30 minutes with Richard Dawkins: What Should I Ask?
October 8, 2009 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: What questions should he ask Richard Dawkins during a radio interview?

Tomorrow my friend will be interviewing Richard Dawkins for a radio program. The interview will not be aired live, so there will be a chance to edit. The interview is in person and will last 30 minutes.

Now, I know Metafilter and Mr. Dawkins have a bit of a sordid history, and he isn't always a popular person on the blue. So please no Dawkins bashing suggestions - I'm looking for intelligent, thoughtful and illuminating questions that would be received well by Dawkins and would lead to interesting answers/conversations.

The interview is part of his tour to promote his new book The Greatest Show on Earth.

So, what should he ask him?
posted by JaiMahodara to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd be interested to know what kind of background he has in the social scientific study of religion. Probably too hostile...
posted by ServSci at 1:28 PM on October 8, 2009


Response by poster: I'd be interested to know what kind of background he has in the social scientific study of religion. Probably too hostile...

Yeah, this is what I am not looking for. My friend wants suggestions for questions relating to the content of Dawkins work and the subject matter at hand, not questions concerning Mr. Dawkins Character.
posted by JaiMahodara at 1:31 PM on October 8, 2009


Ask him about what impact being such a vocal atheist has had on his day to day life? Does he attract abuse? Does he ever feel threatened? Has it changed how he acts in public?

Is he aware of having changed anyone's mind?
posted by biffa at 1:32 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: I agree with you that ServSci's proposed question is not what your friend should ask. But it's not a question about Dawkins' character. It's a question about his qualifications. I wouldn't ask him that question anyway, though.

That said, I would ask him what, in his opinion, is the most exciting recent development in biology research and where that development is likely to lead his own work.
posted by The World Famous at 1:35 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


At my old radio show we did a debate between Edd Doerr and Christopher Hitchens on the subject of atheism vs. humanism in a secular democracy. I think a great question might be whether Americans can intelligently handle discussion of atheism in the public square.
posted by parmanparman at 1:42 PM on October 8, 2009


I've always been curious about his own aesthetic sensibility, because whenever he's talked about such things, it seems to be calibrated around "oh, well that's quite nice", and since the final chapter of this book seems to be asserting a kind of aesthetic case for the grandeur of evolutionary biology,

So: has a piece of religious art -- architecture, music, theatre, literature -- ever made him cry, and if so, why does he think that is in biological terms? Or, to widen it out, to ask him what he thinks about the underpinnings of aesthetic response towards all-encompassing systems, particularly with regard to the Burkean sublime but also Jamesian religious experience.
posted by holgate at 1:43 PM on October 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


Whether he still sees the issue of punctate evolution, where change happens in fitful bursts, as important. It was a major point of disagreement between him and Stephen Jay Gould, and it is still important.
posted by fcummins at 1:45 PM on October 8, 2009


The evidence for evolution works beautifully as a whole and when taken altogether. Is there a piece of evidence that stands above the others as most important, whether empirically or simply in his estimation?
posted by The Michael The at 1:48 PM on October 8, 2009


Of course it depends on the context of the interview, but I disagree with the implication that your friend shouldn't ask tough, combative questions: it makes for good radio, it's what Dawkins has to expect given his work and his public statements, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's what he actually finds most enjoyable, anyway.

I would ask him to describe the most transcendent, awe-filled, "spiritual", "mystical", sublime experiences of his life. I think a big part of the crossed wires between people like him and Karen Armstrong come from a strong suspicion on the anti-Dawkins side that he's paying lip service to this dimension of experience.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:50 PM on October 8, 2009


I'd like to ask him this:

"Dr. Dawkins, even those of us who understand and accept evolution are sometimes struck dumb by the novel adaptations of mother nature. The symbiotic relationship between carpenter ants and aphids is one example, the evolution of an elephant's trunk from a more typical nose is another, or the way a caterpillar and butterfly are like two utterly different organisms."

"Among all the strange adaptations in nature, which has been the most astonishing and difficult for you to believe?"

-
posted by General Tonic at 2:01 PM on October 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hey Richard

Is there a possible evolutionary advantage to groups that hold religious beliefs?
posted by jade east at 2:10 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dear Mr. Dawkins,

How similar the steps and results would be, if evolution got a second chance? Would we end up with living organisms that resemble the ones we know on earth? What's the chance there would be a human-like form like us?

