The Richard Dawkins Incident

A couple weeks ago I referred to an incident involving myself and Richard Dawkins and allegations of creationist dishonesty and I promised to write up the whole story soon. Let me preface this by saying two things. First, I am, as should be obvious to everyone who has read any of my writings on this page, a staunch advocate of evolutionary theory and a dogged opponent of the attacks that creationists of all types make against it. I have spent many years actively fighting against creationism and defending evolution and I'm the co-founder of an organization that exists solely for that purpose. But I also strongly believe in honesty, and I have no patience for those on either side of a dispute who believe that it's okay to distort the truth as long as it benefits "your side". Second, let me say that I still regard Richard Dawkins as one of our finest evolutionary scholars, and an even better writer and popularizer. But to put him on a pedestal would be a mistake; he is a human being, and as such he is as prone to dishonesty and ego protection as any of us, as I think this story will illustrate.

In early 1998, my friend Glenn Morton was preparing to write a review of a creationist video called From a Frog to a Prince, produced by Keziah productions and distributed by the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. I'll let Glenn tell the story of what was on this tape:

The tape showed a narrator asking Dawkins the question:

"Professor Dawkins, can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?"

Dawkins is shown starring at the ceiling for 11 seconds which includes a sharp in take of air. and then he resumes with the unresponsive :

"There is a popular misunderstanding of evolution that says that fish turned into reptiles and reptiles turned into mammals and and so somehow we ought to be able to look around the world today and look at our ancestors."

I had originally questioned whether there was some doctoring going on in the tape because of certain technical details that were amiss. The shadows on the narrator were not the shadows from the room in which Dawkins sat. And the room appeared to be different.

Glenn expressed those suspicions to me and a few others, and everyone was quite suspicious. The answer is so clearly non-responsive to the question, and the long pause so awkward, that we suspected that perhaps the interview had been doctored, that perhaps they had edited in a different question at the beginning to make Dawkins look foolish and unable to answer the question. So with that suspicion in mind, Glenn sent Dawkins an e-mail telling him of his suspicions and with a verbatim transcript of the question and answer on the tape. Dawkins responded and said the following:

A. That he had never given an interview to the people who produced the tape
B. That he had never been asked that question by anyone in any interview, and
C. That he would never pause that long before answering a question, it wasn't his style

Well now we were sure that this was a dishonest hatchet job! We assumed that perhaps they had taken a completely different interview that someone else had done with Dawkins and edited in an entirely different question. It was the only logical explanation, right? Well armed with the Dawkins denial and our suspicions, I set about to find Keziah productions. Keziah was an Australian company, but they weren't hard to find. A couple of e-mails to contacts in Australia and I had the e-mail address of Gillian Brown, the head of that company. I sent her an e-mail and all but accused her of the scurrilous behavior we were sure she had engaged in. She was quite shocked by this, and replied immediately. She said, in essence, "I can assure you that he did give such an interview, I was in his home myself to do it just last fall, and he did answer that question in the manner that the tape shows, and I can prove it." She sent me a package that included the signed contract for the interview, with Dawkins' signature, and the unedited footage of the entire interview so we could see exactly what transpired. She said that at that point in the interview a discussion had ensued between all involved about whether to continue the interview and he requested that the camera be shut off while they discussed it, that Dawkins was highly agitated by the question, but that he decided to continue with the interview and he gave that answer, so they used it. At that point, Glenn sent another e-mail to Dawkins telling him what we had found out and asking for his comment. He got no response.

Glenn went on to finish his review of the tape, and he issued a statement concerning the whole thing on the Calvin evolution listserv. I likewise apologized to Gillian Brown for having accused her of doing what she was innocent of. We both thought that was basically the end of it. Then in September 1998, Barry Williams, the director of Australian Skeptics, published an article in their magazine The Skeptic called "Creationist Deception Exposed". The article was based solely upon a letter that Dawkins had written to him, much of which is reproduced in the article, accusing the production company of doing exactly what we had just exonerated them of doing! And lo and behold, after completely denying ever having given an interview to that company, and ever having been asked that question in any interview, Dawkins suddenly had total recall of every single detail of the interview, right down to what he was thinking at each point.

