Tom Chivers has a theory about the latest Dawkins kerfuffle

Tom Chivers is a journalist and science writer who, like me,  was taken aback by the negative reactions to Richard Dawkins’s recent tweet about eugenics. (Remember? Richard said eugenics would “work” in the sense of changing population means in humans, but immediately added that he was against it.) Now, at UnHerd, Chivers has proposed a “theory” to explain the dichotomous reaction. (It did seem pretty dichotomous, with lots of people understanding what Richard was trying to say but a big number demonizing Dawkins for “favoring eugenics.” There were a few, like me, who understood what Richard was saying but thought he should have said it in a longer piece rather than vomiting it out on Twitter. Or not said it at all.)

First, an earlier tweet from Chivers in which he expressed the rudiments of his idea:

 

Click on the screenshot below to read Chiver’s theory, which is his:

So Chivers’s idea, which is his, is that there are two types of people: the “high-decouplers”, which, in a statement like Dawkins’s, can easily separate the “is”s from the “ought”s. They can see that he’s making a statement about the malleability of human traits to artificial selection and, at the same time, realize that this doesn’t mean Dawkins favors such intervention.

Then there are the “low-decouplers”, which couple Dawkins’s “is” statement with his “ought” statement. (I’d prefer to call the groups “couplers” and “uncouplers”.) These people embed Richard’s “eugenics would work” statement in a political and cultural milieu, and are unable to separate them. Ergo Richard, by saying “eugenics works”, is somehow justifying Nazism. That isn’t an exaggeration, as you can see if you’ve followed the pushback.

As an example of a low-decoupler, I posted a tweet from a scientist who called Richard a “clown” who was “supporting eugenics” and deserved to be denounced. When I asked in my post if that scientist actually read what Richard wrote, I was denounced by the person (a woman) as a “sexist asshat”. (The exact wording was “So in addition to ‘Fuck eugenics’ and “Fuck dawks,’ I’d like to add, Fuck Jerry Coyne you sexist asshat”.) That, I realized after reading Chiver’s piece, was double “low-decoupling”: not only was the person unable to decouple Dawkins’s “is” from his “oughts”, but was unable to decouple my mild criticism of her from the presumption that I was a “sexist” (and an asshat, too). What would imply I was a “sexist” beyond her own sex?

So here’s Chivers’s take (a quote, not the full piece):

I have a rule that I try to stick to, but which I break occasionally. That rule is “never say anything remotely contentious on Twitter”. No good ever comes of it. Arguments that need plenty of space and thought get compressed into 280 characters and defended in front of a baying audience; it is the worst possible medium for serious conversations.

. . . The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”

Having performed that ritual, you ward off the evil spirits. You isolate the thing you’re talking about from all the concepts attached to it. So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.

Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.

. . .That’s what I think was going on with the Dawkins tweet. Dawkins thought he’d performed the magic ritual – “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice” =  “By X, I don’t mean Y.” He is a nerdy, high-decoupling person, a scientist, used to taking concepts apart.

But many people reading it are not high-decouplers; they hear “eugenics” and “work” and immediately all of the history, from Francis Galton to Josef Mengele, is brought into the discussion: you can’t separate the one from the other.

. . . But I think the decoupling thing makes me understand a bit more why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry. Sometimes the ritual fails, and the spirits break through the warding circle.

Chivers also explains that Dawkins’s tweet, which seemed to appear out of nowhere, was actually aimed at Andrew Sabisky, a nasty piece of work and a former advisor to Boris Johnson (he appears to have just resigned over racist remarks).

At any rate, Chivers gives some other examples of quotes from people who were demonized because the proper decoupling wasn’t done. Some of those quotes are harder to parse, and Chivers seems to have some sympathy with the victims.  As he says “I think the decoupling thing makes me understand a bit more why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry.”

Well, the “coupling/decoupling” dichotomy is useful, I think, but hasn’t helped me understand more deeply why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry. They were angry because they deliberately misinterpreted what he said—either that or they couldn’t read or were just thick. What puzzles me is why so many people were and are so eager to demonize Dawkins. Jealousy is one reason, I suppose, but I don’t think that quite covers it. After all, there are psychological reasons for a seeming inability to decouple that the theory doesn’t cover.

Chivers argues that it’s easier for scientists to decouple because they’re “used to taking things apart,” but I don’t buy that, either. It is those who are enraged by Dawkins—and they include many scientists, who have demonized him for his tweet)—or are determined to bring him down, who can’t decouple in this case. How bright do you have to be to understand that Richard was talking about the efficacy of artificial selection and not that it should be used in humans? Is that so hard—especially when Richard immediately explained what he meant in other tweets?

