Dawkins’ New Book

There is something about Richard Dawkins that seems to drive otherwise intelligent people completely out of their minds. Dawkins writes a book called The Selfish Gene, and some scholarly critics actually go after him on the grounds that genes can not be selfish. Then he wrote The God Delusion, a badly needed bit of pushback against the seemingly endless flood of religious ignorance, bigotry and violence, and some critics thought the really important thing to note was Dawkins’ lack of respect for the ontological argument, or the fact that he did not discuss the views of Wittgenstein.

Now here comes his latest book: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, an edited anthology of essays by scientists. Clearly we will have to trump up some new horror for which to go after him.

The book itself is an attractively produced volume of a little over four hundred pages. It contains just over eighty items, most of them excerpts from longer works. The entries are divided into four main sections, entitled, What Scientists Study, Who Scientists Are, What Scientists Think and What Scientists Delight In. Plainly this is a book about science and scientists, as opposed to a book about, say, the impact of science on culture. My impression is that many of the entries are devoted to explaining some potentially confusing aspect of science.

I have only read a few of the entries thus far. Several others I recognize from past reading. Based on this small sample, I am looking forward to plowing through the whole thing. One especially noteworthy point is that Dawkins has included entries from people with whom he differs greatly in outlook. For example, there are entries from Paul Davies, Fred Hoyle and Freeman Dyson. Rather gracious of Dawkins, especially given his reputation for militant dogmatism.

So what is the controversy? Well, in his brief introduction Dawkins writes this:

This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.

Seemed innocent enough to me; just a simple statement of fact about the sort of anthology Dawkins chose to produce. But Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog saw something sinister here:

Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright. Scientists are capable of good writing; writers may merely make their excursions into science, as befits those who travel steerage in the oceans of the intellect.

In case you think Levenson is just being snarky here, that he can’t possibly infer from that one sentence that Dawkins’ holds the views attributed to him, then think again:

But one thing you expect — or at least I do — is some editorial rationale for the choices, and some grasp of the actual landscape you are, or claim to be covering. Remember that Dawkins is editing a collection that asserts its grasp of “Modern Science Writing.”

Speaking as a science writer and film maker of a quarter of a century of effort, some of it at least not entirely risible, when Dawkins asserts that the world of science writing excellent enough to be beatified by the Oxford University Press is wholly the province of professional researchers with the capacity to achieve “good” writing — he’s talking rot, pure nonesense

See what I mean about Dawkins driving people out of their minds?

Levenson needs to be more careful when throwing around words like rot and nonsense. Nothing Dawkins wrote, and no editorial decisions he made, imply that he thinks that only scientists are capable of good science writing. I have never discussed this matter with Dawkins, but I feel I am on entirely safe ground in saying that he does not, in fact, believe this.

Why did Dawkins choose to include only professional scientists (stretching the definition a bit in the case of Martin Gardner and Daniel Dennett, but we shall leave that aside)? You will have to ask him that. I suspect the reason was simply that professional scientists are rarely given a platform for showing their best face, and Dawkins chose to use this anthology as one small counter to this tendency. Certainly there is precisely zero reason to look for any darker motive than that.

Alas, the silliness did not stop there. John Wilkins noticed Levenson’s post and said this about it:

Inverse Square Blog has some critical, and I think correct, things to say about scientists like Dawkins who think good science writing can only be done by scientists; which is the inverse of the claim discussed by Pharyngula that only science communicators can write about science. Neither is correct. Let a thousand flowers blossom! (Emphasis in original)

I love the bit about putting “only” in italics. It gives the impression that Wilkins is about to brandish a single instance of good science writing by a non-scientist, thereby dramtically disproving the claim. At any rate, when I left a comment pointing out to John that this is a rather expansive reading of Dawkins’ statement he replied with this:

Jason, perhaps it seems inadvertent, or that it just happened that scientific writers are all scientists in that book, but the mere fact that only scientists were chosen is, I think, telling. Only a few scientists are writers on the order of Ed Wilson or Frans de Waal. Most cannot write to save their lives. Generally, the best scientific writing is done by those who make their living that way – Carl Zimmer being the obvious local identity, but David Quammen is an equally good example.

But maybe you are right and it is best not to make too much of it. (Emphasis in original)

If Wilkins is right that most scientists can’t write to save their lives (I’m not sure of the basis for that remark) then that is all the more reason to showcase and preserve the rare good examples of writing by scientists, as Dawkins has now done.

There is no “it” to make much of here. And it was not inavertent that only scientists were chosen for representation in the book, as Dawkins’ makes clear. So I’m not sure what Wilkins has in mind with that opening sentence. As for what it is that Dawkins’ editorial decisions are telling of, I’m afraid I’m completely in the dark.

Then here comes Larry Moran to contribute some silliness from the other direction:

I maintain that the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important. Scientists tend to score high in accuracy when they write about science, especially if it’s their field. (There are many exceptions.)

Professional science journalists tend to score high in other categories such as readability and style. These are very important features of good science writing and no scientist can be considered a good science writer without being a good writer as well as a good scientist.

