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“The internet provides the club room where you can meet people who have dotty ideas like you” © Jana Lenzova

Richard Dawkins: “The internet provides the club room where you can meet people who have dotty ideas like you”

Published: 05th September, 2019 at 11:55
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The esteemed biologist talks to us about flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers and a world without religion.

Known for his opinions on atheism and his books on evolution, Richard Dawkins is considered one of the top British intellectuals of the 21st Century. Ahead of the release of his new book, Outgrowing God (£14.99, Bantam Press), he spoke to us about how he lost his faith and found a new community with science.


Here’s a taster of the interview, which you can read in full in the September 2019 issue of BBC Science Focus. We’ll also be featuring Richard Dawkins in the Science Focus Podcast towards the end of the month, so be sure to subscribe and get it as soon as it’s released – find out how here.

We seem to be seeing a rise in the number of people who are ‘anti-experts’, rejecting things like vaccines, the moon landings and climate change. Why do you think that is?

It’s mysterious, because the evidence for the Moon landing is utterly overwhelming. We’ve even got flat-Earthers on the rise at the moment. The evidence for the Earth being round is so utterly incontrovertible – you have to wonder, what’s going on here?

I suppose one explanation for flat-Earthism is a kind of fellowship. People who perhaps have been a bit of a misfit in their life find a group of people who are also misfits, and they like to club together, and the internet provides the club room where you can meet people who have dotty ideas like you.

With the anti-vaxxers … there is widespread hostility to big pharmaceutical companies, and with some good reason actually. It would be easy enough, if you are heavily committed to criticising Big Pharma, to think that being an anti-vaxxer is a part of that. What we want is for people to think critically and clearly about each individual case and not lump things together if they’re not really lumpable.

The community that you talk about, the sort that flat-earthers form. It’s almost similar to religion…

I think it is. Not in every respect. It’s not supernatural. So, once again, we mustn’t lump things together too much, but there’s a certain amount in common where it’s worth making the comparison.

For that reason – because it’s such a community – could we never live in a world without religion?

If it’s really true that people need the sort of fellowship that religion gives them, then it should be possible to find it in different ways, and I think a love of science goes a long way; you can join other people with that.

Or you can just say, well, truth actually matters. And truth is more important than fellowship, than belonging to a community of like-minded people.

I think a lot of people immediately jump into a feeling of ‘how does that square with my group? My people? My club?’ If we’re left-wing, we think that everything’s got to fit in with that; if we’re right-wing, everything’s got to fit in with that.

I would hope that people could learn to judge each truth-claim on its merits and not judge it whether it somehow fits in with their prior prejudices.

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Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.


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