Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dawkins The Hard Problem And The Decay Of Science With "Intelligently Designed Morality"

Decades before he took the threadbare golden parachute of scientists whose science careers were winding down and second-rate standup comedians whose shtick was petering out, advocacy of atheist orthodoxy, I didn't find Richard Dawkins particularly impressive.   I was largely unconvinced by The Selfish Gene for reasons I've gone over before and I really thought his Extended Phenotype idea had some basic problems.   I also wasn't impressed by his writing which reminds me, oddly, of Norman Vincent Peale, essentially a PR job appealing to emotional preference* instead of an intellectually rigorous investigation of issues.  His stuff, mixing in the crap standards of the social sciences into real sciences, genetics and the study of evolution, hasn't been good for science and the mix of that into politics and popular culture have certainly not been good.  Neo-eugenic ideas, even a scientific racism - which I assume is, actually, something he wouldn't approve of - have been given their biggest boost since the 1970s exactly by that kind of quasi-scientific, pseudo-scientific muddling, all of it growing out of an advocacy of that hegemony of natural selection as an all powerful tool of explanation which I mentioned the other day.

Since he has given up science for atheist evangelization my opinion of him certainly hasn't gone up.

John Horgan at Scientific American has up a short interview with him, there are several things said in it that could be gone into but this exchange on the replicability problem jumped out at me.

John Horgan:  The “reproducibility crisis” in research has raised questions about  science’s reliability. Do scientists deserve some blame for widespread debate over climate change, evolution and vaccines?

Richard Dawkins: It is a real worry, perhaps especially acute in medical research. Part of the problem is the tendency for results to be simplified in order to make a neat, easily summed-up story. And this is exacerbated when recent research results hit the newspapers or other media.

Another problem is the “file drawer effect” whereby papers that fail to disprove the null hypothesis are never published, because authors or editors think they’re too boring. This could theoretically lead to falsehoods being propagated: If enough studies are done, a minority will yield statistical significance even if the null hypothesis is true.

Despite the “reproducibility crisis” there are some scientific conclusions that really are robust and become progressively more so as time goes by. The fact of evolution is one such.

JH:  What can be done to resolve the reproducibility crisis?

RD: In the case of the file drawer effect a possible remedy is for all scientists to post on the internet their intention to do an experiment before they do it, and share the results even if these are negative and therefore not appealing to journal editors. On this system, journals would refuse to publish the results of an experiment that was not announced ahead of time.

In the case of scientific findings that hit the headlines too quickly, editors should be less keen on hot, latest news and should give more space to timeless science.

The first part of his answer made my mouth fall open:

Part of the problem is the tendency for results to be simplified in order to make a neat, easily summed-up story. And this is exacerbated when recent research results hit the newspapers or other media.

because that could be a short description of Richard Dawkins entire career in science and the entire field of socio-biology - evo-psy which is all about simplifying enormously complex phenomena and huge ranges of phenomena over the entire taxonomy of life on Earth into the most pat and unevidenced simplifications in order to come up with an "easily summed-up story".  Really, that's pretty much what the entire framing of natural selection is.  And, as it is scientists who do that, who have been doing that since the publication of On the Origin of Species, and getting away with that, blaming it on journalists is pretty amazingly nervy.   Richard Dawkins entire career has been as a quasi-popularizer of exactly the practice he blames for the problem of what happens when people take a close and critical look at what scientists and alleged scientists in fields such as the very psychology which Dawkins introduced into genetics and evolutionary biology do.

The part blaming the replicability crisis on the "file drawer effect" is also rather stupid in that publishing null results - not a bad idea, in itself - won't do anything to fix the fact that a lot of what is published, in scientific and so-called scientific journals is crap research that, when a replication is attempted, turns out to have produced false-positive results in the original study.   The crisis in science goes a lot deeper than something that can be fixed by the means proposed, good as those might be in themselves.  It is really science not living up to its pretended standards of rigorous self-criticism to start with.  I think that it has reached a crisis stage is the result of tendencies that reach back at least well into the 19th century and it is, also, not unrelated to the kind of ideological insertion into science which, also, has been what Richard Dawkins' career has been about.

