The Times Hearts Richard Dawkins

Here’s The Times of London planting a big wet kiss on Richard Dawkins in one of their lead editorials:

Thomas Henry Huxley, the great contemporary populariser of Charles Darwin’s ideas, declared it his aim to “smite all humbugs, however big; to give a nobler tone to science; to set an example of abstinence from petty personal controversies, and of toleration for everything but lying”.

That is a fair summary of Richard Dawkins’s achievement in four decades of public advocacy of science and its methods. Professor Dawkins does not altogether avoid the use of invective in the controversies that he joins. But he would reasonably point out that the promotion of critical thinking and an appreciation of scientific discovery are far from merely personal obsessions. In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, from which The Times is publishing extracts next week, he lucidly expounds evolution and its mechanism of natural selection.

Now that I have seen Inglourious Basterds, Dawkins’ new book is the next big thing for me to look forward to. (And then Stephen King’s forthcoming thousand-pager Under the Dome, due out in November, but that’s a different post.)

Sounds like the book is going to be a barn-burner:

In his book, Professor Dawkins compares the relation of Intelligent Design to science with that of Holocaust denial to history. The analogy is deliberately inflammatory and entirely correct. The objection to Holocaust denial is not, as many believe, that it is offensive and xenophobic (though it is, of course, both). It is, rather, that Holocaust denial is false. It is impossible to argue consistently that the Holocaust never happened except by ignoring or faking the historical evidence. Creationism and Intelligent Design are like that. They are not even wrong; they are just bad ideas.

Can you imagine an American newspaper publishing that? Heck, that’s even stronger than what I would say. Creationism and Holocaust denial may be at the same intellectual level. But Holocaut denial is so inextricably bound up with anti-semitism that many people are going to assume you are attributing anti-semitism to creationists as well. Creationists have many faults, but anti-semitism is not generally one of them. Really, it is best just to avoid talk of Nazi things unless you are actually discussing the Nazis.

Religious faith can be entirely compatible with science and reason. Professor Dawkins’s belief that “moderate religion makes the world safe for extremists” is mistaken and tactically disastrous.

Oops. Didn’t like that part. Let’s get back to the good stuff.

But the frequent criticism of Professor Dawkins that he is a scientific fundamentalist is wrong. (And the claim of one writer that by his militancy Professor Dawkins has become the “top pin-up” of the Intelligent Design lobby is patently absurd.) Evolution through natural selection is among the greatest discoveries of civilisation. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, the geneticist, wrote, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. And much in other fields is illuminated by it. Professor Dawkins combines the role of theorist, synthesist and explainer in that cause as no one else does.

Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talking about!

Comments

  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    August 24, 2009

    But Holocaut denial is so inextricably bound up with anti-semitism that many people are going to assume you are attributing anti-semitism to creationists as well. Creationists have many faults, but anti-semitism is not generally one of them. Really, it is best just to avoid talk of Nazi things unless you are actually discussing the Nazis.

    I don’t think that creationism is morally like Holocaust denial, but the notion that prejudice trumps all of the evidence (essentially what IDCreationism does–and in many cases basically claims is the best way to do “science”), and that conspirators are hiding the truth, plays straight into the tactics of purveyors of revisionist histories.

    No, the analogy is appropriate, because once “objective standards” are destroyed–and both Holocaust deniers and creationists want to do exactly that–anything goes. The idea that we’re going to have a tidy little destruction of biology and nothing else if ID prevails is utterly mistaken.

    There’s another aspect to it as well. While there’s no excuse for Holocaust denialism, the fact is that we are rather more beholden to experts to tell us about the Holocaust, while rather prosaic knowledge (usually given to us by experts, but not wholly dependent upon their expertise and judgment), like photoes of Archaeopteryx and photos plus graphics of primate skeleton comparisons, are available to any and all who are interested in applying normal judgment. If one is respected for denying the obviousness of evolution, why not be respected for the rather less obvious evidence of the Holocaust?

    Dawkins and everyone else are not calling creationists antisemites, they’re pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of both. Particularly in the US, where curricula are at issue, the fact that totally bogus ID (or equally bogus “discussions of evolution’s weaknesses”) is proposed to be forced into the schools, it brings up serious questions of why “teaching the controversy” about the Holocaust wouldn’t be equally appropriate.

    The principle of sticking to honest education about evidence and inference in public schools, and not letting political or religious partisans hijack education, is part of the fight against pseudoscience in the US. That there is as much (maybe slightly more) evidentiary reasoning for teaching Holocaust denial as creationism is legitimate to bring up, especially since the partisan purposes of Holocaust denial exemplify the reasons why we don’t want science education to be a pawn of partisan politics.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    August 24, 2009

    Glen Davidson @ # 1: … rather prosaic knowledge … like photoes of Archaeopteryx … are available to any and all

    But photos and documentaries of the Holocaust aren’t???

