If I were King of the World I’d simply abolish Twitter, for I see it as a waste of time, a substitute for real human interaction, and a poor substitute for real discussion. It also keeps people compulsively on the internet instead of doing more productive things. I’m proud to say that I’ve never issued a single tw–t except for the automatic ones that herald each post here.
But of course I’m in the tiny minority in this opinion, and will be seen as curmudgeonly. Yet If I could have a second wish, I’d ask that Richard Dawkins refrain from using Twitter. Not only does he try to make complicated points in the too-small space of 140 characters, but many people are gunning for him anyway, hoping to make hay out of his missteps. That’s a recipe for internet meltdown.
And that’s just what happened this week when Richard weighed in on the lack of scientific achievement in Muslim countries, emitting a series of tweets (captions from The Atlantic Wire):
Within a day or so the media struck back, accusing Richard of everything from racism to blatant ignorance. Here’s a list of some of the pieces:
New Statesman, “Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?” by Nelson Jones
The Independent, “Richard Dawkins Muslim jibe sparks Twitter backlash,” by Heather Saul
The Guardian, “Richard Dawkin’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric,” by Nesrene Malik
The Atlantic Wire: “A short history of Richard Dawkins vs. the internet” by Amy Ohlheiser
Finally, to calm the waters, Dawkins wrote an explanation and a response on his own website: “Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup.” It’s a much more reflective and less strident take on the situation, and, while I don’t agree with all of its points, the piece does show that Richard is best at books and short essays, and not so gud, aksually, at teh Twitterz.
Dawkins handily disposes of comments that he’s a racist (he agrees that human races do exist; Islam is just not one of them) and a bigot; that atheists don’t win Nobel Prizes (how could someone say something so ignorant?); and that Nobel prizes are worthless.
Like Richard, I do think that Islamic suppression of science and fear that modern science reflects materialistic Western values have been factors reducing the scientific output of Muslim countries. But I also think that there may be other factors in play, including lack of education in those countries (granted, that may have at least a partial religious cause), and poverty. His answer to this point is not completely satisfying:
Cambridge University, like other First World Institutions, has economic advantages denied to those countries where most Muslims live.
No doubt there is something in that. But . . . oil wealth? Might it be more equitably deployed amongst the populace of those countries that happen to sit on the accidental geological boon of oil. Is this an example of something that Muslims might consider to improve the education of their children?
Well, yes, there is something in that! First of all, not all Muslim countries have oil wealth, and, as Dawkins says, even those that do don’t spread the wealth around, leaving an undereducated and impoverished populace. Is that the fault of Islam or of greed? The income inequality in Muslim countries isn’t, I think, inherent in the faith. It’s inherent in humanity.
Too, it’s undeniable that there’s a connection between poverty, lack of education, and scientific accomplishment, independent of religion. For example, sub-Saharan Africa is largely Christian—with some countries containing up to 90% Jesus acolytes—and Muslims are thin on the ground. (See Wikipedia for the stats; here’s a map):
Southern Africa is populous, yet it, too, has produced very few Nobel Prizes, save in peace and, in the case of South Africa, in literature as well. (South Africa’s four Nobel Prizes in science, which are unique to sub-Saharan Africa, were all achieved by people who were born there but did their scientific work in England or the U.S.) So are we to blame Christianity on southern Africa’s lack of Nobel Prizes? And certainly evolution is just as anathema to southern African evangelical Christians as to northern African Muslims.
The relationship between poverty, education, scientific achievement, and religion is complicated, and I suppose one would have to do a multivariate analysis to pry these factors apart—if one could do it at all. While I suspect that Islam does repress scientific achievement, especially in countries like Iraq or Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t say that with conviction without harder data to support it.