A couple of days ago, the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) decided to boot Richard Dawkins from the lineup after initially announcing he would be a keynote speaker. They explained that this came in response to Dawkins’ “approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video.”
Today, Steven Novella offered a bit more detail into how that decision was made:
The concern for some of us at NECSS was that by hosting Dawkins as a featured speaker we were making a statement we did not intend to make, a statement that could be interpreted as being unwelcoming and even hostile to many attendees. Since we had just opened registration this created an urgency, because we did not want to “bait and switch” our attendees if we would ultimately decide to reverse our decision to have him at the conference. We felt it was important to make a decision quickly.
… In my opinion, someone in his position, with his eloquence, knowledge, and intellect, with his academic background should be doing everything he can to elevate the level of discussion. He has the ability to address legitimate criticisms of feminism, or atheism or skepticism, if he thinks he has them. He could be a force that is helping unite our very small and critically important rationalist movement.
Instead, I fear, he is helping to divide us, 140 characters at a time, and helping to lower the level of the discussion.
I do praise Dawkins for his polite and collegial response to our move to uninvite him from NECSS, and for deleting the tweet for the right reasons.
It is our sincere hope that the movement can grow and mature out of this experience, and our previous travails. This has been a learning experience. Thank you for your patience with these very difficult decisions.
I count myself among the people who wish NECSS made a different decision. I think it would have been far more valuable to let Dawkins give his talk and allow attendees to question the things he’s said so he can be held accountable for them. Dawkins is someone who has tried to raise the consciousness of others on issues like prematurely labeling children with a religious faith; this could have been a great opportunity to raise his consciousness on why his tweets are so problematic for a lot of people. Instead, he probably has even more reason now to think people are overly sensitive and unable to handle criticism, especially on the topic of feminism. He doesn’t understand where his detractors are coming from. Now he still won’t understand.
That said, as someone who’s been on various conference planning committees and boards, there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that the general public never sees. We don’t know all the discussions they had. We don’t know what emails they received. We don’t know what debates board members were having leading up to the decision to get rid of Dawkins.
People are allowed to criticize the NECSS board’s decision, but they should be aware that they’re only seeing the end result, not everything that led up to it.
I asked NECSS how many people registered for the conference (and how many requested a refund) after Dawkins was booted. I have not yet received those numbers.