Mixing Memory

Where Rampant Scientism Takes You

When science replaces religion, it becomes more and more like religion, and in the minds of its worshipers, can justify the same sorts of inhumanities. Witness Richard Dawkins, todays leading worshiper of science, calling for deposed dictators to be used as guinea pigs, rather than executed (via John Hawks). He writes:

But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.

What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don’t have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

Now, I’m all for not executing dictators. In fact, I don’t think we should be in the business of executing anyone. But as Hawks says,

I think irrespective of any other issue, including one’s opinion on capital punishment, psychological experimentation on prisoners is beyond the pale.

That is, unless the goals of science, in its place as the new religion, dictate what you find moral and immoral.

It might be that Dawkins is simply talking about interviews, and maybe taking a few blood samples, but the language in the two paragraphs I quoted above comes very close to sounding much more serious than that. It’s quite clear, at this point, that Dawkins has lost any sense of perspective. I hope his 15 minutes of fame (outside of science communities) ends soon, very soon, before he says anything more frightening.

UPDATE: OK, given that pretty much everyone who’s commented disagrees with me (not surprisingly), I figure I should clarify my position a little. I doubt it will change many of your minds, but it will at least make me feel a little better, and hey, it’s my blog.

To me, there are two intertwined problems with Dawkins’ letter. He invokes science as potential savior (problem 1) to treat Hussein not as a human being, albeit a horrible one, but as “valuable research data” (problem 2). He implies that studying Hussein, and the few other people in history who have achieved his level of infamy, will provide science with what it needs to help us avoid allowing such people to gain power. Now, this is far from obviously true. Forget for a moment that Hussein, Hitler, and the like would probably be horrible research subjects for historians and political scientists, because they probably wouldn’t learn anything new (except, for example, whether Hitler had Parkinson’s or some other degenerative brain disorder, if they were to do a brain scan of Hitler circa 1943), but would in any interview get a megalomaniac’s idiosyncratic perception of his or her own actions. I’m more interested in the psychological research. With one, two, or even five research subjects, it would be damn near impossible to make any conclusions using neuroimaging data. Perhaps genetic tests would reveal something interesting (maybe it turns out all ruthless dictators have some the same mutation, which makes them really big meanies), but I doubt it. At most, we’d get some vague suggestions for hypotheses to be tested in other populations. And that certainly isn’t going to save us from the likes of Hitler and Hussein.

But it’s enough for Dawkins to feel justified in objectifying Hussein and those like him as potential research data. This may, at first, seem harmless, but it’s not clear where Dawkins feels our justification ends with people like Hussein. Do we need to get Hussein’s consent? Dawkins certainly doesn’t mention getting it. What sorts of testing are permissible, and what’s not? And if we can use someone like Hussein as a research subject (or just data), without consent, where does it end? How do we determine who’s not quite bad enough to be subjected to forced study? In other words, the very idea of treating human beings simply as “valuable research data” sets a horrible precedent. And it can only come from the mind of someone who treats science, and its goals (however noble), as the arbiter of morality at least in some domains. That’s what I find frightening about Dawkins’ letter.

Comments

  1. #1 Sobex
    January 5, 2007

    First Ed Brayton, and now you?

    I could understand people reading Richard Dawkins’ commentary in a negative light, if his books, radio/TV interviews and other direct sources of his character portray him as a nefarious person, but he comes across as anything but. Given what I’ve observed from the 10 books of his I’ve read, and the interviews I’ve seen, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on the positive side. If you think he’s frightening, I’m frightened of you.

  2. #2 oku
    January 5, 2007

    I have to agree with Sobex. Although it is one of the weaker arguments against the execution (there are a lot better reasons), I still think it would have been very interesting to interview him.

    Dawkins didn’t say anything about experiments. It is your perception of Dawkins that makes you think that that is what Dawkins means. Which tells more about you than about Dawkins.

  3. #3 Eric Wallace
    January 5, 2007

    Yeah, I’m with the first two. Someone has lost perspective here, but I don’t think it’s Dawkins.

  4. #4 RBH
    January 5, 2007

    Like Sobex, I see nothing nefarious about Dawkins’ proposal. We do it with serial killers — interview them, test them, attempt to understand their motivations, ascertain the causes of their behavior, and so on. I get 851 hits in Google Scholar for [interviews research "serial killers"]. Like Dawkins, I think we need to learn as much as possible about such people, within ethical limits governing research. I see no evidence that Dawkins proposed going beyond those limits. Did you even read the Dawkins piece? Did you notice the sentence “This was an opportunity to set a good example of civilized behavior in dealing with a barbarically uncivilized man.”?

  5. #5 Dan S.
    January 5, 2007

    Perhaps Dawkins should issue another clarification, but it’s not at all clear that he intends to start poking at deposed dictators’ (living) brains, or anything like that; blood tests, brain scans, and lots of interviews seem much more plausible; perhaps the kind of research undergrads are routinely subjected to . . .

    If consent would be required (unspecified, possibly doubtful, in Dawkins’ vague proposal), then aren’t there fairly clear ethical guidelines already in place?

    If not, well, that’s another matter . . .

  6. #6 Lindsay Cullen
    January 5, 2007

    I think the thing which worries some people is that Dawkins seems to be on a crusade – and if we know anything from history it is that crusades are not conducive to clear thinking, balance, weighing up good for one’s fellow humans etc.