What about the non-professional who writes a good story that is not scientifically accurate? Can such a person be awarded kudos for good science writing? If the awards are handed out by other journalists, and not by scientists, is accuracy of information going to count for very much?

Accuracy is the only important criterion for good science writing? Wow.

Accurate writing is what you get from textbooks (many exceptions of course). There is also nothing in the world more boring than a science textbook (with fewer exceptions this time). Accuracy is certainly a necessary condition for good science writing, but it is very far from sufficient.

As for the rest of Moran’s musings, things are not as simple as he makes out. What if you had a beautiful piece of science writing that makes a few minor errors, but also presents an important aspect of science in a form that is comprehensible and engaging to nonscientists? Should I rank that lower than an unreadable and jargon-filled competitor that is nonetheless scrupulously accurate?

I’m also not sure how the conversation went from being about science writing to being about some sort of competition between scientists and science journalists. There are many other sorts of science writing that do not fit into either of those categories. For example, the man who in my view gets the nod as the finest science writer ever is Isaac Asimov. He was not a professional scientist (with the excpetion of a few years at the start of his career) and definitely was not a journalist. Yet he produced literally a few hundred of the clearest and most engaging expositions of science ever to be published in book form.

Time to wrap this up. Here in America, during the nineties, the expression “Clinton hatred” made the rounds among politically-minded people. That was replaced by “Bush hatred” with the turn of the milennium. (The difference between them, of course, is that Clinton hatred is a sign of mental illness, while Bush hatred is a sign of mental health.)

I think we might need to coin the term “Dawkins hatred.” Levenson’s vituperative response to Dawkins’ innocuous statement (and Wilkins’ inexplicable endorsement of that response) is so out of proportion to the provocation that some non-rational factor simply must be at play here.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    May 28, 2008

    As I said at Levenson’s blog, if I had read that implication in what Dawkins wrote, I would have objected to it. I didn’t read it that way, so in my review, I talked about other matters. (I’ll agree with Levenson that Dawkins focused an awful lot on biology and physics, but that’s beside the point right now.) Let’s look at the paragraph from which the offending sentence comes; it’s the second paragraph of the brief Introduction.

    This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers. Another difference from John Carey’s admirable Faber Book of Science is that we go back only one century. Within that century, no attempt was made to arrange the pieces chronologically. Instead, the selections fall roughly into four themes, although some of the entries could have fitted into more than one of those divisions. My biggest regret concerns the number of excellent scientists that I have had to leave out, for reasons of space. I would apologize to them, did I not suspect that my own pain at their omission is greater than theirs. The collection is limited to the English language and, with very few exceptions, I have omitted translations from books originally composed in other languages.

    Bold emphasis is mine. If an anthology of a different kind is “admirable”, what exactly is the fuss about? As a subsidiary point, “excursions into science by professional writers” sounds to me like a wire-service reporter covering science news in amongst all the other kinds, rather than a Carl Zimmer who is dedicated to science (and, indeed, often a particular science). That’s just my impression, of course.

    At Levenson’s blog, I asked if the book would have been less objectionable had it been titled The Oxford Book of Science Writing by Scientists. He assented:

    if Dawkins/Oxford had been explicit that this was intended to be a picture of science by scientists, that would have been fine. What got my goat was the claim that science writing full stop is the province of scientists and not the rest of us.

    While I can see a certain justice in this, I must also wonder how many details can be packed into a title and still have the book sell. Isn’t a straightforward description in the Introduction explicit enough? The jacket copy begins as follows:

    This sparkling collection of writing reveals how many of the best scientists have displayed as much imagination and skill with words as they have with equations or experiments.

    Read that, and tell me you don’t know what you’re getting! We’re told, up front and with no waffling, what species of writer will be represented, and in the next breath, the editor tells us that a volume edited on different principles is “admirable”. Again, what in blazes is the problem?

    But before I get myself all flustered, I should reiterate that if anybody implies that only scientists can do science writing, I’ll dismiss them with a belly laugh or a sarcastic snark, depending on the arrogance of the speaker. Finally, in the hope that we can move this discussion towards something constructive, I’ll repeat the last thing I said at Levenson’s place:

    So, now that we’re all agreed that restricting science writing to one class of professionals is a bad thing — never mind how badly this book or that sins in that regard — how do we fix the problem? Can we somehow boost the legitimacy and the visibility of The Open Laboratory, the annual science-blogging anthology? (I helped edit the 2007 edition, which probably counts against it right there.) Does anybody here have the connections and the wherewithal to pull together A Century of Outstanding Science Journalism and get it into Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million?

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    May 28, 2008

    As I said at Levenson’s blog, if I had read that implication in what Dawkins wrote, I would have objected to it. I didn’t read it that way, so in my review, I talked about other matters. (I’ll agree with Levenson that Dawkins focused an awful lot on biology and physics, but that’s beside the point right now.) Let’s look at the paragraph from which the offending sentence comes; it’s the second paragraph of the brief Introduction.

