/or lack of writing skill cause their colleagues to cringe.

Take P.Z. Myers, for example. Is he an embarrassment of either type? Well, in the case of the content of his writing, it's not for me to say. Anecdotally I sense that there are some (on his side) who are embarrassed by his radicalism. On the other hand, there appear to be others turned off by the moderation and tolerance expressed by less fundamentalist evolutionists. As for the quality of his writing, I suspect nobody is embarrassed. Though often repulsed by his views, I have to admit that P.Z. can write. When you read his posts you may conclude (correctly) that he is a radical, but you don't question his writing ability, his intellect, or the obvious fact that he received a first-rate education. I would have to count myself as a fan of P.Z.'s writing--I never have to struggle to understand his point and he doesn't obscure his position with academic verbiage.

On the ID side, people like Jonathan Witt and the gang at Telic Thoughts deserve the same sort of respect. They represent their views well, and are a pleasure to read.

With that preface, I want to zoom in on the second type of embarrassment. The person whom (if they are on you side) you wish would refrain from putting pen to paper because they come across as extreme lightweights. In particular, there is one group for whom juvenile writing is simply unforgivable: professors. Not all professors are expected to be good writers, but none should write like a third grader. When a professor can't write, but then tries to, it really pushes my buttons.

A very good example of this is that blast-from-the-past, University of Kansas professor Paul Mirecki. You may recall his fifteen minutes of ignominy: the self-inflicted fall from grace over his ID course about which he could not remain circumspect, boasting in writing:
The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’
A note that he signed: "Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P."

Here I have no intent to reignite a discussion of professor Mirecki, who is too easy of a target to be anything other than a one-time amusement. He's just the perfect example. If I were the UK president, even if I agreed with Mirecki's position, I'd have told him: I wish I could fire you for humiliating the academy with your use of phrases like "big fat face" and "Evil Dr. P."

Today I'd point out a new example, with a hat tip to Post-Darwinist. It is professor (biochemistry) Larry Moran of the University of Toronto. If there were an annual Paul Mirecki award for achievement in writing in the category of "belying your own education," he'd be this year's front-runner. On his blog he has a post entitled Flunk the IDiots where he wrote:
I agree with the Dembski sycophants that UCSD should not have required their uneducated students to attend remedial classes. Instead, they should never have admitted them in the first place. Having made that mistake, it's hopeless to expect that a single lecture—even one by a distinguished scholar like Robert Pennock—will have any effect. The University should just flunk the lot of them and make room for smart students who have a chance of benefiting from a high quality education.
(Background: the topic being discussed is whether incoming freshmen should be given a remedial evolution class. My own thought: if they don't know evolution, then yes they should. All college students should learn the rudiments of evolution. It is the leading model of biological diversity, and it is a topic of great controversy. Whether you accept it or not, you should have an informed position, not one based on a caricature.)

Back to Professor Moran. If his writing displays any more intelligence that Mirecki's, it would require a plot with zero-suppressed axes to observe the distinction.

First of all, his use of the word IDiots. Puh-lease. To the person who coined IDiot, you'd have to concede a certain cleverness. After it caught on, you knew that you'd have to endure it until, as these things do, it ran its course. In terms of cliché time, that was probably six half-lives ago. At this point, I assumed that only teenage commenters on Panda's Thumb still used IDiot and thought that they were being clever. High-school flunky who should be studying rather than spending time commenting on blogs: meet your peer, professor Larry Moran.

You could almost make the same comment regarding his use of sycophants, a word that has been neutered by overuse. I'm slightly disappointed with professor Moran. If he had managed to get in the word ilk as in "IDiots and their ilk" he'd have taken the trifecta, which comes with and a three year supply of Strident medicated pads to help the winner get through the trials of puberty.

Going from bad to worse, his first response to a critical comment to his post reads:
Until you IDiots learn something about science you don't deserve to take up space at a decent university. However, there's still hope for you. There's nothing in your comment to suggest that you've even reached the age of adulthood. Maybe you'll get educated before you graduate from kindergarten.
This man, I assume, has a Ph.D.

Apart from the abysmal quality of his writing, there is also the question of its content. In other words Moran is an across-the-board embarrassment. He should be criticized for publicly calling on students to be flunked for (what amounts to) their religious beliefs. (I'm assuming that Professor Moran believes that ID is a form of creationism.) That is a no-no.

If I were his boss, I'd certainly tell him that unless his desire is to continue looking like a jackass and a disgrace to the university, he ought to give up the blogging.

Update: pro-evolutionist and anti-IDer Ed Brayton agrees, I think it's fair to say, that Moran is harmful to his cause. That should, I suppose, make me happy. But any satisifaction is overwhelmed by the dismay that someone who writes and thinks like Larry Moran is a professor.

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