Richard Dawkins Takes The Crotchety Old Man Tactic To Communicate Science To Rick Perry. Will It Work?

By The Intersection | August 23, 2011 12:43 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist, policy analyst and science communications strategist, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process

In response to Rick Perry’s latest comments on evolution, Richard Dawkins has chosen to revert back to the “browbeating approach” to science communication.  Dr. Dawkins has scaled the steps of the ivory tower and disdainfully shouts down at his subjects in his recent post on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog.  In the opening paragraph, he says,

“There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.”

In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication.  I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?

It has been documented here at the Intersection countless times that the problem with conservative white males like Perry is not a lack of education. I’ll have Dr. Dawkins know that Governor Perry graduated in 1972 from Texas A&M with a 2.22 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

The problem is that the Governor, and many like him, subscribe to a type of thinking that embraces hierarchical authoritarianism.  People who participate in this form of thinking are not satisfied with the uncertainty that comes from evolutionary science. They need black and white answers…answers that the existing science cannot provide.

Take for instance this conversation between Piers Morgan and Penn Jillette:

As you see, Morgan is not satisfied with Jillette’s answer of “I don’t know.”  Therefore, he disavows the science and turns to something that gives him comfort so he can fall asleep at night.  People want comfort (especially during these trying times) and if they cannot find it in science, they seek it from other sources.  To insult them is not going to bring them to your side of the issue.

By the time Dr. Dawkins offers his brilliant summary of evolution, it’s too late. His target audience, those who are resistant to the theory of evolution, have already closed off and put up barriers. To continue is pointless. Instead of attacking them, it might be more effective to communicate science in a way that meets their needs.  I do not claim to have yet identified this method.  However, I believe we are making progress in that direction.  In the meantime, for the good of science, I suggest Dr. Dawkins rethink his approach.

Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter, Google+ or read his occasional blog posts at “American SciCo.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Politics

Comments (73)

  1. TB

    Dawkins displays why he’s such an excellent science writer later on in the essay, but you’re right – it’s almost as if he doesn’t remember Neil Tyson’s admonishon.

    And this I found amusing: “Any other organization — a big corporation, say, or a university, or a learned society – -when seeking a new leader, will go to immense trouble over the choice.”

    Maybe in academia…

  2. JHF

    The line ” turns to something that gives him comfort so he can fall asleep at night.” struck a chord with me. When I was much younger, the question of whether the universe was finite or infinite intrigued me so much it would keep me awake at night. Eventually I had to stop myself from thinking about it. Now that I’m old, I realize the question matters little as it’s likely a definitive answer will never been found during my life time.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Jamie
    No. It will not work. Making people more educated does not make them suddenly share our values or worldviews; on contested issues, it just makes them more able to argue and affirm their own worldviews. That’s what the science says, especially the cultural cognition work of Dan Kahan. This paper is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration, although it does not touch on evolution directly
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1871503

  4. Jamie, I think Dawkins anticipated your objection:

    “Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. ”

    A degree is no guarantee of a quality education. Dawkin’s point is that Perry’s stance on evolution proves his lack of one.

    Now, as to whether calling people names, however justified and supported with evidence, is a good idea when trying to win converts to your side, I suggest that there is a time and place for intemperance, just as there is a time and place for more diplomatic language. I’m one of those who believes we need both the hot-headed polemics and the cool-headed rhetorical devices. The trick is to know when to use each one.

  5. Andrew

    “By the time Dr. Dawkins offers his brilliant summary of evolution, it’s too late. His target audience, those who are resistant to the theory of evolution, have already closed off and put up barriers. To continue is pointless.”

    I think you’re right about this, but in the future you might want to take down the several references to your own book “The Republican War on Science” that are two inches to the right of that comment.

    Saying something like that about Dawkins’ methods rings hollow coming from the author of a book that has a cover that is equally as antagonistic. Maybe your book has brilliant insights, but you too have lost your audience before they pick up the book.

  6. ” turns to something that gives him comfort so he can fall asleep at night.”

    in regards to this, all i need to “turn to” for a good night’s sleep is a few hours of sunlight and some good old fashioned exercise.

    in regards to the piece by richard dawkins, his tone is certainly one of exasperation, but hardly insulting. he’s under no obligation to tread lightly here.

