Dawkins on “ways of knowing”

July 5, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: If you want to see what I mean when I say that science is the only way of knowing about our universe, either read the relevant section of Faith Versus Fact or my exchange of letters with Adam Gopnik at the “Letters” section of The Conversation.



In this eight-minute video, Counterweight founder Helen Pluckrose asks Richard Dawkins if there are ways of knowing other than science. Do different groups have different methods for apprehending truth? The answer, of course, is a dismissive “no” (he’s right), and Richard then answers Helen’s question about how we deal with such an antiscientific mindset.


h/t: Paul

52 thoughts on “Dawkins on “ways of knowing”

  1. This is precisely why the SJW/Woke/CRT types don’t like Dawkins.

    All of those ideologies and cults favour storytelling/narratives, over facts and evidence. Hence “my truth” > “the truth”.

    Dawkins has always rubbished and dunked on the antiscientific “other ways of knowing” nonsense, and its good to see he has not become infected like to many others.

  2. Very similar to the arguments put forth by Loury and McWhorter who in no uncertain terms have said (paraphrasing here) “stop saying black people are too stupid to learn Greek or Latin, or the hard maths of economics!” I’d add to the woman mentioned in the interview, that when my grandpa took off the back of a TV set or radio, or looked under the hood of a broke down car he didn’t use his feelings as an indigenous person, he didn’t consult the spirit world or whatever, he used EMPIRICAL KNOWLEDGE to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it! How utterly insulting and hateful to claim otherwise! Of course she’s probably say “well, he was mixed race so he was using his colonialist white supremacy part of his mind to fix those things”. There really is no argument too stupid, to demeaning, and yes, too racist that the woke “anti-racists” won’t use. They have their heads so far up their own asses that they have to fart to get a breath of fresh air.

    Sorry. I can get worked up about this kind of thing. Not quite as hot under the collar as Loury but pretty close.

      1. Yes indeed, point well made. I’d like to use that ‘head up the ass’ line as well. 👍🏽

  3. There is no doubt that the assault on scientific truth is appalling. I’m not sure how it can be proven, but there seems to be more of this in recent years. This trend may be influenced by the political divisions that have been growing in many countries, particularly in the United States. People are so concerned about gaining or retaining political advantage that they are willing to believe or say anything. Truth can be brushed aside if it doesn’t serve one’s political ends. That is the whole purpose of propaganda. If the current hyper politicization were to subside, the assault on truth would diminish, but, of course, not disappear completely.

    Even if a widespread acceptance of scientific truth were to prevail, extreme societal discord could still erupt over the significance of the truth and what should be done about it. Assume a scenario where science has developed a method whereby human life span could be greatly extended, perhaps for many decades. There is no argument that this is the case. Yet, what, if anything, should be done with this truth would create great societal divisions. Another example is the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. There was no talk denying that science had created these weapons. Yet, the wisdom of dropping the bombs is debated to the present day and likely to be debated forever. There are countless other examples. In other words, agreement on scientific truth is the base for society to enact policies. The much harder part is to decide what to do with the truth. As Dawkins conceded in the video, there can be legitimate debate over moral issues.

  4. I did not know about the Clergy Project.

    It took a terrorist attack on France for Justin Welby, Bigbish of Canterbury, to doubt the precence of God. What the hell was he thinking all this time? Surely there’s been a few spots of bother before that?

    I don’t know much about Gretta Vosper, but she seems to be another person whose views are changing because of what’s been around for a couple of thousand years at least. Google popped her name when I searched for atheist priests.

  5. All of this is a remarkably clear example of the far left being the recursive left (I think that is the term). Meaning that they promote things with uncanny overlaps to the far right. In this case, both are anti-intellectual, anti-science, and post-truth.

    1. You probably meant “regressive” which was proposed in contrast to a progressive left. The argument was that progressives proper champion feminism, free speech, lgtbq rights and such, but that the regressives favour multicultural prisons (chiefly islamic, patriarchal, anti-lgtbq etc), and censorship laws inimical to progressive values.