Fixing that will take a lot more than the couple of band-aids that Dawkins thinks will do the trick.  I think it's extremely ironic because there is, actually, one area of scientific research that has been tested and cleared as being guilty of practicing the "file drawer effect",  the controlled research into parapsychology.  No other area of psychological research has matched their experimental rigor, something that even some of the pseudo-skeptics have had to admit.

What he said in response to a question about "the hard problem" was more modest but also included something to consider:

JH:  Is consciousness a scientifically tractable problem? Do you favor any current approaches and theories?

RD:  It certainly isn’t tractable by me. At times I find myself inspired by the confidence of my friend Daniel Dennett. At other times I lean towards his fellow philosopher Colin McGinn’s pessimism: the view that the human mind is flatly incapable of understanding its own consciousness. Our brains evolved to understand how to survive in a hunter–gatherer way of life on the African savanna—understand the behavior of an extremely narrow range of medium-sized objects travelling at medium velocities. It is therefore a wonder, as [cognitive scientist] Steven Pinker has pointed out, that our brains have advanced to the heights of relativity and quantum mechanics. Maybe this should give us Dennettian confidence. Or maybe the “hard problem” of consciousness is forever beyond us, just as calculus is forever beyond the mentality of a chimpanzee.

That Dawkins limits his comments to "brain only" hacks like Dennett and Pinker and another, perhaps less orthodox materialist, Colin McGinn, is no surprise.  All of them, even McGinn who essentially says that the cause and origin of consciousness will never be known to us because its solution is beyond human capability,  will not consider the possibility that this thing they do not and likely cannot ever understand must, however, fall within their materialistic framing, which is a faith holding.   The biggest problem facing science and the public understanding of science isn't bad journalism, it is the imposition of an ideological limit on intellectual statements which must all, in every way, uphold a naive materialistic orthodoxy.

Note that all of them, perhaps excepting McGinn, believe that this thing they don't know, would have been a product of natural selection when they have not evidence that that is true.   That minds have understood things entirely unrelated to the vulgarity of natural selective story telling, even things that contradict the natural world as human beings can perceive it, should give rise to the suspicion that that is a good reason to reject that most commonly held orthodoxy.   I, for the life of me, don't understand how anyone can take Daniel Dennett seriously when his claims for the power of natural selection as a force are, in themselves, irrational and betray a basic misunderstanding of what even orthodox neo-Darwinians claim about it.   If the field weren't in deep intellectual trouble people would consider his work a joke.

I have pointed out a couple of times that, when he was confronted with the new physics of the first three decades of the 20th century,  the holder of Dawkins' position, the high Pope of Brit-atheism, Bertrand Russell gloomily divined that science was finished and that we would devolve into a world in which pseudo-science would substitute for what he believed was the solid world which relativity and quantum physics dissolved.  Given what has happened to science as the number of scientists rose enormously, as they became professionalized and remunerated at an increasing level, perhaps that was one of Russell's better predictions.  I think we are seeing an ever increasing skepticism about evolutionary psychology and the hegemony of natural selection as the supreme explanatory force in biology and in all of evo-psy's allied social sciences.

One of the problems is that with evolution, science has bitten off more than it can chew, it's like a termite trying to eat a forest of trees in one bite.  It's too big, it's too long in time, it's too varied, it's too unknown and always will be largely unknowable for scientists to honestly make any general statements about it.   The Sociobiologists and Evolutionary Psychologists have made some of the most scientifically irresponsible claims about evolution and, as those wedded to natural selection ALWAYS DO IN THE END, their claims have driven right into a revival of eugenics with most of if not all of the putrid aspects of that.   I don't think there is any mere coincidence that the rise of the most primitive of scientific racism and its extension into journalism - both establishment and ad hoc, ideological journalism - followed on after the publication of popular accounts of that by people like Dawkins.  The intro-courses that people in journalism and other fields took taught them stuff that, if you look at the biology textbooks of the 1910s, 20s, 30s and 40s, you will see being taught then.

