Is PZ Myers a Demagogue an Opportunist or a Principled Man?

[Michael Shermer responds. Edited further on 8/25/13] What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade? I'm dyin’ here, people. It’s like people trust me or something. So I've decided to say what I think. There is a great deal of infighting going on between atheists and has been for some time. I could provide a fairly long list of issues that have divided us along with a number of people who have been trashed on both sides. There is one common denominator to this divisiveness, PZ Myers. I'm not saying he is the cause of it all. He's not. He has, however, conferred a measure of authority and power to other atheist bloggers by giving them a large audience, who would never have gained such an audience on their own. Many of them are divisive too, following in his steps. As far as I can tell, you either love PZ Myers or you hate him. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground among most atheists who are aware of him. PZ Myers is a polarizing figure, hands down, no ifs ands or buts about it. He is divisive whether people think he's usually right or usually wrong. When PZ Myers declared he was leaving the skeptic movement in May of this year, professor Massimo Pigliucci even rhetorically asked, "should we care?" Now this is some real divisiveness, apparently cutting ties with the large and influential James Randi Educational Foundation and like-minded skeptics around the world. Who does he think he is? So I got to wondering about the characteristics of a polarizing person and did some searching online. This is what I found:

In one article about polarization I read this:
Becoming polarized, step by step

One side of an issue appeals to us.

We seek out facts to support this side.

We get most of our information from advocates of this side.

We feel superior for being on this side.

We like the people on our side better.

We trust the people on our side more.

We believe advocates for our side without analyzing them critically.

We distrust advocates for the other side.

We feel the people on the other side have undesirable traits that led them to their wrong opinions.

We jump on the slightest flaw in arguments made by the other side's proponents.

We find negative stereotypes about the other side very believable.

When our opponents make negative references to us, it is further evidence of their bad character.

Sources of information that treat us and our opponents almost equally must be biased, or they would recognize our superiority and the inferiority of our opponents.

Rather than enduring such unreliable sources or listening to our opponents' arguments directly, we learn of their misguided views and motives from our own trustworthy leaders.

When an opponent is found to have done something unethical, it is reprehensible, but typical of what we expect from the people we oppose.

When one of us is found to do something unethical it is not very important and possibly excusable if it aids our noble purposes.

We are good.

They are bad.

The superiority of our view is so obvious that our opponents could not possibly be sincere. They are deliberately promoting evil, self-serving policies.

They are our enemies, out to destroy us and our way of life!

People like them should be ridiculed, stripped of power, silenced, punished, and perhaps even destroyed!

Leaders use polarization to manipulate us

It is easy as individuals to become polarized about issues, but the situation is aggravated by leaders who deliberately play on our emotions to strengthen their own influence. When political campaigns turn negative it is pretty typical to accuse opponents of improper behavior or having outrageous views. Leaders of virtually all political movements work to find the most dramatic and extreme cases of questionable behavior by opponents in order to stir up our anger.

Sometimes polarization is used by leaders to boost their popularity such as when Senator Joseph McCarthy ran his anti-communist crusade in the 1950s and when Lester Maddox was elected governor of Georgia after he gained fame by defying efforts to integrate his restaurant in the 1960s. The United States has few long standing nationalistic antagonisms, but in countries that do, it is commonplace for leaders (like Milosevic) to attack such enemies as a means of increasing their popularity.

It is a common tactic for leaders to create and make use of polarization for their own political ends. If we want to make wise decisions about such leaders and their claims, and avoid being manipulated, we must recognize such tactics and resist becoming polarized. A good policy is to never regard negative claims or inferences about a person or group as at all meaningful unless we get the information from a neutral source and we have given people from the opposing side a fair opportunity to explain their position. Things like negative campaign ads (and probably all campaign ads) should be completely ignored since anyone with the money to produce and air such advertising can invariably find ways to make their opponent look bad. By paying attention to such material we are unlikely to improve our decision making and we allow the advertiser to buy our vote.

As a more general rule, we should always be suspicious of any person or group that tries to get our support by inciting anger towards another person or group. LINK
I found the word "polarization" in an article on demagoguery. PZ Myers does not exhibit all the characteristics of a demagogue of course, but see for yourself. Some of them seem to apply:
The easiest way to restrict the ability of people to criticize you is to make it dangerous to do so. This can be done through passing laws—so that people can be thrown in jail, fined, or sued for saying certain things. But it can also be done through so rousing your followers that they will try to harm anyone who disagrees with you. That is what demagoguery does.

