Thursday, June 18, 2015

Richard Dawkins is an asshole, harms science outreach, study finds

Sometimes science lags behind simple observation. People usually know something is true because of what they see as they live their lives, not because they've considered the issue scientifically. But it can be both interesting and helpful when researchers confirm what we already know, especially if they're studying something as important as science literacy.

So, for example, I could have told you long ago that Richard Dawkins does more harm than good for science outreach because he's an asshole. I mean, even the creators of South Park knew that almost a decade ago. But now we have a peer-reviewed study confirming as much.

There are a few useful pieces of information that have come to light as a result of this paper, but let's look briefly at the study before getting to its implications.

The team used a survey of over 10,000 Americans. Part of the survey asked individuals if they had previously heard of either [Richard] Dawkins or [Francis] Collins. The survey revealed that Dawkins was more widely known among the 10,000 survey participants than Collins (21.4 percent recognition versus 4.3 percent recognition).
Being a vitriolic apologist for atheism, Dawkins has unsurprisingly attracted more attention than the director of the NIH. The key bit of information here, however, is that Dawkins' self-righteousness doesn't win atheism any converts. The individuals surveyed, after reading a brief biography of Collins, were 15 percent more likely to accept the idea that religion and science can co-exist. Those who hadn't heard of Dawkins and read his biography showed no change in their views of the relationship between science and religion.

The takeaway here, and it's really just sales 101, is that your audience needs to like you before they'll believe you. Would you buy a car from a salesman who was a complete jerk? Probably not. Now imagine that same jerk changing your mind about a concept as important as God. Never going to happen. By the way, this is why televangelists are equally ineffective at converting atheists to Christianity. Like Dawkins, televangelists are judgy bitches; they don't know how to communicate with the faithless, nor do they care to learn.

Here's another useful point from the study:

... previous research shows that people are more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure. 

With this in mind, it would be wise for people like Dawkins, those who claim to want to spread science literacy, to stop calling religion a mind virus and treating religious believers like they're idiots. It's an interesting point, I think, because Dawkins has the knowledge and rhetorical skill to change minds. He could get evangelicals to drop their doubts about evolution, and probably de-convert a few of them along the way. But he's too belligerent to keep their attention for any length of time.

So if you want to change people's minds, no matter how ignorant they may be, treat them with a little respect. It's the scientific thing to do. And we all know how much Dawkins loves science.



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