Dawkins TV show

August 15th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 43 Comments »

I missed it too, but here is Dawkipoos on t’ telly from last night.


Easyish targets but well high comedy.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

43 Responses

  1. angmoh said,

    August 15, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Annoyingly, security, bandwith and employee idleness considerations mean I don’t get to look at entertaining videos at work.

    Charlie Brooker’s description of Dawkins as ‘looking and sounding exactly like Professor Yaffle’ was spot on, though.

  2. Paul Crowley said,

    August 15, 2007 at 1:51 pm


    Given that Professor Yaffle was based on that other celebrated nonbeliever Bertrand Russell, Dawkins could take that as a great compliment…

  3. rambaut said,

    August 15, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Best sound bite so far (and I have only watched a few minutes):

    “it has been proven to me against my rationality”

  4. marcdraco said,

    August 15, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Is this a series or a one-off?

  5. SpallationFiend said,

    August 15, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    :tis a two-off, the other half is on next monday

  6. Daveyboond said,

    August 15, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I think the problem with this is the easy nature of the targets, as Ben mentions above. I can’t imagine that many viewers were at all surprised by Dawkins’ findings.

    It started to get interesting when he met Steve Fuller from Warwick’s sociology dept – here it looked like we might get something a bit more meaty, maybe a debate on the scientific method and the nature of truth… But the moment passed and we were back to laughing at the idiot astrologers.

  7. ed26h said,

    August 15, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    “Given that Professor Yaffle was based on that other celebrated nonbeliever Bertrand Russell, Dawkins could take that as a great compliment”

    So, you could say that Yaffle and Dakwins share a common ancestor.

    What a gag.

  8. DoctorDavid said,

    August 15, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Today’s edition of The Times has an interesting review of Monday’s programme:


    Apparently, we didn’t get to see our hero take down one psychic in real style:

    The one real row was with a psychic he consulted at a New Age fair, who told him she was in contact with Dawkins’s “dead” father in the spirit world and relayed a message in some detail. “I sat there po-faced and let her go on for quite some time before I said, ‘Actually my father is alive and well and living in Oxfordshire.’ Immediately she said, ‘Stop the camera!’ and tried to terminate the whole thing. To my disgust we had to cut her out of the programme for legal reasons, which is a great shame. She was a real charlatan.”

  9. sockatume said,

    August 15, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Yeah, the Fuller bit was a missed chance. Hopefully the second part will get to the meat of it and make his point about how all this adds up into a great mess of daftness. I don’t think there’s been a Neptune orbiter, but he may have just been misusing terminology when referring to the famed Voyager flyby.

  10. George said,

    August 15, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    Interesting article by a guy who argues that by picking on such soft targets Dawkins is allowing more serious ‘bad science’ to go unchallenged:


    I’m not so sure but it’s worth a read.

  11. Ishmael said,

    August 15, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Neil Spencer, the Observer’s astrologer who was interviewed (demolished?) by Dawkins, was not too happy:


    The argument has something of the playground about it. There’s the name calling:

    “Am I bothered by Dawkins calling me names? Not really. I’m in some esteemed company – Resurgence publisher Satish Kumar, and Dr Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital (and the Queen’s physician) – also fall under Dawkins’ stony disapproval.”

    So declaring himself unaffected by being called names, he nevertheless decides to name them instead, assuming we will be impressed where he was not.

    And the old infinity-plus-one number game:

    “There was the usual objection to astrology dividing people into 12 Sun signs, and my usual reply: that’s eight more than the Myers-Briggs personality test used by commerce. Actually, astrology’s basic personality types number 1,728.”

    I got fed up of the game once he grumbled about medicine being so damned fastidious:

    “Everything must be subject to randomised, controlled double-blind trials, just like medical drugs – ‘drugs that work’ as Dawkins insists”

  12. dbhb said,

    August 15, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    George said:
    “by picking on such soft targets Dawkins is allowing more serious ‘bad science’ to go unchallenged”

    That’s what Ben’s for. Both battles worth fighting I’d say.