  3. #3 Roman Werpachowski
    August 24, 2009

    I think the analogy between Creationism (excuse me for the capital letter) and Holocaust denial is flawed for one reason: the Creationist really believe the shit they are talking. The Holocaust deniers don’t — their true view is that the Jews got what they deserved. I have traced for a while the splendid fight this blog is leading with the deniers, and from time to time they showed that the deniers really know what happened, they just know they couldn’t defend the Nazis on the grounds “they did the right thing”, so they have to contend with attempting to disprove the accusations. The Nazis themselves also tried to keep their crimes secret, Holocaust denial is just the continuation of this policy.

  4. #4 Glen Davidson
    August 24, 2009
    Glen Davidson @ # 1: … rather prosaic knowledge … like photoes of Archaeopteryx … are available to any and all …

    But photos and documentaries of the Holocaust aren’t???

    That’s creationist-like thinking, treating two quite different things as if they were the same.

    I mentioned primates in part (and you left it out, quotemining) because that is particularly available and indisputable knowledge. The point, which should be obvious, is not that “photos are available” as you disingenuosly manipulated my writing, the point is that the evidence is available and difficult to claim “conspiracy”–especially where primate skeletons are involved.

    Evidence, especially photographic evidence, can be faked (so can fossils, but as Hoyle found out, it’s not easy, especially when more can be found). More important, the Holocaust deniers do not deny that some atrocities occurred, they deny the whole. With fossils like Archaeopteryx, and even more, with the skeletons of primates, instances can be taken as the whole, for in an evolutionary context, the individual implies a population, and, even better, a transitional fossil is a prediction of non-teleological evolution and of nothing else.

    An atrocity here or there does not “prove” the Holocaust, only a compilation of many evidences does that, and that is essentially left up to the experts. The experts are both generally reliable and check each others claims, so there’s no reason to doubt it (any more than other historical facts), but there is no sort of evidence supporting it that is so obvious and impossible to really fake as we have in comparing primate skeletons.

    This should not be so hard to figure out, nor did you have any excuse to manipulate my sentence to make it look like “photos” were the point.

    And my point is not in the least that there is anything questionable about the Holocaust, just that the evidence for evolution is even better for the average person who might question it, and less contingent upon the veracity of experts. So Dawkins is right to compare the two in an intellectual sense, because if the reasonable inference from highly available and impossible-to-fake evidence of evolution is to be doubted, why not the evidence of the Holocaust which as a whole nis essentially unavailable to the non-scholar?

    What a dishonest post you wrote, Pierce. You both quotemined my sentence, and completely misrepresented my point.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. #5 Roman Werpachowski
    August 25, 2009

    @And my point is not in the least that there is anything questionable about the Holocaust, just that the evidence for evolution is even better for the average person who might question it, and less contingent upon the veracity of experts.

    Sheesh. Go visit Auschwitz. People who went through it still live. You don’t need to be an expert to listen to their stories.

    As I said, Holocaust denial is simply Nazism in disguise.

  6. #6 Sigmund
    August 25, 2009

    ” Under the Dome, Stephen King’s tour-de-force new novel about a Maine town suddenly cut off by an invisible, impenetrable Dome”

    Wait a second…..
    Wasn’t this the plot for ‘The Simpsons’ movie?

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    August 25, 2009

    Glen D @ # 4 – Whoa, easy there!

    I wasn’t attempting to quotemine or misrepresent, just to address one point that I found questionable: … we are rather more beholden to experts to tell us about the Holocaust…

    For most people, science is probably more intimidating than history, particularly history so recent that many who lived through that era still walk among us now. I don’t have (and don’t trust anyway) poll data on these issues, but strongly suspect holocaust deniers have made much less headway among the public than have creationists.

    The more sophisticated reasoning that you bring up on the nature of evidence and potential fakery applies only in a small subset of individuals, those scrambling to rationalize a conclusion emotionally reached. Though “the evidence for evolution is even better for the average person who might question it”, I haven’t seen even the Hams and Hovinds out there claiming that fossils are faked, just that twisted Darwinists are misreading them in their delusions and resentments.

    That there is as much (maybe slightly more) evidentiary reasoning for teaching Holocaust denial as creationism is legitimate to bring up… Dawkins is right to compare the two in an intellectual sense…

    Hot-button issues are also very easily prone to creating huge distractions. Just as Dawkins (deservedly) reaped a minor whirlwind in calling accommodationists Neville Chamberlains, his analogy here – though more legitimate, for the reasons you cite – may also blow up in his face. We’ll see – alea jacta est and all that good stuff.