I think the influence of Dawkinsian thinking, the materialist foundations and, yes, eugenics consequences of believing what he said is most evident in the popular use of the word "memes", something which I have heard out of the mouths of all kinds of people, far right to left.   "Memes" were an invention of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, an attempt to come up with a socio-biological theory of culture, one which was widely unadopted by scientists and other thinkers but which has gained currency among those who like to get sciency but who aren't so good with the math and other prerequisites for being a real sci-guy.   That the idea has just about no presence in real science and, if it were taken seriously, would entirely undermine all of the validity of all of human thought, including science, including mathematics as an expression of reality, only shows that self-identified rationalists, people who insist that everything good is based  in evidence**, even scientists, like Dawkins, can be the source of potent superstitions.  But we already knew that about eugenics, as proven most dramatically and horrifically in the history of the application of it in real life.

*  I don't think the actual role that emotional preference plays in what gets accepted in science - especially when the sciences are not exact, concerning things that escape the kind of easy fit with mathematical logic that works in physics - has ever been considered.   I think there is no area in science which elicits such an appeal to emotion as anything having to do with natural selection, the personal, professional and, therefore, emotional investment in Darwinism on the part of biologists, people in the pseudo-social-sciences is never far beneath the facade of scientific objectivity.  I think that emotional investment is one of the great, unadmitted controlling forces in science, today.   It is matched only by the emotional investment in materialism and atheism and the hatred of religion which is, also, one of the unadmitted controlling forces among scientists and within the purported scientific literature, especially in the life sciences and the alleged behavioral sciences.

**  This, from John Horgan's interview was only one of the things Dawkins said that I found massively ironic.

JH:  What’s your utopia?

RD:  My utopia is a world in which beliefs are based on evidence and morality is based on intelligent design—design by intelligent humans (or robots!). Neither beliefs nor morals should be based on gut feelings, or on ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions.

Given that most of what Richard Dawins career is based in is unevidenced conjecture and making up stories which can't be verified, yeah, right.

It was, of course, the opposition of the Catholic Church to eugenics that helped suppress it in many places.  It was largely through the complete opposition of the Catholic convert, G. K. Chesterton and others based on "ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions," that prevented  British eugenicists, including Francis Galton, Leonard Darwin and the Fabians from instituting overt eugenics in Britain.  They did manage to tweak the putrid Poor Law system to come up with a pretty awful substitute for it, though.

Most of the opposition to eugenics and scientific racism were based on religion, even as the scientific communities largely advocated them.

Dawkins view of history is as narrow and self-serving as his view of evolution.  We have seen in the literature of evolution what happens when atheist-scientists have come up with their own "intelligently designed" morality.  You can read that in the Descent of Man, in the racial thinking of Thomas Huxley, the eugenics of people like Galton and Pearson, you can most certainly read it in the works of Ernst Haeckel which Darwin gave his stamp of approval as having the highest of scientific reliability as he adopted Haeckel's advocacy of infanticide, eugenically beneficial slaughter of those they considered lesser specimens of humanity, named groups of people slated for eventual elimination in works having the status of scientific classics.  You can find some of Haeckel's supposedly scientific, "intelligently designed" morality republished and popularized by such atheist publishing firms as Prometheus, translated into English by the previous most-famous atheist in the world, former priest, Joseph McCabe, and in such things as The Little Blue Books series.

I'll stick with The Gospel, the Prophets and the Law.   It's less likely to get millions killed and oppressed.


  1. Dennett and Pinker are his "experts"? That would be like me citing Joel Osteen and William Barclay as scriptural scholars.

    What a joke our public discourse is.

  2. BTW: Raw Story has a video of Bill Maher and Dawkins and others deriding the Ten Commandments and claiming all Christians hate atheists because they don't fear God and God's "morality."

    Straw men set aflame by superannuated frat boys. Another fine example of our public discourse.

    1. I can only imagine what the comment say.

      I never had a negative view of atheists until I started reading them in the thousands online. As soon as I started reading the lefty blogs and saw what atheists really think, I could see they were now and, after much reading, have always been for the left.

      The turning point really was the afternoon at Eschaton when, as I recall, it was "Woody Guthries' Guitar" who claimed that science had debunked free thought. Anyone who thinks that egalitarian democracy is compatible with that idea isn't thinking very hard. I saw it immediately and have come to believe it is inevitably and fatally corrosive of democracy or even a decent life.

    2. Not to mention he was wrong.