How to argue about how to argue about how to argue


Today’s installment of Dawkins setting the world straight on everything.

(Have you noticed that he’s tweeting in this way more now that so many people have made it so clear to him that they think setting the world straight via Twitter is not part of his skill set? I’ve noticed that.)

Chastity deprives people of existence. It doesn’t kill people. Early abortion resembles abstinence not murder. Not everyone understands this

The reason is simple. An unconceived potential person is not a person. An undifferentiated embryo is not a person. Acorns are not oak trees.

“We get it”. Yes i know YOU get it, but you aren’t everybody. There are millions who don’t get it & think all abortion is absolutely wrong.

Yes, there are, but do you really think you’re going to convince many of them otherwise with these tweets? There may be a few who have never thought of it that way before and see those tweets and are jolted into thinking of it that way for the first time. But there will also be many who see those tweets and just think they demonstrate how simplistic atheists are, and that’s not a good outcome. That’s why Twitter is the wrong medium for the project of reaching the millions who don’t get it & think all abortion is absolutely wrong.

The Daily Beast has an article by Elizabeth Picciuto saying Dawkins would fail Philosophy 101. That’s harsh. I don’t think he would; but I do think these tweets would.

Lately, Richard Dawkins seems to scan the world for sore spots, take a good poke, and revel in the ensuing outcry. A few weeks ago, he proclaimed thatstranger rape is worse than date rape. Last Wednesday, he tweeted that if a fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome, the mother should “abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Predictably, he was deluged with angry responses; as of this writing, he is still responding to critics.

During this latest battle, his most vocal opponents have been pro-life, but you don’t have to be pro-life to take issue with what he’s been saying. If you believe, as Dawkins purports to, that your moral opinions should be informed by empirical evidence and logic, then that alone is excellent reason to object to the totality of what he’s been saying.

No wait; there’s more to it than that. Your moral opinions need to be informed by more than empirical evidence and logic; that’s what I’ve been saying all along. They need to be informed by empathy, too. You need a working Theory of Mind and a functioning sense of how other people with other minds may feel about things, in order to have moral opinions that are worth anything.

Each academic I interviewed for this story—all of whom were critical of Dawkins’ recent Twitter comments about abortion—emphasized their admiration for Dawkins’ scientific and popular writings. There’s no question Dawkins is intelligent, so it’s not clear why, despite lacking a background in bioethics, he thought himself qualified to dispense advice on a nuanced bioethical issue.

Well in a way we all have to think ourselves qualified to – at least – have opinions on such subjects, because we may have to act on them. But she didn’t say “to have opinions,” she said “to dispense advice” – and that is indeed another level. And when it’s “to dispense advice on Twitter”…yes you know what just don’t.

Ari Kohen, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, maintains a highly entertaining blog devoted, in part, to terrible apologies—Dawkins’ non-apology apology among them. As Kohen points out to The Daily Beast, Dawkins never actually apologizes for what he said. He only apologizes for the Twitter-storm that followed.

Blaming the Twitter-storm is the new Blaming the victim.

“He shifts from an emphasis on maximizing happiness to focusing on the well-being of a single, non-existent individual,” Paul Raymont, an instructor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, writes in an email to The Daily Beast. “It’s as if he realized, as he was expressing this idea, that it didn’t sound very nice, so he hastily threw in the claim that the Down syndrome child is better off not existing.”

In more recent tweets, Dawkins has been suggesting that with every action, we change the future children who are born. Since anything we do changes our future children, why shouldn’t we maximize the happiness experienced by future children? seems to be what he’s asking. Raymont points out that random occurrences that change the future are entirely different from a decision to terminate a pregnancy due to a Down syndrome diagnosis. The latter involves deciding what kind of child to have. Raymont adds, “For Dawkins to publicly recommend doing this and to say that the alternative is immoral is for him to send a very clear message about existing people who have Down syndrome—he’s saying that they’re morally inferior to the rest of us and that future generations would be much better off without their kind. He may not have intended to send that message, but he has done so (whether he knows it or not). He has also, whether he knows it or not, expressed moral disapproval of parents who had prenatal tests but decided to go ahead and have the Down syndrome baby.”

