Varieties of unreason

Is it time we started to treat Richard Dawkins’ account of the world with a little more rational scepticism?

British ethologist, evolutionary biologi
"Richard Dawkins will always sound pretty daring to rebellious teenagers," writes Dan Hind [AFP]

Richard Dawkins is having a busy time of it. Last weekend, he tweeted: “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” His many supporters saw this latest contribution as part of his brave campaign against irrational beliefs. The devout were infuriated, which, I suspect, only encourages him.

Meanwhile, others wondered whether perhaps he had gone a little too far. After all, Isaac Newton believed things that make winged horses look positively mundane. Yet we still see fit to take his physics seriously. If the faithful – or metaphysically deluded, if you prefer, and good luck if you think you can reliably tell the difference – can make a contribution to physics, it is not clear why they cannot have a bash at journalism. Journalism, even serious journalism, is not, as far as I can tell, noticeably more rigorous than physics.

By chance a few days after Dawkins’ pronouncement the readers of Prospect, a British current affairs magazine, voted Dawkins “the top thinker” of 2013. I am not really sure what the criteria were, and I don’t much care. The idea of a top thinker is so stupid and debased that it defeats curiosity. Speaking of things that defeat curiosity, Dawkins is the subject of a new documentary called The Unbelievers, which premieres tomorrow in Toronto on April 29. So it is all go for Dawkins and his mission “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering”. 

Let us turn now to another story, which might, at first glance, seem unconnected. In January 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff published “Growth in a Time of Debt“. The paper seemed to show that countries with debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP grew far more slowly than those with lower debt burdens. Though they immediately faced criticism from other economists, politicians around the world seized on their findings to justify cuts in public spending. For example, a month after Rogoff and Reinhart announced their findings, George Osborne, the British Chancellor, told an audience that “the latest research suggests that once debt reaches more than about 90 percent of GDP, the risks of a large negative impact on long-term growth become highly significant”. 

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And 'New Statesman' sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.

by Richard Dawkins

The architects of fiscal austerity could justify what they were doing in terms of cold, abstract reason. The most authoritative social science was telling them that they had no choice but to cut social programmes. It was painful, but necessary if an even worse crisis was to be averted. A little more than a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, politicians were able to use the prestige of economics to ensure that the costs of the subsequent depression fell on welfare recipients rather than bankers.

So things stood until a graduate student, Thomas Herndon, went through Rogoff and Reinhart’s figures and found that there were some worrying gaps. In one case, a line of data had simply been dropped from a spreadsheet. Once the missing figures were fed in the effect described by Rogoff and Reinhart became much less pronounced. What politicians and much of the media had treated as a clear-cut intellectual justification for austerity turned out to be based on little more than some clumsy data inputting and a dash of wishful thinking.

What does the high tragedy of political economy have to do with the low farce of a professorial atheist with a Twitter account? Richard Dawkins has always used an exalted language to justify his campaigns against superstition. When he set up the Richard Dawkins Society for Reason and Science he told us that “the enlightenment is under threat, and so is reason, so is truth”. He was part of a wider move to identify the threats to an enlightened public sphere with religion. In a kind of rhetorical inflation, Sam Harris announced that “the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum”. The late Christopher Hitchens then issued his trillion-dollar bill, a book purporting to explain “how religion poisons everything”.

Special Programme – Dawkins on religion

The account of the world offered by these fearless atheists was irresistible to those who like their explanations all-encompassing and cartoonishly simple. Their many fans could enjoy the thrill of declaring themselves against unreason without worrying too much about anything other than the perfidy of religion and the self-evident merits of unbelief. But the Reinhart-Rogoff affair reminds us, yet again, that religious fundamentalism and superstition are not the only threats to reason and science, truth and the enlightenment.

When properly accredited experts say things that the powerful want to hear, their word becomes a kind of gospel. It is immune to serious challenge unless it is shown to be grossly inept. Even when it is debunked, the people who own and run the world carry on doing what they want, confident that another plausible-sounding justification will surface soon. Meanwhile, the self-declared champions of reason and truth are too busy worrying about flying horses to notice.

Western secular modernity is far too hospitable to myths that present themselves as the findings of science. Economics very obviously serves as the devoted valet of political vandalism. But the controversies run much deeper and wider than I can even hint at in a column. Suffice to say that much that we think of as scientific has been cooked up in marketing departments. I am sure that Dawkins will always sound pretty daring to rebellious teenagers. But if, as Kant puts it, “Enlightenment is the movement out of intellectual immaturity”, it is time the rest of us grew up.

Dan Hind is the author of several books, including The Threat to Reason and Maximum Republic.