Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dawkins' Stupid People

In a recent Newsnight interview Richard Dawkins had the following exchange with the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman:
Paxman: Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?

Dawkins: I do actually, yes. I really do. I mean, I care that children are being misled by those stupid people.
This is where I have a really hard time with Dawkins. Instead of replying that those people aren't 'stupid', but simply 'misguided' he went with the 'stupid' moniker. Unfortunately, in The God Delusion Dawkins makes the point that religion is inherited from parents. Thus most people who are religious got that way because their parents taught them about religion. This doesn't make them stupid. You might say incorrect, or indoctrinated, you might even say dangerous, but that doesn't make them stupid.

Stupid is a really strong word. I know a talented programmer called Jonathan Zdziarski who is clearly not stupid (I met him through the anti-spam world) but who holds strong beliefs about Christianity including the creation story. I find those beliefs difficult to reconcile with evidence in the world, but he doesn't.

I've also met many other religious people in the computer industry. Just recently I reviewed a technical book which began with the author thanking Jesus for inspiration and his very existence. Difficult for me to understand, but the book was good and the author clearly not stupid.

Historically, many scientists have been religious. The most striking example is Michael Faraday. Clearly, not a stupid man.

Calling people stupid doesn't help progress an argument, it just makes the person that uses the word look pompous and overbearing. It just sounds like school playground level name calling.

Dawkins should have retorted that he didn't think 'those people' are 'stupid' and qualified his thinking. But I suspect that he actually does think they are stupid and it's that judgemental tone that annoys me most whenever I accidentally hear him speak.

PS Silly me, I had forgotten to add Donald Knuth to my list of examples.

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22 Comments:

Blogger Aaron said...

Even being really good at [insert profession], doesn't make you non-stupid in areas outside of your expertise. It's not mutually exclusive. E.g., one can be a brilliant orthopedist, but can still be considered really stupid when it comes to forming a coherent general world-view.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Vladimir said...

Ha! Guess who looks (very) stupid now, Richard?

Thanks for the post.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Paul Brannan said...

Stupid is a choice. Why Dawkins chooses it is beyond me.

11:52 AM  
Blogger db said...

Just a thought - we could be generous and assume that by stupid he is using the following definition by Carlo Cipolla found in "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" :

"A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

Overall though - I agree that referring to people with different opinions as stupid is not helpful.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Aaron: Why does Dawkin's expertise in biological history qualify him to comment on others expertise in theology? Not only does he claim fellow professionals like himself are stupid merely because they disagree with him, but he also claims experts in the field he dismisses (and has no expertise) are also stupid.

Furthermore, if being an expert in science in general somehow gives him a form of "super-knowledge" that allows him to critique all other fields of knowledge, surely there are other much more credentialed scientists with alternative viewpoints who he should at least give a fair hearing?

Basically, I don't see what's special about Dawkins that gives him the right to unilaterally declare everyone who disagrees with him as "stupid." Can you point out what gives him this privilege?

11:58 AM  
Blogger Berean said...

@Aaron. True statement. But I would bet money that the majority of religious people in the tech world know more about why they believe what they believe than a-religious or anti-religious person knows why they believe what they believe.

Furthermore, someone in the tech industry is likely to be a very critical thinker. For such a person to adopt a religion is no light matter.

If you examine Dawkins's many arguments you'll find that at the root of them is a simple assertion that "these things can be clearly seen". Just because he says things are apparent (to him) doesn't make for a truthful statement. What it does show is that Dawkins is more about preaching his message of naturalism than arguing it from science.

12:01 PM  
OpenID lessertruth said...

As sad as it is, people who identify themselves as "atheists" are the ones most likely to derail an idea-exchange about religion into the worst kind of personal insult. And by that i mean that even if my own POV would be much closer to atheism than anything else, disputes about the subject with atheists have always left me sore and hurt. Those self-proclaimed "reasonable" and "enlightened" people are the ones more likely to disregard you as an human being because of your opinions. A lot more than the supposedly fanatically faithful.

Anyway, there is a reason for that, and at the end of the day the thing is you should just disregard Dawkins. He isn't that much of a scientist (more onto science popularization, actually). He is a very poor theologian.

