Richard Dawkins: In Defense of Scientific Truth

When we meet in the House of Lords, Professor Richard Dawkins has just addressed a cross-party parliamentary meeting of politicians and researchers. He’s wearing a tie with an embossed DNA double helix, which is the perfect accessory for the occasion, because what he’s here to remind Whitehall of is basic science.

There’s a kind of puritanical aversion to even discussing certain things, and you can actually get canceled just for inviting a discussion

In his speech to the politicians, Dawkins denounced the ‘debauchery of language’ and the attack on science and reason. In particular, he targeted gender studies professor Anne Fausto-Sterling for her nonsensical argument that “human sex is a non-binary continuum.”

“There are two genders,” he said. ‘Exactly two genders and only two genders.’

That Dawkins feels the need to explain this to a room full of educated adults is an indictment of the times we live in. ‘My opinion is that if you are a logically rational person who thinks about science, it is quite difficult to believe in anything supernatural, and it is quite difficult to believe that the sexes are not real, because in both cases science and reason point in the same direction. way,” he tells me.

Dawkins has weathered his fair share of media storms. In 2013, he sparked outrage on Twitter when he said: “All the Muslims in the world have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” Amid the Muslim backlash, he tweeted: “A statement of simple facts is not bigotry. And Muslim science was great in the distant past.’ Predictably, this prompted accusations of Islamophobia and howls of outrage. “However, Muslims did great things in the Middle Ages,” he added.

“Now that I’m retired, I have less to lose than others,” he says now, “and I feel I have a responsibility to speak out… I’m not inviting confrontation, but I don’t think I can would feel that my feelings It hurts when someone shouts or protests outside where I am going to speak.’

It was in 2015 that Dawkins first indicated that he was out of step with many of the other left-wing thought leaders of the New Atheists. He asked on X: ‘Is a trans woman a woman?’ Then he posted: “Purely semantic. If you define based on chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. Out of politeness, I call her ‘she’.”

Not until six years later, after reading the manuscript of Helen Joyce’s best-selling book Trans, that Dawkins seriously took the plunge. He asked why Rachel Dolezal, a president of the white chapter of the NAACP, had been vilified for identifying as black, while at the same time it had become taboo to question trans identities. The question turned out to be inflammatory.

In the storm that followed, the American Humanist Association revoked his Humanist of the Year award, 25 years after he received the honor, claiming he had an “approach that conflicted with humanist values.”

Today, Dawkins seems somewhat amused by this public rebuke. He explains that in his working life as a teacher at Oxford, asking open questions was crucial.

‘During the working groups with my students, they discussed counterfactual issues, controversial topics and puzzling paradoxes. They would work out problems, have a discussion, and maybe they’ll figure it out somehow. That’s why so many of the tweets I’ve published end with the word ‘discuss.’

“Now there’s a kind of puritanical aversion to even discussing certain things, and you can essentially be canceled just for inviting to talk about something. I think there’s a kind of attitude where, even just talking about it, you align yourself, you put yourself aside.”

It angers Dawkins that universities have become the crucible for this destructive silence. ‘A university is about learning to change, discussing rationally and being curious. It’s about listening to all points of view. University is the very last place where you would expect dogma, shutting down of speech and curiosity. It is a tragedy that it is universities that have become associated with oppression rather than open-mindedness.”

Dawkins seems baffled by the “spineless” university administrators who have allowed censorious students to set the parameters of the debate, and the impact of “intimidation, bullying and intimidation” on what is published. He tells me, “I’ve met more than one publisher who says people in the publishing industry are being intimidated by young people in their own publishing houses into suppressing or censoring books.”

Dawkins is hesitant to hypothesize about the social factors that led to this: “I think the current epidemic we’re talking about may have its roots in what’s called postmodernism. But I’ve never come across a decent definition of postmodernism. Even people who embrace it don’t know what it is.’

It is the need to protect scientific rationalism, which he has described as the “crown of the human spirit,” that Dawkins is most enthusiastic about. “Science belongs to all humanity,” he says. ‘The best hope we have of discovering the truth is through science. And science has methods to avoid subjective feelings and prejudices.’

But science is now under threat, Dawkins says, from an ideology that dismisses science itself as a colonial project. ‘I was recently in New Zealand where I came into contact with another issue. This is not the sex problem, but the idea that indigenous ways of knowing are just as valuable as scientific ways of knowing.”

‘The New Zealand government has issued an education policy that gives Māori so-called Ways of Knowing the same status as science. This is a kind of bending over backwards to assuage colonial guilt. And it is of course important and valuable that the people of New Zealand are aware of Māori history and Māori legends, myths and beliefs. But not as science.’

“I think there are similar movements in Canada and the United States that are showing so much respect to indigenous culture that it is actually infecting the science curriculum, rather than just being treated as valuable history and valuable mythology.”

While Dawkins worries about writing unreason into laws and policies, he believes reason will be reaffirmed once fashionable ideas about gender and “different ways of knowing” have run their course. He compares the current attack on truth to “a measles epidemic spreading memetically through the population.”

‘I suspect it’s a temporary fashion, like McCarthyism. Although my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s.’

Dawkins has called raising children with a religion “child abuse.” Does he worry that, as Chesterton said, those who “don’t believe in God will be in on something?” Does the blame for modern madness lie with the new atheists? ‘I only care about what is true. And so I never said to myself, “Oh dear, if we remove God, we might just have a vacuum filled with all kinds of other monsters.”’

But however misleading he thinks the search for a “creative intelligence at the basis of the universe” may be, Dawkins is clear that it is not as misleading as the current attempt to ignore science. If theism were true, it would at least be an “astoundingly important scientific fact,” he explains. ‘It’s wrong. It’s wrong, but it’s important and it’s something that really matters.”

“But the issue of sexual identity is not something a tribesman in Africa would worry about. It’s not something a Martian or anyone from outside the West would worry about. It’s just a trivial thing blown out of all proportion. It’s only important because so many people take it seriously.”

At the end of the interview I walk through Parliament with Dawkins. A rare image of the Christian God hangs on the ceiling of a fan-vaulted corridor outside what was once Oliver Cromwell’s office. I watch as the world’s most famous atheist tilts his neck back to look up at the bearded head sculpture. I search in vain for evidence of the stone God looking back.