Professor Richard Dawkins Should Know Things Don't Just Happen

Professor Richard Dawkin’s programme, Enemies of Reason, Channel 4, Monday 13th and 20th August, seemed to defy reason itself. The spooky music, the cloudy special effects, and an irrational bunch of cranks. You couldn’t imagine funnier new age weirdos for science to be pitched against. You couldn’t create a more benign enemy. Does a west country dowser called Jim Negus really “profoundly undermine civilisation”?

The “multi million pound industry that impoverishes our culture” looked pretty impoverished with its coat hanger dowsers, paperweight crystal balls (called Ben), and poster paint rainbow backdrops.

Science, claims Dawkins, “has eradicated smallpox, built a supercomputer, and sent an orbiter to Neptune.” Therefore science has little to fear from Simon Goodfellow, the psychic medium who suggested that Dawkin’s mother had plenty of cats. Wrong. She had no cats.

Dawkins claims there are two ways of looking at the world: “faith and superstition versus the rigours of logic, observation and evidence, ie reason.” On this evidence, he has nothing to fear.

He says the new age “throws up gurus that exhort us to run away from reality.” The reality is they do no such thing.

“As a scientist I don’t think our indulgence of irrational superstition is harmless. I believe it profoundly undermines civilisation. Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, and our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth.”

“We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack.”

What attack? According to Dawkins, the evidence for this attack appears to be the number of books in the alternative therapy section of Borders books. This isn’t going to scare many professors of psychology.

He wants to “take on the enemies of reason.” And yet no enemies of reason come forward. He does not have a battle on its hands. It’s all in his head.

He steps back 300 years to the Age of Enlightenment when Galileo and others stepped out of line. Now we have them to thank for, “anti-biotics, sat nav, and sewage systems.” Are these the “multi million pound industries” he was referring to?

Dawkins says that increased life-expectancy has given us time for “education, creativity, and contemplation.” In fact all we have done with our new longevity is adopted a lifestyle that’s led to a rise in cancers.

He slams astrology because it is based on Ptolemy’s outdated universe that “arrogantly puts humans at the focal point of the universe.” Up pops a picture of the universe revolving round a man. And yet he contradicts this with a self-centred and arrogant view of spirituality, “as with religion, if it [spirituality] hangs on private feelings that can’t be proved or disproved by science then in what way can it be valid or meaningful for the rest of us”. The rest are free to find their own meaning.

Observer Astrologist Neil Spencer provides Dawkins with an idea regarding experiments. He seems incapable of coping with this idea. Spencer says, “trickery will be rewarded with trickery.” As if to compound what Spencer says, Dawkins conducts an “experiment” full of trickery. He presents the predictions for Capricorn to people with different star signs, and tricks them into thinking it’s the prediction for their sign. The outcome is each person either accepts it or rejects it. Even the Capricorn rejects it. There could be no other outcome.

Sounding like an evangelist for the school science curriculum, Dawkins preaches: “I want to show how scientific reason is always the best way to look at the world.” He fails because he never shows exactly who it is best for. Each crank and dabbler is happy with their, “personal proof it’s true to me”. But that isn’t good enough for Dawkins. Individuals are not allowed to be happy with personal proof.

Dawkins gleefully goes back to the last century to show how a US zoologist, David Griffin, proved that bats use sonar, and do not possess mystical powers. As sonar had already been invented for military use, who was this discovery best for? Best for bats?

But it is with dowsing that Dawkins reveals his ineffectual enemy. Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, sets out to disprove dowsing in a double blind trial. Tiny plastic water bottles are mixed with sand filled water bottles and put inside plastic bins. The dowsers hopelessly search around for the water bottles, and their success rate is no better than guesswork. The dowsers are clearly devastated.

But Dawkins says the dowsers are in denial, that they “won’t face up to the truth but will retain delusion.” The evidence is that they do face up to the truth, and they don’t retain the delusion. They failed, and they accept they failed. One dowser, Karen Fuller, says she wanted to walk above the hidden water bottles, but Chris French wasn’t keen to set the experiment to prove dowsing. He wants to disprove it, “to set up conditions that rule out other explanations”. So, using deduction, there must be other explanations.

Dowser Jim Negus says, “God is having a joke.” Dowser Ken Church looks a bit sad about the “experiment”. Why did they ever subject themselves to such a difficult trial? The experiment bore no relation to the dowsing effect. Were these pathetic people Dawkin’s “enemy of reason”? I can’t imagine a less frightening and inept enemy.