    Flogging this BS is just fraud isn’t it? Shouldn’t we prosecute?

  13. trickcyclist said,

    August 15, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    Some great examples of less than accomplished cold reading:
    “fraud; I feel it’s something to do with a grandparent, and I want to give you an ‘e’ sounding name…
    Dawkins; my grandmother had a name starting with an ‘e’
    f; what I’m also feeling is that she had a lot of cats around her
    d; no, she hated cats, never had cats, she liked dogs.
    f; well what you’ve got to remember is that people won’t relate to everything that’s in a reading.”

    What I’ve never understood is why the dearly departed would be floating there on the ‘other side’ shouting “my name starts with an ‘E’, I used to keep cats, dogs, or other small animals as pets. Now go find my relative!”

    As far as harm goes, these are relatively harmless punters he picks on, but you don’t have to go far to find some horrific examples. What about the resurgence of ‘Dr Beetroot’, the awful Health Minister in South Africa, after a few years of evidence-based HIV policy under her deputy. 5.5 million HIV positive people potentially condemned to a nasty early death because the President and Health Minister believe in herbal remedies? Keep up the good work Professor Yaffle, I say.

  14. jackpt said,

    August 15, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    While the targets were easy I think they were better targets than some of the nutters featured in the previous programmes. It wasn’t preaching to the converted. It’s difficult to guage his sense of humour given his response to the South Park Dawkins, but in this case it was a gentler Dawkipoos, who came across less like an angry chihuahua. Brooker has the programme spot on. I don’t think it veered into the territory of laughing at nutters.

  15. sockatume said,

    August 15, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    I really don’t get the argument about astrology’s many personality types. If the 12 basic signs don’t work, what chance to the thousand subtle variations therein have?

  16. angmoh said,

    August 15, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    The programme is available on Channel 4’s 4oD (trendy for ‘Channel 4 on Demand’). I think you have to pay a small fee (in the pence) for watching it but the advantage of doing so is that, through the magic of the market economy, you ‘vote’ for more of the same shit.

    re 21. “Taking the Mickey out of the believers is, however, hardly a major intellectual accomplishment…”

    True enough but sometimes you need someone to come along and go, ‘wait a minute, these people are all crazies’ in order to be able to step back and say to yourself, ‘Yes, f**k me, they are aren’t they? Why are we trying to engage in rational debate with the irrational crazy people?’ Me, I think it has a use. It also does what Dawko the Great describes as ‘pushing the envelope’, i.e. it emboldens the sensible and the semi-sensible to step up and be counted.

  17. angmoh said,

    August 15, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Oh, and 16. “Flogging this BS is just fraud isn’t it? Shouldn’t we prosecute?”

    By all means report them (I’d start with the astrologers):

    For the Met, they need to be in Greater London; for the City Police in the Square Mile. For the SFO it’s £1m+ and a real public interest. They are currently investigating an NHS price-fixing scam so you could compare their interest in the one with the other, I suppose.

    The real problem is proving dishonesty. You have to show that the fraudsters know they are peddling crap. Their bottom line of defence will be ‘but I really believe it’. Get three fuckwits on the jury and they’re acquitted. I can all but guarantee you three fuckwits on any jury. In fact, I can offer you about eleven as an average. Which is why all three organizations above will probably run scared. Bad for their stats.

  18. dbhb said,

    August 16, 2007 at 8:22 am

    @Charles Copeland

    I shall read the Wilson article with interest, but the first line does not bode well:

    “Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has become a bestseller through its violent attack on religion”

    Violent?! Only one line in and we have the worst kind of disingenuous obfuscating rhetoric.

  19. Bogusman said,

    August 16, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    I haven’t seen the program yet. They don’t get that many Channel 4 programs in Central America :-).

    I did read the piece in spiked-online though and I think there is a serious point there. I tend to agree that the doomsday scares generated in the press are more serious than some harmless soul wandering around with willow twigs trying to locate an underground spring. The question is, how do serious and nuanced research findings that are fenced around with caveats and error bars get translated into newspaper stories that the sky is falling?

