19 August 2007

Enemy Number One?

Richard Dawkins seems to be at risk of turning into a parody of himself. Careful, Professor Dawkins, the mediocratic media doesn't really like intellectuals, and has a tendency to crudify both the things they say and their (the intellectuals') social image. Also, remember that the media's attitude to celebrities is highly ambivalent. They may build you up, then, equally gleefully, collaborate in tearing you down. Still, at least you're (presumably) making some money out of it all.

Dawkins' latest media appearance is in Channel 4's The Enemies of Reason. But I wonder whether, in his rigid but selective cut-offs between science and non-science, he doesn't come out as an enemy of reason himself.

Dawkins talks about "the rigours of logic, observation and evidence" and emphasises "respect for evidence". Yet he fails to produce evidence for his assertions that there is an "epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking", or that "we live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground", or that "primitive darkness is coming back", or that "every day of the week we're encouraged to retreat into the fog of the superstitious past". Without data showing that (e.g.) an increasing proportion of people believe in astrology, these claims are mere hyperbole.

Dawkins shows an experiment on dowsing which proves to be negative. Like most experiments of this kind, the conditions are rather different from those under which the people who claim it works would normally do it. (Several of the dowsers refer to this point, but Dawkins has little time for these "excuses".) In any case, a single negative result doesn’t prove much. *

Yet the refusal to accept from this one experiment that dowsing doesn't work makes Dawkins feel entitled to opine that the dowsers'

state of denial is extraordinary. Even when confronted with hard fact these dowsers prefer not to face up to truth but retain their delusion.
Is this "respect for evidence"? Or just respect for his own prejudices, and hence not much better than the position he attributes to the dowsers?

Invoking illusionist Derren Brown as a source of support may be revealing about the underlying motivations of Dawkins' mission. Brown is shown deceiving members of his audience into believing that he has contacted their dead relatives. An extract is shown from Brown's programme “Messiah”, in which (according to Wikipedia) "Brown tricks three women into believing that he is in contact with deceased loved ones and many tears are shed. Afterwards it was explained to the participants that it was a trick, and those appearing agreed to broadcasting the event." So Brown has effectively made money (big money, rather than the piddling amounts made by most psychics) out of other people's gullibility, even if he enlightens them after the event. However, Brown is (Dawkins tells us) "a celebrated illusionist but also a sceptic". That must make it okay, then.

Why are many people drawn to pseudoscience, as Dawkins complains? Perhaps because they find the de rigueur reductionism of many contemporary scientists and intellectuals oppressive. In The Power of Life or Death I wrote that
It is easy to despise the alternative therapies industry for being unable to offer remedies which are genuinely effective, and many doctors appear to regard it in this way. However, the situation in which a more sympathetic, client‑subordinated service is only available in a completely emasculated form because of legal restrictions is one for which the conventional medical profession is itself largely responsible.
Perhaps there is something similar at work in science, which proselytisers such as Dawkins would do well to bear in mind. The more you insist that science unquestionably excludes interesting exotic things at the margins, the more you may find that you steer your audience into the arms of pseudoscience.

By being polemical and 'passionate', Dawkins comes across as not much better than the breathless enthusiasts for the paranormal that you get on programmes such as Most Haunted. The pressing, cajoling quality of his voice-over verges, at times, on the embarrassing. Is this really designed to sell science to those he deems 'gullible'? If so, I doubt its efficacy.

The suspicion that Dawkins' aim is to sell a particular worldview, rather than the scientific method, is strengthened by his resorting to political correctness in attacking those he deems 'enemies'. Talking about astrology, for example, he compares it to racial stereotyping in being "guilty of facile discrimination".

On the face of it, The Enemies of Reason is addressed to ordinary people who are insufficiently critical about astrology etc. Dawkins' explanation for the attitudes of such people is that "we desperately want to feel there's an organising force at work in our bewilderingly complex world". However, he has so far failed to show why people who don't need to apply rigorous scientific criteria in their everyday lives should choose to adopt his somewhat selective scepticism. Perhaps he will do so in the second instalment.

More thoughts about Dawkins here and here.

* Please note, I have no views about dowsing.