These days, Dawkins describes himself as “a communicator”


Sophie Elmhirst has a long profile of Richard Dawkins in the Guardian. It’s partly about his new career of creating uproars on Twitter, and whether or not that’s a good idea.

The two strands of Dawkins’s mission – promoting science, demolishing religion – are intended to be complementary. “If they are antagonistic to each other, that would be regrettable,” he said, “but I don’t see why they should be.” But antagonism is part of Dawkins’s daily life. “I suppose some of the passions that I show are more appropriate to a young man than somebody of my age.” Since his arrival on Twitter in 2008, his public pronouncements have become more combative – and, at times, flamboyantly irritable: “How dare you force your dopey unsubstantiated superstitions on innocent children too young to resist?,” he tweeted last June. “How DARE you?”

“Flamboyantly irritable” is a good way of putting it. There are problems with both, especially in a famous Oxford academic – and especially when they are irritable rather than witty or probing. Anybody can do irritable, and anybody does; it’s hard to see why Dawkins needs to join that massive and uninteresting crowd.

These days, Dawkins describes himself as “a communicator”. But depending on your point of view, he is also a hero, a heathen, or a liability. Many of his recent statements – on subjects ranging from the lack of Nobel prize-winning Muslim scientists to the “immorality” of failing to abort a foetus with Down’s syndrome – have sparked outraged responses (some of which Dawkins read aloud on a recent YouTube video, which perhaps won him back a few friends). For some, his controversial positions have started to undermine both his reputation as a scientist and his own anti-religious crusade. Friends who vigorously defend both his cause and his character worry that Dawkins might be at risk of self-sabotage. “He could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett said of Dawkins’s public skirmishes. It is a legacy, Dennett believes, that should reflect the “masterpiece” that was The Selfish Gene and Dawkins’s major contribution to our understanding of life. As for Twitter: “I wish he wouldn’t do it,” Krauss said. “I told him that.”

Lots of people have told him that – friends and colleagues, I mean, not just onlookers.

Dawkins regularly goes on fundraising lecture tours, where his fame comes in useful. Tickets for a tour of the US in June – “an evening with Richard Dawkins”, in theatres in Portland, Oregon, Rochester, Minnesota and Boston – are on sale on the RDFRS website for $35. Access to a VIP reception beforehand is $250. Membership of the “Dawkins circle” costs from $1,000 to $9,999 a year, winning you discounts to the foundation’s online store, invitations to events with “RDFRS personalities” and, at its most expensive, two tickets for an “invitation-only” event with Dawkins himself. The fundraising is led by Robyn Blumner, the full time CEO of his foundation; Dawkins is her celebrity draw. “I’m totally hopeless at asking for money,” said Dawkins. “So I do work extremely hard at trying to be charming.”

Twitter not included.

For Dawkins, the science has always come first; his atheism is simply a natural extension of a lifelong quest to do Darwin’s work on Earth. As for the suggestion his public interventions over the past few years have done more harm than good – both to himself and his cause: “That does worry me,” Dawkins conceded, and yet he cannot quite resist the urge to wade in. “I think there is a curious desire in humans, maybe not all humans but certainly in me, to put things right,” he said. “There’s a joke in the New Yorker or something like that, of a man at a computer. It’s obviously very late and his wife is begging him to come to bed. He’s saying, ‘I can’t come to bed. Somebody’s wrong on the internet.’”

Twitter is not the best medium for putting things right. It’s one of the worst.

In recent years, the following sequence of events has become something of an online soap, regular and predictable: Dawkins tweets, is criticised for being deeply offensive, and then writes a long article to explain what he actually meant, which usually is not too far from what he said in the first place, but expressed with slightly more nuance. Since Dawkins joined Twitter seven years ago, he has amassed more than a million followers. He tweets assiduously, attracted by the medium’s limitations: “I’m sort of mildly intrigued by the art form of précising something into 140 characters; it’s not an easy thing to do. And there’s a certain satisfaction in the skill of doing it.”

