Day 6

Richard Dawkins on his new memoir, "Brief Candle In The Dark."

Dawkins talks about his new memoir, and the negative response to recent social media comments.
Richard Dawkins (Photo by Don Arnold) (Getty Images)

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene" and "The God Delusion", returns to Day 6 to discuss his new memoir "Brief Candle In The Dark", and the recent backlash to his social media presence. Listen here to Richard Dawkins when he last appeared on Day 6 in 2012 to discuss his children's book, "The Magic of Reality."

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: I want to talk about a chapter called "Debates and Encounters" because your debates
are very well known, some would say legendary. You say that you now refuse to take part in
formal debates with creationists. You talk about something called "the two chairs effect". What do you mean
by that? 

Richard Dawkins: I'm happy to have a conversation with a creationist in public. But the "two chairs effect"  means if you set up on a stage with two chairs and a formal debate procedure - ten minutes for the proposition, ten minutes for the opposition, two minutes to rebut, two minutes to rebut and so on - it gives the false impression to the audience that the is something to debate. There really isn't. It is not an equal contest. Science has all the evidence and the creationist is actually only spouting ignorance. And so it is not a good format because it gives this false impression.
BB: You write about an experience with the evangelist Ted Haggard in the book. You crossed paths before he was caught up in a sex scandal. Can you tell me what happened when you interviewed Ted Haggard?

RD: This was for television, for Channel 4 in Britain, so it wasn't a debate. I was interviewing him and we got on fine until we got on to the subject of evolution. He seemed to take exception to evolution and accused me of of corrupting his children or something like that. I'm not quite clear what that meant. After the event was over, I was with the cameramen packing up the equipment when a pickup truck sort of rolled to a halt just short of hitting us. And it was Ted Haggard in his truck, and he was absolutely furious. I suspect that he'd probably gone after the interview and googled my name and discovered something about me. He was very annoyed about it. 

BB: I want to read another quote from the book. You say, "I hope I never stoop to gratuitous personal insults, but I do think humorous or satirical ridicule can be an effective weapon." Some people see your tone as being harsh or sharp. Do you think people misread it?

RD: Yes I do. I love humour. I mean the book "Brief Candle In The Dark" is full of humour, there's lots and lots of jokes and funny stories. Most of them are actually affectionate, funny stories about people that I've met. There is a certain amount of satirical humour, ridicule even, but it's good humoured ridicule it's you it's. It's ridicule with a laugh. There's no vitriol there.

BB: There's still challenging ideas though, Professor. You write in the book that Jews have won twenty percent of all Nobel Prizes despite constituting less than one percent of the world's population and very few Muslims have won Nobels. And you say the comparison is revealing. What does it reveal to you?

RD: I don't know what it reveals to me. I think it's a very, very interesting point. The statistics are quite staggering, the difference is quite staggering. By the way, I didn't go out of my way to talk about this. This was because it came up in Twitter and it was an example of the of the way one can be misunderstood. What is it due to? Well, I don't think it's due to the religion per se, I think is due to the culture. It's due to the something about Jewish culture which fosters intellectual endeavour. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that many Islamic countries have been colonized by Western powers. That's a possibility. 

BB: But if Jewish culture fosters intellectual thought, then couldn't that be used as a pro-religion argument? It's looks like Judaism produces a lot of first-class minds. It sounds like you're defeating your own anti-religious argument there?
Well, yes. I mean if it were true that the Jewish religion fostered intellectual brilliance that would, of course, be interesting but it wouldn't in any way show that the truth of the Jewish religion. Not the truth of the Jewish religion. It would simply show something else, perhaps about Jewish culture. But as a matter of fact, I would bet - and numerous people confirm this to me - that those people who subscribe to Judaism, who call themselves Jews, who self-identify as Jews, are actually atheists. A Nobel Prize winning scientist who identifies as a Jew - ask him what he really believes, and chances are he will be an atheist.

BB: But another way to interpret that fact is that you say that you're critical of all religions, but in that case it looks like you're bashing Islam. How do you respond to that?

