Why one of the world’s most celebrated scientists decided to attack a 14-year-old boy.
Richard Dawkins. Image via Wikimedia
Sometime this weekend, Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most celebrated and renowned biologists, decided to get on Twitter and start a beef with Ahmed Mohamed, a boy who loves clocks. Dawkins (tweets below) accused the 14-year-old of committing an insidious act of clock “fraud” for various pernicious motives, among them “possibly want[ing] to be arrested?” and an invitation to the White House. It was a sad and embarrassing moment for many in the scientific community, who saw Dawkins’ comments not only as impulsively patronizing, but completely irrelevant to the situation at hand.
Dawkins’ implosion may seem like an aberration, but the scientist is no stranger to Twitter controversy, and his thinking is grounded in (some limited, misguided interpretation of) empirical scientific reasoning. True, as some scientists and reporters have been careful to point out, Dawkins’ central claim—that Ahmed may have simply dismantled an alarm clock, rebuilt it, and called it an invention—isn’t entirely without basis. But his commitment to a very narrow definition of reason obscures the larger realities of the situation: one boy’s religion, and one school’s state-sanctioned Islamophobia, materialized with child-sized handcuffs. The relentless skepticism Dawkins’ so eagerly uses against Creationists (many of whom pose real harm to our evolving world) he used against a 14-year-old boy, who, Dawkins believes, could pose a real danger to … the clock community?
But Dawkins isn’t just relying on “simple logic.” His cynicism about the invention (or not-invention. Who cares?), and his belief that a 14-year-old could mastermind his way to a White House tweet, is founded both in cold reason and the emotional hyperbole he so vehemently accuses his critics of. Why Dawkins chose to start a Twitter war—either to cloak his Islamophobia, as some have suggested, or to teach a kid a lesson, as he himself probably thinks—is up for real, scientific debate and questioning. But the best way to test those hypotheses is not to denounce them as problems but explore them as conclusions, using the scientific method Dawkins spent his career defending.