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Thursday, April 1, 2010

When the loonies come round

Famous zoologist and skeptic Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) is not merely a shrill-voiced critic of religion and the so-called paranormal. You have to concede that he is a very good writer - and has paid the price for it. Dawkins takes sometimes difficult and complicated information about the nature of science and life, and successfully commits those ideas to books and papers in easy-to-read format. He has a great capacity for metaphor and analogy, and his ideas of “the selfish gene” and “the blind watchmaker” have entered the popular imagination. Dawkin's ideas are thus readily accessible to the general public. This is precisely what you would expect of a man with Oxford University tenure, and formerly carrying the title of “Professor for the public understanding of science”.
The price Dawkins pays is related to the fact that his clear writing enables laymen to grasp his overall arguments with relative ease, even without the necessity of a deep knowledge of the science which underpins them. Amongst these laymen are what he calls “the enemies of reason”, namely the religious fundamentalists and those who wish to promulgate “superstitious” beliefs about the world and nature. Some of them have just enough knowledge to be a little dangerous, and quite unreasonable to boot. Dawkins often has to suffer hostile attacks from such people. It's almost enough for you to feel sorry for poor old professor Dawkins.
A classic example of how unfair the world is for Richard Dawkins  is revealed  in and incident which occurred in 1997, when Dawkins agreed to let an Australian film crew into his house for an interview. Unbeknown to Dawkins, the film crew had a purpose, namely “creationist propaganda” (Dawkins 2002 p. 617).
Dawkins became suspicious when the interview crew began an “amateurish” attempt to challenge evolutionary theory. They demanded that Dawkins “give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome” (Dawkins 2002 p. 617). It was then that Dawkins realised it was all a ruse, and he refused to continue with the interview. However feeling a little guilty that the crew had traveled all the way from the antipodes for the interview, he changed his mind. The results were all too predictable.

My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content… Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it (Dawkins 2002 p. 617).

Such are the injustices of this world. The good professor was not met with enquiring minds hoping to expand their sphere of knowledge, but by closed minds attempting to damage Dawkins’ reputation, and ensure that they and their colleagues did not have to reflect upon the foundations of their own knowledge.
Fundamentalism is an extreme kind of irrational close-mindedness, but its essence is consistent with what I call “confrontational binary thinking”, where we take one side of an issue or debate and hammer it out with an opponent without really bothering to think about the content of the debate. We can think of this kind of binary thinking as a less pronounced form of fundamentalism – essentially the same in kind, but lesser in degree. 
Now, before the hate mail starts flooding in, I am not going to let the good Professor  Dawkins off the hook quite so easily. 
It would be nice if such narrow thinking was restricted to the raving fundamentalists nutcases amongst us. Sadly, binary thought is the very basis of thought in Western culture. To demonstrate the universality of confrontational binary let's turn the tables on Professor Dawkins.
In 2007, ten years after the aforementioned creationist film crew had left Dawkins’ house, the eminent biologist took his own film crew to interview radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake as part of Dawkins’ TV series Enemies of Reason. The parallels with the first interview described above are remarkable. However this time the roles are reversed. Sheldrake describes the encounter.

Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary… will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil (Dawkins’ previous TV series) was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date…
The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”
I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.”
He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand… He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”
He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.
We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.
The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.
Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.
The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.
I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”
Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”
In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left (Sheldrake 2009).

Here it is Sheldrake who feels hard done by. Dawkins’ commitment, claims Sheldrake, was “to popularize this belief that... the paranormal is bunk… (and) those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans.” Sheldrake questions whether, instead of opening people’s mind to frontier science, Dawkins’ approach is abusing science as a “vehicle of prejudice, a kind of fundamentalist belief-system” (Sheldrake 2009, italics added)
Thus it seems that Dawkins himself is, to some degree, guilty of the same kind of blind-sight that he angrily denounces in religious fundamentalists. According to Sheldrake’s account, there was deliberate deception used to enter Sheldrake’s home, and then a complete and obstinate failure to address the truth claims of the other. 
 The parallels between these two incidents are fascinating.

See the videos section at bottom right of page to see Rupert Sheldrake speaking to Google about the evidence for psi.
You can also find this Dawkins vs Sheldrake synchronicity in my book Extraordinary Mind.


Dawkins , R. (2002). "The information challenge." In Pennock, R., (Ed.) Intelligent design: Creationism and its critics. London: MIT Press. pp. 618-631.

Sheldrake, R. (2009). "Richard Dawkins comes to call." Retrieved on Jan.1st 2009 from html.


  1. But isn't this often the case? Those that scream loudest about are often guilty of the very same thing in their own lives? (The mirror image?) I laugh at all of the "militia" type that are beginning to expand in our country - they hate almost everything, but especially those on welfare. They are all out of work and on unemployment. But they see this as "insurance." Despite the fact the government has extended unemployment twice during this economic downturn. If that's not welfare, I don't know what is. Just as the examples in this post - some of our best lessons come from those things we have the most problems with - if only we open our eyes and see it for what it is.

    I have always felt if I feel very strongly against something - that it is an indicator it is time to look in the mirror. Richard Dawkins would do well to examine his motives.

    Good point made in this post.

  2. Well said, Nancy!
    Marcus - it was my Firefox settings that prevented me from leaving a comment - not your blog!

  3. "A hypocrite is someone who... but then, who isn't?"

    Can't remember who said that, Nancy, but it's pretty right. Dawkins is a pretty easy target, as he is observably guilty of much of the same narrow-mindedness he rants about in religious "nuts". But he is a good writer, in that he is easy to understand. He does go off into rants though, which is rather strange for a scientist. He does make a lot of goof points, but is deeply ignorant of much of the subject matter he criticises.

    And Trish, thanks for clarifying the problem you had. I was worried I would have to do some trouble-shooting.


  4. Ha ha, that should have been "good" points!

  5. Great story, Marcus. I think Dawkins represents a perfect example of un-self-reflective disconnected modern man. For all his formidable skills and intelligence, his lack of connection to anything much higher than his own ego leaves him vulnerable, paradoxically, to being taken over by really quite primitive emotions.

    It is possible, though not easy, to avoid falling into these traps while still pursuing a life in the scientific limelight - Sheldrake provides an example. But you need a measure of humility, and the ability to accept the grace and guidance which is there for all of us - otherwise you may end up doing more damage than good.

  6. The problem for all scientists and for us, if we listen to them, is that they have closed minds, often influenced by who pays for their research or their salary.Life would be far less interesting if we knew all the answers.I suspect we never will know all the answers or perhaps that is a hope.

  7. Hi Von,

    I agree some scientists have closed minds, but we shouldn't taint them all with the same brush! After all, being closed minded is a fairly common human trait, no?