As many people pointed out.

Julian Suvalescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford, has advocated a position he calls “procreative beneficence.” He argues that given a choice, a parent should choose a child most likely to live the life with the greatest wellbeing—but knowing only that a fetus has Down syndrome is not enough to determine its wellbeing. “[Suvalescu’s] procreative beneficence does not in any simple way imply anything about fetuses with three copies of chromosome 21,” says Munthe. “It is perfectly consistent to argue that, had I some information that a future child of mine would grow up to be a splendid popularizer of evolutionary biology and effective critic of institutionalized religious bigotry, but also an inconsiderate and arrogant philosophical dilettante, and had the choice to have another child possessing the first two but lacking the latter traits, procreative beneficence may very well recommend that I chose this other child.”

Oh, zing.

“We all know that Dawkins is very smart and can write great, wonderfully clear books about science. So, when his statements become so sloppy and confused, I can only conclude that he hasn’t invested much effort in formulating his ideas. He hasn’t put in the effort because he thinks ethics is pretty easy,” says Raymont. “He’s well known for insisting on the importance of gathering the relevant empirical data before settling one’s mind about something. But on the question of abortion and Down syndrome children, he seems not to have seen any need to consult the evidence.”

Dawkins’ impressive academic background, and his implications that any who disagree with him are simply not smart or logical enough, may intimidate some who would dissent. They may lead some of his supporters to think that those who disagree are so emotionally overwrought that they are incapable of thought. However, in this case, it is Dawkins who needs to consider the logical implications of what he’s saying.

And those two potential (and, as we’ve seen, actual) consequences are what I most object to. I think the “go away and learn to think” trope is terrible coming from a big name academic, and I think the re-enforcement of emotion-blind opinions among his fans is a terrible effect of that trope. I think it’s all a big mess.

 

Comments

  1. Jenora Feuer says

    He hasn’t put in the effort because he thinks ethics is pretty easy,

    Which is the classic basis of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the basis for so many cases of ‘Nobel Disease': if you don’t really know enough about the subject to realize what has been discussed before and how broad the field is, you may feel that it’s ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ simply because all you can see of the field is the furrow you happen to be in.

  2. funknjunk says

    That’s what bothered me the most, the dismissive tone of his reaction to critics. Well, good that he has other “professional thinkers” critiquing him, maybe he’ll pay attention. He showed what an ass he was by NOT paying attention to the mere rabble….

  3. Blueshift Rhino says

    I’m not sure if I understand what Munthe is saying (inside the sixth quote). Tri-21 is a valid predictor of many negative outcomes. Is there really a genetic predictor, easily detected by amnio, that predicts such positives as “splendid popularizer of evolutionary biology”? If so, then that would be cool and Munthe would have a point. Otherwise….

  4. Börndi says

    First, there is an excellent post on ‘should Richard tweet?’ to be found here:
    https://richarddawkins.net/2014/08/should-richard-give-up-twitter-and-retreat-to-his-ivory-tower/
    In the following I build on that:
    What do you expect of Dawkins or of any other famous person in the atheist movement? That they should not be able to post thoughts that are unwelcome or that seem not to be thought through well? Every tweet that is born should be perfect and satisfy anybodies expectations? If you want a higher standard for posting tweets when it comes to Dawkins, why does nobody want a higher standard for other famous people? Take f.e. Dawkins ‘Dear Muslima’, then I am sure that Ophelia would say that the kind of lack of empathy that she speaks of in Dawkins tweets is exactly seen there.
    But how dealt f.e. Rebecca Watson with Dawkins post and with the elevator incident in general? Watson is in the same movement as Dawkins, instead of arguing with the professor over his post, she went public. She demanded that nobody should read Dawkins books anymore and this marked in my opinion the beginning of the split of the atheist movement. This marked the end of the new atheists. One could accuse Watson of not being able to weigh her words here. I don’t do that and I don’t demand of anyone not to express their thoughts. But everyone does it with Dawkins. Dawkins is destroyed, he lost immensely popularity because of his ‘Dear Muslima’. And the consequences of this, think about it. The splitting of the movement and when it began can be seen when you look at the atheist community and when the anti-feminist and pro-feminist camps where built. This started all around the time of the elevator incident. I think that the anti-feminists have people like Watson and her video posts in mind when they think of feminists and the pro-feminist people think of ‘real’ feminists like Namazie. I would say that Dawkins is and was always a (real) feminist. He walked with Maryam Namazie to support her cause. There are even videos in the internet from past times where Namazie and Dawkins demonstrate publicly. This helped immensely Namazies important work because of the popularity of Dawkins. I think Namazie has just published a video interview with Dawkins about the arabic world recently.
    In Watsons representations of Dawkins he is only presented as white male supremacist who seems not to count anymore. I would say that this is the wrong way to make friends and helpful allies.

