Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

Richard Dawkins says child molestation is no longer acceptable

But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”

Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.

I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.

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:


Evolution turns political

… followed by arithmetic

There are two general attitudes that a scientifically-minded educated person could take to the resurgence of anti-Darwinian politics in the US over the past few decades. 1) Children deserve to know the truth, as best as careful thinkers have been able to determine it. Parents have no right to withhold the truth. We need to break the cycle of ignorance. Disrespect for standards of science and objective truth in one area will undermine science universally, making it more difficult for our society to benefit, materially and intellectually, from scientific progress. 2) Evolution is a story. It is abstract. It is a belief system that lends itself at least as much to social and political abuse as an fundamentalist sect, so maybe we shouldn’t be pushing it too hard — particularly not when there’s a conflict with parental beliefs and values. There’s plenty of science to learn — even biology — that won’t run up against conflict with home values. Where it’s a problem, let’s leave these abstract matters for when they are older and more qualified to make their own value judgements. (Given the difficulty of US schools recruiting competent science teachers, we might also add the very real harm that is likely to be done by teachers who genuinely don’t understand evolution, teaching corrupted or incomprehensible versions of the key ideas.) (more…)

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