Posted tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

A couple of quick Friday links.

October 2, 2009

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this NYT front of the web story on MIT student bloggers as leaders of the pack.

Then there’s this nice bit of self-analysis by Carl Zimmer, debunking a false equivalence  between evolutionary polemic* (by Dawkins) and evolutionary persuasion/instruction (by Zimmer), as posited in a Nature review of new books by both men.

And last, at least in this quick start-of-the morning list, a fine bit of historical writing on the roots of the term and concept “algorithm” prompted,  I am pleased to say, by my own polemic on The Atlantic’s abuse of the term.

*Please note that the word “polemic” is used here as a descriptive term, not one of abuse.  It has the sense described in this etymological definition:  1638, “controversial argument or discussion,” from Gk. polemikos “warlike, belligerent,” from polemos “war.” Meaning “one who writes in opposition to another” is attested from 1680.

Image:  Press with chained book in the Library of Cesena, Italy

Dawkins Derangement Syndrome? J. Rosenhouse edition.

May 29, 2008

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.

Once More Unto The Breach…Dawkins/Moran edition

May 27, 2008

My posts on what I see as flaws in Richard Dawkins’ selection criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing seem to have sparked a bit of a debate on these here intertubes — at least I go away for a quiet, ‘net-less holiday weekend and find that Larry Moran over at Sandwalk wants to defend Dawkins’ decision to include only scientist-writers, and not non-scientifically trained science writers in his canon.

So, time to have at it again. I usually enjoy Moran in his role as the village curmudgeon, but this time out, I think he has fallen into that worst of all possible states, that of being not even wrong.

Here’s his argument in the short form. He writes, “the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important.”

Style and readibilty help, he concedes, and those are the attributes that science writers aim to bring to the table, but such non-scientists screw up so often as a general rule, according to Moran (those who don’t he dismisses as merely “the obvious counter-examples”) that whatever virtues they may possess are irrelevant.

Just to get the inevitable out of the way…It would take a much better man than I am to refrain from pointing out that Professor Moran mentions me five times in his post, using two different spellings for my surname, neither of them correct.

There…I feel better.

Of course, Moran’s minor errors here do not speak to the force of his larger argument.

But I think that this larger claim falls apart on only slightly deeper inspection.

He has failed, in my view, to notice that scientists and science writers each suffer from characteristic defects in their science writing; those that define the aspirations of the genre are those, from either camp, that surmount those defects.

I agree with Moran on one thing. Accuracy — perhaps better, conceptual understanding — is what non-scientists have to watch out for first, last and always. The little mistakes matter, because they undermine faith in everything else said; bigger issues come from a lack of quantitative understanding, or simply missing the point of a story because one doesn’t know how a given story relates to a discipline or a line of research and so on. There are a multitude of ways to mess up.

Having been trained, and even better, having produced original work in a field goes a long way to helping one avoid such errors. Among those of us who write about fields we cannot claim as our own, none of us, so far as I know, is perfect. Certainly, I still wake up over mistakes made in magazines long since become mulch twenty years ago an more — and no, I won’t tell you what they were.

But scientists who would write for the public have their own paths to error. I’d point to three that I’ve noticed over the decades; I’m sure others can think of more.

First: Parochialism. In its mild form, this is simply a partial rendering of a story, born of the particular place a given scientist-popularizer occupies in a field. As a weak trope, it’s mostly harmless (w. apologies to D. Adams, of course). For example, if one read just a single very popular book, one might glean the notion that string theory, for example, is a more nearly realized body of work than its critics would argue. No real damage is done here.

But pushed, and real misinformation gets produced, a picture of a given state of research that is genuinely misleading. Think James Watson and the role of Rosalind Franklin, as depicted in that model of scientist writing, The Double Helix. (I confess to a personal grudge here, as I have a family connection to Franklin.)

Next: Unjustified claims of expertise. Scientists are not experts in science, really. They are experts in particular disciplines, or now, more commonly, subdisciplines. They know a lot, as a class, about general issues in science beyond their own fields of research — a lot being defined as much more than lay people. But a lot in this sense does not equate to real, independent mastery of most of science, including a lot about which one might opine.

Older, highly honored scientists are prone to this assumption of greater and greater breadth of knowledge — think Jim Watson again and race/intelligence for example — but certainly younger, overbold folks can fall into the same trap. This is probably the extreme example.

