Telegraph vs Dawkins

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
– Gandi

If recent articles in the Telegraph are any indication then Richard Dawkins has just moved from phase two to phase three, which means that his victory must be imminent.

Dawkins has, of course, been in the media a lot over the last couple of weeks as a representative of the secular movement. He’s been interviewed by people who presumably find the difference between atheist and secularism a little tricky to understand. Some of the interviews I’ve seen and read have been rather bizarre, but it’s the series of articles in the Telegraph that have been the strangest.

It started on 14th February when they reported on Dawkins’ appearance on the previous day’s edition of the Today programme. Dawkins had been talking to Giles Fraser, the former canon of St. Pauls about the MORI poll on the beliefs of people who had ticked the “Christian” box on the census. Fraser seemed to think that the validity of the poll somehow hinged on Dawkins’ ability to recall the full title of the Origin of Species. Taken by surprise in the studio, Dawkins failed this challenge. Most listeners struggled to see any relevance to the discussion in hand, but Stephen Pollard in the Telegraph described it like this:

In a discussion on the Today programme yesterday, Dr Fraser skewered the atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins so fabulously, so stylishly, and so thoroughly that anti-religion’s high priest was reduced to incoherent mumbling and spluttering.

It’s clear that Pollard has no love for Dawkins but this is a very strange description of what happened.

But it got worse on Sunday when the Telegraph ran Adam Lusher’s story Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins’ family estate. Apparently some of Dawkins’ ancestors in the eighteenth century made rather a lot of money from slaves. Quite how the actions of his ancestors are supposed to influence our opinion of Dawkins is never really made clear, but the clear implication is that it’s all a bad show and that it should certainly stop him being quite so cocky about morality. Or something like that. Of course, we all had dozens of ancestors alive in the eighteenth century. What are the chances that one of them was involved in something that would offend present-day sensibilities? Dawkins has written in some detail about the article and his reactions to it.

Then yesterday there was a story by John Bingham – Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist. This was based on a public conversation between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the conversation Dawkins mentioned that he couldn’t be sure that God doesn’t exist and that he describes himself as an agnostic. Bingham has leapt on this as though it is a new revelation and a major change of position. Of course it is neither of these things. Anyone who has studied even basic logic knows that it is impossible to conclusively prove a negative assertion and that it would be ridiculous for Dawkins to ever take any other position. This whole argument is laid out in considerable detail in chapter four of The God Delusion (it’s entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God” which is a bit of a giveaway). Bingham is the Religious Affairs Editor at the Telegraph. You might expect him to have read that.

And there’s this confusion between atheism and agnosticism. Bingham seems to think that if Dawkins is agnostic then he can no longer be an atheist. This is, of course, nonsense. The two terms are completely orthogonal. Just because we can’t be sure of God’s non-existence (the agnostic position) that doesn’t mean that we need to accept that his existence is as likely as his non-existence. The atheist has decided that the balance of probabilities fall firmly in favour of God’s non-existence. But only a fool would say he definitely doesn’t exist (which is about as close as I’m ever going to come to agreeing with Psalms 14:1).

So why is the Telegraph attacking Dawkins with this incredibly weak stuff? Surely it’s a sign that they are rattled. Secularism is definitely an idea whose time has come in the UK. The Bideford prayer ruling has been praised by a large percentage of the population and the few who object are sounding increasingly like they represent a group who doesn’t know its time is over. If the MORI poll is accurate, the percentage of people who said they were Christian in the 2011 census has fallen to 54% (from 72% in 2001). And among that 54% a large number have beliefs that fall a long way outside what most people would consider mainstream Christianity. That’s not to say for a second that they shouldn’t call themselves Christian if they want to. But it’s clear that politicians and the more reactionary elements of the media cannot use Christianity to support policies like the rejection of gay marriage if a) only just only half of us are Christians and b) most of the Christians are as disgusted by the Church’s traditional view of homosexuality as the rest of us are.

It’s probably incredibly unpleasant for Dawkins to see this nonsense being written about him. But I hope he can draw some hope from them. These attacks are a sign that the Telegraph has run out of arguments. They can’t build a rational argument against Dawkins ideas so they are forced to try and discredit him personally. They are the increasingly desperate voice of a vanishing minority.

Religion is losing ground in the public arena in the UK. And that has to be a good thing.


A Missing Blog

Looks like Nadine Dorries might have gone too far this time.

She’s been on extremely dodgy ground for the last week, since the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses started looking at her. Over the last week she’s been posting an increasing bizarre stream of consciousness on her blog. She tried to explain what was going on with here expenses but only succeeded in raising more questions than she answered.

Over the last couple of days, she excelled herself with three astonishing claims.

  • MPs are really worried that this investigation will lead to suicides in their ranks.
  • MPs were told to see the Additional Costs Allowance as part of their salary and were encouraged to spend as much of it as possible.
  • The Telegraph’s investigation into expenses is a plot by the Barclay brothers (who own the paper) in order to destabilise the main parties and boost UKIP’s chances at the forthcoming European Elections.

