Richard Dawkins: Should employers be blind to private beliefs? [link]

post by Kevin · 2011-01-25T19:57:20.424Z · score: 4 (7 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 43 comments

http://www.boingboing.net/2011/01/24/should-employers-be.html

43 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-27T14:17:07.866Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with Dawkins on this.

A guy who goes around talking about creationism in public, and wants to be an astronomer, either lacks common sense or wants to use the university as a platform for ideology. Those are bad signs in a job candidate.

But of all the crazy things a potential employee could believe, religious beliefs are the most likely to coexist with professional competence. Religion is usually instilled in childhood and linked up with a child's first introduction to morality; people frequently compartmentalize religious beliefs and go on to develop genuine real-world skills. In other words, a religious belief tells you a lot about an individual's upbringing, a little about his character, and not much about his intellect. (Robert Aumann is everyone's favorite religious-but-brilliant guy around here; but the ranks of mathematicians, at least, are full of Orthodox Jews who do excellent work while holding lots of plainly false beliefs. And Ramanujan was a believing Hindu. It's not rare at all.)

By contrast, a belief that the earth is flat tells you nothing about the individual's upbringing and a whole lot about his character and intellect -- he wasn't under thousands of years of pressure to believe bullshit, he came up with it on his own.

Dawkins wants to bite the whole bullet and actively encourage employers to refuse to hire people who have ridiculous beliefs, on the grounds that one stupid belief indicates bad character or unfitness for the job. He believes in judging people holistically. But think about what that means if it's extended beyond religion. Is it professional behavior to reject job applicants for their politics? Is it smart to reject a job applicant because she believes the Singularity is coming, or believes in polyamory, or believes that humans should colonize space one day, or wants to be cryo-preserved?

Some employers already do judge the "whole person," and to a greater or lesser degree reject people for private beliefs and life choices that are tangiential to job performance. Some industries care much more about demonstrated competence and less about whether you're weird in private life. I have a guess as to which hiring style actually gets more able employees.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-01-27T19:22:12.532Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

It seems clear to me that this is matter of status and reputation, not competence.

One of the worst nightmares of every university department is that they might let in someone smart and capable who is however concealing some seriously disreputable beliefs -- until the day he gets tenure and starts using the prestige and resources of this position for voicing them. Since academia are largely in the business of selling status and reputation, this is clearly an extremely serious threat, and from this perspective it's imperative for them to obsessively screen tenure-track job applicants and promotion candidates for even the slightest sign of disreputable ideas, whether or not related to their area of research.

In my opinion, this is a much more important issue than any considerations about whether and how much various kinds of delusional beliefs are indicative of technical incompetence and flaws of character. Indeed, in practice universities have no problem hiring academics with delusional beliefs of high-status sorts as long as they have the necessary technical competence.

(Of course, in some areas the academic mainstream itself consists largely of high-status delusional ideas, so espousing them may actually be a technical job requirement.)

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-27T19:36:20.853Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

True... and something that makes me uncomfortable about academia. Sometimes academia in particular can be very "holistic" about hiring.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-27T15:18:42.825Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the hiring concern was due to the evaluators using theism, or young-earth-creationism, or whatever, as an indicator of the employee's intellect or competence.

If it were, presumably the fact that they judged the guy vastly more competent on other grounds would counterbalance, and the question on the table would be "taking everything into account, is this guy competent enough to do the job?" And, judging from the article, their answer to that question was "Yes."

As you say, people compartmentalize.

The impression I got was that, having answered that question, they then asked themselves "will it make us look bad to have a visible public figure associated with us who believes this stuff?" and the answer was also "Yes."

And they decided the latter was more important, but then ran into trouble because they documented that process and anti-discrimination laws prohibit acting on that decision.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-28T08:39:05.622Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is it smart to reject a job applicant because she believes ... in polyamory?

Definitely not! :)

comment by Quirinus_Quirrell · 2011-01-26T01:07:02.624Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW · GW

This issue came up on Less Wrong before, and I will reiterate the advice I gave there: if a forbidden criteria affects a hiring decision, keep your reasons secret and shred your work. The linked article is about a case where the University of Kentucky was forced to pay $125,000 to an applicant, Martin Gaskell. This happened because the chairman of the search committee, Michael Cavagnero, was stupid enough to write this in a logged email:

If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin's religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious...

