Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Richard Dawkins Delusion

Richard Dawkins' book the God Delusion is an understandably influential work. It pits science against traditional, literal religious beliefs in highly confrontational terms and not surprisingly makes the latter look pretty daft. There is no man in the clouds directing the actions of human beings on planet earth. There is a very strong track record of scientific endeavor enjoying great success with such tangible things as making aeroplanes fly, curing diseases and a host of other useful and beneficial things which centuries of superstition had failed to produce. 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, undoubtedly a highly intelligent man with a sincere belief in science as problem solver, and an understandable antipathy to religion as an often divisive and intolerant force. The problem is that some of his followers, blissfully unaware of the deep irony of it, appear to attach an almost religious zeal to their love of science and develop a completely irrational blind spot to the very serious limitations of applying science to all problems at all times and in all situations.

I'm thinking in particular of a debate I had recently, which flared up when I stated that I didn't believe a gay couple were able to provide the same sort of care and guidance to an adopted child as might a traditional male-female couple. My opponent seemed quite indignant that I had said this and proceeded to list scientific studies which apparently disproved my contention, thus showing that I was merely a narrow minded bigot who disliked gay people.

This became too long and circular to be worth repeating here, but in a nutshell my opinion on this matter is that no scientific study can really answer such a question because each case is entirely unique and the outcome of a happy and well balanced adult is so entirely subjective that it can't be measured in any way which definitively proves that gay adoption does not cause harm. In the absence of hard scientific evidence or the word of God then you have to form an opinion based on your experiences if you are to have any opinion at all.

I did have a look at each of the studies cited and very quickly found serious problems with each one - the lack of a control group, a very small sample size, a very short period of study or a very narrow focus on specific development indicators at a particular stage. Several focused on biological mothers with female partners. That's not to say they are bad science, they just necessarily focused on very narrow aspects of the question. None of them even attempted the absurdly abstract task of demonstrating conclusively that gay adoption is just as likely to produce well rounded and contented adults as is adoption by a heterosexual couple. Yet this was exactly how my opponent had read them, usually in news articles or meta-studies, and this he felt gave the full weight of science to his opinion, and rendered mine an irrational superstition based on my dislike of a certain group of people. 

When I suggested that his position was based on prejudice and personal belief every bit as much as mine then he seemed confused and angry. How could this be? His position was tolerant and it was backed by science. He became the very definition of a bigot, closed to any other opinions, and displayed textbook prejudice, insisting on the righteousness of his own beliefs in spite of the absolute lack of any conclusive evidence supporting them. 

I call this the Richard Dawkins Delusion not because Dawkins himself is deluded but because a certain strand of vocal atheists appear to have taken on science as a religion and Dawkins as a Messianic figurehead. With a fervor reminiscent of a scene from The Life of Brian they act as though science was some force in itself, peeling back layers of foolish misconceptions and revealing a certain and solid truth. Anyone questioning the truth revealed, as reported by scientists in peer reviewed journals, must be some sort of religious fanatic or charlatan. 

This is complete nonsense, and flies in the face of the very cautious, sceptical and open minded approach which underpins all good science. It is in itself a form of zealous, and often shrill bigotry which displays a narrow and closed mind masquerading as as an open and enquiring one, and it deserves to be highlighted as such whenever it arises.

The very essence of science is not unqualified belief in the apparent results, but the humility to accept that there are limits to our knowledge, to approach questions with an open mind and to treat dogmatic certainty with scepticism.