Richard Dawkins saying poorly thought through reactionary things again

Oh dear:


Alternatively we could not do anything like that because it is an appalling idea.

There are at least three levels of confused thinking here. The first is that in the past such attempts to ensure people were sufficiently ‘qualified’ to vote intellectually have been attempts to disenfranchise specific ethnic groups. When coupled with restricted access to education and with the test wittingly and unwittingly full of the biases of the more powerful ethnic group, such tests would be simply a way of creating a kind of apartheid electoral system.

OK, but what if somehow only people who could really understand the issues of the day could vote? Wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it because of stupid people that we have Trump and Brexit? No or at least not ‘stupid’ as the term is usually used. Voting for Trump or falling for Nigel Farage’s propaganda are certainly daft things to do but a terrible secret of the world is that these are the kinds of ‘stupid’ that otherwise intelligent people do. There are connections between levels of education and political preference but they are neither simple nor straightforward. There is evidence of an ‘educational gradient‘ with how people voted in the UK on Brexit but that gradient does not account for other regional variations (e.g. Scotland). It’s also important to remember that any educational gradient represents people with quite different economic interests as well. Nor was that gradient as smooth as it might sound:

“So, based on the above, the Leave vote was not more popular among the low skilled, but rather among individuals with intermediate levels of education (A-Levels and GSCE high grades), especially when their socio-economic position was perceived to be declining and/or to be stagnant. “

Blaming the UK’s current Brexit confusion on stupidity maybe cathartic but it provides zero insight into a way forward. Further it ignores that the architects of the political chaos are products of the reputedly the best education you can get in Britain. Boris Johnson is manifestly a buffoon but he is a buffoon with a good degree in classics from Oxford. The Boris Johnson’s of this world would waltz past Dawkins’s test.

US politics also has a complex relationship with educational attainment. Conservative views peak at mid-ranges of education (e.g. ) People with college degrees and more advanced higher education are more likely to vote Democrat currently but in the past (e.g. 1990s) this was less so. The growing (indeed, reversed) education divide doesn’t account for differences among ethnic groups or between genders. Other divides (e.g. urban versus rural) may work causally in the other direction (i.e. different economic demands making decisions about higher education a different choice in rural v urban contexts but the underlying politics resting on other urban v rural differences).

Even if we imagine a Dawkins-dystopia in which you had to have a university degree to vote (a much more substantial hurdle than the demands of either the UK or US citizenship tests) the proposal falls into the political fallacy of technocracy as an alternative to democracy. By ‘fallacy’ I don’t mean that competence or technical understanding or evidence-based policy are bad ideas or things we don’t want to see in government but rather that is a reasoning error to judge democracy in principle as a process by which technically competent policy is formed.

Democracy serves to provide consent from the governed to the government. That’s its purpose. It provides a moral and practical basis on which there can be any kind of government that is even vaguely just. Logically, a vote doesn’t determine whether something is true or not (except in trivial cases on questions about ‘what will people vote for’). Consequently, it is always easy to attack democracy by setting it up AS IF that’s what voting is supposed to achieve. A referendum can’t determine what the smartest course of action is but then that’s not what a referendum or an election is supposed to do. Instead asking people to vote is a way of trying to establish broad social agreement on what a country will do.

Without that kind of broad social agreement a country has only two options: disunity or authoritarianism. Restricting the franchise along any axis will lead to overt authoritarianism. Paternalistic ‘benevolent’ authoritarianism is still a system that depends on brutality.

The shorter version: democracy is about consent of the governed not about how smart voters are. The political divides we currently have wouldn’t be solved by a test that high school graduate would pass. A nation in which only college graduates could vote would be a shitty one and politically unstable. Well educated people can and do advance bad ‘stupid’ political ideas. Come to think of it, there’s a great example here: Richard Dawkins is very well educated and here he is putting forward a stupid idea.

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16 responses to “Richard Dawkins saying poorly thought through reactionary things again”

  1. Dawkins had a reasonably smart idea about 40-odd years ago, and he’s been coasting on it ever since, convinced that one smart idea makes all his ideas smart ideas even when they’re manifestly not.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. At my absolute first day of studying Political Science, our lecturer did more or less this experiment. Let us come with arguments for why 15 years old shouldn’t be able to vote and then used the same arguments for why ordinary workers shouldn’t be allowed to.

    After that, he drew examples of the history of working for the right to vote and how people in power worked against democracy. In the end, the only reason we got universal voting rights was because of the Russian revolution and ongoing riots. Our King has his suitcases packed, ready to flee to Norway.