Demagoguery is polarizing propaganda that motivates members of an ingroup to hate and scapegoat some outgroup(s), largely by promising certainty, stability, and what Erich Fromm famously called “an escape from freedom.” It significantly undermines the quality of public argument for reasons and in ways discussed below. In the most abstract, the reason it is so harmful is that it creates and fosters a situation in which it is actively dangerous to criticize dominant views, cultures, and political groups. It makes discourse a kind of coercion, largely through rousing and appealing to hate. Thus, the very people who make the decisions cannot hear all the information they need.

Some people don't distinguish demagoguery from propaganda (which is generally defined as dishonest and fallacious discourse intended to further the power or agenda of the propagator), but I would say that it is a subset of propaganda: demagoguery is polarizing propaganda that functions to motivate people by rousing and justifying hatred of an outgroup. In other words, all demagoguery is propaganda, but not all propaganda is demagoguery.

The following is a list of the qualities that, as far as I am concerned, typify demagoguery. That isn't to say that every demagogue uses rhetoric that always has every one of them, nor that every one is equally important, but that, if one thinks of demagoguery as a disease, these are the symptoms, and a person might have a mild or severe case of demagoguery. The two qualities it seems to me that a text must have in order to qualify as demagoguery are polarization and hatefulness.


This is one of the two most important qualities of demagoguery. To polarize is to divide a diverse range of things into two poles. Thus, a demagogue breaks everything into two camps: the one s/he represents (what people call the in-group), and evil (the out-group). This kind of polarization recurs throughout demagoguery—there are only two options, there are only two policies, there are only two groups.

If you are not on their side—with all your heart and soul, in all ways and without hesitation—then you are against them. The tendency to put things in these terms greatly simplifies complicated issues (which is almost certainly its main attraction) and implicitly justifies brutal tactics against large groups of people (another attraction for demagogues). It also (almost certainly intentionally) shuts down deliberation, as really good decision-making necessitates considering all the options, and there is almost never a situation in which there are really only two options.

Ingroup/outgroup Thinking, A Rhetoric of Hate

Another constant in demagoguery is that the demagogue tries to promote and justify hatred of the "out-group."Ingroup/outgroup identity is about essential identity. Because members of the ingroup are essentially good, the same behavior on the part of the ingroup is good, and the outgroup is evil (discussed as "entitlement" at greater length below). The essentially good nature of the ingroup is a "precommitment," meaning it is prior to and protected from discourse—no number of counterexamples will change the person's perception that the ingroup is good. LINK.
There is much more to read at the above link, written by Trish Roberts-Miller of The University of Texas at Austin.

But maybe he's an opportunist instead? When Christopher Hitchens was interviewed on 60 Minutes he was asked to comment on what his critics have said about him. One criticism thrown at him was that he was an opportunist. Hitchens: "So what if I am?" Now it's one thing to take advantage of the new atheism and write a book like Hitchens did, hoping to cash in on the fact that he too was an atheist at a time when it was popular to do so. It's another thing entirely to cash in on controversy that divides atheists and hurts so many people for personal profit and perhaps egotistical power.

Atheists who love PZ Myers believe that he speaks and acts strictly according to high moral principles, not opportunism. I think not. No one speaks and acts based strictly on principles all of the time. He is making a shit-load of money from his blog, speaking appearances and his recent book. We all know that controversy sells. The more the drama the more the hits and the more the hits the greater the revenue.

The best evidence that he may be an opportunist at the expense of people he hurts is his book itself. I have been told from someone I trust who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions that PZ Myers was granted an advance for his book in the tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps approaching a hundred thousand dollars.

What did he do to earn that amount of money? As far I could determine he merely copied almost word for word several of his blog posts as chapters. He did no additional research, provided no additional commentary, nor did he provide any additional resources for further reading. All it took was a few strokes of his mouse. Basically nothing. That book is solid evidence PZ Myers is at least an opportunist. I reviewed his book, The Happy Atheist, right here (see especially my first comment). The question I'm raising is whether that same kind of opportunism motivates him in other areas. Does it? Furthermore, I do not see how any reasonable non-biased reader of my review could down-vote it, but his fan base is doing so. This provides some evidence to me he's treated by his fan base as a demagogue.

