Like Richard Dawkins, I am also an atheist. I have also enjoyed his books and I am peripherally aware of his atheist advocacy.
Recently a letter Richard Dawkins wrote to his 10 year old daughter made the rounds.
He needs to ammend the letter and explain to her that it is not enough to find evidence, it is also important to be able to reason effectively about this evidence and avoid a series of logical pitfalls.
He failed to do this in a series of poorly thought out tweets, starting with this:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
He followed up with a series of tweets to try to both explain the above as well as retweeting various people that came out in his defense with statements like:
It's embarassing that we live in a society so irrational that even the observation of basic facts can result in outrage. @RichardDawkins— The Blue Baron (@Ryan__Blake) August 8, 2013
I found the entire episode unbecoming of a scientist.
His original tweet, while true, does not have the effect of trying to advance our understanding of the world. It is at best a troll.
We expect from scientists to use the processes, techniques and tools of science math and logic to advance our understanding of the world, not resort to innuendo, fallacies and poor logical constructions to prove our points.
Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
Among others, I do not expect a scientist to imply that correlation implies causation. Which is what this tweet did.
Today he posted a large follow up where he explains what lead him to make this statement and also to selectively address some of the the criticism he received. He addressed the simpler criticism, but left out the meaty ones (you can find them on the replies to his tweet).
Dawkins failed to address the major problem with his tweet, which was exactly the use of correlation to imply causation.
Instead, he digs down deeper:
Twitter's 140 character limit always presents a tough challenge, but I tried to rise to it. Nobel Prizes are a pretty widely quoted, if not ideal, barometer of excellence in science. I thought about comparing the numbers of Nobel Prizes won by Jews (more than 120) and Muslims (ten if you count Peace Prizes, half that if you don't). This astonishing discrepancy is rendered the more dramatic when you consider the small size of the world's Jewish population. However, I decided against tweeting that comparison because it might seem unduly provocative (many Muslim "community leaders" are quite outspoken in their hatred of Jews) and I sought a more neutral comparison as more suitable to the potentially inflammable medium of Twitter. It is a remarkable fact that one Cambridge college, Trinity, has 32 Nobel Prizes to its credit. That's three times as many as the entire Muslim world even if you count Peace Prizes, six times as many if you don't. I dramatised the poverty of Muslim scientific achievement, and the contrast with their achievements in earlier centuries, in the following brief tweet: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."
Now we know that Richard was not merely stating a couple of facts on his original tweet. He was trying to establish a relationship between a religion and scientific progress.
One possible explanation that does not involve Muslim-hood is that the majority of muslims live in impoverished nations (see map). Poverty and access to resources are likely bigger reasons for the lack of advancement in the sciences than belonging to a particular religion.
Is my theory better than Richard's? We could test the theory by looking at the list of Nobel laureates per country.
Let us consider my country, Mexico, a poor country compared to the wealth of the UK. We have twice as many people living in Mexico compared to the UK. Sadly, we only have three Nobel laureates vs Trinity College's thirty two.
If we expand the scope to Latin America which has half a billion people. Even with this, we can only muster sixteen laureates vs Trinity's 32.
Let us look into the African continent, with its billion people. They manage to only score 20 Nobel laureates.
And shockingly, the wealthier the nation, the more laureates. South Africa accounts for half of Africa's laureates (with ten), Egypt which has a better economy than most other African nations and gets tasty American aid gets five, which leaves another five for the rest of the continent.
If I had some axe to grind against Mexicans, Spanish speakers, Africans, Muslims, Bedouins, Brazilians, or Latin Americans I could probably make a statement as truthful as Richard's original tweet, which could be as offensive to those popuations and just like Richard prove absolutely nothing.
I think we have stronger evidence that access to wealth has an effect on how many people get this award than a religion.
The second flaw in his argument is to identify a University with access to funds, and a fertile ground for research and education to a group of people linked only by religion.
Perhaps people go to places like Trinity College becasue it is a fertile ground for research and education. If that is the case, then we have an explanation for why Trinity might have more Nobel laureates.
Luckily, Cesar Hidalgo's research on understanding prosperity shows what we intuitively know: that economic development clusters around existing centers. That is why actors, writers and directors move to LA, financiers move to New York and why companies ship their high-end phone manufacturing to China. You go where there is a fertile ground. Richard, instead of reading the long papers from Cesar, you might want to watch this 17 minute presentation he did at TEDx Boston.
So is Trinity one of these clusters? Can we find other clusters of research and expect them to have a high concentration of Nobel prize laureates? Let me pick two examples, MIT which is next door to my office has 78 laureates and I used to hang out at Berkeley because my mom graduated from there, and they have 22.
So we have three universities with 132 Nobel laureates.
The following statement is just as true as Richard's original tweet, and as pointless as his. Except I do not malign a religion:
All the world's companies have fewer Nobel Prizes than Universities do. Companies did great things in the Middle Ages though.
In fact there is a universe of different segments of the population that have fewer Nobel Prizes as Trinity. And every once in a while someone will try to make connections just like Richard did.
People will make their cases against groups of people based on language, race, sexual preferences, political orientation, food preferences, religion or even what video games they play.
We can not let poor logic cloud our judgement, no matter how importants our points are.
I agree with Richard that I want less religion in this world, and more science-based education. But if we are going to advocate for more science-based education, let us not resort to the very processes that are discredited by science to do so.
The Origins of the Tweet
We now know that Richard could just not stomach someone saying "Islamic science deserves enormous respect" and this is why he launched himself into this argument.
I can only guess that this happened because he was criticizing religion or Islam and someone told him "Actually, you are wrong about this, Islam contributed to X and Y" and he did not like his argument poked at.
The right answer is "You are correct, I did not consider that" and then try to incorporate this new knowledge into having a more nuanced position.
The answer is not to spread a meme based on a fallacy.