Paying Attention to the Experts

In March 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary invented the following words: boccio, podium, and whip-smart. They also created an entirely new definition of the word “blue,” so you may want to consider looking it up so that you don’t mis-use it.

What’s that you say? The OED didn’t invent those words? Well, my good fellow or female version of the word “fellow”, you would be mistaken. You see, Richard Dawkins is quite emphatic on this point, though I’m not sure he understands that implication of his recent Twitter-splosion.

Ok, first thing’s first. Can somebody, anybody, when speaking to Richard Dawkins in person, try to talk him out of his weird insistence on trying to discuss deep, meaningful questions in 140 character bursts? I mean, this seems like a lot of fun at a party of philosophers (especially if you add a strip component), but when you are looking to actually address a situation, the intentionally limited nature of Twitter makes for more confusion than anything else. If it were simply useless, that would be one thing, but it is actively confusing, and that can be a problem.

What Dawkins actually did was claim, essentially, that it’s so unfair that people who point out white male privilege aren’t consider racist or sexist because of it.

Now I will give him some credit, this didn’t come out of nowhere. He started by talking about what had happened in Woolwhich and discussing the murderer’s words, specifically how he both seemed to consider the British to be Other to him and how he considered Britain to be “our land”. It’s a weird dichotomy that I think bears exploration.

Then somebody said this.

NadiaNouiMehidi Nadia Noui-Mehidi
@RichardDawkins you do the insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers thing well, but maybe stick to biology.
I’m not quite sure where this came from, but again, Twitter. Context is the first thing to go. However, I don’t think that can explain Dawkins’ response.
  1. @NadiaNouiMehidi Why is it permissible to be racist & sexist, just so long as you attack white males?
  2. “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.” Racism & sexism are fine, so long as they point in the right direction!
OK, what the fuck just happened there? Suffice it to say that it goes on and Dawkins continues to insist that pointing out his privilege is racism and sexism because the dictionary says that that’s what those words mean.
RichardDawkins
Richard Dawkins
Some people here think you can’t be racist against white people! Look it up in dictionary. Needless to say, no power asymmetry is mentioned.
RichardDawkins
Richard Dawkins
@rachelmack @CabbagetownMatt Really? By whose dictionary? Certainly not the Oxford Dictionary. Dictionary of sociology perhaps? Ah yes.
This poses two major problems.
The first is his immediately going to the dictionary, which is where I started this blog. Dictionaries are not authoritative arbiters of words and their meanings, they are reflections of the state of language. The writers of the Oxford English Dictionary did not invent a single word placed in it, and when they change the meaning of words that’s not where the change originates. The words that are added and the changes made reflect a long-term change in how a word is used in actual conversation for a long period of time.
The last part is key. It takes quite some time for dictionaries to update their definitions of things, because they’re trying to reflect an accurate and stable definition of words. It’s part of the reason why the definition of “radical” didn’t change to “expressive of the best potential in life; awesome; gnarly; tubular” in the 1980s and early 90s. This was unquestionably what a huge proportion of the population (myself included) used the word to mean during the period, especially with the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but OED is careful about changing the definition of words in their publication to avoid fads. However, that does not change that that is precisely what that word meant in certain contexts during the time, even if the OED says that “radical” means, “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” I suspect that’s not what Raph was talking about, at least.
The second problem is that Dawkins shows a pretty extreme contempt for sociologists throughout this exchange. This is absolutely baffling, since sociologists are the people who dedicate their lives to studying this sort of thing! For a guy who spends a good portion of his life arguing with people who think they know more about biology than him despite having never studied biology, you would think that he would be a little more accepting of other people’s expertise in various fields. To quote Aoife over at the Tea Cozy,
People who have never taken a sociology class in their lives, who know nothing about social theory, research, methodologies (and the reasons behind them), who figure that they somehow know more about it than, well, the entirety of sociology and sociologists. And anthropology and anthropologists (lovely bunch).
I think what Dawkins is saying here is even worse than just that sociologists aren’t qualified to talk about society and social science. He is actually saying that while sociologists aren’t qualified, dictionary writers are. Seriously, he’s saying that the definitions of racism and sexism that were written at the OED offices are somehow more accurate than the one used by people who spend their lives advancing scholarship in the field that studies those phenomena. It’s one thing to entirely dismiss a field of study with centuries of research and data that accurately predicts societal trends and advancement, but it’s quite another to say that the people who figure out how to explain the way that people use certain words should be more trusted to answer questions related to that field.
Today, Cracked.com wrote a followup to John Scalzi’s famous “Lowest Difficulty Setting” post, which was reposted at Kotaku. Basically, Luke McKinney went into the comments of that Kotaku post and found examples of exactly the kind of privilege that Scalzi was talking about. Dawkins fairly often exhibits four out of five of the ones McKinney points out, but #1 is the most applicable to this situation. Let me quote, emphasis his.