  7. #7 Chris Miller
    January 5, 2007

    Regardless of your feelings on Dawkins or Hussein, it seems clear that Dawkins wasn’t suggesting that we strap Hussein down and electrocute him. Scientific ethics provides very strict guidelines about what experiments can be done, obtaining consent, etc. I think you’ll need more than the above quoted statement to suggest that Dawkins implied anything immoral.

    Lindsay: Characterizing Dawkins’ attacks as a crusade is exaggerating the whole thing quite a bit. It seems to me as though religious people just aren’t used to getting attacked at all. Since religion has traditionally occupied this untouchable sphere, any criticism seems doubly harsh. That’s a debate for another day, though…

  8. #8 Chris
    January 5, 2007

    Lindsay’s comment nails why I find Dawkins’ proposal worrisome. Forget, for a moment, that he doesn’t mention anything like informed consent, and from his tone (this is something we should do), it doesn’t seem to matter to him. What worries me is that Dawkins really is on a crusade, at this point, where nothing can get in the way of science. To oppose it is to be nothing more than delusional.

  9. #9 Chris
    January 5, 2007

    Oh, and I agreed with most of what Brayton said about the petition thing. Even the part that Dawkins did read was far from kosher. I really do think Dawkins has lost the ability to criticize science as an enterprise, or to rationally evaluate anything associated with religion.

  10. #10 chet snicker
    January 5, 2007

    sir,

    do we not all assert that when christ returns to this earth man and woman shall treat him as the leper? behold, the messiah! and see how he is reviled in the eyes of man!

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  11. #11 joltvolta
    January 5, 2007

    By looking at those statements, it is possible to see where a reader can get the impression that, be it very generalized, Dawkins is justifying what is considered unethical treatment towards the convicted, under the reasons of research. The reaction in the responses seem to be that it�s not okay to do “evil” things to an “evil” person, just because they are evil. On the other hand, to gain as much information as possible while maintaining an accepted standard of treatment, is beneficial to society.

    If Dawkins is making these statements with the undertone of justifying unethical actions by appealing to our fear towards people like Hussein, then that would be something to be concerned about, and I would start to be more skeptical about his motives. If he shares his views with respect to gaining information about a dangerous subject with socially acceptable means before off’ing his head, then he is just trying to attribute an attitude of reason to a situation that I would call unreasonable (capturing hussein seemed an important step, executing him seems to me to be promoting violence to an already violent world).

    The point being, there isn’t a point with this specific situation, just semantics.

    As for the feeling that Dawkins is on a crusade, I would like to say that I’ve felt the same on occation when reading/watching interviews & speeches he has given. I applaud him for taking a stand and promoting Darwin, Scientific Method, Logic/Reason, and setting up intelligent arguments against religion. I’m not too keen when he speaks on subjects outside of his academic strength. Not to say he can’t contribute on subjects he hasn’t published a ton of books on, but I guess I’m saying I’d rather he stick to his base while he’s in the spotlight. Then again, people who try to topple him do asked all kinds of “welcome to left field” kind of questions.

  12. #12 Mondo
    January 5, 2007

    The fact that speaking out against superstition gets you labeled with the religiously loaded term “crusade” is telling.

  13. #13 Nicholas
    January 5, 2007

    I have to add my voice to the crowd here. Given that Dawkins is interested in “uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Hussein”, the “formative influences” on men such as Hussein, and whether they would have responded to a “different style of education”, it seems pretty clear that Dawkins isn’t interested in cutting the guy up, or even in any procedure more invasive than, say, a cheek swab. In this case he definitely deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t agree with everything Dawkins says, and I think he is pushy in his approach, but I can read no implication from here that he advocates violating Saddam’s human rights any more than a prison term would do — and I certainly don’t get the impression that he would advocate this sort of thing from his other writing. Perhaps your personal dislike of Dawkins is making you read more into his comments than are really there? (And if you think that question is offensive, consider the way you started your post).

  14. #14 Kevembuangga
    January 5, 2007

    Let’s not forget that Chris is the “Neville Chamberlain” of atheists, this speaks for itself.
    I am myself “somewhere” between Dawkins and Atran, countering religion isn’t easy but it has to be done.

  15. #15 Elf Eye
    January 5, 2007

    “Hussein’s mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research, a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars.”

    “Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran-Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Hussein in the 1980s is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope….”

    Doesn’t sound like vivisection to me.

  16. #16 Badger3k
    January 5, 2007

    Does this mean we’ll also get to see Ed go over the top again, with probably counters by PZ, and start yet another round of BS? When I saw this, I had to come here and read the comments, to see if this was a joke post, but I guess you’re serious. If I had more time, I’d try to study this overreaction by nonbelievers to Dawkins (among others). I saw nothing incendiary or sinister in what Dawkins wrote, and agreed with those who pointed out that this is done all the time with serial killers and others (kidnappers, pedophiles, etc). Perhaps we could have learned something, perhaps not.

    After rereading it, I can see, if one were disposed to think ill of him already, how is “genes/testosterone” questions could be seen as some “strap-him-down-and-operate” experiment, but nowhere is that actually suggested. Is there any harm in asking a prisoner to give a blood sample (assuming such isn’t mandatory for drug/disease screening – I am unfamiliar with the requirements/laws)? Such has to be done, as there have been studies of criminal populations before (esp the testosterone angle, IIRC, but it’s been a while).

