Thursday, 8 August 2013

Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

There's a great parody in the current issue of Private Eye in which Craig Brown pretends to be Richard Dawkins on Twitter.  It captures perfectly, with almost documentary verisimilitude, in fact, the blend of irascibility, conceit and high-handed disdain for religion that shines through Dawkins' online persona.  A few examples:

Somebody tell the old ladies in the local church that arranging the flowers won't get them a place in heaven.  Such stupidity.

"You can't prove God doesn't exist." Er, no you can't.  But is anyone REALLY stupid enough to think that is a good point? Apparently yes.

Listening to St Matthew Passion.  Very beautiful in parts but why couldn't Bach try harder to keep God out of it?

Hard to overstate how deeply I despise St Augustine.

The only trouble with Brown's send-up is that it can't quite match the original for sheer obtuseness.  But perhaps Dawkins is merely trolling.  His usual technique is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is "Your a dick") and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.  As often as not these days, his target is Islam and/or Muslims; a predeliction that seems close enough to an obsession to have attracted accusations of racism.  I don't believe that myself, but I do suspect that being accused of race-baiting has only increased his determination to push things.

Today's was a classic:




For an Oxford man, that's some admission.  It's also true, as it happens: the 32 Nobels Prizes awarded to people with a connection to Cambridge's largest college far outweigh the number given to persons of Muslim background or faith.  It's dramatically true if you exclude the Peace Prize (and Dawkins was really making a point about science) and the prize for literature.  Only two Muslim scientists have won the Prize: the Pakistani Abdus Salam for Physics and the Egyptian-American Ahmed Zewail for Chemistry.  It's also true that (again excluding the peace and literature prizes) Trinity boasts more Nobel laureates than the entire female gender.  Only 17 women have ever been awarded one of the scientific prizes.

Clearly this signifies something.  But what?

Looking at the list of Nobel laureates since the prizes were first awarded in 1901, the most striking thing is the overwhelming predominance of Western countries, in particular the United States, and of a handful of institutions.  Of 863 individual winners, 338 have been American or based in the United States.  A further 119 have been British.  Germany is in third place with 101 winners, and France a distant fourth with 65 (which is more than Trinity, but less than Cambridge as a whole).  Most of the remainder come from other Western nations.  Again, the effect is even greater if Peace and Literature are omitted.  The university affiliations tell a similar story, with the top US institutions (Harvard alone has 147 affiliated winners) and Oxbridge dominating the lists.

The reason for this isn't an international conspiracy.  Rather, it shows that modern science (by which I mean academic, research-driven, resource-intensive science) has been and remains an overwhelmingly Western phenomenon.  To ask "where are all the Muslims?" as Dawkins does is to miss the point.  One might as well ask, Where are all the Chinese? China has just 8 native-born Nobel winners, and all but two of them are affiliated with Western universities, mostly in the United States.  There are approximately the same number of Chinese nationals in the world as there are Muslims, and China, like Islam, had its golden age (in China's case, several of them) when it led the world in technology and science.  Japan does rather better, with 20 winners; but then Japan adopted the Western model of university-based scientific research in the late 19th century, and even so only won its first Nobel Prize in 1949.

Given the type of work that wins a Nobel Prize for science, it's still remarkable that Trinity College has so many more winners than other Cambridge Colleges, but it's not all that remarkable that it has more winners than most non-Western countries put together.  It says something about the way modern science developed, and about the continuing place of Anglo-American institutions within modern scientific research, but it says no more about Islam than it says about China (or about women).  Which is to say, not much. After all, the country that boasts almost half the world's Nobel prize winners is also home to millions of creationists.

I suspect that what Dawkins wanted to suggest, if he wasn't being simply dickish, was that something in Islam is indeed responsible for the decline of Arab science, that was once so promising.  Here's another of his Tweets:




Do we hear boasts about their science?  Jim Al-Khalili has written an excellent book, Pathfinders, about the medieval Arab pioneers of such fields as optics and medicine (has Dawkins read it?  It would be rather surprising if he hadn't).  Al-Khalili is President of the British Humanist Association, as it happens, so you won't find him "boasting" about the scientific superiority of Islam.  But he has written that,

... the scientific revolution of the Abbasids would not have taken place if not for Islam - in contrast to the spread of Christianity over the preceding centuries, which had nothing like the same effect in stimulating and encouraging original scientific thinking. The brand of Islam between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the 11th century was one that promoted a spirit of free thinking, tolerance and rationalism. The comfortable compatibility between science and religion in medieval Baghdad contrasts starkly with the contradictions and conflict between rational science and many religious faiths in the world today.

You can in fact make a similar case for Christianity, despite what Galileo experienced at the hands of the Inquisition.  Both Islam and Christianity, in their different ways, present a vision of the world that is ordered, that accords with natural law, and that as the product of an intelligent designer is inherently intelligible.  If you say that Christianity held back science, you have to explain why the modern scientific revolution took off in a Europe that remained profoundly Christian.  Newton, for one, believed that his scientific work was in large part a religious undertaking.  If you say that Islam is anti-science, you have to explain why for many centuries it was anything but.  It's probably true that the Muslim world became more religiously conservative, and thus more anti-science, just as Western Europe was becoming more religiously open.  Likewise, China under the Ming dynasty largely withdrew from international trade just as Europeans began their great voyages of exploration.   

There are many reasons why modernity originated in Western Europe and its American offshoot, and why the West continued to be ecomonically and politically dominant for so long.  Political, geological and geographic factors all played their part, as to a lesser extent did philosophy and theology.  But the long list of Western Nobel laureates has a more proximate cause: the weight of economic and intellectual capital that has accumulated in a small number of leading institutions, among which Cambridge university is among the most significant.   Religion has very little to do with this. I can't predict the future of the Nobel prizes, but I will say this: if you go to Cambridge today you won't have much difficulty finding Muslims doing science.  Among then may be a future Nobel laureate. She may even be at Trinity.