A conversation ensued between Glenn and I and Barry Williams via e-mail. I asked him what his definition of "skepticism" was, since it seems to differ greatly from mine. It seems to me that skepticism means that one examines the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Why had he written an article making such a serious accusation without even bothering to contact the accused to get their side of the story? He replied that he tried to contact them but couldn't find her. I informed him that I had managed to track down the producer of the tape in less than 24 hours - from halfway around the world. He lives in the same country she does, and he couldn't find her? Sorry, I don't buy it. What happened here was that he got a letter making an accusation against "the bad guys", the letter was from one of "the good guys", and a very famous and respected one at that, and Williams ran with it. No need to ask questions, no need to examine the evidence. The story fit what he expected and wanted to be true, it helped his side and made the other side look bad, so let's print it. In other words, pretty much exactly the kind of dishonesty that he and Dawkins were accusing Gillian Brown of engaging in. Gillian Brown wrote a response to the accusations, and rightfully cited in her defense the fact that Glenn and I had taken the time to view the evidence before reaching a conclusion and concluded that no such dishonesty had taken place.

So what did happen? I'll again let Glenn's words tell the story. Having viewed the unedited video and listened to the audio, I concur with him 100%, as I did then:

I will state categorically that the audio tape of the interview 100%
supports Gillian Brown's contention that Dawkins couldn't answer the
question. Here is the relevant transcript:

**begin ***

Gillian Brown: Can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?

[19 seconds of silence which includes a sharp intake of air which is seen
on the video and heard on the audio tape-grm]

Dawkins: "Can you just stop there I think ...[tape then has a second or two of silence-grm]"

{When the taping starts again the audio tape demonstrates that the unresponive response was what was there==grm]

Gillian: "I'm recording."

Dawkins: "OK"

"There is a popular misunderstanding of evolution that says that fish turned into reptiles and reptiles turned into mammals and and so somehow we ought to be able to look around the world today and look at our ancestors.
We ought to be able to see the intermediates between fish and reptiles and ..."

***end**

The only alteration to the question posed by Gillian originally to Dawkins is the narrator's addition of the wods "Professor Dawkins," in front of the question. That is such a minor change that it does not alter the
substance of Gillian's claim.

I find it disappointing that Dawkins wouldn't respond to my later e-mails trying to get his response to Ms. Brown's claims and indeed his lack of response says a lot to me about this incident. I also found it disappointing that Dawkins wouldn't admit that that the incident had occurred.

I owe Ms. Brown an apology for my initial skepticism and I offer it here. I was unequivocally wrong in my suspicion of her. While we have in general been on civil terms, I do want her to know that not all evolutionists disregard truth as many creationists believe. After listening to the audio tape, her video, I firmly believe records an accurate account of the
Dawkings incident.

I might add that I think Ms. Brown did Dawkins a favor. While Dawkins is shown staring at the ceiling for 11 seconds on the video, the actual time on the audio is 19 seconds. She spared Dawkins 8 seconds of embarrassment.

The simple fact is this...Dawkins got flustered because he realized they were creationists. He let it upset him, but he consented to go on with the interview, and they used the horrible answer that he gave. Yes, it makes him look bad, but that's his fault, not theirs. There is nothing dishonest about it other than the way he handled it. Rather than just admitting that he had a bad day and blew the answer, he protected his ego at the expense of his integrity. It should also be noted that he has since answered the question, and I think answered it quite well. I regard the question as an absurd one. But he should have pointed that out, and why, at the time and all of this could have been avoided. So that's it, the infamous Dawkins Incident. There is no truth to the rumor that the unedited video footage shows Stephen Jay Gould on the grassy knoll.

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You are making the same mistake as Barry Williams, jumping to conclusions without having solid evidence (and without asking the other party). Since both the original tape and the unedited tape were stopped at the critical part, you have no way to tell who is right. Also, your version and Gillian Brown's version of the story are different: she talks about two pauses in the unedited tape, first one when Dawkins realized he was dealing with creationists, and second one when he was puzzled by the question about information, and asked for time to think. This is important: if there was only one pause, then Dawkins' silence was because he was considering whether to throw out the interviewer or not, and editing the film to make the impression that Dawkins was puzzled by the question is indeed dishonest.

