Science is interesting – and if you don’t agree?

14 11 2009

Check out the clip below, in which Richard Dawkins is rebuked for his famously acerbic rhetorical style by Neil Tyson, an astrophysicist and US TV presenter. Dawkins responds in rather pithy form. (NB: Not safe for work.)

Tyson raises some very important points about the role of a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and their responsibility not to dismiss those who are already inclined to hear their message. Dawkins is disinclined to have much truck with anyone who doesn’t accept that science is both interesting and valuable, but on the whole I have to say that my sympathies in this debate are with Tyson, who is an eminent scientist and communicator of science himself.

Dawkins’ occupation of the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science has certainly done a great deal to raise the profile of the the professorship and of himself, and Marcus du Sautoy is undoubtedly already finding him a hard act to follow. But I find it hard to think of what Dawkins himself has done to increase the public understanding of science, other than to very publicly endorse atheism and criticise religion. And in his defence, the atheism issue is contentious enough that it becomes the one and only issue he is asked about in many contexts. Dawkins is a brilliant biologist and ethologist, and a brilliant communicator – his “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker” are readable, lucid, and extremely funny. (No, really. Try them if you don’t believe me – they’re readily understandable even to those who don’t have a science background.)

But I don’t believe that there is, or should be, anything in the world whose existence as a “good” thing we should accept without question, even science. And to take on the role of a communicator of science is to accept that there are those out there who are disinclined to look favourably on them. What is the point of communicating only to those who already agree with you? What is the use of writing people off completely?

My goal is to communicate to you that psychology is a science, a relevant and applied science, that has improved education, justice, work. If I can’t do that, then the failure is mine. If I didn’t believe that was possible, I wouldn’t try. If Dawkins really believed what he says in the above clip, then he should not have accepted the Professorship.

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