I will probably use the designations of “couplers” and “decouplers” in the future, as it’s good shorthand for people who link (or don’t link) things that shouldn’t be linked. But I don’t think that giving these groups names helps us understand them or their motivations any better.

85 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    “Chivers also explains that Dawkins’s tweet … was actually aimed at Andrew Sabisky, …”

    It might have been, but that is pure speculation based only on a coincidence of timing (and even then, Sabisky/eugenics seemed to hit the UK media about a day after Dawkins’s Tweet).

    PS, Jerry, you likely meant “double coupling” in “That, I realized after reading Chiver’s piece, was double decoupling: …”

    • GBJames
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      To be fair, Chivers might have more than pure speculation as his basis. (I don’t know this to be true, but can you show that it is not the case?)

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        But Chivers doesn’t even assert any connection other than the timing coincidence. His wording is:

        “Dawkins, to my knowledge, never explained why he suddenly brought up eugenics out of a clear blue sky, but the word is in the news at the moment because … Sabisky”.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          Isn’t this one of those “absence of evidence” situations? I have no idea what the “word is in the news” refers to, but that doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

          I don’t want to over-argue this minor bit of uncertainty, however.

          • Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            “The word [eugenics] is in the news” means only that, if you read the newspapers at the moment you encounter that word (owing to the Sabisky story).

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Oops; I’ll fix, thanks.

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        And congratulations on 70k readers!

  2. peepuk
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I believe if one cannot decouple is from ought one cannot separate fact from fiction.

    Dawkins is crucified for a true statement, in contrast Jesus was crucified for false statements.

  3. TJR
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Religionists have mounted a very successful smear campaign against him since The God Delusion, and many otherwise intelligent people seem to have fallen for the relentless attempts at character assassination by these religionists. Throw enough mud and some of it sticks, or at least it appears to if you don’t look carefully enough.

    • Adam M.
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      My impression is that the most vociferous opposition comes from what used to be called the “Atheism Plus” crowd – people who feel that atheism must be combined with what we might now term “woke” beliefs.

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but I think it stems from particular run-ins such as over elevatorgate.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      The God Delusion certainly caused an uptick but religionists, post-modernists and self promoting attention seekers had Dawkins in their sights long before that. Since at least The Selfish Gene.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t agree. The religionists haven’t really managed to touch him.

      His real problems (if he regards them as such) stem from the “Dear Muslima” open letter that he wrote in response to Elevatorgate. A lot of the woke left decided at that point that he was the enemy.

      I think there are two things at play here.

      The first is that, if you think somebody is your enemy, you will probably find it hard to admit when they say something true so you twist it – consciously or unconsciously – to maker them look bad.

      The second is selection bias. The Twitterverse is basically everybody in the World who is on Twitter. I don’t know how many there are*, but, if only 0.1% of them are arseholes, that’s still a lot of arseholes. And outraged arseholes are much more likely to reply to a tweet that outrages them than people like me whose only reaction was to think “yes, that’s true”.

      On the Radio 4 stats programme “More or Less”, they say the first question you should ask about a surprising statistic is “is that a lot?” If Richard Dawkins gets a Twitter response of a thousand outraged Tweets, is that a lot? It may seem like it when you look at his feed, but considering how many people could have responded, it’s a drop in the ocean.

      *152 million daily active ones, apparently.

      • TJR
        Posted February 20, 2020 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        That’s who I mean by the “otherwise intelligent people who have fallen for it”. The pseudo-leftists have been gulled by the religionist propaganda.

        • Posted February 20, 2020 at 5:38 am | Permalink

          That’s what I don’t agree with. They haven’t been filled by religionist propaganda. Their antipathy towards RD is driven by the stance he took on Elevatorgate and other things he has said since then that could be similarly misconstrued, mainly on Twitter.

          • TJR
            Posted February 20, 2020 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            And my point is that their response to that was allowed/driven by the religionist propaganda which had created a widespread negative attitude to him, so that they were predisposed to pounce when he erred. They may not agree with any of the religionist propaganda, but it looks (to me at least) that it has helped shape their attitudes to Dawkins and others.

            My reasoning is that it seems to be the anti-religious folks like Dawkins and Harris who seem to get the greatest unreasonable pushback from the pseudo-leftists, making it look like the religionist propaganda has prepared the ground for the pseudo-leftists’ attitudes. I may be cherry-picking, of course.

