Richard Dawkins – man of literacy (you only need the special key)


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.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
This entry was posted in evolution, richard dawkins, Stephen J Gould and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Richard Dawkins – man of literacy (you only need the special key)

  1. The non-overlapping magisteria argument has never appealed to me, We only have one life, one physics, one biology, and you can’t divide it into non-overlapping compartments.

    I do believe, though, that science can say nothing useful about religion, just as it can’t say anything useful about sky pixies. And I believe that religion has nothing useful to say about anything. We have just seen, yet again, the ghastly effects of blind religious beliefs.

    I don’t go on about it as much as Dawkins because I find it boring and unproductive was to spend time. but I do think he’s a beautiful writer. I’ve also met people whom he has (de-) converted and that is quite an achievement.

    • I actually like the non-overlapping argument – and I agree science has nothing at all useful to say about religion – which is my point. This is what I think Dawkins takes too far. He is a good writer – I’ve read most of his books. I grew up in fundamentalist Christian territory and i think the man’s combat tactics make things much much worse – especially when he starts doing stuff like re-defining ‘facts’ ….

      • Helen Pluckrose says:

        Really? Religious people frequently claim that an all-powerful superbeing exists and that everyone is immortal. I fail to see how these ideas are not scientific questions. Surely the way we find out if things exist or not is science and this is also the way we investigate ourselves.

        If I am immortal and have something like a soul, this is highly significant to my future wellbeing. It is literally life and death to me, much as being told I had a brain tumour would be but even more important because it is about eternal torment or bliss. I would like to understand why this has been claimed and nobody who claims this has been able to give me an explanation. They all give different explanations about different ways to be saved or damned and no-one provides any evidence. Therefore I turn to science which conclusively shows that the ‘soul’ as described by theists as the essence of self which lives eternally, is in fact the brain and it dies when we do. They provide evidence that the ‘self’ is damaged or destroyed when the brain is and that the idea of eternal torture is impossible anyway because we now know that pain comes from our central central nervous system which, like the brain which controls, dies when we do. This enables me to dismiss my fears that one god is real and may torture me for all eternity for not being able to work out which one it is and science has answered a question raised by religion beyond reasonable doubt.

    • I’m more of a Gouldian in this argument in the two senses that:

      i) science doesn’t and can’t per se shed light on religions’ claims about deities and what they ask their followers to do (as David already said) … and;
      ii) I find picking fights with religious people rather unrewarding.

      Having said that, I think we have to be clear that religions should not be allotted special privileged status with respect to the rights of citizens, and I do debate my religious friends (there are some) on the places where science and religion intersect (termination of pregnancy springs to mind). And I largely sympathise with Dawkins in his view that religions get a lot of free platforms/airtime to pontificate about the world, including about stuff that religion has zero special insight into, and that that needs calling out. I actually thought The God Delusion was in many ways quite a conciliatory work for RD, at least compared to some of his off-the-cuff aphorisms and statements.

      On the issue of ‘de-converting’.. hmm. While happy to put the view from the non-believing side, I’ve never set out to talk someone out of being religious, and I don’t think I would try. If my friend is religious, and religion is an important part of their world, I wouldn’t really see it as a act of friendship to actively try and ‘de-programme’ them of it. In some ways, I see that as one of the things that distinguishes humanism/humanists from religions, at least the proselytising ones/people.

      PS As an aside, I know slightly (and David probably knows better) an eminent senior physiologist who was one of Dawkins’ PhD examiners. Said eminence gives a very interesting talk about whether evolutionary pressures truly act on genes or on organisms, and whether that is the same thing.

  2. Chrysoprase says:

    I find this constant Dawkins-trolling somewhat sad (don’t necessarily mean to imply you do that, this ist the first and probably the last time I have been here, just that Dawkins has become somewhat of a soft target as nobody seems to feel the need to defend him, even if the accusations are daft).