    And that is the best argument for universal vote. Because if you don’t get the equal right to have a say in society by democratic means, then your only reasonable answer is the guillotine.

    Dawkins argument here might seem reasonable. If children are smart enough, shouldn’t they get to vote earlier? But it misses the important issues. First, intelligence is not maturity. Second, knowledge tests are not tests on political understanding. Third, you can’t test political understanding in any meaningful way without getting into the mess that are ideologies. Which means that any test would be useless.

    And then of course the most important reason. If I found out that my child wouldn’t get to vote, but their classmates with more educated parents got to, I would torch the house of the parents.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yup 🙂

      As for voting age, I note lots of countries are happy to try young people for crimes as adults without giving them votes as adults. That makes zero sense to me. If you’ve got zero say in the law, you shouldn’t be judged against it.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I’ve always been in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 or even 14. And 16-year-olds are allowed to vote in regional elections in Germany, but not in state level, federal or European elections.

        We’re currently having a “lower the voting age” debate in Germany in the wake of the European elections, since it turned out that politicians of all parties pay little attention to issues near and dear to the hearts of young people and react highly irritated, when called out about this. Though I don’t really expect any changes anytime soon.

        Occasionally, you see someone demanding that every citizen, including children, should have a vote, but that the votes of minors should be assigned to their parents. Personally, I think this is a terrible proposal, because it gives parents multiple votes and there is a high chance that the parents will vote in their interest rather than what their children want (because absolutely no young person ever disagreed with their parents about politics), provided the children are even old enough to articulate any political preferences at all.

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      • I’ll note in passing that the Scottish Independence referendum’s voting age was 16 and since then the franchise for the Scottish parliament and local government elections has lowered also.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. The thing about democracy is it’s a system which works better the more data you give it. The thing about the Brexit referendum which made it absolutely stupid, to my mind, is this: there wasn’t a requirement to vote in it, so the answers the government got from it were the answers of the proportion of the public who cared to vote properly on the day (which wound up being about 59.85% of the population; 82.89% of the population were registered to vote, about 72% of the registered voters bothered to cast a valid ballot). So you had about 40% of the population whose opinion wasn’t offered or registered. And nobody, as far as I can tell, has bothered to ask why.

    I will say this much for the Australian system – we may not get better results (the current batch of re-elected clowns in Canbrrra being proof) but we do get a more solid data sample for the statisticians to play with.

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  4. I think it’s about time we put Dawkins in the lobster basket with Peterson. He’s a crank with nothing original or insightful to say, these days.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. To add another data point to the ‘educated people doing stupid things’ we only have to point to the anti-vax movement, much of which consists of mothers with at least some post-secondary education.

    The thing about Dunning-Kruger is that it’s all about people who have only enough knowledge to be dangerous on a given subject, and doesn’t necessarily say anything about how educated they are in general. ‘Intelligent’ people can actually be more prone to doing stupid things as a result because they know they’re smart so are less likely to actually admit they’re wrong, and they can be better at coming up with justifications that they really were right despite the evidence.

    Just ask any biologist/astronomer/other specialist who’s had to deal with a physicist insisting that the subject is ‘easy’ and ‘why don’t you just do this?’ when the answer is ‘we did that a hundred years ago, and here’s a fifty page list (annotated with examples) of all the reasons why it isn’t that easy’. You’d think Dawkins would at least get that analogy, having been on the other end of it. But no, he’s too committed to his own sense of being smart.

    Going back to the original subject… well, the fundamental reason we use an age-based system boils down to ‘babies have no understanding of the issues and shouldn’t be allowed to vote, most adults understand the issues and should be allowed to vote, any attempt at getting fancy with the boundary line can and will be gamed, so the best approach is to just pick an arbitrary cutoff and stick to it.’ It’s not so much good as the best (or the least easily perverted) of a bad lot.

    ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’ — <a href=""Winston Churchill

    Liked by 6 people

  6. There’s the idea of democracy and the idea of aristocracy. In the (ideal of) democracy, all humans are equal, have an equal vote in all government levels and have equal civil rights which are protected by the rule of law, including equal opportunity in the economic market and a level playing field rather than a bigoted hierarchy in which some are placed above others, either directly or tacitly. In a democracy, everyone who is of the legal age of adulthood (and thus can be held fully legally responsible for their vote and their conduct under rule of law,) can vote in elections.

    Then there’s aristocracy. Aristocracy believes in authoritarianism, is anti-equality and believes in a hierarchy in which some are superior, meant to be above others, to have the majority of the wealth and resources of the society and to rule the society (the aristocrats) under rule of force, with the larger remainder being given no rights (slavery,) or some rights (serfdom, peasantry,) but being subservient to differing degrees to aristocracy.