      However, the term was short lived and as any term that triee to capture that phenomenon recontectualized as a right wing smear, just like other attempts. social justice warrior or wokeness (all of them are eventually seem as right wing smears).

        1. I actually think that ‘regressive’ is too mild. I’d describe this part of the Left instead as convergent: just when you think you’ve gone as far in that direction as possible, it turns out that you’re in territory that is completely congenial to the far right. The two converge on a real horror showcase of destructive programs: rid the world of dissent, rid the world of Jews, rid the world of rationality. We’re back to the final line of Animal Farm, aren’t we…

          “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

      1. I like recursive left – it invokes the imagery that it’s caught up in itself like a recursive loop.

        The difficulty I think in a term like regressive left is that the distinction between progressive and regressive isn’t in what causes are values but the political tactics in achieving them. Doesn’t so much feel regressive as it does authoritarian – using the State in the way that the right use organised religion.

        Generally not a fan of labels (one should always argue against the beliefs and not the believer), but ctrl left did amuse me, especially in its opposition to the alt right.

      2. “Transgressive left” could serve to characterize both that movement’s zeal for finding ever more transgressions committed by new victims, and the seamless transition of such zealotry from the far left into the far right.

    2. Since people were thrashing around to come up with le mot just, can I throw in people who are on the left side of the Möbius strip?

  6. I didn’t realize that was Helen Pluckrose until you mentioned it. I should have known but just didn’t think about it.

    I get the feeling that the increasing assault on scientific truth, to borrow Historian’s phrase, is not so much a denial of science, though that’s always been present at some level, but the rise in respect for personal opinion and experience. This has manifested in so many ways, from “You are Important!” banners in high school gyms to the role of “lived experience” in explaining why Black people feel racism more keenly than non-Black people. While some of these changes have been the result of good intentions, and have produced positive results in some cases, they have also undermined respect for authority, accepted knowledge, and science. If people believe experience trumps other people’s “facts”, it leads those with fear of vaccination to believe that’s more important than Dr. Fauci’s recommendations.

    How much to trust one’s own judgement is always going to be an issue. Right now, it seems like the pendulum has swung too far in favor of it. I hope it swings back at least a little.

  7. Here’s a relevant quote from Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, highly recommended:

    “If we care about knowledge, freedom, and peace, then we need to stake a strong claim: anyone can believe anything, but liberal science – open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network – is the only legitimate validator of knowledge, at least in the reality-based community. Other communities, of course, can do all kinds of other things. But they cannot make social decisions about objective reality.”

    The question of course is how we defend this claim, in an open, pluralist society, against those who firmly believe there *are* rivals to science and empiricism in representing reality and that they get to participate in shaping social decisions, e.g., policy on climate change. It isn’t as if we can outlaw science denial by elected and appointed policy makers. Too bad about that, but that’s the price of free speech.

  8. If there were other methods of cognition not recognized by science, such as telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, magic / space-time portals, the matter would be different.
    If such methods existed and we didn’t know them, or if we hid them (a kind of secret knowledge), in the long run, we would whip our own ass.
    The Universe is a deadly place, ignorance of knowledge results in complete extinction.

    Fortunately, there is no telepathy, telekinesis, etc.(and other nonsense)
    Our knowledge is complete, we develop, we understand that extinction in the world is a rule. We even build some small rackets.

    Good luck.

  9. So Dawkins gives the same advice as did Lewontin at the end of his discussion with Kreisler regarding challenging a very loud anti-scientific noise: organize, organize, organize!

  10. What is meant exactly by ways of knowing other than science? Science uses whatever methods it can to figure stuff out. Science uses the methods it does because they have been proven to work. If there were other valid methods it would use them to and they would become known “scientific methods” too. The whole question is kind of tautological.

    It reminds me of “alternative medicine”. If it worked it doctors would use it and it would become just “medicine”.

    1. It of course all starts with a careful definition of what is “truth”. The word does have informal meanings, but in the matter at hand “truth” is meant to be applied in a specific way.

      1. If there was no other way of knowing besides science, wouldn’t it imply that everything we know, we know through science?

