Let's unveil the real enemies of reason
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins’ latest TV attack on tarot-readers and the mystic-obsessed masses lets some far more dangerous irrationalists off the hook.
After taking on organised religion in his TV show The Root of All Evil? in January 2006, the distinguished British scientist Professor Richard Dawkins challenged other irrational systems of thought in The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4 last night. His target this time? Astrologists and clairvoyants, among others.
Dawkins’ complaint is that the horoscopes published in newspapers, and those mediums seeking to ‘speak to the dead’, are not only misleading the public – they are actually undermining the very foundations of Enlightenment civilisation. In order to protect the gullible masses from these forces, he set out to expose mystic peddlers as cranks and charlatans and, it seems, to hoist his own books up the bestseller lists.
But does Dawkins’ proposed ‘Brave New World’ lead a shining path towards true enlightenment? Or in his rush to denounce ‘non-evidence based’ fads and thinking, is he in danger of throwing out a dimension of humanity that cannot solely be reduced to mathematical calculations?
On the surface, at least, Dawkins’ protestations that religion and astrology and palm reading are not based in provable facts or reason are agreeable enough. Indeed, the spiritualists, mediums and New Age faith healers that were featured on last night’s programme came across either as deluded or as sly hustlers. Their transparent gibberish certainly should not be defended or indulged. And yet, they are not a mortal danger to others; nor are they ‘wreckers of civilisation’, as Dawkins hysterically suggests. For Dawkins, however, it is not only the mystics who are beyond the rational pale – so, too, are those casual horoscope readers and séance attendees, who were effectively branded as contemptible fools.
In reality, it was Dawkins who came across as shockingly naïve. The programme also showed that he possesses the sense of humour of a wooden chair leg.
In debunking astrology, Dawkins adopted a tone of ‘this will be big news for you, sunshine’, as if the average TV viewer is a complete dunce who had previously believed everything he read in his horoscope. Dawkins’ revelation that astrology is impossible to prove, and that the predictions published in newspapers don’t, you know, have any real bearing on your day-to-day life, would only be shocking to a five-year-old.
When he conducted a random survey of Londoners, asking them to outline their sun sign’s characteristics, we were meant to see how the idiot public has internalised today’s rampant mysticism. Wrong. What Dawkins failed to see is that most respondents were giggling as they said things like: ‘I’m a Leo. I’m meant to spend too much money but possess leadership skills.’ They weren’t actually taking it seriously, instead laughing as they listed their star sign’s endearingly daft character traits. Many of the respondents said that horoscopes are a load of nonsense.
For the most part, when people do say ‘oh, it’s because I’m a typical Scorpio’, they are being tongue-in-cheek, and making a throwaway comment that is only intended to communicate a widely recognisable character trait to another person. Incredibly, even that banal and harmless saying ‘touch wood for luck’ was cited as evidence by Dawkins that we have all gone mad for mysticism. He clearly needs to get out more.
The trouble is that even when he does get out more, his reductive approach to humanity means he cannot seem to get beyond his rehearsed ‘these people are stupid’ outlook. So Dawkins approached a meeting held by a spiritualist medium as if he were carrying out a study of primitive anthropology. Anyone with a semblance of understanding of human behaviour will appreciate that séances are usually populated by lonely, desperate pensioners seeking connections with this world as much as the ‘next world’. The fact that Dawkins met people who described themselves as regular attendees at the spiritual meeting suggested that most of them see it as a social get-together rather than anything truly mystical.
It took the engaging illusionist Derren Brown to provide some half-decent insights into why people dabble in hocus-pocus. Brown openly says he uses psychology and wordplay to trick people into believing all sorts of things. And his punters mostly know this, but still go along with his tricks to be amused, entertained or just baffled. It’s similar to the pitch you get on BBC3’s The Real Hustle, where experienced scammers and tricksters perform confidence tricks on people in bars and hotels. The only difference is that, on Derren Brown’s TV shows and The Real Hustle, there isn’t a professor in the background denouncing everyone as stupid and superstitious.