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Coming next :

    How to argue about how to argue about how to argue about how to argue?

    (Sorry, somebody had to do it.)

  6. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    PS. Good post & agreed, Ophelia Benson.

  7. John Morales says

    Börndi @4,

    What do you expect of Dawkins or of any other famous person in the atheist movement? That they should not be able to post thoughts that are unwelcome or that seem not to be thought through well? Every tweet that is born should be perfect and satisfy anybodies expectations? If you want a higher standard for posting tweets when it comes to Dawkins, why does nobody want a higher standard for other famous people? Take f.e. Dawkins ‘Dear Muslima’, then I am sure that Ophelia would say that the kind of lack of empathy that she speaks of in Dawkins tweets is exactly seen there.

    I don’t expect much from him, these days — and indeed, he’s lived up to such expectations as his recent history betokened.

    (Are you impressed by his tweets?)

  8. cluecat says

    (Finally delurking after all this time, because this is important…)
    What’s concerning me in particular about the latest episode of Dawkins’ Amazing Foot-in-Mouth Show is the big thing that everyone seems to have missed; has anyone bothered to speak to someone who actually has Down’s?
    Yes, there is a huge range of ability within that one label (as there is within my own developmental disability label), but there are a number of advocates and educators to whom people could turn, to ask questions and seek the information. These advocates have the condition in question. Want to know what life with Down’s is like? Ask them.
    It’s really bothering me that most of the discussion has been taking place amongst non-disabled people, with no reference to those of us with disabilities. A few people have been congratulating themselves for bothering to speak to parents of those with the condition – which has at least some relevance in this case; when talking about the decision to continue with a pregnancy, the person who is pregnant is the only one who gets to make that decision. That’s not up for debate. Even if the reason for the termination is “I don’t want a child like that!” Great, fine. Termination is the way to go, because no child deserves gross, ableist swine as parents.
    There’s just a bit missing. All this talk of “suffering” and “quality of life” is taking place amongst people who don’t have the condition in question. Dawkins is certainly not indicating that he has bothered to speak to anyone with Down’s, and many of the objections to his ill-thought-out and ignorant pronouncements also seem to be ignoring what those who live with the condition actually experience from day to day. Most of it is well intentioned, I have no doubt, but as we all know, intent isn’t magic.
    There is a pattern in wider society of ignoring what those of us who have disabilities experience, in order for those without disabilities to speak over us and speculate about the value of our lives. Whether or not we are “useful”, and thus allowed to continue to exist. This sort of attitude kills people. Live people, not potential people.
    This is Ableism. This is why our lives are often harder than they need to be.
    Intellectual masturbation about whether or not we will be useful (because the assumption is always that we will be a burden) does not help us. Those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable to this sort of arrogant dismissal, and have been fighting it for a very long time.
    You’ve heard of “Nothing about us, without us”? Yeah. It’s important. And all these people are merrily off discussing it without bothering to ask the people actually concerned. Again.
    For some of us, this is not some Ivory Tower thought experiment: it’s our lives. It affects our access to healthcare, to housing, to employment, to living. To basic human dignity. Ignorance kills.