    It’s to do with the commercial imperative to sell newspapers, the belief that “the public” can’t handle complexity and IMO the domination of the media by people who dropped science subjects at school because they were too hard or too boring.

    In that context Dawkins is definitely a hero but I fear that his head on attacks on irrationality are only part of the answer. Between us we need to work out how to address some of the underlying causes and tackle them. It won’t be a quick process.

  20. muscleman said,

    August 16, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    Charles Copeland wrote:

    “DSW, in my view, certainly puts paid to Dawkins’ claim that religion is not only bullshit, but also maladaptive bullshit. But read it yourselves.”

    Well he is being disingenuous himself. For eg his bacteriophages in 96 well plates experiment is nothing about group selection. Just because we choose to carve nature into groups does not mean those groups are real. I fail to see how bacteriophages act as a group in any meaningfull way beyond the idea of having a minimum effective inncoluum which is simple statistics.

  21. skjah said,

    August 16, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    absolutely loved this, it was funny seeing the spiritualist vicar or whatever he calls himself break under the pressure and switch to good old fashioned “well there have been times where i’ve seen it work”. can’t wait for the next episode, “health”, hopefully homeopathy and all that quackery will be delved into.

  22. Deano said,

    August 16, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    Re: comment 13

    Ha Ha! – you think that Spiked are credible when they accuse Dawkins of allowing serious ‘bad science’ to go unchalleged??

    This from the group that spawned Martin Durkin and ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’??

    .. from the very article you cited:

    “Cutting back our carbon in order to ‘save the world’ is also a form of superstition.”

    … and in any case Spiked pour scorn on evidence-based policy in the first place – they clearly think their own politics to be much superior to reason:

    “Last night’s programme was less a celebration of science than an elevation of scientism, the idea that ‘evidence-based calculations’ should be the organising principle for human society. This makes Dawkins less radical than he likes to think, because scientism is actually in the ascendant. Today’s ‘carbon footprint’ calculations use scientism to lend bogus authority to the climate change doom-mongers.”

  23. Andrew Clegg said,

    August 17, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Err, it was on Channel 4 wasn’t it? Isn’t that ‘real television’ or does showing Big Brother count them out?


  24. cebolla said,

    August 17, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    I was a bit disappointed.Derren Brown’s version of The Forer’s experiment would have had more impact than the astrology test that Dawks did (which left the retort of “well,newspaper astrology is rubbish,but “proper” personalised readings work).I was hoping for the underlying thread that links these superstitions together to be emphasised more (mammalian brains seeking to impose patterns where none exist,pareidolia,counter-intuitive ideas
    and optical illusions as examples)
    Most “believers” have no idea of the fallability of their tiny monkey-brains.It might be easier to get through to people if they are made aware of this in a concise way,and that science is a set of tools,or a method for compensating for our chimp-mind limitations rather than a belief system (as it is all to often presented :the use of “darwinism” and “scientism” being popular ways of portraying science as just an alternative viewpoint).
    I cant help feeling that your average superstitous joe would have been turned off rather than persuaded.Still maybe that wasnt the objective.im going on a bit..
    Anyway,more power to RD,its valuable work hes doing,looking forward to him exploding homeopathy next week.

  25. mrstrellis said,

    August 17, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    My only quibble was his confused talk at the end about the Internet. I understood the point he was trying to make (that woo is now freely available to all) but I don’t think it was put across all that well. He mentioned Wikipedia, in front of a background of blogs touting the moon landing hoax, amongst other things, and how blogs are full of uncritical bullshit. However, Wikipedia is a bad example: very little information on controversial topics gets into there unchallenged.

  26. cebolla said,

    August 17, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Thinking about it,I suppose the intention was more of a “call to arms” rather than a serious attempt to change anyones worldview.So,if it gets people taking about it,fair enough.
    I would like to see a serious presentation of the arguments against irrationality though…they’ve become so distilled and crystalised that presented correctly could take the scales from alot of eyes.