  7. The Intersection

    @ Andrew
    I suppose by now you’ve recognized that this is a guest post written by me. As for the content of your comment, I must disagree. There is a difference between insulting the opposition and explaining your differences to the opposition. Who can deny that the GOP has declared a “war on science?” If so, you are denying reality. The Republican party as evidenced by last week’s embarrassing cluster of false representations of science and all out lies (e.g. climate data has been manipulated) have chosen to reject any science that fails to support their economic or religious agenda. To point this out is not equivalent to insulting peoples’ intelligence. In fact, I know for a fact that Chris, myself and most others who make these arguments are open to discussing science and policies that rely on science without engaging in warfare. Unfortunately, that is not the majority position on the Republican side of the issue.
    The point of this article is to make science communicators aware of Dawkins’ failure to recognize recent developments in the science of communicating science.
    Jamie Vernon

  8. John B.

    Dawkins’ purpose here was to persuade his audience of the important of Perry’s denial of evolution, not the validity of evolution. The person who is convinced by authority over reason will not respond to any reasoned message, so Dawkins was not bothering to address them. Instead he was using bolts of fire to rouse people who do more or less believe in evolution, but out of a desire for some resolution to the current economic contraction might be considering compromising their own education and voting for Perry. For that person, Dawkins’ messge was clear. Only an uncivilzied dolt would deny evolutionary theory, and that short term prosperity is not worth the damage that could be done to this country by another uncivilized dolt. I applaud his tone and his willingness to express that sentiment.

  9. A 2.2 GPA in Animal Science? Doesn’t sound too impressive to me. He took ranching as a degree and still only managed a C average?

    I’m sorry, but I am going to have to disagree with you on this. You need people like Dawkins so that people people like you seem palatable to people like them. Sure Dawkins won’t get many converts, but by building a milieu where the beliefs of people like Perry are deemed absurd, it makes it easier for the more moderate religious people to find a middle ground. Without Dawkins, they would find it very easy to ignore people like you.

    Besides, I think that in this case Dawkins is right. Unless the obvious stupidity of the Republican darlings is repeatedly shoved down the throats of the secular conservatives, it is all too real a possibility that those candidates might actually win.

  10. Bob Koss

    Which “theory of evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science …”?

    The Darwin version? The Eldredge/Gould version? Possibly some other version?

  11. Bob K., you don’t accept evolutionary theory. Rather than try to hide that fact, you should just come clean.

  12. Dario Ringach

    Logic, evidence and reasoned debate are the cornerstones of progress, the ingredients of advancement. It is difficult not to be outraged and disgusted when the leaders of our country exhibit such disdain for science and its achievements. Perhaps Dr Dawkins message is not to the opposition, but more a wake up call to other US scientists to stand up when science is under attack. There is little to acknowledge in regards to advancement in scientific communication when the majority of the country rejects evolution.

  13. Gunnar

    The “Darwin version” and the “Eldredge/Gould version” are different models of the idea that the diversity of life on Earth diversified from common ancestors through natural selection.

    Nothing in biology is known to conflict with this explanation.

  14. TTT

    If anyone deserves ridicule and scorn, it’s Rick Perry, and I for one am tired of lazy flat-earther demagogues getting a free ride thanks to our “he said / she said” media.

    Dawkins could have used far harsher terms for Perry, like “murderer of Cameron Todd Willingham.” I’m still waiting for the media to wake up to that one….

  15. A. Cooper

    “Who can deny that the GOP has declared a “war on science?” If so, you are denying reality.”

    . . . who can deny that Rick Perry is an ignoramus?

  16. Belief in evolution is strongly correlated with education, so some aspect of the educational culture has to explain that.

  17. TerryEmberson

    @3. Chris Mooney

    Making people more educated does not make them suddenly share our values or worldviews; on contested issues, it just makes them more able to argue and affirm their own worldviews.

    If they can argue and affirm their own worldviews capably, could it be possible that they have some merit to their arguments? And what matters if the argument, not the arguer, correct?

    I don’t think any learned creationist could support his or her worldview well. They may have polished language, but the argument has been thoroughly refuted by anyone paying attention to the science. That is all that matters.

    On the other hand, issues for which there is substantive debate, such as the severity of AGW or the danger of GM foods, if an arguer is learned or not doesn’t matter, as long as the arguments can or cannot be supported or refuted.

  18. AL

    It has been documented here at the Intersection countless times that the problem with conservative white males like Perry is not a lack of education. I’ll have Dr. Dawkins know that Governor Perry graduated in 1972 from Texas A&M with a 2.22 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

    A little generous, aren’t we? Sure, technically speaking, he doesn’t “lack an education,” but there’s obviously some deficiency in his understanding of the material if he’s got a 2.22. Having seen Perry’s transcript, the only hard science class he took was “Organic Chemistry 11,” in which he received an F. And this might well be the dumbed down organic chemistry course for non-science majors.

  19. Bob Koss

    #11 Robert Little,

    Actually, I do accept evolution. What I don’t accept is Dawkin’s remark I quoted in my prior comment. To call evolution a fact as firmly established as something like gravitational attraction is foolishly over-egging the pudding when evolution has a known scientifically based competing version. If you want science to be trusted, don’t exaggerate when discussing it.

    Edit…
    My intent was to subtly point out there are different versions of evolution, whereas many other scientific facts have only one version. Therefore evolution is not equal in stature as Dawkins asserted.

  20. 1985

    In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?