And that's where the trouble starts, because Martin Gaskell's religious beliefs would have been a serious risk to the university's reputation. No one would take a creationist seriously as an astronomer, and no one would take an observatory seriously if one of the first few Google results for its name connected it to creationism.

Which is why, as soon as they realized they had a creationist as a potentially leading candidate, they should have moved their hiring process into private meetings with poor note-taking, and started looking for better pretexts. Yes, anti-discrimination laws are crazy, but not all judges are. However, a judge can only work around craziness if you allow a suitable pretext, which means not discussing how you need to break the crazy laws in writing.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2011-01-26T06:22:24.405Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Either that or they could just hire the best qualified candidate for the job.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-26T10:39:22.297Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is that some, if not most, of the forbidden criteria carry real and useful information, hence there is a ever growing (proportional to the heavy handedness of government or corporate regulations) incentive to find creative ways to covertly take them into account.

Best person for the job =/= best qualified judging only by the allowed criteria

comment by taw · 2011-01-26T00:32:40.485Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW · GW

Not only beliefs should get special protection, religious beliefs should get special protection here because:

  • people are most strongly attached to them
  • people are really amazing at compartmentalizing them away
  • in every historical situation where any religious discrimination happened (almost always for some 'good reasons"), it had consequences ranging from bad to horrible; you would be extremely hard pressed to point any convincing counter-example

Dawkins' argument is based on him totally not understanding that compartmentalization is default state of mind.

Ironically I think this only applies to his thinking about religion, I doubt he has this same compartmentalization blindness in other areas of his life.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-26T10:27:43.646Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Dawkins' argument is based on him totally not understanding that compartmentalization is default state of mind.

Upvoted for this.

comment by mutterc · 2011-01-26T21:11:20.543Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Allowing (US) employers to discriminate based on religion would probably hit atheists the hardest. (In the general labor market, not so much in academia).

comment by mwengler · 2011-01-26T00:08:51.560Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

In my opinion, employers shouldn't be blind to private beliefs or race or gender or any of the other protected classifications. If you are looking for an EE professor in a U.S. university department with 17 white men and you have 4 candidates of approximately equal desirability, I would highly recommend hiring the one which is black or a woman, or even better, both. This purely reflects my desire to market the department to potential students, I would expect a broader pool of interested qualified students.

Protecting most categories is at best an inelegant solution to pervasive discrimination. As the pervasiveness of discrimination goes away, it would be nice to see these laws go away as well.

As far as the idiot who wrote that email, if I were the Dean or the Department Head I would charge him $125,000 for insubordination or stupidity, whichever he chooses to attribute his decision to write that stuff in email. Of course I wouldn't do it directly and wouldn't write down that it was coming down that way. But I would get my pound of flesh, and the next time he committed something to email or paper which risked costing the university money, I would fire him, or if he was tenured, put him in charge of the toilet cleaning committee and assign him to teach freshman computing for non-majors.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-26T10:32:46.839Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In my opinion, employers shouldn't be blind to private beliefs or race or gender or any of the other protected classifications.

Disagree.

They ideally should be blind, however I don't think rigid qutas or equating inequality of outcome with inequality of opportunity is helping anyone.

In my estimation the best solution currently available to us is to keep government completely blind on ethnicity or even give preference to some groups while letting the private sector complete freedom to choose in this regard and let the market handle it.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-01-26T15:42:17.893Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

however I don't think rigid qutas or or equating inequality of outcome with inequality of opportunity is helping anyone.

How do you distinguish between outcome and opportunity? Which states of a person's existence do you label "opportunities" and which states do you label "outcomes"?

Or, to offer a less abstract question, how do you prevent different outcomes from becoming different levels of opportunity?

Two people start off with 10 dollar. They then both choose to spend 10 dollars on an even and fair bet. Person A wins and now has 20 dollars, Person B loses and now has 0 dollars. So far we have equal opportunity and unequal outcome. Fine so far. But then the same bet is offered again. Now person A can choose whether to bet again, and Person B doesn't have the choice. Difference of outcome has become difference of opportunity.