    A whole lot a ado about nothing, IMO, although I am sure that conspiracy theorists will jump on the “he was executed before he could talk” idea (to paraphrase and stretch what Dawkins says to a farther conclusion).

  17. #17 MartinC
    January 5, 2007

    From my initial reading of the linked article I had naively assumed that Dawkins was suggesting we would gain more by carrying out a detailed psychological profile of Saddam and perhaps try to find out if there were particular physiological reasons underlying his megalomaniacal disposition.
    Luckily enough Chris has set us straight by clearly pointed out the underlying truth that Dawkins is in fact a witch and we should burn the blaspheming heathen at once.
    Thanks Chris, if this blog doesnt work out ‘The Onion’ awaits your talents.

  18. #18 gengar
    January 5, 2007

    I’ve just re-read the piece just to be sure, and I’m comfortable with my first impression that Dawkins is mainly writing about ways we could have learnt something by talking to Hussein, not putting his brain in a jar. That’s the way you’d try to answer most of the questions in the quoted excerpt. As for the mentions of genes and hormone levels, these can be studied non-invasively (although I’d agree there’s a consent issue there).

    It’s sad to see, but people accusing Dawkins of being “shrill” and “strident” and his criticism “unsophisticated” have been increasingly guilty of projection over the past couple of months.

  19. #19 Greco
    January 5, 2007

    I really do think someone has lost all ability to rationally evaluate something, only it is not Dawkins.

  20. #20 Larry Moran
    January 5, 2007

    Chris, give it a rest. There’s nothing evil in what Dawkins says. Your crusade against him is causing you to lose perspective.

  21. #21 Davis
    January 5, 2007

    I’m with the majority of the commenters thus far. This knee-jerk criticism of every little thing Dawkins says or does is getting tiresome.

    You don’t like him, fine. But it’s clear your dislike is coloring your interpretation of his statement so that you take it in the worst possible light. This post is silly. So is the loaded language suggesting Dawkins is on a “crusade.”

  22. #22 chet snicker
    January 5, 2007

    sir,

    i say again, state your grounds, state your grounds!

    yours,
    c.v. snicker

  23. #23 Richard Blumberg
    January 5, 2007

    I see nothing in Dawkins’ comment about experimentation. It’s your determination to see Dawkins as an absolutist, and your own fuzziness about the methods of the scientific enterprise, that causes you to confuse the opportunity to learn more about the psychological development of a really bad guy with a recommendation to perform psychological experiments on him.

    It does not enhance your credibility.

    Richard

  24. #24 John Roth
    January 5, 2007

    I’m partially with you on this one. The reason I say partially is that it seems (from the excerpt at least – I haven’t read the full text) that Dawkins hasn’t done his homework.

    Authoritarians have been the subject of a lot of study over the last 50 or more years, at least as far back as when people started asking the same questions about Adolph Hitler. There’s very little that Saddam can tell us that we don’t already know – at least if one finds the research and reads it. All studying him could contribute is details to add to the pile.

    A good starting point is “Conservatives without Conscience” by John Dean. He details the research and gives pointers to where someone can find more information. He also names lots of people who follow the same SDO (Social Dominance Orientation) pattern, as well as the Authoritarian Follower pattern. And some of the statistics seem to have been gotten from prison populations.

    There’s even an interesting 40 point scale, where most people score 5 or under. Prison populations tend to score around 20. People who murder because they’ve snap are low, people who murder in cold, calculated blood score high. It’s not pretty reading.

    John Roth

  25. #25 Jason
    January 5, 2007

    Chris,

    I’ll add my voice to those that have already pointed out the absurdity of your post (and your update is no better). I read the LA Times piece by Dawkins you link to. How you can seriously construe it as a proposal to perform invidious psychological experimentation on Saddam Hussein is beyond me. All he’s saying is that if we had refrained from executing Saddam we might have been able to learn something useful about the psychology of despots and tyrants by studying him. You know, in the same way that we can learn about human psychology by studying, say, the development of social skills in children.

  26. #26 salaino
    January 5, 2007

    it appears (from other material ive read) that dawkins, although knowledgeable in the field of biology, is very passionate about his niche as demolition ball of organised religion. Hence, i feel, as other people that deem his purpose in life as a crusade. The man obviously has a passion to destroy religion, and in some sense reminds me of a little child that cannot accept the fact that there are other experiences in life beyond the rational and scientific experience. To consider these other experiences ridiculous and primitive is just as cowardly as the middieval clerics that burned th scientist. Corrosive as it falsl upon many people, i feel there is a tendency for mainstream science to discourage its practitioners from developing any other tools that form part of their composition as human beings (intuition) for the sake of rationality and detachment. Such tools must not be exclusive but supplemented by every available part of our human experience. Perhaps the bloggposter can offer some elucidation.

  27. #27 TAW
    January 5, 2007

    I’m with most people here. I think you’re overreacting and I’m mostly with dawkins.

  28. #28 Blake Stacey
    January 5, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    All he’s saying is that if we had refrained from executing Saddam we might have been able to learn something useful about the psychology of despots and tyrants by studying him. You know, in the same way that we can learn about human psychology by studying, say, the development of social skills in children.