  27. Deano said,

    August 18, 2007 at 1:36 am

    He shouldn’t have mentioned Wiki – he looked uncomfortable when he did it – seemed to me something imposed by the producer?

    Dawkins may be a bit naive sometimes – but personally I find that rather charming..?

  28. Deano said,

    August 18, 2007 at 1:39 am

    Of course knows what ‘Wikipedia’ is…

    but that doesn’t mean he’s up-to-date with what it means…….?

  29. G. Shelley said,

    August 18, 2007 at 10:04 am

    I read DSW’s post a couple of days ago, and it is pretty abysmal, on the level of 90% of the criticisms of the God delusion. Attacking straw men versions of what Dawkins said, taking things entirely out of context or simply making up what Dawkins said (even in many cases in areas where Dawkins specifically says something different)
    It starts off bad
    “When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise.”
    and just gets worse, a long rant barely even touching on anything in the book. The main objection seems to be it isn’t the book DSW would have written.

  30. Deano said,

    August 19, 2007 at 11:35 am

    “In areas of my own expertise Wikipedia is woefully incomplete, badly written”:

    – well you could always put that right yourself? – which you can’t do with Britanica

  31. RS said,

    August 19, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Deano – true enough I do edit small, easily corrected mistakes, I even upload figures or rewrite whole articles when I have the time and inclination – but there are lots of poorly written articles, and I have to earn a living. Also there are many ill informed amateurs or special interest opinion pushers with whom one would have to aggressively edit war on many articles – life is too short for that.

    On the other hand you can rely to some extent on Britannica having got someone who knows what they’re talking about – and thus to ensure some minimum standard.

    The main problem with wikipedia is that many of its readers seem blissfully unaware of the machinery that goes on behind the page they see – which leads to undue credence being given.

    I’m always amused by these debates about university students (usually in the US) using wikipedia as a source. Under what possible academic system could wikipedia be a reliable source for an academic essay – hell even a proper encyclopedia would likely get laughed at.

  32. Dr Aust said,

    August 19, 2007 at 10:04 pm


    Wikipedia is one of the most common sources cited and used by my (1st and 2nd yr) bioscience students. This is at a Russell Group Univ where you need As and Bs to get on the science degrees. It is not uncommon in 1st yr essays to find Wikipedia listed as the SOLE source. Second yr students are a bit more “catholic” in their tastes and tend to cite multiple web sources, plus the occasional textbook.

    Of course, it is just as common to find the students have cut’n’pasted most of the essay from Wikipedia without sourcing (i.e. acknowledging) it at all.. For this yr’s first yr essays I read plagiarism of this kind was in about half of the essays I read.

    Anyway, however you cut it the students clearly have great faith in Wikipedia as a source …!

  33. RS said,

    August 19, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    You’re shitting me Dr Aust! I guess there wasn’t much on the internet when I went to university, but seriously, when did non-primary sources, or at least non-respected secondary sources (review articles, textbooks) become acceptable?

    Not done any teaching for a while, but maybe I’m in for a shock.

  34. csrster said,

    August 20, 2007 at 9:59 am

    That’s pretty bad – frankly I’d be dubious about using Britannica as a source either. The shame is that Wikipedia, although an unreliable source, is often a very good _entry point_ for essay research. When writing my recent masters’ thesis I often used Wikipedia to get a basic idea for certain concepts along with references to primary literature which I would then cite (usually after reading it, of course).

    The “discussion” pages on Wikipedia are also often a goldmine for the discriminating reader (ie one with good bullshit-detectors) researching controversial topics.

  35. Camp Freddie said,

    August 20, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Wow! Wikipedia is an excellent site as a starting point, but citing it as a source?!
    Unless it’s a dissertation on the democrtisation
    It’s especially bad, since you can edit the article and make it say what you want – making a fraudulent and circular reference.