BTW, I meant it when I said that I enjoy — really value — Moran as bullshit filterer. This post captures attributes of both parochialism — in the case Moran skewers, believing that your shiny new tool, evolutionary psychology is really, really powerful — and misplaced faith in one’s own ability to make claims about fields you don’t actually know very much about. Bad science, as Moran says, and bad science writing, from whatever source it issues.

Last: I don’t have a good name for this one. The empathetic difficulty, perhaps. The public audience for science ain’t dumb, just ignorant. (Nod to the best line Sissie Spacek had in this movie.) One of the things we spend a fair amount of time teaching our science writing grad students at MIT is the need to be willing to seem — or be — a little thick, to make sure that they really, really understand what a scientist is telling them, even when put into language that those without deep prior knowledge of a field can grasp.

This is very hard to do. The best science writers bring to their stories an endless willingness to be as dumb as they need to be to get to the bottom of the ideas they are trying to express. Many scientists have great difficulty doing the same, for it means working their way back through hard won concepts and mental shorthand to get to an account that does justice to its subject and service to its audience.

This gets to the bottom line: Moran’s argument is, in the end, simply off the point. Badly written accurate popular science won’t get read, so it doesn’t matter. That’s it.

But pace Moran, well written, conceptually sound science writing by non-scientists is not merely counter-exemplary to his view of science writing in general; it represents the best of a difficult field, just as do the fairly rare, but delightful instances of a beautifully written, deep and personally informed account of some aspect of science from within, by a practitioner of the craft.

All of which is why I see Dawkins attempt to wall off science writing from science writers to be quixotic at best, and a diminishing of his project. In the end, even Dawkins could not bring it off. If you look closely at his list of contributors, as opposed to his broad and bold claims in the editor’s introduction, you will find that he does in fact acknowledge that he has let just a few mere writers into his gated garden. From such small beginnings may mighty oaks grow.

Image: “ScriptoriumMonk at Work,” illustration from William Blades: Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judge, 1891.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing.

May 22, 2008

In a recent post, I complained about the deeply conventional-wisdom cast to Richard Dawkins’ selections for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

Now I want to get to the point where the current incumbent of Oxford’s Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science makes it personal.

In his introduction, he writes

“This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.”

Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright. Scientists are capable of good writing; writers may merely make their excursions into science, as befits those who travel steerage in the oceans of the intellect.

Now, obviously, the editor of an anthology gets to make whatever decisions they want. Read the various Best American….series of collections of science writing (and much else), and you’ll see the difference in character year over year as different editors take on the annual task — I’d guess with systematic variation depending on whether the editor that year is more a writer than a scientist or the other way round.

But one thing you expect — or at least I do — is some editorial rationale for the choices, and some grasp of the actual landscape you are, or claim to be covering. Remember that Dawkins is editing a collection that asserts its grasp of “Modern Science Writing.”

Speaking as a science writer and film maker of a quarter of a century of effort, some of it at least not entirely risible, when Dawkins asserts that the world of science writing excellent enough to be beatified by the Oxford University Press is wholly the province of professional researchers with the capacity to achieve “good” writing — he’s talking rot, pure nonesense

To illustrate the silliness here: Dawkins himself is, at this point in his career, much more writer than scientist. He certainly trained as a biologist, and went a considerable distance into a professional career as one, but he has been essentially a full time communicator of science, a popularizer and polemicist, for decades.

He’s brilliant at it, of course — don’t think that this attack is aimed at his own claim to be included in someone else’s more sophisticated survey of the best of modern science writing. It would have to be.

But one could make the argument that if he meant that modern science writing was best understood as writing for the public by working scientists, then much of his own writing more recent than The Selfish Gene could be excluded from consideration. The absurdity of excluding the later Dawkins from a collection of good science writing is, I hope, obvious to everyone reading this.

That of course gets to one of the real points to be made about Dawkins blinkered view of who can — or should write about science. If you take seriously the method of induction (as Isaac Newton, for one expressed it in Opticks) then the existence of several articles and (my favorite) Richard Preston’s first book, First Light would provide the required contrary evidence to shatter Dawkins’ position.

So would — and this is nothing like an exhaustive list, just some of the folks I’ve read with pleasure, pulled out of my head quickly enough to suit a blog post — Jonathan Weiner, again with a wealth of choices, not least The Beak of the Finch. And if Weiner’s work did not convince, you could go on to Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park. I’m reasonably proud of some of my own work for that matter — but better leave that to others to weigh or nay.

And so on and on and on; I haven’t mentioned any of the Brits I admire, nor any of the novelists who express elements of the experience of science. (For one example: the scene in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, in which he captures the extraordinary difficulty of making the mental shift from pre-modern understanding to modern science through a narration of an evening at one of the Royal Society’s earlly meetings.

