Friday, 6 June 2014

Who's been eating Dawkins' porridge?

Oh dear. Here we go with another tedious Richard Dawkins controversy.

I haven't read Richard Dawkins' scientific publications, nor have I read his popular books. Like him, I believe in evolution and don't believe in deities. Unlike him, my acceptance of evolution and all that goes with it isn't derived from my own research. By and large I trust the scientific method of hypothesis testing and the institutional structures of academia and publishing to get close to the facts. I'm sure Dawkins' research has been peer-reviewed thoroughly and that's good enough for me. I'm busy.

I haven't read his popular books for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having accepted the basic tenets of what he proposes, I don't feel the need to reinforce my conclusions by reading propaganda to wheel out in the pub when meeting opponents. Secondly, Dawkins appears to have become a victim of a condition I call Celexpertism, in which a person who becomes well-known for a particular set of skills or achievements suddenly believes that they are more than qualified to pronounce – often at tedious length – on everything else. With Dawkins, these pronouncements are usually freighted with the implication that everything else is a subsidiary of his own more important primary interests.

In short, despite my general agreement with him, I find Dawkins to be both a bore and a boor, a man who specialises in deliberately seeking attention by causing offence. He is in fact the Clarkson of popular science. It is, in fact, to be right without actively jeering at the people who are (or you think are) wrong. If he spent more time in a classroom or meetings with managers, he'd get quite a lot of practice.

His latest broadside is against bedtime stories. According to several news outlets such as the Telegraph, Dawkins informed an audience that:
it was ‘pernicious’ to teach children about facts that were ‘statistically improbable’ such as a frog turning into a prince.
“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?’
“I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway’.

How sad. It just proves that a very clever man doesn't understand children, adults or indeed the entire structure of human discourse. He knows how the pieces fit together, just not how they work. Firstly, 'statistically improbable' events are quite often the important ones. I gather most physicists think there's only been one Big Bang. Many cosmologists think we may be alone in the universe, having been the beneficiaries of an unlikely convergence of conditions. I hope this isn't true by the way: I tend to assume that as TV broadcasts and atmospheric readings reach the neighbours they shake their carapaces in despair and mutter about humans bringing down the neighbourhood. 

Does Dawkins really think that children actively believe in any of the vampires/talking pigs/aliens stuff we read to them, or they read themselves? Or that a child who indulges in fantasies can't also be a sceptic about the things that they observe and experience. Does he in fact sit in front of the TV shouting 'BUT THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN IT'S ALL LIES' when The Wire or Star Trek or Dora The Explorer is on? Amusingly, Dick finds himself entirely in alliance with his Christian fundamentalist enemies: the Puritans closed the theatres and generations of Protestants condemned drama as telling lies. 

What poor Mr Dawkins fails to see is that what makes us human is our need to construct narratives from the materials to hand. Existence is a confusing, plot-free, sometimes lovely sometimes terrible thing. We try to make sense of it just to get by, so we tell ourselves stories. Our brains largely can't deal with the confusion. So we construct metaphors to convey the gist of things. Little Red Riding Hood is an extended metaphor for (depending on which reading you opt for) puberty, male and female sexualities or the structural differences between human civilisation and our animal natures. Difficult concepts to explain in purely scientific terms, but remarkably accessible through narratives and plots. Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man isn't, Richard, about a man who is literally invisible: it's about a man whose skin colour renders him of no account in a white-supremacist society. Battlestar Galactica isn't a documentary: it's a retelling of the Aeneid retold as a way to examine American attitudes post-9/11. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has more to it than a description of a caterpillar who is inordinately hungry. See where I'm going with this Richard? We use metaphor and narrative because it's a profound way to examine key concerns. Some we grow out of individually. Some we grow out of collectively. Others hang around, usefully or not. 

Even science is a series of narratives which provide the 'best fit' for what evidence is to hand - the fact that it's never settled is what makes it so important: the narratives of science undergo constant change as ideas are reconsidered. If science wasn't a story, it would become a rigid, damaging fact - just ask the biologists who suffered under Lysenko's dogma in the USSR. 

Language, too, is not Richard's friend. Structuralism pointed out that words don't have innate fixed meanings but generate them within a constantly changing network, and post-structuralism asserted that meaning is always just out of reach: we accept that language is simply a construct, a story, a metaphor, a convenient shorthand for things we can't quite explain. The very words Dawkins uses to express his hatred of stories betray him. 

Dawkins' arrogance has led him directly to rigid fury. In his furious pursuit of something he thinks is 'truth', he has become Mr Gradgrind. 
'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' (Hard Times, p. 1)
'You are extremely deficient in your facts. Your acquaintance with figures is very limited. You are altogether backward, and below the mark.' 
'Thank you, sir. I have thought sometimes;' Sissy very timid here; 'that perhaps I tried to learn too much, and that if I had asked to be allowed to try a little less, I might have — ' 'No, Jupe, no,' said Mr. Gradgrind, shaking his head in his profoundest and most eminently practical way. 'No. The course you pursued, you pursued according to the system — the system — and there is no more to be said about it. I can only suppose that the circumstances of your early life were too unfavourable to the development of your reasoning powers, and that we began too late. Still, as I have said already, I am disappointed.' (1.14.11-15)
Poor Richard. He thinks that once you block up Santa's chimney, mass enlightenment will follow. What a sad, limited worldview, no doubt derived from the cold and brutal boarding school experience he endured, one devoted to 'toughening up' the young gentlemen.

I don't have any children (they keep escaping) but if I did, I'd be telling them a story about an Angry Bear that none of the other animals liked because he wouldn't let them play in the woods.

Update: a kind commenter points out a subsequent Guardian article in which Prof. Dawkins says he's been misquoted, and that he's reconsidered some of his points, so all's well that ends well.


GMS said...

Not that I carry a torch for Richard Dawkins in any way, but since when have you believed everything (or anything) The Telegraph publishes? There's a slightly different take here:

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi. Thanks for the link. I thought the article could be relied on because it included direct quotes, but clearly there is at the very least a big question mark over it.