    It is even possible that one day an insight into the human psyche may emerge from studying the dynamics of bloggers and blog comment-writers. Psychopathologists, take note!

    To be honest, this post began nonplussing me with the title. It is so easy to provoke a knee-jerk response by waving that magic totem word, scientism. Calling someone a rigid disciple of scientism is almost like accusing them, say, of complicity in the military-industrial complex. Like all the best slogans, it stirs the emotions while erecting a false dichotomy which makes sensible discussion difficult if not impossible.

    Consider the question, “Are there meaningful aspects of the human experience and significant questions we can ask which are not addressable through modern science?” The answer is, I believe, a fairly trivial — and uncontroversial — yes. Dawkins is on record as calling Bach and Beethoven great artists, and few are ready to assert that Beethoven must be “reduced” to elemental constituents. (Science can be relevant to the artistic experience, in several obvious ways: delivering Bach to us in MP3 format, for example, or figuring out just what that guitar chord is which opens “A Hard Day’s Night”.)

    The assertion that present-day science cannot address some questions about this or that human activity, while true, is not very interesting. A biology lab is not equipped to answer difficult questions of physics or archeology, yet we seldom draw deep philosophical conclusions from this fact. We can pose a more interesting conundrum if we inquire, “Are there questions meaningful to the human experience which the scientific method cannot and will never be able to address?” Turning from the current state of science — a body of knowledge and a community of individuals — to the method used to gain that knowledge adds a new layer of complexity.

    The scientific method, so far as one can codify it, requires guessing explanations based on current knowledge, figuring out what those guesses would imply about the world, comparing those implications to observations we make upon the world, and granting provisional acceptance to the ideas which survive rigorous cross-criticism. But this means that on the level of method, “scientism” really translates to “guess-deduce-observe-criticize-ism”. It is much more difficult to have a knee-jerk response to this latter slogan, even though it is the only reasonable interpretation of the term “scientism”!

  29. #29 Coin
    January 5, 2007

    Please, please don’t refer to whatever it is Dawkins has been doing lately as “Scientism”. It’s grossly inaccurate and he probably likes it.

  30. #30 llewelly
    January 5, 2007

    To me, there are two intertwined problems with Dawkins’ letter. He invokes science as potential savior (problem 1) to treat Hussein not as a human being, albeit a horrible one, but as “valuable research data” (problem 2).

    Huh? IRBs and their ilk have been an assumed feature of behavioral and biomedical research involving human subjects since the mid 1970s. Do you have any evidence that Dawkins opposes oversight for research on human subjects?

    Do we need to get Hussein’s consent? Dawkins certainly doesn’t mention getting it.

    Where has Dawkins implied that research on humans – Hussein or otherwise – should not require consent?

    It wasn’t that long ago that I saw Dawkins as an extremist. But I encountered article after article that argued Dawkins was an extremist, and yet left me thinking ‘gee, the Dawkins bit the author quoted does not support the author’s thesis – maybe Dawkins isn’t as extreme as I thought.’ Your article is a reminder of those days, and why I abandoned the belief that Dawkins was an extremist.

  31. #31 Uranius Pelican
    January 5, 2007

    Well, there are other ways to do it. You could give him the choice of death by hanging or life as a psychological research subject. If the death penalty bugs you then let him choose life in solitary confinement or life as a psychological research subject. Either way he has more choices than any of his victims ever had.

  32. #32 Jason
    January 5, 2007

    Yes, “scientism” is one of those scare words thrown around by the kind of people who tend to be very hostile to Dawkins as a substitute for an actual argument. Other scare words include “reductionism” and “nihilism.”

    Michael Shermer defines scientism as follows:

    Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.

    I’ll happily cop to being an adherent of scientism, so defined.

  33. #33 Russell Blackford
    January 5, 2007

    Whenever I see someone use the word “scientism” I know immediately that I’m dealing with a moron. Sorry.

  34. #34 Caledonian
    January 5, 2007

    Don’t apologize – you don’t owe the sort of people who use the term ‘scientism’ in a non-scornful way anything, much less an apology.

    Science is just rational thinking systematized and formalized. A person who regards rationality as a false or inappropriate way of thinking about anything – which is what the accusation of ‘scientism’ really is – simply isn’t worth the effort.

  35. #35 Julia
    January 5, 2007

    Thanks for a link to an article that I would otherwise have missed. I find myself wanting to ask Dawkins some curiosity questions, for example:

    In reference to

    how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country

    What specific things does he think were “transparently evil” (to those who had the power to do anything about it) about Hussein during the time he gained power? What criteria distinguishes people who deserve the term “monsters” from those who don’t?

    In reference to

    Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad?

    Do children begin neutral and then turn bad or turn good? Or do they begin good? How is he defining good and evil here?

    In reference to

    Are there lots of Husseins and lots of Hitlers in every society, with most ending up as football hooligans wrecking trains rather than dictators wrecking countries?

    I would have thought dictators and destructive hooligans were not drawn from the same pool of people. Is he saying that hooligans who go out and wreck things are likely the same psychological type as dictators like Hitler and Hussein who seem to have spent considerable time and energy on constructing organized states rather than simply burning things or knocking them over or blowing them up? What evidence has he for this?

    In reference to

    Wasn’t the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had – and a prime specimen at that – an act of vandalism?