At times, Dawkins himself seems to realize the problem he’s created for himself with his view of science writing as scientist’s writing. Roughly half way into the book, he complains “I have long thought that science should inspire great poetry, but scientists have published disappointingly few poems.”

Even so, Dawkins chose to shoehorn into the collection at least one bit of verse from a one-of-us background, a dreadful offering from Julian Huxley on the topic of God and Man. If ever there was a “don’t try this at home” moment in modern letters, here it is. Dawkins would have done a kindness to a man he once admired greatly by passing over what he says is the best of Huxley’s poetry in discreet silence.

And that’s my point. Dawkins is right. Science has inspired good poetry — by professional poets. I often quote Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as a cautionary tale, but however much I think Whitman misses his target, it is still good poetry inspired by science.

And if you want to travel down a wonderful thread at John Wilkin’s place, see just for a few examples, the one at number 20, or the wonderfully rich reference to Tycho Brahe at 29 — and/or you could check out this blog’s nod to national poetry month. Some of it is slight, some richer — but it’s there, if only one’s blinkers let one see it.

So here’s one point to be made about Dawkins view of science writing: by asserting (or at least, strongly implying) that only scientists can usefully write about science (at least, usefully enough for Oxford), he has forced himself into a corner where he has to pick inferior stuff, rather than go outside the chapter-house for better.

More broadly, Dawkins’ collection, however grandly titled, is easily ignored — or rather, read for the interesting material it does contain, rather than pilloried for all that it does not. I suppose I need not get too shirty. My work and that of the best of my colleagues is its own defense. Either you find it useful, engaging, intellectually and aesthetically stimulating – or you don’t, in which case, go read something else.

But – and I’ll expand on this in another post, as this is already too long — scientists’ dismissal of non-scientists’ writing about science is not confined to Richard Dawkins, to the detriment of our public culture.

The short form:

For every genuine example — many written by Dawkins himself – of scientists’ writing about science that is both smart and elegant, there are at least two phenomena that ensure such writing is not enough: all that great work performed by researchers who do not possess Dawkins’ ability to convey its meaning to a broad audience; and the fact that much of the best of science writing crosses disciplinary boundaries in ways that are difficult for expert practitioners within disciplines to express themselves.

To be continued….

Image: Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton, 1738. I do hope the rhetorical point of the image is as blunt as a cudgel to the head.* Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*A little piqued, me? Naah…couldn’t be.

The Dogs That Do Not Bark For Dawkins

May 19, 2008

Not perhaps the most precise reference there (and no where near the accurate quote), but still, a pointer to a good story.

In re Richard Dawkins, I’m thinking of what seems strangely missing in his latest edited book, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

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. So what’s the complaint implied by this post’s title.

There are two of them, in fact, one parochial, one global to the project.

The bigger one first. It is amazing how limited a view of what science investigates is on display here.

Dawkins has selected 83 pieces as the exemplars of the best of modern science writing. Maybe he can defend those choices against all comers on his judgment of quality — but still it is extraordinary how narrow a perception of science any member of the public seeking to be informed would get from this collection — not entirely, but almost completely confined to cosmology and related areas of physics, and evolutionary biology, with a certain additional emphasis on the biology of brain, mind and consciousness.

The first section, on what scientists study, begins with two selections from physicists — James Jeans and Martin Rees. Next up one brief piece that straddles the overlap between chemistry of physics at the second law of thermodynamics by a chemist, Peter Atkins. Then ten samples from the world of evolution, followed by four centered on brain/mind questions, then back to biology in a selection of eight pieces the orbit around questions of evolution, ecology and animal behavior.

That’s it. That’s what scientists study, according to Dawkins – or at least that’s what literate scientists have written about at a level of craft sufficient to meet Dawkins’ aesthetic as well as intellectual criteria.

It goes on in much the same way through the other sections of the book. You get the usual suspects — Einstein a couple of times, Medawar (of course — how could you leave him out, and this is no snark; anyone who has not had the pleasure should start here or here or here…you can thank me later) Eddington, Hardy, Gould and Sagan. So it goes. Given a very few prompts it would probably be possible to reconstruct the list of Dawkins choices with quite high accuracy, sight unseen.

But even within Dawkins primary constraint (to be briefly snarked below), what of most chemistry — arguably the single most significant science in the last century in its impact on human well being? It’s not as if nothing has been written about chemistry for the public — and at a high level too. Try one of the best unknown books of science writing out there, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman’s The Same and Not the Same? What about even a nod towards modern geology, in the context of plate tectonics, one of the most consequential public paradigm shifts in all of twentieth century (will all due with apologies to the quantum revolution and the double helix. It would have been possible (were it not for Dawkins other tic) to select from one of the works of John McPhee to get at least a hint of the significance of the discovery that continents and their sub-assemblies roam the globe over deep time.

And so on. So much of what scientists study is a closed book to Oxford, Dawkins, and any readers of this handsome volume.

I’m not saying don’t buy this book. Within its narrow limits, it is a wonderful collection. If it is a bit predictable (how many times has Haldane’s genuinely excellent essay, “On Being the Right Size” shown up in one collection or another?* And Einstein’s worthy statement on cosmic religious feeling has seen a fair bit of wear too…) it still has a lot of goodies to enjoy. But no one should mistake this for anything more than one very constricted view of what constitutes excellence in the craft of bringing to the public the good news of science and lives spent in its pursuit.

I’ll save my other peeve with the book (which I think I’ve telegraphed, rather) for another post this week. As one more blatant hint, let me simply say that I would not think much of a book collecting modern writing about sports that confined itself to athlete’s writing. Can you imagine a baseball section without Roger Angell for example, and if the tennis selections didn’t include at least on passage from this by John McPhee, you’d know you were wasting your time. .You can probably figure out the rest from there.

*Even I blogged this essay here, complete with this link to the full text online. There: if that’s all you wanted to read in Dawkin’s collection, I just saved you 35 bucks.

Image:  Map of Pangaea — the supercontinent that incorporated most of the Earth’s landmasses between 300 and 180 million years before present.  Licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.


March 21, 2008

This is going to be all over the science blogosphere in a blink, so there is no real need for me to pile on, except that it gives me the opportunity to recycle one of my recent favorite political snarks,

I mean, if you have done something really dumb — like make an ignorant, ill-informed, duplicitous film that is so ineptly put together as to be unable to attract even papered full houses — and then you decide you want to make sure that none of your critics can actually see the film, it might be a good idea to know your enemy, just a little bit.

But nooooo! The producers of Expelled, Ben Stein’s formal notice of secession from reason knew they had a problem with PZ Myers. After all, they had interviewed him under false pretences to serve as one of a number of straw men to a bankrupt argument. He’s been pretty clear — brutally plain — about both that essential discourtesy, and the larger dishonesty of the project as a whole. They know he can dish the invective pretty well, and to the largest audience in the science blogosphere.

So I can understand why they wouldn’t want him actually to see the film. From their already morally (as well as intellectually) compromised position, that would be tantamount to giving not just ammunition but the whole damn arsenal to the enemy. So it’s no real surprise that they had a police officer at the ready to identify mild-seeming bearded squid fetishists in the line for a restricted screening of the film in Minneapolis.

But as I said, you have to be smart if you want to be safely dumb. And the problem with that, I think is obvious. Hence the result that PZ gleefully documents in the post linked above (and here again).

The thought police expel PZ from the line waiting to get into the theater. They manage to ignore his guest.

Richard Dawkins.

Stop for a moment. Think.

Richard Freaking Dawkins.

This isn’t just dumb, folks. To channel Eroll Flynn in Captain Blood “Bedad! It’s epic!”

(By the way — this really is not the way real film makers behave. When I, or any of the documentarians I know and respect, make a film, we promise –and deliver — DVDs of the finished product to those who have contributed to the project, for receipt right after the premiere.)

What happened in Minneapolis is like — and I’ve been struggling to come up with an analogy that isn’t just blood thirsty — corralling Mothra but losing track of Godzilla, or, f you want a reference to another bad science movie franchise perhaps, caging Velociraptor but failing to account for T Rex.

And it gives me the chance to make the observation that is the real point of this post. I don’t often read Ben Smith’s column over at, but at the height of the Spitzer schadenfreude orgy, he came up with this*: “When stupid gets to $200 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to Eliot Spitzer’s head.”

Not me, man. I want to tap into the fine wine of dumb these guys have got going.

(Eyewitness account of the scene inside the theater here.)

*Quoting from memory. Sue me if I missed a word.

Images: Inferred Dinosaur Behavior (Velociraptor and Proceratops) illustration in L. M. Chiappe, A Field Trip to the Mesozoic, PLOS Biol 1/2/2003. Licensed under a Creative Commons License ver. 2.5.

Piotr Jaworski, “Tyranozaur,” 2004. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.