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Science, discussed.

Richard Dawkins or how he became a product of postmodernism

Dawkins's twitter profile picture

Dawkins’s twitter profile picture

I am going to say it before I start. I don’t like Richard Dawkins as a person. And I have a personal rule to avoid his twitter account and comments. He definitely has an image problem, and Declan Fahy knows it. That is why I find really impressive that by the end of this chapter I have no idea if Declan Fahy likes him or hates him, or if he agrees or disagrees with most of what he says. I find that worth mentioning because that speaks of how much care and thoughtfulness I think he put in writing this book. I really like that he is putting all the evidence and information together without judging whether these celebrity scientists deserve to be as famous as they do and at the same time making an awesome job explaining how they got where they are. And once you know the whole story is not surprising Dawkins is as famous as he is, whether he deserves it is another issue.

For an introduction to this series click here. For my discussion on the first chapter of the book click here.

Richard Dawkins was a scientist once. According to the reconstruction of events in the book he was a rising star as a scientist. He became famous as a communicator with the publishing of his book “The Selfish Gene” (1977) that sided with some evolutionary biologists that believed natural selection worked to ensure the survival of genes, not species. This book appeared right in the mid of the sociobiology movement where scientists like Wilson still believed that genes could define whether some people are inferior or not. However, Dawkins’s book while focusing on the science of genetics ended the book claiming that human beings have ethos and morality and, therefore, were not slaves of their genes. This sentiment in 1977 was a powerful thing in a post-World War II in the midst of the Cold War. Yes, science could tell us a lot about ourselves but we were not defined by our genes. It is a statement that was consistent with the civil rights movement a decade earlier. And to me it also told me Dawkins was a humanist once.

However, what I find interesting about this account is how Dawkins framed the book. He presented it as original scientific knowledge. Rather than propose a new theory or unearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts” The book didn’t include mathematical equations because Dawkins was trying to reach a wider audience. If this book indeed brought a revolution in evolutionary biology scientists refused to cite it because it did not go trough the accepted process of peer review and journal publication in science.

Sociology treats individuals as the sum of the social groups which they belong to, a definition that Robert K. Merton applied during the 1940’s to scientific institutions (Merton, 1996). One of the most influential sociologists of his time, he argued that, in order to comprehend science as a social endeavor, we must center our attention on two fundamental aspects: the scientific ethos and the scientific language. The ethos, is the collection of distinctive rules, parameters, and methods which establish, in fact, social autonomy (Orozco & Chavarro, 2010). By choosing this “method” for publishing his ideas, Dawkins distances himself from the scientific group he belonged to. It is not yet clear to me however if he did this consciously or it was just a consequence of he wanting to create a book that could reach a wider audience. But in his next book he repeated the process all over again. “The extended phenotype” (1982) was what he called his “innovative” contribution to the field but again in the form of a book, not a peer reviewed paper. This was definitely a conscious decision. Even if his last four chapters in”The extended phenotype” could indeed start a new field he didn’t participate in the social accepted peer review way of showing your ideas in science. And there is a caveat in this. With the book you reach a wider audience certainly but the book showed one side of the scientific debate. And that can create the illusion that there is no controversy in the topic at least in popular culture.

Dawkins for the next couple of years kept doing scientific and communication work. And as the creationism movement gained speed in the 1980’s he became one of the scientists of the time that went to the media and tried to give the scientific facts to the public. He and Stephen Jay Gould became the public face of science against creationism (though the science controversy between them won’t be covered in this post).

I am going to make a jump to the mid-1990’s now. The 1990’s represent a time where a culture of anti-science became more and more proponent. From pseudoscientific books and tv-shows investigating paranormal activities to Wakefield’s discredited paper of 1998 linking vaccines with autism. It was a time where the internet was about to explode. We have reached scientific advancement that we couldn’t possibly imagine and information was about to reach everyone’s fingertips. And still it was where sub-cultures started to form that would reject science.  When thinking about everything that happened in this decade that would set the foundations of the current science vs society problems I cannot help but think in this quote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities 1859)

All this was a product of post-modernism. Science had brought advancement but also war and death and people were looking for something beyond that. They didn’t believe science could have all the answers anymore. And Richard Dawkins seeing science threatened reacted with aggressiveness. Science was losing ground and sadly when an extreme is formed on one side another forms in the other. He was also a product of postmodernist times in his own way.

