10 August 2013

Has Richard Dawkins finally dug a hole that's too deep?

I would have thought that Richard Dawkins had learned something from Sam Harris' mistakes over the past decade.  It would appear not.

Harris' continuing mistake is that he simply fails to understand what is wrong about profiling specific targeted groups of human beings, doing his best to say that he's not crossing any lines by lowballing with straw men containing “racial” or “ethnic”.  And each time he does, there is a collective slap across the globe as faces are buried into palms.  And, like that oil leak that BP couldn't put out in the Gulf of Mexico, he keeps spewing this crap out.

Instead of learning from this, Dawkins has been re-iterating the same tired old arguments as Harris that causes people to think that he's using atheism as a Trojan horse for racism.

Now, I have to say that I'm quite a fan of Dawkins.  I rather liked the Selfish Gene, and even though I had issues with certain parts of The God Delusion, I still thought it was excellent.  But what I find frustrating is that Dawkins doesn't appear to understand where the line has been crossed.

I don't think that Dawkins is a racist.  However, I do think that he has a problem, and the events of the past couple of days should be setting off alarm bells.  And, unlike Dawkins,  Harris seems to get away with it, if only because he seems to have a touch of the Sheldon Coopers to him.

Dawkins has been in the news in the last couple of days, having lost what appears to be his rationality in a series of posts where it appears that he's happy to resort to the odd logical fallacy to make his point.  Which appears to be this:

You (muslims) are intellectually inferior to those of us who went through Trinity College, Cambridge. So ner ner ni nerr nerr.

And after he'd dug a nice hole for himself on Twitter, he kept digging.

Check this out:

Dawkins conflates correlation with causation here:
Then this.

Fine, but the 'intriguing fact' is that I'm not aware of him ever comparing the number of Nobel Prizes from Trinity College to anyone else before now.  He was called on this and had the chance to compare it to people from, I dunno, Australia (or anywhere else) and he didn't.

Everyone piled in.  Even atheists who hold Dawkins up as some kind of, um, something, disowned him.

He kept going.  It was not long before tried his ludicrous straw man about Islam not being a race, which you knew was coming.  And, given that a lot of these arguments have been so completely pwned in Harris' case, perhaps it was understandable that something of a tsunami of criticism washed over the internet.

But Dawkins has responded on his RDFRS website, noting that, in his humble opinion, it is a 'storm in a teacup'.  Here, Dawkins acts as if nothing is wrong and continues to lance straw men as if nothing is out of place.  Here is his FAQ:

You’re a racist (actually usually written as “Your a racist”)

Dawkins response is to point out that Islam is not a race.  This is a straw man, and makes it look like Dawkins is trying to get off the bigotry charge on a technicality.  It's worth pointing out the following to this, but I'll make it clear from the offset that I am not accusing Dawkins of the following:

  1. If you wanted less brown people in the UK and most muslims were brown, and quite a lot of brown people were Muslims, it quickly becomes a no brainer to seize upon the lowest common denominator.
  2. It's very easy to then resort to this defence if even only one white person was a muslim.

Charges of racism are not clear, given the information three questions below.

He could use this response with “ethnic group” in place of “race”.  Sam Harris did.  But at the end we, as a human race, are narrowing down the number of things we can use to discriminate en masse against other groups of human beings.  Dawkins appears to be arguing for retention of any of these methods of categorisation.

Note that Dawkins draws attention to the misspelled “your” - an implied ad-hominem attack on the intelligence of the poster of such a remark.

Lastly, Dawkins point about how one can convert or deconvert to or from a religion must be viewed as irrelevant, given the points above.

But aren’t Jews a race?

Dawkins says no, thereby implying that anti-Jewish sentiment is fine and dandy for all to have fun with.  He then goes on to make the astonishing comparison about how many Jews have won Nobel Prizes.

So why Muslims?  Why Jews?

Why not Indians or Chinese who are predominantly not Islamic nor Jewish? He's already compared Trinity College to the US, Britain, Germany and France.

Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.

Even though the term “race” is used technically incorrectly, everyone knows what it means through its common or everyday usage.  Dawkins dismissed this argument, but was wrong to do so.


Very simply, although sociologists have gone about this in a clumsy way, the end result is the same: We all know that by grouping people under arbitrary headings and assuming the same thing of each and every one of them, we're doing the same thing as if we were doing it based on race, gender or anything else.

Dawkins once again advanced a straw man, that the dictionary definition of race is supreme and that he will be following this.  The common usage of race where it applies to muslims in this context is more a marker for the types of arbitrary categorisation that sees strict dictionary racism as taboo, but other categorisations considered to be quite alright.

Ironically, “common” usage is one of the excuses that Dawkins gives for dismissing this.  This, in itself, is telling.

OK, maybe you aren’t strictly a racist, but most Muslims have brown skins so you are in effect a racist

Dawkins handles this semi-correctly, pointing out the large number of brown people who are Hindus or Sikhs.