    This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers. Another difference from John Carey’s admirable Faber Book of Science is that we go back only one century. Within that century, no attempt was made to arrange the pieces chronologically. Instead, the selections fall roughly into four themes, although some of the entries could have fitted into more than one of those divisions. My biggest regret concerns the number of excellent scientists that I have had to leave out, for reasons of space. I would apologize to them, did I not suspect that my own pain at their omission is greater than theirs. The collection is limited to the English language and, with very few exceptions, I have omitted translations from books originally composed in other languages.

    Bold emphasis is mine. If an anthology of a different kind is “admirable”, what exactly is the fuss about? As a subsidiary point, “excursions into science by professional writers” sounds to me like a wire-service reporter covering science news in amongst all the other kinds, rather than a Carl Zimmer who is dedicated to science (and, indeed, often a particular science). That’s just my impression, of course.

    At Levenson’s blog, I asked if the book would have been less objectionable had it been titled The Oxford Book of Science Writing by Scientists. He assented:

    if Dawkins/Oxford had been explicit that this was intended to be a picture of science by scientists, that would have been fine. What got my goat was the claim that science writing full stop is the province of scientists and not the rest of us.

    While I can see a certain justice in this, I must also wonder how many details can be packed into a title and still have the book sell. Isn’t a straightforward description in the Introduction explicit enough? The jacket copy begins as follows:

    This sparkling collection of writing reveals how many of the best scientists have displayed as much imagination and skill with words as they have with equations or experiments.

    Read that, and tell me you don’t know what you’re getting! We’re told, up front and with no waffling, what species of writer will be represented, and in the next breath, the editor tells us that a volume edited on different principles is “admirable”. Again, what in blazes is the problem?

    But before I get myself all flustered, I should reiterate that if anybody implies that only scientists can do science writing, I’ll dismiss them with a belly laugh or a sarcastic snark, depending on the arrogance of the speaker. Finally, in the hope that we can move this discussion towards something constructive, I’ll repeat the last thing I said at Levenson’s place:

    So, now that we’re all agreed that restricting science writing to one class of professionals is a bad thing — never mind how badly this book or that sins in that regard — how do we fix the problem? Can we somehow boost the legitimacy and the visibility of The Open Laboratory, the annual science-blogging anthology? (I helped edit the 2007 edition, which probably counts against it right there.) Does anybody here have the connections and the wherewithal to pull together A Century of Outstanding Science Journalism and get it into Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million?

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    May 28, 2008

    My original comment got stuck in the spam trap since I included two hyperlinks. With my apologies for an extra comment, then, here’s where I sought clarification from Levenson.

  4. #4 Leni
    May 28, 2008

    That does seem like an entirely contrived grievance. Cue lame Nisbett post (or Nesbitt or whatever his name is- I never get it right) in 3…2…1…

    And I like your science journalism anthology idea Blake. Too bad Scientific American already does it once a month!

    (To be fair- SciAm often features articles written by the scientists themselves.)

  5. #5 baryogenesis
    May 28, 2008

    Dawkins had received such bad press in North America (post-God Delusion) that until I actually heard him speak on a local public television station, I admit that I anticipated his delivery to be abrasive, ie, the “cranky atheist”. Following the interview, my opinion changed to one of admiration for his thoughtful yet fearless style. There are many who have set their minds against Dawkins (and I’m not referring to bat-shit-crazy fundamentalists here). It seems that some have taken upon themselves the role of Moderate Spokesperson for Freethinkers Everywhere. They are being as divisive as creationists, IMO. I would have passed right by the “tone of disdain” in Dawkins’ intro. Yeesh.

  6. #6 Karen
    May 28, 2008

    Wow. And here I was assuming from the title that the book was a style guide for writing scientific papers. Now I’ll have to check it out. Levenson did me a favor by prompting you to write this blog post!

  7. #7 Larry Ayers
    May 29, 2008

    I like Dawkins, and I’ve read most of his books, but I get annoyed when he succumbs to the temptation to scornfully decry religion. I’m an atheist but I try to be civil to my fellow humans who might be deriving some benefit from religious beliefs.

    Dawkins prefaces each of the essays or excerpts in his new anthology with a non-contentious paragraph or two, placing the author in scientific context, and none of these prefaces are disdainful of religion. Way to go, Richard!

    It’s a great anthology and I recommend it highly.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 29, 2008

    Blake-

    I agree completely with what you say. If it turns out that I am wrong and that Dawkins really did mean to imply that only scientists could produce good science writing, then I would agree that he deserves to have some blog tomatoes thrown at him. But I think inferring that from the one sentence Levenson refers to, and then using that as a basis for a very angry blog post, is so unreasonable that it merits some serious criticism of its own.

    Larry-

    I shortened your “Posted by” handle. Hope that was okay.

    Karen-

    Well, I’m glad something good has come of all this!

  9. #9 DS
    May 29, 2008

    I agree that some people take the Dawkins-bashing too far. I think it’s pretty unreasonable, though, to trivialize criticisms by philosophers like Michael Ruse which justifiably point out that some of Dawkins’ theological/philosophical arguments are just plain bad. The God Delusion spends an awful lot of time criticizing the philosophical legitimacy of certain theological arguments, so it’s quite justified for a reviewer to assess the quality of that critique. I sympathize with your feeling that GD was a ‘badly needed pushback,’ but do you really believe it would be appropriate for a review in a scholarly journal to make that argument?

