TV Review: Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1)

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The Independent Culture
Richard Dawkins' Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1) began with an arresting compliment. "You could give Aristotle a tutorial. And you could thrill him to the core of his being" he announced starkly, looking out at the viewer. All of us, he explained, are beneficiaries of the compound interest of scientific knowledge, a wealth undiminished by division and handed down to everyone (whether we deserve it or not). Nor was that the end of his commendations. Towards the close of his elegant plea for the incorporation of science into the general culture he reminded his listeners of the happy privilege of their birth: "We are the descendants of a tiny elite of successful ancestors... we are walking archives of survival skills, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days". It was rather uplifting to be addressed like this, particularly if you had had a bad day, and particularly by an intellect so famously impatient with folly. But if any viewers went away from this lecture preening themselves on their innate superiority they had not really been listening. The text concealed within these attractive descriptions was simple: Don't Be So Dumb.

Professor Dawkins' purpose was twofold - to hymn the accessible wonders of science and to attack the numerous journalistic swine who gleefully tread such pearls into the mud. He wasn't ever quite as rude as that, though there was an enjoyable quiver of suppression in his manner when it came to certain distinguished writers, and he was perfectly happy to name the offending parties. He also, most gratifyingly, was prepared to bite the hand that fed him, pointing out that the BBC itself has abetted the general flight from reason by broadcasting uncritical series about the paranormal; programmes which fulfil one component of the charter, entertainment, at grievous cost to the other two - information and education.

Anyone who shares Dawkins' indignation at the way people squander the most precious inheritance they have - their ability to reason - would have relished his lecture, but what was particularly bracing about it was its nerve in the face of potential ridicule. I have myself hooded my claws when it came to The X Files, cowed by the argument that it is "just a bit of fun". Who wants a reputation as a killjoy? Dawkins was bolder - week after week, he pointed out, sceptical enquiry is vanquished in favour of moronic credulity and if fiction or entertainment is an alibi for this bias, why not for other prejudices too? "Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it". Those who argue, alternatively, that The X Files is simply a modern fairy tale commit a slander against the genre. Good fairy tales advance a moral truth in fantastic guise - exactly the opposite of The X Files' stupefying evasion of complexity. Besides, one in 10 people in America don't believe that the government is trying to cover up the existence of bullion-laying geese, so the effect of such devices is likely to be considerably less pernicious. The most chilling argument I've heard in support of Dawkins was the remark of a teenager quoted by the Radio Times at the beginning of the last season of The X Files: these were confusing times, he lamented, and the series was valuable because it gave young people "something to believe in".

Personally I wouldn't want such a person serving on the jury if I had been wrongly accused of murder. He would be, as The Verdict had suggested earlier in the evening (BBC2), all too susceptible to the bias-generating tricks of barristers, explored here both by practitioners and victims. The solution to this is not, as was occasionally hinted, to change the adversarial system - it is to improve the quality of juries and equip them to interrogate their world more closely. That, at heart, is why Dawkins' arguments matter so much. The habitat of mind in which astrology and mediumship flourish is also a perfect breeding ground for intolerance and injustice - an ecology in which monsters can grow unresisted alongside those "harmless" freaks and clowns.