Is a person's education an opportunity which ought be equal, or an outcome of their parent's finances, so it's okay if it's unequal? Is their chance at employment an opportunity which ought be equal, or an outcome of his family's social circle, so it's okay if it's unequal?

I've seen "equality of opportunity" too often used as nothing but a smokescreen.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-27T21:00:27.769Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Different people will not do equally well on any given task. This is why we bother to select people for their positions and don't give them out via lottery.

Overall letting people compete by choosing in any way they see fit should reward those who choose rationally. Which should help us create more "wealth" than otherwise. Yes there are cases of tragedies of the commons where government intervention might be warranted, so as to limit choice, frack that's the whole reason government is a good idea! But such limitations of freedom need to be overwhelmingly proven not just to work against a identified tragedy of the commons situation, but to be cost effective.

Wealth redistribution in order to help those who are unfortunate enough to have lost their bet get another chance at betting or the below average to get intelligence enhancements/training/treatment/whatever will improve their performance is something I would firmly support however I think job distribution is a very poor way of doing this, it seems intuitively obvious that it reduces the overall amount of wealth a society has.

In my original post I say government should be blind on some axis or should even give positive discrimination, this is because government isn't usually in the business of wealth creation and because there are some zero sum benefits with holding a certain position in society and in most places on the planet there is a popular bias in terms of perceiving power and prestige in favor of government.

For the time being this seems a good bias to exploit for increasing general welfare by redistributing zerosum goods (feelings of power, prestige, fame) while making as small a negative impact on the positive sum games that make everyone's life better (the creation of material goods, information accrual, ect.).

I use equality of opportunity as a shorthand for meritocracy with a strong culture and support (be it government programs or private charity) for everyone's self-improvement.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-01-29T14:07:35.485Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Other than your last sentence that was a bit longer, and a bit less on the point of my question than I would have liked -- you went on a bit of a tangent there. Though I don't disagree with most of what you said, I might weigh each element's relative importance a bit different.

One thing: to me it seems inaccurate that you use "equality of opportunity" as your shorthand, when the word "equality" (or any synonym thereof like "identical", "even", "same" "balance", etc) doesn't seem to appear anywhere in your longhand version. You certainly seem to support increased opportunities for everyone, but where do you support equal opportunities?

So, given that, do you really think that "equality of opportunity" is the best phrase to use when communicating your ideas? Why not call it "socially-supportive meritocracy" or something like that? Wouldn't that communicate your ideas better than "equality of opportunity", if you don't actually believe in people needing to have equal opportunities?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T09:21:08.253Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why not call it "socially-supportive meritocracy" or something like that? Wouldn't that communicate your ideas better than "equality of opportunity", if you don't actually believe in people needing to have equal opportunities?

The nearest approximation I would like to use is meritocratic social democracy or efficient welfare state but both terms (welfare state, social democracy) have come to mean basically bread and circuses for the masses rather than genuine concern for optimally increasing citizens welfare.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T09:16:55.576Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You certainly seem to support increased opportunities for everyone, but where do you support equal opportunities?

In a sense this comment rings true.

I don't really care how people do compared to each other in a relative sense as long as everyone is sufficiently better off in absolute sense. I generally agree with John Rawls on this, though I do value equality in itself a bit less.

However I realize that sometimes relative inequality is important because it determines the distribution of zerosum goods like power, prestige and respect. I therefore value equality in a instrumental sense since some equality is necessary for feelings of well being.

I propose we accept less efficiency in government than in the private sector to like I previously said exploit people's progoverment bias to redistribute zerosum goods with less impact on nonzero sum goods than is otherwise possible.

BTW Let me point out that generally people use "equality of opportunity" to mean a fair chance whatever that is and that generally a ideal of meritocracy is a about the closest reasonable approximation one can make without stretching the idea to necessarily mean equality of outcome. People generally mean the latter when they just say equality. Its quite intuitive that if you don't get a job because you don't belong to the right group this creates feelings of being wronged, popular notions of fairness often have elements of meritocracy interwoven. An appeal to equality of opportunity is often a appeal to such a fuzzy concept of fairness.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T09:26:10.394Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why not call it "socially-supportive meritocracy" or something like that? Wouldn't that communicate your ideas better than "equality of opportunity", if you don't actually believe in people needing to have equal opportunities?