            We should try a controlled experiment where 30 people express anti-religious views and 30 people express other views, then after a few years both groups express views which could be construed as non-PC. See if there is a between-group difference in response by pseudo-leftists.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    why dafuq won’t Dawkins stay offa Twitter?

    It’s no place for anyone who speaks, thinks, and writes (as he does) in nuanced and qualified subordinate clauses and appositive phrases.

    Leave Twitter to the sound bite artistes.

  5. eric
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s a useful idea, I agree, but I think I’d tie it to specific ideas people have rather than whole individuals. A person who can’t decouple on politics, might, for example be easily able to decouple on sports.

    Well, the “coupling/decoupling” dichotomy is useful, I think, but hasn’t helped me understand more deeply why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry.

    I expect that it’s harder to decouple on issues we really care about. The emotional parts of the brain override the rational parts, if the subject is veering into an area that rings emotional alarm bells.

    I’d also expect that in general (but with many exceptions possible), the ability to decouple improves with education level. Decoupling, after all, is pretty thematically close to “critical thinking” or “thinking academically” about a subject. Part of what college courses do is train people to put aside their personal feelings and view a topic through a more objective lens. That’s decoupling.

    Finally, I’d bet that people find decoupling easier on a full stomach, after lots of sleep, and when they’re unstressed. Going with my ‘one part of the brain overrides the other’ idea, my thought here is that you’re going to have a much harder time roping in the emotional parts of your brain when your will power is low. Call this the “coupling happens more when you’re hangry” prediction. 🙂

    • phar84
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      You could be right and the thing to do is to apply the scientific method to get at an answer.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I agree about the emotional part. I think there are people who go with the emotion and people who over-ride it. The should call them Kirks and Spocks just to make it nerdy.

  6. GEORGE SEPSO
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I can’t yet say quite why, but I would avoid future promiscuous use of the words, “couplers” and “decouplers”. Just sounds a bit off. Poor Richard has been taking way too much heat over the past few years, but my guess is that it doesn’t keep him up at night. Or at least I hope it doesn’t.

    • eric
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Weirdly, it makes me think of trains.

      • Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        It makes me think of Coupling.

        • Simon Hayward
          Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          That was such a good series. Had to import the DVDs, I don’t think it played here (the US version was crap and quickly cancelled)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        Pervert. 🤣

  7. Posted February 19, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I suspect the ability to decouple is actually a tribal thing, which we’ve all got to keep an eye on.

    If we identify someone as in our tribe, we can decouple their statements relatively easily. We can see the nuance and what they’re getting at, and take a charitable view on it.

    If we identify someone as being in the enemy tribe, then suddenly “possible” becomes “desirable” as we seek to interpret everything they say in the worst possible light.

    So it isn’t about two different kinds of people, as much as how people respond to two different kinds of people.

    • SRM
      Posted February 20, 2020 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      Yes, I would say definitely.

      But there is likely a hierarchical aspect too where tribal inclinations generate the first responses while the greater masses who might not identify with a certain tribe are easily swayed by knee-jerk responses because a)they are innately poor decouplers and b) when it comes to third rail concepts like race and gender and eugenics etc it is safer to err on the side of crimination.

  8. darrelle
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    “Well, the “coupling/decoupling” dichotomy is useful, I think, but hasn’t helped me understand more deeply why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry. They were angry because they deliberately misinterpreted what he said—either that or they couldn’t read or were just thick.”

    I agree and I think Chivers is being too charitable with a neutral term like “low-decouplers.”

    “How bright do you have to be to understand that Richard was talking about the efficacy of artificial selection and not that it should be used in humans? Is that so hard—especially when Richard immediately explained what he meant in other tweets?

    Again I agree, but I suppose we simply have to face the reality that there have always been such people and likely always will be. After all, people are still excoriating Dawkins over the title “The Selfish Gene” even though there was an entire book attached directly to the title that thoroughly explained that metaphor.

  9. EdwardM
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    After reading Chiver’s piece I have to say he is far to kind to those attacking Dawkins. Misunderstandings happen but many of the responses I’ve seen (and I will read no further on this) are deliberately misrepresenting his position. The word for this is NOT coupling; it’s lying.

    There is an asshat here and it isn’t Dr PCCe. That biologist has no excuse.

  10. rickflick
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    People who are low-decouplers could be simply illogical, or worse, malicious toward Dawkins.

  11. Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The coupling/decoupling idea sounds appealing at first, and reminds me of Myers’ Law. But I am not sure where it fits. I sometimes had the sensation too that someone appeared unable to experience anything without also sorting it into categories of good and bad. I also noticed that someone appeared to assume that everyone else thinks that way. I don’t know whether they are the same type, or whether this really is a consistent trait, or was just a notable or anecdotal instances.

