I try to ignore Richard Dawkins, I really do. I think his stance on religion vs. science is a misinterpretation of how science works – apples and oranges and all that. This week on Twitter, the man had some sort of word meaning argument concerning racism. Alom Shah has written a thoughtful gentle response to this, about the meaning of words and why definitions matter.
Dawkins is also a bit frustrated with his favorite nemeses the creationists… also on Twitter this week:
@RichardDawkins I get so bored by the mindless recitation, “Evolution is only a theory.” Evolution is simply a FACT.
As a card-carrying science enthusiast you might think, wait that’s wrong ! But no it isn’t because FACT doesn’t really mean FACT if you are Richard Dawkins it means this (from the horse’s mouth):
Question to Dawkins: How would you correct the understanding that evolution is a theory?
Richard Dawkins: The word “theory” can be used to mean something speculative and tentative. In everyday speech it probably usually is used in that sense. Scientists very often use it in a much more positive sense. I think the easiest way is to use the ordinary language word “fact”. In the ordinary language sense of the word fact, evolution is a fact.
Right – who understands that, I don’t. Setting aside something being called ‘only a theory’ is hardly an insult, it just may be that Dawkins is just seriously misunderstood – in order to get it you have to read all Dawkins writing through a special code key that he redefines at will to understand the true meaning of what he is saying – he said as much on Twitter (again this week)
@RichardDawkins If I wish to discuss with you, I must make sure I mean same thing by words as you. Don’t have to use a dictionary, but we must agree.
Fair enough, I guess; but it doesn’t really work unless you actually agree, does it? Prof. Dawkins has a bit of a history of cleverly re-defining things meet his particular needs. In the God Delusion (yes I have read it) Dawkins redefines dead scientists as really being atheists – ‘Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply’ (God Delusion, Black Swan (Random House) 1st edition, 2006 p. 35).
He particularly picks on Stephen J. Gould’s Rock of Ages - a book in which Gould (an evolutionary palentologist and an agnostic) explains why science and religion are apples and oranges or non-overlapping magisteria as Gould likes to call them. Clearly Dawkins disagrees with this view, but disagreement isn’t good enough – full submission to Dawkins world view is required. So in the end Dawkins decides that Gould probably, really actually agreed with him or as Dawkins says himself:
I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly mean much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages (God Delusion, pg 81) and decides Gould is strongly inclined toward de facto atheism rather than being a true agnostic, despite the fact that Gould was pretty damn clear about what he did believe. Too bad we can’t ask Gould how he feels about this as dead men tell no tales. So as many dead scientists as Dawkins needs can be conveniently re-baptized as atheists, really. It’s a bit like what Mormons do with their dead ancestors; you know when you need safety in numbers.
Now this, you might could argue, is fair enough really as Dawkins is trying to build his argument about religious belief gaining non-deserved respect from non-believers. Or OK he describes genes as ‘selfish’ but that doesn’t mean selfish like someone who doesn’t want to share their toys. Genes are a different kind of selfish – if you read the Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins spends many pages trying to really define what he means by selfish. I have to admit the man is good with language – but he doesn’t really follow his own advice about the meaning of words and discussion.
Or then again maybe he does and I just don’t happen to have this week’s special key.