The Retirement of Richard Dawkins

Next week Richard gives the tenth and final Simonyi Lecture, as he has retired from the Oxford University Chair for the Public Understanding of Science.

Max Hammerton’s article below mentions a skepticism about the success of public understanding on science – largely because it is hard and difficult. Studies reveal that more formal years of education and those that took voluntary course in mathematics and science were more likely to express an interest in science.

In terms of understanding, a survey in the United States [source]:

The percentage of correct responses to most of the NSF survey questions pertaining to basic science facts, concepts, and vocabulary has remained nearly constant.(See appendix table 7-9.) For example, more than 70 percent of those surveyed knew that:

  • Plants produce oxygen.
  • The continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move.
  • Light travels faster than sound.
  • Earth goes around the Sun (and not vice versa).
  • Not all radioactivity is manmade.

In contrast, about half the respondents knew that:

  • The earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
  • It takes Earth one year to go around the Sun.
  • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
  • Antibiotics do not kill viruses.
  • Lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.

A study conducted for the People for the American Way Foundation took a closer look at the question of teaching evolution and found an overwhelming majority of Americans (83 percent) agreeing that it should be taught in the classroom. However, there is also strong support for teaching creationism. A detailed breakdown of the survey findings shows a wide range of opinion on the issue:

  • 20 percent favor teaching only evolution and nothing else in public schools;
  • 17 percent want only evolution taught in science classes but say that religious explanations can be discussed in other classes;
  • 29 percent do not have a problem with creationism being discussed in science classes but believe it should be discussed as a “belief,” not a scientific theory;
  • 13 percent believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught as scientific theories in science class;
  • 16 percent want no mention of evolution at all;
  • 4 percent are in favor of teaching both evolution and creationism but are unsure about how to do it; and
  • 1 percent have no opinion (People for American Way Foundation 2000).

While Dawkins is based in the UK, answering those questions right is for him a concern. I thought it was disconcerting that 14% of men in the poll thought the earth did not go round the sun – when reading that 34% of women thought the sun went round the earth I was dumbstruck. If this is a realistic sample of the American public the upcoming election will be won with less of a majority than those that do not know the orbit of the earth. Thankfully the world keeps on going around no matter what people think.

Perhaps there is always going to be a minority that will not concern themselves with basic science. It seems that parents do care that their children get a good science education, and when it is an issue that directly effects them, or gets a lot of media coverage they take a keen interest. The answer to me is that science has to become more connected to the everyday – to excite and encourage inquiry in early years so that science in secondary school builds on that interest.

Why does this matter? Well:

Without a grasp of scientific ways of thinking, the average person cannot tell the difference between science based on real data and something that resembles science—at least in their eyes—but is based on uncontrolled experiments, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions…[W]hat makes science special is that evidence has to meet certain standards (Rensberger 2000, p. 61). [ibid]

The key thing is being accessible and available. On that score, Richard Dawkins has achieved and those that wanted to understand had somewhere to go, where science could be explained in its beauty to those interested. Everyone else could fuck off.* That attitude to the role is why Dawkins succeeded with a job title beyond ability to deliver.

The above article re posted from here.

*To paraphrase what a New Science editor said; often wrongly thought to originate with Dawkins.


Great Ideas of Biology – 9th Simonyi Anniversary Lecture

Me and Douglas Adams [Richard Dawkins helping me to understand Evolution]



Filed under Dawkins, Science

6 responses to “The Retirement of Richard Dawkins

  1. It occurs to me that if Professor Richard Dawkins, in his capacity as Oxford University Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, had done more to actually broaden and improve the public understanding of science, rather than set off on a very public Quixotic anti-religious crusade, that more members of the seemingly benighted* public might actually have a better understanding of science. Richard Dawkins was certainly very accessible and available for his ongoing campaign of indiscriminate religion bashing during his tenure as Oxford University Chair for the Public Understanding of Science but how much did he really do to broaden or indeed deepen public understanding of science? Dare I suggest that Richard Dawkins’ misguided, and rather less than scientific, anti-religious crusading activities are based on uncontrolled experiments (or no experiments at all. . .), anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions?