    The type of aristocracy is flexible and can be adjusted (change the goalposts,) as necessary, can exclude and include certain groups when needed to maintain and advance the aristocracy (such as Greek and Italians suddenly becoming “white” in the 20th century U.S. to bump up the numbers of white people.) Aristocracy seeks to control economics but is not necessarily based on economic class, though it can be. You do have the aristocracy justification of those who are wealthy and own property as meritorious, smarter and therefore should only be the ones who vote and rule (the favorite of libertarians). Then there is theocratic aristocracy where you have to be the right religious sect. Intelligence/education aristocracy ideas are very popular, on the claim that there is a ruling class of intelligent, educated and more rational people (who also happen to usually be wealthy and racially dominant,) who should be in charge and be the ones who vote/control who can vote. It can be biologically claimed, genetic/breeding aristocracy of superiority — Britain’s lords, etc., and white eugenics that claims falsely that “white” people are more intelligent than black people, that one ethnicity is better bred than another that is in the minority. Peterson’s insistence that lobsters are the only species of animal of relevance to humans and therefore men are innately superior and more orderly than women is one of those as is evolutionary psychology trying to claim it’s a science. And the justification for aristocracy can be a combination of different justifications for why the hierarchy is necessary.

    So our democracies aren’t really full democracies yet — they are compromises between democracy and aristocracy because those who benefit from aristocracy narratives seek to keep those advantages of the hierarchy and their cultural rep as the best people while cementing their rule. Dawkins is not interested in a theocracy, obviously. But he’s an upper-class British white man who believes in several types of aristocracy, including white supremacy and patriarchy. He’s nervous about black and brown people not necessarily existing in Britain but taking what he feels is not their rightful place, that will undermine types of aristocracy that he favors and feels are justified, that they are not as smart and rational because he wants to believe that myth and that they need to be controlled (testing “immigrants”). And he’s worried that younger people are more liberal — more interested in democracy and on abandoning aristocracy hierarchies — so he wants them blocked from voting. Or at least the ones who aren’t wealthy, white children, the ones he finds superior to rule. So he proposes a form of voter/democracy suppression based on supposed intellectual merit — aristocracy ruling the less intelligent “peasants” as authoritarians.

    The older he gets, the more he will feel threatened by those pushing for democracy ideals and denouncing the aristocracies he holds dear and which elevated him in his youth — supposedly more rational, intelligent, better genetically, etc., which entitles them in his view, how he’s been trained his whole life, to rule and control rather than equality. That’s why he’s become more and more sexist, because he saw Rebecca Watson’s advice about men sexually harassing women at conferences to be a direct challenge to men superiority aristocracy over women, in the organized atheist community and beyond. Women thinking themselves equal and equally able to talk about issues, to critique men about inequality behavior, was seen as a power grab by the women peasants of rightful men aristocrats, challenging their authority and possibly causing them consequences that men aristocrats should be protected from. And as others pushed back against his attitudes and actions towards Watson (having her blackballed from atheist conventions, etc.) he became more and more entrenched in patriarchal aristocracy over equality.

    And the same with Muslims, who are always presented as black and brown people from Africa and the Middle East despite Muslims not being bound to one race, ethnicity or geographical region. Dawkins see them as challengers for aristocratic rule, and like so many white atheists, he’s decided that supposedly “Western” Christian theocratic aristocracy is somehow better or more tolerable than extremist Muslim theocratic aristocracy, largely because some of the black and brown immigrants coming into Britain are Muslim and easy to pick on, and concentrated his fears on that. (I should point out I’m an atheist.) The young people in Britain are more racially/multi-racially and ethnically diverse, as well as democratically tolerant of that diversity, and some of them are Muslims and British citizens, so he knows that young people are going to crash what he sees as the truly superior people running the system. So he proposes controlling them aristocracy fashion, so that they have to “earn” their civil right to vote from the chosen aristocrats, a right they inherently have as equal human beings, and one that he was simply given upon reaching the right age. Make the system less democratic and he and his chosen aristocracies can continue to rule, as he believes is their (divine) chosen purpose.

    So basically, Dawkins doesn’t believe in the key tenant of democracy — that all human beings are equal with equal civil rights which democratic governments should not take away but instead legally protect. He dismisses that the same argument has been used against atheists, taking away their rights in favor of theocratic aristocracy. Because he sees himself as a just, logical and reasonable aristocrat ruling over the peasants. He’s superior and should control those who are not, while others cannot argue the same that they should control him because them claiming to be his superior is to him false. Aristocracy is quite flexible that way.

