Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy.

Richard-Dawkins-slider-10-700x335

I had been meaning to comment on the controversy surrounding the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) – followed by his disinvitation. But events have moved on – he has now been reinvited but has had a mild stroke so there is no longer any possibility of speaking engagements for a few months.

Many people are concerned about Richard’s health – the news seemed good but you can get a better idea from his own description of the problem in an audio message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words.

He sounds pretty frail to me – and the fact he was hospitalised for 4 days suggest it was more serious than I originally understood. Hopefully, though, he will recover well and be back to his usual speaking programme. That’s of some interest to us in New Zealand as a planned appearance at the Wellington Art’s Festival next month has been postponed. Hopefully, his plan to make an appearance here a few months later will go ahead.

Interestingly, Richard’s doctors advised him to avoid controversy because of blood pressure problems! And he acknowledges that recent controversies may not have help his blood pressure.

The current controversy

It seems this problems stems from Richard’s use of Twitter. Which seems pretty petty because Twitter is hardly a format for reasoned discussion with it’s 140 character limits – and the usually abusive and stupid responses.

A comment I saw said Richard on social media “comes across as petty, insulting and yes, sexist.” Well, I think almost anyone debating on twitter comes across this way. I think he is rather naive to use twitter as much as he does (he refers to twitter in his most recent book – Brief Candle in the Dark – and admits to being in two minds about it). While he appears to make an effort to qualify comments and present logical arguments in his tweets that does not stop people from misinterpreting him (innocently or intentionally) – and misrepresenting him in later articles and debates.

Mind you, basing even a blog article, let alone an op-ed or similar media article, on tweets seems rather desperate of people.

The controversy appears to boil down to reaction to this tweet:

DawkinsTweet

Despite the qualification critics have used the tweet to claim he is misogynist and attributes stupid behaviour to all feminists! It contained a link to a polemically crude video drawing parallels between the arguments of extreme feminists and extreme Islamists – so Richard has also copped the Islamophobia charge too. (As well as a new one on me claiming he is saying that extreme feminists behave the same – rather than drawing parallels).

Faulty generalisation

This interpretation is so mistaken I think only people who are already hostile or desperately searching for something to confirm their anti-Dawkins or anti-male bias would actually fall for it – or promote it. But that is the sort of thing we get on social media – especially Twitter.

Drivers

This is the fallacy of faulty generalisation – or more precisely, faulty induction. Very often resorted to by people with a large axe to grind.

Rebecca Watson is one of Richards most vocal critics. She is very hostile towards the regard that many sceptics and atheists have for Dawkins, recently writing in her article Center for Inquiry Merges with Richard Dawkins & His Twitter Account:

“In conclusion, the skeptic/atheist sphere is an embarrassing shitshow and the organizations will continue polishing Richard Dawkins’ knob until he dies, at which point he will be sainted and his image will be put on candles and prayed to in times when logic is needed.”

(People who find fault with Richard’s tweets should really apply their critical and analytical skills to that sort of anti-sceptic, anti-atheist, vitriol.)

In her article commenting on the NECSS disinvitation, NECSS Dumps Richard Dawkins Over Hate Tweet, she wrote:

“Let’s hope that Center for Inquiry and other organizations take similar steps to distance themselves from Dawkins’ hateful rhetoric.”

So, she has added “hate speech” (or “hate rhetoric”) to her list of Richards failings.

(I must be careful here as some people argue that the terms “hate tweet” and “hate rhetoric” are not the same as “hate speech” – rationalisation by mental gymnastics in my opinion.)

I can’t help feeling there is a lot of bruised ego involved there – but lets stick with her logical fallacy. I have criticised her in the past for committing the fallacy of faulty generalisation. In that case her use of valid cases where studies in evolution psychology amounted to very poor science and bias confirmation (pop-psychology) to attribute that problem to the whole field of evolutionary psychology. See Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychologySceptical humility and peer review in science and Sense on evolutionary psychology  for the details.

I was critical because she, and some of here allies, were demonising a whole scientific field because of the obvious faults of just a part of it.

Professional jealousy

Professionals, like any other human, often suffer from jealousy of other professionals. And this is particularly true in attitudes towards scientific popularisers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan, and many others. Hell, I have seen it many times in my own scientific community when a colleague gets media coverage.

