Richard Dawkins and the Islamic Nobel Prizewinners

Richard Dawkins is in the news again, for his twits on Twitter pointing out that Trinity College has produced more Nobel prizewinners than Islam. While he accepts that Muslims were great shakes in the Middle Ages, they haven’t done much science lately, apparently. By saying this, Dawkins has caused a bit of a stir.

Dawkins futher explains his views in a post on his site.

Dawkins is right about science in the Muslim world

Neil deGrasse Tyson makes Dawkins’s point at greater length. The Islamic world has long since lost its former scientific glory. Tyson puts the blame on Al Ghazali and a switch from inquiry to accepting “revelation”1. A much more extensive article on the decline, in the form of an interview with a Turkish physicist, makes the point that the Golden Age mixed the precursors to modern science with a lot of other weird stuff (but shurely this also applied in the West?)

Whatever the reasons, it seems Dawkins is right to say things ain’t what they used to be. Contra Nesrine Malik, he didn’t make the statement out of the blue, but rather, as part of a debate on the role of Islam in the birth of science (see this previous twit, for example). Everyone thinks science is a Good Thing2, so both Muslims and Christians like to claim credit for fostering science. Dawkins’s stuff about Nobel prizes should be read as “what have you done for us in the last 500 years, then?”

That’s racist!

(Edit:)Writing before Dawkins posted about Nobel Prizes (end of edit), Alex Gabriel says that some of Dawkins’s twits are racist statements.3

What sort of thing is a “racist statement”? It seems it’s something that encourages prejudice (a fault of reasoning) which can lead to discrimination (a moral fault), all on the grounds of race. However, it then doesn’t seem to follow that we ought never to make “racist statements”, because it all depends on how much encouragement we’re giving.

The best thing I’ve seen written about the interaction between criticism of Islam and racism is Russell Blackford’s piece in Talking Philosophy. Blackford says that “opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right’s sympathizers or dupes would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey”. I agree with Gabriel’s point that Dawkins’s support for Pat Condell and talk of “barbarians” and “alien” stuff shows Dawkins’s failure to take care here. But I see the EDL re-tweeted some of Dawkins’s twits about Islamic science, and I don’t think that implies Dawkins should not have talked about that. As Blackford says “After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism, secularism, etc. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to opportunists.”

Gabriel also says that it’s unacceptable to single Islam out for criticism. I don’t see any reason to think that. People may have legitimate reasons for singling out Islam: perhaps they know a lot about it (because they are ex-Muslims, say) or perhaps they think it is more harmful than other religions. Dawkins himself famously doesn’t single out Islam, usually leading to taunts of “you wouldn’t dare say that about Muslims” when he criticises Christianity4. So a criticism of Dawkins on those grounds seems to be either false or a “why aren’t you also addressing these evils?” sort of criticism (which is bad, as this expert guide to epistemic rationality could tell you).

9781118038048_p0_v1_s260x420Twitter is for twits

Finally, all of these people (including Dawkins) are foolish for taking Twitter spats seriously. The 140 character limit on twits precludes serious discussion, so it’s either for telling your friends what you had for lunch today, or getting your hit of self-righteous rage by swapping telegrams with people whose views you violently disagree with. The whole thing could fall into the sea tomorrow and nothing of value would be lost, John Donne notwithstanding. If Malik found that reading Dawkins’s twits hashed her Eid mellow, there’s an obvious solution.

In conclusion: the only legitimate use of Twitter is to link to blog posts. Get off my lawn.

  1. Though this comment seems to be a counterpoint to that 

  2. Believers like point to bits of their scripture and claim that verse is, if you use the eye of faith and squint a bit, actually a correct scientific statement that the authors could not possibly have known by mundane means, which proves that God revealed it. Oddly, God did not see fit to reveal that germs cause disease. 

  3. If you’re in Internet social justice fandom, you carefully avoid saying “Jones is a racist”, rather, you say “Jones said X, and X is a racist statement”: it’s like the “hate the sin, love the sinner” thing I remember from my evangelical days. While the evangelicals and social justice fans are rightly trying to avoid ad hom arguments or giving the impression that they are not themselves sinners, I think the two share the same difficulties. 

  4. The jargon for that sort of taunt is “fatwa envy”

4 Comments on "Richard Dawkins and the Islamic Nobel Prizewinners"

  1. “Gabriel also says that it’s unacceptable to single Islam out for criticism.”

    I don’t say that. I say that referring only or primarily to Islam in contexts where doing so is unnecessary and unrepresentative suggests a motivation other than skepticism or secularism.


    1. I’m not sure your criticism of Dawkins’s statements on Islam makes sense if your objection is that such criticism is bad when it is motivated by racism, since I don’t think Dawkins’s criticism is. If your criticism is that it’s possible people will assume he’s motivated by racism, that seems pretty weak: I don’t refrain from doing stuff just because someone else could assume I had a bad motive, usually (and in any case, if people did make that assumption, I’d be worried for my reputation, not that I’d somehow failed morally).

      I think I addressed the “unrepresentative” part above: it’s OK if Dawkins sometimes criticise only some people who do a bad thing, without criticising all of them. AFAICT (and I admit I don’t spend much time on the RDFRS site these days) Dawkins sometimes criticises Islam and sometimes Christianity and sometimes, annoyingly, the nebulous “religion”.

      By the way, I’ve just realised that your post was written before Dawkins started talking about Nobel prizes, so I’ve edited this to make that clear.


  2. “John Donne notwithstanding” I can’t tell whether that’s an attack on one of my favourite people ever or not. I hope not.


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