Thursday, January 04, 2007


I stumbled across a link to the newly constituted Richard Dawkins Foundation. The introduction is a well worded statement (also available as a video) which gives an insight into Dawkins' motivation. I found this statement chimed strongly with my passionate yearning that the beauty of rationality, reason and science should reach a much wider audience.

I often find Dawkins a tad unpalatable - he gives the impression that he believes that he has found "the truth" rather than "a better explanation of how the human mind works that raises still further questions". Contrasted with the humility and passion of science writers like Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Dawkins' style seems more akin to that of the fundamentalists he holds in such disdain.

His position, however abrasively put, is firmly pro-reason. And it seems, with this foundation that he intends to lead people to reason by reason, rather than through provocation. And what is more, he intends to do this on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously. The foundation will facilitate the flow of funding and ideas between the UK and the USA. Some of the stated aims are inspiring ambitious:

"Research. We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason... Research of this kind would be supported in the form of grants to universities in America and Britain or wherever the best research can be done."

The benefits of this are obvious - research that increases the understanding of the human experience has intrinsic value.

"Education. Within the limits on political activity imposed by the charity laws of the respective countries, we would seek to support rational and scientific education at all ages, and to oppose the subversion of scientific education, for example by the well-financed efforts to teach creationism in science classes. Depending on how much money we raise, we would hope to subsidize the publication of books, pamphlets, DVD's and other educational materials."

I find this aim laudable. At the moment, because of the deeper pockets of religious groups, intelligent design (ID) resources are being sent to schools for use in science lessons. Banning the use of these resources is deeply unsatisfactory - it gives the impression that science thrives where there is no controversy. On the contrary, science thrives where there is well reasoned, observation driven controversy. Funding resources that counter the flaws in the ID position (including the canards on entropy and "just a theory") help to train a generation of scientifically literate critical thinkers that can discern a good argument from a bad argument, and that know what the current state of our knowledge about evolution is.

"Database of lecturers. We intend to keep a list, organized by regions in both America and Britain, of people, in universities and elsewhere, who might be willing to receive invitations to lecture. I receive a large number of such invitations myself. I accept as many as I can, but I canĂ‚’t accept all of them. It would be extremely helpful to have, at my disposal, a list of younger people who might be less well known at this stage of their career, but who would probably give a much better lecture than I ever could."

At the "commencement address" at my graduation from UCL, the VC made a good point - that there are scientists who are good at science, and there are scientists that are good at bringing on the next generation of scientists. The best scientists are those who do both. Having bought into the popular opinion of Dawkins as somewhat of an arrogant individual, I find myself rapidly reassessing my feelings in the light of this.

"Charitable giving by secularists to humanitarian good causes. Major disasters like earthquakes or tornados prompt a desire by decent people of all persuasions to help. I, for one, am always anxious that my money should go to help the disaster victims but should not fall into the hands of missionaries or other church-based organizations. Even if these organizations do eventually pass it on to the victims, they often do so with strings attached. Some of us are keen that no proportion of our donations should fall into the hands of missionaries."

As a humanist it offends me deeply when people claim that Christian ethics or Islamic morality or religious "goodness" are what motivate people to help one another. Until the charitable and voluntary efforts of humanists are recognised then the position that religion is the only font of morality and fellow feeling will never be challenged. I could here bang on about my work for charidee at this point but I won't.

Unfortunately he then goes on to use the loaded term churchh contamination" - heigh ho!

"Consciousness-raising. Feminists and homosexuals have taught us the value of consciousness-raising... I am more interested in raising consciousness about something else: the habit,practicedd not only by religious people, of labeling children by the religion of their parents. This is a Catholic child. That is a Muslim child. I want everybody to flinch when they hear such a phrase, just as they would if they heard, That is a Marxist child. "

An interesting position - I'm still trying to work out where this fits in the matrix of values, judgments and taboos that make up my "moral compass". Rhetorically excellent device though.

I'm still not certain where my rationalistic "tithe" will go. I'm increasingly uncertain that the still small voice of skeptical rationality can't win against the convinced irrational. Trying to prevail that way feels playing chess against an opponent who is playing "knuckles"[1] - it's frustrating and stupid. But do we need a foundation to set people on the "right path"? Should those who seek reason prepare for a propaganda war? I will be attending Louis Costandinos' talk at Skeptics in the Pub with interest.

[1] A game popular at my primary school in which - to prove "hardness" - one took as many blows across the knuckles with a ruler as possible. Like conkers but without the conkers.


Martin Sewell said...

Dawkins' willingness to attack religion in the name of science in the US is admirable (anyone who sends money to the US has got to be generous), but he's missing a more worthy target which also exists closer to home: political correctness.

Auntie Em said...

Yay! It's easier than setting heffalump traps! Welcome Martin - I new it wouldn't be long. Still - it's nice to know someone's reading...

David C said...

Wikipedia says "Politically correct... is a term used to describe language or behavior which is claimed to be calculated to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to racial, cultural, or other identity groups"

When I was a kid, that was called "politeness" or "civility". There is always a danger that politeness may get in the way of the truth, but as a (mostly) rational scientist, I'd hope to be able to discover and publicise 'truths' on any subject, while miniming offense. Not sure why we should be attacking this....

Martin Sewell said...

When I was a kid, I was taught that it was polite to tell the truth!

Auntie Em said...

It is possible to be truthfully polite:
"Some people have succeeded in getting a PhD after many many years. A drop off in the percentage of passes with each year of attendance doesn't necessarily mean you'll never pass."

It is possible to be untruthfully polite:
"Of course you'll pass - you're evidently a genius."

It is possible to be neither truthful nor polite:
"I've never known someone called Martin to pass his viva. This is because people called Martin don't pass vivas. Therefore give up now."

The last position is analogous to the one you frequently take in your writing. It's based on ungrounded assertions, dodgy extrapolations and it needlessly kicks someone when they're already down.

David C said...

When I was a kid, around this time of year, I was forced to write thank-you letters. They were polite, but truth was usually rather hit-and-miss. "Dear Nana, Thank you for the lovely knitted scarf. I shall wear it every day. I also got a colouring book and some pens."

Actually, that was only last year...

Martin Sewell said...

Feminism “needlessly kicks someone when they're already down ”, that is precisely my point.

Anonymous said...

David C - hope we do see you in that lovely knitted scarf. Surely it would go well with the lovely knitted jumper you must have received the year before.

Auntie Em said...

Who is anonymous and why are they so concerned with my husband's apparel? Not you is it Bill? I frequently steel the sweater you got him, I'm afraid to say. Looks better on me too :P

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