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The Blind Calumniator, Richard Dawkins

There is a specific fallacy or mistake in reasoning that enjoys rather wide currency. The ad verecundiam fallacy consists in attributing authority to someone in a role which is related in some fashion to a certain question or controversy, but which actually isn't authoritative for the matter at hand. For example, to lend exceptional weight to a doctor's views on the desirability of socialized medicine, or to a policeman's opinions on the justice of legalizing recreational drugs misunderstands the peculiar expertise of the putative "authority" (in these examples, the assumed experts indeed might offer privileged data of relevance to deliberation, but don't inherently possess an expertise to settle the issue).

Admittedly some cases are genuinely ambiguous, bespeaking a difficulty in determining if the testimony of a person in a given role/function ought to be favored over a more prosaic interlocutor. What then of the case of scientists who stand on the platform of their deserved professional eminence to "weigh in" on moral-political matters? Does expertise in the empirico-metrico methodology of the hard sciences bespeak an endowment of more general - let's say, "humane" - insight?

I wonder whether - aside from the hardly insignificant fact that we live in a "technological" age, thanks no doubt to painstaking (even heroic) efforts of scientists - some of the etymological flavor of the word "science" (the Latin scientia connotes comprehensive wisdom, seeing into things) still unconsciously colors our associations with its practitioners (e.g., Einstein is felt so vividly to be the quintessence of Intelligence that we honor him by calling those who seem to be genii in their own right "Einsteins"). And, in ages past, when the activity of "science" meant something rather different than it does today, it wasn't really a stretch to consider a "scientist" to be - on the age's own terms - a genuninely wise individual.

These days, a fair paraphrase of what seems to be felt about scientists might be put thus: " Since there is no special societal role or function that entails expertise in morality or politics, everyone potentially may offer their views. However, it's not a stretch to believe that the generally most intelligent people - those of a scientific/mathematical bent - will have moral-political opinions worth taking especially seriously."

A counter-example is furnished by the celebrated writer on the biological sciences, Richard Dawkins (author of, amongst other works, River out of Eden and Unweaving the Rainbow) who in my view has besmirched his reputation owing to a series of articles and letters-to-the-editor in the English Press, concerning the war with Iraq, and more generally the presidency of George W. Bush. What to me is surprising and blameworthy is by no means the fact that he holds views which I believe to be mistaken - the history of philosophy and science shows nothing if not that great minds can be greatly in error - but rather that Dawkins' polemics are so poorly constructed and shoddily argued. For anyone who had thought or hoped that the judicious consideration of evidence and sensitivity to countervailing considerations which are essential to the scientific method would translate into a similar conscientiousness in addressing political matters, Dawkins isn't your man. (I acknowledge that polemics are rightly measured according to a different benchmark than, say, scholarly essays, but a respectable polemic ought to meet certain minimum standards of rigor).

Hence below I will offer an interpolated commentary on a characteristic Dawkinsian Diatribe, published last spring in the UK Guardian. In the course of the piece, Dawkins repeatedly abuses language, erects straw men in place of his opponents, and generally avoids any truck with the serious arguments for the opposing view. Even if, qua scientist, Dawkins speaks with no particular authority, this is quite surprising in a man of undeniable intelligence and erudition.

A political system that delivers this disastrous mistake needs reform

Richard Dawkins
Saturday March 22, 2003
The Guardian

Osama bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, could hardly have hoped for this. A mere 18 months after he boosted the US to a peak of worldwide sympathy unprecedented since Pearl Harbor, that international goodwill has been squandered to near zero.
[ Prescinding from the question of "squandering" good will vs. predictably having lost a fickle and fleeting sympathy (thanks to re-emergent, long-standing antagonisms) ... as lamentable as the United States' quasi-pariah status is, isn't the U.S. powerful enough to act without the sanction or good will of most nations of the world? If the war in/for Iraq showed American resolve in the face of strong international resistance, how does that redound to Al Qaeda's favor? ]

Bin Laden must be beside himself with glee. And the infidels are now walking right into the Iraq trap.
[ "Trap" connotes a contrivance for luring another to his capture or demise. Are we to believe that this all was part of a master-plan of OBL? Or Saddam Hussein? Surely not both in concert, right?! Wouldn't something like "quick sand" have been the apt term? ]