        To put it another way, if we know something that we didn’t know through science, wouldn’t that imply that we knew it by some other way than science?

        1. I know how old I am because I can consult my birth certificate and today’s date. Is that science? IMHO, that would stretch the definition of science too far. It would likely open up science to unfair claims. I know what music I like. Surely that’s not science.

          Whenever someone asks questions like yours, I fear that they have some point they are trying to make but rather than come out with it, they play games trying to trap others. If you have some point to make here, please make it clearly. I’m sure commenters here would be glad to tell you if they agree or not.

    1. I am restricting my response to natural phenomena. The question is what you mean when you say ‘we know’ something. How do we decide that we know, even if approximately? That is the basic question that an empirical discipline like science seeks to answer by observation.

      The methods of science may not be formally defined, but in the end, it is mainly observations (experiments) that settle disputes. That is why we can’t yet come to a consensus on things like string theory, whereas classical electrodynamics, within its domain of application, is much less controversial. In fact, it is extensively used in engineering.

      Even if the simplicity of a theory is favoured over a more complicated one that gives better results, it is usually with the expectation that we will eventually come up with a better theory. If we can’t, we have a simple but bad theory. The observational aspect matters. If a theory has a serious flaw (like the ultraviolet catastrophe) scientists would be trying to come up with a better theory, which they did.

      This method of verification is not exclusive to science. People who are not scientists appeal to this method all the time in their day-to-day lives. It is probably the case that such methods were refined over time to constitute the method of scientific inquiry.

      The issue in the video is much more mundane. It is about people considering science to be a ‘way of knowing’ exclusive to a race and sex, among others things. You might as well reject Jewish science; or Nazi science for that matter.

      1. it is mainly observations (experiments) that settle disputes.

        In the phrase of the long-to-be-remembered Richard Feynman “If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.”
        (memo to myself : be careful trying to quote Feynman – he produced so many good quotes that checking any one is going to be a long search. “Character of Physical Laws”, ch.7)

  11. Let me give a specific example. In 2005 The New York Times published an article quoting a scientist claiming, on the basis of his own research and on the basis of three decades of research by others, that there is not even a hint that there are male bisexuals. (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/05/health/straight-gay-or-lying-bisexuality-revisited.html).

    I suggest that a male bisexual would instantly know that this three decades of scientific research is wrong.

    1. If so, that would be an example of a falsified statement by direct observation of oneself. But of course, further verification (it is a statement about oneself after all) would be good, once more through observation. (I did not read the article you linked, but you stated its claim.)

      In science it has often been the case that only one person, or a very few people, knew something at the time of discovery.

      1. A feeling is a direct observation of oneself. Further verification would be pointless for me, of course. I already know beyond any shadow of doubt that there is at least one male bisexual.

        But I only wanted to show a counter example. Here is a case where feelings (in this case feelings of desire) can clearly trump the science, but only for a certain class of individuals.

        That does not mean that every group who claim to have their own way of knowing do, in fact, have there own way of knowing. Just that, as a general rule, the idea that certain groups cannot have their own way of knowing, or that feelings can’t trump objectively verifiable evidence, is not the case.

        1. You are making a false step in your argument here. In the first paragraph, you describe self-knowledge. Your claim is only about yourself. In the second paragraph, you have quietly broadened it to cover a “certain class of individuals”. You might make that jump by claiming that perhaps all in the class have similar feelings to yours but you don’t know that with anywhere near the certainty you are claiming about yourself.

          Once a group claims they have their own way of knowing, it opens it up for scientific research. The group can be tested in various ways. I don’t think such research would (yet) be able to examine personal claims about oneself but they could certainly examine a group. If the resulting science disagreed with the “other ways of knowing” claims of the group, I would likely go with the science.