In 1995, he left Berkeley to become the inaugural Professor of Public Understanding at Oxford. Instead of becoming one of the examples of the Sagan Effect, academia anointed him as an “approved” science communicator. In a way is sending the message that science communication can be “academic approved” which could be problematic in its own way, but it also sends the message that you cannot do both. In order to become a prominent science communicator, Dawkins had to leave his appointment in zoology and  had to stop publishing peer review articles to stick with books.

I give Dawkins points for his commitment in sharing science and fighting pseudo-science. But “good intentions” with bad approaches sometimes hurt more than help. There is a lot of research on social science that contradicts some of the things he has gone on the record about how science would be communicated that I find difficult to agree with. As a researcher in the Learning Sciences and Science Education, I would like to talk about two of them and how the research conducted in the social sciences proves this approach wrong.

“Science must be presented as a difficult subject that dedicated people must engage in a worthwhile struggle to master” Unweaving the Rainbow (p.22-23)

This quote comes after he criticized a lot of the activities performed by the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement in the UK. “Funny hats and larky voices proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun”. Studies show, that interest in science not only seems to develop (Maltese & Tai, 2009) but also dwindles (Tai, Qi Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006) in the middle school years. Interest is the thing that will keep people engage in science even if they pursue other careers, it’s what will keep them away from pseudo-science. Not only that, interviews that ask current scientists and graduate students to science show that science remained interesting and fun to do towards their (Maltese & Tai, 2009), it’s the “Funny hats and larky voices” that brought them here in the first place. This quote also implies that science is special and that it is not for everyone. Empirical research has also shown that children and adults hold intuitive notions about that way the world works and this in consequence shapes their scientific understanding. If we don’t make an effort to engage people in science in a way they feel identified with, we risk alienating people. Science becomes someone else’s interpretation of the world.

“Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can f*** off.” Richard Dawkins.  Note: Dawkins was quoting a former editor of New Scientist Magazine, who is as yet unidentified (possibly Jeremy Webb)”

Amanda Glaze (@Southernevolution) tackles this subject in a great way in this storify. Long story short, just telling people that don’t agree with us to f*** off is not the way to approach the problem. We go again with imposing people with someone else’s interpretation of the world without trying to understand where they come from first.

Speaking from the ivory tower is no longer working. In the same way that people are over exposed to information thanks to the Internet and social media, we must make use of these new tools to approach society and rectify the misinformation.But in doing so we should create a whole new opportunity not only for science communication but also for public debate; a debate where people and scientists are on the same level, because none of them is better than the other.

Dawkins just gives a lot of things to write about. But I prefer to give my two cents on how some of his comments go against everything we have learned about science education. Finally to wrap it up here I leave some of Dawkins’s tweets dismissing philosophy including critiques by people who actually do research on that. I am going to start making a tally in this book about how many of the scientists portrayed dismiss philosophy. I am also adding to the tally if they have engaged in sexist comments or attitudes. For Dawkins’s view on women that get raped while drunk. And Hawking… I personally think his comment on “women being a mystery” is a way of saying women are not equal but won’t add it to the tally before some discussion and comments.

Until the next celebrity scientists !

– P


Scientists portrayed in the book that dismiss philosophy:

Scientists Dismissing philosohpy Sexist attitude or comment
Stephen Hawking Yes
Richard Dawkins Yes Yes
Steven Pinker
Susan Greenfield
Stephen Jay Gould
James Lovelock
Brian Greene
Neil Degrasse Tyson
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3 comments on “Richard Dawkins or how he became a product of postmodernism

  1. Pingback: Steven Pinker or according to him how evolutionary psychology “explains” the gender gap in science | biomolbioandco

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Career Gap: The message the Tim Hunt saga is sending to girls | biomolbioandco

  3. rhymingchemist
    07/10/2015

    Dawkins is so unpopular. I’ve felt for a long time that if he really wanted to protect atheists, as he claimed in the relevant book, then he wouldn’t have given it an inflammatory title that implies the vast majority of the world’s population is delusional. Your post is really interesting though, it resonates with ideas crystallising in the world of chemistry communication concerning the term chemophobia. Chemists have spent years going on about how everything is a “chemical” and therefore, to use the term as a noun denoting a harmful substance needlessly added to a cosmetic / foodstuff is inaccurate. Now we’re realising that people are perfectly capable of attaching different definitions to words depending on the context. Unscrupulous manufacturers clearly do add harmful ingredients to comestibles and cosmetics, and to dismiss the idea of chemophobia is to condescendingly dismiss all reasonable concerns amid the blanket justification of: “You don’t understand how science works.”

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This entry was posted on 21/04/2015 by in books, Papers and Reviews, Science and Society and tagged , , , .

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