Again you want to equate the use of equality of opportunity with equality of outcome by saying that if the odds aren't literally equal this can't be called equality. But the popular use just dosen't match this definition, I don't think its useful to spend effort to try and change the meaning of words or phrases to suit one's conclusions about what they ought to mean, even if these are reasonable.

But even if you disagree on the reasonable of such effort. Let me point out that changing just LW usage of terms simply to render them synonyms with another term rather than to increase accuracy seems to be a tendency that just adds to the already rather formidable catch of data that is LWspeak which when not absolutley necessary detracts from the aim of raising the sanity waterline.

From wikipedia:

Equal Opportunity, sometimes known as Equality of opportunity, is a term which has differing definitions and there is no consensus as to the precise meaning.[1] In the classical sense, equality of opportunity is closely aligned with the concept of equality before the law, and ideas of meritocracy.[2]

Yes there is the legitimate dissent about the meaning, yet I think its pretty darn obvious when people use it in the classical sense. Especially considering the context of this discussion.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-01-30T21:47:11.099Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are words that are meant to communicate meaning, and there are words that are meant to obfuscate meaning, and I have concluded that "equality of opportunity" is almost always meant to obfuscate meaning. It uses the word 'equality' only because it's a nice-sounding and popular word, not because it's what the concept advocates. Certain political types want to argue that they're for equality too, so they just labelled their position "equality of something" -- when that has nothing actually to do with equality.

I don't want to "equate" its use with anything else. I want to see it replaced with a phrase that actually communicates its actual meaning more clearly.

When you use it with a different meaning, that means that if someone actually advocates equality of opportunity (e.g. everyone starting in life with a specific identical sum of money, and similar education, without ability to be helped by their parents or other family connections) they don't actually have a way to say it. You've usurped the phrase.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T22:39:12.262Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At the risk of inflaming political sentiments, I do feel I need to somewhat come out of the closet to respond to this one.

When you use it with a different meaning, that means that if someone actually advocates equality of opportunity (e.g. everyone starting in life with a specific identical sum of money, and similar education, without ability to be helped by their parents or other family connections) they don't actually have a way to say it. You've usurped the phrase.

But I do advocate equality of opportunity under nearly precisely the terms you define. In a ideal world material starting conditions would be identical and access to self-enhancing technology would be trivial for everyone. Differences would be the result of inevitable differences in actions that would result from all the different kinds of values "people" would choose, and even then I'm practically imposing a cap because as I've clearly stated in previous posts I believe in diversity and don't think uberefficient values or designs should be allowed to gobble up (or paper-clip so to speak) everything. I hope the universe will eventually be divided between, many patches of interesting individuals and/or societies with different values. And yes I'm perfectly ok with one patch/individual/society looking at another and not approving of what they see, but I would ideally like them to live with it.

Even in today's world, the very very non-ideal one, you'll find I'm quite ok with a lot of wealth distribution and some other interventions. You'll find few objections to well thought out universal health care or free education (all levels) schemes from me.

The only real thing I can't negotiate on is meritocracy when it comes to natural talent and culture. Natural as in genetic or very very difficult to change traits that are passed epigenetically. We don't have the tech to change either right now, and I think redistributing research positions on considerations others than "best person for the job gets it" will clearly set us back on getting that!

And let me be perfectly clear I am generally not ok with people being forced to change their culture or genes (once the tech is there). But I do think that to prevent society from going into a caste system with no ways to change casts if one so desires, free or very cheap genetic engineering and memetic interventions will have to be made available to those who choose them. And those who don't choose them should never be worse off in absolute sense, but they will have to accept larger relative levels of inequality as time goes on. Especially if they choose to remain unmodified humans.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-30T22:50:24.734Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think redistributing research positions on considerations others than "best person for the job gets it" will clearly set us back on getting that!

Do you think that redistributing the non-natural and non-cultural stuff won't set us back (or, rather, slow us down)?

Or are you willing to tolerate the slowdown in one case but not the other?

Or... ?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T22:57:10.431Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wealth redistribution in order to help those who are unfortunate enough to have lost their bet [referring to ArisKatsaris's example of identical people betting and losing and then being in a unequal position to bet again] get another chance at betting or the below average to get intelligence enhancements/training/treatment/whatever will improve their performance is something I would firmly support however I think job distribution is a very poor way of doing this, it seems intuitively obvious that it reduces the overall amount of wealth a society has.