    2. First, I would suggest reading the good Prof’s Faith Versus Fact, which would help you understand the width and breadth of science, or “science broadly construed” as he calls it. Next, the definition of “empirical evidence”, being that which is based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic. Put them together and you have my high school educated grandpa fixing cars and TV’s by empirical experience and hands-onlearning, rather than some sort of spiritual “other ways of knowing”.
      I’d also add, as far as your bisexual article goes, remember that science as a field is self-correcting, in that through the vigorousness of peer review, and a willingness, even eagerness to overturn past hypotheses, scientists correct earlier errors via better data and new hypotheses that best fit and make sense of the data. Ptolemy was overturned by Copernicus for example, Newton was of not overturned, then certainly added to by Einstein, Darwin knew nothing about genetics, but his theory of evolution was more fully fleshed out via the discovery of Mendel’s work and what’s known as the Modern Synthesis, and so on. There’s no praying for revelations, no mum’s intuition, no cultural relativism version of gravity. That, plus psychology has been notorious for replication errors, so much that it’s known as the Replication Crisis. Psychology is, after all, filled with deluded characters like Freud and Jung though perhaps in time it too can become less of a soft science.

      1. Damn where’s the edit function? Excuse the errors in the autocorrect words/spelling, I was walking around the yard with the dog and missed a few mistakes. 🤷‍♂️

        And for an anecdote (N=1) if bisexuals don’t exist, somebody forgot to tell my genitalia. I may have a clear preference but that doesn’t mean I’m lying, and my junk sure isn’t (TMI?). I should also add that if you go into a study skeptical of a certain idea, like the existence of bisexuality, you have a preconceived bias and may very well cherry-pick your data (consciously or no) to fit your preferred outcome.

    3. Ok, I guess I should have read all your comments before responding to your earlier ones. Apologies.

      All you have done here is found a scientist making a ridiculous claim. (At least it sounds ridiculous.) If this claim is made seriously and backed up with experimental data, others will analyze the work and perhaps find mistakes in its methods. If not, others will attempt to reproduce the research. Eventually, the scientific community will decide one way or another, though it’s always a provisional truth and can be subject to future work that may uphold the truth, refine it, or throw it out altogether. If the work in question doesn’t offer anything of substance, it may be ignored or ridiculed. That’s part of science too.

      Do you really think that one “scientists” outlandish claim tells us anything about truth? Is the opinion of one male bisexual, as you suggest, enough to overthrow real science? Of course not. In general, that one bisexual’s opinion is about himself. He may well be wrong, attempting to deceive, or have an unusual definition of “bisexual”.

      1. All you have done here is found a scientist making a ridiculous claim.

        Someone who purports to be a scientist. Of course, it is entirely possible (I wouldn’t know without reading the methodology parts of the papers in question) that the guy is a card-carrying scientist, who just wasn’t applying the methods of science while doing that particular work.

  12. My prediction for the future is that the Critical Theory “other ways of knowing” will join with “a mother’s intuition” of the anti-vaccination crowd. Their “lived experience” trumps science is identical. And their “Crazy Moms” website is a spot-on match for systemic oppression.
    It is a match made in Hell and contemplating the results makes me cringe.
    That is my theory and prediction for the future (which is my own).

    Thomas Bannister, M.D.
    Pediatric Intensivist/Hospitalist Attending
    Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
    USC School of Medicine-Columbia

  13. Until a few minutes ago I thought I know that I live in a place called ‘The Place Where I Live’. But now I realise there are no other ways of knowing than science. So I do not know that I live here until I have hired a scientist to certify this fact using the scientific method.

    1. I think you have plenty of empirical evidence that you live in ‘the place where you live’. It wasn’t through divine inspiration, mothers intuition, a gut feeling or reading the runes that you found out where you live. There is no need for you to hire a scientist.

      1. I’m not so sure about the empirical evidence. After all, how can I measure where I live? Perhaps you own a where-do-I-live-o-meter?

        1. empirical

          based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
          “they provided considerable empirical evidence to support their argument”

          1. The point is, people often only accept the ’empirical evidence’ they that confirms their beliefs. There is also considerable empirical evidence suggestive of reincarnation. And it may entirely depend on your beliefs how you look at it. The science-is-the-only-way-of-knowing belief does not hold up in reality like any other existing religion.

              1. You may have convinced yourself but nothing whatsoever about your argument is ‘demonstrandum’.

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