Respectful Insolence

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The endgame is in sight. At the end of this post is a list of questions for Bill Maher tomorrow (if the opportunity presents itself), the vast majority of which you, my readers, thought of.

Let’s backtrack a minute.

A couple of months ago, I learned that an award named after Richard Dawkins was being given to someone who was so radically, unbelievably unworthy of such an honor, that I likened giving the Richard Dawkins Award to Bill Maher to giving a public health award to Jenny McCarthy. (In deference to Professor Dawkins, perhaps I’ll now liken it to giving such an award to MMR anti-vaccine crank Andrew Wakefield.) The reason I became so incensed was because of the criteria for the Richard Dawkins Award, which were described thusly:

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

As I said at the time, my first reaction was: WTF?

True, it’s only one criteria out of three, but Maher violates it by not just a little. In fact, he flagrantly, joyously violates it–nay, shreds it!–with science-free conspiracy mongering rants against the flu vaccine, big pharma, and a Tweet a few days ago (screenshot above) saying, “If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot.” (Which got re-Tweeted by Doug Bremner, by the way. Moron.) After my initial post, I was gratified to discover there were in fact a lot of people who agreed with me or mostly agreed with me. On the other hand, I was very disappointed that there were defenders of Maher among people who should know better. Or so I thought. One thing I did know, and that was that, even though I had stirred the pot a bit, the pot definitely needed more stirring. So I took my inspiration from P.Z. Myers, who suggested putting Maher in the hot seat thusly:

…it is open season on everything and everyone. Everyone going to the AAI convention should be enthusiastically prepared to cheer wildly when Maher says something right and reasonable and even funny about religion, and if he brings up anti-vax woo or anti-research fluff, you should be equally prepared to pull out the rhetorical knives. I think anyone speaking at this convention should be aware that they are not there to receive unthinking hugs and kisses from an adoring audience of fans — they should come with ideas to make everyone think, and they should know that they will get arguments.

So that’s our answer to the other, most unfortunate idiocies which Maher espouses. Let’s make him uncomfortable. Don’t be shy about asking pointed questions and making him squirm. It’ll be fun. It’ll also be safe, because a majority of the audience will be feeling the same way about him.

Fair enough thus far. In fact, P.Z.’s suggestion was a large part of the inspiration for me to ask you all for a list of questions to ask Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, with the promise to post that list today, which is just what I will do after my usual logorrheic introduction. Unfortunately, just this week, P.Z. also wrote something very similar, but seemed to be toning it down. A lot. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate disrupting the conference in an obnoxious manner or going all “tea party” or “August town hall meeting” on Dawkins and Maher. However, I just can’t agree with P.Z. when he goes all accommodationist on us now just because it’s his hero’s ox that’s being gored:

And yet another problem: people are barking at Richard Dawkins. Dawkins does not support quackery. This isn’t an issue on which he’ll disagree with any of you, but he’s also there to talk about his exciting new book, not about fake cancer cures. I suspect he’s not looking forward to a lot of time-wasting headaches over this issue, and if it sounds like it’s going to eat up all of his time with the public, he’ll probably do the rational thing and cut back on spending time with the public. This is not to be encouraged.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was in this part of PZ’s response. Apparently P.Z. is fine with putting Maher “in the hot seat,” as he put it, but somehow thinks Dawkins should be immune. A couple of months ago, he was urging us to put Maher in the hot seat. Now he’s telling us to lay off Dawkins. Indeed, P.Z. even seems to be implying that Dawkins is so high and mighty that he should be able to dictate the topics of discourse at the AAI convention. Worse, P.Z.’s further implication seems to be that Dawkins might petulantly hide in his hotel room or otherwise stay safely away from the unwashed masses if people ignore his brand spankin’ new book too much and ask too many inconvenient questions about Bill Maher and his views on vaccines, HIV/AIDS, PETA, and cancer quackery. Yes, I know Dawkins has a book to promote. (Convenient that the AAI Convention is in L.A., no? Lots of TV and media there. Funny that.) But is the AAI solely a venue for Dawkins to promote his latest book? Right or wrong, that’s yet another implication I get from P.Z.’s comment. Yet, why would he be that concerned about promoting his book at AAI? After all, I’d bet a high percentage of the attendees there will probably buy Dawkin’s book no matter what (if they haven’t already) and that there will be lots of fans waving copies about for him to sign. Heck, I’ll buy his book eventually, when I get around to it.