    Why did he choose “vandalism” (especially in conjunction with “subjects” and “specimen”) to refer to the death of a human being? As the term is usually used in connection with property, and specifically someone else’s property, is it meant to suggest that Hussein was property, truly belonging to science rather than to the state?

    Dawkins uses enough emotional language in some of his arguments that I find myself wanting to know just what facts/specifics underlie them. Interesting article.

  36. #36 Coin
    January 5, 2007

    The great thing about the term “reductionism” is I’m pretty sure that just about nobody in the real world has any idea what it means.

  37. #37 Russell Blackford
    January 5, 2007

    If that comment was directed at me, Caledonian. Well, on reflection, I actually do apologise to Chris. Name-calling doesn’t get us anywhere. Besides, Chris, you are doubtless a person of intelligence and good will.

    So I’ll just add this. By now, this deep in the debates we are involved in, some of us are deeply frustrated … and sometimes even incensed … at the way the word “scientism” is thrown around.

    Science is simply that part of the larger field of rational inquiry that can be conducted in a systematic way, using mathematical models, instruments that augment the human senses, precise observation, the hypothetico-deductive method, etc. There is no sharp line between science, in particular, and reason in general. When a word like “scientism” is used to demonise people who value science and reason … well, I’ll put it mildly. A serious mistake is being made.

    Still, “moron” is even worse.

  38. #38 Chris
    January 5, 2007

    Rejecting scientism is something entirely different from rejecting rational thought. It’s rejecting science as the only way of approaching and understanding the world. It’s a rejecting of the idea that science can and will tell us everything.

  39. #39 Jason
    January 5, 2007

    What alternative methods do you propose for understanding the world, then? What knowledge have these alternatives provided us with? Perhaps science and reason can’t tell us everything, but that obviously doesn’t mean that anything else can tell us anything. I don’t understand why you think religion can tell us anything at all. It may provide comfort to some people, it may be a means for expressing guesses and hopes about the nature of the world, but that is not the same thing as understanding.

  40. #40 Chris
    January 5, 2007

    Jason, there are all sorts of other philosophies, many of which are entirely consistent with science as it is currently practiced. My personal suggestion would be a form of pragmatism, but there are plenty of others to choose from. As I’ve argued in previous posts on this matter, the philosophy you choose is more a matter of personal makeup than rational justification.

  41. #41 Elf Eye
    January 5, 2007

    After looking at both the original post and the update, as well as at the “kerfluffle” exchanges involving Ed Brayton, I’d have to say that Dawkins is being held to an impossible standard by some of his critics. Basically, in all his writing, even in short opinion pieces, his critics are demanding that he itemize and explicitly rule out each and every possible mal-interpretation. Dawkins doesn’t discuss consent in a short piece that is not intended to lay out a full protocol for interviewing a deposed dictator? Why, obviously (or it is clear, or it is plain, or some such language) that he doesn’t care about such niceties! I’m an English professor, and when my students write an analysis of a piece of writing, they had better base it on the words that are actually there. Or, to adopt a phrase from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “We have to analyze discourse with the words we have, not the words we want.”

  42. #42 Elf Eye
    January 5, 2007

    Correction: Why, it is obvious (or it is clear, or it is plain, or some such language) that he doesn’t care about such niceties!

    I suppose that if I ‘go out on a limb’ by identifying myself as an English professor, I’d better be deuced sure of my own wording.

  43. #43 Chris
    January 5, 2007

    As an English professor, I’m sure you understand the concept of interpreting something in the context in which it was written. That’s what I was doing. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I still feel like it was a reasonable interpretation, and I don’t think anyone’s said anything to prove otherwise. Harsh? Yes. Uncharitable? Probably. Unreasonable, given Dawkins’ wording and his position on science and its moral superiority? I don’t think so.

  44. #44 Elf Eye
    January 5, 2007

    Context is one thing; insisting that a writer anticipate and address every possible interpretation is another, especially when the fact that a writer does NOT discuss something is adduced as evidence of his position on a topic beyond the scope of his essay.

  45. #45 Jason
    January 5, 2007

    Chris,

    Pragmatism is a diverse school of philosophy encompassing a number of competing claims about the nature of truth and knowledge, at least some of which are inconsistent with science. It would be more helpful if you could provide some clear examples of what you consider to be knowledge provided by pragmatism or other systems of belief, rather than just vaguely alluding to alternatives to science and reason.

  46. #46 llewelly
    January 5, 2007

    I’m sure you understand the concept of interpreting something in the context in which it was written.

    Please provide links to the context which you think shows Dawkins rejects established norms of oversight over research on human subjects.

  47. #47 Russell Blackford
    January 5, 2007

    Two things:

    1. I read Dawkins’ piece a few days ago, and it never even occurred to me that it could be interpreted in the way Chris’s initial post suggests. To put it in the mildest way I can, the interpretation is uncharitable in the extreme and I still wonder how it could be adopted by any reasonable person.