With that, I cast this grenade away from me...

What do you think? Is PZ Myers a demagogue an opportunist or a principled man who fights his battles based on principles alone? If he is a demagogue or an opportunist then what reason do we have for trusting him? It's a good question to ask at this time. I only ask it at this point. I know what people who love him would say. I know what people who hate him would say. What say you?



Edit: People have asked me what the big deal is. PZ Myers recklessly and without fact-checking accused Michael Shermer of rape. Now some of my readers may object that I just linked to Thunderf00t, someone who does not like PZ Myers, to say the least. One person emailed me and described Thunderf00t as "pure evil." I kid you not. No one is pure evil, not even Hitler or Stalin. In a comment below someone said, "Thunderfoot is a maniac and a troll and a known liar. Using anything he says is laughable." These are the kinds of non-thinking people PZ Myers attracts. Substituting personal attacks for arguments just won't do. I listen to everyone and make my own rational judgments. Doing so is foreign to many people who accept the "us or them" rhetoric of PZ Myers. He has poisoned the discussion and debate. I think Thunderf00t did a good job in the video, so judge it by the merits of his arguments, not whether you dislike him.

To read a much different response from Richard Carrier see this. Fairness requires that reasonable positions all get presented and addressed, something PZ Myers doesn't allow much at all.

I think Michael Shermer is too important of an ally for PZ Myers to spread reckless and terrible unevidenced rumors about him from a second-hand source who quotes an anonymous woman's date rape accusation that was never reported to the police. This doesn't grant him a free pass, but it does require more than unevidenced anonymous sources. Methinks that since PZ Myers left the skeptic movement in May and since Michael Shermer is such a prominent figure in it, PZ Myers is lashing out at him. PZ Myers has been marginalized by the skeptic community so he's emotionally engaged. When emotionally engaged, even smart people will say things that are dumb and reckless. He's a loose cannon on deck and should be further and further marginalized, even if the anonymous rumor turns out to be true, since, at the time he spread the potentially slanderous rumor he didn't have enough evidence to do so, or at least, he did not present any that would convince most reasonable people, especially those of us who think he's an opportunist at best, and a demagogue at worst.

If it were me, and if I had reason to trust the rumor because I trusted the source, even though I could not name the source, all I would say is this:
There is a rumor that I think is true about a high profile man on the atheist/skeptic speaking circuit who is getting a few women drunk in order to have sex with them. From all I can tell he has been successful at least once, maybe more. Beware of this. Be on your guard. If any of them continually fills up your glass of wine for you to drink, then you may be at risk. Never put yourself in a compromising situation. Be careful when walking alone in a dark alley too. Of course, of course, if some guy takes advantage of you or harms you in any way you are not to blame. But be careful just the same. Do not put yourself at risk. And if a guy doesn't take no for an answer then immediately report it to the police. Tell your friends about it too. Keep in mind above all, that even if you let your guard down, don't be ashamed. You were still the victim. He took advantage of you.
I would not mention any names because I would not have to do so, and because I could not present any evidence that would be convincing. I think all women should be wary of any guy who continually fills up their wine glasses, not just Shermer, if he did this for nefarious reasons. So there is no reason to single him out, unless you just wanted to trash him like PZ Myers did, who has done this to so many allies who stand with him against religion it's appalling and disgusting to me. The enemy, folks, in case you are interested, are the harms of religious faith and pseudoscience. Let's keep our focus on that. It is the leading cause, by far, of sexism, misogyny, racism and homophobia.

I know what it's like being falsely accused of rape. Since this happens I must require the same thing when it comes to Michael Shermer as I required when I was falsely accused: sufficient evidence. So far there isn't enough of it. I know I didn't do such a deed. I don't think there is enough evidence to conclude Shermer has either, even though this is merely the court of public opinion and not a court of law.


Further edit:

In a personal email to me Shermer categorically denies these accusations. If what he said about his accuser gets out, it will be apparent to most all reasonable people that PZ Myers published a bold-faced lie. He recklessly tried to destroy another person's reputation without regard for fact-checking. Before publishing it PZ Myers should have contacted Shermer for his side to the story. This is standard journalistic ethics that even newsroom rookies know to do. PZ Myers knows how to email him. Why didn't he do so? Not doing so and publishing the accusation anyway was an unprincipled action devoid of ethical responsibility. But then, that's what we could expect from a demagogue now isn't it?