Richard Dawkins and the Enemies of Reason

Channel 4 screened Enemies of Reason, another Dawkins mini-series, on Monday night. Slaves to Superstition was the first of a two-parter; the second, The Irrational Health Service is on Monday night at 8pm. If you missed the first one, or are foreign, you can see it on Google Video, or get it from BitTorrent.

Having dealt with religion in Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has turned his attention to astrology, spiritualism, dowsing and suchlike; the sort of stuff which regular readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column know as “woo-woo”.

As Charlie Brooker’s excellent review says, this time round Dawkins seems to have toned down the outspokenness which gets him a bad reputation in some quarters. Sometimes I found myself wishing he’d been a little more direct, but his tactic of sitting quietly while someone tried to give him a psychic reading (or whatever) and politely pointing out where they were getting it wrong made his opponents look silly without making him look mean-spirited, so perhaps it was for the best. As a commenter on James Randi’s forum said, “There should be at least one program a week where Dawkins stares at people while they try to explain their woo.”

The first part of the programme mostly consists of that sort of thing, of one charlatan (or sincerely deluded practitioner) after another facing Dawkins’s quiet questioning. I thought of it as shooting fish in a barrel, but maybe there really are people out there who don’t know that there’s bugger all evidence for woo-woo. scribb1e pointed out that most of those people probably weren’t watching, but he did have a prime-time slot. We can but hope, I suppose.

Dawkins talks to Derren Brown about mediums and cold reading. You can see Brown’s classic illustration on how psychics work on YouTube, although as ever with Brown, be aware that sometimes his “explanations” of how he did a trick are themselves misdirection. Nevertheless, Brown claims no special powers and yet is able to do this sort of thing. Brown rightly points out that there’s something particularly sleazy about the medium industry, as it feeds of the grief of the bereaved.

Dawkins is genuinely concerned that woo-woo is supplanting science, and intersperses his examination of the woo with paeans to science and to the wonders of the natural world. He talks about the decline in people studying science at A-level and university, and of the closure of science departments at some universities (does anyone know how common this is? It’s a worrying trend, if it’s true). Perhaps responding to critics who call him a fundamentalist, he says “I’m often asked how I know that there isn’t a spirit world or psychic clairvoyance. Well, I don’t. It seems improbable, but unlike the fixed worldviews of mystical faith, science is always open to new possibilities.” He follows this up with the story of the discovery of echo-location in bats, a relatively recent example of evidence causing scientific theories to change.

To illustrate the sort of evidence he’s after, Dawkins shows a double-blind trial of dowsers, who are asked to identify which of some sealed boxes contain bottles of water and which contain bottles of sand. After they all fail to do better than random guesses would, their denial in the face of evidence leads into the final part of the programme, where Dawkins questions why these people continue to believe in their abilities.

He settles on the same sort of explanations which some evolutionists have advanced for religions, namely that we are good at spotting patterns and sometimes do so when the patterns aren’t real. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons are an example of the sort of thing he means. We have cognitive and perceptual glitches (see the “Slight of Mind” section in the endnotes to Peter Watts’s Blindsight, for example). These make us vulnerable to conspiracy theories of the sort which, Dawkins point out, find their natural home on the Internet, in the many pages which insist that Armstrong never went to the Moon, or that “Jews did WTC”. In the face of this, how can we know anything at all? Dawkins seems to get close to tripping over something like C.S. Lewis’s arguments on the rationality of naturalism (as a character in Blindsight says, our brains may delude us if that has more survival value than showing us the truth).

In the end though, Dawkins is a pragmatist. He points of the successes of the scientific method as evidence that it works, and to the MMR scandal as an example of what happens when the careful gathering of evidence is ignored in favour of personal feelings. Our glitches may cause us to make mistakes, but we have to do the best we can. Dawkins speaks of the gradual build up of evidence for echo-location in bats, contrasting it with the fleeting evidence for the paranormal. The careful steps of science may be frustratingly slow, but make us less likely to fall into the cracks in our minds.