    2. No serious thinker, including Dawkins, has ever suggested that there is a foreseeable prospect of being able to rely solely on the methods specific to science (experiments, observation with scientific instruments, etc.) to carry out all rational inquiry (e.g. in literary studies, legal scholarship, history, etc.). If a position something like that is what is meant by “scientism”, even the logical positivists did not subscribe to it. Some people may sometimes use the word “science” more widely to mean something like “rational inquiry in general”, but that is a semantic point. I continue to suggest that Chris abandon his use of the word to attack opponents. Of course, some of us do believe that all fields of study should present theories that are consistent with well-corroborated theories from those fields where it is has been possible to employ precise methods, and we may believe that the humanities and social sciences should use the most precise methods available, as and when they are available. Furthermore, some of us are physicalists or metaphysical naturalists in our philosophical positions. However, I for one will not take kindly to it if I am accused, pejoratively, of “scientism” or of “making a religion out of science” because I hold those views.

  48. #48 Dylan Llyr
    January 5, 2007

    Like Russell above, I read Dawkins’ article a few days and not for a single second did I get the impression that he was advocating Mengele-esque experiments on Saddam. As others have noted, that you would suggest he does says more about you than it does about Dawkins.

    Of course it’s one of the weaker arguments against killing Saddam, but since Dawkins generally opposes the death penalty in all its gruesome forms for numerous other ethical reasons in any case that’s hardly relevant. He’s just noting yet another, less-heard, interesting, flaw in the practice.

  49. #49 JimV
    January 5, 2007

    IMO, this post illustrates once again that a smart person can draw unwarranted conclusions from scant evidence, as long as they fit his/her idealogy.

  50. #50 Kevin
    January 5, 2007

    Saw this blog listed as one of the most active. Looked around. Saw that the blog writer is obsessive in his hate for Dawkins and uses the most idiotic attacks (the freaking courtier’s reply? You may as well bust out Pascal’s wager). See no reason to stop by this corner of the science blogs anymore.

    Some of you guys are really uppity any time an atheist opens his mouth. Not sure what the problem is.

  51. #51 NormS
    January 5, 2007

    Philosophy is itself a form of rational inquiry, so I’m not sure how pragmatism is supposed to be an alternative to understanding through reason rather than an example of it.

  52. #52 John B
    January 5, 2007

    “The great thing about the term “reductionism” is I’m pretty sure that just about nobody in the real world has any idea what it means.”

    They don’t? Are you sure? I could have sworn I learned that word in the real world…

  53. #53 cfeagans
    January 6, 2007

    Like the two commenters above, I fail to see how anyone, could have misconstrued Dawkins to the degree the blog’s author has unless they’ve a predetermined conclusion about Dawkins and only read what fit that conclusion.

    I read it again after reading this blog post to see if I could find the context Chris suggests is there. I couldn’t. Indeed, I found evidence that Dawkins was implying anything but inhumane or immoral practices. His implication was clear: he objected to the uncivilized and barbaric death penalty and found additional cause to have avoided it. Chris highlighted Dawkins’ desire to “study” Hussein, implying Dawkins was calling for an invasive study.

    But Dawkins made no mention of strapping down a non-compliant Hussein-as-a-subject, ready for dissection. As one commenter above pointed out, there is no evidence that Dawkins has ever been previously predisposed to conduct invasive human experiments without the subject’s consent. And there is this bit from the article:

    to execute him was irresponsible. Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran-Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Hussein in the 1980s is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope (no doubt to the relief of Donald Rumsfeld and other guilty parties

    Unless there’s some new method of obtaining historical data from the human brain that doesn’t involve interviews (and surely we aren’t to believe Dawkins expected Hussein to be water-boarded by historians and psychologists for information), I think it’s safe to dismiss Chris’ anti-Dawkins rhetoric of “rampant scientism” as misconstrued.

  54. #54 Shalini
    January 6, 2007

    Someone is pretty delusional around here, and I don’t think it’s Dawkins.

  55. #55 Shmuel
    January 6, 2007

    “What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels?”

    Ah, the “Boys from Brazil” conumdrum. Dawkins is mad.

  56. #56 stewart
    January 6, 2007

    Psychobiography is a long-established field. The OSS commissioned a lengthy study of Hitler which came out in 1943,authored by the noted psychologist Henry Murray and one of his graduate students. (They suggested he would be unlikely to surrender, that suicide after leading all of Germany to ruin was a likely outcome). Something similar for Saddam Hussein would have been interesting, and even more useful with his participation/cooperation. As it is, we have to go to his own writing, interviews with those who knew him, etc.
    A life sentence in the Hague would be very boring, and giving interviews would liven it up.

  57. #57 Blake Stacey
    January 6, 2007

    I wonder if the people objecting to Dawkins’s article also get upset over The Silence of the Lambs. Right at the beginning, Clarice Starling is sent to interview Hannibal Lecter in a Baltimore mental hospital, doing exactly what Dawkins said we should have done with Hussein (and, for that matter, Hitler). Is Jodie Foster a victim of scientism?

  58. #58 hoody
    January 6, 2007

    Fascinating. Whenever anyone on ScienceBlogs has the temerity to challenge (and the challenge NEEDS to take place, rightfully so) the Prophet Dawkins, thoughtless sycophants across the spectrum rail at the heretics.

    You hang right in there, Chris. You, Ed Brayton and Mike with his post criticizing Dawkins and his take on religion are all spot on and providing a badly needed breath of fresh air on ScienceBlogs. Keep up the good work!!!

  59. #59 Leni
    January 6, 2007

    Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran-Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the invasion.

