Saturday, 26 September 2009

Defending Dawkins

I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc's blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins - a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.
Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.
I've read several of Dawkins' books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it's worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it's The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.
A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.
While I wouldn't personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins' choice of such an analogy. First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. As Betty says, they "twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. ... The facts do not matter." At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins' position - someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins - it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins' career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins' work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they're trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I'm referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)
Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).
While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers "ignorant", it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I'm sure most creationists' motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn't change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can't say much about the claim that "some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists". Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this "debate"?)
I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?
Is that a rhetorical question, "who knows?" Because there's an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don't make arguments of the form "I believe this, and I'm and expert so just take my word for it." They make arguments of the form "Here's some evidence. Here's why it supports evolution." With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don't trust them.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I've discussed Blanchard's attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers' arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they're doing science too. They don't do real science: they don't make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don't do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He's reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn't speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don't take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I'm not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances - like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists - value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up - no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin's great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.
Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.
I would object to the use of the term "fundamentalist" here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I've come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it's one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that "victimhood" is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people's perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It's worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists' campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don't like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I've said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I'll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.


* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion - most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a "dogged obsession with religion". Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.


  1. Hello again!

    Yes, I will respond to this - but perhaps not until the weekend. Although I would like to point out that my main argument was not about the truth or otherwise of evolutionary theory but on the manner in which Dawkins publicly chooses to discuss religion. I have no problem with the theory of evolution and I am not a Creationist.

  2. Note for readers: Betty has responded on her blog to this post. I confess, it comes across as rather abrasive, and reflects a rather profound failure to listen to what I say above.

    I am nettled, I confess. Partly, this is because she does not link back here in her post, thus depriving her readers of an easy way to check her claims/aacusations should they wish to. Partly it is because I feel misunderstood and misrepresented. I am still considering how (or whether) to respond.


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