Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

On wizard books!

October 30, 2008

A news item that Dawkins is planning to spend his retirement writing children’s books which will compare fairy tale explanations with scientific ones sets John Hawks into penning a nice post:

I disagree with Dawkins’ idea, by the way. I think wizard books (and fantasy generally) convey the idea that the social universe is governed by regular rules, even if a physical universe can have different rules than our own. And the very notion that a physical universe might have different rules gives many opportunities to reflect on the nature of physical laws, which are in many cases hardly obvious to human perception. I think we want scientists to be a little bit anti-rational, to think that there might be organizing principles that they can’t see with their eyes.

Hawks ends the post with the thought

I’m wondering whether we should be scaring children with Dawkins…

I agree!

Expelled: is it slick or does it suck?

March 24, 2008

Andy Guess at Inside HigherEd (emphasis mine):

The movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” is already generating press in advance of its April 18 release. With a widely recognizable host, an explosive topic and a self-consciously conspiratorial tone, the slickly produced documentary at least has the ingredients for success on a Michael Moore scale.

Richard Dawkins (again, emphasis mine):

Now, to the film itself. What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work. A favourite joke among the film-making community is the ‘Lord Privy Seal’. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can’t resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain’s heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis’ film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like ’emotional outburst’). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.

The alleged association between Darwinism and Nazism is harped on for what seems like hours, and it is quite simply an outrage. We are supposed to believe that Hitler was influenced by Darwin. Hitler was ignorant and bonkers enough for his hideous mind to have imbibed some sort of garbled misunderstanding of Darwin (along with his very ungarbled understanding of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, and of his own never-renounced Roman Catholic religion) but it is hardly Darwin’s fault if he did. My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism. Anyone who thinks that has any bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of Darwin’s theory of evolution is either an unreasoning fool or a cynical manipulator of unreasoning fools. I will not speculate as to which category includes Ben Stein and Mark Mathis.

Stein has no talent for comedy, as he demonstrates in a weird joke about scratching his back, which falls completely flat. But his attempt to do tragedy is even worse. He visits Dachau and, when informed by the guide that lots of Jews had been killed there, he buries his face in his hands as though this is the first time he has heard of it. Obviously it was not his intention, but I thought his rotten acting was an insult to the memory of the victims.

More sinister than the artless Lord Privy Seals, and the self-indulgent and wholly illicit playing of the Nazi trump card, the film goes shamelessly for cheap laughs at the expense of scientists and scholars who are making honest attempts to explain difficult points. Cheap laughs that could only be raised in an audience of scientific ignoramuses (and here Mathis’ propaganda instincts cannot be faulted: he certainly knows his target audience). One example is the treatment of the philosopher Michael Ruse: a decent man, bluff, bearded, articulate, and with a genuine and sincere desire to explain difficult ideas clearly. Stein asked Ruse how life originated. Ruse’s immediate impulse (as mine would have been) was to launch into an honest effort to explain a difficult scientific idea. He began by saying that he doesn’t know how life originated, and nor does anybody else. At this point in his interview, Ruse probably had no notion that his interlocuter had a completely different agenda to promote, with no hint of sincerity to balance his own. Ruse patiently explained that the origin of life (nothing to do with the Darwinian theory itself but the necessary precursor of Darwinian evolution) is an interesting and unsolved mystery, one that scientists are actively working on. By way of example, Ruse could have chosen any of a number of current theories. He chose just one (it would have taken too long to explain them all) purely as an illustration of the kind of properties such a theory must have. He happened to choose the theory proposed by the Scottish chemist Graham Cairns-Smith, that organic life was preceded by a strange and intriguing world of replicating patterns on the surfaces of crystals in inorganic clays. At no time did Ruse say he believed the Cairns-Smith theory, only that it was the KIND of theory that scientists are actively examining, as a CANDIDATE for the origin of evolution. Stein just loved it. Mud! MUD! The sarcasm in his grating, nasal voice was palpable. Maybe this was when Ruse realised that he had been had. Certainly it was at this point that he started to show signs of exasperation, although he may still have thought that Stein was merely stupid, rather than pursuing a malevolent and clandestine agenda. Stein kept returning, throughout the film, to the phrase “on the backs of crystals”, and the sycophantic audience in the Minneapolis cinema dutifully tittered every time.

Another example. Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be. I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet. Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws. So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar — semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity — and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently — comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

This ‘Ultimate 747’ argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment — however implausible — was designed to illustrate intelligent design’s closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don’t think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.

Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won’t get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. “What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” “Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE.” I can’t remember whether this was the moment in the film where we were regaled with another Lord Privy Seal cut to an old science fiction movie with some kind of android figure – that may have been used in the service of trying to ridicule Francis Crick (again, dutiful titters from the partisan audience).