Contemporary hi-tech irrationality is definitely a problem. For example, the idea that long-distance air travel should be banned on the basis of a belief that CO2 emissions = global warming doesn’t stand up to rational calculations or proof. How would cutting back on air travel make much of a difference, when aviation only contributes about three per cent of global CO2 emissions? Cutting back our carbon in order to ‘save the world’ is also a form of superstition. Or why not investigate the tidal waves of doomsday scenarios that also have no basis in reality or science - such as the headlines that were common a year ago, which claimed that ‘150 million expected to die from bird flu’? These outbursts of official irrationality have a potentially more destructive impact on society than a handful of camp astrologers and mediums.
To be fair to Dawkins, Enemies of Reason gets better. In the second episode, which will be broadcast next week, Dawkins attacks alternative medicines, quack remedies and the irrational MMR vaccine panic. He’s absolutely right to point out that there is still no evidence that MMR jabs cause autism in children, but that the panic about an MMR-autism link has had a detrimental impact on medicine and society: for a start, we’ve seen the re-emergence of measles for the first time in years.
In this area of medical science, Dawkins is on solid ground. And yet, his understanding of the relationship between science and society is skewed. As a humanist rationalist, I would welcome the development of scientific enquiry to advance our understanding of the natural world and improve the quality of our lives in the process. And Dawkins is almost inspiring when he reels off the triumphs of scientific discoveries and achievements over the past 300 years. But he is on somewhat shakier territory when he tries to boil social progress down to such narrow, technical innovations.
Science alone was not responsible for generating more free time for humans in the modern era. The expansion of the productive forces, and the development of a greater capacity to create more life-sustaining resources in less time, were also key to this advancement. Yet Dawkins only seems able to conceptualise science as acting alone and outside of wider social developments. Thus he tends to ignore how human-centred political thought helped to throw off the shackles of mysticism and tradition and enable scientific enquiry to flourish. To attribute social progress to the work of diligent scientists reveals an outlook that is notably disengaged from the workings of society. Unfortunately, Dawkins isn’t the only commentator who falls into this trap today.
Consider the recent attack on humanities A-level subjects such as English literature, history and sociology. Many bemoan the fact that while science take-up is declining, these ‘easier’ humanities subjects are becoming more popular. Behind some of this discussion, there lies a hostility towards non-instrumental enquiries into understanding human existence, and our relationships with each other and with society more broadly. Previously, the humanities were considered to be a cornerstone of a humanist education; now they are looked upon as a bit flighty and not really useful to understanding the world. In truth, the towering figures of literature, from Proust to Dostoyevsky, have also, alongside the scientists, shed dazzling light on to the human condition. Dawkins and others seem unable to understand that some things - love, sexual infatuation, mortality, beauty, existential angst - cannot be measured by a set of scales or a measuring tape. We are not, whatever Dawkins might think, merely biological beings.
The real irony of Dawkins’ angry attack on the mystical masses is that his brand of thinking is actually not under threat; rather, its time has come. Why else would anyone give this charisma-free professor primetime TV slots? Last night’s programme was less a celebration of science than an elevation of scientism, the idea that ‘evidence-based calculations’ should be the organising principle for human society. This makes Dawkins less radical than he likes to think, because scientism is actually in the ascendant. Today’s ‘carbon footprint’ calculations use scientism to lend bogus authority to the climate change doom-mongers. Smoking and drinking bans are often justified on the basis of calculating the costs they cause to the National Health Service. The education system is increasingly judged on cost-effective criteria, based on student attendance, retention and pass rates.
Far from being a lone maverick, Dawkins’ emphasis on the importance of evidence-based calculations dovetails nicely with the political class’s narrow managerialism. At the same time, his tut-tutting about apparently irrational activities such as gambling, dowsing and séances has a whiff of New Labour’s ‘stop this nonsense!’ politics of behaviour. Dawkins’ lab-coated hectoring is profoundly conservative: denying the importance of meaning and purpose behind human action, even actions that appear irrational, leads to a naturalisation of the human subject as merely biological rather than social in character.
I would argue that the ‘enemies of reason’ today are not so much the cranky mystics offering cut-price tarot card readings, but rather the more powerful peddlers of doomsday scenarios and health panics that have minimal foundations in fact. It would have been better if Dawkins had concentrated his unblinking gaze on those irrationalists. Unfortunately, by championing scientism as a model for society, rather than hailing open-ended science as a tool for humanity, Dawkins has ended up contributing to today’s dead hand of instrumentalism, philistinism and presentism.
Neil Davenport (Gemini) is a freelance writer and politics lecturer based in London.