Late last night, Richard Dawkins made a series of tweets that made sense initially and then veered into downright weirdness. Let’s start with the first:
Totally with him there. Some things are worse than others. Saying as much doesn’t mean the first thing is “good.” It’s a simple, straightforward concept. Getting only four hours of sleep is bad. Getting no sleep is worse. It doesn’t mean I’m advocating people get only four hours of sleep.
But the examples Dawkins used to prove his point were quite possibly the worst ones he could’ve chosen:
Really? Of all the examples he could’ve chosen, one of the best-known authors in the world went with pedophilia and date rape? “Mild pedophilia,” to many, probably makes as much sense as a “slight decapitation,” and saying that some rapes are worse (or better?) than others isn’t a good way to win people over to his side.
When people complained, he explained that you could rank things differently or substitute other examples, but that really wasn’t the problem.
Yes, I get his point. We all get his point. I thought Amanda Marcotte did a really good job explaining his mistake:
This is bad writing, if Dawkins was setting out to create clear-cut examples of the principle he’s trying to illustrate. When explaining a principle, it’s unwise to go straight for examples that the public is legitimately confused about because other people are trying to muddy the waters…
He also made the mistake of thinking his own reaction is typical — or should be, anyway. It’s not like people are going to be open about how much they suffered, especially if others are standing around ready to accuse you of being weak because of it.
There’s more to it, and Marcotte explains it in more context, but you just wish Dawkins would figure out that sound bites aren’t his speciality. The “mild pedophilia” comment isn’t out of nowhere. Dawkins got in trouble for it last year when he talked about being fondled by his schoolteacher as a child and essentially saying it wasn’t a big deal. He later apologized for his insensitivity and tried to make things right. (Did he really think casual readers on Twitter would pick up on that reference?)
It’s also not the first time he’s gotten into trouble on Twitter for letting his own thoughts be his worst enemy. Last August, there was a huge kerfuffle after one of his comments suggested to some people that he was slamming the intelligence of Muslims:
The point is about religious oppression, not the intellectual capabilities of those who follow Islam, but how do you not realize your Tweet might be taken the wrong way by those who refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt?
I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins. I know he means well. I know exactly what he’s trying to say. But damn, it’s annoying having to defend him. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to! This is someone who once held a position promoting the “Public Understanding of Science.” He ought to be an expert in communicating ideas to the public.
On Twitter, though, where he assumes everyone will be charitable with their interpretations of his comments, he’s completely out of his league (or wildly naïve). Can someone please stage an intervention?