    Yes he’s struggling with how to use terminology and when he says that evolution is a “fact” in this one specific context, I think it’s pretty obvious that he uses the word in the sense that somebody would say that gravity is a “fact”. It’s been some time that I read the God Delusion, but what I rembember from his discussion of the believes of dead scientists, I think his argument was that Christians tend to claim the good opinion of people who at best paid lip service to some notion of a creator – often to be left alone or not to be killed. That seems a question reasonable people can disagree about.

    The non-overlapping magisteria argument is one of those meaningless truisms that nobody ever seems to think through. Non-testable means that a god has no effect on the universe we live in (else the existence of that god would be subject to science), so claiming that such a god exists is not even false. What conceivable reason could one have to believe in a deity that cannot have created the earth and cannot have any influence on its reality? Claiming such a thing is the very definion of multiplying entities without necessity, which renders the title of your blog somewhat ironic.

    • Theories and facts are not the same thing though. Gravity is not a “fact” – that apples fall is a fact, that satellites come crashing to the earth is a fact. Gravity is our attempt to explain the facts. Gravity is a good law- but all a scientific law is is something to explain observations and predict future observations. Gravity is an interesting example because Newton’s Laws of gravity have been extended by Einstein and others to include relativity – both of which are consistent with the facts. This is the beauty of science – it can extend and adjust its theories and laws to encompass new facts all of which are consistent with observed data… this is nice.

      Similarly evolution describes the fossil record and common ancestors to many species and is an attempt to explain the diversity of species on our planet. Diversity of species is a fact, evolution is a theory which describes these facts.

      It may indeed be, and often is, that theories are very good. Such as the theory of gravity and evolution, but it does not mean they themselves are facts…

      • Mary B says:

        That’s it: Evolution is a fact AND a theory: historical facts and a theory that tries to explains the mechanism behind the facts that we can see and investigate. That could solve RD’s confusions.

  3. Linda K says:

    Dawkins a man with a short temper and the inability to discuss rationally. Flatly denies he makes a living out of his anti panty books on Atheism so why are they not free with the rest of the mugs key rings etc? He is no better than any other than any fire and brimstone preacher as he does the same thing from a different angle. He blocked me from his Twitter account then set his teenage trolls on me, very sad indeed.

  4. I do feel this is rather like splitting hairs. After all, evolution is just common sense, once it’s been pointed out to you. How could it not be true? And of course now you can observe it in action in bacteria. It doesn’t really take the argument forward to argue about when something qualifies as being, for all practical purposes as sure. The real problem is the lunatic fringe who use “it’s only a theory” to advance supernatural ideas.

    • I sort of see what you mean – but I think the distinction is important as saying a theory is a ‘fact’ implies that it is some sort of absolute truth (this is my impression though to be fair) and scientific theories are not absolute truths – which is the beauty of science is that theories and laws etc are mutable with the input of new evidence. Science isn’t absolutist like religious dogma is. This is why I like Gould’s magisterium argument.

      The problem with setting up an absolute truth when arguing with a creationist – then becomes a ‘I say’ ‘you say’ argument – and is not what science is really about. The better way to argue is to say look here is the data, this is the best damn way to explain it – Lunatic Fringe are going to fight no matter what so I think it behooves us to have as few holes in our arguments as possible…

      thanks for your comments though, as this is a good discussion….

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    I’m half in agreement with David. I agree with him about non-overlapping magisteria, but not that science cannot say anything useful about religion, or that religion can say nothing useful about anything.

    For example, to take one of Austin’s examples (termination of preganancy), if you believe that the fertilised egg is fully equivalent to an adult human, then you also (if you are religious) have to believe that heaven is full of little balls of cells floating around because a large proportion of fertilised eggs fail to implant. This isn’t my original thinking – see Malcolm Brown “Tensions in Christian Ethics” Chapter 9. The other factor that people ignore is that pregancy and childbirth is not risk-free for the mother. Although the risk in modern developed countries is low it is not zero (8.2 maternal deaths in childbirth per 100,000 live births in the UK). So the certainty of death for the embryo needs to be balanced against the probability of death for the mother and where that balance is found depends on the value placed on the life of the embryo.