    This is absolutely true. How long do we suppose it will take us to uncover all the mass graves? Those people will never have justice and neither will their families in all liklihood.

    In any case, I’m going to chime in with the others and agree that this is a knee-jerk reaction. The clarification to the OP did nothing to help, either. It’s as simplistic as the rest of the post.

    This, in particular

    He implies that studying Hussein, and the few other people in history who have achieved his level of infamy, will provide science with what it needs to help us avoid allowing such people to gain power.

    is missing the point. It would provide humanity with what we need to understand how such people work. That, in turn, would hopefully help us prevent this from happening ever again. In the same way that understanding how other people work helps psychologists better treat their patients. Which hopefully improves not only that individual’s circumstances, but the overall health of the community.

    Oh, my. How sinister.

    No one proposed forced testing in order to meet these ends. In any case, I’d guess that psychologists and psychology students routinely recruit study subjects in prisons. I mean, if you want to study the criminal mind where better to look?

  60. #60 Pierce R. Butler
    January 6, 2007

    The White House.

  61. #61 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    It’s rejecting science as the only way of approaching and understanding the world.

    What other way of understanding anything is there? There’s a reason the term ‘irrational’ is considered criticism.

    As for “science not being able to tell us everything”, no educated person has believed that learning everything is possible, even if only in theory, for the past seventy years. Whatever we do learn, however, will come through science, just as all the rest of humanity’s knowledge has.

  62. #62 MarkP
    January 6, 2007

    There may be questions science cannot answer, but no one has given an alternative that actually produces results. Wild speculation doesn’t count. Religions may claim to know the meaning of life, but I see no reason to believe them.

    Dawkins is the walking embodiment of a point PZ makes periodically: all an atheist has to do to piss off a lot of people is be unabashedly atheist. It matters not how polite or thoughtful he is. To too many people, he’s already committed the worse sin there is. The rest is just details.

  63. #63 Leni
    January 6, 2007

    Pierce R. Butler wrote:

    The White House.

    Ha! Except those subjects have demonstrated a chronic inability to honestly self-report.

  64. #64 Boko999
    January 6, 2007

    Great. A self hating atheist.

  65. #65 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2007

    MarkP: “Dawkins is the walking embodiment of a point PZ makes periodically: all an atheist has to do to piss off a lot of people is be unabashedly atheist.”

    Someone who implicitly compares theistic evolutionists to Hitler is not someone who offends people merely by being an atheist.

  66. #66 AndyS
    January 6, 2007

    MarkP writes,

    Dawkins is the walking embodiment of a point PZ makes periodically: all an atheist has to do to piss off a lot of people is be unabashedly atheist.

    Yes, PZ makes that point ad nauseum but the endless repetition doesn’t make it true.

    It matters not how polite or thoughtful he is.

    Being polite is just common decency — I suggest that there’s far too little of that to abandon producing more. Being thoughtful is what I think everyone expects from a scientist. When scientific writing lacks thoughtfulness — nuance, insight, and precision — it ceases to be scientific. Where I part ways with PZ is precisely where he stops being thoughtful. Dawkins has better record. The petition fiasco was an exception.

    What seems to bother Dawkins/PZ followers is that those guys can be atheists and scientists and right on a host of issues but still be wrong at times. It’s okay to agree with them 99% of the time and still call them out when they are wrong.

    I can’t get excited about the Dawkins op-ed piece. I took much of it to be tongue-in-cheek.

  67. #67 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    It’s okay to agree with them 99% of the time and still call them out when they are wrong.

    Wrong about what, AndyS? Enlighten us.

  68. #68 peep
    January 6, 2007

    Saliano makes the excellent comparison between considering an idea ridiculous and, uh, burning people at the stake. Dawkins obviously aspires to be a tyrant on the scale of Saddam Hussein, at least, and he should be tried and found guilty of war crimes commited during his Crusade against religion–sometimes even religions that have never inspired any real Crusades*. Chief among his crimes: he’s knowingly used the brutal weapons of empirical data, facts, and logical arguments with malicious intent to change minds. Though he may have set aside those barbaric implements of mass persuasion in the column under question, he’s still commited the heinous crime of writing under the name of Dawkins. ‘Cuz, you know, we all know how that mad scientismist thinks, and flaunting that name could turn readers onto his other writings, and subvert the noble and righteous cause of anti-scientism. And he’s negligently brushed up against Chris’s preconceptions. That these grievous acts aren’t currently punishable as international thought crimes is a tragedy.

    *you know, the ones with the swords and bloodshed and actual killing and raping and pillaging and such

  69. #69 Leni
    January 6, 2007

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    Someone who implicitly compares theistic evolutionists to Hitler is not someone who offends people merely by being an atheist.

    Could you be a little more specific as to the source of this remark? That is a rather long and meandering post. With a lot of links.

  70. #70 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    I think he’s refering to the use of the term “Neville Chamberlain appeaser” to refer to people who think that atheists ought to be respectful and subordinate to religious sentiment, as that makes theists to be the Hitler that Chamberlain sought to appease.

  71. #71 Caledonian
    January 6, 2007

    Chris, could you provide us with an example of valid knowledge derived from one of your alternate ways of knowing, and the way of knowing it came from? plskthx.