    Where exactly is the evidence that kowtowing to ignorance and superstition works? You have been asked this countless times, yet you have never shown any such evidence. It is all “research in psychology shows bla-bla…”. It can show whatever you want, that does not mean that never telling ignorant and stupid people that they they are ignorant and stupid is ever going to make them smart and scientifically literate.

    Sure, you can avoid confrontation, but that’s not going to get you anywhere other than letting your intellectual cowardice remain unchallenged.

    It has been documented here at the Intersection countless times that the problem with conservative white males like Perry is not a lack of education. I’ll have Dr. Dawkins know that Governor Perry graduated in 1972 from Texas A&M with a 2.22 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

    You can not be serious. A 2.22 GPA from a third-rate program is evidence for being scientifically literate? It has been pointed out to you countless times that a having a bachelor degree does not equal being scientifically literate (even less so in fields that have little or nothing to do with science), therefore you should stop citing statistics of how people with degrees are more or less likely to do X. It seems to have never made any impression on you. Motivated reasoning indeed…

    P.S. I have wanted to say this for a long time and I will do it here. Applying filters that send a comment for moderation just because it contains the word “stupid” is going too far the PC rabbit hole

  21. The Intersection

    #15 @AL
    “A little generous, aren’t we?”

    Some people seem to lack an eye/ear for my sarcasm.

  22. Will it work? No. Would anything work? No. So what’s the problem?

    By the way, Perry barely graduated. How the heck do you get a “D” in “Feeds and Feeding”?

  23. Nullius in Verba

    “The Republican party as evidenced by last week’s embarrassing cluster of false representations of science and all out lies (e.g. climate data has been manipulated)…”

    Calling it a lie is possibly a bit “crotchety”, too. Maybe a ‘difference of opinion’, or ‘disputable statement’, or some similar formula would be seen as less aggressive?

    It’s just that some people think “What the hell is supposed to happen here? Oh yeah – there is no ‘supposed’, I can make it up. So I have” is evidence that data has been… er… made up. They imagine that “You can’t imagine what this has cost me – to actually allow the operator to assign false WMO codes!!” is evidence that false codes have been assigned. They think that “In other words, what CRU usually do. It will allow bad databases to pass unnoticed, and good databases to become bad, but I really don’t think people care enough to fix ‘em, and it’s the main reason the project is nearly a year late.” suggests that this will cause database corruption, and allow corrupt databases to pass undetected, and that this is not considered unusual behaviour in the CRU.

    While of course other people don’t.

    You see? It’s a simple difference of opinion. Some people think corrupting climate databases by making up data is a baaaad thing to do, while others think it’s excellent science, and aspire to do the same in their own scientific work. And they’ll also tell you everything’s been investigated and we can be absolutely sure there are no problems at all, and that’s not all-out lying either. It’s a point of view – depending on how you define the words “everything” and “investigated”. Or, indeed, the word “problem”.

    Do you see how much more persuasive this less antagonistic approach is? How it draws the denier in to seriously considering the evidence they dismiss? No? I thought not.

    Actually, I rather think Dawkins wasn’t trying to persuade Perry and the GOP. I think he was addressing himself to those in the middle, who disagree with the creationists but who like to be polite and diplomatic about it. He’s trying to break the taboos on saying these things openly, on the grounds that all the diplomatic doublespeak allows it to persist in public life by default, without a fight. It’s not science communication, it’s politics.

    Considered as politics, I think it’s unlikely to work. It alienates as many people in the middle ground as it envigorates. It polarises and coarsens the debate. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to express it, and who knows? Maybe he’ll turn out to be right. Good luck to him, I say.

  24. Sergio

    Readers from the opposite mind arent reading articles by Richard Dawkins. They are too busy being spoon-fed ignorance from the likes of faux news and Rush Limbaugh. These arent the people we are going to reach out to right now, and intellectual cowardice of this kind isnt going to advance our cause at all except make it less interesting to everyone. More people know about Richard Dawkins at least, they dont know Chris Mooney.

  25. Phil

    ONE: If you make claims that can be tested, such as: “To insult them is not going to bring them to your side of the issue.”, I’d like to see the evidence that supports it. I seem to remember a prominent psychologist on a podcast recently mentioning that “belittling” people DOES have an effect on them and CAN make them reconsider their position. I’ll have to look it up.

    TWO: Saying “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus” can pertain to someone’s actions as much as to the person. Therefore, I don’t see it as name calling. It’s simply pointing out an observation (from the accuser’s perspective), that either a person is an ignoramus (or uneducated), or is acting like an ignoramus (uneducated). Either way, it’s a valid thing to say and is not simply name calling for name calling’s sake. If Perry does believe in evolution and is only pandering to his constituents, then he’s worthy of worse name calling than what Dawkins has dished out.