  9. cluecat says

    Whoops! I’m sorry – I had no idea that was going to come out so long! Guess that’s the outcome of finally saying something after lurking for such a long time…

  10. screechymonkey says

    Borndi @4:

    What do you expect of Dawkins or of any other famous person in the atheist movement? That they should not be able to post thoughts that are unwelcome or that seem not to be thought through well? Every tweet that is born should be perfect and satisfy anybodies expectations?

    Oh, for fuck’s sakes. Nobody is saying he “should not be able to post” anything. His peaches remain frozen.

    What do I expect of him? I expect that he should have enough intelligence to know that if he continues to post poorly-thought out half-formed thoughts on sensitive and controversial issues, he will receive a considerable amount of criticism for it. And I would expect that someone who prides himself on being an academic and an intellectual would recognize that severe criticism is the deserved fate of, and the appropriate response to, poorly-thought-out utterances. In other words, stop whining about “Twitter-storms” and “Thought Police” and either acknowledge your error, or address the criticisms head-on and without lamenting that they exist.

  11. johnthedrunkard says

    In medicine, ‘Empiricism’ used to be a synonym for quackery. The ‘empirical’ Dr practiced according to HIS experience, inevitably drifting into error and rationalization.

    Dawkins is definitely guilty of empiricism in this sense. HIS brief experience of molestation wasn’t catastrophic, therefore anyone whose experience WAS must be exaggerating, or talking about something else.

    That overconfidence extends beyond experience to notions like ranking stranger-rape and acquaintance-rape on some single scale of ‘badness.’

  12. Blueshift Rhino says

    If the avoidance of “ableism” means that one cannot look at the evidence and conclude that having only two Chr21s is better, on average, than having three, then the concept of “ableism” (as something to avoid) is something to eschew, not support.

  13. Blueshift Rhino says

    My previous post was poorly expressed in that it might be taken as saying that a single problem within a concept (e.g., the requirement that one be close-minded) invalidates all other parts of the concept (e.g., all persons deserve a priori respect), when I only meant to say that a single problem with a concept invalidates the entire package as a package, leaving open the possibility that a new version that keeps the defensible parts and deletes only the indefensible would be fine.

    I feel the same way about every proposed concept. In fact, I feel this way about foods. Much of what I like to eat comes in packages that also include stuff I don’t eat (e.g., I don’t eat the bones in a chicken). I don’t eschew these foods because of the extra bits that I don’t like; I merely discard the bits that I don’t like and eat what I do like.

  14. chigau (違う) says

    Börndi #4
    re: Rebecca Watson

    She demanded that nobody should read Dawkins books anymore …

    [citation needed]

  15. Blueshift Rhino says

    I agree with the suggestion above that “demanded” is an over-statement. What Watson wrote was this:

    “So many of you voiced what I had already been thinking: that this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experiences as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same. There are so many great scientists and thinkers out there that I don’t think my reading list will suffer.”

    However, it would be hard to deny that Watson both encouraged and at least tacitly endorsed the subsequent “Dear Dick” letters, etc, which included many over-statements that rival or exceed those of Börndi’s post and yet were never corrected by Watson. So a little license should be granted to those who were annoyed with what she did.

  16. screechymonkey says

    Blueshift Rhino @17:

    However, it would be hard to deny that Watson both encouraged and at least tacitly endorsed the subsequent “Dear Dick” letters, etc,

    I deny it. Now where’s your evidence?

    which included many over-statements that rival or exceed those of Börndi’s post

    Such as?

    and yet were never corrected by Watson.

    Please explain your criteria for when someone is obligated to correct statements of third parties.

    So a little license should be granted to those who were annoyed with what she did.

    What license? Borndi made an incorrect statement, and it was pointed out. Nobody strung him or her up, Ophelia didn’t ban him or her, nobody else even commented on it until you came along with your demand for “license.”

