I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.
Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.
Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.
Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.
I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.
This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.
And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.
But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.
But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:
It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).
And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:
It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.
They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.
But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.
This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…
– …perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…
– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…
– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…
– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.
And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?
This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.
Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.