Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dawkins and Bad Pedagogy

Note: there is a nasty controversy about this post over on Richard Dawkins' website. Indeed, Dawkins himself has taken offense and demanded an apology. I certainly regret the tone of this post and, on reflection, I don't think I have enough evidence to claim Dawkins was promoting atheism. I have therefore withdraw part of my criticism and apologized twice.

I linked to a documentary called "The Genius of Charles Darwin" a while ago, but embedded below (or click here) is the real deal: the first installment of Richard Dawkins' new 3-part series on Darwin. I'm linking to it for two reasons: because I think it's worth watching but also because I think Dawkins is guilty of just horrendous bad pedagogy in the documentary and I want to talk a bit about that.

Let me start with a few caveats: I really like Dawkins - he has inspired me, and I think he's had a tremendous positive impact. Also, I am a fairly "hardcore" atheist not a 'Neville Chamberlain atheist'. And, obviously, I think nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Nevertheless, I don't think there is any logical incompatibility between theism and evolution, that is, I deny (part of) the conflict thesis and think theistic evolution may be extremely unparsimonious, but it is not logically contradictory. Moreover, I take it as a given that there is a difference between pedagogy and polemics and that the latter should largely be kept out of the former. I take it for granted, in other words, that instructors ought in general not to evangelize for a particular point of view or ignore alternatives when there is no consensus among the relevant experts. Consequently, given the huge body of evidence and the consensus among the experts, teachers and lecturers are perfectly entitled to advocate the truth of evolution by natural selection and to dismiss or ignore alternatives. (I have been known to say things like 'anti-Darwinists are dumb and not worth taking seriously' in lectures). It is not cricket, however, to ignore alternatives and advocate a particular point of view about controversial issues like the relationship between theism and evolution.

Dawkins, I think, falls egregiously afoul of the last principle in this documentary. In one sequence, he goes to a school to teach a group 16 year-olds about evolution. Unsurprisingly, religion soon rears it head; several of the students, it turns out, are religious and they reject evolution for that reason. And what does Dawkins do? He tries to persuade them to become atheists! Now, I have nothing against evangelizing for atheism (I do it myself sometimes) but doing so (1) does not belong in the science classroom and (2) interferes with teaching evolution properly. Moreover, Dawkins' approach criminally neglects the duty of a teacher to present all sides of an argument when there is no consensus among the relevant experts. Crudely speaking, there are at least four possible positions one can take on the relationship between religion and evolution: religious compatibilism (e.g. Ken Miller, Pope John Paul II), atheistic compatibilism (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Novella), religious incompatibilism (e.g. Ken Ham, Henry Morris) and atheistic incompatibilism (e.g. Dawkins, PZ Myers). It is obvious that a teacher should at a minimum mention these four points of view and their respective proponents. Unless the scenes were not included in the documentary, Dawkins takes the atheistic incompatibilism point of view for granted and never even mentions the alternatives to his students. This is not only bad pedagogy, it is dumb from a tactical point of view twice over: if the aim is to convince students of the truth of evolution, removing impediments (like worrying they have to give up religion) is obviously a good idea. If the aim is to spread atheism, surely it is much easier to 'convert' someone who accepts science already than it is to convert someone who rejects science? Surely it is easier on average to convert a religious compatiblist who is knowledgeable about evolution than it is to convert an ignorant religious incompatibalist like a young earth creationist? (One issue here is that one does not want to be dishonest: lying to students about evolution's impact on religion would certainly be morally dubious. An incompatibilist can nevertheless go part of the way to allaying students' fears by mentioning millions of scientists and hundreds of millions of religious people do not think evolution undermines their faith. They can acknowledge, in other words, that their view is not the only one and that they might be wrong).

At one point in the documentary I wanted to scream at Dawkins to wake up - one student actually said he (I think it was a he) was afraid to learn more about evolution because he didn't want to give up his religion. By clinging dogmatically to atheistic incompatibilism, Dawkins failed this student, failed as a teacher, failed as an advocate of evolution and arguably even failed as an advocate of atheism.


  1. Excellent! While I think evolution and conventional theism (i.e. the monotheisms, etc) don't mesh well together, in science class, you teach science, and leave the theological implications for the students to figure out themselves if they feel so inclined.
    A much more honest way of dealing with this stuff.

  2. This didn't happen, but perhaps it should have.

  3. I'd love to know which part of the school section made you think that Dawkins was promoting atheism. Having watched the programme twice I clearly remember him encouraging the children to think for themselves and offering strong evidence for evolution. But as far as I can remember, he was scrupulous in _not_ pushing atheism on them.

  4. I don't see how asking people to reflect on their beliefs, or consider evolution is in any way the same as proselytising atheism. I think you've got this one wrong. Man up and apologise methinks.

  5. It's nice to see that you corrected your blatant lie once Dawkins called you on it.

  6. I have taken back part of my argument and apologized to Dawkins: http://richarddawkins.net/articleComments,3018,Why-Dawkins-is-right-and-his-critics-are-wrong,National-Secular-Society-Newsline,page2#235185

  7. Lying implies intent. An honest mistake is not a lie.

  8. A television programme bears only a tenuous relationship to the events the camera was taken to. What ends up on the cutting-room floor can be very arbitrary, as insignificant as an unnoticed cough that obscures a key word, making a whole passage unusable, not to mention the whims of the editor, which may differ from the intent of the originator.

    So don't assume that what you see is all that happened.

