Saturday, 21 February 2015

Invidious comparisons

If you missed it, last Tuesday's Newsnight featured an interview by Evan Davis with Richard Dawkins.

Here's a transcription of part of it, which is very revealing about the thinking of both the interviewee and his BBC interviewer:
Evan Davis: But you choose to go onto Twitter. It's not a venue for scientific debate. You choose to go on Twitter. Just to take one example: a tweet in which you drew a very invidious comparison between the number of Nobel prizes won by people from Trinity College, Cambridge and the entire Muslim population of the world. Trinity College, Cambridge comes out on top of that comparison. Now, not disputing the factual basis of it, why make such an invidious comparison? Why raise that? Why raise the issue? What's the point of drawing attention to that? 
Richard Dawkins: It is a fact that in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages the Islamic World was a beacon of scientific progress and enlightenment, and something has gone wrong. I had dinner with the then chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, a few months ago and learned there the astonishing fact that between 20% and 25% of Nobel prizes have been won by Jews. And I thought that was a stunning fact. It really is, when you think that the total population of Jews in the world is tiny really when compared to any of the other major religions. So I wanted to make this point that Islam has stagnated in the scientific field since the Middle Ages and the best comparison to make would have been with Jews. And then I though, oh no, I can't do that because that will really upset people because of Palestine - and I'm very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people in Israel. So at the last minute I crossed out 'Jews' and stuck in 'Trinity College, Cambridge'.  
Evan Davis: But I can think of much more gentlemanly ways of making the intellectual point that Islam has not been a great scientific...
Richard Dawkins: It's just a fact. Whether or not it upsets people is less important to me than the dramatic nature of the fact, which ought to be looked at. Somebody ought to be saying, 'Why?'


  1. I defend Dawkins' right to make that telling point.

    Of course, it does become rather absurd once you start over-analysing. Jews have done incredibly well in terms of winning nobel prizes - but the vast majority of them received their educations in Euro-American institutions. I am not sure there is even one Jew of a Sephardic background who has won the Nobel Prize.

    I also dispute Dawkins' claim that:

    "It is a fact that in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages the Islamic World was a beacon of scientific progress and enlightenment"

    Most of the great "Islamic" figures from that period were Christians or Jews and most of the knowledge was derived directly from the Eastern Roman Empire through military conquest.

    We can perhaps credit the Islamic world for providing a Pax Romana-style peace within its area of control(but the same could have been said of its predecessors).

  2. Yes, it is a telling point and RD was right to make it. Evan's description of it as "very invidious" is very invidious.

    For someone who's so forthright most of the time, RD can sometimes entangle himself in political correctness - as per his 'beacon of scientific progress and enlightenment' sop and his self-confessed squeamishness about antagonising pro-Palestinian activists by saying something nice about Jews.

  3. Richard Dawkins comes under so much vitriolic and unfair criticism that it's hardly surprising that he is sometimes a little circumspect.
    It's bad enough being attacked by people who have no real understanding of evolution, without being drawn into debates on other issues.

  4. Although I am a fan of Dawkins in most ways, let's not forget that he was a left-wing radical in his younger days !