Yesterday she did a round of media appearances where she repeated all of these claims and compared the Telegraph’s investigation to a McCarthyite witch-hunt. This was too much for David Cameron, who publicly rebuked her – she denied this on her blog but it got plenty of press coverage.

You’ll notice that I haven’t backed any of this up with links to her blog. That’s because it doesn’t seem to be around at the moment. It seems that The Telegraph objected to her article and sent in the lawyers. That’s a shame, especially given that she was doing such a good job of digging her own political grave.


The Press on Dawkins

Richard Dawkins‘ new documentary series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, begins on Channel 4 this evening. He has therefore been doing a round of publicity interviews and the results have been appearing in the press over the weekend. It’s interesting to see how different papers treat it.

The Times ran a pretty straight article about Dawkins and his work (actually they ran another piece a couple of weeks ago).

The Guardian gave the article to Charlie Brooker. Brooker has no time for religion in any form so his piece is as funny and unapologetic as you would hope.

The Mirror’s piece is quite strange. The writer takes the approach that actually, the evidence for evolution isn’t quite as strong as Dawkins claims and that an intelligent person wouldn’t take a firm position in the discussion. The Mirror writer is, it would appear, a fool.

But the strangest approach comes from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both of these papers have found a way to spin the story so that it backs up their xenophobic agenda. They do this by picking up on a remark from Dawkins where he says that many muslims have creationist beliefs and that it is therefore muslim families who are largely responsible for the increase of creationism that we are seeing in the UK. Now, no-one will deny that there are a large number of creationist muslims. Or that their children are being indoctrinated into believing that evolution by natural selection is “just a theory”. But I strongly suspect that this is rather missing the point of the documentary which, from what I understand having not seen it yet, is to explain the power of Darwin’s theory.

But if we’re going to get into the discussion of who is behind the current growth in creationism, it looks to me like the Mail and the Telegraph are ignoring some convenient facts. There are also a growing number of christians who are telling their children that evolution is unproven and Genesis is literally true. Of course that doesn’t sit well with the papers’ agenda. They want to promote the idea that it’s the evil foreigners who are destroying our society. Their argument is as weak as it ever is, but it seems that an argument doesn’t need to be particularly logically coherent in order to convince the readers of either paper.

Oh, and I don’t recommend reading the comments on either of those stories. Discussions of creationism and evolution always seem to attract the hard of understanding and it seems that the Mail and Telegraph readership has more than its fair share of people like that.


Hours or Minutes

The Telegraph is slightly confused:

Online crime hits 300 per minute

By Ben Farmer
Last Updated: 10:09am BST 06/09/2007

More than 300 internet crimes are being committed every hour…

Hours? Minutes? Which is it?

Ah well. It’s only numbers. I don’t suppose it’s important.


Telegraph Web Site

The Telegraph web site was relaunched recently and they are promoting this with an advertising campaign. I’ve seen many adverts on the escalators in tube stations.

But these adverts have some very strange wording on them. They claim that the Telegraph site is “the UK’s most visited quality newspaper web site”. And there’s a logo which is probably from the organisation who created the statistics that the Telegraph are quoting from. There’s a similar claim on the new site (“Britain’s No.1 quality newspaper website”) together a logo which links to this page on a site owned by a company called Hitwise.

Now these kinds of claims are pretty rigorously tracked by the advertising standards people, so I was interested to hear the Telegraph making them. Everything I’ve read before says that Guardian Unlimited is the most visited UK newspaper site. For example this report from Alexa has GU at number 29, the Sun at 48, the Times at 50 and the Telegraph at 97. So I wondered how the Telegraph could get away with this claim. Perhaps it has something to do with the word “quality”. Is it possible that they are equating a quality newspaper with a broadsheet newpaper? The Telegraph and the Financial Times are the only remaining national broadsheets in the UK – so that would certainly explain how the Telegraph can claim the title. But it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the Times, the Guardian and the Independent all stopped being quality papers when they moved from the broadsheet format.

Perhaps I should just contact the Telegraph, or Hitwise, and find out what their definitions mean. Because currently it’s all a bit confusing.

Update: Simon Waldman (who knows a bit about this topic) discusses the Telegraph’s claims.


Telegraph on RSS

Interesting article from the Telegraph about the rise of RSS and its (potential) impact on news media.

To the consumer, the main benefit of RSS services is that they make receiving news more efficient. Instead of looking at one news website, then another, and then another, each time looking for stories that are interesting, RSS pulls news from the sites for you, and can do so thematically.

If you want business news from Sky, the BBC and the Telegraph websites, but without the fashion or gardening articles, you can have it. Simply choose the relevant feeds, and leave out the others. You can then go straight to stories without having to go to news organisations’ home pages. RSS also allows users to pick up news from unconventional sources such as weblogs, or blogs, which are opinions, reports and diaries published by individual internet users.

(via Simon Waldman)