Category Archives: Dawkins

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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Sunday reading – Richard Dawkins reads some of his “fan mail”

This is a more recent version of Richard Dawkins reading some of his “fan mail.”

Don’t remember much of the first batch he read – but get the impression the language skills of fundamentalists has become even poorer in the intervening period.

Warning – explicit language.

via Love Letters to Richard Dawkins – YouTube.

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Pseudoscience in your supermarket

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Image credit: Blueollie

This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me – Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating  anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience  extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:

“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”

I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.

Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:

“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”

We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?

But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:

“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”

For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains “chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.

In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action?  I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.

One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”

Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.

That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.

To me, that is the message of the poster above.

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The good(?) old days of scientific writing

I recently read the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. It brought back a few memories for me.

The political and trade union battles of the early 1970s in the UK, for example. I was working in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1973-1975. That period saw 3 general elections and massive power cuts. I remember the problems of trying to do research, and even writing, when we only had power for 3 days in a week!

Dawkins took advantage of that time to begin writing the book which established him as a popular science writer – The Selfish Gene.

His description of what writing was like in those days  also brought back strong memories. We wrote and rewrote, with copious use of Sellotape and paste. A few, often considered eccentric, scientists had their own portable typewriters but most of us relied on the “typing pool.” That was an interesting social phenomenon – all female, it reminds me now of the way women were employed to do the tedious calculations for astronomers. They were called “calculators.”

I remember one stroppy typist who just could not understand why I kept rewriting manuscripts. She would often complain – but one had to keep on the good side of people like that otherwise your typing would go to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s how Dawkins described the process:

“I now find it quite hard to comprehend how we all used to tolerate the burden of writing in the age before computer word processors. Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. I have always worked like this. But while a computer is naturally congenial to this way of working, and the text itself remains clean with every revision, on a typewriter the result was a mess. Scissors and sticky tape were tools of the trade as important as the typewriter itself. The growing typescript of The Selfish Gene was covered with xxxxxxx deletions, handwritten insertions, words ringed and moved with arrows to other places, strips of paper inelegantly taped to the margin or the bottom of the page. One would think it a necessary part of composition that one should be able to read one’s text fluently. This would seem to be impossible when working on paper. Yet, mysteriously, writing style does not seem to have shown any general improvement since the introduction of computer word processors. Why not?”

By the way, his book is a good read if you enjoy scientific biographies.

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What’s really true?

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

Here’s an ideal Christmas present for the aspiring young scientist in your family – or someone you would like to encourage in that direction. 


Book Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean

Price: US$16.49; NZ$37.50;
iPad app US$13.99, NZ17.99.
Audio vers. US$ 19.79.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Free Press (October 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439192812
ISBN-13: 978-1439192818

I have posted on this book before (see A reminder of reality’s magic). It’s now available in New Zealand so a review is in order. Fortunately I have had an audio version of the book for a week, have listened to it all and am happy to recommend it. I can especially confirm my earlier recommendation as a sciency book for young people – perhaps a Christmas present.

Richard Dawkins himself says he aimed the book at young people from 12 years old to 100 years old. Younger children may also enjoy it, especially with parental help.

Each of the book’s twelve  chapters are built around a question – the sort of questions young and other inquisitive people ask. “Who was the first person?”, “What is a rainbow?”, “What is the sun?”, “What is reality? What is magic?”, “When and how did everything begin?”, “Why do bad things happen?” “What is a miracle?” and so on.

Most chapters start with the traditional or mythological answers. Some of those will not be new, coming from our own tradition or religion. New Zealanders will recognise a number of Maori or Christian myths. Others will be new, refreshing, intriguing, or even plain silly from our point of view. But, of course, there is no reason to suppose any mythological tradition is any more correct, or of any more value, than another. This helps develop a rational perspective.

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Dawkins’ new book

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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The “dynamic duo” of science?

Well, that’s how someone described them.

But I have generally found the discussions between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins stimulating. I first commented on these almost 5 years ago (see Lawrence Krauss – Richard Dawkins discussion).

They have had a number of discussions recently, in a range of countries. Someone has now put these together in a single movie. Here’s the movie trailer. Looks interesting

THE UNBELIEVERS (2013) – Official Movie Trailer

Thanks to: Dawkins & Krauss making kick-ass new atheism doc

By the way, the movie includes discussions with others too. here’s a description from the YouTube site:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers, including:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

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Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.

Morality

The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.

Meaning

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At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos

Participants in conferences and workshops all seem to use laptops these days. So I find myself trying to establish if Apple or Windows dominate when I watch videos of these meetings. It seems to vary according to the subject. I think Apple dominates at this meeting.

Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

Sean Carroll has announced that videos from the October Moving Naturalism Forward workshop are now on-line (see Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos and Recap). See my posts Moving Naturalism Forward and Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop for more information on the workshop.

There are ten videos of about an hour-and-a-half each. I haven’t watched any of them yet – but plan to get started this weekend.

You can find all the videos at the Workshop web-site.

Sean describes the workshop this way:

The format of the meeting was a relatively small group of people sitting around a table and discussing things. Each session had someone say something to kick things off, but in general the discussion was central, not formal presentations. Participants included Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and me. A good cross-section of philosophers, physicists, biologists, and assorted other specialties. From start to finish the conversation was lively, informative, and at a very high level.

and

Nicholas Pritzker, who helped support the workshop, attended the sessions as a participant. Jennifer Ouellette also attended some of the sessions. Richard Dawkins had to leave early on the second day, due to travel complications caused by Hurricane Sandy. Hilary Bok, Patricia Churchland, and Lisa Randall were scheduled to attend but each had to cancel for different reasons.

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. Episode 3: Meaning

This is the third and last video in the series Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. It’s about “meaning.”

Richard Dawkins sets out to answer the question he often gets asked – “How do you get up in the morning?”

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 3.

Another laid-back coverage by Dawkins. He gives plenty of space to the religious attempts to find meaning but is personally not convinced. I find his own description of meaning in understanding and observing reality, experiencing human art and culture, and appreciating the awe provided by our surroundings, far more attractive.

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