There was always a risk for Bin Laden that worldwide sympathy for the US might thwart his long-term aim of holy war against the Great Satan. He needn't have worried. With the Bush junta at the helm, a camel could have foreseen the outcome.
[ This is from the Gore Vidal school of "analysis"; since the benighted Dubya, Cheney, Condi, Rumsfeld -- and even ex-General Powell -- are civilians, and civilian control of the military is a hallmark of the United States and Western Nations generally, who comprises the "junta"? General Richard Myers and his colleagues?! Does Dawkins recall that the Congress Authorized the President to take action against Saddam Hussein, or does he believe that the U.S. is domestically under the grip of martial law? ]

And the beauty is that it doesn't matter what happens in the war.

Imagine how it looks from Bin Laden's warped point of view...

If the American victory is swift, Bush will have done our work for us, removing the hated Saddam and opening the way for a decent Islamist government. Even better, in 2004 Bush may actually win an election. Who can guess what that swaggering, strutting little pouter-pigeon will then get up to, and what resentments he will arouse, when he finally has something to swagger about? We shall have so many martyrs volunteering, we shall run out of targets. And a slow and bloody American victory would be better still.
[ Why is OBL's "point of view" a privileged one? After all, we've just been told that it's "warped." Presumably Dawkins thinks that old Osama is on to something here: we're arousing "resentment," thus refilling the terrorist ranks ad infinitum. But if a course of action is just and necessary, arousing resentment and inspiring imitators is beside the point; would that have been any argument against the U.S. responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor? Hence, if both a just war and an unjust war can equally arouse resentment (or are the massses so rational that only truly unjust actions arouse their ire?!), then resentment cannot be the quality in light of which the unjust wars and just ones are to be distinguished: that which is common to two things cannot explain what is different about one of them. For students of logic, note that this is the "fallacy of accident. "

Futhermore Dawkins hasn't addressed the possibility for which many of us hold out hope: some kind of representative, stable, "free," and prosperous polity in Iraq. (or did he obliquely allude to it, as nearly beneath mentioning, with "a slow and bloody American victory"?). This goal may be a pipe-dream, but in an article that seemingly aims to denigrate nearly everything about current U.S. policy, the omission of considering this broadly-touted aim amounts to putting it beyond the pale of discussion. Simply to assume it's beyond the pale, however, is to beg a crucial question. And, anyhow, wouldn't that outcome stick in bin Laden's craw? Could that be a clue to Dawkin's ommission? ]

The claim that this war is about weapons of mass destruction is either dishonest or betrays a lack of foresight verging on negligence. If war is so vitally necessary now, was it not at least worth mentioning in the election campaigns of 2000 and 2001? Why didn't Bush and Blair mention the war to their respective electorates? The only major leader who has an electoral mandate for his war policy is Gerhard Schröder - and he is against it. Why did Bush, with Blair trotting faithfully to heel, suddenly start threatening to invade Iraq when he did, and not before? The answer is embarrassingly simple, and they don't even seem ashamed of it. Illogical, even childish, though it is, everything changed on September 11 2001.

Whatever anyone may say about weapons of mass destruction, or about Saddam's savage brutality to his own people, the reason Bush can now get away with his war is that a sufficient number of Americans, including, apparently, Bush himself, see it as revenge for 9/11.
[ This sets up a straw man for the perceived "connection" between Iraq and 9.11, and in so doing grossly assumes facts not in evidence. Since the administration has made a fairly systematic case for the war, and "revenge for 9/11" wasn't mentioned once by Bush or by any administration spokesperson, hadn't Dawkins better adduce some kind of evidence for such a brazen claim?

Again, too, we may advert to Congressional authorization for war as a not insignificant factor in why Bush "can now get away with war." Are we to take Dawkins to mean that a majority in the Congress is similarly deluded in simply seeking vengeance for the Sept. 11 attacks?

And what of the wider context for American-Iraqi relations throughout the '90's?! As I have done before, one might mention the view President Clinton articulated in 1998, that confrontation with Iraq was almost inevitable at some point in the future; as well as the Iraqi Liberation Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998.