As a side-note, the bestest ever answer to "what is your religion?" i ever heard is: "You'll never know." Because, really, i have beliefs, but whether or not the words i use to call them have any kind of resemblance to what you'd understand by those words is impossible to ascertain.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

I fully agree that Dawkins is not very diplomatic, which is a shame, but I don't think that's his goal. He's attempting to, and succeeding at, irritating a very sensitive nerve. When Dawkins writes or speaks about religion he really is trying to provoke. This is in contrast to others who hedge their statements about religion in order not to offend, and in the process weaken their own arguments.

As a scientist, Dawkins refuses to accept any evidence that cannot be verified scientifically. He berates 'believers', specifically other scientists, for refusing to apply the scientific principles to their belief structures.

Most most scientists realize that religious doctrine cannot survive detailed scientific analysis, and Dawkins is correct that science and (most) religion cannot co-exist. In order to truly believe in both you have to compromise the principles of one or the other in order to resolve the inevitable contradictions between them.

I do applaud Dawkins for his courage to take such a controversial stand, especially given the religious nut cases that are are so frequently lauded by the press and the public. In some ways Dawkins draws more ire than he deserves, since what he says is 'factually correct', namely that his postulates can be independently and scientifically verified.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Woopsie said...

IMV, Jeremy Paxman was just doing his job as a journalist, leading RD into a highly inflammatory response. (Compare how easily he extracted this from RD with his interview with Michael Howard). RD has previously admitted he is not a politician and speaks too bluntly. This is probably good evidence of that.

12:44 PM  
Blogger David said...

It's a harsh word, indeed, but if you're not thinking clearly about some matter, you deserve that word. It is a paradox, if you want. You can be brilliant about something, but a stupid about the rest.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Andrew Dalke said...

"someone in the tech industry is likely to be a very critical thinker. For such a person to adopt a religion is no light matter"

And yet people in the tech industry appear to have similar religious as their parents. Faraday and Knuth and Francis Collins, amazingly enough, follow religions which are common to where they live.

How strange that a universal truth, as religion must surely be, depends so strongly on where in the world you were born.


"Just because he says things are apparent (to him) doesn't make for a truthful statement."

As an educator I doubt he wants that. He would rather help people work through the evidence critically.

Shouldn't your response to things which aren't apparent be to point out the parts which aren't clear and seek clarification? It's not like it's easy to look in the sky and exclaim that it's obvious that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But once you understand more of the mechanics, it becomes a natural conclusion, and it's easily testable.

Similarly, once you understand how evolution works it's abundantly clear how true and how well tested is it. With modern sequencing it's almost embarrassingly easy to show our long genetic heritage, and DNA is only one of many lines of reasoning showing the reality of evolution.


By the way, "misguided" is surely the wrong term for people who are decidedly the ones doing the guiding. What do you call someone who advocates for a position by telling lie upon lie? Surely "stupid" is a much more mild than "liar" - and it is *these* people that Dawkins is talking about, not people you point out like Jonathan Zdziarski.

Though I have to wonder reading his statement about his faith if he realizes that his claim that the books of the Bible are the "oldest ... documents in existence" is incorrect, given that the oldest books date from the 8th century BC while the Epic of Gilgamesh is from about 1900 BC, and there are even older documents. For that matter the Rigveda from before 1100BC are still used as religious texts.

1:17 PM  
Blogger tz said...

Dawkins is an anti-religous bigot. It is not lack of diplomacy, but hatred. He would do to Christians something like what was done to Turing.

As far as his atheism, see "The Irrational Atheist" that uses logic instead of invective. Note the author does Not argue for god, merely exposes the bad logic of Dawkins and others. Just because he knows biology doesn't make him good at either rhetoric or dialectic.

1:36 PM  
Blogger David said...

By the way, after reading the strong beliefs of Jonathan Zdziarski, a guy who believes that the universe is a lot younger than we thought, I don't know what I should believe about him. He doesn't gives numbers, but he clearly denies the Big Bang and a bunch of other scientifics facts. The word "stupid" comes to my mind, but he is clearly an educated man, a man who has readed many books... about the Young Earth Hypothesis, about Inteligent Design, and the miracles of Jesus Christ.

Maybe he is intelligent, after all, but stubborn. Maybe he is afraid of is own intelligence, and he clings to his books in order to silence his doubts...

