Richard Dawkins: The Self-Parodying Scientist

by Suw on October 29, 2008

Richard Dawkins is a bit of a divisive figure, in my opinion. As an atheist, I sometimes get frustrated with the rabid way he attacks religion. But he’s now losing all credibility as he becomes a parody of himself. This, from The Telegraph:

The prominent atheist [Dawkins] is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in “anti-scientific” fairytales.

Prof Hawkins said: “The book I write next year will be a children’s book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.

“I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.”

Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”.

“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News.

“I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

I find it really quite hard to understand where Dawkins is coming from. Children are very good at sifting truth from fiction – they often seem to see more truth than us adults do – and I have yet to come across an adult who still believes in Santa, gingerbread houses or Baba Yaga. I can’t see that there is a problem to be solved, other than one created in Dawkin’s head.

Now, I’m all for a book that teaches kids about science and scientific thinking, and which helps parents understand how to explain things in terms that children will understand. (I still remember my Dad answering my question “Why is the sky blue?” with a detailed and scientifically correct explanation that went right over my head. It was some time before I got that question answered satisfactorily.) And if that’s all this book is, then it will be a valuable addition to my bookshelf.

But the idea that fairytales affect children’s ability to be rational seems absurd. Does an appreciation of fiction affect our ability to examine the world scientifically? Do scientists eschew the novel? I don’t think so. Children hold various beliefs at various times in their childhood, and the details vary from child to child. Some kids learn quite young that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, others use impeccable logic to prove that it is their best friends’ father. In my case, whilst other children were out with their ponies or watching TV, I was reading Heinlein, Asimov, EE Doc Smith, and watching the Space Shuttle take off. I very distinctly remember the moment that I realised that there wasn’t, in fact, a Moon Base.

Treating children as miniature adults is a mistake. Children are little learning machines, as far as I can work out, and they absorb information in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are little scientists: “Oh, look, if I let go of this ball, it always falls to the floor. Note how it never falls upwards! Gosh, later in life I’ll learn that this is called Gravity.” But they don’t just learn through experience and experimentation. They also learn through listening to stories.

Fairytales are about morality, ethics, and the consequences of our actions. How else can you illustrate to a child that if she disobeys and strays from the path, she may be eaten by a big bad wolf? Or that if you lie to get attention, one day you’ll be in real need of help and no one will come. Or that the world is sometimes inscrutable, not at all amenable to explanation, and possibly even terrifying? You could her find out the hard way, or you could tell her stories.

Science has no morals. It’s only the way we use it that is moral or not. And it’s not that great for teaching us about the consequences of our actions. “If you put this little chunk of metal into that tub of water it will explode” doesn’t quite teach the same lesson as “If you do bad things you will be punished.”

But fairytales also teach us to use our imagination, a skill sorely under-appreciated. It’s not just useful for making up more stories, but also in day-to-day life, for picturing how things might be if we take certain actions. Imaginations are very helpful, and they need food to grow: Fairytales. I cannot imagine how dull life would be without fairytales. Several of my friends would be out of a job, for starters, and I would be one ambition poorer.

There are many things that Dawkins could do to make the world a better place, and to help communicate scientific principles to both children and adults alike. Having a pop at fairytales is not one of them.

rachel October 29, 2008 at 4:25 pm

I like Dawkins, or I did. I was taught by him but I agree he is getting more extreme these days in his campaigning. Why does he need to write a book when Terry Pratchett has done exactly what he is talking about. Read Nation – all about thinking and accepting, or not, the beliefs passed on. Read Hogfather, all about the fairytales told to children (although, this being Discworld, the tooth fairy does exist. but travels round with a pair of pliers to ‘collect’ teeth)

Vincent October 29, 2008 at 7:02 pm

Completely agree. Dawkins’ position has become akin to that of Michael Moore, where whatever sense he comes out with struggles to reach past those who already agree with him, simply because of the public persona they’ve created.

Still, it seems odd that someone like Richard Dawkins could, apparently, so fundamentally misunderstand fairytales and other children’s stories. Like Rachel says above, it’s entirely possible to write a book with magic and fantastic creatures that still contains a message about rational thinking – the meaning of the metaphor can be separated from the tools used to relate that metaphor.

Rob Myers November 6, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Neil Gaiman believes that Dawkins has been taken out of context:

“The odd thing about the article is that the quotes from Professor Dawkins don’t say what the article says he says, if you see what I mean, and the quotes themselves seem rather devoid of context, as if he was answering questions which we can’t see. Odd.”

Suw November 8, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Rob, I read Neil’s post, and I understand his viewpoint: he’s a lovely chap who saves his ire for people who really deserve it, and he is also sensitive to the possibility of being taken out of context.

But we can judge for ourselves, to some extent. The video of most of the interview is online, and a transcript of most of that video is:

Dawkins: “I haven’t done the research to discover how public understanding of science has changed during that time, but surveys that have been done over the years have been pretty discouraging, I mean things like, an awful lot of people don’t realise why a year is a year, they don’t know that that it’s the time taken for the Earth to orbit the Sun. My intuitive feeling is that people are very keen on science still, they are very interested in science, there’s a certain a mount of hostility to science which is obviously regrettable.”

