Sunday, 13 November 2011

Learning from Dawkins' 'The Magic of Reality'

Richard Dawkins' new book, "The Magic of Reality" arrived by post the day after the publication date, delivered efficiently from Amazon at a price which I found almost embarrassing low.  It is a beautifully illustrated, weighty hardback volume which immediately impressed me with the quality of its production.  Pressures of daily life prevented me from starting it immediately, but at last I have read it and I think I have learned a lesson that is far from the one that I expected.

I should say at the outset that I am a fan of Richard Dawkins and almost all the work he has ever done.  (I'm even quietly on his side in the recent Rebecca Watson incident but I rarely admit it!)  My own escape from the (albeit relatively harmless) superstition of the Church of England occurred thanks to him, with the unwitting assistance of the local vicar who proposed that The God Delusion would be good Lent reading.  On the two occasions that I have met him I have been impressed by his engaging nature.  He was not strident as he is often portrayed and he was not looking over my shoulder for someone more important to speak to, as some well known people have done in the past.

Having said that, my views of Dawkins are not shared by all of my family, colleagues or friends.  Many have their own reasons for distrusting him, but I think it comes down to just two in the end.  One is that some of them perceive that he meddles in topics that are not in his own field of expertise.  The other is that many people feel threatened by his incisive questions.  I find myself frequently questioning their use of the word 'strident' to describe Dawkins, knowing that it has become one of the 'in-jokes' of the rational-thinking community.  I often suggest that they read Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris if they want to see evidence of a slightly more controversial approach.

After reading The Greatest Show on Earth last year, and enjoying every single page, learning a great deal about evolution, I suppose disappointment was the last thing I expected from The Magic of Reality.  Of course the book is aimed at young people - from 12 to 100 as he has put it sometimes.  I fit neatly into that age bracket.  There is an old adage that 'there is nothing that we like to hear more than the things we already know', and I read the book with that expectation.  I did see some new things as I had hoped, and I saw a large amount of familiar material.  I think that any inquiring teenager could learn a lot from the book if (big IF!, I say in my curmudgeonly way) they are prepared to think about what it is saying and to ask questions.  It would not necessarily inform the uninquiring quite as much, but anyone who read it would find it difficult to put it down without learning to look at reality in a slightly different way.  From tiny acorns do mighty oak trees grow.

But by now, you will have inferred that there is a 'but' coming'  There is.  But is is not an altogether unhelpful 'but'.

My own background is in the physical sciences, and I have personally enjoyed the challenges of public outreach on a small scale.  I love to have an audience and frequently enjoy the challenge of explaining the high complexity of the large facility where I work to anyone who will listen.  Audiences vary from unexcited school groups (mainly interested in impressing each other on a day out), through university groups (slightly interested in technology), societies of adults who are not specialists in science but have chosen to learn about it, to groups who have specialised knowledge of our field of research.  I find that the use of analogies is a powerful teaching tool at all levels, and in my own field I have developed a feel for the ones that work best for a spectrum of different people.  You might not realise it, but often I find that experts are accompanied by their partners who know almost nothing about science.  My aim is to ensure that everyone goes away knowing a little more than they knew when they arrived.

Does The Magic of Reality achieve this?  I think the answer is yes, but here is the 'but'.  I found that the explanations of some of the things that I know best were just slightly off the mark.  Initially I felt slightly irritated by the errors, but then I realised that there is something that I should learn from that feeling.  Here is one example.  On page 115 he says:

"If you stood right on the Arctic Circle on midsummer day . . .  you'd see the sun skim along the southern horizon at midnight  but never actually set.  Then it would loop around to its highest position (not very high) at midday."

This is a nice story, but it is just slightly wrong in the important details.  For a start, the sun would skim the northern horizon in this way, not the southern horizon.  The day before and the day after, it would attempt to set at the most northerly point on the horizon, and the further from midsummer, the further south is the point where it sets.  By mid day on this mid summer day it would get to its highest point in the year, at about 47 degrees above the horizon - quite high but not very high, I agree.

Now of course I am being picky.  I already know how hard it is to communicate science to experts and others.  What I failed to expect was that I was unexpectedly finding myself in the same position as some theologians!

any aspect of the topic, and that this actually matters!  It helped me to understand how some of my religious friends have read these criticisms of their beliefs and how they could therefore question everything else that he says.

My own example is analogous to theirs.  It was a technical error in a field that is not his own.  In fairness he often repeats in the book that some areas of science are beyond his understanding - being too self-effacing (I'm sure).    This particular technical error does not lead me to doubt his other work.  Far from it.  All I do as a consequence is to read other arguments with more care.  Just being made to wonder whether to believe the things we read is one of the fundamental skills in science, and we all have to take care not to fall for the fallacy of 'the argument from authority'

I wonder how future discussions with 'Dawkins detractors' will go in the light of this learning.  I can only imagine that it will strengthen my arguments and lead me to encourage them to question the whole of their areas of expertise and decide in an unbiased way whether they spot the same as I have observed.  That is, that a few errors in publication of a significant work do not necessarily indicate that everything else is wrong.  The best insights into our own areas of expertise often come from the most naive questions.

I ask the readers whether they have any tools that might be relevant in the light of what you have just read.  Comments are welcome.  I expect some of you can find some technical or logical errors in this post - and I probably deserve it if you delight in pointing them out!


Unknown said...

Dawkins all the way!

Steve Kux said...

Wasn't my favourite book of his, but a good introduction to the topic for people who might not have any background. There were a few moments that weren't exactly kid-friendly, though.

RosaRubicondior said...

Just occurred to me that all horizons at the North Pole are southern horizons. :-)

Actually bought Magic of Reality for my (then) 4 yo grandson but decided to keep it for him until he's 12. Not enough about Angry Birds or Star Wars in it. :-)

Plasma Engineer said...

Your comment is quite correct, as usual. However, from the Arctic Circle it is not true, and that was the frame of reference that was quoted.