Avoiding the obvious joke, I will make the less obvious point that the satisfaction fades pretty quickly, or at least it did in my case and I think probably in most people’s. You get the hang of it and then it just becomes a tool – it can be good for rapid conversations if the participants are witty enough, but no one tweet is likely to be a work of art. I think the medium’s limitations are something Dawkins shouldn’t be attracted by – I think they don’t work in his favor.

There was the pot of honey, for instance, as Elmhirst goes on to say.

Even on more serious topics, Dawkins cannot quite fathom how often he finds himself at the centre of online firestorms. “I do seem to be horribly susceptible to being misunderstood,” he said.

And why is that? If it’s a pattern, there’s probably a reason for the pattern. I think I know what it is.

“Quite a lot of what I do on Twitter is try to raise a discussion point,” he said. “It’s as though I was doing a seminar with students and said, ‘Here’s an interesting thought, X. What do you think about X?’” He is then mystified when his hypothesis is met by a chorus of criticism and abuse. “Very often I’m not making a point, but asking a question.” Sometimes his questions seem genuinely curious: “Whistling requires precise tongue positioning, like finger on violin string. Yet most can whistle tunes sans training. Interesting?” But often they are more rhetorical: “Truly? Is Sweden such a fatuously ridiculous country, bending over backwards to accommodate religious idiocy?”

Now I’m picturing fatuously ridiculous Sweden bending over backwards, and snickering.

Last July, Dawkins wrote, in 136 quickly infamous characters, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” For Dawkins, this was simply the illustration of a basic point of logic; on the other hand, he was using a highly sensitive crime as an example. “If I used another example it would have been obvious,” Dawkins said, by way of explanation. “The point is there are people who seriously refuse to admit that some rapes are worse than others.” Isn’t that a judgment to be made by the person who’s experienced it? “Exactly, which is why I said date rape may be worse than stranger rape. I said that. It’s up to the victim to decide … But it’s absurd for the thought police to come along and say that it is forbidden to allow a woman to rank some rapes as worse than others … This is a logical point, and there are people who say that emotion trumps logic.” For Dawkins, the idea that someone could understand his argument and still disagree with him was bewildering. “There must be something wrong with how I’m expressing it,” he said. In the presence of his logic, there is no room for an alternative view.

When did he write that? Right after we issued the joint statement. Two days after, if I remember correctly.

Perhaps the greatest source of disquiet within the atheist movement – particularly in the US, where the movement, under the broad banner of “skepticism”, is more active and organised – is among feminists. Greta Christina, an American feminist and atheist blogger, first met Dawkins at an event in 2009. It was a fantasy made real. “He was the reason I started calling myself an atheist … [meeting him] was one of the proudest moments of my life.” Then, in 2011, Dawkins waded into a comment thread under a blogpost about a discussion of sexual harassment that had recently taken place at a skeptics’ conference in the US: “Dear Muslima,” Dawkins wrote to an imagined Muslim woman, “Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car … But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

The attempt at satire went down badly: Dawkins appeared to be dismissing any concerns about sexual harassment (“He spoke some words to her. Just words,”) and doing so by ranking the experiences of women. He later apologised, but it marked, for Christina, a “disappointing and discouraging” turn for Dawkins, who had become, in her eyes, “so troubling, in such serious ways, and in particular so stubbornly troubling”.

Dawkins has always called himself a “passionate” feminist. As a fellow at New College, he agitated to allow women to be admitted, a change that occurred in 1979. “I show my feminism very largely in the Islamic context,” he said. “Because if women are having a hard time anywhere in the world, it’s there … I get impatient with American feminists who are so obsessed with being looked at inappropriately over the water cooler at work or whatever it is, that they forget that there are women being literally stoned to death for the crime of being raped.”

No, we don’t. We don’t forget. I, for instance, write about both. A lot.