  2. People claiming on religious grounds that evolution is wrong goes beyond an ignorance of science – it actually suggests that empirical evidence and the scientific method can be trumped by mystical supernatural belief.

    Ignorance because you cannot be bothered to know is different from willfully denying a theory because your faith is considered a higher virtue.

    He has constantly tried to answer questions from the public and promote scientific understanding. Before it was considered that scientists should popularise the field by being accessible he did so writing “The Selfish Gene” in 1976.

    Also when you read the actual job description from Simonyi, I think Dawkins was the right man for the job.,2246,Charles-Simonyi-Professorship-in-the-Public-Understanding-of-Science,Richard-Dawkins

  3. brian rgan

    Professor Dawkins is shocked that many people believe the Sun goes round the Earth.

    Albert Einstein would be one of those who, by being an observer on the Earth, would accept the assertion that the Sun goes round the Earth.

    It all depends on your frame of reference.

    If we take the Sun as the frame of reference then Prof Dawkins assertion is correct.

    If an abstract space based frame of reference is taken then both sun and earth rotate around a point in space determined by the Sun and the planet’s masses and motions.

    This point itself will not be stationary

  4. Richard Dawkins was certainly very accessible and available for his ongoing campaign of indiscriminate religion bashing..

    There’s nothing wrong with bashing religions.
    Religions are about delusions and fraud.
    Belief in an invisible sky daddy (or daddies) is not healthy.

    The sooner people abandon their witchdoctors and shamans and soothsayers; the better off they will be.
    Nobody worships Zeus any more. Nobody misses him.
    That’s a step forward.

    Dawkins has encouraged a new generation to start listening to priests less and start thinking for themselves more.

    “We are all atheists about most of the gods humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” – Richard Dawkins

  5. Zar

    Why is it when peopel sya its OK to bash Religions they fail to understand that peopel like Richard Dawkisn are themselves promoting a Religion.

    No, I am not saying Atheism is a Religion, but neither is theism. Nor is Religion a synonym for THeism.

    Religion is really a set of beelifs about the world in which we live, a Philosophical perspectice if you will. Everyone has one, especially people ho have little symbols and parrot catphrases such as “We are all atheists, soem just go oen god firther”. Its as ubiquitous as “Blasphemy is a victimless crime”.

    Dawkins really doesn’t want people to think for themselves either, and instead wants them to embrace his spacific brand of Naturalism and Humanism. If you don’t agree with Richard Dawkins, you don’t think for yourself.

    The big problem I have with this sort of mentlaity is that it seems mor elike a scowlign bully than a benighted teacher. After all, why shoudl we think that Theistic beleifs ar einherantly Dangerus? And does anyoen really think refrign to gods as “SKy daddies” is anythign but a CHildish insult designed to emotionally manioulate people into Atheism by makign them feel silly for beleivng in a god? Its certaibly not a logical argument.

    Its also not like the claim that Theist is a problem in the world make smuch since in light of how horribel the COmmunists where, who where all Athiests. Yes I know Dawkisn and crew say they dont count, but this is relaly justa cop out. Hell, if Muslim Jihadists kill peopel XHristains are held repsoncible ebcause thye too beleiv ein a god yet somehow “Ahtiesm is just a lak of belefi in a god” excuses all the murder hwislt we promote ahtiest thinkers who we say make the world a better place. its really hypocritical.

    I’m sorry but I’d much rather read the Bible and fidn in it wisdom than read Dawkisn blidn and irraitonal hatred, and I won’t start to “Think for myself’ by parroting his ideas or those of he New Atheism, and prefer to be called a sheep or slave and be told by people liek you that I dont think for myself. After all, I arrived at my conclusiosn on my own, so why shoudl I abandon them base don what an angry mob says?

    • Anyone who wants to kill you because your thoughts differ from theirs is evil. Theist or atheist makes no difference in that respect. As for a parrot maybe you need to read more of my blogs. Thinking for yourself is developing the faculties to reason for yourself, recognize rationality, analyze evidence and where possible check your arguments (and typing – which I can be guilty of as iPhone does not spell check).

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