    THREE: Dawkins (and others) seem to be under attack a lot these days by people in “our” science and skeptical community. We should be more supportive and unassuming of each other. We all have the same goals: Spreading science and reason. Yes, reason and civility are traits that we admire. But, a little frustration must be expected considering what we’re up against. Dawkins’ article is the kind of thing that can motivate us and get us off the sofa, or at least spreading the word. Hell, I posted his article on Facebook, and a few people, that I didn’t know were interested in this kind of stuff, shared it to their walls. I think his approach has its place. If you think it should be done differently, go do it. But please allow others, that have the intention of spreading science and reason, which may also be your intentions, do it the way they see fit. As time passes we’ll see who has had the most influence. So far Dawkins is one of the biggest “celebrities” of science and reason, and he’s gotten there using his “methods”.

  26. Marion Delgado

    I agree with your overall assessment. That said, it’s not the utter disagreers that count – because Dawkins is largely correct about them – and about the obvious, tangible, and visible requirement to bash science in GOP campaigns, that’s been noticable and growing since the 1980s. But his comment is silly for the lurkers, whoever they are in this greater context. And they are the target for the shrewd. Not “the choir.” And not the stupid or fanatical.

    The answer to this:

    “How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?”

    Is:

    not very far. Nor would they get very far in something you wrote. The minute they realized you were contradicting The Party, you’d be The Enemy of the dogma and that’s that, regardless of your tone.

  27. Phil

    One more thing: Don’t you find it ironic that you say, “Richard Dawkins Takes The Crotchety Old Man Tactic”? Isn’t that the very same thing you criticize him of doing? He basically said that Perry (and republicans) are “Taking the Uneducated Ignoramus tactic”. It’s the same thing.

    Let’s stop trying to polarize members of the science and skeptic community and get behind each other more. If there are things that Dawkins said that you like, let’s try focusing on those. All this in-house bickering does our movement no good.

  28. I don’t think it was Dr. Dawkins intention in any way to communicate science in what he wrote in the WaPo blog. I think it was pure (well almost pure) political commentary about the state of the Tea Party-ized Republican party.

    I can’t really blame him.

    I think anything less in terms of criticism of the Tea Party and the Tea Party type figures approaches appeasement. They are not very popular as it stands right now anyway. They are just very very vocal and loud.

    Quoting from the NYT — Crashing the Tea Party
    http://goo.gl/3h6CY

    “The Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.”

  29. Richie P

    The problem with this post is that it makes the erroneous assumption that Dawkins is trying to address the science-skeptical lobby as his main target. If instead you read it imagining that Dawkins main target is someone on the fence, or even already on his side then most of your complaints about it aren’t valid. This for me, is a perfect example of what is wrong with the kind of “accomodationism” espoused on this site- time and time again the assumption is made that there is only two sides- the pro-science and the dyed in the wool anti-science, and that the anti-science side is the only one worth addressing. Please remember that there are very many people somewhere between these two positions, and that it may well be more worthwhile talking to them than to the Creationists etc…

  30. “Therefore, he disavows the science and turns to something that gives him comfort so he can fall asleep at night.”

    Ironic! Insults can be both subtle and obvious, and annoying either way.

    That said, it’s antics like these that make me wonder how Dawkins – one of those grand, old, grey-haired white men who like to tell other people what to think – ever got a position as a “Professor for Public Understanding of Science.” Jamie, I would argue that there is but one fundamental flaw in your rebuke of him: Dawkins is not interested in teaching science or increasing scientific literacy. He’s a demagogue preaching a philosophy that dresses itself up in scientific drag to appear more authoritative (that he’s achingly bad at philosophy, and proudly so, is another subject). Other commentors here, those who agree with him, even acknowledge that this is a textbook act of demagogy. I would imagine that his response, besides calling you one of his “fleas,” would be to damn science communication and pronouce victory in the goal of browbeating those whose views are different from his own.

    Regarding the challenge in your last paragraph, I’m not sure that there IS a way to communicate science in a way that meets people’s philosophical and spiritual needs because that is not what science is about. Personally, I think a decent approach is for scientists to be more philosophically versed. They should know their science and, with equal dispassion, be cognizant of and sensitive to how these findings may be interpreted in light of philosophy and theology. They should be conscious of how “data” is distinguished from “interpretation” and prepared to acknowledge the right of other people to make sense of things on their own time. Basically, equip the public to meet its own needs in an informed manner.

    (This is what I try to do when teaching science programs to grade school kids, insofar as it is necessary. Every now and then I’ll have some kid ask me “I thought God made everything,” to which I reply with restating what science says, and then saying how some people interpret this certain ways and other people interpret it other ways, then how I interpret it ["Yes I also believe that God made everything and I believe that science tells us how He did it."] while stressing that this is my own interpretation, and then inviting them to discuss it with their parents and pastors and whomever… Letting people think for themselves, what an idea!)

  31. Brian Too

    I think think the political right in the US is divided into (at least) 2 camps: those that genuinely believe the science is wrong or unreliable, and those who think it is probably correct but that it doesn’t matter at all. And I further think that the political leadership on the right trends towards the latter.