    Is it your position that no misstatements about Watson should ever be corrected, because she failed to correct some misstatements by third parties that she “tacitly endorsed”?

  17. says

    it would be hard to deny that Watson both encouraged and at least tacitly endorsed the subsequent “Dear Dick” letters, etc

    What subsequent “Dear Dick” letters? What etc?

  18. screechymonkey says

    Ophelia,

    I assume that’s a reference to the letters on this page. These were reader-submitted letters, not authored or “endorsed” by Watson (it’s not even her blog post).

    Some of them express disappointment, some are angry, some are hopeful he’ll apologize.

    One of them is addressed “Dear Dick,” (the others are addressed to Richard, or Mr. Dawkins, or Professor Dawkins). Which is not great in my opinion — it’s at best an innocent but inappropriately familiar diminuitive , and at worst a not-so-clever gender-based epithet.

    So, yeah — one third party letter out of many, but it lives on forever as another anti-Watson grievance to be nutured in the hearts of people who think calling you “Oafie” is just swell.

  19. Blueshift Rhino says

    Before I engage in this discussion any further, I need to know what the ground-rules will be. Will I be allowed to ask for evidence if anyone else makes a statement with which I don’t agree? I normally wouldn’t ask, but in the last 48 hours or so I’ve been hit with “stop JAQing off,” “you are mansplaining” (which was particularly ironic), and an unsupported assertion of a “fact” that was “self evident,” along with what appears to be a shadow-ban. So what rules shall we have in this conversation?

  20. says

    In fact only three comments had addressed you at all when you posted that list of complaints. I wonder if you’re confusing this conversation with another one on some other site.

  21. says

    I just did a search for these items:

    in the last 48 hours or so I’ve been hit with “stop JAQing off,” “you are mansplaining” (which was particularly ironic)

    Neither appears on this page other than in that quoted passage – in other words you’re the only one who has used those phrases. This post is the only one you’ve commented on, unless you’re sockpuppeting and have forgotten all about it.

    Are you playing some stupid game here? Or what?

  22. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Ophelia, you are seen by some as part of the FTB/Skepchick collective.

    (One for all, all for one)

  23. screechymonkey says

    Not to mention, Watson is not really relevant to the topic of this thread anyway. She’s not mentioned in the OP.

    She only came up because Bondi wrote an huge nonsequitur @4, which appears to be arguing along the lines of “everybody stop criticizing Dawkins, because Rebecca Watson is terrible and a lousy feminist and nobody likes her and ….”

    Chigau corrected a factual misstatement in that post, but Blueshift Rhino then leaps in to assure us that such misstatements are immaterial and should not be pointed out because Watson is really, really awful.

    I sort of regret even bothering to challenge that nonsense, because what does it matter? Why indulge the obsession of Bondi and Rhino with Watson? Even if, for purposes of argument, Watson was the absolute worst human being on the planet and a disgrace to feminism, atheism, and carbon-based life in general… so fucking what? What the hell does that have to do with Dawkins being upset with criticism (by people who are not Watson) of tweets he wrote (which are not about or related to Watson)?

  24. Jenora Feuer says

    And I would presume the ‘shadow ban’ refers to the practice at some sites to ‘ban’ a person in such a way that their posts still show up to themselves when they look, but don’t show up to anybody else, thus allowing them to rant all they want and be completely ignored.

    I don’t know if FtB even supports that happening; it would seem to be a simple change to the moderation setup where people who have posted something can see ‘your post is awaiting moderation’ while others see nothing yet, so it wouldn’t be difficult to support.

    On the other hand, saying that kind of combines an accusation of bad faith with the self-importance of ‘Nobody is responding to my points; the only possible explanation is that nobody has seen them!’.

  25. Blueshift Rhino says

    I would express it differently, but 25 is roughly what I was referring to. Those things were said (and done) in other threads on this site. I apologize for generalizing from one part of this site to another. I ignored at least one piece of evidence that such an inference would be inappropriate: namely, the fact that I not banned here when I am elsewhere.

