Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dawkins Needs a Fact Checker

Early on in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins charges that society gives preferential treatment to religious groups, and that because of this inequity, traditional religions continue to exist in an era of science. A key piece of evidence for his argument is the case of a jerky Ohio boy who wore a shirt to school bearing those three ever-effective ice-breakers, “Abortion is murder, Islam is a lie, and Homosexuality is a sin.” The rest of the story is pretty predictable. The school asked him to change shirts, the boy refused, and the parents sued. To anyone with much familiarity with American jurisprudence, the outcome was also pretty predictable. The kid won.

Dawkins relates the surprising part:

The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't; indeed, they couldn't, because free speech is deemed not to include “hate speech.” But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. [italics original]

I was stunned when I read this. Did the court really say that these political and ethical judgments, even when rudely expressed, were “hate speech?” And how had I missed that critical juncture where we had sloughed off our first amendment rights and slithered away towards perfect harmony and politesse? I had to agree with Dawkins. It was plainly un-American that religious speech be allowed to offend, but not other types. How could this possibly be hap.... But then an entirely different thought arose: Is it possible that Richard Dawkins, renowned scientist, simply got the whole thing wrong, entirely backwards, and never bothered to check? Indeed, isn't that the only possibility? Less than a minute of Googling confirms it. There you will find the full text of the court opinion, which presents a typically American and wholly predictable affirmation of free-speech rights: the plaintiff asserts his freedom of expression was violated; the court agrees. There is no mention of the practice of religion, no religious exemption, no consideration of the kid’s religious rights at all; nor is there any mention of “hate speech.” All of these phantasms vanished in the crisp, dull prose of the court. The kid can wear the shirt because Americans—sinful homos and stumblefuck rednecks alike—can say whatever they goddamned well please.

It's a puzzle how Dawkins got this so wrong. Obviously, it starts with a defective cultural understanding of America. He is coming from a European tradition in which courts are much more willing to curtail free speech in order to keep everyone calmed down. And perhaps he had a bad source—a dubious web site or book that he never bothered to verify. Dawkins does this with surprising regularity, putting blind faith in friendly sources, as if he knows they are right merely because they agree with him. On more than one occasion in his book, he writes some version of “I know this is a specious form of data, but we should pay attention to it nonetheless.” Frankly, I get a little nervous when a prominent scientist starts telling us that we can learn a lot from bad data; it's kind of like Bernie Madoff telling us not to worry about the actual trade tickets. Dawkins never explains how he knows when exactly to pay attention to bad data, but I think the answer is pretty clear: whenever it helps you tell the kind of story you wanted to tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment