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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, January 01, 2007

Dawkins blogosphere kerfuffle

Over the past two days, the blogosphere has been in an uproar over the revelation that Richard Dawkins had signed an on-line petition that called for an end to religious indoctrination and classification of children in the UK. I've expressed that in a way designed to bring out the ambiguity - was the petition merely talking about reforms to the British school system (such as the abolition of religious instruction classes) or did it intend the criminalisation of all efforts by parents to teach their religious beliefs to their children?

Dawkins himself was contacted, saw the problem, clarified several points, including the fact that he'd not intended to support any coercive actions against parents, and withdrew his name from the petition. Since then, he has further clarified his position here at The Panda's Thumb, where you can find an excellent summary of the whole thing.

Considering the uncharitable interpretations being placed on his motives by some detractors, Dawkins has displayed remarkable grace and dignity, and has emerged reasonably well out of the whole kerfuffle. Indeed, objective onlookers should conclude that his willingness to admit a mistake has added to his stature. It does, however, show how careful you have to be when in the public eye for promoting highly controversial views. At one point Dawkins himself notes ruefully that he can see why lawyers and diplomats need special training - and it's clear that he looked at what he was signing in a spirit of generosity, not while taking the cramped defensive posture of a lawyer. That is hardly a criticism - such defensiveness is not what we want from our leading public intellectuals.

Still, it all shows how careful you have to be these days if you are prominent in public debate over large, symbolically important issues. From this incident and others, I have a sense that Dawkins, in particular, is now in a position where his every move will be narrowly scrutinised in real time; every effort wil be made to discredit him, if there is the slightest opportunity. Even much lesser intellectual lights could find themselves in a situation where they come under a potentially destructive level of scrutiny if they achieve some success in popularising unpopular ideas. This environment is not especially healthy for public deliberation and debate, but it is the unavoidable downside of the wired-up world that we now find ourselves in. Somehow, we all have to adapt.

5 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

Having watched a few ScienceBlog kerfluffles flounce their way across my screen, I've had some time to contemplate them, and I'm starting to think we can draw a few general morals out of the story.

The blogosphere lacks mechanisms for bringing bloggers together in debate and deliberation. Blog "carnivals" are retrospective affairs; the people who assemble them are more like secretaries recording the minutes than presidents leading a meeting. The only example of a focused channel for varied discussion with set ground rules and standards of fairness — a "disputation arena" — is Wikipedia's Featured Article Candidates (and, to a lesser extent, Articles for Deletion). Our language is revealing: we speak of "blog wars" but have no terms which cast inter-blog disputes in the same light as, for example, Supreme Court cases. (I am normally suspicious of arguments from etymology, but I think that here one can make the case that the language reflects our habits of thought, though not perhaps shaping those habits.)

We need a court system, but all we've got is trial by fire. While Time magazine tells us that we have built the digital reincarnation of the Athenian Agora, it's really more like a Viking feast house, with Beowulf's soldiers wearing mead-stained blankets and pretending to be philosopher-kings.

Likewise, the Net-based proliferation of programming languages lacks the one thing which we had in the Dark Ages of line-number BASIC: that quality which David Brin has termed centripetal force. Think about it. With a thousand dialects to choose among, will any textbook publisher include sample code in their math books? The Web can make room for an indefinitely large family of languages, but no student is ever motivated to speak them. Whether our shiny new toys are free as in speech, free as in beer or both is irrelevant if they languish in obscurity.

This is progress?

As a programmer who has worked with a healthy sampling of modern languages, I happen to feel that we'd be better using our brainpower if we stopped inventing new dialects "for the kids" and started writing books which made students and teachers alike realize how useful the currently extant ones can be. (I actually went to the Boston Public Library a few weekends ago to see if they had any "obsolete" high-school algebra books with BASIC samples in them. Unfortunately, the books I turned up were not obsolete enough: they had graphing-calculator exercises, but nothing like the program samples I remembered from tenth grade. An actual school library might be a better place to find such older books and see how far they were able to carry the concept.)

I have elsewhere waxed rhapsodic about our modern possibilities for discussion. Right now, I would like to emphasize that we haven't built the Agora yet. I suspect that many people who recognize deficiencies in our current systems shrug them off with a combination of the following thoughts: it's not my responsibility to fix them; I can see problems, but I'm not a computer programmer; starting the next MySpace or GooTube requires time and money; these things can take care of themselves.

However, we can't all stand around waiting for the "centripetal force" to bring itself about.

Russell Blackford said...

Blake, do I know you under another username at another forum?

Blake Stacey said...

Everywhere except Wikipedia, I've tended to use my real name.

Russell Blackford said...

Have a look at the list of my recent user contributions at Wikipedia and I think you'll find a coded message.

Blake Stacey said...

That, I think, indicates you have too much free time. ;-) But yes, that's I.