Massimo Pigliucci has for a long time exhibited this sort of professional jealousy, often being unable to hold himself back when even a distant opportunity arises to have a biff at Richard. He has a Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction to the word “Dawkins.” So, not surprisingly, he has commented on this recent fiasco in a very long blog article – Richard Dawkins.

Massimo in this article describes his relationship with Dawkins as “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” – but he is being disingenuous. Colleagues “who disagree on a number of issues” (and shouldn’t we all be described this way) do not build campaigns on that disagreement. Perhaps we should look to Dawkins as an example of how reasonable “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” should treat that disagreement in public – with personal respect. I have yet to see any personal invective for Massimo from Richard.

In summary, Massimo argues that Dawkins has no original work in his field (except “memes” – which to Richard was simply a passing speculation), is “utterly” ignorant about important biological concepts and has a “hopelessly limited” view of biology.  Massimo  criticises the gene-centric view of Richards first book The Selfish Gene and finds The God Delusion “simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.”

Most of all, Massimo bridles at the occasional media portrayal of Richard as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” Perhaps Dawkins also bridles at that description as it is rather meaningless – there is a media tendency to label any scientist they cover as a “leading” or “top” scientist (and that often causes jealousy among colleagues).

My point is that Massimo comments seem motivated by professional jealousy, rather than any real concern about the sceptic/atheist “movement.” He is being unprofessional to carry out a personal public campaign in this way. And he ends up looking foolish for that and his identification with the NECSS blunder (I have not seem any comment from Massimo on the later reinvitation which attempted to correct that blunder.)

A critical minority?

I don’t want to give the impression that all the reaction to Richards tweets has been negative – far from it. Here is a long blog article from Michael Nuget, chairperson of Atheist Ireland. – NECSS should reconsider Dawkins decision, made in haste without full information It’s worth reading and probably gives a more representative assessment of the issue but, for reasons of space, I won’t comment on it here except to quote this significant passage:

“This is the fourth recent controversy involving activists having speaking invitations withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin both withdrew invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims. And Saint Dominic’s College in Dublin withdrew an invitation to me, citing fears that my talk would undermine its Catholic ethos.

After being asked to reconsider, each of these three institutions reinstated the invitations, with Warwick Students Union publicly apologising to Maryam. All three talks have since gone ahead successfully. I hope this article will help to persuade NECSS to follow the example of these other bodies, and revisit their decision based on the skepticism that they promote.”

Well, I guess  we now have 5 recent examples of disinvitations under pressure from biased pressure groups, followed by organisations coming to their sense and reinstating the invitations.

See alsoSam Harris’s audio comment on the fiasco.

What about responses from Richard Dawkins

I think Dawkins handled this issue very well – even wishing the organisers a successful conference after their disinvitation (made rudely by public statement, not personally to Richard):

“I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and scepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

In his later oral message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words – Richard revealed his invitation had been reinstated and politely expressed his thanks and gratitude, even though his health now prevents him taking up the invitation (or reinvitation).

Here are the full texts  of the NECSS formal reinvitation and Richards response:

From the NECSS executive committee, February 14, 2016:

We wish to apologize to Professor Dawkins for our handling of his disinvitation to NECSS 2016. Our actions were not professional, and we should have contacted him directly to express our concerns before acting unilaterally. We have sent Professor Dawkins a private communication expressing this as well. This apology also extends to all NECSS speakers, our attendees, and to the broader skeptical movement.

We wish to use this incident as an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion of the deeper issues implicated here, which are causing conflict both within the skeptical community and within society as a whole. NECSS 2016 will therefore feature a panel discussion addressing these topics. There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity. We have asked Professor Dawkins to participate in this discussion at NECSS 2016 in addition to his prior scheduled talk, and we hope he will accept our invitation.

This statement and our discussions with Professor Dawkins were initiated prior to learning of his recent illness. All of NECSS wishes Professor Dawkins a speedy and full recovery.

