Oh, Richard

Last week, Richard Dawkins finally came out against racism and sexism. It turns out that, aside from his well-documented feelings about the 800 million or so terribly oppressed Muslim women out there (every single last one of you, by the way, because Islam is a giant monolith that is exactly the same for everyone and it just so happens to be precisely as bad as the worst Orientalist stereotypes that the West can come up with) there is another group whose plight moves the professor to speak out.

I am referring, of course, to middle-aged white male British academics who wear loafers. Or should I say l*s? For to the good Professor, no slur is more offensive than a pair of well-crafted and comfortable shoes.

So yes, there was a palaver, Twitter collectively sighed, facepalmed and snarked their little hearts out (I love you, by the way, Twitter), and Our Richard dug his heels in.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to tell you all of this. Dawkins says something ignorant, it’s pouring rain, must be a summer’s day ending in Y somewhere in Britain and/or Ireland, eh?

See, what happened next was that he, well.. he hit off one of my sensibilities. Check this out:

According to Dawkins, the people uniquely unsuited to educate him on matters relating to human society are… the people working and/or studying within one of the major academic disciplines devoted to the study of human society. Richard goes on to snark endlessly about sociology and sociologists, going so far as to call it a social “science”. Seriously. Look:




A little aside here, which I feel obliged to add. My own background is in sociology. One of the side-effects to working in the social sciences is having to deal with a regular barrage of people from the ‘hard’ sciences (I’d say that isn’t a word coined by a social scientist) who think exactly as Dawkins does: that sociologists, by virtue of being sociologists, are less qualified to talk about society and social science than biologists, physicists and the like. People who have never taken a sociology class in their lives, who know nothing about social theory, research, methodologies (and the reasons behind them), who figure that they somehow know more about it than, well, the entirety of sociology and sociologists. And anthropology and anthropologists (lovely bunch).

You’ll notice that at no point above does Dawkins have a point to make other than poo-poohing the social sciences. He doesn’t have any evidence (aside from the Oxford dictionary) to support his claim that there is something inherently sexist and racist about pointing out his sex and race. He’s engaging in the most ludicrous of, yes, ad-hominem attacks: saying that sociologists can’t educate him on sociology because they’re sociologists, and that sociology isn’t a real science because it’s not.

But that isn’t quite the point I want to make here. I want to point out the sheer hypocrisy of Dawkins’ attitude.

One of the stories I loved reading in one of his earlier books- it might have been the God Delusion, maybe not- was about one of his professors. Who had, for decades, taught a particular side of a particular debate in, well, biology I guess. One day this professor went to a lecture by someone who was able to demolish the case for what this guy had been teaching for decades. The good professor went up to the lecturer at the end of the hour, thanked him, and shook his hand. And then went home to rewrite his course material, because boy was that suddenly out of date.

This is what Dawkins claims to admire.

But there’s another thing. Dawkins himself spends a lot of his time defending his field. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and the world is filled with people without the faintest idea of what either of those things are about who nevertheless dispute the very existence of evolution. He’s as familiar as I am with the phenomenon of people who know nothing about his field disputing even the validity of science itself. Of scientific methods. Of things which have been extensively studied and observed.

You would think that a person who claims to value skepticism and questioning of one’s own biases, and who faces a daily barrage of ignorant dismissal of his own field, would know better than to engage in knee-jerk insults and poo-poohing of fields he knows nothing about.

I sincerely doubt that he’ll ever read this, but if he does, I have this to say: Be a scientist, Richard. Show a little of the skepticism you have inspired in others. Learn about social theories. Understand how they are applied. Learn about social research methodologies and why we study things the way we do.

Because right now, Richard? You may be a great biologist and I’m sure you earned the hell out of the qualifications you have. But not one of them is in a social science. Which means that every person with a PhD, an MA, a BA, or even a year or so of social science modules under their belt is qualified to school you on this one. And if you are interested in science as a tool for learning about the world, as opposed to your position as a tool for beating the opposition, you will sit down, get out your pen and paper, get ready to take some notes and listen.

Oh, Richard
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14 thoughts on “Oh, Richard

    1. 1.1

      Not just a man. A rich, abled, cis white man who has had several prominent TV appearances and bestselling books and therefore knows more than my little ladybrain about ALLTHETHINGS.

        1. Seriously though. The guy would make me embarrassed to be an atheist, if I weren’t lucky enough to know shedloads of sensible atheists who got that ‘skepticism’ meant ‘shutting up and listening to dissenting evidence’, and not ‘making snide comments about anyone you disagree with’.

          1. Agreed. I always feel a little weird saying stuff about Dawkins, but of the Four Horsemen, he seems to be the most intractable, most arrogant (and thatโ€™s compared to Hitchens!) and least willing to accept that he doesn’t know everything, especially when it comes to people who aren’t old, white, able bodied, cis men except in the most abstract terms. I have no doubt he wants to face discrimination against women, for example, but he would rather address the problems he fancies they have rather than the ones that he’s being told they have.

            Give me Dave Silverman or Melody Hensley for atheist leaders any day.

  1. 2

    I don’t mean to kick Dawkins even further, but he’s not really even a “great biologist”. According to my own tame evolutionary biologist, Dawkins has published a couple of papers of some importance but his significance is far more in his popular science writing than his actual work as a scientist.

    1. 2.1

      Why does that not surprise me? Good science requires setting your ego aside and admitting your own probably ignorance ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Also, everyone should have a tame evo bio!

    2. 2.2

      Also, it’s a pity for RD’s pop sci writing that he’s doing things like this. I loved The Ancestor’s Tale! The Selfish Gene was great! The God Delusion was one of my stepping stones to atheism! But after the debacles of the past few years I’d be unlikely to bother reading any more of his work. It’s hard to take someone seriously as an educator when they show themselves unwilling to be educated, y’know?

    3. 2.3

      I think this is unfair and unnecessary. If Dawkins doesn’t qualify as a “great biologist” you’re setting the bar pretty impossibly high. He is an excellent scientist and has made real contributions to his field, as well as done a lot of great popular science.

      I certainly think he deserves criticism for his lack of self awareness and scoffing at other legitimate fields, but his merit as a biologist is real.

  2. 4

    I am a Physicist and I approve of this blog post.

    Or, I could be a total cock and say “Biology? Pfft, that’s just one of the ‘ologies’. Sure that’s not real Science.” How’s that Richard? ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. 5

    What’s with these famous atheists who have such a burr up their rears about Islam? (I also loved “The Selfish Gene” but whoa I have no idea how to charitably approach what this guy is saying here.)

  4. 6

    You remind me of a lovely exchange I read in the collected letters of Richard Feynman. A student wrote to him asking for clarification on a point in one of his books – she had answered an exam question using his answer, and her instructor had given it no points and demonstrated why it was wrong.

    His response? Essentially, that if the logic didn’t support him, he had evidently been wrong, and furthermore the student had been wrong to accept him as an authority in favour of plain logic. “I goofed” he said, “and you goofed too, for believing me. We both had bad luck.”

    Isn’t that superb?

  5. EEB

    Oh dear god. Scare quotes around “science”? Really? Congrats, Richard, you’ve just become every dumbass creationist whining about the THEORY of Evolution that you’ve mocked. (Also, you’re flat WRONG, demonstrably wrong, which is why it might help to, I DUNNO, listen to the EXPERTS who have devoted their lives to studying and teaching this stuff, like you constantly whine about when the topic is in YOUR area of expertise! It might help keep you from showing your ass to the world on a near daily basis.)

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