Saturday, March 29, 2008

Richard Dawkins at UT Austin

I have updated this blog post with correct link to an article on my new website.

On March 19, 2008 Richard Dawkins gave a public lecture at the University of Texas in Austin; it was preceded by a reception hosted by the Center of Inquiry Austin. Though I didn't have a chance to exchange more than a few sentences with Dawkins at the reception, I formed some kind of impression of him as a person.

Dawkins speaks in very well-turned phrases: complete, spare, witty -- pretty much the way he writes. He speaks that way even when he extemporizes, for example when answering questions. No meaningless interjections such as uh's, um's or like's, no trailing thoughts. But, while this may make him seem old-fashioned, his prowess with technology overturns that impression. At the Center Of Inquiry reception he seamlessly combined socializing with working his iPhone and MacBook; for a moment that made me feel validated, as I too like to tap on a keyboard while socializing (but perhaps a VIP is exempt from the gander/goose comparison :-)); later I realized he wasn't idly surfing; he was looking up the Texas Bill of Rights for a quote to include in his speech. How did he quote it in his presentation? You can read about it in this Susan Brown's blog post.

Later a UT student asked him a question: why hasn't the freethought community organized to create a response to the creationist movie "Expelled" -- for example, by raising money and making a movie debunking "Expelled"? Dawkins responded that making an "official" movie and trying to get it into theaters might not be the most effective way. These days, with everyone having a video camera, any one person can make such a movie, and the best way to distribute it might be simply by posting it on YouTube. There it may get more views than it would in movie theaters.

Yay for the older generation scientists who know how to leverage internet for political change!

An entire report on this event can be found on my SFragments web site. Here are some of the highlights (all the links point to various parts of the same article).

I found Dawkins' lecture topics familiar, even though I haven't read his books where he expounds on them. I guess I've absorbed his ideas by osmosis. The questions the audience asked revolved around whether atheists should adopt an in-your-face or a conciliatory tone with general public; some of the questions were more unusual. (Would you ask a well-known skeptic to support his reasoning with astrology? :-)) Then someone asked what Dawkins thinks of transhumanist visions. Finally, a concept he wanted us to take away from this lecture, if it was the only thing we would take away: why evolution is NOT equal to random chance.

Pictures from the reception and the lecture can be found in my photo gallery

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