  9. Shuggy: I realize that, but thanks. I even say explicitly:

    "Unless the scenes were not included in the documentary..."

  10. For what it's worth, I think this has been blown out of proportion. Your degree of criticism was perhaps a bit strong, but those replying seem to lack an understanding of the principle of charity. Certainly your original claim is about a subjective impression - always somewhat hazy - which you admit in this instance was over-reaching.

    The inability of those on the RD forums, however, to treat your philosophical concerns with rational, reasonable consideration, or accept that you may have a point (in "2", assuming scenes included etc. etc. etc) smacks of the kind of dogmaticism that I assume all would profess to be vehemently against.

    All in all, despite my belief that you were mistaken in your initial claim - I think the greater disservice has been perpetuated by *your* critics.

  11. Thanks for the support Jeff, I appreciate it.

    I'm honestly not upset that a bunch of people on the internet called me names. I don't feed trolls, not even "my side"'s trolls... The only thing I was bleak about was insulting Dawkins. I never thought he'd read my blog post!

  12. The logic used in article seems faulty. There are in fact only 2 possible possible positions 'on the relationship between religion and evolution'. Either the two are compatible or they're not.

    If we supplement these with whether we believe evolution and the existence of god to be true we get:

    1) Compatible: evolution true, god exists
    2) Compatible: evolution true, no god
    3) Compatible: evolution false, god exists
    4) Compatible: evolution false, no god
    5) Incompatible: evolution true, no god
    6) Incompatible: evolution false, god exists
    7) Incompatible: evolution false, no god

    So there are 7 combinations rather than 4 suggested in the article. Surely its bad pedagogy not to resolve this simple logic problem?

    Of course not all 7 deserve equal weight but neither do the 4 presented in the article.

  13. Fossils may provide evidence that man and monkey are cousins but they are silent on the question of whether God or an intelligent teapot seeded the universe with life.

    All Dawkins can do is point out the views that are incompatible with the evidence. But is it really the duty of a science teacher to 'present all sides of an argument' even if that includes (an unlimited number of) unscientific hypotheses for which there is no evidence?

  14. You're corrected article is getting there, but you're still missing the point. Dawkins is trying to teach them about evolution. Some don;t accept it because of their religion. He never challenges there religion IN ANY WAY, AT ANY POINT. He only ever challenges there willingness to accept evolution. Some have already rejected evolutionary theory because of their religious upbringing. All Dawkins does is show them evidence. They are asked whether they now accept the facts of evolution. Some do. Some don't. Some are unsure. Some still prefer the "evidence" they have been brought up with.

  15. spiderdancer:

    Please note the "crudely speaking" with which I begin the relevant sentence.

  16. Bravo to you for showing humility and your willingness to make changes when shown evidence to the contrary. Well done.

    I think I will be reading your blog more often!

  17. Hi Jeffrey - thanks! (It wasn't easy or a nice thing to do, I can tell you that). And thanks once more for reading my blog in the future - I hope not to disappoint! :-)

  18. I can see what you were getting at originally Michael.
    Although Dawkins himself may not have been pushing the conclusion of atheism on the kids the tone of the show seemed to lean that way quite heavily by setting up that opposition right from the start.

    Also, when the kids are talking about their reasons for belief he does ask some questions like "is that a good reason for believing something" with the implied answer "no - it's not".

    It's all very muddled (what gets said, intention, editing etc)but I don't think it's entirely true to say (as some have claimed against in opposition to you) that Dawkins didnt engage directly with the kids' religious beliefs. I'm quite sympathetic to the point of your original article

  19. Thanks for the comment Aidan.

    I agree with Dawkins et. al. that it's appropriate to challenge students' religious beliefs that directly contradict science. That is, it is appropriate to challenge - give reasons against - Biblical fundamentalism.

    I think it highly inappropriate, however, to push atheism, i.e., argue against religious beliefs even when they do not specifically contradict science. (Or religious claims that do not come up in a particular science lesson). The question then becomes whether Dawkins was guilty of doing the latter, or whether he was simply doing the former.

    My gut reaction was that he was pushing atheism - but I'm no longer sure that was what was happening.

  20. The show was about Darwin. Dawkins was at the school to promote evolution by natural selection. Your pre-conceived notions of Dawkins as a renowned atheist had you ASSUME he was there to convert all the children to atheism. If you watch the show, nothing of the sort happens. He is merely there to impress upon them that evolution is scientific FACT, regardless of what religion they have been brought up with.

    Another case of how the mind can powerfully misconstrue what is seen and heard, by a preconceived idea.

    If science has taught us anything it is that our brains are vulnerable to misinterpretation. Please be more responsible for your own flawed perceptions in future before lambasting a hard-working educator like Dawkins.

  21. Thanks for the comment, Roveberg.

    Yes, I think my preconceptions about Dawkins - which, by the way, were positive - did play a role in my original interpretation. That said, I don't think the evidence in the documentary is inconsistent with the hypothesis that he was promoting atheism, it's just that it's not the most parsimonious explanation and the principle of charity requires assuming he was acting in a proper way.

    For what it's worth, I've adopted a "sleep on it first" policy for posts that criticize people harshly. Hopefully that will go some way towards minimizing the expression of my biases.

  22. Boo! You shouldn't have apologize. You should have told Dawkins to suck it. That man is annoying, and he does practice bad pedagogy. Simply teaching for years do not make one a good teacher.