    In this respect I think I support Dawkins. Those who believe that the only thing that matters is attaining and keeping power believe that might makes right. You never gain ground by playing conciliator with a bully. The only way to deal with such people is to call them on their game and stand your ground.

    Think Churchill, Hitler, and Chamberlain. A stark example to be sure (I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that Perry=Hitler), but the general power dynamics are similar enough to be comparable.

  32. GJames

    I see nothing in that paragraph that isn’t spot-on true and am not the least bit worried that creationist nutbags like Rick Perry will take offense. They are hopelessly lost in a sea of fantasy.

    I’m much more interested in people standing up and calling bat guano what it is. There is no reason at all to tread a polite accomodationist line, forever worrying that Dominionists will have their feelings hurt when called out for holding insane beliefs. No matter how delicate you say things, they will remain insane. So let’s be honest and stop with the vapors.

  33. Matt K

    Couldn’t disagree more! Why do we keep soft-peddling people who are shouting at us? What my fellow science geeks seem to misunderstand is that the conciliatory approach is seen as a sign of weakness by the right. Its a sign that you don’t have the firm unquenchable conviction that your point is correct (as they think). The tactic that rules the day lately is : he who shouts loudest wins. I hate it, I think its despicable, but to keep playing softball is insane. The disconnect here seems to be that you think this is actually about science and science education. Its not. This is about messaging and pandering to a base that prefers religion to science.. not is not educated enough to see that science is correct but >prefers<. Its a fundamental choice that more education isn't going to solve in the short term propaganda wars.

  34. A great post — thank you, and I agree: we need to be aware of how to communicate science to the public without alienating a large number of people who are religious. I have a similar post and thoughts on my blog: http://jurassicjourneys.net/?p=1242

  35. Skepacabra

    Republicans hate harsh tones…which is why they love Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Why can’t Dawkins be civil like Bill O’Reilly?

  36. Peter Ozzie Jones

    #19. Bob Koss

    . . . whereas many other scientific facts have only one version.

    mmmm, perhaps you can check out M-theory some time (before the heat death of this universe)?
    NB I made a substitution of “theory” for “fact”, we are not entitled to our own facts!

  37. TB

    @ 29. Richie P said: “The problem with this post is that it makes the erroneous assumption that Dawkins is trying to address the science-skeptical lobby as his main target. If instead you read it imagining that Dawkins main target is someone on the fence, or even already on his side then most of your complaints about it aren’t valid.”

    You know, there was always something wrong with this criticism that I couldn’t put my finger on until recently. Then I realized it’s like a non-denial denial.

    It’s a non-admission admission. It’s fine if his intent is to communicate to a potential audience segment. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean the criticism isn’t also valid – that the message is going to a wider audience and being received in different ways. I get that he’s more interested in a wedge strategy – “us” versus “them” – than in changing minds. That intent doesn’t mean he isn’t also interfering with people who are working to change minds.

    And so if we know that’s at least possibly true, we’re left by what it implies by arguing that Dawkins has a different intent. It not only doesn’t disprove the criticism, it avoids admitting that the criticism is even potentially correct. It skips over that and goes right to an idea meant to justify the original action. But if the criticism isn’t true, there is no need to justify anything, you would simply disprove the criticism.

    “We’re not going to say whether or not that criticism is true, but we’re going to say this to justify what we’re doing. Although, if the criticism wasn’t true and was able to be disproven, then we wouldn’t need to justify what we’re doing.”

    And with this awareness, the idea of different “intents” no longer works.

    As for @25 Phil’s demand for evidence, I would recommend you start by using the “search by category feature” in the side rail.

  38. Bob Koss

    #35,
    Tell that to Dawkins. He was the one that discussed evolution as fact.

  39. Baramos

    I’m really confused, because if I know anything about Dawkins it’s that he communicates this way about religion CONSTANTLY. How is it confusing that he would be like this this time? This is his “thing”. He always uses an insulting, arrogant, condescending tone when talking about religion.

  40. AL

    Some people seem to lack an eye/ear for my sarcasm.

    You were being sarcastic in suggesting that lack of education isn’t the problem? Then maybe I misunderstood your entire post, as it appears you are trying to argue that Dawkin’s approach is not effective or at least questionable. Or is your entire post sarcastic and you really support what Dawkins does? Otherwise, your sarcastic paragraph is out of line with and undermines the rest of your post.

  41. bad Jim

    Evolution – common descent – is a fact as thoroughly established as the age of the earth. Evolutionary theory involves the way it happened, and it’s beyond question that selection is the predominant mechanism. The relative contribution of other mechanisms, like drift, lateral gene transfer and symbiogenesis, is a matter of ongoing study, as are the details of speciation.