  10. #10 Raiko
    May 29, 2008

    On a note of “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion”, I maintain that you can answer most, if not all, critics by simply quoting passages from the respective books. I have a feeling that in a way, you could do that for the new one, even though it’s something very different from the previous ones. I can’t wait to get to read it (hopefully soon).

    I sometimes have a feeling this is a desperate, desperate run for the label “I properly criticized Dawkins; now top that!!” The crucial point is that it only works if the “properly” is inculded…

  11. #11 Zeno
    May 29, 2008

    (The difference between them, of course, is that Clinton hatred is a sign of mental illness, while Bush hatred is a sign of mental health.)

    Indubitably.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 29, 2008

    DS-

    Yes, I do think it would be reasonable to point out the social context of The God Delusion when reviewing it in a scholarly journal. Ruse, to his credit, did that. Philosophers like Ruse keep telling me that Dawkins’ arguments are not very good, but I’ve been decidedly unimpressed with what they have offered to counter them. I still might be inclined to take their objections seriously but for the nasty and condescending tone they have seen fit to use in their reviews.

  13. #13 Matt Penfold
    May 29, 2008

    “Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright”

    Can we add a mild form of class hatred and xenophobia to the list of Thomas Levenson’s crimes ?

  14. #14 Sam C
    May 29, 2008
    Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright.

    There’s a nice little joke (which might be difficult for speakers of American English*), ‘scuse the slitely fonetik speling wen rekwired:

    An irritated American says to a toffee-nosed Englishman who has just corrected him on some detail: “Gosh, what I hate about you limeys is that you’re so paytronising!” and the Englishman replies: “Actually, old bean, I think you’ll find that it’s pronounced ‘pahtronising’.”

    To be fair, you do sometimes dress your thickies up in golfing trousers and send them over to us. A recent apparently true story: an American lady in full tourist fig goes into the Bodleian Library in Oxford and looks around awestruck. She says to the porter “wow, this is terrific, is it pre-war?” and the porter gently replies “madam, it’s pre-America”.

    * yes, that’s right, you worked that one out!

  15. #15 John Farrell
    May 29, 2008

    I for one hope scientists don’t completely take over the science writing biz; otherwise I’m screwed.
    ;)

  16. #16 decrepitoldfool
    May 29, 2008

    I like Dawkins, and I’ve read most of his books, but I get annoyed when he succumbs to the temptation to scornfully decry religion. I’m an atheist but I try to be civil to my fellow humans who might be deriving some benefit from religious beliefs.

    I’m hard-pressed to think of an example where Dawkins has ever been uncivil to anyone, unless identifying nonsense is uncivil. All the sophisticated theology he’s criticized for failing to take into account hinges for its credibility on the question of whether there is any evidence that a god even exists. Sans that evidence, it is nonsense to talk about what god thinks of this or that, or to insist that civilizations pay more attention to guesses about a hypothetical deity than to the learning and accomplishments of humanity.

  17. #17 Ian
    May 29, 2008

    “If Wilkins is right that most scientists can’t write to save their lives (I’m not sure of the basis for that remark)…”

    I thought Wilkins = Right was a law of physics. Wilkins told me, so it must be right….

  18. #18 sc
    May 29, 2008

    This point has probably been made elsewhere, but perhaps certain readers perceive “disdain” in the sentence in question for the very reason cited by Blake Stacy in his comment above — namely, because Prof. Dawkins seems to have consigned professional science writers such as Carl Zimmer et al. to the same category as (quoting Stacy) “wire-service reporter[s] covering science news in amongst all the other kinds.”

    One can read the sentence in Prof. Dawkins’s essay to suggest that all non-scientist writers, including both the specialists and the wire-service generalists, do nothing more than make “excursions” into science. This could be especially grating to the ear of the professional science writer because we often think of wire-service reporters confronting science as being prone to misunderstand the subject and to misinform their readers, ultimately doing a disservice to the scientific community.

    A professional science writer, who regards him- or herself as being professionally centered in the world of science and as helping to advance the public’s appreciation of that world, could well feel aggrieved by being implicitly likened to the error-prone generalist. Clearly, though, a great deal of interpretation is at work here, and Prof. Dawkins may have meant no such implication.

  19. #19 Paul A
    May 29, 2008

    Agreed about the book, 100%, and can’t wait to pick it up. However I have to pick a fault in this little fella:

    “The difference between them, of course, is that Clinton hatred is a sign of mental illness, while Bush hatred is a sign of mental health.”

    Just because, as with every US election, Bill Clinton was the least bad of the two who stood a chance of winning does not mean he was a good person. Ask those people who lost relatives as a direct result of his ordering the strike on the Al-Shifa plant based on no solid proof whatsoever. That’s just for starters, he managed to hide a whole lot behind that sax and goofy smile. I hate Bush as much as the next man but I’ll never pretend that lesser of two evils = good.

    And that goes double for Hillary, “the Obliterator”.