    So, when someone says “it is raining” they also hear “… and that is a good/bad thing”. They cannot contemplate that information on its own, or second order, assume others cannot hear the information alone. For them, the meaning is highly dependent on how they or someone also feels about that fact. But that is also normal. There are typically contexts and reasons for utterances, and they colour the information strongly.

    Aspects of communication are long known, and contained in various models (Bühler, Jacobson, Von Thun), of which I brought up one aspect last time when you first reported on the tweet. Richard’s tweet could be understood as having the conative function (making an appeal) of advocating for eugenics, because he does not actually say in that very tweet he opposes it. He merely says that reasons to oppose eugenics exist, but that it would work. This is further evoked by the constellation of his statement, where a conclusion later (it works) trumps the former (reasons for opposing exist). In this case, I disagree, people are not bad at reading it this way. But I usually think they deliberately “misunderstand” him when they see an angle for a “gotcha”. Here, it’s more the failure to read other tweets or reading them uncharitably as backpedaling.

    I realise there are some more aspects that work against him this time. One of them is that statements also say something about the person expressing it, and the existence of joking-not-joking / metamodernist / dog-whistle politics. If you were uncharitable or had a certain bad impression of Richard, as is common among the wokerati, you could very well understand him this way. They also want to see him that way, and he also presented an opportunity. Let’s not forget, they are trapped in a bubble where everyone else also reads things that way.

    One problem of the de/coupling idea is that it tries to pin behaviours on other people with an apparent actor-observer bias. For oneself, things are complex and rich, but for others, they are just low-decouplers who can’t reason well.

    But communication is complex, with things like Grice’s cooperative principles. Effective “conversation” can be sabotage at every step, being deliberately obtuse, uncharitable and so on, which looks more likely for what goes on.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      An example is during solstices I’ll say for winter “it only gets brighter from here on out”. It’s a pure fact. People will thumbs up and praise my positivity on FB. Now if during summer solstice I post “It only gets darker from here on out” I get negative remarks that I am a downer and sad face emojis. Again, it’s just facts. I think people feel an emotion and react to it no matter the logic behind the words.

  12. Daniel Engblom
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I need to be a horrible kvetcher , this is my personal sticking point, and this isn’t aimed at Jerry or even necessarily the Tom, more a general thing I can’t resist commenting on.
    (The use of the Monty Python bit “My theory, which is mine” also tells me that Jerry already is on the same page and just more light-heartedly points this out whenever it shows up.)

    I tend to frown when people call descriptions in themselves theories. And this “high decouplers vs low decouplers” is just that, a description of events, why for instance you might not find it particularly helpful in shedding light on the situation is exactly because it didn’t propose a proper hypothesis or theory to underlie our observations, putting observations into a more robust predictive explanatory framework, it just tried to frame the situation in a more digestible manner.

    I’ve been annoyed at psychology for ages calling all kinds of observations as theories, Cognitive Dissonance Theory is not a theory for instance, just a insightful psychologist who managed to put into really clear words observations he made about people in his time, doesn’t change the fact that the only predictive power of that observation is just like with any other consistent observation, that we might expect to see more of the same observation, without understanding the drive behind it or more clearly predict the hows, whys and whens, the things that we expect out of proper theories.

    That’s not to downplay the importance of being able to put into clear neutral words phenomena that are messy, clouded in bias, and have been hard up until now to separate all the relevant factors from, like most psychological and sociological events are. But that doesn’t earn the title theory, or even hypothesis, yet, just the first important step into getting there, cataloguing and parsing observations to get a better picture of it, if still lacking in understanding of how it all relates to each other.

    This has been my soapbox, thank you for scrolling by.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I wonder where in the Scripture of Monty Python is the phrase “My theory, which is mine”.
      I had suspected that the formal use of the term “theory” in psychology is more like “supported hypothesis” in other fields. But I don’t really know for sure.

      • GBJames
        Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

  13. Mark
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Xians, and theists in general, have a desperate psychological need to manufacture arguments against what they perceive to be an attack on their faith where none exists, and it dominates all other concerns.

  14. Curtis
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I think it always good for scientists to state the truth especially when it uncomfortable. Refusing to speak the truth diminishes your own reputation and makes it easier for people to think you are lying. It also allows the nasty side to seem to be the truthful one.