His position has been interpreted in unfortunate ways by some of his followers. “Because he’s such a hero in the movement,” the American feminist Ophelia Benson said, “that gave a green light to an awful lot of people in the movement who thought it was okay to harass [feminists].” In recent years, online sceptic forums have been deluged with bilious anti-feminist posts and crude photoshopped images of women.

In an attempt to quell the increasingly unpleasant tone of discussion, Dawkins released a statement last August, jointly written with Benson, calling for an end to the online abuse. Dawkins added a personal footnote: “I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement.”

A few weeks later he was back on Twitter writing comments about how a drunk woman’s evidence was unreliable in a rape trial. Why? “Because I not only care passionately about truth, I care passionately about justice.” (Should it not worry him more that such a tiny proportion of rape cases make it to court at all? “Oh absolutely … I care very passionately about that, of course I do.”) Benson, who had encouraged Dawkins to write the statement in the first place, looked on in despair. “No, no, Richard,” she remembered thinking. “That was not the idea.”

Yup. That is what I thought.

But don’t worry: the balance sheet comes out right.

“Ultimately, will his net impact be positive?” Krauss asked. “I think the answer’s yes. For all the intelligentsia and all the people who are offended, I see a much larger audience that I hadn’t appreciated for whom these issues are brand new.”

Again, I will avoid the obvious retorts. I’m tired of uttering them.

Comments

  1. M'thew says

    Read the profile earlier today on the Gnardiau site. Of course Krauss would rate the net impact of Dawkins’ life as positive. He’s invested in there being certain thinky-thoughty leaders of an atheist “movement” (scare quotes intentional).

    I wish Elmhirst could have spelled out the issues surrounding Elevatorgate (especially the level of condescension Dawkins exhibited) a bit more, but even this profile is not the place for the complete background of “Dear Muslima”. I did not dare wade into the comments, though, as even on the Giaurdan site they can be a bit too depressing to my taste.

    “For all the thinky-thoughty leaders and all the people who are offended, I hope to see a much larger audience that I hadn’t appreciated for whom these issues rankle as much as they do for me.”

  2. Preston says

    Dawkins has spoken about the social stigma atheists face and how they can’t hold public office, especially in the U.S, and he has endorsed the Out Campaign to encourage atheists to be open with their skepticism. Yet one could just as easily reply, “Get over it! Atheists are murdered in other countries just for being atheists, and you’re worried about not be able to run for school council?” It’s so strange to me, this notion that people can’t hold a multitude of concerns–as if the stoning of women in Muslim countries means American women must sacrifice their personhood and tolerate inappropriate behavior at the office.

  3. Helene says

    I hold a multitude of concerns, Preston. But I am a Canadian ex-Muslim with relatives in the killing fields of Islam. I am exercised by the condition of women in many areas of Canadian life. And I am in the fortunate position (as a lawyer) of being able to remedy some of those inequalities. But in law as elsewhere in life there are degrees of injustice and what I see happening under Islam is many magnitudes worse than what I could possibly experience as an atheist Canadian woman. It’s not a simple matter of “concern”; it’s a matter of life or death. And the most galling insult to this injury occurs when the subject of Islam comes up in conversation and ostensibly “progressive” women (and men) mistakenly “commiserate” with me about “islamophobia”!

  4. Donnie says

    The worst, in my opinion, is that Dawkins can write and communicate wonderfully in book format.

    To me, The Greatest Show on Earth is his best contribution for making science easy and understanable.

    As others said, based on his Twitter comments, maybe it because he may have had great editors.

    Seriously, Dawkins, drop the Twitter unless it is to direct people to your full nuanced and edited article on your website.

  5. says

    Donnie beat me to it, though I would nominate The Ancestors Tale as my favorite (disclaimer: I haven’t read anything he wrote before The God Delusion). So yes, Dawkins can be, and has been, a marvelous communicator. But not so much lately, and especially not on Twitter.

  6. screechymonkey says

    I haven’t read the whole article yet, but am I wrong to see reason for optimism in some of these excerpts? Glimmers of self-awareness from Dawkins?

