Dawkins’ faulty taxonomy

Science enthusiast Richard Dawkins is always good for a laugh, even if the laughter sometimes curdles at his anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim bigotry, and his inclination to minimise the the significance of child rape when it serves the interests of the former. He has recently published on Twitter the comment

All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

There are all kinds of comments one could make about this, and many have, but what I find most striking is the utter failure of logic in the area that is closest to his area of purported expertise, which is not religion or sociology, but taxonomy. To a statistician, this comparison seems risible. Not only are Muslim and Member of Trinity College not comparable categories (I hope Professor Dawkins won’t get the vapours when I mention that they are not even mutually exclusive), but even if they were, Dawkins seems to be suggesting that the difference in NPF (Nobel Prize Frequency) between the devotees of Muhammed and of the Cambridge Trinity are due to negative selection by Islam, whereas another observer might suspect that there is some form of positive selection by Trinity College.

To put it baldly, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to get a post at Trinity College, but it doesn’t hurt. For example the most recent Trinity College Nobel Prize went to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who had a nearly 30-year scientific career before joining Trinity College.

A more valid comparison would ask, why does Trinity College, Cambridge boast so many more nobel laureates (32) than the comparably sized Trinity College, Oxford. (2, by my count from this list).  Is it the vitiating effect of Oxford’s high-church Anglicanism? Or is it that Dawkins cherry-picked one of the wealthiest, most exclusive academic institutions, one most concentrated on exactly the sorts of subjects that attract Nobel prizes? Why have Scandinavian authors received so many Nobel Prizes in Literature? Religion? Climate? Reindeer?

I leave the resolution of these questions to the skeptical reader. Those who are interested in a more amusing version of Dawkinsian taxonomy can have a look at Borges’s essay “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language“. Borges describes an imaginary ancient Chinese encyclopedia, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that divides up all animals into the following categories:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

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