Richard Dawkins and the Need for a New Science Populism

With the publication of The God Delusion in 2006, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins thrust himself to the forefront of the modern atheist movement. That book has since sold over three million copies and been translated into 30 different languages. The Oxford University professor is the embodiment of the concept of the public intellectual, his activities on behalf of science and against religion including best-selling books, celebrated debates, and numerous appearances as either guest or host on myriad television programs. In his professional capacity, he served as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and has since promoted that mission via the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and its popular website. Few professors can boast a guest spot on The Simpsons; there, he appeared as a demon version of himself in Ned Flanders’ dream of hell in the 2013 episode, “Black Eyed, Please”.

For Dawkins, science is not something to be confined to universities and laboratories, particularly when much of the work conducted there is dismissed or demeaned by the anti-science lobbies of the religious community. This concern, articulated in his recent memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), has prompted Dawkins to call for a broadening of the image of a scientist to one that can intersect with more accessible fields. His call for a “third culture” furthers Carl Sagan’s desire to articulate the “poetry” of science, to celebrate its awesome wonders as well as its evidentiary minutia (p.5). Writing and rhetoric need to be promoted, argues Dawkins, and wit needs to be central to both; scientists need to emerge from isolation, he posits, with genres such as science fiction literature integrated into science for a more populist presentation of the profession.

For him, the days of just hunkering down to research while the political forces of religion infiltrate, occupy, and control the culture need to come to an end. In his 2002 TED Talk he calls for a “militant atheism” because “rocking the boat is just the right thing to do”.


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11 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – For him, the days of just hunkering down to research while the political forces of religion infiltrate, occupy, and control the culture need to come to an end. In his 2002 TED Talk he calls for a “militant atheism” because “rocking the boat is just the right thing to do”.

    I think “militant atheism” is a badge bandied around by fundamentalist theists and pseudo-science quacks, to disparage valid criticisms of their views!

    What is needed is militant defence of science and of honesty in the media, and “militant realism” in place of sensationalist fantasy!

    Far too much reporting of scientific achievements, is incompetently misrepresented in the popular media, by sensationalist scientifically illiterate journalists! – Some of whom cannot even match a weather forecast to the local geography of a regional edition of their newspapers – presenting local dire warnings or sensational headlines about events taking place miles away! Others cannot comprehend basic scientific terminology and vocabulary, so translate valid reports into nonsensical rubbish!

    These incompetents then take it upon themselves to criticise experts such as climate scientists, or express ludicrous personal opinions on subjects they know nothing about!
    Many are also innumerate, hence making false equivalences, or getting issues ridiculously out of proportion – especially where large numbers are involved!

  2. For Dawkins, science is not something to be confined to universities
    and laboratories, particularly when much of the work conducted there
    is dismissed or demeaned by the anti-science lobbies of the religious
    community.

    I do not know how things are run in GB, but here in the States the anti-science religious communities are just the tools of the for-profit industries. Granted the end result is the same.

  3. Far too much reporting of scientific achievements, is incompetently
    misrepresented in the popular media…

    Agreed. I would add the media’s compulsion to present alternate pseudo-science under a misguided equal time or Fairness Doctrine.

  4. Vicki #2
    Jan 14, 2017 at 6:29 am

    I do not know how things are run in GB

    There is some honest reporting in the UK if the quality papers ( The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times) are selected or the national BBC TV service is used as a source.
    The gutter press is full of sensationalist, incompetent and superficial rubbish as elsewhere.

    The BBC also runs some very high quality science programmes and science, archaeology, and history documentaries, on BBC2 and BBC4.
    (David Attenburgh, Brian Cox, Iain Stewart, Neil Oliver, Jago Cooper, etc.)

  5. (David Attenburgh, Brian Cox, Iain Stewart, Neil Oliver, Jago Cooper, etc.)

    Not to mention,

    Alice Roberts, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Tori Herridge, Bettany Hughes, Lucy Worsely.

    (Still ill and bored.)