If everyone gets a bigger slice of the cake in absolute terms than they would otherwise, then some greater relative inequality is not problematic. Actually as long as everyone is as a result better off in absolute terms its wrong (according to my values) to slow down the growth of the cake.

However let me again emphasise that I think we are dangerously close to mind-killer territory. On second thought I already feel I've crossed the line and in a sense regret my previous post, but don't feel it fair to delete it considering others have commented on it already.

Edit: Its late here and I misread your questions. I don't think redistributing material wealth for new generations will slow "society" down people once we get to real self-improvement tech. Providing a safety net will slow us down but I think most people value risk aversion, heck I prefer not to be cut off from advancement just because the odds didn't work out in this branch of the multi-verse too! So I consider slowdown caused by that to be acceptable.

Also natural is I think a imprecise word in this context.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-30T23:28:52.919Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

OK. Thanks for replying; I'll respect your regret and leave it there. If it helps at all, my political preferences are, I think, relatively consistent with yours.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-30T22:33:10.510Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

First off let me say didn't mean to use the word in a subversive way and apologise if I did, I hope its apparent that I've tried to make my view and the meaning of my words as clear as possible.

I have concluded that "equality of opportunity" is almost always meant to obfuscate meaning. It uses the word 'equality' only because it's a nice-sounding and popular word, not because it's what the concept advocates.

Equality in general is used in this fashion.

I don't want to "equate" its use with anything else. I want to see it replaced with a phrase that actually communicates its actual meaning more clearly.

On the surface this seems reasonable, perhaps meritocracy is the natural replacement. But I think the difference in warm fuzzie income people get when they can brag about being meritocratic vs. when they can brag about being egalitarian aren't really that big. Also the basic arguments that all the various sides use don't really change either when one goes with the alternative terminology. Functionally it makes little difference in the political sphere and I would dare say it makes little difference in a more theoretical one where people generally precisely define the terms they use to mean what they want anyway.

Also note that I wasn't originally commenting whether the use of the phrase was misleading or not.

However since you bring it up I would challenge the notion that equality before the law being an important part of a meritocracy isn't equality in a intuitive sense of the word (this is why I even brought up the intuitive sense of fairness and how it is invoked before).

You seem to think I would be aghast at a world where everyone had access to similar or even identical material wealth or starting positions. I would not. This debate has taken a faint but quite distinct whiff of blue vs. green tone.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-27T04:01:20.497Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In my estimation the best solution currently available to us is to keep government completely blind on ethnicity or even give preference to some groups while letting the private sector complete freedom to choose in this regard and let the market handle it.

We tried this. We made up laws to change it because there was blatant, rampant discrimination that was not based on any kind of empirical data.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-01-27T05:33:09.508Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When did we try this?

I believe we pretty quickly went from government mandated discrimination, to government mandated reverse discrimination/affirmative action.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-27T05:57:50.065Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I believe we pretty quickly went from government mandated discrimination, to government mandated reverse discrimination/affirmative action.

That's not true. Although how not true this is depends on what governments you are talking about. In the US, the federal government was integrated many years before much of society (note for example that one early success of integration was in the armed services). However, it is true that some state governments engaged in large-scale and systematic discrimination until the mid 1960s and that that was forced out close to the same time that anti-discrimination measures on private businesses were passed.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-27T16:19:13.011Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I had actually been thinking of "No Irish Need Apply" among other things, but then I looked it up and that turned out to be an English thing, and the commonly accepted ubiquity of it in America was a myth. So I'm gonna hold off until I've double checked the rest of the things I was thinking of. In the meantime, what exactly do you mean by government mandated discrimination and when are you saying it ended?

(And as Joshua notes, what country are we talking about here? I live in America, so that's what I was thinking of)

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-01-28T01:03:15.737Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm referring to the Jim Crow laws, as well as related federal laws.

comment by bentarm · 2011-01-26T14:16:10.421Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

the best solution currently available to us is to keep government completely blind on ethnicity or even give preference to some groups

This seems to cover every possibility. What exactly do you think is the other option?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-26T16:24:30.496Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My point was that the private sector should be allowed to discriminate, while the government probably shouldn't since its too easy to abuse.