Or more general: what's the balance between, on the one hand, a predefined evolutionary path because of the circumstances on earth; and on the other hand, the randomness involved in evolutionary steps?
posted by willem at 2:23 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: I thought the Colbert Report "interview" with Dawkins was just terrible, because all Colbert did was talk about Dawkins atheism in a completely unfunny way. If the radio interview is about the new book, the questions should be related directly to the subject matter. Everyone has already done the "The God Delusion" interviews and I am tired of hearing the same discussions go on when Dawkins gets questioned. Talk about the new stuff! Ask him what he thinks is the single most compelling piece of evidence for evolution. Ask him to make a scientific prediction based on evolution. Ask him to give some examples of unanswered questions about evolution and what we are doing to try to solve them. If you get into the religious stuff, consider asking him about Francis Collins' (director of NIH) "theory" of BioLogos (theistic evolution) and whether it can be reconciled with Dawkins' view.
posted by RobotNinja at 2:24 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


So: has a piece of religious art -- architecture, music, theatre, literature -- ever made him cry, and if so, why does he think that is in biological terms?

You know he's British?
posted by biffa at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I disagree with the implication that your friend shouldn't ask tough, combative questions: it makes for good radio, it's what Dawkins has to expect given his work and his public statements, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's what he actually finds most enjoyable, anyway.

I don't think anyone's saying he shouldn't be asked "tough" questions about his chosen subject matter. The only question that was nixed was one that implicitly questioned whether he has a sufficient expertise or credibility to be talking about the subject matter in the first place. I don't think we should second-guess the OP in ruling out that kind of question.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:48 PM on October 8, 2009


You know he's British?

Since I went to a few of his semi-regular public slanging-matches with the Bishop of Oxford, and I've seen the fairground animals peering out from his front window, yeah. And if the mythical stiff upper lip means that you can't have a bit of a weep to 'Nimrod' set against a green-and-pleasant land montage, then bollocks to that.
posted by holgate at 2:53 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mr. Dawkins: Are you or Bill Maher a more effective advocate of atheism, and why?
posted by dfriedman at 3:01 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


With the disclaimer that I haven't read enough by or about him to know whether this is a question he always gets: "Hypothetically speaking, what would you have to witness or perceive in order to be convinced that there was some kind of higher power?" You could prompt with some over the top scenarios.

I've seen his answer to "what if you're wrong?" the implication being that if he's wrong he could suffer whatever punishment the nonbeliever of some particular faith gets. He turns it around on the questioner and asks what if she's wrong by having chosen the wrong religion. That's not what I'm asking.

And I've seen his response to agnosticism, calling them fence-sitters - he points out that he couldn't absolutely prove the nonexistence of fairies in his garden but sees no point in allowing that they might exist because of how improbable they are. Substitute Santa or the tooth fairy. What I'm wondering is whether, like a true evidence-based scientist, he is always open to new information and evidence and would never let personal pride or dogmatism get in the way of incorporating any new evidence into his worldview, would never cling to an idea he simply wanted to believe because it gave him a comfortable anchor around which to structure his understanding of the world.
posted by Askr at 3:09 PM on October 8, 2009


How do you feel about Marcus du Sautoy dropping the focus on religion as your successor holding the chair of Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science?

Do you sometimes stop and reflect on how awesome you are?... because you really are.
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 3:22 PM on October 8, 2009


The following are not meant to be combattive questions, but are questions that I think would lead to some very interesting and important answers. And I don't think they would in any way "stump" Dawkins.

Given the not-insigificant frequency of falsification of data and other major and minor misconduct in scientific studies submitted to and even published in well-respected and peer-reviewed scientific journals and other publications, what, if anything, do you personally do in order to verify the viability of new scientific discoveries before you are willing to believe what you read in a scientific publication?

Do you ever accept another scientist's assertions regarding his or her observations, experiments, or conclusions without first conducting the entire experiment and observing the whole thing yourself? If so, why?

Should I accept as true your assertions regarding what has or has not been observed and tested by scientists? If so, why?
posted by The World Famous at 3:22 PM on October 8, 2009


What are your hopes for mankind?
posted by phrontist at 3:34 PM on October 8, 2009


The World Famous: No, they're just lame, and constructed as though Dawkins was a two-bit logical positivist who required first hand experience of everything before publicly accepting the truth of a claim.
posted by phrontist at 3:39 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ask him to comment on the tension between naturalistic determinism and free will. If our mental processes are merely chemical and biological, can we truly make choices? If we can, how? If we cannot, then can people actually be held truly responsible for their beliefs or actions, if such things are only the result of inexorable chemical and biological processes? He was previously asked this question, but unfortunately seemed taken aback by it and sort of dodged it. I'd really be interested to hear a fuller response.
posted by fhangler at 3:40 PM on October 8, 2009


Has he ever changed anyone's mind, and if so, how exactly? How can people like him engage people of strongly differing views, constructively?
posted by amtho at 4:15 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: I like RobotNinja's points. Dawkins supposedly wrote this new book to fully lay out the case for evolution to people who may not have been presented with the full picture before. So let him do it.

