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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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…