    At the other extreme, we have Peter Singer, atheist philospopher and friend of Richard Dawkins, who argues that there is no fundamental difference between the embryo, later fetus, the newborn infant and the profoundly intellectually disabled child because none are self-aware (“Practical Ethics” Chapter 4) and goes on from this to justify infanticide (Chapter 7). If this conclusion is unacceptable, I recommend reading Singer’s book and locating the error in his logic – I couldn’t. To me, this means that religion is necessary in society to oppose science-based ideas like Social Darwinism (which some of Singer’s views reflect).

    Instead, I would firmly place myself alongside Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (“The Great Partnership”), where he argues for the complementary nature of science and religion and insists that we need both to fully understand ourselves.

    As far as Dawkins is concerned, I think that it is a pity that he did not take his own advice. Here is what he said in the endnotes to Chapter 4 of “The Selfish Gene” p53 (in my paperback 30th anniversary edition)
    “Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to misuse it.”

  6. Cromercrox says:

    Richard Dawkins has probably done more damage to the public understanding of science than any other single person. There. I’ve said it.

    • aeon says:

      This is so hyperbole that it hurts my eyes. Gives me the urge to troll you a while, but then: who would care?

      Also, let there be kittens.

  7. Helen Pluckrose says:

    But there is clear evidence of science having something to say about religion and of those statements having effects on religious belief. If someone says ‘The world and all life was made in seven days 6000 years ago by a god’ scientists do not say ‘Ah, you mentioned a god, therefore I have nothing to say on your assessment of the age of the earth and biological complexity.’ Science can, does and should respond to religious ‘truths’ which have been held for centuries and the fact that most Christians now accept evolution and have deemed the creation story metaphorical after centuries of considering it literal clearly shows science does usefully effect changes in religious belief.

  8. Helen Pluckrose says:

    I am inclined to think that people regard science as having nothing to say about religion if they either accept a religion in a literalist sense or they dismiss it entirely. If, like many people, you want to understand the world and life and don’t know whether religion or science is the way to do this, its actually very useful to look at religious claims and scientific claims together and it becomes quite clear that science disproves the central claims around which religions are built. Humanity’s original sin as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall from Grace is the foundation upon which Judaism, Christianity and Islam are built – the reason for the need for a messiah and salvation. If science shows, as it does, that the human race was not begun by two modern humans, the central concept of the three great monotheisms are completely undermined. We can see that this is the case by the drive by fundamentalists to deny evolution entirely. Surely they would not do this if they felt that the scientific theory of evolution had no bearing on their religious belief whatsoever?

    • I think most of us in the broadly ‘non-overlapping magisteria…’ camp define the remaining religious sphere much more narrowly than religions do, Helen, so in that sense I agree with you.

      When someone asks the question in that ‘how does stuff happen’ way, I would always given them the scientific answer – science says the earth is billions of years old, and that evolution provides an explanation for how humans evolved which fits the evidence, and so on. The most recent time I’ve had to do this was in the ‘I’m a Scientist’ online kids-ask-the-scientists-stuff round last year. For those not in the UK, info here.

      It was actually a surprise to me just how many of the questions we got from the kids (esp. in ‘online chats’) were stuff about ‘Do you believe in God?’ or ‘Why did God make us?’ or ‘Were Adam and Eve real?’, given that these were science classes/clubs (!). Maybe it was because some of the schools participating in the online chats were faith schools… or perhaps they were just saying it to wind the scientists up…! Anyway, I would have been doing my best to offer science- (so for instance evolution-) based explanations for the big questions – see e.g. here.

  9. I don’t understand your not understanding Dawkins’s assertion that ‘evolution is fact.’ It was clear enough to Gould (‘Evolution as Fact and Theory’ in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes *), who was likewise irritated by creationists’ guileful exploitation of the non-scientist’s definition of ‘theory’ in order to promote the controversy as to its proveableness. Natural selection is the (dominant) explanatory theory. (I’d venture that gravity is also a fact; though we’ve had different gravitational theories.)

    I’ve always considered Gould’s NOMA to be flawed. Kind of contradicts his realisation that creationism is essentially politics, meaning that science and religion will inevitably overlap (here and elsewhere).

