Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 24, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Enemies of Reason

Filed under: culture — codesmithy @ 10:28 am

Richard Dawkins is a hero of mine. He had an excellent special, embedded below, demonstrating the grip of superstition has on people even today.


I am highly sympathetic to Dawkins aims. Although, one aspect that I don’t like about Dawkin’s presentation is his unconditional lauding of science and rationality. The human race has not yet fully demonstrated whether evolutionary it is better to be smart than stupid. As for claims of free time: “Anthropologists estimate that typical hunter-gatherers worked at feeding themselves no more than seventeen hours a week, and were far more robust and long-lived than agriculturists, who have only in the last century or two regained the physical stature and longevity of their Paleolithic ancestors.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan pg. 279). Some technological progress has dramatically reduced people’s leisure time and seemingly decreased human empathy. Pushed to logical extremes, we see things like Scientific Management.

My point is that rationality needs to be coupled with moral values such as equality and egalitarianism. I disagree strongly that one necessarily implies the other. Social darwinism can hardly be thought of much of an improvement over divine right for reasoning behind social structures.

The second aspect is to be humble and cautious, reductionism and hubris of complicated system leads can lead to cataclysm. Detailed examples are available in “The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations” by Dietrich Dorner.

I’m not disagreeing with Dawkins specifically because of works that I read, watched or listened; I believe he generally holds these values also. However, I do think he does a disservice by focusing too much on the irrationality without offering an alternative for the basic humanity, which is at the heart of much of the appeal for the nonsensical things Dawkins attacks.

If one does not recognize the ability of a scientific approach to one-track people’s minds, focus only on measurement (and therefore ignore things that are tough or impossible to measure) and the subsequent tuning to maximize and minimize the various metrics, then humanity hasn’t gained anything. A sense of awe, wonder and respect is also essential to seeing the big picture.

I think fundamentally, Dawkins does not completely get the distrust of science rooted in the power structure. Scientists and science has been used by power structures to protect interests from smoking, to “Agent Orange,” to the current debate about Ground Zero respiratory problems and the effects of depleted uranium. Individuals don’t have access to the laboratories or the the necessary data. However, I am sure he can recognize the powerful political and corporate interests involved in suppressing or downplaying links.

We don’t live in some utopia and science is a tool that can be abused. Not to recognize the capitulation to power structures and the veil of esoteric jargon that the academics routinely employ as a form of intimidation is to be willfully blind and ignorant of the current failings of contemporary rationality as a complete belief system and problems with academia in general. The degree to which superstition still exists, I think is as much of an indictment of the failure of social structures to bring knowledge and the advantages of society to the less fortunate than willful intent of people to be superstitious and ignorant. People don’t believe that institutions necessarily have their people’s best interests at heart, and there are good, rational reasons to believe that and to be skeptical.

In short, I think the causality is wrong. I think if we have a more egalitarian society, we will get a more rational society. But, if there continues to be class division and mistrust, we will see superstition and irrationality rise up as a mere reaction due to prominent scientists (such as Dawkins) claims to primacy on scientific issues. However, I do respect Dawkins’s strides to have us recognize how superstition pervades our society. This is as much of a challenge to the intellectuals as to the superstitious, and it is our duty as a society to do better.

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