    It’s absurd to suggest that the proposals put forth by Gould, Eldredge and Lewontin are in any sense in conflict with Darwin’s basic theory. They fit within the original framework, filling in the details. Darwin was wrong about a lot of things, and how could he not have been? He had no notion of genetics, much less chromosomes and DNA. Nevertheless, his main insight has stood the test of time.

  42. Blamer ..

    1. Dawkins criticises influential evolution deniers because they are objectively wrong

    2. he succeeds in drawing attention to Perry et al for advocating an idea that’s in direct conflict with science

    3. his style is often polarising, particularly for those who remain suspicious of science (not always due to ignorance)

    4. his arguments are compelling to many by-standers, mostly those away from the far Right

    5. many others like Perry will instead dig in their heals, how many seems hard to say

    6. those will perhaps be pursuaded by other evolutionists using different approaches… or perhaps not

  43. Hugo Schmidt

    Right, Dawkins’s style is “polarising” and “insulting”, but long studies to explain how your opponents are not simply mistaken, but mentally flawed, is going to bring them around.

    Terrific.

  44. TB

    And Blamer gives us another nonadmission admission, amongst a whole lot of empty assertions.

  45. GW

    What if God, being Nature, is behind evolution?
    Then both points of view would have merit.

  46. I think a lot of people are missing the point here. It’s not that you’re trying to persuade or educate those against you, it’s that you’re trying to reach the people who don’t believe strongly one way or another. I would suggest there are far more people who don’t pay close attention to this “debate” than those who do. You can only talk with them through constructive outreach, making the issue relevant and accessible, and not giving them an excuse to tune out.

    People without a dog in this fight who might be interested in hearing about this will immediately get turned off by the name calling. There are several examples of this.

  47. @42, Blamer:

    In my experience, it breaks down at #6. As I noted above, Dawkins is one of those class of grey-haired old white men who like to tell people what to think and insult them when they disagree. That class of people cause more damage and diffculty for other people than is commonly acknowledged.

    Other people in the same class as Dawkins – let’s say the late Jerry Falwell for example – project a certain image that, because they are loud and obnoxious, gets associated inexorably with the subject. Fundamentalist Christian televangelists become THE face of Christianity. That becomes problematic for those of us who are non-Fundamentalist Christians who, over and over again, have to explain ourselves to hostile accusers who jump down our throats. For moderate, liberal, generous and intellectual Christians, the Fundamentalists create a poisoned atmosphere that actually makes our lives and our work harder. They impose a Sisyphean task upon us.

    Likewise, Dawkins is not just “an evolutionist”: amongst a majority of the people he goes out of his way to belittle and berate, he is THE face of evolution. That is actually damaging to the communication of scientific ideas. It forces other, more moderate, liberal, generous and intellectual scientists to fight an uphill struggle of disentangling the mess of Dawkins’ philosophy from the actual science. Against an audience whipped up into a fury by his petty IRL trolling, sensible scientists and advocates of science have to waste time saying that those were just Dawkins’ own interpretations and probable mental illness talking and it has nothing to do with the theory of evolution.

  48. tom

    What happens when you die?

    You become maggot food.

    You can avoid the maggots by having your body incinerated. That’s about it.

    Doesn’t sound very pleasant. The best marketing person in the world won’t be able to “sell” you that idea. But reality should not be expected to conform to what people find comforting and pleasant to hear. People should be expected to conform to reality.

  49. tom

    David;

    I understand your point on the name-calling turning people off.

    2 points:

    1; Richard Dawkins hardly engages in any name-calling at all. Since when is “stupid” or “ignorant” a bad word? You can find proper derogatory terms being flung around in any bar in your neighbourhood. Go have a drink, make a list of the derogatory name-calling, and once your back home, compare the vocabulary to any Richard Dawkins speech or book.

    Point 2; imagine Rick Perry publicly doubting the world is round and saying the classroom should teach the Flat Earth theory also.

    HOW can you POSSIBLY avoid making some mention of Rick Perry’s stupidity or ignorance?

    Because once you make such a mention, no matter how inoffensive you try to sound, Rick Perry’s fans will accuse you of being “shrill”, “arrogant”, “condescending” and “aggressive”

    Which is what happens to Richard Dawkins.

    By the way, Richard Dawkins is no longer working to promote public understanding of science, he gave that job up a while ago… so you should give him more room to express himself. But Dawkins at his most “aggressive” is still a more polite and reserved person than my mother on a bad hair day.

  50. I for one thought that Dawkins’s article was quite reasonable and appropriately hard-hitting. This is the least you can say about ignorant politicians like Perry and Bachmann. Plus, Dawkins’s point about ignorance and lack of education being not just tolerated but virtually worshipped among today’s Republicans was spot on.

  51. NixManes

    Being nice doesn’t work because a believer will believe no matter the form of the message. They even like the idea of holding on to a position in the face of opposition, claiming that it’s a “test from god” or some such thing.

