Richard Dawkins at NECSS–Or Not

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.

Richard Dawkins, Reason Rally DC 2012

Richard Dawkins, Reason Rally DC 2012

Photo credit: S Pakhrin

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.

6 comments for “Richard Dawkins at NECSS–Or Not

  1. Brent
    February 1, 2016 at 7:25 am

    I’ve seen Dawkins speak a few times. When he talks about evolution and science, he is fascinating and funny. When he talks about society he tends to be dismissive and mean. I appreciate his public atheism but he really spends a lot more energy putting down religious people than lifting up rationality. I always preferred Hitchens’ approach: dismiss only your detractors and win the audience with appeals to humanity. Dawkins seems to enjoy dismissing anyone he wants and simply challenge the audience to join with him or else risk looking stupid.

    Once a student asked Dawkins how there could be altruism if genes were truly selfish. He answered something like “I fear you have read the title of the book but failed to read the extended footnote to the title which is the book itself.” I thought that was a terribly clever line at the time but as I get older I remember it less fondly. The man had a teachable moment but chose instead to make a mean-spirited joke.

    It’s not surprising to me that the man doesn’t find adoring audiences wherever he goes: he’s a great intellectual, but a crummy public intellectual. The NECSS can do better.

    • February 1, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Of course, it is true that the book itself answers that question in great detail, so it is quite likely true that the student had not, in fact, read the book. No doubt his answer was a bit snarky. But for me, I think, “So what?”.

      If you had a chance to hear directly from Einstein or Newton, would you think, “Nah, he’s too gruff for me; I’ll wait for someone nicer?” What people do not fully appreciate is that Dawkins’s work is on the same level of significance to our understanding of the reality we inhabit as these guys.

      Yea, he can be dismissive. I find that completely unsurprising. (He can also be witty, funny, honest, and profound, btw.) Try being one the world’s most recognized atheists for a few decades. In that context, I imagine dismissiveness becomes an essential skill.

      I accept the man for what he is and I stand by my opinion as expressed in the post.

  2. February 12, 2016 at 12:53 am

    Sad news this evening regarding Prof. Dawkins only reinforces my point that our time is limited. Opportunities should not be squandered.

  3. February 13, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Here’s an update on Prof. Dawkins’ condition, in his own words.

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