But this response is irrelevant.  In this context, again, despite peoples' incorrect usage of it, we're talking about another group of people, with different customs and different naming protocols, etc.

Dawkins is wrong to dismiss the 'brown people' aspect of this so readily.  People who “Islam” as a screen for some atrocious racism is widely documented and I consider it to be irresponsible for Dawkins to not even acknowledge its existence.  It doesn't help when he's noted as having endorsed views of the likes of Pat Condell and Geert Wilders in the past.

Wilders, in particular, has latched onto the alleged “Islamisation of Europe” and, no coincidence has toned down references to Arabs, Africans and others accordingly.

It's this point where Dawkins should be making a statement that disowns Wilders and the like using Islam as the stalking horse for immigration generally.  But he doesn't do that.

OK, you aren’t a racist at all, but you are a bigot, giving needless hurt and offence

Dawkins defends himself on “undeniable fact” grounds.  This is where he appears to be relying on readers conflating correlation and causation.  Again, why not quote the “undeniable fact” about the fact that China, a country with nearly 1.5 billion people has less Nobel Prizes than Denmark, a country with a little over 5.5 million people.

The thing with “undeniable facts” is that they can still be cherry-picked, which is precisely what Dawkins is guilty of here.  It's a little wrong to be promoting your use of “undeniable facts”, when one is clearly disregarding certain others.

Dawkins is not at all convincing here, and he knows it.

Well, quoting an undeniable fact may not be bigotry in itself but you left an offensive, though unstated, implication dangling on the end of the fact

Dawkins response is this:

You may be reading in an implication that I didn’t intend.

Obviously, this is total bullshit.  Dawkins goes on to try to say that this is about education standards in Islamic countries, but given the overriding poverty in Islamic countries (and the fact that he hasn't, for example, also compared Nobel Prizes awarded to sub-saharan Africa) is more likely to be  the cause of this, you have to also call him out on specious reasoning.

Someone else called him for not comparing the number of US Nobel laureates where the US is riddled with creationism and homeschooling.  He was caught with his pants down on this.

Cambridge University, like other First World Institutions, has economic advantages denied to those countries where most Muslims live.

I really should read ahead.  Dawkins doesn't even try to address this one.  Maybe he has spotted the poverty in his arguments.

Trinity College is a Christian foundation. Its full name is “the College of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity”.

Dawkins makes up something about Christianity having moved on since the college was founded in 1546.  As he knows only full well, it hasn't in a lot of respects and may, in actual fact, have de-evolved in areas such as abortion, tolerance of homosexuals and creationism.  This answer moves well past disingenuous and is very, very close to dishonest.

Muslim scholars gave you algebra and alchemy

He acknowledges a golden age here.  He understandably thinks taking ownership of alchemy is risible, but even he would acknowledge that the study of chemistry wouldn't have arisen in a vacuum.

He asks, where did this golden age go?  It's quite staggering that, as a British citizen, he doesn't know the answer to this.

How many Nobel Prizes has Richard Dawkins won?

Dawkins again:

This is getting silly, it really has the scent of desperation but it was tweeted remarkably often. I am one person, Muslims are 1.6 billion.

Actually, I would consider this to be clean bowled.  The “scent of desperation”, if there is one, is the one that Professor Dawkins is smelling oozing out his own orifices.

How many Nobel Prizes have been won by atheists?

Dawkins expresses interest in the answer to this, but is unable to provide one himself.  The rest of the answer veers off into irrelevance.

Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Prize. That just shows how worthless they are.

Dawkins gets into special pleading about the Peace Prize being different.  You can't just change the rules as you go along.

Your (sic) a dick.
I’m an athiest (sic) but you make me ashamed to be an athiest (sic).
Your (sic) a disgusting piece of shit

It's beneath all of us to feed the trolls.  It's also beneath Dawkins to put these in.

Yes, they're idiotic, but this is precisely Dawkins' point in including them: I'm pretty much convinced that this is an ad-hom designed by the author to make the reader think that critics of Dawkins must all, surely, be stupid.

What Dawkins needs to do to have any credibility back, is to realise that he's putting precisely the wrong idea out there.  And he needs to do this publicly.

One of my tweeps remarked that he's like a technically gifted musician who doesn't "feel" the music.  I think that this is unduly harsh and may be more applicable to Sam Harris, but it's up to Dawkins to fix this perception, before he starts to lose his audience.


taj said...

IMHO Dawkins has always been this tone-deaf with his arguments. The atheism movement has been so bereft of outspoken leaders that his most egregious bullshit has been mostly glossed over. Until now, of course - dude just kept digging and eventually it just got too much to ignore.

It's one thing to be perceived to be punching "up" (the predominantly wealthy/western upper echelons of the Christian institutions), but when you start punching down (relatively poor brown people) suddenly it doesn't seem so brave.

On top of that, the Selfish Gene "meme" is itself appearing to have outlived its usefulness.

Dikkii said...

Very correct, of course.

That Selfish Gene link you posted was excellent reading by the way. I really enjoyed that. Thanks.