Richard Dawkins says dumb stuff (again).

Maybe I need to start a “Richard Dawkins says dumb stuff” tag…

So last week, the Professor for the Public Understanding of Science tweeted: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

The tweet pissed off a lot of people, and confused a lot more.  There was no real context for it – the 2013 Nobel prizes won’t be announced until October, so it’s unclear why it was on his mind at that particular moment.  It was close to Eid al-Fitr, the celebratory end of Ramadan, and both David Cameron and Barack Obama had made Eid speeches, so perhaps Professor Dawkins was offended by the encroach of religious celebration into his secular worldview.  Next people will be saying “Eid Mubarak” in the streets.  Where will it end?!

So Professor Dawkins said something random and insulting about Muslims and offended a lot of people.  In doing so, he also engaged in two of my least favorite forms of derailing: firstly, by implying that artificial standards are abstract, and two, by appealing to a nondescript historical ‘fact.’

But before we get to that, an important public service announcement: Dear fellow white people, Ironic racism is not a thing.  And by that, I don’t mean that it’s stupid, pointless, offensive, ignorant, insulting or bully-like.  It *is* all of those things, as well, but what I mean is that it’s literally impossible.  “Ironic,” unbeknownst to Alanis Morissette, means an outcome contrary to the expected.  Sarcasm is a (generally) familiar form of irony. If you see me trying to move a large sofa on my own, and ask me if I want help, it’s sarcastic/ironic for me to reply, “No, I want you to chop off my arms and legs with a chainsaw” because the expected response is “yes, thank you, that’d be great.”

White people being racist is not contrary to the expected result.  It *is* the expected result.  Even if individual white people are not personally racist, we all benefit from a system of institutionalized racism that protects us from violence, from harassment, from profiling and from discrimination[1].  So, ironic racism by white people = racism.

So now that we have that out of the way – derailing:

What Professor Dawkins said is completely true.  There are fewer Muslim Nobel Prize winners than there are Trinity College, Cambridge-affiliated Nobel Prize winners.  The more important questions are 1.) why is this the case and 2.) should we care?

I’d argue that the answer to the second depends on the first.  But the tendency simply to state artificial measures of distinction is a classic form of derailing.  It implies that there’s some essential, metaphysical reason for the distinction.  To put it simply, from the tone of the tweet, I don’t think the response Professor Dawkins was expecting was, “Congrats, you’ve found colonialism!”  Which was, incidentally, my first response when I heard about this.

Twice now, I’ve described using “number of Nobel prize winners” as a measure for comparing two groups of people as “artificial,” so I should probably point out that by “artificial,” I don’t mean fake or pretend.  I mean what “artificial” actually means, which is “man-made.”

These kinds of derailing arguments often rely on artificial measures of comparison and imply that these measures are natural.  “Fat people should pay extra for plane seats if they take up more than one seat” is a classic example.  That argument only makes sense if “the size of one plane seat” is a natural, unchangeable unit of measure, if “plane seats” are something that grow wild that we pick and set in planes.  In reality, we could just make the seats bigger.  However, of those two scenarios, only one involves airlines making more money.  It’s in their best interest to paint the former argument as abstract and natural, because it keeps people from questioning why we don’t just do the latter (which would have loads of added benefits, like making plane flights less uncomfortable for everyone, says the six-foot-tall girl).

Professor Dawkins’ “Nobel prize” measurement suffers from the same failing.  Someone picks Nobel prize winners.  Someone chooses the fields in which the prize can be won.  Someone chooses the academic credentials used to judge the potential winners.  These aren’t abstract, unbiased, unbendable rules, like the laws of physics.  People make them.  People made them up, and people hold to them.  As it happens, a lot of the people who made them up were white men of European descent.  And a lot of the people who win the prizes are white men of European descent.

So “number of Nobel prizes won” is a problematic standard for measuring anything, unless what you’re measuring is how effectively a given group conforms to the social and cultural traditions underpinning the Nobel prize.  And then there’s the second half of his tweet.  “They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Again, that’s true!  The Muslim world produced a great deal of science in the Middle Ages.  Also literature, history, legal texts, theological works, economic innovations, plays, poems, arts and crafts, and hummus.  Again, the question needs to be – why should we care?