    If anything I have come to appreciate the simple educational and edifying intent behind the BBC even more. It lifts the standards of the others. What a shameful disaster National Geographic and Discovery increasingly are. Why aren’t Google, Microsoft etc. sponsoring decent science and history programmes on Netflix, HBO etc?

  6. There seems to be a new UK initiative here in a well known series of children’s books! – Perhaps illustrating a difference in potential heads of state!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38627650

    Prince Charles has co-authored a simple guide on the challenges and possible solutions to climate change.

    The Ladybird Expert book on Climate Change is written in the style of the original Ladybird books.

    The 52-page title has been released as part of a series which aims to clearly explain complicated subjects.

    The co-authors are former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh.

    Mr Juniper told the Mail on Sunday he hoped it would “stand the test of time”.

    He said: “His royal highness, Emily and I had to work very hard to make sure that each word did its job, while at the same time working with the pictures to deliver the points we needed to make.

    “I hope we’ve managed to paint a vivid picture, and, like those iconic titles from the 60s and 70s, created a title that will stand the test of time.”

    In 2015 Ladybird Books celebrated its 100th anniversary.

    It used to be best known for its series of 1960s and 1970s books for children but has recently found success with a range of humorous books for adults.

    Titles include the Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis and the Ladybird Book of the Hangover.

    A publishing director for Penguin, which produces Ladybird books, revealed Clarence House had put the latest idea to the publisher.

    Rowland White told the Sunday Times: “It was a coincidence where we were thinking about a new series for adults after the huge success of the spoof books, but this time wanted some factual books by experts on science, history and arts subjects.”

    Penguin Books said the title, which will be released on 26 January, had been read and reviewed by figures within the environmental community.

    The other books in the series are Quantum Mechanics by Jim Al-Khalili, and Evolution by Steve Jones.

  7. Vicki (#2), Alan (#4). I agree about the difference between the quality and gutter press but there is a third source often used in the UK and that is very variable, the Press Association, most local and national papers use it as it is cheaper to take a news feed than employ journalists for specific tasks.

    In the past PA produced good quality material but they have been in decline for sometime. PA is often the starting point for a lot of reporting, even for the quality nationals, although the good ones will back up the initial PA material with decent researched stuff of their own, the problem is when the initial material is wrong.

    We used PA on the paper I worked for and 10 or so years back I spotted a story about new research that would be a great help in treating haemophilia but when I read it realised it was only beneficial to people with one variety of it, there are three. I telephoned PA to point this out and ask them to add this to the story, pointing out that as a haemophiliac I and many of my kith were fed up of reading about stuff that was false (I expect there are people with other conditions who are annoyed in the same way). Initially the PA editor was sympathetic and said it would be looked into. Unfortunately the response was a very rude call from the journalist who wrote the story, she started by pointing out I worked on a sports desk so “How the hell would I know about science and medicine.” I pointed out that people with hereditary or long term conditions tended to learn about them, also that working in sport’s journalism did not mean I was not able to understand other things. I tried three times to explain about the three varieties of haemophilia and that this was only of use to one, the rarest of the three but was met with abuse and eventually the phone being slammed down. A further call to the PA editor was ignored and the story in its incorrect form appeared in several papers the following day.

  8. Stephen Mynett #7
    Jan 17, 2017 at 7:04 am

    Vicki (#2), Alan (#4).
    I agree about the difference between the quality and gutter press but there is a third source often used in the UK and that is very variable,
    the Press Association,
    most local and national papers use it as it is cheaper to take a news feed than employ journalists for specific tasks.

    We used PA on the paper I worked for and 10 or so years back I spotted a story about new research that would be a great help in treating haemophilia but when I read it realised it was only beneficial to people with one variety of it, there are three.
    Unfortunately the response was a very rude call from the journalist who wrote the story, she started by pointing out I worked on a sports desk so “How the hell would I know about science and medicine.” I pointed out that people with hereditary or long term conditions tended to learn about them, also that working in sport’s journalism did not mean I was not able to understand other things. I tried three times to explain about the three varieties of haemophilia and that this was only of use to one, the rarest of the three but was met with abuse and eventually the phone being slammed down.