The NECSS Executive Committee

Richard’s Response:

Dear Jamy,

Please convey my thanks to the entire Executive Committee for their gracious apology and for reinviting me to the NECSS conference. I am sensitive to what a difficult thing it must have been to rescind an earlier, publicised decision. I am truly grateful. Politicians are regularly criticised for changing their minds, but sceptics, rationalists and scientists know that there are occasions when the ability to change ones mind is a virtue. Sympathy for the victim of a medical emergency is not one of those occasions, and I therefore note with especial admiration that the Executive Committee’s courageous and principled change of mind predated my stroke.

That stroke, however, does make it impossible for me to accept the invitation, much as I would like to do so. I shall especially miss the pleasure of an on stage conversation with you. I hope another opportunity for that conversation will arise. I wish the conference well. May it be a great success. You certainly have managed to put together a starry list of speakers.

With my best wishes to you and the whole Executive Committee

Richard

Richard’s refusal to be pulled into a silly tit-for-tat online – with all the usual charges against the other side – reinforces my favourable opinion of him. He is not prone to extremist positions or personal infighting. I suggest that he comes out of the little tiff well – even if he did make some mistakes on his twitter account (and who doesn’t). In contrast, his critics have exposed their unreasonable and extremist attitudes and NECSS has ended up with egg on its face – unable to resist bullying from these extremists. Let’s hope similar organisations do not get caught in the same trap.

Finally, I welcome the NECAA organisers decision to include a panel discussion on these issues in its conference. As they say – “There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity.”

Let’s hope that they do not abandon this plan just because Richard is unable to take part. The issues of cyber-bullying and use of labels like “sexist,” “misogynist” and “islamophobic” to shut down important discussion should be dealt with. These issues – the ability to discuss topical problems and those problems themselves – are too important to ignore. Hopefully, organisers will find a person (perhaps Michael Nugent?) who is brave enough to stand up and speak openly and honestly about them.

As Richard would have done.

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24 responses to “Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy.

  1. Joy, your advert is completely irrelevant to the post and I have treated it as spam.

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  2. Stuart Mathieson.

    Frankly I’m not surprised Prof Dawkins has had a stroke. These public encounters available on u-tube must be taxing indeed. If there’s a flaw in his mo it’s his dedication to the idea that facts and reason will change beliefs. Psychology of religion shows this not to be the case. Much the same can be said for anti-flouridationists, ant-vaxxers, anti GE and industrial and commercial electromagnetic radiation.
    There is clearly an element of anti male sentiment among some women intellectuals who seem to resent a singleminded scientific approach as it demeans (they believe) “other ways of knowing” whatever that means?
    This sentiment is popular with those who think all opinions are equally valid. Well afraid they’re not. Everyone has an equal right to an opinion but that does not make the opinions equally right. What enrages Dawkins (and me) is the cavalier way these people and apologists in general swan from the literal and the metaphorical whenever it suits. I also condemn the broadcasters who pit Dawkins alone against a stacked panel and he is silly to agree to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ken, as a regular reader of Open Parachute, I must include you in the same light as I do Richard. You both have the same calmness needed when dealing with religious apologists and mental midgets. Thank you for your level-headed approach to life’s problems and may the force be with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your kind comments Robert.

    Stuart, I think this perverted “anti-male” sentiment has also gripped some men as well as women. So many of the male anti-Dawkins commenters are pushing the myths that Richard is sexist, supports rape, etc.

    This issue just illustrates to me, again, that even so-called sceptics/atheists etc., are prone to irrational thinking. Just to claim the name sceptic or rationalist does not guarantee one is safe from simplistic, emotional and demagogic arguments.

    On this particular issue, I have commented on 3 atheist/sceptic facebook groups. After an exchange involving 2 comments on one, I was deleted and banned from the group. In another local group I have been subjected to extensive bullying and harassment. At the moment, there appears to be some sort of attempt to exclude me. Thankfully, on a third local atheist group, my comments were accepted without any hostility.

    I guess this illustrates how group-thinking prevails in such communities and they end up effectively operating in internet silos.

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  5. Stuart Mathieson

    Agreed Ken. The fallacy of generalisation as you remarked earlier is a constant pitfall to us all. A group that happens to be female (or feminist) is not the same as the female (or feminist) group per se. Likewise the male of the species. I sometimes indulge myself in some playful mischief around the Otago campus. I hold the door open for a female and as if anticipating the accusation of “non contact rape” I explain I am not pedistalising the woman but under the second law of thermodynamics hoping to extend the life of the universe.