    (* Wonder, though, whether he meant the placing of those apostrophes…?)

  10. stephenemoss says:

    I find it interesting how Dawkins has irritated not only the deeply religious, but also the atheist community, apparently because of his strident views and anti-theistic utterances. But I tend to agree with him. And I do think science has role in debunking religion. There is surely nothing more pointless, divisive and destructive than religious belief, and science has to play a role in bringing reason and logic to these arcane views.

    • aeon says:

      I agree. Dawkins is a sophist sometimes, but he’s simply playing religious sophists at their own game. I’d rather have it like this. As long at this keeps them of my lawn, he can play them at their turf.

      Just a sidenote: does anyone remember Stephen Fry getting flak for his attacks on religion, and in particular the catholic church? I don’t. I however distinctly remember a lot of people being quite impressed by his speech @IQ² in Westminster 2009. Both Fry and Dawkins are very eloquently criticising religious belief wholesale, but somehow people seem to be much more forgiving with a former comedian than with a former scientist.

  11. John the Plumber says:

    Hello Sylvia. You are a professional scientist and an amateur plumber – I’m a professional plumber and an amateur scientist – and we seem of like mind regarding the rambuctious Mr Dawkins. – It’s his, I’m right and evermore shall be bit that gets at me.

    Newton, Einstein et al. have done rather a good job with Gravity. There is no widespread controversy over the idea that things fall down, not sideways, because of it. There aren’t hordes of unconvinced critics, demanding that falling down must relate to the blowing of trumpets just because the Bible says so in the walls of Jericho story.

    Richard Dawkin’s demands that evolution is FACT – regardless of the fact that it fails to silence its critics.

    Richard Feynman in The Feynman Lectures on Physics [1964], writing about the conservation of energy, neatly sums the fact concept: – He says, “There is a fact – or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law – it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy.”

    “It is exact so far as we know.” – Our understanding of what makes for a scientific fact cannot be put fairer than that.

    To become scientific fact, any supposition must be accountable to all that is accepted as fact, and without exception.

    If a supposition complies with that condition, then we can say, ‘That seems to be a fact – a law even’ – until someone finds an exception to it, or an unknown further fact offers an alternative supposition.

    Darwin’s supposition was that evolution occurs by slow change – continually and with no gaps – so slow as be almost imperceptible – but that the net result could be seen as considerable change over long periods of time – that in this way, life moved on from one apparent species to the next. – This could more or less match all the established scientific knowledge of Darwin’s day, and any exceptions could be satisfactorily explained away within the limits of that same knowledge.

    Joined-up continual change, with natural selection favouring the advantaged, has been the dogma ever since.

    The fossil record though is mainly evidence to the length of time during which a species has remained unchanged.

    However, the fossil record certainly shows that life has progressed from simple origins to complex forms – but there is no evidence in the fossil record of continual joined-up change. – The fossil record is evidence only of stabilities with gaps.

    Cuvier, fifty years before Darwin, had argued against Lamarck’s ideas of continual change by pointing out that in each geological layer new species seem to appear abruptly and with no sign of intermediate fossils. – Hugh Falconer, renowned geologist, paleontologist and friend of Charles Darwin, said the same thing in a treatise on elephants and mastodons. [1863].

    Darwin was quite aware that the gaps in the fossil record contradicted his joined-up change mechanism – but he was sure that the gaps were the result of the sparsity of fossil finds – not that there was any fault with his continual change theory. – He was sure that fossil hunters would soon find fossils to fill at least some of the gaps.

    A hundred and fifty years of fossil hunting later, no-one has yet found even one small succession of fossils to truly fill just one gap between any two species.

    Surely today we might begin to suspect that the gaps we observe are for real. – If this is the case, then applying Richard Feynman’s thinking, Darwin’s joined-up change evolution fails to account to all known fact of our day. – Then evolution theory has space for a further supposition – that a second NATURAL mechanism to facilitate leaps is required before evolution can be deemed fact by Feynman’s standards.