Apparently, being a straight white male is actually the hardest difficulty because of political correctness. People can’t mock anyone else, so they mock the poor straight white man! Listen: If the people victimizing you are affected by political correctness, you have never been victimized.

Political correctness only stops the kind of people who use a thesaurus to get away with being snide. “Political correctness gone mad!” is how you announce to the world that you have no real problems but don’t appreciate the fact and should be harvested for organs as soon as possible.

Dawkins has a habit of digging in and dismissing expertise that isn’t his own. Basically, unless you happen to know a lot about things Richard Dawkins knows about, your knowledge is considered useless. I think part of this is that Dawkins has a lot of respect for his field, and part of it is that because he knows so much about evolutionary biology, for example, he is less inclined to be hyper-skeptical because he can more readily evaluate the worth of a given argument.

This is important. It’s pretty easy for me, with a degree in English, to determine whether a given interpretation of a text is valid. I’ve had years of training to be able to do so. Even if it’s an interpretation that goes against what I would normally consider to be correct, I am able to, with the knowledge and resources I have readily available, determine almost instantly whether I should give it credence, so I’m less inclined to be hyper-skeptical about it because I have a basis on which I can make a determination. This wouldn’t be true of evolutionary biology, which I know very little about, especially in comparison to somebody like Dawkins.

However, what often ends up happening is that Dawkins will hear something that violates his pre-conceived notions of a subject he knows very little about, and when somebody who knows more than him points out that he’s saying something entirely incorrect, he’ll dismiss the more experienced and knowledgeable person because… he knows a lot about evolutionary biology, I guess. It’s like when he had an argument over Twitter with Ana Mardoll in which he claimed to know more about the purposes of gene testing embryos for IVF (i.e. it’s about testing for potential to survive pregnancy, not for creating designer babies) than she did, despite her having done so and he having not. Mardoll clearly knows more about this than Dawkins, yet he refuses to accept that, so much so that at the end he points out that he always says exactly what he means, and people who misinterpret his words are the wrong ones, basically insisting that language is a solitary activity, not the most efficient way of transferring data between two or more parties that we currently know.

Dawkins has always had an ego. Some people consider it charming, I find myself more and more irritated by it every day. It’s not that Dawkins is a bad guy and I recognize his contributions to atheism as a movement, but given the choice I would rather hear Julia Galef, Melody Hensley, Dave Silverman, Darrel Ray, Jen McCreight, or JT Eberhard speak than Dawkins. I can be sure with them that they haven’t stopped exploring a topic because they think they have an answer, that they recognize the world is more complex than can be expressed in 140 characters, that they are willing to listen to people who might know more than them about a given subject, and, most of all, that they know how dictionaries work.

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3 thoughts on “Paying Attention to the Experts

    • Forgot to mention: T.W.: mentions of torture, rape, rape apologism, racism, religious misogyny, homophobia, racial slurs, anti-trans* bigotry and erasure.

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