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  6. Stuart,

    When a woman has previously objected to me holding open a door for her, I explained the reason was not because she was a woman but because I was a gentleman…

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  7. Commenters should be aware that sometimes they get discussed behind their backs. Picked up this yesterday from a Facebook page (I won’t link to it so as not to give traffic to such infantile discussion).

    I went back there to have a look at the comments, and this one caught my eye:
    “Agreed Ken. The fallacy of generalisation as you remarked earlier is a constant pitfall to us all. A group that happens to be female (or feminist) is not the same as the female (or feminist) group per se. Likewise the male of the species. I sometimes indulge myself in some playful mischief around the Otago campus. I hold the door open for a female and as if anticipating the accusation of “non contact rape” I explain I am not pedistalising the woman but under the second law of thermodynamics hoping to extend the life of the universe.”

    That comment just screams MRA to me. Gives me the heebie jeebies knowing that there’s someone like that on Otago campus.

    Rather cowardly not to contribute to the discussion here – but also because of the behind-ones-back demonisation.

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  8. Also, there has been an article debating mine on Siouxsie Wiles blog – and some discussion there. http://sciblogs.co.nz/infectious-thoughts/2016/02/18/are-feminists-really-bullying-richard-dawkins-a-response-to-ken-parrott/#comment-148377.

    So the discussion is now on SciBlogs (my blog is syndicated there). I think discussion will be a bit more respectful there (and here) than it is on some Facebook groups at the moment.

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  9. Commenters should be aware that sometimes they get discussed behind their backs.

    That’s despicable behaviour, The anti-vaxer, anti-fluoridationist and all-round kook, attorney James Deal of Fluoride class action scam ran a series of blogs doing the same to commentators here, without the courtesy of alerting them to allow the right of reply.

    The creep.

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  10. HappyEvilSlosh

    Before people get too upset about it being discussed on Facebook they should know the conversation started there and quite some time later Ken tried getting people to move it to his blog. People made it clear they wouldn’t be following him. Posts were copied there because people didn’t want to play along in his games. The thread is in an open group and can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/nzskeptics/permalink/10153324120342761/

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  11. Josh, there is absolutely no need to hide behind a mask here. If you are prepared to use your name on Facebook, what scares you from doing so here?

    Thanks for informing me the Facebook group is open – I thought it was the other closed group. I must admit to being surprised that an open group like this would have such a limited participation in this particular discussion – although maybe the issue does scare many people away.

    Your description of my invitation to people to read my article and mention that comments were welcome is rather jaundiced. Come, on – you have plucked up the courage to comment here and it hasn’t hurt – has it.🙂

    As I said, I am happy to continue discussion on the Facebook page if there is anything rational left to discuss – but I did not want to once again get sucked into a personal abusive merry go round which avoids the real issues. Other people were commenting on the childish level it had descended to. And I do notice that that so-called “discussion” seems to have died down as there is no longer someone to pick on and accuse of “polishing Dawkins’ knob.”🙂

    The discussion has moved on to blogs here and on SciBlogs and I think it will be better for it. You and your mates are of course welcome to participate in either place but please do not interpret that as me nastily getting people to “move away” from your internet silo.

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  12. HappyEvilSlosh

    I’m not hiding behind a mask. HappyEvilSlosh (or sometimes shortened to jush Slosh) is my preferred tag when interacting online. It’s Facebook forcing me to use something different rather than the other way around.

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  13. HappyEvilSlosh

    *just Slosh, too many h’s.:/

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  14. Stuart Mathieson.

    Problem with the “gentleman” argument is that some young women interpret that as patronising. I was brought up to do that as school boy and (stand in buses) and old habits die hard. I don’t race ahead to open doors unless it’s for a frail or disabled person ( of either gender) but it is bad manners to allow a door to close in someone’s face. Around the campus we have many automatic and push button door openers which surprisingly few people have the brains to use as several can pass with one “press” and as I suggested, let’s all reduce entropy!