  20. #20 DS
    May 29, 2008

    Jason,

    I won’t argue with you about whether you found the tone of some reviews unkind–some certainly were, and with others I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. I think Ruse’s criticism of Dawkins’ theological and philosophical naivete was quite justified, as do many historians and philosophers I know. I liked God Delusion, and I found it energizing, but it would have been a better book if it had taken philosophy more seriously.

    Speaking of tone, what do you think about the tone of some of Dennett’s reviews of Ruse? At least Michael doesn’t resort to ad hominems like comparing people to Nevile Chamberlain!

  21. #21 BAllanJ
    May 29, 2008

    I’d bet that Levenson had heard on the grapevine that Oxford was putting out this anthology…figured he’d be sure to be asked for his best essay. After spending all that time dusting off his files looking for his best…only to not even be called up must have got him hopping mad even before the book came out. How dare they not include him…and worst of all….he got bested by people who don’t even write for a living! Oh the indignity!

  22. #22 Oran Kelley
    May 29, 2008

    If Wilkins is right that most scientists can’t write to save their lives (I’m not sure of the basis for that remark) then that is all the more reason to showcase and preserve the rare good examples of writing by scientists, as Dawkins has now done.

    I’ve edited for both a scientific journal and a trade publication for which scientists regularly wrote. Believe me, most scientists can’t write well enough to pass freshman expos (though I imagine they did once). Most find it very difficult to simultaneously a) adopt an authoriatative tone and b) write comprehensible prose and given the choice they always go for a).

    Not to say that this applies to the folks Dawkins is editing, but the general observation is true: scientists write badly.

  23. #23 Jason Failes
    May 29, 2008

    “Let a thousand flowers blossom!”

    Yes, on blogs!

    When you’re editing an anthology, however, and the whole point of the book is professional scientists doing good science writing, I would be neither shocked nor offended to find out that most of the entries will be…professional scientists doing good science writing.

    Next up: Complaining that Martha Stewart’s latest anthology does not have enough engineers who can cook in it. Engineers can cook! Let a thousand flowers blossom (into a ten-thousand page book, evidently)

  24. #24 Larry Moran
    May 29, 2008

    Jason says,

    Accuracy is the only important criterion for good science writing? Wow.

    I never said that.

    Accurate writing is what you get from textbooks (many exceptions of course). There is also nothing in the world more boring than a science textbook (with fewer exceptions this time). Accuracy is certainly a necessary condition for good science writing, but it is very far from sufficient.

    I agree 100%. You can’t have good science writing if it isn’t accurate but the conveying of accurate information requires good writing.

    My message is that accuracy is the #1 criterion (also #2 and #3). This is a message that doesn’t seem to be getting out. Most people think that all you need for good science writing is good writing and good science is far less important.

    As for the rest of Moran’s musings, things are not as simple as he makes out. What if you had a beautiful piece of science writing that makes a few minor errors, but also presents an important aspect of science in a form that is comprehensible and engaging to nonscientists? Should I rank that lower than an unreadable and jargon-filled competitor that is nonetheless scrupulously accurate?

    Of course not.

    I’m also not sure how the conversation went from being about science writing to being about some sort of competition between scientists and science journalists. There are many other sorts of science writing that do not fit into either of those categories. For example, the man who in my view gets the nod as the finest science writer ever is Isaac Asimov. He was not a professional scientist (with the excpetion of a few years at the start of his career) and definitely was not a journalist. Yet he produced literally a few hundred of the clearest and most engaging expositions of science ever to be published in book form.

    I agree with you about Asimov. What’s your point? There are good scientists who are good science writers. There are good scientists who are bad writers. There are good science writers who do a good job of writing about science. There are science writers who write very well but don’t get the science right. We know that the second category is large. All I’m saying is that the fourth category is much larger than most people realize.

  25. #25 Coriolis
    May 29, 2008

    Oh please, he’s a scientist for crying out loud. If, as a physicist, I demanded a proper indepth mathematical treatment of pretty much any physical concept in a popular science book or in fact almost anything written by a philosopher/historian I’d be sorely disappointed. Obviously. But I certainly wouldn’t be surprised, since of course scientists have by and large simply accepted that most non-scientists can’t do math “to save their lives” to use that expression. Does that mean that no non-physicist should ever be writing about physics, if they can’t do the math? I certainly don’t think so. So long as they have something of an understanding of what they are talking about, it’s fine if they can’t actually derive it or know the deeper theories behind it.

    I don’t know why people (especially non-scientists, amusingly enough) perpetuate this idea that scientists should be great at science, and philosophy, and writing, and making movies and “fill in the blank”. It’s flattering that apparently they think all scientists are crazy geniuses with infinite talents but I’m afraid we can’t help but dissapoint (a little).

    People are good at, and do different things. If scientists suck so much at writing, then it’s nice of Dawkins to put together a list of our not quite so unbelievably horrible writing, so maybe we can learn a little (personally I’d just go for Feynman’s lectures). That someone (especially someone who claims to care about making science, and presumable scientists better) would be whining about this is rather absurd.

  26. #26 Blake Stacey
    May 29, 2008

    Addressing the various points raised in this thread:

    1. I imagine that most people write badly. Scientists have the added obligation that their job requires them to do something for which they likely have neither natural aptitude nor, often, explicit training.

