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Does God Talk + Theory of Everything + Self Promotion = Best-Seller?

Stephen Hawking’s latest book Grand Design sits atop the Amazon best-seller list and has been the subject of gobal news attention and debate.  Driving discussion (and sales) is Hawking’s “no Creator necessary” assertion that natural laws alone can account for the origin of the Universe. 

Scientists such as Hawking and Richard Dawkins throughout their careers have openly discussed the efforts they put into the crafting of their books, the framing of their arguments, and the construction of their personal narratives. Which prompts the question: How much of the celebrity status attained by Hawking and Dawkins is attributable to the power, authority, and veracity of their ideas, and how much of their success derives from a personal genius for marketing, framing, and self-promotion?

For unique insight into this question, I turned to Declan Fahy, my colleague on the journalism faculty here at American University. Fahy arrived this Fall semester from the School of Communication at Dublin City University, Ireland, where he recently completed his dissertation examining  how contemporary British scientists and popularizers such as Hawking and Dawkins have emerged as famous figures. In his research he has analyzed their shared characteristics with other types of celebrities, including how they merge their public and private lives in their writing and media appearances, how they market and promote their images as public intellectuals, and how their public personas have come to embody abstract values, ideas, and ideologies, such as scientism.

Fahy approaches these topics from the perspective of a veteran journalist, having before graduate school reported extensively on science, health, and environmental issues, as well as many other topics, for the Irish Times, Irish Daily Mirror and Longford Leader newspapers. At American University, he has designed and is teaching this Fall an innovative new course in science, environmental, and health reporting.  At AoE, he will be weighing in with thoughts and perspectives on the many intersections among science journalism, culture, and politics. 

Earlier this week he talked to Dan Vergano at USA Today about Hawking’s celebrity and as a follow-up I asked him to contribute the following guest post.—Matthew Nisbet

Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, arguably the two most famous living scientist-authors, interviewed each other on-screen in June as part of a five-part UK television program, Genius of Britain, which described the island’s lasting scientific heritage.

They discussed the evolution of humankind and the formation of the universe, before Hawking said to the author of The God Delusion: “One can’t help asking: Why are you so obsessed with God?”

In reply, Dawkins pointed to the physicist’s own complex history with religious references, chiefly in his A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988, which became the most commercially successful popular science book ever published.

Its controversial closing sentence noted that if scientists were to discover a grand unifying theory of physics then “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God”.

Sound familiar? Twenty-two years later, Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design – co-written with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow – contains more of what the late science studies scholar Dorothy Nelkin called “God talk”: the use of religious imagery and metaphor by scientists to explain their research and its potential significance.

The Grand Design offers the authors’ explanation of M-theory, which suggests that many universes were created out of nothing after the Big Bang, arising naturally from physical laws, without the need for a creator to account for the origin of the universe.

Similar questions arise concerning the God-references in A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design. Is it God as a literal creator? God as metaphor? God as euphemism for “the mystery at the root of the universe” (as Dawkins, in their interview, judged it to be with Hawking)?

There is another view: God-talk as marketing device. Hawking has always seemingly been aware of marketing, noting that he wanted A Brief History of Time sold in airport bookstores, cutting out equations from draft after draft in case they scared away readers, and choosing to publish with Bantam Books, who were well-positioned to bring the title to the mass market.

He subsequently wrote in an essay in Black Holes and Baby Universes that he considered, in the draft stage, of cutting the book’s final line about knowing the mind of God, but had he done so then sales might have halved.

If M-theory is confirmed empirically, Hawking notes in his new book, it will be a unified theory of everything, the grand design of the entire cosmos. Scientists, however, are usually resistant to grandiose theories, preferring the careful, incremental development of knowledge. Indeed science reporter Keay Davidson, a biographer of cosmologist Carl Sagan and philosopher Thomas Kuhn, once wrote that phrases like a ‘theory of everything’ were not hypotheses, but sales pitches.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for The Grand Design’s appeal – it is currently top of Amazon’s bestseller list – including its promise to explain enticing ideas about multiple hidden universes, some with different physics laws, and, crucially, Hawking’s status as popular science icon.

And God-talk is perhaps unavoidable for physicists grappling with fundamental explanations for the origin of the universe. Einstein described his “cosmic religious feeling” and noted disparagingly of quantum physics: “God does not play dice with the world”. Five years before A Brief History of Time was published, physicist Paul Davies wrote God and the New Physics.

But is Hawking’s God-talk different? Is it more than being part of an orchestrated promotional drive to get publicity for a book that has received initially mixed reviews? (The Los Angeles Times found it fascinating, while The New York Times said it was “disappointingly tinny and inelegant”.)  Is the book and its brand-name first author review-proof, as its formula can perhaps be reduced to: Hawking + God + high-end physics + theory of everything = guaranteed bestseller?

Declan Fahy

Below you can watch Richard Dawkins engage in what Dorothy Nelkin describes as “God Talk,” calling upon his authority as a scientist to express his own personal philosophy about religion (transcript follows). The video interview is part of Big Think’s Believe It or Not series.

What do readers think? Are Hawking and Dawkins deservedly global celebrities based on the power of their ideas and their own scientific contributions? Or alternatively, like celebrities from other fields, how much of their fame derives from their genius for marketing and self-promotion?

Question: When did you first realize you were an atheist?

I think first the realization that there are lots of different religions, and they can't all be right. And the Christian one in which I was brought up was clearly only one of many. But that didn't finally make me into an atheist. What finally made me into an atheist was the realization that there was no scientific reason to believe in any sort of supernatural creator. And that came with the understanding of Darwinian evolution.

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Question: Do scientists ever need faith?

Not in the sense of faith as meaning belief in something for which there is no evidence. There are various senses of faith in which we do -- scientists do participate. There's branches of science which I don't understand; for example, physics. It could be said, I suppose, that I have faith that physicists understand it better than I do. And so when I say something that physicists tell me, such as that there was nothing before the big bang -- they're not allowed to talk about the word "before" in the context of the big bang -- I sort of have faith that physicists understand enough to be allowed to say that, even though I don't understand why they're allowed to say that. But it's not blind faith; it's not faith in the absence of evidence. It's faith that's based upon confidence in the scientific method, in the scientific peer review process, the fact that I know that there are other physicists who can test, verify, criticize the views of any one physicist. So it's not the same as religious faith, which is based upon no evidence at all.

Question: Why do so many people on earth have religious faith?

Richard Dawkins: Well, it's certainly true that so many people do have religious faith, not just individual people. Not all individual people do, but all cultures -- I think I'm right in saying that all peoples -- in the plural -- have had faith, religious faith of some kind. They believe in some kind of supernatural gods or goddesses or leprechauns or whatever it might be. Why do they have it? Well, I think it's very tempting -- when you don't really understand what's going on, when you're ignorant of the world, when you find yourself surrounded by a wonderful world, a puzzling world, a mysterious world, a frightening world -- it must be quite tempting to put your faith into a supernatural being of some kind.


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