  36. CaptainKirkham said,

    August 21, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Major difference between Wikipedia and Britannica – the former is free and easily available – the latter is not.

  37. David said,

    August 21, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    Saw the programme last night. All the science was good and, as usual for RD, well explained.

    I did disagree, though, with a lot of what he was saying. It all seemed very inconsistent to me.

    If homoeopathic ‘medicines’ are just water then why do they need regulating?

    So the NHS spends taxpayers’ money on homoeopathy – so what? It’s taxpayers who are using the service. In fact, if these people think they are getting good treatment and they aren’t therefore asking for more expensive, conventional treatment, then surely that’s a good thing. Homoeopathy saves the taxpayers money.

  38. RS said,

    August 21, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Homeopathic medicines are being allowed to claim efficacy in areas where it has not been proven, unlike conventional medications which cannot do that.

    As for NHS money – homeopathic hospitals are very expensive with all that consultation time, and funding by the NHS to travel across the country to appointments. So you’d really rather hope they were getting more than a placebo reaction which could arguably be better provided by a consultation with a ‘counsellor’ or other less well paid individual (hell, it’d be better if they consulted privately). How many QALYs do you reckon you get for your money?

  39. Robert Carnegie said,

    August 21, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Taxpayers use pubs but booze isn’t free.

    In the second programme, which I did see (actually mostly heard, I was fiddling with a bike), I wasn’t sure (and this is the point) that Professor Dawkins was putting across the case well to an undecided audience. But the brief acquaintance with the ancient wisdom of cats was funny. And it was probably right to pass without comment (without unfair editing too I hope) the exchange that went “Everyone has angels around them” Dawkins “Do I have angels?” “Have you asked them to come?” “No” “then you don’t have any”. Instant contradiction.

    Maybe there were pictures showing what black holes and quantums look like, and what little they have to do with the human body as a rule. I think the Prof was a bit too dogmatic about untested therapies not working – a drug will be equally effective before and after a clinical trial is done, the drug doesn’t -know- about the trial, although methodical investigation helps in the matter of getting the dose right. Likewise radiotherapy, which apparently in the old days consisted of drinking mail-order radium salt to give yourself radioglycaemic energy but nowadays is much more reasonably applied. And in at least one case, I forget which, he jumped from having the alternative therapy described to saying “Don’t you see that what you’re talking about is unscientific nonsense” without explaining properly to -us- first why it was unscientific nonsense, as far as I recall. Perhaps we were supposed to have picked up by then that cats and crystals do not do much good to the human body. Unless it’s radium crystals of course. Or salt. Not good to have too much, pretty bad not to have enough, too.

  40. Dr T said,

    August 25, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    I’ve come into this very late I know. I enjoyed the programme, but RD has been annoying me ever since ‘Selfish gene’ Anyway. But do you know what bugs me about astrology? It is a proxy for seasonality. It has therefore, an underlying, but entirly un- causally linked, biology. The following link gives an abstract – apologies to those outwith places that have full access, but you get the gist.
    www.nature.com/nature/journal/v391/n6669/abs/391754c0.html In a nutshell it shows that your birth month has a significant effect on your height – a small thing I know, but it is not actually a stretch to hypothesise that other aspects of your physiology and more? are thus affected by birth date (though it’s probably by season of conception or early development that counts). I like this because the authors specifically do NOT make causal relationships.

    As an aside – they definitely needed half a million records to detect this: the variation is great. My birthday is in spring, with the tall people, but I am under 1.6m…..>sigh

  41. RS said,

    August 26, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    You don’t even need truly biological effects – cultural factors can interact – such as the evidence that most athletes are born early in the academic year making them larger and stronger than their peers so that they are thus more succesful and motivated to progress – and I believe similar effects are found in educational performance but I’m not sure whether they’ve shown that to be a developmental delay thing or not.

  42. Antbak said,

    August 28, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Sign the Anti-NHS Homeopathy E-Petition on the No. 10 site here:


  43. peelie said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    interesting critique of Dawkins’ choice of target here: