Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dawkins' Tweet About Islam, Cambridge And Nobel Prizes

Richard Dawkins is a bit of a roller-coaster. I never know whether the next piece of his writing I'm going to read is going to be brilliant, stupid or somewhere in between. This recent tweet of his:

"All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

is one of the stupid ones. The reasons why it's so stupid are so perfectly summed up in a headline in the form of a rhetorical question over a column by Nelson Jones in the New Statesman that I could simply link Nelson's column, quote the headline, "Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?" and quit, and have a half-decent blog post.

But I have a little bit more to say. First of all, "the world's Muslims" are over a billion people, living in hundreds of countries, including people attending many thousands if not millions of schools, and, as Nelson adroitly points out, those schools now include Trinity college, Cambridge. As I have often pointed out when discussing Catholicism with simpleminded anti-Catholic bigots, any group of over a billion people will of necessity contain an extremely wide diversity of religious viewpoints, political orientations, levels of formal education, degrees of sophistication in approaches to science, etc, etc. I'm still not nearly as impressed by Francis I as many of my fellow atheists seem to be, but there's no denying that he provides a strong contrast to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and that makes it much harder for those anti-Catholic bigots to get away with referring to all one billion of the world's Catholics as if they all agreed with John Paul II and Benedict XVI about everything.

It's similarly ridiculous to refer to all one billion of the world's Muslims as if they were one homogenous group. I myself know that I cannot in any meaningful way keep up with the intellectual achievements of any group of one billion people, and much the less so when the majority of them have as their first language a language which is not in the same Indo-European language family as my first several languages. Furthermore, I dare to doubt that Richard Dawkins can encompass such vast activity within his mind. Using the famous Socratic principle properly, the first step for someone like Dawkins or myself toward understanding what intellectual activity is current among the world's Muslims is to acknowledge a great dark zone within our knowledge. And is it even necessary to point out how many Muslim intellectuals are Muslims pretty much in name only, because they were born into Muslim families? Or how many Muslim intellectuals, whether in countries which are majority Muslim, or majority Christian, or majority Hindu or Buddhist or majority something else, live and work daily alongside non-Muslims? Unfortunately, tweets such as this one by Dawkins make me think that it is urgently necessary.

I don't just dare to suspect that the people who award the Nobel Prizes, over the course of the more than 110 years in which it has been awarded, have been drastically ignorant of what's gone on in the world outside of Europe and North America, I assert outright that it's obviously the case, although they've gotten a bit more multicultural in the past few decades, like the rest of the world. Scandinavians have won a number of prizes wildly out of proportion to their numbers compared to the entire world's population. Does this mean that Scandinavians are generally more brilliant than others? No, it means that the prizes have been awarded by Scandinavians, and that Scandinavians will obviously and naturally be more familiar with the work of other Scandinavians than with the work of, for example, Kazakhs. They're also naturally going to be more familiar with the work being done in relatively nearby Trinity College, where the native language tends to be the world's, and especially Europe's, most widely-used second language, than with the work being done in, for example, Kazakhstan.

The obviousness of all of this is what makes Dawkins' tweet so stupid. Dawkins defended it by pointing out that the part about the numbers of Nobels won by Muslims and by Trinity college was factually accurate. But you can be factually accurate and stupid at the same time, by assigning an inaccurate significance to facts. I'll give you an example: "Year in and year out, a team from the United States of America wins the World Series."

One other thing which urgently needs to be pointed out is the hypocrisy of Westerners who, quite rightly, criticize human rights abuses and backwardness of education in other countries, some of which happen to be majority Muslim and whose rulers are Muslim, without criticizing at the same time, in the same breath, the governments of their own countries who maintain friendly relations with those other countries for the benefit of multinational corporations, whether we're talking about oil, or sweatshops, or clear-cutting old forests.

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