Dawkins Derangement Syndrome? J. Rosenhouse edition.

I promise that this is the last post (for a while at least) on this subject, but Jason Rosenhouse over at Evolutionblog has waded into the great “did Dawkins diss sience writers” debate of 2008, inspiring a vigorous comment thread in the process. So this is to respond to a few of Jason’s and his readers’ points about this post that seems to have riled some folks up rather more than I think is warranted.

Jason – and some of his readers – seem to think two things that I want to push back against.

The first is that my problem with Dawkins’ book is that it is exclusively a book of science writing by scientists.

That’s not so. I got no problem with Dawkins’ editorial choices. (Or rather – not with this aspect of them –see below and this post.) I think a collection of great writing by notable scientists is a wonderful thing, and, as I wrote in the post linked above, Dawkins framed this work in an intriguing and to my mind mostly successful structural conceit.

What I continue to have difficulty with is the presentation of the book as a synoptic view of science writing full stop. It’s called The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing after all. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that sounds like a pretty canonical claim to me – and that assertion of a canon that omits so much science writing even from the field of possibility is both annoying and, I’ve argued, misleading.

Others – Jason and many commentators here and on his blog — don’t see the book as making this kind of global claim. I think it is implicit (actually, pretty explicit) in the title, and nothing in Dawkins’ introduction dispelled that impression.

That said: I don’t disagree with those who have pointed out that the book’s jacket copy and Dawkins himself makes it clear what potential readers are getting. I just think that this observation misses the (my) point.

The second suggestion Jason and his readers make is that I suffer from Dawkins Derangement Syndrome. Jason himself seems to think that the mere mention of Richard Dawkins’ name is enough to drive me “completely out of [my] mind.”

I should thank Jason for paying me the compliment of putting me in the class of “otherwise intelligent people.” But I still have to contradict him on the underlying suggestion that Dawkins makes me crazy. Consider what I wrote in the first post I wrote about Oxford collection (the one that all those so deeply upset that I would criticize the great man seem not to have read).

There I say:

It is, as you might expect, a very nicely put together book, complete with the obligatory butterfly and double helix on the cover. It is handsomely designed, nicely printed; someone who likes books as objects took care over the work.

It is also, as you would certainly expect, full of smart interesting stuff, with an interesting structural conceit, breaking down the world of science writing to questions of what scientists study, who they are, what they think (sadly not what is to my mind the more important question: how they think), and what delights them.

All good so far, you might say, and you’d be right.

To be as clear as I can be:  I greatly admire Dawkins, of course – I know no serious science writer who does not.

I prize the copies of his books that he was kind enough to sign for me, and though I cannot claim to have any real personal connection to him, I did spend one enjoyable and informative afternoon and evening with him in the context of a television interview I produced a few years ago.

There were just three of us at dinner, which makes it possible for me to confirm the comment by one of Jason’s readers to the effect that Professor Dawkins is in person cordial, gracious and a fascinating conversational partner.

Pretty deranged, eh?

At the same time, I would value science blog-reading community’s response to what I do think is the more substantive of my complaints with Dawkins’ choices for the contents of this collection. That was the substance of the post quoted above, in which I complain that the book’s presentation is exceptionally narrow, and a bit conventional as well.

Again, folks: I made this point first because I thought it was the more important one for the community to consider. Do y’all disagree?

There. I’m done, I hope. I do want to think a bit more about Larry Moran’s real complaint – which is that popular science journalism gets a lot wrong. I’ll follow that up as soon as I can, for while I think he has a point, I think the problem runs both deeper and broader than he implies.

Image:  William Hogarth, “The Interior of Bedlam,” from The Rake’s Progress, 1763.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: good books, good public communication of science, science writing, Uncategorized, Writing

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