No, its not nothing. Look, hear me out, OK? Yes, as a public figure Dawkins has said a lot of bigoted things in the last few years about women and sexual assault. In his books he discusses sexism every so often; it seems he thinks that prejudice about peoples gender is an equally big mistake regardless of which gender one is prejudiced against. Which is perhaps true purely in terms of whether your judgement of an individual person is likely to be right or wrong, but our society is heavily biased towards some kinds of gender prejudice and away from others, with moral and political consequences that cant be ignored except he does ignore them. (He also, disturbingly regularly, comments sympathetically on paedophilia. I devoutly hope the reason he gives in his autobiography is the real one: that he feels guilty about having been party to driving the teacher who molested him in boyhood to suicide.)
But before Dawkins was a public figure or a popular writer, he was a scientist. His research was on animal behaviour. And his big discovery, back in the late 1960s, is called the Drive Threshold Model. He tested it in chicks, which apparently show a definite colour preference when pecking at small objects: blue is preferred to red and red to green. Now you might think that this means a chick will always choose to peck a blue object when theres one available, and a red one when there isnt, and a green one only if theres nothing else. But apparently not. Rather, when a chicks drive to peck is low, it will only peck at blue objects; if it gets higher, it will peck randomly at either blue or red objects and ignore green; at the heights it will peck at any colour indiscriminately. Hence the term drive threshold.
If this only applied to chicks it would be pretty pointless me repeating it. But Dawkins applied the mathematics to a wide range of psychological studies on humans, measuring preferential behaviour towards flavours, colours, vegetables, handwriting styles, and composers. It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if its been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If youve got children youll know how often theyre only hungry for pudding. But if you havent eaten since the day before yesterday Ill wager youll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.
Now here comes the point. Women want to keep themselves safe from rape. And lots of people, not all of them men, have a helpful suggestion: maybe women should not dress like sluts, especially when out after dark. And this, funnily enough, makes a lot of women angry, because it places the responsibility on women not to be raped instead of on men not to rape. To which those giving the warnings reply that its no different from warning people to keep their cars locked in areas prone to theft, which is hardly taking responsibility away from the thieves, is it? In fact it is different, as New Zealand discovered in 2013, when a man was acquitted of a sexual assault that he had confessed to committing, on the grounds that his two female victims were foolish to have been crossing a park at night while dressed as they were.
But setting aside the ethics of such precautions do they work? Lets suppose that most sexual assaults are committed by men trying to satisfy their own sexual desires (obviously in a predatory, totally objectifying way). Lets also suppose that in general men have a sexual preference for some styles of dress over others. Both these suppositions seem plausible enough at first glance, but I dont know what the actual evidence is for either one. Obviously if one of them is not true then the whole thing is moot, the precautions dont work. The point is that you still cant conclude that dressing down will make a woman safe, because of what happens above drive thresholds. If a man is prepared to sexually assault strangers at night to satisfy his sex drive, its a reasonable guess that he must have a high sex drive at the time way over the threshold where his preferences about clothing make any difference. The Drive Threshold Model therefore predicts that his choice of victim will have nothing to do with the way shes dressed.
From which I draw three conclusions. In ascending order of importance
For social justice people: the findings of science are not biased, or at least not hopelessly biased, by the scientists ideology. Biology is not the enemy.
For evo psych buffs: feminism will usually turn out to be right. Go ahead and bet on it.
For everyone: stop freaking telling women not to dress like sluts and theyll be safe from rape. It doesnt work.