P.Z.’s argument is a massive strawman, too, I’m afraid. No one, least of all me, is arguing that Dawkins somehow supports quackery and that that’s the reason he didn’t object to the AAI’s giving Maher the RDA. I’ve seen The Enemies of Reason. I gave it a glowing review, so impressed was I by Dawkins’ work, I even did a bit of an homage in my own inimitable way to the part of the documentary where Richard Dawkins visited the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. That’s hardly the action of someone who has any doubts about whether Richard Dawkins is anything other than staunchly pro-science-based medicine. Rather, what irritated me was Professor Dawkins’ reaction to complaint’s about Maher that developed in a thread on Pharyngula. Specifically, this is what Dawkins wrote:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

Let me repeat that again: I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions. No followup of “what are your complaints?” or “please tell me what you mean.” No “so, what are Maher’s medical views that upset you all so?” It’s as if Dawkins just didn’t care. La-de-da. So what if Maher supports quackery? No problem. As long as he bashes religion, it’s all good. My response–and an appropriate one, I think–was: If he doesn’t relish the prospect of having his book discussion time eaten into by discussions of Maher’s alt-med idiocy, Professor Dawkins should have thought of that problem before he so airily dismissed so many legitimate concerns about Maher’s anti-scientific views about medicine, shouldn’t he have? I bet Dawkins wouldn’t have had the same reaction if there had been allegations that Maher is a closet supporter of “intelligent design” creationism.

Is it just me, or does Dawkin’s response above remind you of anyone?

Oh, dear. Have I gone too far in likening Dawkins’ response to this kerfuffle to the hapless Sgt. Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes (one of my all time favorite shows, by the way)? Well, P.Z. did say that nothing, not even Richard Dawkins, is sacred, didn’t he? I agree. Nothing is sacred. So Sgt. Schultz it is, and Sgt. Schultz it will be!

I see nuttink! I know nuttink!” [Exit stage right, looking puzzled, scared, and exasperated.]

In any case, that’s what annoyed me so much. It wasn’t that Professor Dawkins was ignorant of Bill Maher’s anti-flu vaccine rants, his conspiracy mongering about big pharma, his claim that Louis Pasteur “recanted” germ theory on his deathbed, and, most recently, his advocacy of cancer quackery and his claim that modern medicine hasn’t made any progress against cancer in 50 years. With Bill Maher being a distinctly American phenomenon and Dawkins safely ensconced in Oxford, I wouldn’t have expected that Dawkins would have known about any of that. Nor do I labor under any sort of delusion whatsoever that Dawkins has ever seen my blog, much less read it regularly enough to have come across any of my posts on Bill Maher. Orac may have a huge, pompous, insufferablely self-righteous ego that drives people nuts, but even he’s not that deluded. No, where Professor Dawkins earns an EPIC FAIL is in his utter lack of curiosity about Maher’s views and blithe dismissal of people’s concerns, particularly given that the award is named after him. Maher’s pro-quackery views (not to mention that he is on the board of PETA) are well-known, and that one of the criteria for the award was “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” I hate to say it, but Professor Dawkins just didn’t seem concerned at all about the disconnect. That‘s what bothered me, not some unfounded worry that Professor Dawkins might have suddenly turned pro-quack on us.

Meanwhile, Josh Timonen over at RichardDawkins.net is repeating the same sort of lack of concern:

As you may know, Richard has been invited to present AAI’s ‘Richard Dawkins Award’ at their convention in Burbank this weekend. The AAI committee (of which Richard is not a member) chose Bill Maher to be this year’s recipient, especially because of his film, ‘Religulous’. Some commenters have raised objections because of Bill Maher’s stance on other issues, related to medicine.

Whilst Richard was not involved in the decision, he is nevertheless happy to go along with it. Just as he worked with Bishop Harries to protest against creationist schools in the UK, and just as he regularly recommends Kenneth Miller’s books on evolution to religious people, he understands that it is not a prerequisite to agree with a person on all issues in order to unite in support of a common objective. Richard and Christopher Hitchens don’t see eye to eye on all political matters, but that doesn’t stop them from working together against the dangers of religion. Honoring the creation of ‘Religulous’ does not imply endorsement of all of Bill Maher’s other views, and does not preclude Richard’s arguing against them on future occasions. It is simply showing proper appreciation of his brilliant film.

Wow. That was painful to read, wasn’t it? Could the words be more wishy-washy? Could they miss the point any more widely? I think not. Are they even on the same continent as the point? I think not. Would Timonon or Dawkins be saying the same thing if the allegations were that Maher is a closet creationist?

I think not.

Moreover, it’s another huge straw man argument. No one is saying that honoring the creation or Religulous necessitates agreeing with or endorsing Maher’s other views. Really, that was even lamer than Dawkins’ response. What we are talking about is giving someone who advocates anti-vaccine views and quackery an award, one of whose criteria is to advocate for increased scientific knowledge!