    2. The God Delusion treats philosophy with considerably more depth and gravitas than did the God-fearing citizens of North Alabama, where I spent my formative years. As for the discomfited theologians, well, I found myself enlightened last night by a rediscovered passage of Borges:

    Despite the vagueness this plural suggests, Elohim is concrete; God is called “Jehovah” and we read that He walked the garden in, as the English versions say, “the cool of the day.” Human qualities define Him; in one part of the Scriptures we read: “And it repented Jehovah that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart”; and in another, “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God”; and in another, “In the fire of My wrath have I spoken.” The subject of such locutions is indisputably Someone, a corporal Someone whom the centuries will magnify and blur. [...] In the first centuries of our era, theologians began to use the prefix omni, which previously had been reserved for adjectives pertaining to nature or Jupiter; they coined words like omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, which make of God a respectful chaos of unimaginable superlatives. That nomenclature, like the others, seems to limit the divinity: at the end of the fifth century, the unknown author of the Corpus Dionysiacum declares that no affirmative predicate is fitting for God. Nothing should be affirmed of Him, everything can be denied. Schopenhauer notes dryly: “That theology is the only true one, but it has no content.”

    That’s “Die alguien a nadie” ["From Someone to Nobody"] (1950), translated by Eliot Weinberger.

    3. And as for this. . .

    A recent apparently true story: an American lady in full tourist fig goes into the Bodleian Library in Oxford and looks around awestruck. She says to the porter “wow, this is terrific, is it pre-war?” and the porter gently replies “madam, it’s pre-America”.

    Had they breath to speak, the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas might disagree. (The Bodleian Library was not opened until 1602, the year that Bartolomew Gosnold named Cape Cod, and the library which it replaced only began in the fourteenth century, when Cuzco was already an Inca city-state.)

  27. #27 Oran Kelley
    May 29, 2008

    The thing about kneejerk hostility to Dawkins:

    Yes, I think it does exist (people would probably point to me as an example of it if they read what I write).

    But there are a couple of important caveats to be made: the pugnacious tone of anti-Dawkins writing is reflected pretty strongly in pro-Dawkins writing. Just look at the frothy-mouthed hostility Gould gets treated to by Dawkins fans.

    And, there are important objections to be made to Dawkins’s work. The God Delusion is a disappointment becuase it simply doesn’t take the opposition seriously enough. Frankly, if it isn’t worthwhile to read and understand the people on the other side of the controversy, it isn’t worth writing the book at all.

    I don’t thinkthis applies only to questions like “Did he truly consider the work of CS Lewis?” but to questions like “Did he read and and give serious consideration to the work of people like Pascal Boyer?”

    The answer is “No.” And spare us the revisionist “He only wanted to disprove God’s existence” line, because much of the book is a consideration of the merits of religion–what people like Boyer (and Lewis) are considering. So not only would it have been a better book if he had taken the philosophy more seriously. It would have been a better book had he consdidered the science more seriously.

    The one thing he was sufficiently serious about was the rhetoric, which personally I have little use for: I am an atheist and I don’t require Dawkins’s reassurance that that’s OK or his help in converting my roommate.

    Why doesn’t Dawkins try to provide a real answer to questions like “Why is religion here?” or “What good does it do us?” I don’t think it’s at all unfair to expect thoughful answers from Dawkins on these topics.

    People who will hear no unkind work spoken about Dawkins really have to curb their hero-worship a little bit. People who think God Delusion is anything better than a good bit of propaganda are deluding themselves. People who think that GD doesn’t look a bit sad next to the Selfish Gene–both a masterful bit of persuasion AND a book that thoroughly treated the subject–are deluding themselves. Perhaps someone should write The Dawkins Delusion.

    The Selfish Gene raised alarm bells for some people because it presented what was obviously a powerful way of rethinking natural selection. For some it was also powerfully distorting. I am less inclined to agree with some of the more extreme critics of Dawkins here, but again there is absolutely nothing wrong with critics attacking what they see as distortions: that’s what intellectual give and take are all about.

    As to the science journalism thing, it’s a good point to make, but I’m not sure Dawkins should be the focus of it. It certainly gets people talking more though, dunnit?

  28. #28 Tom Levenson
    May 29, 2008

    Just thought I’d stop by and see what all the hullabaloo was about.

    A couple of things: I got no problem with Dawkins’ editorial choice; I do with the presentation of the book as a synoptic view of science writing full stop. Others in this thread don’t see that claim. I think it is implicit (actually, pretty explicit) in the title, and nothing in Dawkins’ introduction dispels that impression.

    I don’t disagree with those who have pointed out that the book makes it clear what potential readers are getting. I just think that this observation misses the (my) point.

    As for any symptoms of Dawkins Derangement Syndrome — not so much if you actually take a look at the best possible evidence– what else I wrote on this book. In the first — and to my mind the more important critique I offered on this book (http://inversesquare.wordpress.com/2008/05/19/the-dogs-that-do-not-bark-for-dawkins/)– I wrote:

    “It is, as you might expect, a very nicely put together book, complete with the obligatory butterfly and double helix on the cover. It is handsomely designed, nicely printed; someone who likes books as objects took care over the work.