Furthermore, even if we grant that a thirst for "vengeance," allegedly animating the public, is the reason that the administration can "get away with" the war (viz., that renders it practicable, politically), that doesn't mean that there aren't other legitimate considerations which ultimately justify the action (such as WMD, wider strategic aims, etc.). To suppose otherwise is to conflate/confuse psychology and rhetoric with justification, and as such commits a fallacy of relevance. ]

This is worse than bizarre. It is pure racism and/or religious prejudice. Nobody has made even a faintly plausible case that Iraq had anything to do with the atrocity.
[ illogic: If a person, wrongly (ex hypothesi), maintained a connection between Iraq and 9.11, there are numerous possibilities as to why he might; to claim that racism or religious prejudice are the most likely, let alone only, reasons for such a belief is ludicrous. ]

It was Arabs that hit the World Trade Centre, right? So let's go and kick Arab ass. Those 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, right? And Eye-raqis are Muslims, right?
[ This sinks to a new low: One presumes Dawkins means that only the hicks in the heartland or Bible-Belt supported the war? Do such supposed ignoramuses solely comprise the 65+% of the population that supported the action on the eve of its commencement and into the period of "major combat"? Shall we add, as fellow-travellers of the the redneck warmongers, Vaclav Havel and Nobel Prize winner in literature Imre Kertesz, as well as noted American cretin/Bible-thumper Christopher Hitchens?! ]

That does it. We're gonna go in there and show them some hardware. Shock and awe? You bet.
[ The language here is disturbingly loose and inflammatory; who's the "them"? The Iraqi population? Strange indeed that such care was taken to avoid non-combatant casualties and damage (human and infrastructural]. And how can one square the alleged destructive character of Dawkins' gloss on "shock and awe" with the $87 Billion price tag, a sizable portion of which is for reconstruction?! Note that the reconstruction isn't primarily for damage wrought during the war, but rather for destruction done by Saddam Hussein ]

Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil, St Michael's angels against the forces of Lucifer. We're gonna smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all and let God deal with their souls.
[ President Bush indeed has often spoken in terms of "good and evil"; yet he's just as often connected that moral sense to his sworn duty to protect the nation, which - thankfully - he seems to view explicitly through a moral lens. Why does Dawkins omit to consider Bush's role as "chief Executive"? ]

Minds doped up on this kind of cod theology have a hard time distinguishing between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Some of Bush's faithful supporters even welcome war as the necessary prelude to the final showdown between Good and Evil: Armageddon followed by the Rapture.
[ No doubt, somewhere, "some" do (NB: "some" equals x > 0). Is perhaps Dawkins trying rhetorically to smear the character and intentions of those who are not so blinkered by modernity as to know "evil" when they see it, and view OBL and Saddam Hussein as variations on a theme? ]

We must presume, or at least hope, that Bush himself is not quite of that bonkers persuasion.
[ IF "we" are presuming it, why just mention those, ex hypothesi, who are amongst the worst of Bush's "faithful supporters"? This tepid disavowal is dishonest, because the mention of the zealots was clearly intended rhetorically to show those to whom Bush is "really" appealing, as if Bush and they are cut from the same cloth ]

But he really does seem to believe he is wrestling, on God's behalf, against some sort of spirit of Evil.
[ Is "evil" here a quality of character/agency, or is it personified in order to denigrate whomever believes that some actions and persons really are baleful (i.e., explicitly mean to do harm, and revel in it), and hence must be met by force? And on what occasions has Bush alluded to the tenets of revealed religion as providing his sole, or even dominant, imprimatur for the "war on terror"? I.e., where's the evidence? ]

Tony Blair is, of course, far more intelligent and able than Bush.
But his unshakable conviction that he is right and almost everybody else wrong does have a certain theological feel.
[ Hmmm ... like Copernicus?! This is cliche at it worst. It's evident that truth
isn't a function of counting raised hands. And, in any event, how is "almost everybody else" to be reckoned? Woe unto the atheistic Dawkins that, globally, "almost everybody else" believes in God! Does he mean "almost everybody else" in one's own country, in a region with some kind of cultural continuity (e.g., Europe), or what?! ]

He was indignant at Paxman's wickedly funny suggestion that he and Dubya pray together, but does he also believe in Evil?