Now as I said, there isn't enough information to decide who's right, but if I had to guess, I'd consider the following:

  • - GB claims another camera they forgot to turn off recorded most of the debate that didn't get on the tape. That footage could settle the question then. Why didn't she send that? It's somewhat suspicious.
  • - The question is ridiculously easy to answer (or at least half-answer). Technically, every single mutation, as a random event, increases information content. It's hard to believe that Dawkins could have missed that.
  • - Even if he did, he could have said something vague like "information is created by natural selection", or that the question is invalid. Answering to a totally different question instead makes no sense at all.
  • - If he did give the answer that's on the tape, why didn't the interviewer react to it (like asking him to clarifly, or explain the connection)? Again, it's suspicious.

All in all, I don't think your conclusion about Dawkins is convincing.

tgr wrote:

You are making the same mistake as Barry Williams, jumping to conclusions without having solid evidence (and without asking the other party). Since both the original tape and the unedited tape were stopped at the critical part, you have no way to tell who is right.

This is false in every possible way it could be false. What you think is the critical part is not the critical part at all. Both Dawkins and Brown agree on what went on when the tape was turned off - he considered throwing them out, they argued that he should not, and he agreed to continue the interview. The only controversy is over whether the tape was edited dishonestly or not.

Also, your version and Gillian Brown's version of the story are different: she talks about two pauses in the unedited tape, first one when Dawkins realized he was dealing with creationists, and second one when he was puzzled by the question about information, and asked for time to think. This is important: if there was only one pause, then Dawkins' silence was because he was considering whether to throw out the interviewer or not, and editing the film to make the impression that Dawkins was puzzled by the question is indeed dishonest.

I don't think the reason for the silence is important here. The key fact here is not the silence but the non-responsive answer that he gave. Leaving in the long silence was certainly uncharitable and it does make him look worse, but it was the totally non-responsive answer that he gave that really does the damage. And on that count, they simply put on the tape the answer he gave them. And that is his own fault.

GB claims another camera they forgot to turn off recorded most of the debate that didn't get on the tape. That footage could settle the question then. Why didn't she send that? It's somewhat suspicious.

She offered to do so, but since both sides essentially agree on what was said during the time the camera was shut off (with some minor and irrelevant quibbles, like whether she was actually asked if she was a creationist or not), it wouldn't have any bearing on the crux of the matter. Again, the issue we were concerned with was whether the answer they put on tape was not the answer he gave to the question.

The question is ridiculously easy to answer (or at least half-answer). Technically, every single mutation, as a random event, increases information content. It's hard to believe that Dawkins could have missed that. Even if he did, he could have said something vague like "information is created by natural selection", or that the question is invalid. Answering to a totally different question instead makes no sense at all.

I agree, the question is easy to answer. That's why the non-answer caused Glenn and I to be suspicious that an answer to a different question was edited in. The only thing we need to know from the tapes was whether he gave that answer to that question or not, and the fact is that he did. The question was asked, he thought for a few moments and asked that the camera be turned off. After some discussion on whether he would continue, he agreed to do so. The same question was repeated, and he gave the answer that they used. It may be baffling, but that's what the evidence says. He has since answered the question perfectly well, but at the time of that interview, he answered it very badly. Whether he was flustered at the time, or just having a bad day is irrelevant to the question of whether they dishonestly edited the tape.

And on the larger question, I have a real difficulty with how Dawkins handled it. I think he lied to us directly, and he then went off making false accusations to clear his name. And Barry Williams was the worst of all, publishing it without ever even attempting to get any actual evidence. The mere accusation was enough for him.

I might have misunderstood, but I got the impression that the tape was switched off on two different occasions (the camera certainly was, according to Gillian Brown), the first being when Dawkins realized he is dealing with creationists (which, as you say, is not critical at all), and the second when he stops to think. If so, then you can't be sure what question he answered - it could have been one asked while the tape was turned off for the second time. Or they could have talked about something else, which distracted Dawkins (again, why didn't the interviewer ask him to clarify?).