By framing the statement against the Nobel prize winner measurement, Professor Dawkins is implying that something has gone wrong.  The Muslims were great at science in the Middle Ages!  Why aren’t they great at it now?

Again, this isn’t quite a fair analysis.  The Muslim world had a great deal of autonomy in the Middle Ages.  They were producing works for their own use, some of which made their way into the wider world.  But today, the imaginary Muslim scientists whom Dawkins is addressing are being asked to produce for his sake, for the sake of the Nobel committee, for the sake of ‘the scientific community.’  There’s nothing wrong with that, but again, it’s an artificial standard.  It’s something that being hoisted upon the world by a group of mostly white, mostly European-descended, mostly-cismale academics, who are expecting the rest of the world to adhere to the standards that they’ve made up.  Much like “the flag rule.”

This kind of referencing to random historical facts generally strikes me as a kind of ‘mansplaining.’  The speaker is attempting to demonstrate knowledge of the subject in order to claim authority.  But historical periods are every bit as artificial as the “how many Nobel prizes do you have?” rule.  People in the Middle Ages didn’t know they lived in the Middle Ages.  More to the point, historical periods are also generally really Eurocentric.  The “Middle Ages” or “Dark Ages” refers to a period of social shift in Europe.  Demarcating these periods gets complicated even in conversations between Western/Latin scholars and Byzantine scholars.  These time periods generally make no sense at all to the study of Asia, Africa, Australia or the Americas[2].

And ultimately, that’s how derailing works.  It’s a way to reframe the argument so that your side comes out ahead.  There are lots of artificial standards we can use to judge people, but that doesn’t make it any less important to ask why we’re using that standard, and what does it really show.

[1] Obviously, this is where intersectionality comes in.  Many white people do experience these things because they’re women or queer or disabled or trans*, but not because of their race.

[2] Incidentally, Dear fellow historians, please can we try to remember that Australia and the Americas were, in fact, populated for centuries prior to the colonial period.  I can’t count the number of articles I’ve read that seem to think the indigenous people spontaneously appeared about 20 minutes before the white man arrived…

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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7 Responses to Richard Dawkins says dumb stuff (again).

  1. Ian says:

    Yes, definitely. This week in the UK we’ve had the similar spectre of a (very minor) politician explaining that women don’t belong in the board-room because even in fields that require only brain power (like Poker, Chess, and – presumably – Nobel Prizes) men are better than women. I’m sure Dawkins wouldn’t agree with this particular person, but I can’t figure out how his comment is any different.

    But… (as you mentally prepare for the idiocy that always follows a ‘but’ on posts such as these). I don’t think that the Nobel Prize, or elite science generally is a cultural game that is inherently culturally relative. I think science is, to a large extent (but not 100%) an endeavour we can judge on its own terms. The discover of DNA, say, is a kind of discovery that I don’t think you can say is somehow specific to the values of western culture. There is a level of objectively new understanding about how the world works there. It is unreasonable, I think, to dismiss discoveries of that kind as being made for and by the standards of the Nobel committee. You rightly criticize abstract criticisms, but don’t put forward an example of a non-western scientific discovery that could be considered more significant than a major Nobel prize award, if only the rules weren’t biased towards the west. We could change the rules, but not every set of rules would be equally sane, in this case.

    Why did Muslim science not continue to lead the world, after the Renaissance and Enlightenment? Why does one college at Cambridge lead the world in Nobel prizes? Could we conclude that Trinity is on its game, whereas Magdelen College is coasting? Why are women not better represented in Board Rooms and in the World Chess Championship? I think the answers aren’t that the goal posts are set so that white men do well – there’s nothing about chess that should inherently favour white men, nor science, nor running a business. I certainly don’t think that Dawkins nasty implication that Muslim science was stifled by dogmatism is correct. The answer, I think, is in the institutionalisation of achievement: patterns of money, power and control that lock in attainment. Trinity’s success in producing word class scientific breakthrough brings in funding and talent that produces world class scientific breakthrough. If Al-Azhar had that depth of talent and resources, they’d be permanent fixtures in Oslo too.

    • I can completely understand the desire to see science (or academic endeavor generally, really) as largely absolute, that good science gets rewarded and bad science doesn’t, but I still think that’s too narrow a view – how science and academia work is not just based on the outcome of the research.

