Richard Dawkins: in defence of scientific truth (2024)

When we meet in the House of Lords, Professor Richard Dawkins has justaddressed a cross-party parliamentary gathering of politicians and researchers. He is wearing a tie embossed with a DNA double helix which is the perfect accessory for the occasion, because what he’s here to remind Whitehall of is basic science.

There’s a kind of Puritan revulsion against even discussing certain things and you can essentially be cancelled just for inviting discussion

In his speech to the politicians, Dawkins railed against the ‘debauching of language’ and the assault on science and reason. In particular, he took aim at Gender Studies Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling for her nonsensical argument that ‘sex in humans is a non-binary continuum’.

‘Thereare two sexes’, he said. ‘Exactly two sexes and only two sexes.’

That Dawkins should feel the need to explain this to a roomful of educated adults is an indictment of the times in which we are living. ‘My view is that if you are a logical rational person who thinks about science, it’s quite hard to believe in anything supernatural and it’s quite hard to believe that the sexes are not real, because in both cases, science and reason point in the same way,’ he tells me.

Dawkins has weathered his fair share of media storms. In 2013, he sparked outrage on Twitter when he said: ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.’ In the midst of the Muslim backlash he tweeted: ‘A statement of simple fact is not bigotry. And science by Muslims was great in the distant past.’Predictably, this drew accusations of Islamophobia and howls of outrage. ‘Muslims did great things in the Middle Ages, though,’ he added.

‘As I’m retired I have less to lose than others,’ he says now, ‘and I feel I have a responsibility to speak out… I don’t invite confrontation but I don’t think I would feel that my feelings were hurt if somebody yells or protests outside where I’m going to speak.’

It was in 2015 that Dawkins first signalled that he was shuffling out-of-step with many of the other left-leaning thought leaders of the New Atheists. He asked on X, ‘Is a trans woman a woman?’ Then he posted:‘Purely semantic. If you define by chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. I call her “she” out of courtesy.’

It wasn’t until six years later, after reading the manuscript of Helen Joyce’s best-selling bookTrans, that Dawkins took the plunge in earnest. He asked why Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP had been vilified for identifying as black, when at the same time as it had become taboo to question trans identities. The question proved incendiary.

In the storm that followed, the American Humanist Association withdrew his Humanist of the Year award, 25 years after he received the honour, claiming he had an ‘approach antithetical to humanist values’.

Today Dawkins seems lightly amused by this public reprimand. He explains that in his working life as an Oxford tutor, asking open questions was crucial.

‘In tutorials with my students they’d discuss counterfactual issues, controversial topics and puzzling paradoxes. They’d hammer issues out, have a discussion and they might come down one way or the other. That’s why so many of the tweets that I put out have ended up with the word “discuss”.’

‘Now there’s a kind of Puritan revulsion against even discussing certain things and you can essentially be cancelled just for inviting discussion of something. I think there’s a sort of attitude that even to simply discuss is to align yourself, is to put yourself on one side.’

It angers Dawkins that universities have become the crucible for this destructive silencing. ‘A university is about learning to change your mind, rational discussion and being curious. It’s about listening to all points of view. University is the very last place where you should expect to find dogma, closing down of speech and curiosity. It’s a tragedy thatit’suniversities of all places, which have become associated with suppression rather than open mindedness.’

Dawkins seems bemused by the ‘spineless’ university administrators who have allowed censorious students to set the parameters of debate, and the impact of ‘harassment, bullying and intimidation’ on what gets published. He tells me ‘I’ve met more than one publisher who has said people in the publishing industry are intimidated by young people in their own publishing house into suppressing or censoring books.’

Dawkins is reluctant to hypothesise about the social factors that have led to this: ‘I think that the current epidemic we’ve been talking about may have its roots in what’s been called postmodernism. But I’ve never come across a decent definition of postmodernism. Even people who espouse it don’t know what it is.’

It is on the need to protect scientific rationalism, which he has described as ‘crowning glory of the human spirit’, that Dawkins is at his most animated. ‘Science belongs to all humanity,’ he tells me. ‘The best hope we have of getting to the truth is through science. And science has methods in place to avoid subjective feelings and bias.’

But science is now under threat, says Dawkins, from an ideology that dismisses science itself as a colonial project. ‘I was recently in New Zealand where I got involved in a different issue. This is not the sex issue, but it’s the idea that Indigenous ways of knowing are just as valuable as scientific ways of knowing.’

‘The New Zealand government has sent out an education policy in which Māori so-called Ways of Knowing are given equal status to science. This is a kind of bending over backwards to assuage colonial guilt. And, obviously, it’s important and valuable that the people in New Zealand should know about Māori history and Māori legends and myths and beliefs. But not as science.’

‘I think there’s similar movements in Canada and the United States to give such respect to indigenous culture, that it actually infects the science curriculum, instead of just being treated as valuable history and valuable mythology.’

While Dawkins is concerned about the writing of unreason into laws and policies, he believes reason will be reasserted once faddish ideas about gender and ‘different ways of knowing’ have run their course. He compares the current assault on truth to ‘a measles epidemic that spreads memetically through the population.’

‘I suspect it is a temporary fashion, like McCarthyism. Though my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s.’

Dawkins has famously called bringing children up with a religion ‘child abuse.’Does he worry that, as Chesterton said, those who ‘don’t believe in God will believe in anything.’ Does the blame for the modern madness lie with the New Atheists? ‘I just care about what’s true. And so, I never said to myself, “Oh dear, if we remove God, maybe we’ll have a vacuum filled with all sorts of other monsters”.’

Yet however misguided he thinks the search for a ‘creative intelligence at the root of the universe’ might be, Dawkins is clear that it’s not as misguided as the current attempt to ignore science. At least if theism were true it would be an ‘astonishingly important scientific fact,’ he explains.‘It’s false. It’s wrong, but it’s important and it’s something that really matters.’

‘But the sex identity question is not something that a tribesperson in Africa would worry about. It’s not something that a Martian or somebody from outside the West would worry about. It’s just a trivial thing blown out of all proportion. It is only important because so many people do take it seriously.’

At the end of the interview, I stroll with Dawkins through Parliament. On the ceiling of a fan vaulted corridor, outside what was once Oliver Cromwell’s office, is a rare depiction of the Christian God. I watch as the world’s most famous atheist tilts his neck backwards to look up at the carving of the bearded head. I look in vain for evidence of the stone God gazing back.

Richard Dawkins: in defence of scientific truth (2024)
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