My first reaction when I heard that leading atheist Richard Dawkins had taken a break from attacking Christians by having a go at Muslims was to think that at least he was consistent. Indeed, I was tempted for a few moments to commend his courage.
Until I read what he had actually tweeted - that
"All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."
Now whatever else you may say about him, Richard Dawkins is not a stupid man. But this was a pretty stupid statement. What on earth was it supposed to prove?
As Nesrine Malik pointed out in the Guardian here,
"Yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes.
But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of "Muslims", and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people.
Go on. Try it. All the world's Chinese, all the world's Indians, all the world's lefthanded people, all the world's cyclists."
Ironically in view of the fact that Richard Dawkins was the person making the remarks, one of the few groups for whom such a specious comparison could not be used to belittle their contribution to science would be Christians, but it would be as ridiculous to use this as an argument for the importance of Christians to science as it is for Dawkins to use the argument the other way round against Muslims.
There are plenty of instances of Christians doing things that are very wrong, and Dawkins has every right to criticise them, though it is guilt by association to try to blame all Christians for those actions.
Similarly there are plenty of instances of Muslims doing things which are very wrong, and Dawkins or anyone else has every right to criticise those actions, but again blaming all Muslims for the actions of Al Qaeda, suicide bombers, or any other Muslim fundamentalist lunatic is unfair and wrong.
And creating an off-the-top-of-the-head comparison of an elite Oxbridge College with a group of millions of people most of whom have not had anything like the opportunities to add to the sum of human knowledge that academics at Trinity College Cambridge have is not exactly a constructive argument.
In fact Dawkins' foolish comparison reminds me rather strongly of the daft comparison with which UKIP's treasurer, Stuart Wheeler, got himself into equally hot water when he suggested that women are not competitive enough to serve on company boards, offering as "evidence" the allegation that women come "absolutely nowhere" in competive mental games like chess, bridge and poker.
Stuart Wheeler isn't a stupid man either but this was a very foolish comment which was worse than wrong - he was discrediting the perfectly valid position that quotas for either sex on company boards are not a good idea by putting forward a ridiculous argument for a parody of a sensible position.
Companies need the best people on their boards who have the particular skills which are required at a particular time.
Many women have the skills and abilities which would make them superb company directors: equal opportunities for promotion and removing barriers to advancement should be the aim of any well-run company.
However, any arbitrary quota system is likely to backfire, first by creating the impression that people who actually should be there on merit have only been promoted to fill the quota, and second, because there is absolutely no guarantee that the person who has the best fit to the package of skills and experience required when a post falls vacant will be the right gender, race or whatever to fit the arbitrary quota.
According to Wikipedia, there are 27 women among the living FIDE chess grandmasters and there have been women among the medalists in the World Bridge championships and among the finalists in the World Poker Championships. Granted, there are more men who excel at those sports, but describing women as being "nowhere" in the top level of competition in these three spots is open to debate.
And even had the allegation that women were "nowhere" at these sports been true, the idea that the skill at chess or card games of other people of the same gender is an infallible guide to managerial ability or competence in putting a case in the boardroom does not make much sense.
Sometimes even Professors at Oxford University or spread-betting millionaires say things which are really very silly. And what is rather worse than the original mistakes is that neither has had the sense to withdraw and apologise.