  15. Dan T.
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the concept of decoupling originated on the Everything Studies blog, which just posted a reaction to the Dawkins thing here:

    https://everythingstudies.com/2020/02/17/picking-apart-eugenics/

  16. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I have observed this decoupling phenomenon often as well and early on it my own career. I attributed to separating out people who made decisions based on emotion and people who made decisions based on facts. I found early on that certain words could not be uttered in meetings when you were trying to get people to accept change because then they’d argue over that one word. I also found that no amount of rational argument would convince them. I find this quite a challenge for me but I’m learning more how to deal with the more emotionally driven folks. I have eliminated such people from my personal life (I tend to offend such people immediately. I also grow tired of people hearing a word and flying into a rage yelling at me before I’ve finished my sentence only for them to say “oh” when they hear the rest of what I was saying. I have no energy for these people.

  17. Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Decouplers, deschmucklers. There are people who can understand the simple difference between “could” and “should”, and there are people who cannot understand it (these people are stupid) and people who will not understand it because it serves their own purposes to say there is no difference (these people are malicious.) Let us not muddy the distinction between sensible people and stupid or nasty people by using silly jargon.

  18. Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    There is a lot of deliberate misunderstanding going on with Professor Dawkins’ tweets. There is also some, I think, genuine concern over a couple of things.

    First is his apparent use of the word eugenics to mean simply selective breeding to produce desired characteristics. This is certainly how I read it. Objectors point out, fairly, that eugenics means a whole lot more than this and that it also can’t be discussed without due consideration given to its social context and history.

    Second is the objection to his assertion that eugenics “works”. I am not qualified to judge the merits of the arguments but most of them seemed to me to apply to other animals just as much as to humans. One that seemed fair though is that humans have a long time between generations. This means that it would take decades, centuries even for any traits to be “fixed” even if they could be. A counter argument might be that this does not mean that eugenics will not work, just that it would take a long time. However, artificially selecting humans for decades brings one back to the first objection.

    Overall, I agree with PCC that it would have been better for Professor Dawkins to avoid this subject on Twitter. Especially on Galton’s birthday. I think a former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science could surely find better things to do than provide tone-deaf commentary in 180 characters.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I get the impression that people also can’t take criticism and immediately play a victim. Instead of arguing their point (which is most likely too weak for them to defend) they melt down and start playing the victim (you’re being sexist, you’re attacking me). FFS this world will chew you up and spit you out if anything really bad actually happens to you. I have very little tolerance for those who fetishize adversity.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      280 of course.

  19. Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins proposes three better theories on his twitter feed (which I happen to think he does well.) First, and most likely IMO, is that, simply, anonymity breeds jerks. Second, that the more talk causes louder and louder shouting to be heard. And, finally, the responses are pure virtue signaling. Thinking about it, I think all three are at work and a better explanation than low decoupling, whatever the heck that is supposed to mean.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, virtue signaling is more likely – the signaler does not need to be dumb, just selfish – and is the generic go to hypothesis. The rest is more web/Twitter specific.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    What would imply I was a “sexist” beyond her own sex?

    The obvious main problem would be that Dawkins is “an old, white, male” person, which for some sexists is very sexist.

    Well, that was disappointing. i held out the nice reading that the tweeter was thinking of the impracticality of an eugenics program. Apparently I was wrong.

  21. Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I have found that if you are against a policy better to just state why it is bad policy. Saying it works but is just jot a good way to proceed. Nobody waits to hear the but. They just hear it works and assume you are in favor of the policy. Blood pressure goes up, adrenaline flows and they are in arrack mode.

  22. andrewnwest
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I like the Rationalist ideal of figuring out why people (including oneself) are wrong, but we already have a word for low-decouplers: stupid.

  23. chris
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I thought the point that Dawkins was trying to make didn’t really appear until his second (or was it third) post. Namely that the conversation we should be having is why eugenics is a terrible idea, not whether or not it would work.

  24. KD
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, when people get emotional, it changes the way their brain functions, and it seriously impairs their cognitive function.

    People who are great intellects will make the worst kinds of arguments when angry.

    When someone tries to present a case leading from some kind of emotional appeal, I say watch out because they are probably trying to sneak in some crappy argument to persuade you while you are hot.

    Eugenics is one of those hot-button issues for many, and Dawkin’s tweet got a bunch of people to go all limbic on him. The fault is not in the reasoning, but in losing one’s cool, assuming you’re a Stoic.

    Humans do their best thinking when they are not emotionally animated, and the best logical case for an idea or a position can be made without appeals to emotion. Obviously, emotion has a role to play in persuasion and rhetoric, but in thinking not so much.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      “Go all limbic”. I do hope I remember to use this at an opportune moment.

      • darrelle
        Posted February 20, 2020 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        +1, Me too.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 20, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Yes, a choice expression. A little like, operating from the id.