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … sexual harassment that had recently taken place at a skeptics’ conference in the US…

    US, Ireland, whatever – one of those crude, ungentlemanly places across some water off to the west

    Nowhere in the linked Guardian article can I find the words “Rebecca” or “Watson”.

  8. kellym says

    I wonder if not mentioning Rebecca was a condition of the interview. Will Dawkins ever lift his blacklisting of her?

  9. Preston says

    Helene, I agree that there are degrees of injustice. The point is that Dawkins dismisses many examples of sexism in the west as unimportant because worse things happen in the world, yet that line of reasoning can be applied to atheist causes he champions, from the Out Campaign to the Clergy Project, since atheists in other countries are murdered for their lack of belief. It’s a fallacy to assume one can’t maintain a multitude of concerns or that one shouldn’t fight a non-equal status quo if someone else in the world has it worse.

  10. David Evans says

    M’thew @1

    I think what Krauss said is completely defensible. I agree that Dawkins’ recent pronouncements are regrettable and will have done some damage to the image of atheism. But anyone can see that he does not in fact represent a majority view among atheists, so I think that damage will be short-lived.

    On the other hand his books are a major achievement. I’ve lost count of the number of people who said they first understood the concept of evolution or the possibility of atheism from those books.

  11. rjw1 says

    Certainly Dawkins’ comments on the disproportionately low numbers of Muslim Nobel Prize winners were, well, clumsy and could have been more considerate, however, as far as I understand, they’re accurate. My interpretation of his remarks was that he was criticising Islamic culture, not Muslims, particularly if we eliminate Muslim Nobel Laureates working in the West the record of Islamic science is dismal.

    @11 David Evans

    “I agree that Dawkins’ recent pronouncements are regrettable and will have done some damage to the image of atheism.”

    Why? Is atheism so fragile that the sometimes eccentric and abrasive opinions of Richard Dawkins are a threat to its validity or integrity as a world view. Dawkins isn’t necessarily a typical atheist anymore than I am, or any commenter on this blog.

  12. anthrosciguy says

    If you can’t imagine someone both understanding your argument and rejecting it, you have abandoned science, since it expects – no, demands – that you be able to say, as Carl Sagan put it, “but I may be wrong about that”. As for Dawkins’ “more appropriate for a young man”, no. More likely (and still not appropriate) in an infant, possibly a teenager, or a very old crank. That he doesn’t know the famous cartoon is an XKCD classic tells us the “old crank” category is the correct one.

  13. =8)-DX says

    @SC #13
    I know! It’s a cage match between the thought leaders and the philosopher intelligentsia!

  14. says

    Certainly Dawkins’ comments on the disproportionately low numbers of Muslim Nobel Prize winners were, well, clumsy and could have been more considerate, however, as far as I understand, they’re accurate.

    Their accuracy isn’t the issue. Lots of possible statements are accurate but still should not be made. Telling ugly people they’re ugly for instance, and other deliberately insulting assertions of that kind. So what if they’re accurate? The more accurate they are the less they should be uttered.

    It’s possible to write a sensible and sympathetic article or book about the link between Islamism and poverty of scientific achievement. It is not possible to compose a tweet of that kind. There was absolutely no need for Dawkins to make that remark on Twitter, and it couldn’t possibly have come across as anything other than mean taunting.

  15. Silentbob says

    There’s a joke in the New Yorker or something like that, of a man at a computer. It’s obviously very late and his wife is begging him to come to bed. He’s saying, ‘I can’t come to bed. Somebody’s wrong on the internet.’

    This is what comes of reading feminist blogs. As soon as I read this I was like, “It’s a stick figure! How do you know it’s ‘a man’ and ‘his wife’? Because ‘he’ is doing the thinky stuff?”

  16. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Silentbob, it’s obvious Dawkins saw the blog outside its context and is unfamiliar with xkcd.

    (Also, have you not noticed that in xkcd women have hair?)