    Also, I’m relatively new to all this so I might use certain words and labels in a different manner from what you are used to. For example, from what I have seen, the term “‘Dear Dick’ letter” is used to refer to all of the letters in the thread that was linked to above, not just the one or few that actually used that salutation. If my use of the term was not how you use it, I apologize. But this all gets back to my question about ground-rules in these discussions. If I say something that, by your use of the words, means something demonstrably wrong, will you beat me over the head with it at once or will you first make sure that your interpretation of what I said was that which I intended?

  26. Blueshift Rhino says

    Post 27 is probably another example of my misusing a word that is new to me. My posts in some threads simply don’t appear, when they did before, and I’m bumped up to the top of the page when I try.

    As to the ideas expressed in Post 26, I have no serious response. I assume that “obsession” was there being used in a non-technical manner, one that requires extremely little evidence before it’s applied such that it really has no meaning to me.

    As to the question of whether serious issues can be raised by examples that later turn out to be completely erroneous, my answer is a resounding Yes (such that I agree that the details of Mz Watson are irrelevant). My favorite example of this sort of thing is the research on so-called “diffusion of responsibility,” motivated by what has turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of what happened to Kitty Genovese. That the Kitty Genovese story is mostly nonsense doesn’t alter the implications and value of the research it evoked.

  27. Lofty says

    So Blueshift Rhino, you’re prone to exaggerating the facts to make a point? Hint: accuracy appears to be more valued in this part of the blogosphere.

  28. Börndi says

    I must apologize to people above. Watson indeed doesn’t demand that nobody should read Dawkins books anymore, the correct quote in
    http://skepchick.org/2011/07/the-privilege-delusion/
    is
    “So many of you voiced what I had already been thinking: that this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experiences as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same…”
    One could say: ‘No one can tell me that she didn’t know in advance that the text she wrote above or the following text in Slate magazine
    http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/10/sexism_in_the_skeptic_community_i_spoke_out_then_came_the_rape_threats.html
    would probably drive a lot of people away from Dawkins and his books. She should have been more careful in what she wrote.’ Well, the atheist movement is definitely split and Dawkins has been defeated. The new atheists are gone. I don’t blame Watson and I don’t blame Dawkins for his tweets. They are no robots.
    A comment about the movement:
    Why not keep the movement and discuss problems rationally instead of shouting at each other? Why did Watson write an article in Slate magazine instead of talking to the professor or discuss things in a video with thunderf00t? There is by the way a trend going on at the moment where f.e. the Amazing Atheist has in youtube a sort of youtube radio show going where he invites people of opposing views in the atheist movement to discuss their views and to find out where the differences are. Aron Ra has a similar show I believe. And the wonderful thing about that is that f.e. in the following show of the Amazing Atheist
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFE9HLLBN8E&list=UUjNxszyFPasDdRoD9J6X-sw
    you have a feminist and a mens rights activist discussing together in a rational way with the Amazing Atheist as a brilliant moderator where their differences lie. This is civilized, there is no shouting, this is fruitful and promising, and may be a solution to unite the camps.

  29. Al Dente says

    How did this thread become a whinefest about Rebecca Watson? She doesn’t blog here. She is not mentioned in the OP. If people need to complain about Watson, could they please do it at a place where it would be appropriate.

    Just as a comment on the original subject of the thread, I’ve noticed that Dawkins doesn’t appear to realize that there are legitimate objections to some of his comments, especially on Twitter. He spends much time and effort complaining about people criticizing his comments but he rarely responds to the actual criticisms.

  30. says

    Jesus god.

    Blueshift Rhino, Börndi, this post is not about Rebecca Watson. This blog is this blog; it’s not the whole of Freethought Blogs, and vice versa. This post is also not about you. Discuss the post and comments related to the post, or stop commenting on this post.

  31. Blueshift Rhino says

    As soon as I figure out which (if not both), I will add the words “prone” and “exaggerating” to the list of words that appear to have different meanings in different places. With that (sarcastically) said, I think that I’ll fade away, as Börndi is back.

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