Enough on the film itself. Quite apart from anything else, it is drearily boring, the tedium exacerbated by the grating monotony of Stein’s voice.

Is it just me, or do you also get the feeling that Andy Guess’s comment of the movie being slick is unsupported unlike Dawkins’ reasonably well argued stand that it sucks?

Why Nisbet’s gag order reeks of authoritarianism

March 23, 2008

Mathew Nisbet, in a recent blog post, writing about the PZ Meyers/Dawkins Expelled incident, and its aftermath of a YouTube video of Myers and Dawkins discussing the same, writes

If you haven’t seen this clip yet, above is a preview of the central message on how “Big Science” views religion in the documentary Expelled. There’s little work needed on the part of the producers, since the message is spelled out via the interviews provided by PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

Notice the very clear translation for audiences as to what supposedly establishment science believes:

A) Learning about science makes you an atheist, it “kills off” religious faith.

B) If we boost science literacy in society, it will lead to erosion of religion, as religion fades away, we will get more and more science, and less and less religion.

C) Religion is a fairy tale, similar to hobgoblins, a fantasy, and even evil.

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

Nisbet goes on to say

As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

And, further,

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

So Richard and PZ, when it comes to Expelled, it’s time to let other people be the messengers for science. This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog. I will have more to say on Expelled strategy in a talk I am giving Thursday night at UWisc-Eau Claire and then next week Monday in a lunch time talk given with Chris Mooney at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Nisbet is wrong; Myers and Dawkins, have as much right to write, discuss and comment on the issue as anybody else, if not more; if such writing, discussions, and commenting also promotes their ideologies, books and blogs — all the better for them.

In fact, I find Nisbet’s position, namely, that

This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog.

disgusting, because, in a different context, I was told the same thing about supporting the religious right in India — though, some of my right leaning friends agreed with me that the right wingers did indeed behaved stupid, violent, and beastly in some cases, they argued that my protesting against their actions somehow would harm the cause, namely, saving Hinduism from the outside forces.

If this is how we have to make science palatable to the public, namely, by suppressing dissenting voices and opinions, pray, what is the use in promoting science? Wouldn’t the world (as Bharathiar put is so eloquently) laugh at us if we buy a painting by selling both of our eyes? Isn’t such monolithic points of view, in which, other voices and shades of opinion suppressed reek of authoritarianism and political extremes?

Nobody claimed that Myers and Dawkins speak for all of science — I have seen at least two posts in the past week criticizing their stand on religion, one of which, I even linked to in this blog (And, for the record, nor do I agree with them on all issues). However, if Nisbet is really worried about their bad impact, he should show us how he really wants to deal with the issue by writing about it instead of issuing gag order to Myers and Dawkins.

In the event, I can not help but be suspicious of Nisbet’s aims and intentions, and think, that this probably is a way of promoting his ideology or book or blog, and nothing to do with either the truth, or science, or science popularisation, or public perception of science.

Update: There have been many responses on Scienceblogs to Nisbet’s (and Mooney’s) posts about Expelled incident; this one by Orac at Respectful Insolence is by far the best I have read:

Whatever the case, the reason I have not ventured into this whole debate in a very long time is because I tend to lean more towards the Mooney-Nisbet side of the frame, and discussing it around ScienceBlogs has become more trouble than it’s worth, given that both sides appear to have hardened their position to the point where a middle ground, nay reason itself, is hard-pressed to find an entrance. That’s why I hope that Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbett will pay attention to me here when I say to them:

You are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about the Dawkins-Myers incident.

I don’t know how to put it more plainly than that. In fact, I was shocked at just how wrong-headed Matt Nisbet‘s take on the matter was. How he can conclude that this incident was “bad for science” makes me wonder if he has a single clue, particularly the part where he tells Dawkins and Myers to shut up and “lay low” about the incident.

Far worse is Nisbet’s breathtakingly inane statement (yes, my use of that term is intentional):

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

In other words, not only is he likening Myers and Dawkins to a clueless Obama campaign flak who went beyond what she should have been saying or a clueless Clinton campaign hack who made what is arguably a racist statement about Barack Obama and was forced to back down and resign from the Clinton campaign, but he’s telling Myers and Dawkins to shut up and let the “professionals” (like him, presumably) deal with the situation. I hope that Nisbett will pay close attention when I respond to him here, given that I have generally come down on his side of the framing issue more than is good for my mental health around the ScienceBlogs collective:


Take a look!

Dawkins in Telugu

February 25, 2008

Sarojini Premchand reviews a translation of Dawkins’ The God Delusion into Telugu (Devudi Bhramalo), and does not seem to be very impressed by the translation:

Inniah, actively involved with centre for enquiry, to promote rational thinking and scientific spirit deserves commendation for bringing out this translation. Those who wish to savour the slashing wit and compelling eloquence of Dawkins must go to the original.

Take a look!