Friday, November 23, 2007

The Flew affair: wrapping up the spin

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

AntonyFlewA couple of weeks ago, I declared I was taking a break from my blogging on the Antony Flew scandal. I've decided to come back to wrap up on the spin apologists have been putting out. For those new to the story, read the New York Times piece by Mark Oppenheimer on Flew first. It's what touched off the controversy, and the defining feature of the whole thing is that the Evangelical apologists rushing to exploit Flew seem incapable of addressing it as it stands, but rather compulsively misrepresent it.

Christianity Today is just baffling:
In "The Turning of an Atheist, "Mark Oppenheimer raises questions galore without actually proving any of his points.
Oppenheimer supports everything he says with statements the people involved. What more proof does CT have in mind? It's never explained.
He questions the degree of Flew’s involvement in writing the book...
Everybody agrees that Roy Varghese did most of the work writing the book, and this should not be much of a surprise to anyone who understands that "with" is frequently used as a euphamism for "ghostwriten by."
...the credibility of scientists whose perspective Flew adopted...
I've read the article through many, many, times, but if Oppenheimer himself ever questions the credibility of the scientists involved, I keep missing it. Oppenheimer does quote Richard Carrier and Paul Kurtz doing so, but so what? I don't know how he could have covered this story without mentioning the fact that the claims made in Flew's book are controversial.
...and even Flew’s mental competence at the advanced age of 84. (Oppenheimer suggests that Flew may be "a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates" and raises the possibility that his "memory [is] failing" and that "his powers [are] in decline.")
This point is supported with a fair amount of details from Oppenheimer's own conversations with Flew. Flew couldn't remember relevant people, concepts events, and explicitly admitted he had erroneously endorsed a view because he had simply forgotten one of the main objections to it he had spent his life promoting. Again, what kind of proof does the CT author have in mind?

Bruce Chapman has put up a couple of posts at a Discovery Institute website so lacking in substance that it's hard to find anything to criticize in them. In the first post, Chapman accuses the Times of having sent Oppenheimer to discredit Flew. The possibility that Oppenheimer simply set out to cover it and followed the facts where they lead is ignored without an attempt at justification. Then he calls the idea "that Flew is getting old and forgetful" a "conceit," simply ignoring the grounds given for this conclusion. The second posts suggests a lawsuit against the times, without explaining what possible grounds there might be for such an action.

William Dembski, that paragon of honesty, has called the Times piece "vile" and "despicable," without actually finding anything to criticize about it.

Journalist and philosophical wanabe Dinsesh D'Souza is another entry in the flat-out-lie school of spinning this one:
The only evidence that Flew has lost his mind is that he's 84 years old.
No, the evidence is specific failures of memory documented by Oppenhiemer.
A man of 84 naturally loses some of his memory, especially for names, but this does not mean he has lost his marbles.
This next sentence should make us pause and wonder if even D'Souza knows what he's trying to say. He acknowedges in a way that Flew's memory failures are documented, but readers of D'Souza who haven't read the Times article won't be clear on this. He also seems to suggest that if you're at an age where a problem is common, your having the problem doesn't count as having the problem. If that's D'Souza's argument, all I can say is that it's one of those things for which the phrase "WTF, mate?" was created.

Most of the positive reviews aren't worth reading, much less responding to, but I'll look at one because it's from the literary agent for the book. The main criticism is rather confused:
The NT Times Magazine article referenced in other reviews could be categorized as an ad hominem argument (defined as "appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect, or attacking character and not content"). In an attempt to find a "story behind the story" the article sidesteps the actual story itself, which is that Antony Flew, a brilliant atheistic philosopher, has changed his mind about the existence of God.
First, the definition of ad hominem is weird, as standard definitions include only the second part. Second, the fallacy is only there if the inference that the arguments are unsound is drawn from the character flaws. If the information is simply presented as worth knowing (which it surely is), no fallacy committed. Finally, if the story is the conversion, not the arguments, how on earth can the agent complain about focusing on the man?

This is followed by a childlike statement from Flew, of whose authenticity I sadly have little doubt:
"My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 percent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I'm 84 and that was Roy Varghese's role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I'm old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. This is my book and it represents my thinking."
Lastly, there is a quote from the publisher containing an outright lie: "the NYT Magazine writer generalized from Flew's aphasia to senility." For the half-dozenth time, Oppenheimer explicitly describes observing evidence of memory problems going far beyond Flew's self-described "nominal aphasia."

I have to say I'm surprised by the number of prominent Christians rushing to dirty their hands with such nonsense. In a way, I'm disappointed; it wasn't supposed to be this easy to show the world what scumbags they are. Then again, I've already commented on how boring such frauds can be.

In lighter news, John Haldane wrote the Times to say his involvement with Flew was limited, and that Haldane "sensed that his vigor was reduced." (Also published was a letter from Varghese, which I dealt with when it was published by Vic Reppert. The Times edited Varghese for length, but the stuff they cut wouldn't change the blatant falseness of Varghese's claim that "The only reason that people ask questions about his mental faculties is that he dared to change his mind.") Valarie Tarico has an excellent post on the subject, which sets aside addressing the spin to actually understanding it. Finally, via, there's a somewhat outdated but still nice video of Richard Dawkins speaking on Flew.


AIGBusted said...

I thought this was sad. It is really pathetic that so many agenda pushing theists have exploited Flew in their mission to convert the world. It looks worse on them than anything else.

By the way, you should drop by my blog sometime, I debunk creationism and intelligent design:


Steven Carr said...

Even the literary agent called Oppenheimer's article an 'attack on integrity'.

Carrier called the book 'dishonest', 'bogus' and other things.

Guess what?

Varghese won't sue people who attack his integrity, and bandy words like 'dishonest' around.

Why would Varghese not defend his integrity against these attacks in a court of law, unless he knows that putting Flew in the witness stand would be a disaster for him?

t.r. said...

Thanks for the summary.

I've been a frequent reader for some time, and I'd like to offer one bit of constructive criticism:
When multi-million hit bloggers start linking to you, you might benefit from running spell checks to catch typos. I know from your posts that blogging is less of a priority than school, but since (presumably) people take you more seriously if your posts are just a bit more polished, and since many people already know and enjoy (and link to) your blogging, and that sort of popularity can have payoffs down the road, it might be worth the extra minute or so now.

Anonymous said...

Does this shake your faith in the almighty John Loftus? Have you been discomfitted?

t.r. said...

Someone help me out. What the hell is anonymous talking about?

Hallq said...

Beats me. Annony, what are you talking about?