I just read Dr. Stephen Novella‘s clear and thoughtful blog post on how Professor Richard Dawkins was invited to be a featured speaker at this year’s Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). And shortly thereafter, uninvited. It’s an interesting–even if disappointing–look into the soap opera atmosphere surrounding the scientific skepticism movement for the past several years.
I learned of this latest controversy in the scientific skepticism community via my Facebook friend Evan Bernstein‘s recent post (which is not public or I would link to it here). Evan is co-host of Dr. Novella’s very excellent The Skeptics’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast.
I’m a huge fan of both the SGU and of Dawkins. The former is without question my favorite podcast. It is both entertaining and informative and I highly recommend it. But Richard Dawkins is arguably one of the most important scientific figures in our lifetimes. His impact on our understanding of the evolution of replicators–and its long reach into much more of the world than we previously understood–is difficult to overstate. (And not just that his coined term, “meme”, has itself become an incredibly successful, albeit poorly understood, meme.) I have considered it an honor and a privilege every time I finished one of his books, every time I’ve heard him speak, and every conversation I’ve had with him.
To me, the fact that Richard Dawkins is sometimes polarizing–and he is–is a quirk of his nature but does not diminish any of his important contributions. He is becoming an old man whose time left at this party is limited. I would not squander an opportunity to hear from him in person.
I respect the NECSS committee’s right to decide whatever they wish to decide. But if I were on the committee, I would be arguing that ten years from now, or twenty, we would look back at the dis-invitation of Richard Dawkins as a missed opportunity. I would be suggesting that we, minimally, have a frank, private conversation with the professor about our concerns and weigh his response before unilaterally uninviting him.
I sincerely appreciate Dr. Novella’s clear explanation of how this all came to pass. And again, I support the committee’s right to decide how to craft its own conference. I’m just disappointed in the decision.