Art: Preaching to the converted

Richard Dawkins The Queen Elizabeth Hall; Will science be the new rock'n'roll?

The manner of entry on to the stage is always of crucial significance. The historian, Roy Porter, introducing the neo-Darwinian populist Richard Dawkins (who is about to deliver a lecture on the subject of science and sensibility), hurtles in from the wings with scarcely a glance to left or right, as if shot from the rubber band of some mischievous child. Porter looks scrubbily bearded and genially crumpled, wrenched into the spotlight from a terrific snog. Dawkins, by contrast, gliding across the stage on invisible wheels, looks seamlessly plausible in his grey suit and savagely centred tie - natural selection has evolved the very acme of the sprightly and infinitely trustworthy insurance agent.

Dawkins spends his hour tilting at old enemies - those (principally Americans) who would "dumb down" scientific endeavour by pretending that science is really "fun" and not hard labour; the woeful gullibility of those who fall for the predictions of pseudo-scientists, quacks, astrologers, New Agers - such as those who took comfort from that statement in the Daily Mail that Hale-Bopp was not directly responsible for the death of Princess Diana. The main thrust of this evening's argument is that we are living in the "digital century" - but his explanation of what exactly this means (he defines it with reference to beacons lit to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada) leaves the audience baffled. But most heartfelt of all is his lament, in a century which has seen some of the greatest scientific achievements of all time, for the woeful neglect from which science continues to suffer, the lack of appetite on the part of the public for true scientific understanding, the willing acquiescence in superstition and mystification.

At times, Dawkins's rhetoric resembles that of some prim, 19th-century evangelical preacher. We must defend ourselves against that "populist whoring that defiles the wonders of science", he shrills. And against those who, in their efforts to bring themselves down to the level of readers of The Sun, "squeal with gameshow levity" as they describe insects as "ugly bugs"....

In fact, concludes Dawkins with a desperately heartfelt flourish, the 20th century has ended with the same level of scientific credulity as the 19th....

And there endeth the lesson. Dawkins sat down, and Porter glanced across at him, wild haired, sceptical. The only problem, he pointed out fingering his beard, was that Dawkins's books, and all those written by scientists and scientific popularisers whose first names generally began with Stephen, were selling like hot cakes, and if Dawkins cared to glance out into the audience for a moment, he would see that he had managed to fill a hall whose capacity was no more and no less than one thousand bums on seats. How much neglect did all this amount to? Wasn't this, in fact, the greatest era of scientific popularisation in the history of mankind? In short, wasn't Brother Dawkins being a bit of an ivory-towered, prattish, Oxbridge whinger?

After that, Dawkins looked somewhat destabilised. To a question about his frequent attacks upon religion, he replied, somewhat unconvincingly, that his books contained very few sentences against the subject. And when asked for a quick definition of science, he looked baffled, and then finally produced the following: "The search for what is true..." is that all? prompted Porter. "Well," fumbled Dawkins, "religion might also be thought to be the search for what is true, but there are so many religions, and they obviously can't all be right..."

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