  17. luzclara says

    “There must be something wrong with how I’m expressing it,” he said.”

    jesus h christ
    tone deaf

  18. says

    Wasn’t the water cooler quote more along the lines of “I get impatient with American feminists who are so obsessed with being looked at inappropriately by the water cooler at work” ? Not that it really matters, but I do recall a lot of snickering at Dawkins’ poor attempt at communicating that idea, things along the lines of “oh, those sexist water coolers.”

    It seems that his “Communicator” credentials still need quite a bit of bolstering.

  19. Silentbob says

    @ 18 John Morales

    OK, Smartypants. How do you know the unseen figure has hair?
    😉

  20. Silentbob says

    @ 17 Ophelia Benson

    The sad irony is, I always remember the bit in TGD where Dawkins praises feminists for precisely such “consciousness raising”.

  21. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Got me there, Silentbob @21. :)

    (I meant to note your point stands without reference to stick-figures)

  22. says

    Hey, any representation of me as a stick figure would also have to have hair. Of course, it would also have to have a beard, so I guess it would still be unambiguous…..

  23. Silentbob says

    It’s interesting, actually, that Dawkins “thought leader” buddies are also concerned with his behaviour. I haven’t seen that before. They’re not so easy for him to dismiss as Feedingfrenzy Thoughtpolice Bullies.

  24. Helene says

    Re. the disproportionately low numbers of Muslim Nobel Prize winners: Dawkins’ tweet was well deserved.

    I was brought up hearing how utterly “awesome” Islam was and how it was the solution to all the world’s problems. And, especially, how Islam was the source of all of science. I remember, in high school, trying to write an essay documenting that thesis and discovering, to the contrary, that orthodox Islam was in fact anathema to knowledge in general and science in particular. According to Steven Weinberg, after al-Ghazali (d. 1111), “there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries”. The reason for this is not that there weren’t eager Muslim scientists after al-Ghazali but that the religion and culture of their societies, in particular the dogmatic literalism, proved utterly stifling to scientific progress. Unlike engineering, which is basically applied technique, science requires an open-mindedness that religion proscribes. So while there continued to be excellent Islamic engineers, scientific research largely disappeared.

    And this hasn’t changed since the advent of the Nobel prizes. But if you are indoctrinated that the Quran is the source of all knowledge, the true poverty of science in Muslim societies comes as a shock. All Dawkins was saying is that the Sultan had no clothes.

  25. says

    Commiserater is more like it. He and his ilk (Harris, etc.) long for the days when they could say anything without being questioned, no matter how rancid their ideas and words.

  26. rjw1 says

    @27 Helene,

    The difference in response to the West between the so-called “Confucian” societies in East Asia and Islamic countries is also indicative of the sterility of the Islamic ideology, no majority contemporary Muslim country could be classed as an advanced industrial nation. Muslim countries were even slow to adopt printing, paper and “Arabic numerals” even though those innovations reached them well before Western Europe.

    “how Islam was the source of all of science.”

    Some of the claims are just infantile, such as ‘everyone thought that the Earth was flat before the revelations in the Quran’.

  27. says

    Some of the claims are just infantile, such as ‘everyone thought that the Earth was flat before the revelations in the Quran’.

    Yes. Eratosthenes was busy calculating the circumference of the earth long before the Quran. Quaranic “science” is not a thing. At best the ideas are stolen.

  28. says

    Donnie@4:

    The worst, in my opinion, is that Dawkins can write and communicate wonderfully in book format.

    What that tells me is that he has a good editor. Having been on both sides of the job, I know that a good editor can take a really crappy writer and fix them. But a crappy writer left on their own is not going to produce anything of value (re: twitter).

  29. Björn Carlsten says

    I wonder if Dawkins has ever seriously entertained the thought that maybe it’s not so much that his critics keep misunderstanding him, but perhaps that [some of] his critics understand perfectly well the problematic things he’s saying? I keep hoping that he will have an “aha”-moment and see where he has gone wrong, from Elevatorgate and beyond. Unfortunately, if he only listens to sycophants and not his critics, I fear that’ll never happen.

