The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism has dropped Richard Dawkins as its keynote speaker this year. That’s a good thing.
Dawkins is a gifted writer and speaker and many of us enjoy a greater understanding of biology and evolution thanks to his work. He’s also written beautifully about the positive influence science and reason can have in our lives, arguing passionately that our scientific understanding of light, for instance, does not “unweave the rainbow,” but only makes it more gorgeous to behold.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see him engage in such negative, boorish behaviors online, from criticizing Rebecca Watson for speaking out about rampant sexism among skeptics, to attacking “clock kid,” to his latest – sharing a terribly stupid, juvenile video titled, I kid you not, “Feminists love Islamists.”
(Caution from personal experience: If you find it and watch it, the tune will be stuck in your head while you’re making eggs in the morning…in a bad way! And you’ll be flummoxed as you try to figure out why a respected scientist would share such a thing online with his 1.3 million followers.)
Naturally, this will become part of the broader conversation about self-censorship, and free speech. Dawkins would certainly like to frame it that way and has been sharing messages like this on Twitter:
@RichardDawkins Stand strong, Prof. They’re good at deliberately misinterpreting arguments, claiming hate speech and demanding apologies
— Lyle Yiannopoulos (@Lyde15) January 28, 2016
But I don’t really buy it. There’s something more basic and important happening here. Dawkins often acts like a jerk on social media. And Twitter is such an open, free-wheeling platform that he winds up alienating audiences for whom he never intended his original messages. As a result, Dawkins online posts feed into bad stereotypes about aloof, arrogant scientists and, at least in my opinion, do more to set him back as a public intellectual.
Additionally, no government is stepping in to censor Dawkins or his words. No one is shutting down his Twitter account. It’s a conference saying, “You know what? This guy’s not for us or our audience.” I’m sure Dawkins has plenty of other conferences at which he can speak and I’m sure there are plenty of speakers who are a better fit for NECSS and its members.
My completely unsolicited advice for Dawkins is that he should ask himself what his goals really are with Twitter and other social media. If it’s to piss people off and distract from science communication and humanism, he’s doing a bang up job. He might even have some lessons to learn from Alec Baldwin and other celebrities who have given the world a little too much access to their internal brain musings.
He might also follow some tips from other successful scientists on Twitter and try being a little more positive, inspirational and constructive, while saving the vicious takedowns and hyper-critical thought for blog posts, books and the lecture circuit, where those messages can be better understood in context by their intended audiences.
NECSS’s statement is below. And as a long time fan of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, I have to say that Steve Novella and crew have always approached their work with heart. They have empathy for people who disagree with them as well as people who are duped by charlatans and misinformers. That’s all too rare these days, but it’s critically important for good science communication. I appreciate their stand and the open way they’re communicating with members.
A Statement Concerning Richard Dawkins
The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video.
We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.
We will issue a full refund to any NECSS attendee who wishes to cancel their registration due to this announcement.
The NECSS Team
Feb. 2 update: I just read Steve Novella’s 1/30 explanation for dropping Dawkins. I agree with all of it, including his rebuttal to claims that the decision is somehow anti-free-speech given Dawkins’s already expansive platform. He also addresses what he considers a few valid criticisms of how he and his colleagues handled things. That’s classy and it’s in keeping with good skeptical thinking. The whole post is well worth a read.
Aaron Huertas is a science communicator and public relations professional who lives in Washington, DC.