A Scientist’s Response to Dawkins

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, responded to Richard Dawkins’ overall anti-religious attitude at the 2006 Beyond Belief conference. Tyson is quite articulate himself. Watch him:

(By the way, many of the Beyond Belief sessions are available to download and watch on your iPod.)

I started to agree with Tyson that Dawkins would do well to be more of the educator and less of the bulldog. I mean, part of being a teacher is understanding where your students are coming from, reaching them where they are, and taking them along the way to proper understanding.

Evolution isn’t an easy concept. I’ve read tons of books on the subject and I would still have a hard time explaining many of the intricacies to a stranger on the street.

So, of course, we who believe in the scientific method need to do a better job of explaining evolution to those who are blinded by faith.

But, like I said, I only started to agree… Then I changed my mind.

Having heard many people attack Dawkins for being so against the idea of religion, and having also read most of his major works, I do think he explains himself very well. However, his books aren’t intended for people who know nothing about science. You have to have some background in science before you can get the most out of his books. The people who are doing the attacking are generally people who have very little scientific understanding in the first place.

So I can understand Dawkins’ frustration and why he lashes out against religion. Some of the blame on Dawkins not being an educator is misplaced. I think it’d be a waste of his time to try and explain the basics of evolution to those who don’t understand it. That’s what high school teachers are for. I’d rather see him explaining evolution more in-depth to those of us who can and do understand the evolutionary process, which is why The Ancestor’s Tale is my favorite Dawkins’ book. It goes into elaborate detail about how evolution works, details I never read about anywhere else since much of the popular evolution literature deals with the mere basics.

I don’t want to see Dawkins dumb himself down. Sometimes, I feel like we missed out on his full potential because he stopped writing about hard-core evolution research (as he did in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype) in order to explain evolution “basics” (I use that term loosely), and now he has shifted to writing about religion and how it stands in the way of scientific progress. What other works might he have produced if evolution was properly understood and he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for those who don’t understand it each time?

Again, like Tyson says, Dawkins might be more effective in explaining his theories if he was sensitive to religious people. But we need people like him to do more to advance Evolutionary Biology understanding for the rest of us. He shouldn’t have to worry about those who don’t get it. I do believe it’s only a matter of time before evolution is a given, and even if Dawkins isn’t around when that happens, his writing will be. And even if it’s not appreciated now, it will be later.

So I’m starting to care less about how Dawkins comes across. You just have to accept him as he is. He’s like the John Kerry of the atheist world. You want to root for him if you’re on his side, but sometimes, he just says things that create easy bait for the opposition. When you get down to real substance, though, I believe Dawkins has it.

Either way, I would like to see Neil DeGrasse Tyson get a little more exposure. If you’ve seen him on The Colbert Report, you know he does a marvelous job of explaining his positions no matter who his audience is. He’s the type of spokesperson that would get positive attention from a much wider audience.

[tags]Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Hayden Planetarium, evolution, atheist, atheism, Christianity, John Kerry, Colbert Report, scientific method, The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Ancestor’s Tale[/tags]

  • Pingback: A Blog Around The Clock

  • cautiousmaniac

    I never knew that New Scientist magazine was so hard-core. I knew I liked that magazine, but I guess I now know the reason.

  • Shana

    i understand being somewhat sensitive to religious people as it is a personal belief. but in general, evangelists or people preaching their faiths or beliefs are not sensitive to atheists or agnostics, now are they? they just shove it in everyone’s faces regardless of what you think…..

  • Karen

    I couldn’t get any sound on the clip you posted, but I’ll look for Dr. Tyson amongst the presenters at the conference. He was the subject of a very positive NY Times story a few months back, and I’ve been looking for more about him since. Thanks for the link!

    My feeling about Dawkins is that – yes, he’s blunt and even disdainful of religion – and that’s not a practical day-to-day tone for people living in societies that are dominated by religious believers. But Dawkins and Harris serve a useful purpose as atheistic visionaries. There are, and always will be, tons of accommodationists and apologists for religion. Hearing a couple of bracing voices who aren’t afraid to loudly point out religions’ ugly side is refreshing.

  • Siamang

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson get MORE exposure?