RD: I will bash any religion which - not that I do in the book, by the way - but I would bash any religion which demeans women. That includes Islam and Orthodox Judaism. I would bash any religion which kills apostates, and I only know of one religion that does that. I would bash any religion which whips people or lashes people, beheads people. If there is a theocracy which does that, then it's more worth bashing than a religion which does not do that.

BB: On the subject of debate, when you call people "idiots", or tell people things like, "go away and learn to think" online, as you did on Twitter, do you ever worry that it damages your impact as a scientist or as a thinker?

RD: "Go away and learn to think" is something that I might say. I would never say it in the book, by the way, which is a genial humorous book. Nothing to do with this. But on Twitter, I have said that. Out of exasperation with somebody who pontificates about something about which he knows absolutely nothing. And all he has to do is go away and read a book. 

BB: But do you feel that this can have an effect on the serious thought that you're presenting in books like "Brief Candle In The Dark" or the other writing that you're famous for?
RD: It possibly does, yes. I think it possibly does and maybe there are times when I should curb my exasperation. But when, for example, I accuse somebody of being ignorant, it's not really an accusation. It's just a statement of fact. Ignorance is no crime and a young earth creationist who believes the world is only six thousand years old is not necessarily stupid. But definitely he is ignorant. There's no question about that. That is a fact. 

BB: But you're a best-selling author. You're a well known thinker. Is there a power differential when you're attacking an anonymous person on Twitter for their public statements?

RD: I don't like to use the word attack. There may be a power differential. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in truth. I'm passionate about truth. If somebody is displaying ignorance, I simply tell them, "You're ignorant. Go away and read a book."

BB: Do you have any regrets about calling Ahmed Mohamed a "fraud" - the Texan boy who got in trouble for bringing a homemade clock to school?

RD: It wasn't a homemade clock. He took a screwdriver, opened a clock, took out the works of the clock, put them in a box, took them to school. What's the motive for that? Obviously, he's a hoax. He's only fourteen therefore maybe he should be pardoned for that. But it is simply a fact that he's a fraud. 

BB: So what's the hoax? Because it sounds here like there's a complete power differential between you and this fourteen-year-old boy...
RD: Look, what's this about power differential? This boy made a hoax. 

BB: What is the hoax?

RD: He didn't even make it. He took the works out of a clock. He didn't do anything to that clock. He took the works out of a clock, put them in a box, took them to school. What are people supposed to think if they if they see a lot of wires and things like that in a box?
BB: What do you think? If you're saying there's a fraudulent action here, I want to know what the fraud is. 

RD: He passed off this box full of the innards of a clock as his own invention. He called his own invention. He said he made it. He didn't make it. He's only fourteen and therefore should be pardoned for his hoax. But half of America was fooled by this and I am a lover of truth. This was a hoax. It was a hoax by a fourteen year old boy. Maybe there are plenty of good reasons why we should pardon a fourteen year old boy. Nevertheless, it was a hoax.

BB: But I think part of the reason why people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt was because of the way he was treated by authorities and the idea that perhaps he was treated differently because he's a Muslim kid bringing this contraption to school. What do you you make of that?

RD: That's very possible. I'm interested in truth. 

BB: Do you think that it's possible that he was mistreated?
RD: Oh yes. I said so. 

BB: The Guardian published a long profile of you in June under the headline, "Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?" Is that a question that gives you pause?
RD: Yes. The heading of that article by the way, as is so often the case with newspapers, wasvery misleading. The article itself was... it didn't really bear out that headline. But, by the way, none of this has anything to do with "Brief Candle In The Dark". I don't know why you're harping on it. 

BB: I enjoyed your book very much, Professor Dawkins, I'm trying to contrast it with the tone of your public persona. 

RD: OK, well, you've done that now.

BB: Professor Dawkins, the title of your book comes from Macbeth. 

RD: Yes.

BB: What is it about Shakespeare that speaks to you in the 21st Century?

RD: Shakespeare is so wonderful. It's half Shakespeare, half Carl Sagan. "Brief Candle" is from Macbeth. "Out, out, brief candle. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. ..." but the other half, "candle in the dark" comes from Carl Sagan. Science as a candle in the dark. Science is a beacon. Scientific truth. Science is not only useful, but it's also wonderful.