      The search for DNA is actually an interesting example – Watson and Crick were awarded a Nobel prize for their work on the double helix. But their work was heavily dependent on the research of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin wasn’t included in their Nobel prize, despite Crick’s admission that his work would have been impossible without her research into crystal structure (fun side note: he also stole her work. He showed her models to Watson without her permission, and he integrated them into his methodology, assuming that they had been fairly acquired).

      The picture becomes even more problematic when considered on a larger scale. Good science requires collaboration and access to the best equipment and resources. But women and people of color were denied entry into most of the top-ranked universities until well into the second half of the 20th century. Even in integrated universities, like Oxford, women were not allowed to attend public lectures, go to the libraries or sit their exams in the examination schools, because it was believed that they would distract the menfolk. So the handful of successful women and POC scientists succeeded despite a system that was largely, and in some cases actively, devaluing their participation.

      And that’s why I get pissed off when people like Dawkins talk about “oh, but they were so good in the Middle Ages, what happened?!”, when in the intervening period, the scientists in the Middle East had their governments overthrown, their civil infrastructure dismantled, their legal systems rewritten, and, in some cases, their whole society redesigned to fit a Western ideal. And at the same time, they were systematically being denied access to the Western institutions that were setting the norms of academic behavior.

      The reality is it’s really tough to be an academic outside of North America and Western Europe, even today. Even something as basic as language comes into play – I’m incredibly lucky that I get to publish in my native language. If I were Middle Eastern, I would still be expected to read Arabic, Syriac and Greek, but I would also be expected to be able to write professionally in English in order to publish in most peer-reviewed journals in my field. There are academic journals in Arabic, and in Turkish and Farsi and Amharic, but those journals are generally considered less important than the English journals, largely due to them having a smaller audience because they’re not in a Western language. It’s deeply tautological, and it’s very subtle, but again, it’s a system that guarantees that Western scholars start out on better footing than their non-Western counterparts.

      And this is definitely becoming tl;dr, but hopefully there’s a point in there somewhere…

  2. Ian says:

    There was an excellent point in there, and I think it is the one I was trying to make too, but perhaps too verbosely. I read your original post as if good science is a kind of arbitrary choice. While I agree there are biases in focus, and there are trendy topics, that seemed the wrong emphasis for why Muslim scientists aren’t dominating modern science. In fact it seemed a bit insulting, as if the Muslim scientists struggling to fund ambitious research in Middle Eastern institutions cared less about the success criteria of Nobel-style science than those in Trinity. Or that they just didn’t find ‘western’ science ‘useful’.

    But your clarification above is exactly what I wanted to say, but more eloquent. The issue is institutional primarily. There are all kinds of systemic advantages to those attending Trinity College that aren’t afforded to students in Cairo or Addis Ababa, for example. And, as you say, the issue is one for anyone outside traditional privileges: on gender, language, race, religion and money. So I agree.

    Franklin and DNA is interesting, but not misogynistic in quite the way you’re implying. Nobel prizes, under their founding charter, cannot be awarded posthumously. Franklin tragically died of cancer in her 30s, some years after Crick and Watson’s discovery, but before the Nobel prize was awarded. The results theft is an interesting, but slightly more complex story too. But we are tl;dr now, no need to be overly pedantic when I agree with what you were getting at. Barbara McClintock’s 40 year wait for her Nobel prize is perhaps a better example of institutional bias against women in C20 science.

  3. Aw, thanks! (Also, sorry for the delayed reply – waylayed by a migraine.)

    It’s definitely an institutional problem, which I think is why it’s so lingering, as well, because the reality is that we don’t necessarily want to dismantle all institutions. We want to keep Cambridge (I mean, I don’t want to, personally, but that’s because I’m Oxon). It’s hard to decide how to fix the institution without breaking it.

    That’s interesting about Franklin and McClintock. I will clearly need to do some more research into this (and by that, I mean get distracted and spend three hours reading weird stories about the history of medicine, which is what always happens when I try to do research into history of science topic…)

  4. FloweryHedgehog says:

    I’ll just leave this here for your enjoyment ;)
    http://stay-human.tumblr.com/post/57871922527

  5. Pingback: Richard Dawkins says silly things (in response to saying dumb things) | askanislamicist

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