    That guy’s like on every other episode of Nova. Maybe I need to see him do different things, because the stuff he talks about on Nova seems pitched to a 12 year old taking science classes at a remedial level. Which is why I take his admonishment to be an educator and to meet people at their level with a look slightly ascance.

    But yes, science, IS interesting. In Dawkins response he shows his trademark wit and charm. Milquetoast Tyson has none of that.

    I WANT good things for Tyson. I want Tyson to be a public and persuasive intellectual and do things for science education in this country surpassing Sagan.

    But really, this guy’s the Captain Kangaroo of “public television science.” He seems more concerned with being accessable than being informative.

  • txatheist

    I think it was commendable that Dawkins really heard him with concern to the criticism. I guess Dawkins has a point with his retort from another colleague. “Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can kiss off”. I guess that would really repel the non-scientific folks.

  • NickB

    I _understand_ Dawkins’ frustration, but I still wish that he would temper it better when acting as a spokesman. From a purely personal point of view, I find it embarassing. More broadly, I think that he may be okay preaching to the choir (apologies for the mixed metaphor!), but it’s not an attractive image for the undecided curious, who are the true audience of any public presentation. A bit more of that Oxford dry wit would come across a lot better than hot anger.

    When debating True Believers with an audience, it’s vitally important to remember that speaking to your opponent is a fiction; there is no chance that you’ll convince them of anything, and no reason to try. It’s the audience you’re trying to communicate with.

    Consider a scene that sticks in my head, the interview with Ted Haggard in “The root of all evil?”. How, Haggard’s smarminess made my skin crawl, but when he went into Dawkins’ territory and started talking about scientists doubting evolution, Dawkins got visibly angry, which undermined his position. Anger can be percieved as fear, which is completely unnecessary. Dawkins has been studying the biological sciences (B.A. in Zoology in 1962, studies obviously started a few years previously) almost since before Haggard was born (1956), so he can claim global knowledge of biologists with complete equanimity.

  • MTran

    I guess I just cannot see what critics see when they claim that Dawkins is hostile, “in your face,” or any other characterisation of Dawkins as being somehow offensive. His demeanor is not, in any way that I can discern, agitated, heated, sneering or contemptuous. Instead, his manner is calm, collected, and considerate. His statements are articulate rather than emotional. It appears to me that the criticisms are directed, then, to the substance of his messages, which are largely straightforward, well founded comments based on observation and evidence.

    Perhaps I have not seen as many videos of Dawkins as others have but from what I’ve seen, Dawkins has behaved as a gentleman. Sometimes I think that Dawkins’ British accent, careful use of language, and civil demeanor are held against him by those who consider such characteristics to be pretentious or arrogant.

  • Siamang


    Have you seen “The Root of all Evil?” I’m interested on your take.

    I thought it did cross the line. And I’m a big fan of some of his books.

  • MTran

    Hi, Siamang,

    I have seen large parts of Root of All Evil on Youtube but have not seen the entire production as a single showing. I may very well have missed important and perhaps truly inflammatory parts. I did see the segment with Haggard and I must disagree that Dawkins’ “emotional” response to a vitriolic spew of intolerant arrogance by Haggard was either unwarranted or counter-productive. To some people, Dawkins will be criticized as being “cold” and somehow not human if he never shows strong emotions but offensive if he does display them, regardless of the provocation. I also saw the segment with the convert to Islam, which gave us all plenty of reason(s) to fear the believers.

    If you can point me to some video snippets that you consider to be “over the line” I’d be happy to take another look.

    I am always willing to reconsider my positions in the face of opposing evidence. I have to, I’m an attorney, which makes me an object of revulsion even among atheists ;-)

    On the other hand, I have no automatic disgust of thoughtful believers; I got my doctorate at a Jesuit university and have taught at church affiliated universities as well as public ones. The teaching priests and brothers that I have known are far too intelligent to be dismissed as ignorant or confused. And not a single one of them have ever subjected me to censure or ridicule for my very unapologetic atheism. (I was not raised Catholic, by the way, so I have no emotional investment in supporting or decrying the Roman Catholic church.)

  • txatheist

    I’m an attorney, which makes me an object of revulsion even among atheists

    Yeah, because those guys at the ACLU are really mean and don’t help people like me when I want my civil rights protected :)

  • http://justmal.com JM

    Evolution is already a given in the vast majority of countries, perhaps except for United States and a few Islamic nations.