  25. Jenny Haniver
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Oooooh! She’s spoiling for a fight. She says “email me you coward” “I’m not fucking scared of you.”

    She publishes her tweets publicly so I have no compunction about using her name, which you gave in you previous post on this subject
    “Dr Julie Blommaert 👩🏼‍🔬
    @drjulie_b
    ·3h
    Dear Jerry Coyne,

    If you actually want to engage with my argument that Dawks was endorsing eugenics through the act of lending it scientific validity, email me you coward

    Kind regards,
    I’m not fucking scared of you,
    Dr Julie Blommaert”

    I guess she’d call me an abject dupe and slave of the patriarchy, or worse, something like a female fucking clown ass, for taking your side in this matter.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, it was “asshat.” And would that be fucking female asshat or female fucking asshat? How about fucking female asshat clown?

      Dr. Julie knows.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Oh, yeah, racist, too.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      She sounds unhinged.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        I think that Dr. Blommaert must have imbibed some hallucinogenic Viking tea and gone berserking
        https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8014713/Rampaging-Vikings-fuelled-hallucinogenic-herbal-tea-feel-pain.html

        The article states that after drinking this tea, “Viking warriors known as berserkers went into battle naked in animalistic frenzy.” There were female Viking warriors, and just in case the Dr. has indeed sipped some of that stinking henbane tea or alcohol infusion, PCC(E) definitely needs to watch his back lest she come at him in naked fury!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Oh my tea secret is out.

  26. KD
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    It appears that scientifically, the Blank Slate is cooked, and moreover, “shared environment”, when statistically significant, often has very low effect size.

    The idea that people are “victims of society” or “victims of structural oppression” is on the same empirical grounds as “people communicate by telepathy” and “Zeus comes down from the sky and impregnates pretty girls”.

    The deplatforming efforts and the rest of what is called the “authoritarian left” is about trying to suppress and shut down empirical discussion. Its all about factual, empirical claims about reality, not normative claims (for example, the guy in UK who got sacked by citing empirical research on group differences in IQ in a social media post at 21 yo).

    Its almost as if egalitarianism is over if there are in fact two biological sexes and men (in general) are physically stronger than women. I’m not at all convinced that egalitarianism is over if it turns out there are sex-based or (god forbid) race-based differences in aptitudes (at least at the group level). But I do think it would be a better use of talents to explore what egalitarianism looks like after the Blank Slate is debunked, then try to suppress scientific information and scientific discussions.

    If it turns out that world class male athletes will always deadlift more weight than world class female athletes, does that mean we all have to go out and join the Nazi’s? I do not see how that follows.

    But if there were sex-based differences in strength, I don’t see the use in pretending that it is not so, or excommunicating people for mentioning it in public. You are not promoting a “norm” of equality, you are promoting a “norm” of bullshit.

  27. jedijan
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I just had to laugh at that. Whether you may be sexist or an asshat really does not matter in this context … or the scheme of things lol. This is just a case of a, b, & c:

    a. (Some) People can be dicks.
    b. (Some) People will be dicks.
    c. (Some) People are dicks.

    Apologies in advance if the word dicks (think ducks 🦆) does not meet the approval if the grammar nazis. 🙂🙃🙂

  28. Vaal
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Chivers talk of high/low-decouplers is intriguing and seems intuitively appealing.

    Especially to someone who fancies himself to be a “high-decoupler.”

    But I get a bit wary when I feel an explanation is attractive to me or somehow self-confirming. When it comes to things we hold deeply we tend to be pretty bad at psychoanalyzing others. Usually on a subject of disagreement we attribute “reason” to ourselves and “psychology” to the other person. After all, I’ve done the reasoning! I know how this turns out. If the other person isn’t agreeing it’s because they simply aren’t reasoning about it. So, I will venture some other non-reason-based psychological explanation: “They are simply emotionally attached somehow to their conclusion.”

    But running with the high/low-decoupler explanation, what intrigues me are the disagreements between “High-decouplers.”

    The subjects of Free Will and Consciousness seem to be prime examples. I think for instance there have been debates between “high decoupling” people, e.g. Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, or many of us on this site, where there seems to be an almost maddening divide that seems almost un-crossable. And for BOTH sides it can feel like an encounter with a dogmatic theist. It feels truly bizarre.
    And both sides feel the pull to attribute “reason to my view; some psychological explanation to the other view.” (Note for instance how often Jerry and others here associate compatibilism with religious impulses, often including psychological motivations when critiquing compatibilists. The same thoughts arise in the minds of compatibilists about incompatiblists).

