It is a very difficult question, whether a person misrepresents science. It is not like the philosophy of science is some settled issue, with a clear and monolithic interpretation. There have been attempts to boil it down to its essentials: evidence-led critical and rational thinking, or the criticism of rational or empirically inspired conjecture. But all the detail is still up for debate. I find Sean Carroll’s take on science to be a very good one: empirically-led conjectures (or ‘models’) are created and their ability to specifically account for data is compared. The model that fairs least well slowly stops getting cited.
Given this debate, I don’t know whether Dawkins misrepresents science with any real level of certainty. I do, however, think his discussions of what science can do and of science in general is within broadly used philosophies of science. But here’s something that simply doesn’t defend the premise that Dawkins does misrepresent science: a news article making the claim other scientists say he does.
Let’s be clear about media outlets science: it may be very good, but it’s difficult to report well on the science because there’s an imperfect chain of custody. No matter how good a published journal article is, news outlets rarely get the real article. Instead, they get a ‘press-release’ version. This press release version may be intentionally more controversial than the actual study (for purposes of self-promotion), or it may be simplified and so certain nuances have to be dropped, or it may have high fidelity to the original article. You never know. (Here’s an informative look at that process from John Oliver.) Despite that, here’s the claim of the Phys.org article linked above:
Title: Most British scientists cited in study feel Richard Dawkins’ work misrepresents science
Argument: “of British scientists reveals that a majority who mentioned Dawkins’ work during research interviews reject his approach to public engagement and said his work misrepresents science and scientists”
Now, here’s the problem. This is a link to the actual article (Johnson et al., 2016). You can read the article, and I implore you to. When you do, you may notice that the title seems to agree with the media article, so what’s the issue? Well, here’s my summary of the problems. Bare in mind, this is only the problems, there may be good things about the article:
- The interviews were not conducted for this purpose. Instead, the interview questions came from a study by Ecklund et al (2016) called ‘Religion among Scientists in International Context’. Ecklund was part of both studies, but the first study was not designed for the second question.
- The participants talk about effective communication. The nuts and bolts of science, philosophy of science and its limitations is not really discussed in this paper, and never substantively. Instead, the paper focuses on whether the communication technique is constructive. That is a very different question.
- The sample is self-selecting. Of all the scientists that were asked questions by Ecklund, it is only those who mentioned Dawkins that are then being called on. The questioner only asked questions about Dawkins where the participant mentioned him first.
- Only British participants in this study. This isn’t a design flaw so much as evidence of the personal nature of the bias. Given the international context of the initial research and Dawkins’ global notoriety, it certainly looks to be biased that, of the 20,000 scientists who were surveyed ― 1,581 of them being British ― and the 137 British respondents questioned further, the study of Dawkins only has 48 participants, all British.
- This is only opinions. The study at no point asks the participants to substantiate their opinion with a discussion about where Dawkins’ approaches or philosophy is an outlier or not representative of science in its broader context, or even within just the hard sciences.
- The majority of opinions does not form a fact. The people who really seem to revel in this news piece ― like Michael over at Shadow to Light ― are the same people who would not accept the majority of scientists’ view on God to be representative of a fact.
I even have a challenge for anyone who read the journal article: see if you can complete this table:
Number of participants
|Of which are nonreligious||
Of which are religious
|Express the view that Dawkins misrepresents the processes of science|
|Express the view that Dawkins accurately represents the processes of science|
|Express no view either way as to whether Dawkins represents the processes of science|
To be honest, you’d expect that table to be in the article.
(Even if you can complete that table, all the other criticisms still stand.)
To be clear, an interesting conversation could be had about whether Dawkins misrepresents science. It would involve an understanding of the diversity philosophies employed by different scientists and understanding exactly what philosophies Dawkins is advocating, and then exploring whether that is representative. That’s a big undertaking, I admit. And given my resources, I would rely largely on YouTube debates including people like Sean Carroll. So, my research on the topic would not be worth all that much (not least because I would only have access to ‘celebrity scientists’). However, there is a real study to be done, if this is the question you want to answer.
My point here is that this study is not the study to be done on that question.
The article, whose title alludes to Dawkins misrepresenting science, misrepresents science! It behaves although the undefended opinions of scientists is what constitutes truth, and it’s breath-takingly unselfconscious of its selection bias and design flaws.
It turns out I may have sparked a discussion with Michael about this. On the off-chance that we are going to do a post-exchange debate (informally) on the issue, I’m going to break my Wednesday-only posting for this. Michael sometimes posts multiple times a day, so being a week behind would be impractical. Besides, it’s a distraction from my dissertation.
Arguing with Michael is, partly, the point here. If you go to Michael’s post you may notice he goes even further than the Phys.org article. See, Michael already believes Dawkins misrepresents science, and he seems to enjoy these glorified opinion pieces to substantiate his preconception and thus seems to enjoy avoiding substantive discussions about positions one can actually defend. It’s the perfect echo-chamber. I have provided the original article to him, and he hasn’t replied to any of the content of the actual article. Instead, he says he intentionally chided me into making the defense I made. I’m sure that’s a good sign of honest discussion.
Ecklund, E.H., Johnson, D.R., Scheitle, C.P., Matthews, K.R.W. and Lewis, S.W. (2016) Religion among Scientists in International Context A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. 2 pp. 2378023116664353.