Monday, 30 November 2015

The Weird Pendulum Swing of Dawkins' Ideology

When I was in year 11, I read a book called The Selfish Gene, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. It's a great piece of science communication. It inspired me to make a lego DNA model for my high-school biology project. The idea that much of what comprises our identity is contained in this ribbon of code seemed genuinely wonderful, to me.

My Lego DNA model, featuring falling Technics guy

But I have to admit, part of why I loved The Selfish Gene so much is because it seemed a closer linkage to reality than the book some avowedly creationist peers in biology class were reading. It was the same with his later work, The God Delusion. That book wasn't about science communication, but it described a philosophy that I already subscribed to, and put my frustration into words. It also made feel like I had access to an insight that was being ignored by most other people.

Dawkins now seems to exemplify the things that he once called out: namely, succumbing to some internal force that draws you away from rationality, and failing to recognise when bias and the unconscious defence of belief is tugging you in some unpleasant direction.

It's nearly a full decade since I first read The God Delusion. Now, Dawkins is tweeting obsessively about a teenage boy, Ahmed Mohamed, who was recently arrested in Texas for bringing a homemade clock to school, for a science project. The clock was mistaken for a bomb, and Mohamed was arrested:

There's something about that photo that kind of gets to me. The NASA shirt is instantly disarming, and of course, his arrest is indicative of irrational racial profiling - the idea that you can spot a threat by the origin of someone's surname, rather than evidence-gathering and analysis.

Dawkins hasn't discussed the serious implications of Mohamed's wrongful arrest. He's focused instead on the authenticity of the clock, and  is now firmly convinced that the teenage boy removed a clock from its housing and offered that as his own work. Follow the reply threads on Twitter you'll see the regular assertion that the family orchestrated this as an intentional hoax, designed to provoke a response.

It's pure conspiracy theory - the assumption that intentional agents are orchestrating events, rather than a natural emergence of patterns. It's an odd pendulum swing. Believing that expected occurrences are orchestrated by a single organism is one of the things that leads to a belief in, say, creationism - and it's also something that, when combined with Dawkins' genuine hostility towards Islam, leads him to attribute some over-arching scheme to this teenage boy's high school project.

I see this a lot. Senator David Leyonhjelm, who is ideologically anti-government, hates government support for wind energy so much that he advocates for government regulation of wind farm projects - regulation funded by the taxpayer (the recently announced 'wind commissioner' role, requested as part of an inquiry helmed by Leyonhjelm, comes in at $600,000).

This is a standard feature of feeling your way through the world by adhering to pre-determined schema, rather than mulling over issues using your noggin. You will be weirdly driven towards whatever thing it is that you're railing against, and you won't blink an eye when someone highlights your hypocrisy. Guaranteed.

In an effort to refute accusations that he was embarking on a vendetta against a kid, Dawkins awkwardly juxtaposed Mohamed's recently-announced $15m lawsuit with the actions of a 10-year-old boy being forced by an ISIS fighter to decapitate a Syrian officer:

He's baffled and outraged by the suggestion that he was directly equating Mohamed's alleged "hoax" with the actions of the child in the linked article. But his tweet, the reaction and his subsequent defense illustrate an important point that he's never understood: if everyone fails to understand something the way you understood it when you wrote it, you are a bad communicator. Also, there won't be a single interpretation of what you said: context, attitude, sentiment and timing all impact how your message sits inside the brain of those who choose to consume it.

Even if Dawkins' assertions are true, and Mohamed has committed the unforgivable crime of not  manufacturing an electronic timepiece from raw mined materials, Dawkins has fallen deep into a hole of weird conspiracist reasoning. Take, for instance, the classic 'if you don't believe me, google [x]' argument:

It should be relatively easy to spot the error in reasoning, here. You can't determine whether something is real by simply googling it - research is effortful, and often google is used as a tool to find a collection of links that agree with your worldview, rather than a broad synthesis of research or evidence-based arguments. Finding evidence isn't enough - you need to know how to evaluate it:

“Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you"

Dawkins said that in The God Delusion. His plea, to advocate for a greater spread of critical thinking, directly contradicts his newfound attitude: if you don't believe me, just google it.

The clock-trutherism might just be a some sort of ideological defense - the creation of a narrative that negates the threat to his worldview. In this case, it's the preservation of organised religion (and its adherents) as consistent aggressors. It extends to the lawsuit thing, as well. In America, there is a new lawsuit every two seconds, but Dawkins sees the response of the boy's family and declares it part of the conspiracy (that's not to say the lawsuit is a good thing - just that it's unremarkable).

Jeff Sparrow writes in The Guardian about Dawkins' increasingly steep descent into irrationality:

"You can proclaim you’re an atheist, a freethinker, a devotee of the enlightenment – and yet somehow still end up backing rightwing Christians like George W Bush and Ben Carson in their campaigns against the Muslim hordes. 
Which is why it’s not enough to denounce Dawkins and Harris. If we’re to save the good name of atheism, we need to popularise a fundamentally different approach, one that seeks to understand religion rather than simply sneering at it"

I'm not sure I agree with all of Sparrow's piece, but he makes a monumentally important point: injecting a dose of empathy and a time of listening both go a very long way. I'd argue that it's more rational to spend time understanding the gears inside someone's head - what's made them turn to organised religion? Why is someone rejecting the science of vaccination? It's almost never 'stupidity' - it's usually a complex brew of sentiment and cognitive bias - you can't counter it with assignations of ignorance. It's also rational to work towards effective communication. Being right is half the game, not the whole game. You need to be right, and to be heard.

Dawkins prodded me into the very real and thrilling joy of understanding science. But his attitude and approach are leading to increased prevalence of the precise things he's railing against. This pendulum swings with such momentum that Dawkins now exemplifies conspiracist ideation and irrational discrimination.

A confession: my brother helped me make my lego DNA model. Like..majorly. He did all the hard bits, and I just finished it off. Come at me, Dawkins.


  1. How does Dawkins' argument to "just google it" directly contradict his plea to not indoctrinate and to "let your children think for themselves"?!

    1. I thought I addressed this in the post? Google doesn't return results based on strength of evidence; you can confirm any view using the 'just google it approach'. This research explains the phenomenon better:

    2. Yes, you did. You're still wrong and here's why: your claim that Dawkins' use of the phrase "just google it" (which is fair to assume means "just do your research") somehow contradicts his exhortation to parents to let their children make up their own minds, does not make sense. You're claiming that he means the exact opposite of what he said.
      The only way what you're saying could be true is if you know somehow that Dawkins is *intentionally* misleading because he's aware that Google's algorithms have their faults when used as research tools. That's a tall order. I think you may be over-interpreting his tweet.
      Note that I don't disagree with your main point: Dawkins going after this kid is beyond silly. But if you're looking for writing which contradicts his previous humanist positions, you're better off looking elsewhere on his twitter feed. There really is no shortage of material.

  2. The Capgras Delusion shows that the emotional and rational functions of the brain are inseparable unless severed by a brain lesion. In other words there is no such thing as pure rationality in the human brain. We are all subject to error. We need friends and science for our error checking. Unfortunately Richard seems to have lost his compass.