It can be reformulated as regardless of what one does with government the private sector should be free to choose.

comment by sketerpot · 2011-01-26T18:56:21.038Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's also a Hacker News discussion thread about this.

comment by free_rip · 2011-01-26T00:38:57.750Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Whether they should or not, they will always see such things. And in practicality, if you make laws allowing them to see such things, then it will be taken too far. At the moment, there is some sizable leeway due to all the other factors involved, but - as in this article - if someone is so clearly above there is no competition, then religion should not outweigh that (even if it chimes in) and so legal action is taken when it does.

Personally, I think this current balance works a lot better than going totalitarian on either side of the debate. If you cracked down on anyone who showed the slightest discrimination, you'd get a lot caught up who weren't even meaning to look at those factors. If you allowed the most blatant prejudice as in the article above, you'd end up with a lot of discontent and widening gaps and animosity between the religious and non-religious.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-01-28T01:14:10.907Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

BTW, people do realize that this guy wasn't himself a creationist. He was simply willing to tolerate creationism.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-28T01:54:42.694Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

BTW, people do realize that this guy wasn't himself a creationist. He was simply willing to tolerate creationism.

That's misleading. He claims not to be a Young Earth Creatonist. but he respects "people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible" (see his own website here) and he notes that that view clashes with science. However, he is careful to say that he prefers labeling that view as YECism and apparently self-identifies as a creationist.

Moreover, some of his views are unambiguously anti-evolution, and he has repeatedly cited all sorts of borderline nonsense about biological matters written by creationists and ID-proponents.

Overall, the impression I get of him, especially from this interview is that he's either mendacious or very confused. I suspect the second. He seems to be a textbook case of cognitive dissonance in action.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-01-29T08:32:43.132Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

JoshuaZ:

Overall, the impression I get of him, especially from this interview is that he's either mendacious or very confused. I suspect the second. He seems to be a textbook case of cognitive dissonance in action.

Or it might be that he has actually thought about these matters, and honestly found them confusing.

Among the contemporary high-status intellectuals who would enthusiastically affirm their belief in the theory of evolution and condemn all disbelievers in it, how many have a real understanding of it, and how many are just going along with the mainstream without any real understanding of the matter? I'd say the former group includes the actual evolutionary biologists (obviously), and also a lot of people who are literate in hard sciences and characterized by broad intellectual curiosity, but almost nobody outside of these categories -- which account for only a small minority of modern academics, and an even tinier minority of the respectable intellectual classes overall. The rest would have no problem denouncing evolution in the same terms as the most fervent creationists if it just happened to become a high status marker tomorrow; for them it would require no greater intellectual adjustment than adapting to a new fashion in hairstyles.

Darwinian evolution is a very difficult subject, which requires a great deal of counterintuitive thinking to grasp with any degree of accuracy. Smart and well-informed people who oppose it often have interesting arguments that deserve a serious refutation rather than sneering. To make a historical analogy, it's as if someone sneered at Einsten's 1930s arguments against quantum theory -- some of them were indeed a product of confusion and have been decisively refuted since, but mindlessly sneering at them is not a way to prove oneself an intellectual superior of Einstein.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-29T16:45:20.011Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Or it might be that he has actually thought about these matters, and honestly found them confusing.

Possible but not likely. He seems to not be confused about the genuinely confusing aspects but more confused about the fact that he wants his religion to be true.

Among the contemporary high-status intellectuals who would enthusiastically affirm their belief in the theory of evolution and condemn all disbelievers in it, how many have a real understanding of it, and how many are just going along with the mainstream without any real understanding of the matter? I'

Oh certainly quite a lot. (In fact I just had a discussion with someone a few days ago who was bashing creationism and after a few minutes of discussion it was clear that the person had close to zero understanding of how evolution worked.)

Darwinian evolution is a very difficult subject, which requires a great deal of counterintuitive thinking to grasp with any degree of accuracy. Smart and well-informed people who oppose it often have interesting arguments that deserve a serious refutation rather than sneering.