    As far as I can determine (ha!) it seems to boil down almost to a battling intuitions, which makes really “getting” the other side extremely difficult.

    I find the same thing regarding the debates about Consciousness, in particular the purported Hard Problem.

    It seems to me I just don’t share the intuition of those who are taken by The Hard Problem. I can listen to the arguments over and over, and they just don’t tick anything over in my mind, nothing sinks in to my bones like “aha! Yes, that DOES seem like a complete mystery!” It feels more like being sober while listening to someone smoking a bong telling me about how incredible it is that “we are all ONE with the universe!”
    We aren’t on the same tuning frequency.

    • KD
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      It is clearly a showcase of philosophical talent to be able to conjure a “hard problem” out of thin air.

      How much energy has been spent as a result of DesCartes’s skepticism about the existence of an external world into various philosophical proofs that the external world exists. That was a “hard problem” that tied up Western thought for a few centuries.

  29. John Donohue
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    [opinion … ]

    They rage because they know it is true. They know that eugenics and/or selective breeding actual can work.

    They rage because they know there is nothing protecting them except reason. Moral reasoning leading to individual rights protected by the mechanism of state.

    The Nazi Reich would have performed selective breeding, mercy killing of newborns, floating elders on ice flows.

    They are so terrified, they want to construct reality such that it cannot work, cannot ever be tried. They want to obliterate the very concept out of existence by the sheer willpower of their rage.

    Someone like Dawkins, who casually states the simple decoupled fact, becomes the Angel of Death.

    They rage because they know that the protection – state guarantee of individual rights – has so often corrupted into its opposite – state tyrannical control of citizens.

    [end opinion]

  30. kelskye
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think many people really think Dawkins is endorsing eugenics, or that him bringing it up is a *wink wink nudge nudge say no more* to eugenics. I think it’s more a reaction to every disagreement they’ve ever had with anything he’s said and the desire to see him banished from the public eye.

    In this case it seems evidently absurd, because it’s obvious Dawkins didn’t say what the outrage is about. But I think there’s a lot of ill will towards Dawkins that his tweets will always be viewed through.

  31. GEORGE SEPSO
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    What curious turns these threads sometimes take. Acrimony seems to be the order of the day. I’m tempted to join the fun, but I think I’ll have another beer instead.

  32. Greg Geisler
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Low-couplers often appear to be people on the Woke Left. And are likely the same folks who support the wearing of the hijab.

    I have my own theory about Dawkins’ tweets, one that I considered when his “rape” tweet generated such a controversy. Dawkins is using twitter for social thought experiments. It’s like he is tossing chum into the waters to see what kinds of sharks it attracts. I like to think that Dawkins knows -exactly- what he is doing and that the consequences of his tweets are that the ensuing dialogue (and flaming) serves as en epistemological exercise that would not otherwise be undertaken by most people. I think that after the dust has settled that some people, maybe many, have learned something about how to think. I know that I have. I personally welcome Dawkins’ chum and it’s been too long in between feedings.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      I think that the right also participated in this low coupling. The Discovery Institute, for instance, is already gleeful about Dawkins’s supposed “endorsement” of eugenics, and you can see how many people who are against evolution (i.e., on the right) would join them.

  33. Posted February 19, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman covers this coupling, uncoupling but he uses terms like availability heuristic, the associative machine, cognitive ease.
    After reading his book, (many years ago) I suspect even if RD had laid out clearly his reasons behind making this tweet the damage was done once the word eugenics was drawn out of it… RD is a nazi and favours eugenics.
    NAZI now being attached to the tweet is easier to get biases worked up about and condemn. Self satisfaction is complete and morality intact and out there. Big time science, atheist, notable author served.
    His name, RD himself in some cases, would be enough to start the ball roling.

  34. Steve Gerrard
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    An awful lot of the fuss seems to hang on Dawkins choice of using “works” to describe a successful action.

    Saying that something works has a connotation for many people that it works well and is a good thing. While it is possible to say that a chainsaw works for cutting weeds, since some weeds will get cut, most people would think you were crazy for saying it.

    Does that work for you? It works for me.

    • jedijan
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Perfectly. 🙂

  35. Posted February 19, 2020 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I din’t agree that eugenics would work. We din’t yet know that much about heredity. Many problems are caused not by just one gene but by combinations, multiples and environmental. Then there us the problem of unintentional consequences. Some of the things we eliminated might be necessary for reasons of which we are now unaware. It also would not work if you include possible psychological and social effects.