In fact, Maher’s belief in alt-med is no different than creationism at its core, and it’s not closeted at all. He spews it to the masses frequently on his TV show and in his standup comedy act. It is a non-reason-based ideology that subverts and denies science. In fact, I would argue to Richard Dawkins’ face if I were ever to get the opportunity, that the alt-med woo that Maher champions, particularly he anti-vaccine views, is a greater threat than creationism. They have a much more direct and immediate impact on people’s health now in the form of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases and people suffering needlessly because they eschew scientific medicine, thanks to the blandishments of faith-based medical practitioners. Creationism may be a long-term threat to science, but quackery such as the kind that Maher promotes is a threat now. A tangible, palpable, immediate threat. Moreover, like creationism, alt-med is every bit as much inspired by religion or “spirituality.” Much of it is based on religion-inspired prescientific notions of how the body works and disease develops. What is reiki, for instance, other than faith healing, just with Eastern religious beliefs instead of Christian beliefs. Heck, the person who developed reiki even said he developed the technique during a search to find out how Jesus performed the faith healing miracles described in the Bible!

I wonder what Maher thinks of reiki. Or therapeutic touch, which is nothing more than reiki stripped of its Eastern mysticism (although the same “life force” is there). Certainly his concept of unnamed “toxins” as the cause of disease is not too far afield. I think a commenter by the ‘nym Acumen made the same point I did but perhaps even better regarding the immediate harm unscientific medical beliefs can mean:

And as for numbers of people killed, the numbers for quackery v. the numbers for religious insanity: Imagine if anti-vaxxers (of which Maher is one) had had a significant voice in the public fifty years ago. Would we have gotten enough people vaccinated to get the chance to stop smallpox? How many millions of people would still be dying every year? What’s the next disease we’re going to be on the verge of eradicating that will continue to kill untold numbers because public figures were not called to task for spreading dangerous nonsense?

Bill Maher is a horrific enabler for people who think unscientifically. These would be, by the way, the kind of people who support Jenny McCarthy when she says she’d rather see polio resurface as a major childhood threat than have children receive vaccinations. He has a wide audience, and he is not minding his responsibility as a public figure and is abusing his position to spread dangerous misinformation about scientific facts. He does not deserve any award that recognizes in any part a contribution to science.

Actually, I’ll tell Acumen what the next disease that we were on the verge of irradicating but that came back: Polio. This was thanks to antivaccine insanity and rumors spread around Africa about how the polio vaccine would supposedly render males sterile.

Before I depart, in fairness, I will point out that I do appreciate this part of what P.Z. wrote:

…I’ve probably got a greater likelihood of getting a shot at a private conversation with Richard Dawkins than most readers here; maybe, and this is a very thin maybe, I’ll even get an opportunity to collar Maher. I may also get a chance to talk with some of the other organizers of the conference. If that happens, I’ll pass along the complaints, and I’ll try to drill down and get some good answers for you…which, of course, I’ll post here.

Thanks, P.Z., for offering to do that. Really. Despite all the other criticism, I mean that.

I must admit, though, that I’m surprised P.Z. doesn’t have Richard Dawkin’s mobile number on his speed dial, given that they are friends. Or there’s e-mail. A quick e-mail with a link to some posts about Maher’s promotion of quackery would have done nicely, and it would have had the added bonus of getting Richard Dawkins to read my blog. How cool would that have been? Apparently, at the time P.Z. didn’t consider the issue important enough to bother. Odd that he considered the issue important enough to write a blog post about but not to give his ol’ pal Dawkins a heads-up about what was waiting for him in Los Angeles. Maybe P.Z. assumed I’d let it go. Anyone who reads my blog, though, should know that letting go of an issue once he’s latched on to it is not something that Orac does well or often. But enough snark. (Well, not quite. One more: It’s amazing how—well–accommodationist P.Z. has become.)

Sadly, what I really don’t agree with is this statement by P.Z.:

If you find yourself with a chance to ask Richard Dawkins questions, though, please stick to issues that interest him. If you ask him about acupuncture, he’s going to be as dismissive as all of us other skeptics, so there really isn’t much point to going on about it. Don’t waste an opportunity to converse with Dawkins on a bunch of annoying noise. OK?

Oh, no. P.Z. No. Now why’d you have to go and say something like that? And, no, it’s not OK.

I suppose complaints about quackery and faith-based medicine are “annoying noise” if you don’t care all that much about medical quackery, or, alternatively (and more likely in this case), if you care a lot more about atheism than you do about science-based medicine. Assuming neither of these possibilities is the case, P.Z. seems to be implying that Dawkins is some sort of shrinking violet who can’t handle controversy. Now, I’ve never met Dawkins personally. (A couple of years, I stood in the same room with him in a crowd, but I couldn’t manage to get close enough to say hello and shake his hand.) Still, Dawkins doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who can’t handle a little controversy. I even concede that dealing with this issue probably annoys him.