This I disagree with. Smart people often have superficially plausible arguments often connected to their lack of actual understanding or investigation and religious motivation. The set of people who are both smart and well-informed and have a problem with evolution is tiny. This sort of claim would have been valid in the 1920s or 1930s or maybe even a bit later than that. But at this point evolution is understood well enough that failure to understand it reflects one's own ignorance or cognitive biases more than it says anything else.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-02-02T21:06:49.950Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

JoshuaZ:

This I disagree with. Smart people often have superficially plausible arguments often connected to their lack of actual understanding or investigation and religious motivation. The set of people who are both smart and well-informed and have a problem with evolution is tiny.

The number of such people is indeed small, but they do exist. The point I'm driving at is that although their ultimate conclusion that Darwinism is false reflects their cognitive biases, typically due to religious motivation, the objections they raise in the process are sometimes not at all ignorant and superficial. Unlike the usual canards and fallacies put forth by run-of-the-mill creationists, sometimes they indeed strike at the heart of things that are still a matter of controversy, confusion, and enigma even among evolutionary biologists. (Hence my analogy with Einstein's 1930s attempts to refute quantum theory.)

This sort of claim would have been valid in the 1920s or 1930s or maybe even a bit later than that. But at this point evolution is understood well enough that failure to understand it reflects one's own ignorance or cognitive biases more than it says anything else.

The very basic ideas between evolution are indeed understood very well nowadays, but as soon as we get into more complex and more concrete issues, often a great deal of controversy and confusion persists even among experts in evolutionary biology. Just think of all the controversies about punctuated equilibrium vs. gradualism, spandrels vs. "Panglossian" adaptationism, the existence and extent of group selection, the epistemological soundness of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, all the numerous case studies where it can be difficult to establish whether a plausible-looking evolutionary explanation is a real insight or a just-so story, etc., etc. Even the ways in which the very basic principles of Darwinism can be validly formulated are a matter of some controversy (witness the arguments over whether the full-blown Dawkinsian gene-centric formulation is valid and complete).

In this situation, one can pose many questions that will get contradictory and confused answers from the experts, and sometimes the only honest answer will be "we have no idea." Of course, it is fallacious to use this to conclude that the very basics of evolution are false. However, there are some smart and well informed people who derive this invalid conclusion, and even though the conclusion itself is biased, it's by no means justified to dismiss their entire arguments as ignorant and uninteresting without hearing. (And however biased and misguided they are, they are still, in my opinion, committing lesser intellectual sins than people who adopt belief in evolution on pure authority and without any real understanding, especially when they use it as a status marker or ideological weapon.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-29T15:10:52.204Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is there something you'd recommend as an explanation of the hard parts about evolution?

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-29T17:09:13.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The summary of the summary is "The universe doesn't care about you," subclass "The universe has no obligation whatsoever to work in a way that fits your modes of thinking." Failure to get this is IMO the root of the problem.

The problem with the understanding is that the living is easy right now and irrationality doesn't carry a near-mode survival penalty.

comment by timtyler · 2011-01-26T00:05:05.982Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Synopsis of the first paragraph:

The University of Kentucky has caved in and agreed a settlement, out of court, with the allegedly creationist astronomer Martin Gaskell. [...] Briefly, Gaskell was rejected for the position of Director of a new university observatory, and he sued the university on grounds of religious discrimination. The university has now settled to pay him off with $125,000, while declining to admit wrongdoing.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-06-27T08:10:06.442Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well this is disappointing; I like Dawkins. But this seems to me like an "us vs them" thing so obvious that it should be embarassing. When an atheist most competent for a job is denied it, that's bad, but when it's a creationist, Dawkins gets busy looking for a way to justify it. His wording pretty much says that all the real arguments are against him but he wants the particular conclusion and gets busy on trying to get there.

Putting myself in the shoes of an employer, I'd have no problem hiring a stork theory believer to operate on eyes if he was a great eye surgeon. The fact that he's a great eye surgeon screens off any other considerations - I already know everything that matters for the decision.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I'm a fan of the law interfering with employers' choice whom to let into their business, but that's a different debate. IF we are to have anti-discrimination laws, then they should be applied fairly to everyone.

Perhaps Dawkins is forgetting to take into account, because of how alien that way of thinking is to him, how well religious people tend to compartmentalise their views so that they can have real-life knowledge contradictory to their religious beliefs and neither really affects the other - that would require the dragon in the garage doing something detectable.