It's not that I have a difficulty believing Dawkins was dishonest. In fact I can easily belive that - I think he is a sort of fundamentalist himself, and fundamentalists cannot allow themselves to lose, whatever the price. I don't have difficulty believing he couldn't answer either - might happen. Bad day, as you said. But I can't imagine him (or anyone) not being able to answer, and solving that by answering a question that isn't even remotely similar.

Either way, you are right about him being dishonest, though. "Forgetting" about the interview, and then not answering your mails is bad enough in itself. And Barry Williams is really the worst: he later wrote a response that I can't call anything else than shameful. (Sadly, the word "skeptic" is generally used to describe a certain sort of religious fanatism today, and hasn't got anything to do with skepticism.)

tgr wrote:

I might have misunderstood, but I got the impression that the tape was switched off on two different occasions (the camera certainly was, according to Gillian Brown), the first being when Dawkins realized he is dealing with creationists (which, as you say, is not critical at all), and the second when he stops to think. If so, then you can't be sure what question he answered - it could have been one asked while the tape was turned off for the second time. Or they could have talked about something else, which distracted Dawkins (again, why didn't the interviewer ask him to clarify?).

No, the cameras were only turned off once. When they were turned back on, the question was repeated. There is no question he was answering that question. And I suspect they didn't ask him to clarify because they were thrilled to have the non-answer he gave so they could put it on the tape. But there's nothing dishonest about that - he gave them that answer, they have every right to use it.

GB says they were turned off twice. Read the section starting with "After he asked for the camera to be switched off" in his answer .

tgr wrote:

GB says they were turned off twice. Read the section starting with "After he asked for the camera to be switched off" in his answer.

You're right, it was. As this is now 7 years ago, my memory was faulty. But the key point is still that we verified at the time that the answer he gave was to the question that was asked, which is really the only thing that matters. We certainly didn't want that to be true, but it was. I still have the original tape (though I'm not sure I could find it in a reasonable period of time, it's packed in a box somewhere) and I suspect Glenn does as well, though he is in China at the moment and I'm sure doesn't have access to it.

Ed,

Back when we discussed this on II last year, some similar objections to yours and Glenn Morton's take on the Dawkins Pause were brought up, namely there is some confusion about how many breaks there were on which tapes, and what exactly happened when.

It is clear to me that the creationist Gillian Brown, at least, had "origin of information" and "transitional forms" mixed up in her head, and if she did, and Dawkins perceived this, then that goes a long way towards explaining the answer. This is based specifically on what she wrote in 1998, namely, "We do know that great variation within species results from rearrangement or loss of genetic information, but this does not explain macroevolutionary transition from simple life forms to complex ones with far greater genetic information." The issues of transitions and information are clearly mixed together right there in 1998!

Your response here, and back in 2004, was also "trust me, we looked at that", and "Dawkins and the creationist agree on what happened off-tape". I do of course trust you -- but if there were multiple breaks and if both the creationists and Dawkins have reasons to characterize events a certain way, we may not be getting the full story. And you are recollecting stuff from 7 or 8 years ago.

So anyway, my conclusion: find the tape! This will never be resolved to the satisfaction of reasonable observers without the unedited tape.

II discussion in 2004:
http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=76638&page=2

An ID blog blogging this today:
http://telicthoughts.com/?p=429

Nick

To be honest, Nick, it isn't exactly high on my priority list. I'm perfectly comfortable taking my position on it and knowing it's well supported. I'm also comfortable with the fact that some are going to doubt my position. I have so many boxes of books and tapes spread around various places that it would take quite a search to find it. And as I said, Glenn is in China at this point having, in the last seven years, moved from Texas to Scotland, back to the US and now to the Orient, so I doubt it's any handier for him than it is for me.

Although Dawkins is obviously at fault in this episode, I'm not sure it's clear that anyone else was exonerated.

According to the tape, after the break in recording the question was re-asked, and Dawkins gave his terrible answer. So why were 11 seconds of silence from before the recording break inserted? Dawkins' considering whether to continue the interview was represented as his inability to think of an anwer by deliberate mixing up of the tape. So the accusation of a dishonest hatchet job stands.

Steve

By Steve Harris (not verified) on 18 Feb 2006 #permalink