    What an article that doesn’t hold back actually does is let others who are of like or similar mind that they are not alone. Many of the world’s non-believers, perhaps a large majority, have been “in the closet” because very few people want to be among the first at making trouble. However, when coherent and motivated leaders step forward, others will more easily get up the nerve to also speak up.

    The mistake is thinking that an article like this is for the hard-core non-believer. It is to me more correctly seen as an open letter, officially directed at one party but actually intended for others. In this way it works, and works well.

  52. 1985

    47. Cory Gross Says:
    August 24th, 2011 at 1:28 pm
    @42, Blamer:
    In my experience, it breaks down at #6. As I noted above, Dawkins is one of those class of grey-haired old white men who like to tell people what to think and insult them when they disagree. That class of people cause more damage and diffculty for other people than is commonly acknowledged

    Where exactly did the idea that grey-haired old white men can not possibly ever tell you anything worth listening to come from? Especially when they’ve spent their whole life studying a subject

    Not that this is even relevant, what matters is not who says what, what matters is whether what they’re saying is correct or not, and whether an idea or view is correct is independent of its source and dependent only on how it measures up against reality. But this is exactly where I simply can not understand the accommodationist position, and this is the reason why I can not possibly call it anything but intellectual cowardice of the very worst kind. Because by refusing to defend the factual accuracy of things, they have already ceded the main battle (i.e. that facts, logic and proper reasoning do matter) and have actually made themselves allies of creationist/AGW deniers/any other intellectual scum. Remember the “You can say that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old but you can not say that it is not 6000 years old” episode….

  53. TB

    @ NixManes said :”Being nice doesn’t work because a believer will believe no matter the form of the message. ”

    “Nice” is a strawman thrown up by critics. Disregard the context all you want, but the bottom line is Dawkins isn’t identified as an atheist philosopher – he’s a “British Evolutionary Biologist and Author.” Click through the link, it’s right there at the top. But, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find out that he thinks also faith is a brain virus comparable to small pox.

    So, like Charles Barkley, he doesn’t get to decide how he and his comments are perceived. But he’s intelligent enough to be aware that he’s conflating science with atheism, and he’s intelligent enough to be aware that there’s been enough evidence presented – at this site and elsewhere – that at least implying that someone has to choose to give up religion in order to accept science makes it a problem for them to accept science – even science like evolution that poses no problem to many religions around the world.

    He’s certainly intelligent enough, but when he says this:
    “Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office.” which doesn’t limit his criticism to Perry and politicians, it’s like he forgets Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words to him.

    From a thread at the Panda’s Thumb:

    ““Persuasion isn’t always ‘Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,’ ” he said. “I worry that your methods” — he turned toward Dr. Dawkins — “how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power of influence.”

    So to state the obvious, for those of us seeking to advocate for science and science education it’s proper and necessary to criticize Dawkins and make sure people understand he alone doesn’t represent science. He advocates for a particular strain of atheism, which has compromised his ability to advocate for science. Which is unfortunate, because he really does have much more power of influence.

  54. plutosdad

    Dawkins was one of the people who turned me away from evolution into the arms of the evolution deniers.
    However, he is also the same person who convinced me that evolution happened.

    So, maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear it, or maybe he really is rude and insulting. Or maybe a little of both.

  55. The Intersection

    Hey guys and gals,
    It’s Jamie Vernon, author of this article.
    Here’s a response I have to some of the commenters here:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/08/25/an-earthquake-of-another-sort-rocks-my-house/
    Cheers!

  56. Chris Mooney

    Jamie takes a fun tone there, but I just want to reiterate, comments that are derogatory, that personally attack, etc, will not be published here.

  57. Childermass

    I usually lean towards accommodation with others that believe differently with myself, but that does not mean that we fail to call a spade a spade.

    Evolution is a fact. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. To fail to state so, is not accommodation, it is both dishonest and surrender.

    And P.Z. is correct that it hypocrisy to condemn Dawkins for insulting Perry while at the very same time insulting Dawkins. Yes, I actually agree with you guys that outright name calling, etc. can often be counterproductive. You might actually consider the same advice while dealing with Dawkins.

    The job before us is very hard: telling the truth forcibly while not turning off people who would listen. How we do this, I really don’t know. What I do know is this: those offended by calling evolution a fact are pretty much unreachable anyways. It is like, in the past, Democrats afraid to call racist rhetoric “racist” for fear of offending racists ignoring that reality that those racists will never vote for them anyways.

  58. Grahame

    I thought he went pretty easy on Perry, personally ;-)

  59. Tom hail

    Dawkins isn’t talking to Perry, Palin, or Tea Partyers. He is telling the rest of the world the brutal truth about them. That needs to be said.

  60. Confront Nonsense

    Listen to On Point podcast with David Deutsch to get a sense of the importance of explanatory knowledge and you will never back down from the uneducated again!

  61. Chris P

    “Effective science communication” is clearly not effective otherwise the Republican nitwits would know what the reality of science is.

    Clearly, lying BS from pastors and priests is effective.