Rags Martel: “Do you think that you’ve failed, in a sense?”

Dawkins: “I don’t think I’ve failed, but I’m only one and I think that scientists generally have a responsibility to come out and talk about what they do and try to make it understandable to everybody.”

[Bit of history, mention of The God Delusion]

Dawkins: “I think The God Delusion is actually rather a funny book, it’s intentionally funny, and we get a lot of laughs when Lalla Ward, my wife, and I do public readings of it , we get a lot of laughs, and many of the laughs come from the bits that are often described as strident and shrill, but it’s not a strident and shrill book, it’s a humorous book.”

[Clip of Harry potter]

Rags Martel: “And after tackling God, he’s now going to taken on Harry Potter. In his retirement, he’s going to become a children’s author.”

Dawkins: “I have got a plan to write a children’s book, on how to think about the world, the universe and science, critical thinking, contrast it with mythical thinking. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairytales. I would like to know whether there’s any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards and magic wands and things turning into other things… um, it is unscientific, I think it’s anti-scientific. Whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know.”

Rags Martel: “And like his adult books, he hopes to dispel religious myths and ask children to look for scientific explanations instead.”

Dawkins; “I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing, and the mythical accounts that I will look at will be several different myths of which the Judaeo-Christian one will be just one of many and the scientific one will be substantiated by appeals to the children to think for themselves, to look at the evidence, always look at the evidence.”

Rags Martel: “Some would say you’re taking the magic out of childhood.”

Dawkins: “No, no, because there’s so much magic in science.”

The website also lists this quote:

Dawkins: “So many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes and I’m not sure whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

Dawkins clearly states that he thinks fairytales are unscientific and anti-scientific, and thus must have some level of belief, or at the very least a suspicion, that they have a negative impact on children’s ability to think rationally. That worries me because it would seem that any research he carried out could be predicated on the unsubstantiated assumption that fairytales have ‘pernicious effects’.

The question Dawkins fails to answer is: “Is there any evidence that there are significant numbers of children who are unable to think rationally in a manner that would be expected for their age?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then one can start to look at the possible causes, which could vary from using fantasy to escape the emotional toll of abuse to neurological problems. Then if one starts to see that irrational children also read lots of fairytales, one might be able to claim a correlation, but I’m not sure one could claim cause and effect. Perhaps children who are prone to thinking less rationally are naturally drawn to tales of magic and fantasy.

Libby Purves has an interesting take over on the Times.

And Dawkins says in a comment on his own site about that article:

“There are times when intuition and anecdote are not good enough, and we have to turn to research. Most people have an intuitive answer to the question of whether the death penalty deters murder. And to the question of whether violence on television, or in computer games, begets violence in real life. Our intuitions on such matters could be right, could be wrong, and different people have opposite intuitions. The only way to decide is by research.

“Same thing for fairy tales. Libby Purves’s intuition is that they are a good thing. My anecdotal experience of my own childhood points me towards the opposite intuition. Whether I actually believed in spells and magic wands and Genies of the Lamp, I can’t remember. But I do remember spending a lot of time at my infant school trying to call down supernatural forces to protect me from bullies. I had a distinct mental image of a large black cloud with a human face, which would swoop down out of the sky and deal with the bully. I can’t be sure that a diet of Grimm and Hans Anderson predisposes children to such futile imaginings, but at very least it seems plausible enough to be worth researching. Similarly, my intuition suggests that a diet of wizards and magic, where anything can change, at the shake of a wand, into anything else, might predispose a child to lazy habits of thought, avoiding the urge to question how and why things really happen. This is emphatically not true, by the way, of good science fiction, which respects scientific principles and never resorts to lazy magic tricks.

“I might add – although I didn’t in the interview – that I find it plausible that early exposure to supernatural magic might predispose a child to religious indoctrination. What, after all, is the difference between Jesus walking on water, or turning water into wine, and a witch turning a prince into a frog? But, I hasten to add, Libby Purves might be right. Such magic spell stories might be a valuable, even essential, part of a child’s imaginative development. Both points of view are defensible in the absence of evidence, and research is the only way to decide between them.”

Unfortunately, Dawkins’ words make me feel that this is much more about unresolved issues from his childhood and a lot less about any real problems children face.

Rob Myers November 11, 2008 at 11:45 am

Dawkins does say that Purves might be right and that fantasy stories might be a vital part of imaginative development. I understand that calls for research can hide an agenda (hello Intelligent Design), but the good thing about a call for scientific research, rather than a call for religious decree, is that Ben Goldacre can be set onto it if it’s biased.

I personally think as many children as possible should read the “Narnia” books. They were one of the things that put me right off religion as a child.

(If you can read this, recaptcha is working. 😉 )

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