Friday, August 09, 2013

Those Toes Must Taste Good

Richard Dawkins is famously tin-eared. My favorite example was when he told Shmuley Boteach that he shouted like Adolf Hitler and then was baffled -- absolutely and astoundingly baffled -- when people were furious that he made a point of comparing, in public, a Jewish rabbi to Hitler. Ever since he went on Twitter, he's managed to put a large number of cases in writing; and in the past few days he's managed to tweet some extraordinarily stupid things about Muslims, just in time for Eid. It started with his tweeting that fewer Muslims have won the Nobel prize than members of Trinity College have. This is technically true, although, as quite a few people pointed out, this doesn't actually say anything of importance, since (1)those receiving the scientific Nobels tend to be researchers at extremely well-funded institutions in the U.S., U.K., and Germany, none of which are especially Muslim countries, but all of which are wealthy enough to fund massive amounts of research and to support lines of research requiring state-of-the-art equipment, and (2) if you substitute almost any other group (besides ones like 'men', 'whites', 'Americans', etc.) for 'Muslim', you get exactly the same result.

Some people claimed that it was racist. After all, since (and it is clear from things Dawkins has said since that people were quite right to think he had this particular point in view) the point of the comment seems to be to say something about the general population of 1.6 billion Muslims, the overwhelming majority of which are not white Europeans or North Americans, how does it really differ from a standard kind of racist talking point? What makes Dawkins's comment true is indistinguishable from the fact that the overwhelming majority of Nobel Prize winners are whites from Europe and North America with rather pricey educations, affiliated with rather expensive research institutions, and the clauses of that description are not entirely accidentally joined given imperial and colonial legacies. Of course, since Dawkins is Dawkins, this was an irresistible temptation to put his foot in his mouth again:

Muslims aren’t a race. What they have in common is a religion. Rather than Trinity, would you prefer the comparison with Jews? Google it.

Which would be a point if it (1) did not in fact simply reiterate the problem and (2) weren't completely indistinguishable from a common racist tactic of talking about large populations of brown-skinned and black-skinned people, on a topic linked historically with colonial racism, by indirect means and (3) didn't assume that 'race' was an objective and definite category outside very limited contexts, which itself is quite controversial, and has been for some time. What is most remarkable is that he then noted:

Trinity College Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes than any country in the world except USA, Britain, Germany & France. Remarkable fact.

Which might have alleviated things if it weren't the fact that this in fact makes it clear that Dawkins was perfectly aware from the beginning of precisely what everyone had already been pointing out: that Muslims are far from being the only population of which it might be said, and that the Nobel Prizes go overwhelming to predominantly white European countries and the USA. Why, then, would one go out of one's way to mention Muslims? Well, this is Dawkins, so of course he has to tell us:

Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.

But how do these two relate to each other at all? Most people talking about Muslim science are explicitly making the point that historically Muslim nations have a pretty good track record with science even if they are currently outcompeted in the field; if you get real die-hards, they'll point out, obviously, that some of the reason for the current problems is due to European interference on a massive scale in all sorts of Muslim nations. And how does any of this relate to the Nobel point, anyway? Nobody thinks the Japanese are bad at science, but (as Dawkins himself so helpfully pointed out he knew) they don't fare very well in comparison with Trinity College Cambridge, either, because they had a late start and have since had to compete against the US, Britain, France, and Germany in a period in which those nations have been pouring a massive amount into advanced research. Dawkins's 'explanations', far from making things better, just show that he had no excuse in the first place.

As I said, Dawkins is notoriously tin-eared; I am quite sure that his bafflement is as genuine here as it has been elsewhere. It's just remarkable that a man who held the Chair for Public Understanding of Science for twelve or thirteen years knows nothing about how to explain himself to the public.

I was going to give some links, but as the uproar still hasn't died down, those who are interested can probably more easily find the best and most up-to-date articles and columns on the subject by Google, which even Richard Dawkins endorses.

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