    Indeed! You have probably seen some of my earlier take-downs of know-it-all scientifically illiterate journalists, misinforming the public – even in supposed scientific publications!! (POPULAR SCIENCE?????)

    https://richarddawkins.net/2015/07/nasa-is-seriously-considering-terraforming-part-of-the-moon-with-robots/

  9. Yes I remember that one Alan. Unfortunately a mixture of poor writers and some even worse owners are making a complete mess of things. One former fairly decent publication should probably now be called the National Godographic now Murdoch has it hands on it.

    Quite often online you get better information and can learn more from the comments posted.

  10. Perhaps this is an appropriate thread to look at public de-education!

    I see that the Johava’s Witnesses have produced a new 32 page magazine Entitled “Was Life Created” – printed on good quality paper with good quality colour illustrations.

    It is the usual “We are impressed with the complexity of nature so our lack of education and incredulity makes us assert that god-did-it-by-design” – and of course the claim that:- “Vague interpretations of the bible”, can maintain a pretence that it “describes the history of the Earth and predicts many scientific discoveries”!

    This hand-out, also has a pseudo-science format, with citations of cherry-picked but real science – supposedly illustrating the “designed” Rare Earth – “perfect” arrangement of the planet in goldilocks zones, and the “perfect” balanced functioning of the water-cycle, the nitrogen cycle etc.

    Of course this real science is interspersed with comments from the usual maverick apologists (including those {Lonnig} whose views are disowned by the scientific establishments where they worked), who understand basic science well enough to use sciency words (Michael J. Behe) and sound plausible to the uneducated! – along with a citations list at the back mixing the citations of real science books, with citations of books containing the apologist opinions of evolution deniers!

    It also has a comically incompetent 6 page chapter labelled
    “Evolution – Myths and facts”
    This starts with a quote from Richard Dawkins:-
    “Evolution is as much a fact as the heat of the sun”
    It then rambles on about the pretend difference s between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”.
    The “Myths” are of course the scientific conclusions on the mechanisms of evolution and natural selection, while the (pseudo-)”FACTS” are references to quote mining and flawed antiquated studies, which claim to refute these well established and evidence based conclusions about the workings of mutation, selection, and evolution.

  11. @OP – For Dawkins, science is not something to be confined to universities and laboratories, particularly when much of the work conducted there is dismissed or demeaned by the anti-science lobbies of the religious community.

    There really does need to be a widespread public awareness to bring pressure to bear on politicians, who would otherwise happily ignore serious issues such as climate change, invasive species, and pathogen resistance to medical treatments due to widespread abusive misuse of pharmaceutical products.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38796337

    A key malaria treatment has failed for the first time in patients being treated in the UK, doctors say.

    The drug combination was unable to cure four patients, who had all visited Africa, in early signs the parasite is evolving resistance.

    A team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said it was too early to panic.

    But it warned things could suddenly get worse and demanded an urgent appraisal of drug-resistance levels in Africa.

    Malaria parasites are spread by bites from infected mosquitoes.

    It is a major killer of the under-fives with one child dying from the disease every two minutes.

    Between 1,500 and 2,000 people are treated for malaria in the UK each year – always after foreign travel.

    Most are treated with the combination drug: artemether-lumefantrine.

    But clinical reports, now detailed in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, showed the therapy failed in four patients between October 2015 and February 2016.

    All initially responded to therapy and were sent home, but were readmitted around a month later when the infection rebounded.

    Samples of the parasite that causes malaria were analysed at the Malaria Reference Laboratory at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

    Dr Colin Sutherland told the BBC News website: “It’s remarkable there’s been four apparent failures of treatment, there’s not been any other published account [in the UK].”

    All of the patients were eventually treated using other therapies.

    But the detailed analysis of the parasites suggested they were developing ways of resisting the effects of the front-line drugs.

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