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  15. Whatever, Josh. I just find that when people do not use their name without a good reason (and yes there are good reasons not to) I find it hard to consider their arguments or intentions as credible.

    Unless, of course, the content of their comment shows otherwise.

    The anti-fluoride people are well known for commenting use false names or no deplumes – most probably because they are subconsciously ashamed of their abusive comments or poor logic.

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  16. Stuart Mathieson.

    Ken. I think trolls use different non deplumes because they haunt a variety of issues and a comprehensive profile would be very revealing.

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  17. All rather immaterial now as I have been removed from the group.

    Didn’t one of the Marx brothers have a quote which could be fitted to this situation – perhaps with a little modification.🙂

    So that means that I have commented in 3 sceptic/atheist groups on this issue and been banned from two of them!

    I can now personally relate to Jerry Coyne’s comment “The silence of atheists and Leftists about this kind of behavior is deafening” in his article about the suppression of free speech in some groups.

    The death of liberalism: Goldsmiths feminists ally with Muslims opposing feminist speaker Maryam Namazie

    I think Stephen Fry’s comment about Twitter could also be extended to some activities on Facebook:

    “To leave that metaphor, let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know. It’s as nasty and unwholesome a characteristic as can be imagined. It doesn’t matter whether they think they’re defending women, men, transgender people, Muslims, humanists … the ghastliness is absolutely the same. It makes sensible people want to take an absolutely opposite point of view. I’ve heard people shriek their secularism in such a way as to make me want instantly to become an evangelical Christian.”

    Although, rest assured I am not planning to become an evangelical Christian

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  18. HappyEvilSlosh

    OK here’s the thing, more people know me as Slosh than as Josh. A very brief google search of HappyEvilSlosh will not only yield my real name but also my pre-married name so if I am hiding behind a mask it’s not a very good one. My wife in fact finds it weird when she hears people call me Josh (as sometimes happens in professional capacity). if it’s good enough for her you can surely deal with it.

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  19. Josh, you seem to have some sort of hangup.Why persist otherwise.

    I have only made 2 points on this.

    1: I find people who use non de plumes or hide behind an obviously false name (and they abound in any list of comments on the issue of community water fluoridation) actually don’t do anything for their credibility. It’s like a scientist trying to write a paper for publication, using an obviously false name and no affiliation. Such a paper would probably not be accepted for publication pourely for those reasons.

    I have qualified this by pointing out that some people do have excellent reasons for preferring anonymity – but these people usually make reasonable or substantial comments

    2: You already use your name in one forum where you attacked me (accused me of “polishing Dawkins’ Knob”) and I would have though it only honest to be consistent rather than pretend to be someone else.

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  20. Thanks, Austin. I met PZ at the 2010 Atheist conference in Melbourne and really liked the guy. So sad that he has descended into such a situation where he must indulge in character assassination like this. All reason has flown out the window.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. HappyEvilSlosh

    1. Your blog is a far cry from an academic journal. I’m unclear why you think the same standards should apply.

    2. I’ve also argued with you under the name HappyEvilSlosh so it seems to me if I’d used Josh here you could just as easily have accused me of pretentending to be someone else.

    Anyway, I’ve already posted more than I intended to. I’ll let you get back to your… whatever.

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  22. Josh, I don’t for a minute suggest the same standard for my blog – I am just indicating to readers what the use of a non de plume or false name leads me to think of the commenter – if they don’t have any real substance to their comments. I can understand completely why some genuine commenters can not use their names.

    It is irrelevant what name you had used – except in this specific situation when you had used a particularly bad term of abuse against me using one name and then came here “all innocent” using another.

    All I ask is consistency and honesty.

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  23. Stuart Mathieson

    Just had an interesting discussion with a young man about weather and climate change, tsunamis and the scary film Interstellar. He earnestly informed me a Chinese map dated 1451 shows the poles with no ice. “Water is amazing stuff” he said. “We are largely made of it and it is one of the oldest things in the universe and it has memory. That’s right memory! That explains the placebo effect!”
    “Ah” I said. “Homeopathy!”
    “That’s right” he said. “Mother practices it. She doesn’t charge because she knows some people don’t believe in it!”

    I changed the subject.

    Like

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