So, dowsing was shown to fail the much touted double blind test. A double blind trial is the crowning achievement of science according to Dawkins. With all the crowning achievements he boasts, I wonder why he bothers attacking a movement that appears to have no crowning achievements of its own, and inept disciples. Does he sense post-modern discontent with science? Is he trying to convince himself?

Dawkins moves on to attack the “primitive darkness” of the new, post modern age. He broadens the attack to take in the whole of mankind. He appears to hate mankind with its superstitions, and insecurities and desires to reach loved ones “on the other side.” He says we are “trapped in ways of thinking inherited from primitive ancestors.” True, we are still asking the questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? Where are we from? And these are the questions science is failing to answer.

One example he draws on to emphasise our stupidity as frail humans is the ancient belief that sun, rock, and sea are malevolent forces. King Xerxes of Persia built the Hellespont Bridge which was destroyed by a storm. The King, enraged, sentenced the sea to 300 lashes. Funny story, but what does it prove? Apparently it shows that things happen that we have no control over. Dawkins: “We want to believe things don’t just happen.” Sadly, things don’t just happen. Usually, there’s an explanation. Any engineer hearing the Hellespont bridge story would like to think the next bridge was better built, and better designed, and that corners weren’t cut in construction and maintenance. Things like bridge collapses really don’t just happen.

But to really clinch his argument that science is under attack, Dawkins brings on his piece de resistance. Scientists must be trembling. Dawkins turns to superstitious gamblers. Yes, I repeat, superstitious gamblers. The deadliest most dangerous enemy of reason yet.

Gambling superstition, he believes, is a “byproduct of evolution.” The gambler is a “natural statistician looking for pattern in the apparent randomness of nature.”

Here, Dawkins touches on what must be a sensitive subject for him. Those who believe in a creator, or in intelligent design ask why, as nature is random and nothing controls it, are things so orderly?

He defines superstition not as failure to find a pattern, but belief there is a pattern when there isn’t. To back up the idea that superstition is a low animal weakness, he points to the man who discovered superstition in pigeons. “Humans can be no better than pigeons,” he says. Who’d want to be compared to a pigeon? An online gambler? A poker player? And yet that’s the comparison Dawkins makes. BF Skinner discovered that if he rewarded pigeons who looked over their left shoulder, then they believed that looking over their left shoulder led to success. So what? Trickery leads to trickery. The pigeons just wanted to get fed.

Dawkins widens his attack on humanity further.

“We create false positives.” Apparently, touching wood is a huge threat to science and reason.

“We desperately want to feel there’s an organising force at work in our bewilderingly complex world.”

Is that the same “bewilderingly complex” world of sewers, sat nav, and anti-biotics? Is that the same world that exists after 300 years of science and progress? Here Dawkins answers his own question. It’s this dissatisfaction with science that leads people to look for other ways of existing.

“In the irrational mindset, if you believe in the mystical pattern you’ve imposed on reality, you call yourself spiritual.”

Dawkins talks of reality as though he invented it, and didn’t have time to write the user guide for us poor human suckers.

“The media tells us to respect spiritual souls.” This was spoken over a shot of a book by Noel Edmonds. Noel Edmonds is not a spiritual soul.

Dawkins asks Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence, which he rudely dismisses as “at the sandal wearing end of the green movement.”

He asks, “What is spirituality?” Kumar puzzlingly asserts it is “rockness”, or “treeness.” When Dawkins says that is an assertion not an understanding, Kumar says, “it’s not imposed, it’s there.”

In this exchange, Dawkins himself is made to look incapable of acceptance of the cosmos without hard fact. How long will he wait for hard fact before he gives in and joins the human race and gazes at the stars?

He accuses Kumar of being “all very poetic, but it’s not reality.”

Of course, Dawkins invented reality, but forgot where he put the key.

He switches back to attacking religion, and accuses rabbis, priests and mullahs of “imposing fabricated meaning.” Here he fails to see that he is imposing his own religion. He is asking us to believe in science beyond the facts.

He asks, “Why is it bleak to face up to the evidence of what we know?” The answer is because we know so little.

When he says, “the world is wonderful,” he sounds half-hearted after his pitiful depiction of humanity putting itself at the centre, and relying on superstition.

He finished with a claim that “science is the poetry of reality.”

I don’t think so. In the words of a real poet, John Burnside:

“Our response to the world is essentially one of wonder, of confronting the mysterious with a sense, not of being small, or insignificant, but of being part of a rich and complex narrative”

Update 15/8/07: I corrected: “True, we are still asking the questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? What are we?” I meant to say: “True, we are still asking the questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? Where are we from?” We know what we are, carbon-based life forms.