Recently, I wrote about how Prof. Richard Dawkins was suddenly uninvited from speaking at this year’s Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). As I said at the time, I thought the move was a mistake on the part of NECSS, one that they would look back on with regret, in the years to come. I wrote:
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.
As it turns out, almost immediately, NECSS did regret its decision and un-uninvited Prof. Dawkins. But unfortunately, his stroke hit on the same day, perhaps not entirely by coincidence. As you can hear Prof. Dawkins himself explain toward the end of the audio clip below, the stress of the NECSS invite/uninvite/un-uninvite fiasco may have played a contributing role in his stroke:
The doctors, obviously, were worried about what had caused it. I’d been having chronic blood pressure problems for a while. … The doctors asked me whether I’d been suffering from stress and I had to say, “Yes, I had.” …
I told [the doctors] I had been having a certain amount of controversy and I was very distressed when, on the 28th of January, I was disinvited from a conference in America to which I’d previously been asked. This upset me very much.
I’m used to getting hate from religious nuts and creationists, but when I get hate from what I think of as my own people–the left, liberals, feminists, and so on–that actually does hurt me. I might have been expected to get a stroke after that, if ever. But paradoxically, the stroke came after I got a bit of good news.
On the morning of February 5th, I had a very gracious letter from the conference organizers committee, graciously apologizing to me for disinviting me and reinviting me. And I was overjoyed at that. And you might think that’s the last time I’d have gotten a stroke, but actually it was the evening of that same day that I got the stroke.
Dawkins is Perfect for NECSS
This whole NECSS fiasco was unfortunate, but I am happy to hear the conference organizers had a change of heart. I’d like to think they were able to apply “science and skepticism” to their own decisions. Prof. Dawkins is one of the most significant scientific figures of our lifetime. It is difficult to overstate his contribution to our understanding of evolution. And not just biological evolution, but much more general concepts: the evolution of replicators and their extended phenotypes.
Listening to the 7-minute audio message (below) released by Prof. Dawkins only confirms how deeply, and fundamentally, above all else, he is a man of science. Even as he grapples with his own mortality in the wake of a stroke, even as he struggles with tasks as small as buttoning his own clothing, his mind instinctively returns to scientific inquiry. He marvels at the mechanical and neurological machinery that constitutes a working human hand. He wonders about the selective pressures that might have shaped its evolution. He observes with fascination how a hand must have the strength to lift a carton of milk, the control to not crush the carton in the process, and the sensitivity to judge the level of milk in the carton by detecting the shifting center of mass of the carton.
An organizer of any conference on science and skepticism should be thrilled to land Prof. Dawkins as a speaker, just as a physics conference organizer would be thrilled to land Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. So, I’m happy that the NECSS organizers eventually got it right. Even if, at first, they stumbled. That’s how science proceeds.