Like sin and like terror (Bush's favourite target before the Iraq distraction), Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do.
[ Dawkins goes "metaphysical"; alas, this is high-school nominalism: "evil" is merely a name that we give to the "collection" of "nasty" things. But what, pray tell, is "nastiness"? Is it an entity, a spirit, a force to be resisted and conquered?! (More on this below). Presumably it's perforce some "thing," or Dawkins is indulging in gobbledygook to even mention it. But if it is something determinate - say, a quality of (some) people and/or their actions - then adverting to it is simply euphemistic: "No, I don't believe in 'evil', but sure there are some nasty folk about." This betrays the common illogic of those who style themselves as too sophisticated to speak of good/evil, and so covertly invent alternative terms to have their cake and eat it too ]

There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn't help: they will be replaced.
[ Ridiculous as a generalization; he clearly is talking about a very narrow group of "nasty" people (Islamists and their diehard sympathizers). Again, this factor isn't telling on its own, in judging current policy as just/wise or unjust/ignorant, and is open to objection in any event: it all depends on exactly how (say, in an agressive and fear-provoking manner), how rapidly, and whom amongst the "nasty" (e.g., leaders) are killed, as well as a host of other existential factors which Dawkins fails to entertain ]

We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top.
[ So, not "evil," but indeed "nastiness" is a "force to be resisted and conquered"! And the pivot is rather clumsy: the real enemies are the "nasty" amongst us,especially those whom our "institutions, our constitutions [and] our electoral systems" throw up. Who could he have in mind here? ]

In the case of Saddam Hussein, we in the west must bear some guilt. The US, Britain and France have all, from time to time, done our bit to shore up Saddam, and even arm him. And we democracies might look to our own vaunted institutions.

Are they well designed to ensure that we don't make disastrous mistakes when we choose our own leaders?
Isn't it, indeed, just such a mistake that has led us to this terrible pass?

[ What is "this terrible pass"? The presidency of George Bush? The war in Iraq? Given the one, was the other inevitable, as if according to some mechanical causation? (Especially since, as has been widely noted, Bush came into office with the "nasty" reputation, internationally, of being an "isolationist") ]

The population of the US is nearly 300 million, including many of the best educated, most talented, most resourceful, humane people on earth. By almost any measure of civilised attainment, from Nobel prize-counts on down, the US leads the world by miles. You would think that a country with such resources, and such a field of talent, would be able to elect a leader of the highest quality. Yet, what has happened? At the end of all the primaries and party caucuses, the speeches and the televised debates, after a year or more of non-stop electioneering bustle, who, out of that entire population of 300 million, emerges at the top of the heap? George Bush.
[ Is it really that puzzling? Might this have something to do with the fact that, in such a large country, with quite wide cultural divisions, and granted the exigencies of the two-party system - and the rarity of true statesmen in any event - most officeholders will have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and/or embody various weaknesses and contradictions? ]

My American friends, you know I love your country, how have we come to this? Yes, yes, Bush isn't quite as stupid as he sounds, and heaven knows he can't be as stupid as he looks.
[ A generous concession! ]

I know most of you didn't vote for him anyway, but that is my point.
[ I didn't vote for him, and wasn't happy to see him elected. However I've come to respect him in many ways, find him personally likable, and, relatively speaking (compared to the other contenders from 2000) I am "glad" he's president. ]

Forgive my presumption, but could it just be that there is something a teeny bit wrong with that famous constitution of yours? Of course this particular election was unusual in being a dead heat. Elections don't usually need a tie-breaker, something equivalent to the toss of a coin. Al Gore's majority in the country, reinforcing his majority in the electoral college but for dead-heated Florida, would have led a just and unbiased supreme court to award him the tie-breaker. So yes, Bush came to power by a kind of coup d'état. But it was a constitutional coup d'état.
[Incoherent: this "analysis" is akin to speaking of a "consensual rape". Was it constitutional, or was it extra-constitutional? If the latter, then ex definitione it wasn't "constitutional"; if the former, then why would a "just and unbiased supreme court" - whose duty it is to decide in accords with the constitution - have reached a decision other than the "constitutional" one?! ]

The system has been asking for trouble for years.