  30. Morgan says

    screechymonkey @6:

    I haven’t read the whole article yet, but am I wrong to see reason for optimism in some of these excerpts? Glimmers of self-awareness from Dawkins?

    I don’t see any more such glimmering here than there’s been in the past. He’s more than capable of continuing to fuck up in spite of sometimes seeming to realize he’s doing it. And, of course, it’s simply not true that he just makes a mess of trying to ask provocative questions to which he fails to anticipate the understandable response – he also dishonestly makes bad arguments for vile positions in which he has a stake, as in his comments about* Shermer and the accusations against him. Self-awareness isn’t going to cure that, not by itself.

    *Of course I mean his comments which were about nothing in particular but just happened by a wild coincidence to look exactly like what a weaselly bullshit artist would come out with at that time if they wanted to spread FUD but weren’t willing to stand behind doing so.

  31. David Evans says

    @11 rjw1 I did qualify my statement in the next sentence. But I think “some damage” is correct. Would you not agree that Pat Robertson, Bill Donoghue etc have done some damage to the image of Christianity?

  32. carlie says

    For Dawkins, the idea that someone could understand his argument and still disagree with him was bewildering. “There must be something wrong with how I’m expressing it,” he said. In the presence of his logic, there is no room for an alternative view.

    That’s the crux of it, right there. There is simply no room in his imagination to ever suspect that someone might actually rationally disagree with him, never mind the possibility that he might be actually wrong about anything.

  33. says

    Silentbob @ 25 –

    It’s interesting, actually, that Dawkins “thought leader” buddies are also concerned with his behaviour. I haven’t seen that before. They’re not so easy for him to dismiss as Feedingfrenzy Thoughtpolice Bullies.

    I have (seen that before). I’ve heard it from some of the concerned “thought leader” buddies, and I’ve heard it second-hand from people who are buddies of those buddies or who have been present when buddies expressed their concern. If I’ve heard it, it must be pretty common knowledge. Unfortunately it seems they are every bit as easy to dismiss as the horrible FT witch-hunters.

    Or maybe not exactly dismiss, but rather just…fail to act on. Exactly the way he fails to act on his own perceptions as Elmhirst reported them. He realizes there’s an issue, but it doesn’t prevent him from continuing to barf out “flamboyantly irritable” tweets. He did one just a couple of days ago, one that made him sound about 12.

  34. says

    Helene @ 27 – I know, and I agree. But as I said – that point can be made in a book or article, or even a comment as you just did. But in a tweet? Coming from him? It doesn’t come off the same way.

  35. says

    Björn @ 33 – exactly. And really, when he has so many people telling him, including friends, it’s beyond me to understand why he doesn’t have that aha moment. It’s not as if it’s complicated or obscure. He even says it himself at times – he says he gets impatient, for instance. Well quite: he gets impatient and he’s Richard Dawkins, so he should learn to do better.

    It may be simply that because he has so many wildly enthusiastic fans who just love his “impatience” he doesn’t feel he has to do better.

  36. says

    At the end of my conversation with Elmhirst (by the way I have no complaints about how she quoted me – something you don’t always hear about journalists), she said she was asking everyone she talked to if they thought he was a net good or bad. I paused for thought and then said I thought he was decidedly a net good as a science communicator, because his books remain, Twitter or no Twitter. As an ambassador for atheism, though, it’s more mixed.

  37. rjw1 says

    @35 David Evans,

    “Would you not agree that Pat Robertson, Bill Donoghue etc have done some damage to the image of Christianity?”

    Yes, with some qualifications.

    The degree of damage depends on the individual, it’s an entirely subjective assessment. Atheism is an intellectual position, not a belief system. In my opinion, the ridiculous infighting amongst atheists has inflicted far more damage on the cause than Prof Dawkins, it’s so easy for believers to misrepresent atheism as just another doctrine.

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