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My Beef spacer Issue 11
My Beef - Richard Dawkins
by Michael Reinsborough
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As one of the Queens festival events I went to the Elmwood Hall to see Richard Dawkins, once a research biologist, now a well known popular science writer, most famous for his somewhat imaginative 1976 book The Selfish Gene, advocating what is known as ultra-darwinism, the idea that natural selection in the evolution of a species, human or otherwise, occurs at the level of the individual gene. This perspective has certainly been disputed, most notably by Stephen J Gould (a biologist and popular science writer) who emphasizes the effect of cross species cooperation upon the evolution and development of earth life. Although this is possibly something to have a beef with, let's leave it aside. The debates are well documented and I have a more subtle concern.
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Mr. Dawkins and his wife (the lovely Lalla Ward, an actress best known for her role as the sidekick "Romana" in the 1970's TV episodes of Dr. Who) presented readings from Mr. Dawkins recent book, The Devil's Chaplain.
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At one point Mr. Dawkins describes his encounter with religious fundamentalists during a TV debate on cloning. In his populist approach of decrying irrational religious people the whole issue of the cloning slipped under the rug. Cloning is not popular. There is widespread public concern about scientific adventurism with the human genome (the supposed code of life).
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Imagine turning on the TV and irrational and barbarous religious zealots are debating enlightened scientific research. But what is presented as "scientific" research, we might just as easily describe as commercial research. Academic studies of research grant proposals by contemporary scientists have shown that funding is secured by demonstrating likely commercial applications for the research. Scientific research is being paid for and organized by private profit-making interests. Although this corporate shaping of science is a disturbing trend this also isn't quite my beef.
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In as unbeefy a way as possible let me make clear just what my beef with Richard Dawkins is. I am concerned that Mr. Dawkins is more of a science propagandist than a science educator.
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A critical understanding of science means active interpretation of scientific results. Science does not produce perfect answers. The answers we get are based on the questions we ask. Understanding science means understanding uncertainty. Uncertainty is a fact of life and it's not going away. Blind faith in science is no improvement upon blind faith in religion.
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In an increasingly complex society we do need the best answers we can find. Genuine scientific research is one possible tool among many. But how does the public relate to science? Says Peter Bowler, Queens University Professor of the History of Science, "When people do trust science they expect too much of it, but when it lets them down they turn completely the other way." As the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University Mr. Dawkins is doing science a dubious favour by extolling its virtues, raising expectations, but never explaining what could go wrong.
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My Beef - Richard Dawkins
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