British scientists don't like Richard Dawkins, finds study that didn't even ask questions about Richard Dawkins

The investigation into science's public image didn't even ask about the atheist professor, but it got an answer anyway

Andrew Griffin
Monday 31 October 2016 16:53 GMT
Others were quick to defend Dawkins, saying that the public appreciation of science, reason, and free inquiry has benefited enormously from his work
Others were quick to defend Dawkins, saying that the public appreciation of science, reason, and free inquiry has benefited enormously from his work (Getty)

British scientists who mentioned Richard Dawkins during a recent study seem mostly to dislike him, with some arguing that he misrepresents science and is misleading the public.

Criticism of the British evolutionary biologist came up repeatedly in a new study looking at public understanding of science and how scientists feel that they are portrayed in the media – despite respondents never actually being asked about him. The research was published in a recent edition of Public Understandings of Science as part of a broader study looking at how scientists feel about religion.

As part of the study, the researchers conducted a survey of over 20,000 scientists from eight countries. In the UK, the researchers surveyed 1,581 randomly sampled scientists. They then spoke to 137 of them for in-depth interviews to see what they thought.

Though Dawkins wasn’t a part of the interview process, and researchers didn’t ask about him, 48 of the 137 British scientists they spoke to mentioned Dawkins. Of those 48 that referenced him, 80 per cent said they thought that Dawkins misrepresents science and scientists in his books and public speeches, according to the study by Rice University, Texas.

Other scientists did stand up for the evolutionary biologist, and the remaining 20 per cent were positive views. One said that Dawkins has “quite an important place in society” because of his criticism of creationism and intelligent design. The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which has traditionally opposed Dawkins' work.

Some of the scientists interviewed as part of the exercise were religious, and so might be expected to take against Dawkins’ often vociferous opposition to religion. But even scientists who didn’t believe in religion at all said that Dawkins work tended to overestimate the borders of what science can and should examine.

“Scientists differ in their view of where such borders rest,” said David Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and the paper’s lead author. “And they may even view belief in a deity as irrational, but they do not view questions related to the existence of deities or ‘the sacred’ as within the scope of science.”

The common criticism was that Dawkins was too strong in his criticism of religion, and one nonreligious professor of biology referred to him as a “fundamental atheist”. "He feels compelled to take the evidence way beyond that which other scientists would regard as possible. ... I want [students] to develop [science] in their own lives. And I think it's necessary to understand what science does address directly."

Another described his work as a “crusade, basically”, and said that though he was right his work is “deliberately designed to alienate religious people”.

One nonreligious physicist said that Dawkins is “much too strong about the way he denies religion”, according to Rice University.

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“As a scientist, you’ve got to be very open, and I’m open to people’s belief in religion … I don’t think we’re in a position to deny anything unless it’s something which is within the scope of science to deny … I think as a scientist you should be open to it … It doesn’t end up encroaching for me because I think there’s quite a space between the two.”

Supporters of Dawkins said that it was fine that some find themselves frustrated with his style.

“It was not so long ago that scientists were decrying the science popularisation of Carl Sagan, and even today there are some who take issue with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and others,” said Centre for Inquiry spokesperson Paul Fidalgo, whose organisation is in the process of merging with Dawkins' Foundation for Reason & Science. “So it’s certainly not a breathtaking revelation that fewer than 40 scientists out of 137 – culled from a pool of over 20,000 – might not be fans of Prof. Dawkins’ particular approach to science communication. Comes with the territory.

“What is indisputable is that the work of Richard Dawkins has educated and inspired many millions of people around the world, spanning generations, cultures, languages, and beliefs. His life’s work has been to open our minds to the beauty of science, and to challenge all of us to question even our most closely held beliefs. He has been instrumental in demolishing the taboo around atheism, helping to bring nonbelievers into the mainstream of public discourse.

“It’s fine that some bristle at his style, no one can appeal to everybody, but I can say without reservation that the public appreciation of science, reason, and free inquiry has benefited enormously from the work of Richard Dawkins.”

Dawkins has been publicly criticised by colleagues before. In 2014, Harvard professor EO Wilson said that Dawkins wasn’t a scientist at all, instead calling him a “journalist” and implying that he didn’t do any work of his own.

“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research,” said Wilson during an interview on Newsnight.

Dawkins tweeted soon after to say that he had actually done new work and that the argument was the result of a specific disagreement.

“I greatly admire EO Wilson & his huge contributions to entomology, ecology, biogeography, conservation, etc. He’s just wrong on kin selection,” Mr Dawkins wrote on Twitter. “Anybody who thinks I’m a journalist who reports what other scientists think is invited to read The Extended Phenotype,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet, making reference to the sequel to his seminal book The Selfish Gene.

It is Twitter that has led to many of the controversies that Dawkins has been embroiled in. A Guardian article last year reported that some people close to Dawkins were worried that his online outbursts could be destroying his reputation.

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