Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Humanist in-fighting

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It's all getting rather hot under the non-dog collar of some key humanists. It started with a discussion evolving on the Talking Philosophy blog about the Mori/ipsos poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association, which claimed that 17 million brits were humanists. The way the poll was conducted, the questions and the results were pretty roundly dismissed by, among others, Jeremy "I'm a sociologist not a philosopher" Stangroom, and the editor of The Philosophers' Magazine Julian Baggini (though Julian seemd uncomfortable with some of the strident tone). David Pollock of the BHA (disclosure: also on the board of the RA which publishes New Humanist) came in to respond, and decried the harsh tone of the 'ivory tower' criticisms. Julian in his turn has written back to me (after I posted a link on the NH website) and this is what he says (his opening point is addressed to humanists who he thinks might come in to the debate in defence of the BHA, his last point about the backstabber refers to the fact that I titled the post 'Et Tu Julian'):

Before you begin your onslaught, I should point out that the original post came from Jeremy, not me!I haven't been vicious but I am somewhat dismayed by the highly partisan response to this. Is it really the case that none of my fellow humanists can see and admit that this poll was frankly flaky and there is a real issue here of how much a movement committed to rationality can be prepared to say, "let's not worry too much about the niceties of truth - let's just get campaigning."I say all this and find I am being compared to a famous backstabber. I really thought that humanism was a movement that valued rigorous questioning from within.
Julian Baggini, editor The Philosopher's Magazine

For the record here's my view:

I like Julian and was only teasing with the Brutus reference (honest Julian!). My version of humanism has a sense of humour at it's core I have to admit.

I think it perfectly fair enough that this poll has been scrutinised so carefully, we are rationalists arfter all, but it seems a bit harsh not to acknowledge that the same criticisms could be levelled at many other polls, and as David Pollock argues these polls are, for good or ill, taken seriously by the media (more seriously than ones which may have more qualitative methodological rigour but are from unknown sources). One can be precious about dodgy poll data and over-simplified headlines but grabbing the attention of a highly distracted public (which is what the BHA and NH are about) sometimes requires it (when we ran the story in New Humanist we titled it "We're all humanists now" which, as you'll agree, is not strictly true)

Some of the things said on the TP site were just rude

Debate is healthy, and fun, so let's try not to make it personal ...

and here endeth the lesson for today.

6 comments:

Scott Hughes said...

I think most poll data isn't worth much. People are easily mislead with poll data, and that's why the media uses them so often.

You might like the Philosophy Forums.

Solana said...

Fight! Fight!

NHEditor said...

once again the feared carnivore solanasaurus reveals her aggressive nature...

Francis said...

Why are some posters using the lower case "humanist" if what they intend is "Humanist"? Do they refer to the Pope as "catholic" - or is he "Catholic"?

Lower-casing the word is a cheap way enemies of Humanism try to belittle it. See, as an example, TIME, 24 February 1975, p. 47. No need to accept their version.

TIME's obituary for Julian Huxley MIGHT have called him "a Humanist." Instead TIME chose to say " ... self-styled 'humanist'," thereby managing in a single phrase to use three ways to make Huxley's Humanism appear illegitimate.

Is Rowan Williams 'the so-called "archbishop" of Canterbury in the self-styled "church of England"'? Would your Anglican friends refer to him thus? Does your history teacher refer to "the so-called 'queen' Elizabeth 1, bastard daughter of the excommunicated heretic Henry, styled 'monarch' of the infidels of England who have turned away from the faith."?

Humanism first won public identity with the publication of the original Manifesto in 1933. It has earned its capital "H". Humanism has a clearly defined meaning, published as Humanist Manifesto 3 in 2003.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union [www.IHEU.org] recommends the term "Humanism" with a capital "H" and no adjective. This is correct usage.

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