    I have no wish for Dawkins to emulate them.

    I think you should redirect your criticism to the real problem – religious providers.

  62. ChasCPeterson

    The point of this article is to make science communicators aware of Dawkins’ failure to recognize recent developments in the science of communicating science.

    I must have missed the science-of-communicating-science communication to science communicators there…all I could find was a clip of Penn on CNN and the assertion that “It has been documented here at the Intersection countless times…” Would you mind pointing explicitly to the science-communication science you were trying to communicate to science communicators? Thanks; I r one.

  63. Brain Hertz

    Bob K wrote:

    To call evolution a fact as firmly established as something like gravitational attraction…

    The Newtonian version? The Einsteinian version? The MOND version? Possibly some other version?

    How can you call “gravitational attraction” a firmly established fact when there are so many competing versions?

  64. dephlogisticated

    Dawkins is not writing about some Joe Shmoe out there, he is talking about someone that is attempting to become the next President of the United States of America!

    Yes, we know Perry bows down to corporations and the wealthy, and wears Christianity on his sleeve. And yes, we know that the masses that are following him, like Bachmann, are Authoritarian followers, per Altemeyer’s RWA scale.

    When one refuses to accept empirical evidence , along with logic and reason, there is no reason to be polite, or kind, especially to someone seriously running for the Presidency.

    If one chooses to refuse the above, how can anyone in their right mind think that he’ll be able to logically and rationally deduce the course of action for any form of national policy?

    Do you want a bunch more of these? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2009/aug/10/religion-george-bush

  65. Kagehi

    Also, I don’t doubt that, if the pancake vs. other cakes debate was “religious” in nature, we would see people staking their political carriers on their holy book stating that pancakes are evil, and this arguing that the All-Cakist theory of cake making was wrong, and must be apposed, because they dare to claim that pancakes and cupcakes are “derived from the same origins”. This, and the BS stance that we need to be nice to the lunatics that present such arguments about the natural world, are precisely why being “nice”, and trying to find a “middle ground”, is unproductive, often impossible, and almost always ludicrous, when dealing with such *vast* differences of opinion on such clearly one sided, in the sense of who is talking about reality, arguments. The middle ground between a bottle of water, and a bottle of poison, isn’t some of both. The middle ground between science and nonsense is not, “some of both”, either.

  66. There’s nothing I can actually add to this argument that’s new. I just want to publicly cast my vote on the side of Dawkins and against this “let’s not dare offend our opponents” nonsense.

  67. Jonathan Figdor

    Jamie, this was a good article, but you draw the wrong conclusion. Yes, it is true that many people simply “turn off” when they are confronted with an opposing argument. And yes, it is true that people like Perry crave answers to all the so-far unanswered questions (even answers to silly questions like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”). But why does this mean we should indulge them?

    Also, a 2.22 from Texas A&M is absolutely pathetic. This is evidence of the need for better education.

  68. Richard Dawkins Takes The Crotchety Old Man Tactic To Communicate Science To Rick Perry. Will It Work?

    No. It never has before, it won’t work now.

    People who keep doing things that have failed for the best part of a century and expect it to work now are delusional.

    I don’t think Dawkins or his fans really care about preventing the disaster of a Rick Perry presidency or even the promotion of evolutionary science, they are interested in promoting their clique. We can’t afford to be associated with them. Another Republican presidency will be a catastrophe and the only candidate who can prevent that has done a pretty lousy job of holding on to the people who voted for him against a pretty ineffective candidate.

  69. Michele Busby

    Nice post!

    I would add that Dawkin’s rantings tends to paint Christians with a single brush.

    In reality, creationism also contradicts the beliefs of a lot of Christians. For example, the kind of Biblical literalism and creationism that Perry advocates is NOT consistent with the Vatican’s teachings. The Vatican has said it has no problem with evolution, and about a third of Texans are Catholic. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/4588289/The-Vatican-claims-Darwins-theory-of-evolution-is-compatible-with-Christianity.html

    The way Dawkins and Perry have framed his arguments sets up a false battle line between believers and non-believers. The line should be really be drawn between people who want religion in public schools, and those who don’t. And the best argument may be that the separation protects faith, not that it fights it.

  70. Butch

    fight fire with fire, huh? The only thing that Dawkins (or the devil for that matter) can’t bear, is scorn. He is such a proud spirit, so much more grounded in truth than the rest of us minions. His is such a high and lonely destiny, born out of his infinite wisdom. To human beings, educated or uneducated, the use of scientific buzzwords might as well be written in Greek. To listen to ivory towered scientists debate, (like Dawkins) is like watching paint dry. But Dawkins debates like a child. And he sounds like a religious fanatic, which he is. He really should be made to wear a clown suit in public. Anyone who oozes that much pride and condescension is irrelevant, regardless of what his opinion is. Instead of challenging people, he makes them angry. Just like many religious fanatics for Christianity.

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