    • Posted February 19, 2020 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry but you don’t know what you’re talking about. So long as there is heritability of a trait in an environment, selection in that environment will produce a response directiy proportional to the strength of selection. It doesn’t matter how many genes there are, all that counts is the heritability, which has been measured.

      You could make the same argument for wolves (except for culture): “I don’t agree that selection on wolves would work.” Dozens of breeds of dogs would bark at you for being wrong.

  36. carpevita
    Posted February 19, 2020 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    The Ezra Klein/Sam Harris kerfuffle rather bugs me. Why does someone who appears rather intelligent like Klein seem incapable of decoupling? Perhaps it has become a cultural expectation that “By X I hear Y” even when it is quite clear the opposite is true. Thus we all must abide by this illogical new cultural norm or face the wrath of those who flaunt their “virtues” with vitriol.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 19, 2020 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      Yeah I really liked Ezra Klein but the whole Sam Harris argument was frustrating and disappointing & I haven’t been able to see him the same since.

  37. davidlduffy
    Posted February 20, 2020 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    My reading of this tweet was the “charitable” one that most geneticists would make, but I’m afraid that for 99% of the population the proposition that “human eugenics would work in practice” is support for the hereditarian Right. The slightly more sophisticated opponents of such things will doubt the contentious entities (IQ, personality etc) – that were most central to earlier eugenicists – being measured by human geneticists are unidimensional, valid, reliable and accurate, and argue that their methods (which don’t include experimental crosses) give inappropriately high estimates of heritability (“Like, they’re all 50%? What about fitness traits? How on earth can you partition out nurturance?”). You might want to think about how to interpret papers like:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-13585-5

    “Genome-wide analysis identifies molecular systems and 149 genetic loci associated with income…in modern era Great Britain, genetic effects contribute towards some of the observed socioeconomic inequalities.”

  38. A C Harper
    Posted February 20, 2020 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    I’m not convinced that ‘couplers’ and ‘decouplers’ is the better explanation for the response to tweets.

    My suspicion is that with pervasive social media people ‘know personally’ far more people than previously. And since they already ‘know’ them then their response is automatic and does not require analysis of what was actually said.

    So divisive characters (Trump, Dawkins, Sanders, Pinker, various actors, artists and sports stars) are pre-liked or pre-despised in advance – and tweets are not long enough to overcome the ‘natural’ first reaction.

  39. John Ottaway
    Posted February 20, 2020 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you have to be that contentious on Twitter, to get a pile on

    Tweet:
    “I love my cat”

    Response:
    “WHY DO YOU HATE DOGS?!!!!”

    “DOG HATING ASSHAT!!!!!!”

  40. KD
    Posted February 20, 2020 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    In the world, you have inequalities, more poker chips end up in the hands of some people and not the other.

    One way to explain it is that there is a conspiracy by one group of people to take all the poker chips, and in the absence of evidence of intentional behavior, then an unconscious conspiracy to take all the poker chips for themselves.

    Another explanation is the hard hereditarian position, that its all just random genetic sorting and some people “naturally” end up with all the chips. Now, that is not anyone’s actual position, but it appears that there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that outcomes are heavily dependent on genetic luck, although there are plenty of shared environmental effects.

    Assuming this is the case, does that actually justify the kinds of social inequalities that actually exist today, or existed historically?

    Sorry, you don’t get to have health care and you have to work three jobs because unlike Chip, you lost the genetic lottery? Further, the idea that you can hold someone’s accidental membership in an ancestral group as a basis for punishing or rewarding them, that that is justified because one group (in general) won the genetic lottery (in terms of facilities that are highly compensated in the modern economy)?

    If anything, hereditarianism undermines the David Brookisms, that these people are successful because “they worked hard and lived virtuous lives” (like Jeffrey Epstein and his billionaire pals), so we should feel good about Jeffrey Epstein’s material wealth, and its the steel worker’s fault if the plant closed and now they make 1/3 of what they made.

    I think people need to clarify if the real goal is combating inequalities, or if the goal is a search for racial scapegoats to blame for that inequality. Obviously, evidence is antithetical to those motivated by the search for a scapegoat.

  41. FB
    Posted February 20, 2020 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    “It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans?” – Dawkins

    The problem is that it doesn’t work for cows, it works for a small group of cows. Would it work for humans? No, but it would work for a small group living in an island.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 21, 2020 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      “The problem is that it doesn’t work for cows, it works for a small group of cows.”

      Huh? This statement makes no sense.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] In other newsworthy stories, there is Sabisky in the UK and then this story on eugenics and Dawkins. […]

  2. […] Tom Chivers has a theory about the latest Dawkins kerfuffle […]

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