    Meanwhile, please refrain from personal attacks until you have more evidence that you’re being attacked. I generally respect and agree with your comments on sciblogs, and regret the turn this dialog has taken. Rest assured that, should I elect to get on your case, there will be no ambiguity nor any reason to claim sneakiness.

    Can we declare a rapprochement?

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    August 25, 2009

    I don’t see anything wrong with using a deliberately inflammatory analogy. For some intellectual opponents, particularly those arguing on good faith, it is more effective to avoid vitriol and explain your case in a reserved manner. For others, it’s more effective to wrap them upside the head with a metaphorical 2X4. Creationists are the kind of opponents that need to be exposed as the liars and con-men they are, and illustrating that with an analogy to other notorious liars and con-men is, in my mind, entirely appropriate.

  9. #9 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    August 26, 2009

    The trouble with the accommmodationists is that whilst they can maintain that religion is compatible with science, they cannot maintain the obverse, because as the teleonomic argument exhumes that since the weight of evidence presents no teleology guiding events, there is thus no need to posit any divinity guiding natural causes, and such divinity does indeed contradict those causes. The creationist evolutionists’ argument is the new Omphalos that God deceives us into observing only natural causes at work but He is the man behind the curtain! Nay, t’is an oxymoron. Give Mother Nature her full due.
    Jerry Coyne’s masterful essay ” Seeing and Believing” in the New Republic and Amiel Rossow’s essay on Kenneth Miller @ Talk Reason belie the pathetic reasoning of the creationist evolutionists- those haughty ones.
    Theists see divinity at work as teleology and patterns as designs as people discern Yeshua in a tortilla – the argument from pareidolia.
    Theists,including creationist evolutionists, beg the question of assuming that divinity had us in mind but as Coyne and some writer @ Skeptic magazine observe, there was no intention at work that had we not arrived that some comparable species would have taken our place.
    Theistic evolutionists are creationists in the wider sense.
    Jerry Coyne, Frederic Crews, Paul Kurtz, PZ MYERS, William Provine, Steven Schaefersman and I prefer the truth over giving in to any creationists!
    Obscurarntism is a foe of science and blasphemes reason.

  10. #10 Moq
    August 29, 2009

    As a historian, and an ardent reader of anything related to evolutionary theory in particular and science in general, I see few problems with the comparison of Holocaust denial to the creationist agenda. It’s possible to list a number similarities, eg. dismissal or misrepresentation of contradictory evidence, revisionist “scientific” journal and alternative explanations in book form (falsifiable, but often complex and perhaps convincing to layman). The prominent libel trial, where David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt struck a blow to Holocaust denial that is comparable to the importance of “Kitzmiller vs. Dover”.

    Furthermore, I’m not certain that all the creationist at the forefront of evolution denial sincerely believe their own arguments. What are their options? They’re stranded on the ark of creationism in a flood of a reason, and left with little more than an intellectual exercise in futility. But they presumedly make a living.

  11. #11 Zachary Voch
    August 29, 2009

    As you and Dawkins have noted, creationism and Holocaust Denial are certainly equivalent as far as truth value and dishonest methodology is concerned, but I would draw a (partial) moral equivalence as well. As Holocaust Denial is (almost if not always) grounded in anti-semitism, creationism is grounded in a fundamentalist fideism.

    For both, the key tenet is axiomatic denial to the point of deliberate obfuscation and misrepresentation employed to preserve them. For the professional evangelists of both, lying is a necessary and sufficient condition for the practice. Further, both groups focus on children and education (particularly creationists), so these groups are generally offensive as opposed to defensive in practice. Rather than electing to simply guard their belief, they demand that others accept their belief (this is particularly true of the creationist). Both groups practice conspiracism (a necessary part of maintaining these beliefs). For the Holocaust Denialist, it is the web of influential zionists. For the creationists, it is the web of secular humanists/atheists/scientists, perhaps in direct confederation with the devil himself. For both groups then, there are enemies responsible for great atrocities or the enabling thereof. For the fundamentalist, the evolutionist endangers souls and (from reading AiGs propaganda, for example) the public morality and fate of society. For both groups, then, villification of their fellow man is a direct (and frequently realized) consequence of their beliefs.

    What, then, is the fundamental moral distinction between the creationist and the Holocaust Denialist that puts the creationist on higher ground? It may be the specific target of the Holocaust Denialist, the Jew, that leaves a far more bitter impression on the memory, as the Holocaust is itself a vivid reminder of the poison of anti-semitism, and then there is the fact that HD is less common. In many ways, I would say that the creationist is worse (if for nothing other than sheer numbers and influence).

  12. #12 gsw
    September 1, 2009

    To quote the late RAH:
    The main difference between religion and science is that science works.
    (Sixth Column/The Day After Tomorrow. (c)Heinlein. 1941)