    It’s not that there is always a bigger fish because the fish isn’t actually bigger. It’s just that the fish claims it’s bigger and uses violent force (authoritarianism,) to enforce the claim. Aristocracy is a lip service excuse to taking what you want. And then they live in constant fear that they’ll lose their hierarchical control (revolt,) and others won’t go along with the aristocracy myths, even if forced and threatened to do so. Young people scare Dawkins because the majority of them are revolting against his superiority claims and myths.

    That’s also why the educated have gotten more liberal. Education was the privilege of the wealthy aristocracy that controlled the society. And it’s still very much that way in Britain now (and most other places.) But education did expand and more of those who weren’t in the chosen aristocracy have gotten education and rejected the myth that they shouldn’t have/could not manage an education, which pressures others around them to give up the myth as well, at least partially. So universities have inched towards democracy and greater education for all, which is why those most wedded to authoritarianism and wealth aristocracies see universities as “going downhill” — being taken over by the peasants and less easy to control. As in the NYT article Bonnie brought up on Trump supporters, Dawkins is scared of losing his aristocracy status in a society where people like him are in control.

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    • And this also highlights the class aspect of Dawkins idea. If voting should be tied to knowledge/education, what will be the effect? The answer is kind of simple.

      The rich will lobby for withdrawing funds from schools in areas where the undesirables live. This is not a “might”. They will. The Harvard Scandal has already taught us that rich people will bribe themselves to the top as to avoid competition from poor people. Even those “liberals”, “democrats” and “progressives” that otherwise have talked about the need to do something about equality.

      So. Fewer funds to schools for working class and they in turn will lose their democratic means to try to better their lot through voting. It is a proposition to make society more segregated and lock poor people into permanent situation of servitude, from which they earlier at least had *some* chance to get out.

      It is Feudalism again.

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      • I used to call it feudalism but my poly sci prof husband got on my case in that feudalism is a specific political system of legal relationships that was also not specifically serfdom but vassals and therefore calling it feudalism was wildly inaccurate. So now I just call it aristocracy or supremacy. 🙂

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      • I guess what Dawkins is looking for is closer to Geniocracy and that my description more matches Plutocracy if we try to be more exact.

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      • Naw, it’s all hierarchy systems of authoritarianism that create an artificial “aristocracy” based on some criteria of supposed superiority which the frother believes trumps equal civil rights for human beings (democracy.) Because the hierarchy rewards him and puts him in charge of the hierarchy with all wealth and power directed towards him and those like him willing to share his aristocratic value system and grant him exalted status. That excuse/justification myth for suppression does vary — race and ethnicity, intelligence (which is really about racial anxiety and bigotry,) genetics (which is really about racial anxiety and bigotry,) religion (which is usually involving racial anxiety and theocratic bigotry,) gender and gender economic success (patriarchy and the varieties of queerophobia, myths about biology) economic success (which is really about racial anxiety and bigotry,) cultural “civilization” success in which beating people up especially of “inferior” races, stealing their stuff and exploiting them as slave labor and inventors is seen as “superior” instead of as simply thuggery, etc. But the mechanism is the same, and is a fundamental point of order in the various types of facism and nationalism — there’s a hierarchy of superiority and you must have faith in the hierarchy (cult) and it justifies suppression and anti-democracy which then concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few from the supposedly exalted group (plutocracy.)

        And people will completely sacrifice their rights and their meager wealth to hold onto that superior identity. They’ll sacrifice their children; they’re sacrificing the planet and our ability to live on it. Dawkins has “faith” in his notions of superiority, just without a supernatural deity, and he’s happy to harm tons of people and have them suffer to maintain that identity of superiority and that hierarchy that supports it. You always look at whose voices are they trying to shut out and keep away from political power and opportunity — those pushing for equal civil rights, for democracy. Religion isn’t his justification for his superiority, but everything else, all the rest of the anti-equality myths, he has clearly stated he believes. It’s therefore reasonable to him to suppress the votes of those who are likely to not regard him as superior and not accept a hierarchical society that supports that identity. He’s protecting his market share, which as far as he’s concerned, is also his identity and status in the world.

        And while not all older people are authoritarian aristocracy lovers, the older most folk get, the more uncertain they feel in their status, the more scary changes in society towards equality look. So they want to “go back” to the older days where in their mind the hierarchy that protected their superior status was stronger and more crushing. Which makes young people absolutely terrifying to most of them. (I say this as someone who is not a spring chicken.)

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