  72. #72 decrepitoldfool
    January 6, 2007

    I’m not real broken up over Hussein’s execution but in twenty years we should be able to do some pretty fancy brain scanning while asking someone questions. I must admit the thought of doing this to Hussein is one that hadn’t occur to me.

  73. #73 Stogoe
    January 7, 2007

    Yes, yes, Caledonian, let’s all bow and scrape and maybe we can chew on the crusts left by our wonderful religious overlords. That’ll get us treated as normal people…[/yeah fucking right]

  74. #74 Jason Malloy
    January 7, 2007

    Oh my God, the MILITANT atheist, Dr. Richard Mengele Dawkins, wants to do terrible things!! Read his MILITANT words very closely, between the lines: He will eat teh religious babies and rape the religious women!

  75. #75 Wes
    January 7, 2007

    Where in that article does Dawkins endorse anything unethical?

    Psychological research could amount to nothing more than asking the patient some questions. Would it be cruel treatment of Saddam to not hang him and instead keep him in prison and have psychologists examine him?

    Nothing I read in Dawkins’ article even approaches your accusation.

    What’s so horrible about seeing Hussein as “research data”? Medicine constantly collects research data from patients. That does not imply that the doctors doing the research don’t view their patients as people, and a fortiori it does not automatically imply any cruelty towards the patients. The fact that a doctor sees a patient as potentially important research data does not eo ipso mean that the doctor is ignoring the patient’s humanity. To accept that would be to say that a scientist is incapable of taking multiple points of view–one a detached, objective, scientific point of view, and the other a more emotional, subjective, human point of view. It’s a common stereotype of scientists that they are only capable of the first view. But this is obviously slanderous. That a scientist views someone as potentially valuable research data does not imply that he cannot also simultaneously view him as a person.

    I don’t agree with everything Dawkins says. I don’t agree with anyone in everything he says. But I refuse to criticize someone for something they never said or did. And the accusations you are making against Dawkins are entirely imaginary. I fail to see any point in that article that implies the nefarious objectification of human beings which is being alleged.

  76. #76 Leni
    January 7, 2007

    Oh my God, the MILITANT atheist, Dr. Richard Mengele Dawkins, wants to do terrible things!! Read his MILITANT words very closely, between the lines: He will eat teh religious babies and rape the religious women!

    You’ve got it all wrong, you know. He’ll be raping the men.

  77. #77 Leni
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    I think he’s refering to the use of the term “Neville Chamberlain appeaser” to refer to people who think that atheists ought to be respectful and subordinate to religious sentiment, as that makes theists to be the Hitler that Chamberlain sought to appease.

    Oohh right. That was stupid of me. Granted, I haven’t read the book yet, so I’d forgotten about that whole thing….

  78. #78 J. J. Ramsey
    January 7, 2007

    Caledonian: “I think he’s refering to the use of the term ‘Neville Chamberlain appeaser’ to refer to people who think that atheists ought to be respectful and subordinate to religious sentiment, as that makes theists to be the Hitler that Chamberlain sought to appease.”

    Yes. Bear in mind that theists who are cast in the role of Hitler have given up quite a bit of their own ground, to the point that the fundies often consider them the appeasers. This makes Dawkins’ comparison dubious and even a little ironic.

  79. #79 Tim
    January 7, 2007

    The point virtually everyone commenting here seems to be missing is that Saddam was on trial for crimes against victims, who the society in question judges to have the right to determine his fate. Justice here, in other words, is ideally decided by those immediately affected by the crimes – not by some highly educated and foreign white man or his peers. Dawkins completely ignores the rights of the families of the dead, and seems to put his own interests (objectified as those of “Science”) above theirs. The creepiness has nothing to do with any methods Dawkins might use to extract the data, but resides in the way he puts scientific interest above victim interest. He would be better off setting up some schools in Iraq and attempting to convert Iraqis to Science – then maybe they would have chosen to do as he would have chosen. Hell, maybe he should have done an interview on Al Jazeera. But until then, it’s really of no consequence what he thinks.

  80. #80 Kevembuangga
    January 8, 2007

    Dawkins completely ignores the rights of the families of the dead

    If you think that “the rights of the families of the dead” have been accounted for anything in the balance you are much much more badly deluded than Dawkins could be.
    Don’t expose yourself to such ridicule :-D

  81. #81 Biff
    January 8, 2007

    Chris, I think you just need to let Dawkins be Dawkins. Even scientists have personal political viewpoints that shade their public discourse. Let him be.

    I wish I could tap all this energy from the true believers of the “church of Dawkins.” You could kiss oil dependency goodbye!

  82. #82 Tim
    January 8, 2007

    Kevembuangga, obviously the actual victims had little reparation or representation in this trial, or indeed in most trials. That is why I said ‘ideally’ – the point is the state usually assumes to act on their behalf according to some sort of general societal mandate. It doesn’t act on behalf of foreign academics. So in Iraqi society murderers get hanged. They don’t get studied. Dawkins finds this ‘barbaric’, but so what? Could he have picked a more irrelevant venue to speak out? The LA Times?

    He would have been better off lending his voice to those who protested the terms under which the trial was carried out in the first place – by arguing for a thorough investigation with transparency etc so that all of the history he wants was laid out in the trial. He bleats now that Rumsfeld et al got off scot free, but where was his voice earlier?

  83. #83 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    I would just like to add that I don’t find these comments dark or “very creepy” in the least.

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