    It is also, as you would certainly expect, full of smart interesting stuff, with an interesting structural conceit, breaking down the world of science writing to questions of what scientists study, who they are, what they think (sadly not what is to my mind the more important question: how they think), and what delights them.

    All good so far, you might say, and you’d be right.”

    That really sounds hostile to me.

    In point of fact I greatly admire Dawkins, of course. I know no serious science writer who does not. I have several books that he was kind enough to sign for me, and though I cannot claim to have any real personal connection to him, I did spend one enjoyable and informative afternoon and evening with him in the context of a television interview I produced a few years ago. There were just three of us at dinner, which makes it possible for me to confirm the comment in this thread to the effect that Professor Dawkins is in person cordial, gracious and a fascinating conversational partner.

    Pretty deranged, eh?

    At the same time, I would value this community’s response to what I do think is the more substantive of my complaints with Dawkins’ choices for the contents of this collection. That was the substance of the post quoted above, in which I complain that the book’s presentation is exceptionally narrow, and a bit conventional as well. The usual suspects are well represented, but there were no real surprises (to me, at least) in the authors and a lot of the selections.

    Again, folks: I made this point first because I thought it was the more important one for the community to consider. Do y’all disagree?

    (Just for the fun of it I’m going to post a slightly expanded version of this comment on Inverse Square. Have at it here or there if you want to.)

  29. #29 Blake Stacey
    May 29, 2008

    Tom Levenson:

    The usual suspects are well represented, but there were no real surprises (to me, at least) in the authors and a lot of the selections.

    I think there’s an audience factor at work here. As I tried to point out in my review, I found a fair bit of material which I think would surprise a person whose knowledge of science comes from Wired or New Scientist and half-forgotten lessons back in high school. To a person who has been in “the biz” for a few years, there’s nothing shocking about Conway’s Game of Life or Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but to a person who’s been reading the odd news story about Tiktaalik or the Cassini mission might have a valuable experience: “Hey, this is math — and it doesn’t hurt!

    A couple of things: I got no problem with Dawkins’ editorial choice; I do with the presentation of the book as a synoptic view of science writing full stop. Others in this thread don’t see that claim. I think it is implicit (actually, pretty explicit) in the title, and nothing in Dawkins’ introduction dispels that impression.

    I think we’re going to have to cordially disagree on this “science writing full stop” business. (If people, including scientists themselves, are under the oft-justified impression that scientists can’t write, who would even buy this anthology? Would anybody fork out cash for a hardcover entitled The Oxford Book of People Who Can’t Write Talking about the Incomprehensible? You have succeeded in making me sympathize with the Oxford UP’s publicity department!) Rather than continue to indulge in commenting about blogging about blogging about writing about writing about science, gazing into a meta-navel so deep it threatens to form its own event horizon, I’ll repeat my request that we move on and do something constructive. Let’s figure out what to put into The MIT Book of Science Writing.

    Can we build an anthology filled with the sciences which Oxford didn’t cover — chemistry and archaeology and the less cosmological kinds of astronomy? Can we do more to eradicate math phobia? What about an anthology aimed for children and their parents, or for high-school teachers? Come on, people, we’re science fans on the Internet. We are legion, and we are mighty.

  30. #30 ctw
    May 29, 2008

    “Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright. Scientists are capable of good writing; writers may merely make their excursions into science, as befits those who travel steerage in the oceans of the intellect. ”

    Sorry, but a serious review simply wouldn’t include a statement of this sort. There are so many unjustified inferences from so few words, expressed in so few overly flowerly words. Dawkins is:

    - a social elitist (“birthright”)

    - contemptuous of other than a “proper” education

    - expressing his disdain in standard, formulaic elitist vocabulary and style (“exquisite tone”)

    - suggesting that only scientists can be good writers

    - suggesting that non-scientist science writers shouldn’t be taken seriously (“excursions”)

    - casting aspersions on those less intellectually informed and accomplished than scientists (“steerage”)

    No, this quote was clearly carefully (and well) constructed with malice aforethought.

    BTW, I recognize the hypocrisy of my own inference-laden critique. But then I’m a semi-literate engineer spouting off in a blog comment and should therefore be excused. A professional writer shouldn’t be.

    - Charles (majablog-certified Dawkins “groupie”)

  31. #31 ctw
    May 29, 2008

    “I’ll repeat my request that we move on and do something constructive.”

    But I think criticising those who review books aimed at a general audience for not considering the target audience and for starting off reviews with attacks on the credibility and character of the author is no more futile than trying to capture the attention of those who simply aren’t curious, a trait that seems generally to be one of those that is “formed-by-age-N”, N very small.

    I know people who represent a pretty wide combination of family, economic, and educational backgrounds who range from always curious to never curious, with extreme cases often being siblings. Ie, it appears that more/better material may not address the real problem.

    OTOH, the incurious probably aren’t reading the LRofB, so “no less futile” in my comparison may also be true.