Is there one piece of evolutionary theory he finds most unknown and/or misunderstood by its opponents? Perhaps something that could conceivably change their minds once learned about or finally comprehended?

Why is admitting that Darwin wasn't right about everything not a repudiation of "Darwinism"? (What I mean here is every time some creationist finds some tiny thing that differs from Darwin they claim it means all of "Darwinism" is false. So I mean the question to Dawkins as a chance for him to expound upon the workings of the scientific method and the progress of knowledge - how the worldview of science changes with continuing observations of reality, unlike religion which keeps referring back to 1000+ year old texts as if that world had all the answers.)

Basically, I feel I wouldn't use such an interview to be "combative" but to let him make the case he wants to make, and to promote the book he's just written instead of the same old same old arguments over a previous book.
posted by dnash at 4:34 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: It would help to know where you are, or what radio station this is (or at least who the audience would be). US? UK? Canada? India? College radio? Local talk radio?

He'd probably like to actually talk about the book he has written and is promoting.

What prompted you to write this book? (probe further if not in the answer: How did your experience with the public reaction to The God Delusion shape this book?) Who did you write it for, or who do you hope will read it? (Answer: People who ______ and also people who _______.) And, after 400+ pages, what do you hope they both will take away from the experience?

Did you learn anything new/exciting/surprising while writing this book? Specifically, anything not too obscure that would go over our listeners' heads?

Evolution (and specifically human evolution) isn't as readily accepted in America as it is in Europe. Do you think this is entirely down to different levels of religiosity (and the way that shapes the educational curriculum) or do you think there is something else going on?

If this British news media is to be believed, educational standards in Britain are in decline (grade inflation, lower bar for passing GCSEs, A-levels, uni-degrees in soft-subjects, etc). Do you think this is true, and does it worry you?

In America there are many parents opposed to the teaching of Darwinian evolution (and a perceived pernicious liberal influence in the curriculum) that have chosen to completely home-school their children. If you woke up tomorrow, stuck in a school district that taught Intelligent Design as fact, would you consider home-schooling them (if only for that year's biology lessons)?

In this article several leading psychologists were asked to look inwards and share, in 150 words, one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves. (RD is not in there, but a few of his friends and peers, incl Susan Blackmore) are.) What's one nagging thing you still don't understand about yourself? (or, if struggling for an answer, What's one perplexing mystery of human nature generally that keeps bugging you?)

His dog died recently, so perhaps it's too soon to ask if the online chatter about him previously being anti-pet is true, and how he thinks he's changed after owning a dog. Or maybe not.
posted by K.P. at 4:34 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: The World Famous: No, they're just lame, and constructed as though Dawkins was a two-bit logical positivist who required first hand experience of everything before publicly accepting the truth of a claim.

Thanks for the vote of confidence and the thoughtful critique.

The point of those questions is not to suggest that Dawkins is a "two bit logical positivist who require[s] first hand experience of everything before publicly accepting the truth of a claim." The "why" question is the important part. It's not a quiz for Dawkins. The point is to get Dawkins talking about an interesting topic about which he is knowledgeable.

As to the second and third questions, the answer to the first part is obvious: Of course he does, and of course he thinks I should. And I would agree with him on that. But I would be interested in hearing his explanation as to why. I suspect I would agree with him there, as well. I can see where you're coming from as to these two questions, but maybe you didn't catch the significance of the "why" part.

As to the first question, I don't think you even read it if you think it is "constructed as though Dawkins was a two-bit logical positivist who required first hand experience of everything before publicly accepting the truth of a claim." There are plenty of things that one could do before believing a claim made in a scientific journal, including, but not limited to first hand experience. I would like to know just how rigorous Dawkins is in examining the claims of other scientists before he accepts their data, observations, and conclusions as correct.

One more question for Dawkins:

Given the subject matter of your new book, has it been your experience that, more often than not, the people who most vociferously reject evolution also simply do not understand evolution well enough for it to make sense to them?
posted by The World Famous at 4:42 PM on October 8, 2009


Best answer: Maybe something about this week's Nobel prizes? Someone he's hoping should get one that hasn't yet, what he thinks of the winners? Those seem like interesting enough questions that he probably is not frequently asked, since they're not usually as relevant as they are right now.
posted by losvedir at 5:20 PM on October 8, 2009


I see public debates in evolution in America being polarized between "creationists" and "evolutionists". But I see a lot of bad, bad use of "evolution" in popular culture. So, what I would like to know is:

What are the most common misunderstandings or misuses of evolutionary concepts among people who accept that it is true? (If he has some:) What kind of impact have these misconceptions had on public discussion and/or understanding of evolution?
posted by carmen at 7:45 AM on October 10, 2009


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