I have agreed, with some trepidation, to review volume 2 of Richard Dawkins’ autobiography, this one called Brief Candle in the Dark. I guess I figured it might be refreshing to return to the pre-God-bashing, pre-Twitter Dawkins, when he was rightly known primarily as our pre-eminent science communicator (who called out the idiocies of creationism). And on the whole it is: rather than appearing to be the polarizing caricature that Dawkins is often presented as today, he comes across so far in the book as simply a chap with appealing features as well as foibles, not least of which among the former being his touching generosity to students. Sure, there are Pooterish touches (note to editors: if I ever write anything autobiographical that includes the line “I think my speech went down quite well”, then I’m counting on you guys), but also a sense of the humane individual (not to mention the splendid writer) who these days it can be hard to discern behind all the controversy that surrounds him. I should add that I’m still only on page 50.
But there are also occasional glimpses of the Twitter-era Dawkins, springing out Hyde-like from the good Jekyllish doctor. I was particularly struck by a passage in which, apropos of nothing in particular, Dawkins tells us about a “care home for old people in England” at which a “local government inspector” banned the traditional pudding Spotted Dick from the menu on the grounds that its name was “sexist”. This looked to me for all the world like one of those apocryphal “PC gone mad” stories that the Daily Mail loves to run (and then occasionally retract a few weeks later in small print). Could it really be true?
Thee only item that comes up after a quick Google is one reported – well, what did you expect? – by the Daily Mail. There, the change in naming was not occasioned by a prudish, PC government inspector. The story says that staff in a council canteen were totally fed up with a few customers (one in particular) who kept on making lewd and childish remarks whenever Spotted Dick was on the menu, and so they decided to take matters into their own hands – with the extremely ill-advised idea of calling it instead Spotted Richard. A council official then rather shamefacedly decided to intervene and reverse this policy because it looked so silly (and because it was being reported as an example of political correctness). There was no mention of anyone finding the name sexist, nor of officialdom actually trying to be politically correct.
Some Twitter comments challenged Dawkins about this, and his response was that this was not the same story at all. Rather, the Spotted Dickgate that he heard was from “a personal acquaintance, personally vouched for,” and not the infamous Flintshire Spotted Dickgate. And that, it seems, is all we are going to get from him (though you might think he’d be curious about the parallels).
So you must make up your own minds, people. Was Dawkins’ acquaintance recounting what shows every sign of becoming an urban myth, or was this really a case of Spotted Dick strikes again? Can anyone, in any event, figure out how Spotted Dick could be construed as “sexist” – or even, to paraphrase Spinal Tap, as ”sexy”? The anecdote doesn’t really make sense.
Alleged political correctness has of course become one of Dawkins’ bête noirs (bêtes noir?) – after all, it did for his good friend James Watson after Watson betrayed his racist views once too often, and it also came close to doing for his friend Tim Hunt (a much nicer man than Watson) after Tim said something stupidly sexist. Could it possibly be that it suited Dawkins to believe what he was told without feeling the need to inquire further?
If that’s so, it’s simply another example of the kind of confirmation bias that often leads scientists astray, as I discussed here. What is ironic is that this passage comes so soon after Dawkins has given us a rather nice account of the critical thinking that interview questions at Oxford aim to probe. But it’s one thing to be led to false conclusions in research by seeking out the answer you are already predisposed to find; it’s quite another to recycle an anecdote in a way that makes you sound like a ranter in the comments section of the Daily Mail website.
So pending a full disclosure of data and references, preferably in a major peer-reviewed journal, I propose we should avoid propagating the “Spotted Dick” meme, even if the inventor of memes himself repeats it. This has been a public service announcement.