    - Charles

  32. #32 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 29, 2008

    Tom Levenson –

    As it happens, I agree with your criticisms that Dawkins has a fairly narrow view of what scientists study, and it would have been a stronger anthology had he broadened the subject matter. The fact remains, however, that you took a single sentence from Dawkins’ introduction, gave it a sinister meaning that almost certainly was not intended, and used it as a springboard for a very nasty and vituperative post. That wasn’t very nice!

    Larry Moran-

    You wrote:

    I maintain that the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important.

    I characterized this as, “Accuracy is the only important criterion for good science writing? Wow.”

    I really don’t think I was out of line in doing so. I’m afraid I don’t see a relevant difference between, “much less important&rdquo and “not important.” Demoting every criterion other than accuracy out of the top three is not a reasonable thing to do.

    You then went on to agree that some accuracy can be sacrificed in the service of an otherwise engaging piece of writing. That seems to contradict your assertion that everything else is much less important than accurcay in judging a piece of science writing.

  33. #33 Tom Levenson
    May 29, 2008

    Jason: “A very nasty and vituperative post?” Really. I just reread what I wrote in the post you find objectionable, and while you quote my most hot-headed paragraph, I don’t see the other 90 percent of the piece (yes — I know I’m a wordy bastard, but that’s another matter) as particularly nasty. Rather the reverse, actually. I talk about the excellence of Dawkins’ own writing; I say the book is worth reading for what it does contain, despite what it does not; I mention a few other writers whose work I admire.

    Either I’m much nastier than I think — and certainly than I intended to be in that post — or perhaps Dawkins’ defenders are perhaps a bit too thin skinned on his behalf.

    And, btw, to Charles, complaining that my bit of rhetorical fancy is inappropriate in any real review, (a) I wasn’t reviewing Dawkins — see Blake Stacey’s post for that, and (b) you need to get out more. British reviewing in particular is a blood sport. What I wrote was nuthin, man.

  34. #34 ctw
    May 30, 2008

    “I wasn’t reviewing Dawkins …”

    After I had commented and was off doing other things, it occurred to me that this might be the case. After reading so much mindless and/or kneejerk criticism of TGD, apparently my responses have also become somewhat knee-jerk. Apologies.

    “British reviewing in particular is a blood sport.”

    Yes and some NYT book reviews are ridiculous and warrant letters to the editor. Neither observation makes such reviews admirable.

    “you need to get out more.”

    And miss the latest stimulating blog post or comment? Not on your life.

    - Charles

  35. #35 JimCH
    May 30, 2008

    “British reviewing in particular is a blood sport.”

    Yes and some NYT book reviews are ridiculous and warrant letters to the editor. Neither observation makes such reviews admirable.

    I think that it’s possible that this might be more of a cultural disparity than just published reviews. It seems likely that this is little more than an extension of the lively (read: heated) dinner table debate with which the British apparently are more comfortable. See this blog article from Stephen Fry (long, but very funny):
    http://stephenfry.com/blog/?p=27

  36. #36 Jud
    May 30, 2008

    First, I want to say that I’m a bit lost in admiration of a couple of Blake Stacey’s comments in this thread. That Borges quote pwns, man!

    Second, I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be an abridged version of The God Delusion available, because people keep making statements like the following:

    Why doesn’t Dawkins try to provide a real answer to questions like “Why is religion here?”

    I seem to recall Dawkins spending entire chapters of TGD doing exactly that. In fact, it may be instructive for Dawkins-commenters to review the table of contents, which can be found here: http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?textType=toc&titleNumber=689776

    Finally, Jason, I think your comment about Larry Moran’s remarks regarding accuracy is only partially correct. I don’t think he ever quite said “that some accuracy can be sacrificed in the service of an otherwise engaging piece of writing.” Rather, I would imagine Larry thinks too many “science” writers are far too ready to sacrifice what they perceive as a little accuracy in the service of engaging writing. What Larry’s remarks above indicate to me is simply that he admits accuracy alone is not sufficient to effectively communicate science to the public.

  37. #37 ctw
    May 30, 2008

    “I think … this might be more of a cultural disparity …”

    My objection is to neither style nor tone. I appreciate the skillful use of words – which is why I included a backhanded compliment in my criticism of Mr. Levinson’s “review” (my sic). And heated is fine as long as the fuel is a substantive argument.

    My objection is to the sort of criticism addressed by Jud, eg, critics who apparently haven’t bothered to read the book in question; criticism that ignores the target audience; personal attacks, especially if based on totally unjustified inferences from mined quotes; using a review as only a forum for the reviewer’s own opinions; blatant nonsense such as claiming that “the last acceptable prejudice is anti-fundamentalism” in the midst of a religious revival fueled substantially by homophobia; etc.

    - Charles

  38. #38 Oran Kelley
    June 2, 2008

    I seem to recall Dawkins spending entire chapters of TGD doing exactly that. In fact, it may be instructive for Dawkins-commenters to review the table of contents, which can be found here:

    Funny, and I seem to recall saying “real answers” not “any answers at all.”

    Rather than directing me off to Houghton Mifflin to read the table of contents, perhaps you should have directed your own attention to the post you commented on, and you may have considered the possibility that my complaint is not that Dawkins doesn’t deal with this question at all, but rather that he does so badly.

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