Does Dawkins misrepresent science?

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

In total
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.

References

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.

Johnson, D.R., Ecklund, E.H., Di, D. and Matthews, K.R.W. (2016) Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (mis) representation of science. Public understanding of science . pp. 0963662516673501.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Does Dawkins misrepresent science?”

  1. Well done! In this age of reading headlines and little else we need more reminders that the story behind the story might not carry the weight implied by the headline writer..

    1. How do we encourage people to dig under the headline?
      It would be a fascinating market force: not only would it hold news outlets to account, but it would massively reduce the number of news articles needed to saturate the market. Instead of a second being spent on an article (reading the headline) people would spend an hour digging around on an article. Suddenly flash-news outlets (BuzzFeed comes to mind) would basically die under this market because we don’t need 100 passive articles a day, we could only actually cope with 2 or 3 (unless it were our job).

  2. Michael’s site isn’t just an echo chamber; it’s vile. He and other posters invite but then edit comments, selectively delete comments on a whim while carrying on a growing list of straw man arguments against some particular cherry picked phrase, and they demonstrate a clear agenda to constantly and consistently misrepresent New Atheists. They will not tolerate factual counterexamples that strikes at the heart of their distorted claims.

    He’s a duplicitous and vindictive liar whose goal is not to support what’s true, not to flesh out ideas and criticisms with any honesty and integrity, but to vilify any and all New Atheists. That’s the sum total of his disgusting site.

    1. I’ve never been on the receiving end of edited comments. Although the entire commenting community does seem to enjoy missing the point, replying to the minutiae instead of the argument and, as the post I’m replying to demonstrates, as you said, vilifying ‘New Atheists’ at the cost of their intellectual integrity.

      Although, I would like to give credit where it’s due: Dhay was quick to admit the actual article isn’t as reliable as the journalism implied.

    2. tildeb, I spotted this notice on what I assume is your blog, so am reminding you “to renew this domain before it’s too late.”:

      atheistenquiry.org recently expired! Oh no!
      “Enquiries on Atheism” is not available at the domain atheistenquiry.org right now. This domain expired, and it has to be renewed before it is lost.
      We already notified this site’s owners. However, renewing expired domains becomes more costly and complicated as time goes by. We want to make sure they got the message.
      If you know this site’s owners, please get in touch and remind them to renew this domain before it’s too late.

      1. No, mine’s fine. I suspect it might be a site where many of compiled articles raised by various religious folk. Several of the authors have since died.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s