The word that more aptly describes him is "stupid". Sorry.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Williamsville Christian Fellowship said...

Also wrong to presume that faith comes from parents. Almost everyone in my church had a personal experience with God that brought them to their faith, and many came from a-religious or non-church-going homes growing up.

2:12 PM  
Blogger xmlblog said...

"Almost everyone in my church had a personal experience with God"

How do you know it was God? And to which god[1], exactly, are you referring?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_deities

Now, when you respond with "the one true God, of course" we can have a proper debate over who is more arrogant–Dawkins or the person who claims to know the unknowable based on personal "revelation."

Keep in mind that these claims are mutually exclusive of the same kind of truth claims of more than half of humanity. After all Christians don't believe in Islam, Muslims don't believe in Hinduism, and on and on.

To claim that the Earth is a few thousand years old in this day and age is colossally stupid. There is no other word for it. It is no different than claiming that the Earth is flat or that the Sun revolves around the Earth–(both of which the Church vehemently insisted upon, incidentally). This is nothing more than a continuation of a pattern of denying what is plainly evident that goes back centuries.

At least the Vatican has had the good sense to stop making stupid claims about evolution and the age of the Earth and the orbits of the planets. Unfortunately, not everyone has followed suit. Needless to say, the Roman Catholic Church has other issues of late...

One further reason stupid is an appropriate term for this sort of muddled thinking. People who claim the Earth is a few thousand years old claim that every scientist on the planet is wrong about these conclusions, but seem to have no problem relying on those very same scientists' theories in going about their everyday lives. They board planes, use cell phones and computers and all manner of other devices whose complexity makes the dating of the universe seem like child's play by comparison.

I understand the word grates. It may not be polite, but it is accurate. Sometimes one needs to put the kid gloves away and tell it like it is. I'm glad Dawkins has the courage to do so.

4:03 PM  
Blogger gustavo said...

Dawkins is right. Of course you gave examples of brilliant people in their field of expertise, yet deluded about other subjects that they are very ignorant about.

Of course everyone would love to talk with Jeremy about many subjects, but not about some scientific ones if he holds such backwards, without evidence views.

For the sake of example let's use you:

Very smart fellow with several accomplishments, a role model for us all. Yet you think that lesbians are just women who never really gave a good man a chance, perhaps they are haters or whatever.

Despite all respect many of us would have for you, those views aren't backed by evidence and any display of those ideas without a big CAVEAT EMPTOR would sound crazy because everyone expected you to do your homework given your background.

That's exactly what Dawkins, in my point of view, rants about.

8:57 PM  
Blogger james said...

Christian parents have Christian children. Jewish parents have Jewish children, etc, etc. It's cultural, what they are brought up to believe. What amazes me is that as these children grow older so few question their religious beliefs.


When it comes to religion i agree with Dawkins. People are stupid.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

People who are not critical thinkers, may be skilled in certain areas but are never truly intelligent.

12:25 AM  
Blogger suregeek said...

Stupid is definitely not a choice, although it can be a great choice in many certain situations.

Everyone is different and points of view are very different.

"All our knowledge has its origins in our own perceptions" - Leonard Da Vinci

Suregeek.com

5:29 AM  
Blogger samantha said...

Well, lamenting the use of the word stupid on, one would suppose, some politically correct grounds of no one really being stupid, is itself prime evidence of stupidity. Ok, call them "dumb" if it makes you feel better or "ignorant" if you must. But to miss the essential point based simply on a word hot-button is very much stupid / ignorant and is not "misinformed".

11:40 PM  
Blogger samantha said...

Well, lamenting the use of the word stupid on, one would suppose, some politically correct grounds of no one really being stupid, is itself prime evidence of stupidity. Ok, call them "dumb" if it makes you feel better or "ignorant" if you must. But to miss the essential point based simply on a word hot-button is very much stupid / ignorant and is not "misinformed".

11:41 PM  
Blogger samantha said...

Well, lamenting the use of the word stupid on, one would suppose, some politically correct grounds of no one really being stupid, is itself prime evidence of stupidity. Ok, call them "dumb" if it makes you feel better or "ignorant" if you must. But to miss the essential point based simply on a word hot-button is very much stupid / ignorant and is not "misinformed".

11:41 PM  

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