Is it really a good idea that a single person's vote, buried deep within the margin of error for a whole state, can by itself swing a full 25 votes in the electoral college, one way or the other?
[ Conflates use and abuse within a system (again, fallacy of accident), and in any event fails to address the complexities and variegation of the electoral mechanisms in the U.S. ]

And is it really sensible that money should translate itself so directly and proportionately into electoral success, so that a winning candidate must either be very rich or prepared to sell favours to those who are?
When a company seeks a new chief executive officer, or a university a new vice-chancellor, enormous trouble is taken to find the best person. Professional headhunting firms are engaged, written references are taken up, exhaustive rounds of interviews are conducted, psychological aptitude tests are administered, confidential positive vetting undertaken. Mistakes are still made, but it is not for want of strenuous efforts to avoid them. Maybe such methods would be undemocratic for choosing the most powerful person on earth, but just think about it. Would you do business with a company that devoted an
entire year to little else than the process of choosing its new CEO, from the strongest field in the world, and ended up with Bush?
[Sure, in a world where the alternatives are Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, and Koffi Anan; we mostly have to choose between bad and worse. Secondly, the entire "thought experiment" is vitiated by the sentence, "maybe such methods would be undemocratic for choosing the most powerful person on earth ..." ]

Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for Iraq, but he never posed a threat outside his immediate neighbourhood. George

Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden.
[ This finale encapsulates much of the sophistry of the preceding article.

Give ear! - Dawkins pronounces ex cathedra that Iraq "never posed a threat outside his immediate neighborhood" - ergo, by fiat, it must be true. Even granting this, since the United States had sacrificed blood and treasure to "contain" Saddam for 12 years, by keeping a sizable presence "in the immediate neighborhood," did not this nation therefore have especial reason to take whatever threats Iraq might pose rather seriously?

Calling Bush a "catastrophe," paradoxically enough, has transmuted Dawkin's discourse, which had settled itself into the quotidian category of the "nasty," back into a more traditional concern about, what -- evil? Would a more honest Dawkins really shrink from describing George W. Bush as baleful?

In any event, Dawkins final salvo signally fails to distinguish between capacities and intentions, and so amounts to a kind of fallacious equivocation (over the term "danger").

Speaking loosely - i.e., prescinding from what is possible politically on the home front (not least of which, what is circumscribed by the constitution, and the limiting and conditioning factors of other brances of govt.) - Bush commands a mighty military and arsenal ("his" capacity for harm is enormous). But it is a grave mistake to fail to distinguish between the intentions of a despot whose modus operandi entailed rapine, massive political violence , and attempted wars of conquest (declared as such), and another's whose tack, as the elected leader of a constitutional republic, aims to serve the national interest (whether well or ill) in an unprecendented epoch.

I have read that Dawkins is an admirer of Robert Fisk. This representative article shows that, sadly, the master has taught him well - not an edifying modus intellectus in the "professor of the public understanding of science" at Oxford ]

December 8, 2003 | Permalink


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Havent got time to go through this bit by bit (but I will find time at a later date). But some of your criticisms are rather funny I thought, partly because they try to be more intelligent than they are. Your point about the fallacy of arguement issues a cry about basic 'logic', which you hilariously, do not apply yourself. While you little description about the 'fallacy of argument was very illuminating, it is directly not applicable in this case. Japan attacked the USA.....no-one disagrees that it is the USA's right to attack back regardless (Justly). The USA moves in on Iraq......despite not being attacked by Iraq or anyone from it.......unjustly. The argument is not that the USA should not be attacking Iraq for fear of provoking resentment etc etc. The argument was that there was simply no reason to invade Iraq......it was unjust. The fallacy of argument has no place in this discussion because the issue about resentment is a secondary point or a secondary gain if you like.

As I said trying to be overtky philospohical looks wonderful on paper but very often the rather simple logic about applying arguments that are actually relevant to your point would apply better to you.

Posted by: Joe at Jan 10, 2008 5:49:13 PM