So what?

Let me put it this way to P.Z. and others who think I’m being too hard on Dawkins and who want to protect him from inconvenient questions: Someone’s getting an award in Dawkins’ name is different than his working with someone on a common cause. It’s in essence an acknowledgment that the person is like Dawkins in some key way and the things Dawkins believes in are the criteria for the award. Heck, it even says so (or, at least it did). I’m sure if Dawkins had had any objection whatsoever when informed of whom the AAI wanted to choose to bestow the RDA upon, he would have voiced those objections before the award choice was finalized. If that had happened, does anyone think that the awards committee wouldn’t have have moved on to its second choice? As much as P.Z. tries to deny it and Dawkins tries to ignore the controversy, Dawkins can’t distance himself from this. So, like it or not, in essence, The award is an endorsement, and I like to think that the award means something.

Either that, or, as some people have told me through e-mail, including one prominent skeptic, awards are meaningless, nothing more than a publicity game, and the AAI picked Maher because he is a celebrity. He’s famous. Maybe that person was right. I hope not.

Let’s find out together. My only regret is that I can’t be there tomorrow to help out in person. But I can help out those of you who want to raise a little hell–politely, I might add, and without noisy demonstrations. I can help you with (1) a list of questions for Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins and (2) a list of posts detailing Maher’s crimes against reason when it comes to medicine. Not only that, I can repost a couple of YouTubes of Maher’s nonsense, complete with a bit about “aggregate toxicity”:

No, no, no. Don’t thank me, Professor Dawkins. Really, don’t. It’s my honor, particularly since the press release announcing Maher’s selection by the AAI stated:

We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and coproducer of the 2008 documentary movie Religulous, will be in attendance Friday evening to receive the 2009 AAI Richard Dawkins Award for his efforts to further the values science and reason in the world. [Emphasis mine.]

“Further the values of science and reason”? Bummer, that. It makes me want to ask my readers for more questions, even though the ones below are quite good, albeit somewhat repetitive. In fact, I think I will ask my readers for more questions. After all, a clear plastic box of blinking lights has got to do what a clear plastic box of blinking lights has got to do. So…if you have any good ideas, put ‘em in the comments! If I missed one of your questions that you posted earlier here, put it in the comments! Then print up the list. Use it as the beginning, but feel free to paraphrase as you like!

Finally, please, my readers attending the AAI Convention, let me know what happens. Maybe I’ll post a roundup on Monday, but in the meantime feel free to leave progress reports in the comments below. I’m sure P.Z. will do the same on his blog, as he promised.

To Bill Maher:

  1. Have you ever seen Professor Dawkins’ documentary series The Enemies of Reason?
  2. Mr. Maher, you’re on record numerous times saying that flu vaccines don’t work, that they “compromise” the immune system, that healthy eating and getting rid of the “toxins” will protect you from the flu, yet you have also been very much in favor of HPV vaccination (i.e., Gardasil). Both are vaccinations. How do you reconcile your belief that the flu vaccine is harmful and compromises the immune system with your advocacy of HPV vaccination? Why is it that the flu vaccine “compromises the immune system” and apparently the HPV vaccine does not?
  3. Could you please name some of these “numerous” American people with cancer who were given a “death sentence” by their conventional doctors but went to clinics in Mexico or other countries for “alternative” medicine and beat their cancers?
  4. On September 18, 2009 on Overtime With Bill Maher, you said in response to a question about whether Laetrile works against cancer that “I do know that the shit we’ve tried for the last 50 years doesn’t [work]. I know they’ve made no progress as far as cancer in this country.” Yet, according to the SEER database, the five year survival rate for all cancers combined was 50.2% in 1975 and rose to 68.2% by 2001. The 10-year survival has increased from 44.5% in 1975 to 60% in 1996. Many tumors that were virtual death sentences in 1960 are now highly treatable today. In light of that information, would you like to reconsider your assertion that “Western medicine” hasn’t made any progress against cancer in the last 50 years?
  5. Do you really believe that Louis Pasteur recanted germ theory on his deathbed, as you claimed in 2005? If so, why do you think that this invalidates all of the evidence supporting germ theory?
  6. You continually deride religious people for their faith in an unproven supreme being. Why, then, do you have faith in alternative medicine without any proof? The studies that have made it through an IRB (Insitutional Review Board) and been completed on any alternative medicine have come up as being as good or worse than no therapy at all, or as only having a placebo effect. Where is the scientific evidence? Big pharma can not control the scientific method – if there was proof of efficacy, that therapy would be adopted as quickly as possible. And the people responsible for discovering it would be well compensated as well as famous (to paraphrase Patrick Swayze).
  7. You are admired for your courage in standing up to conventional wisdom on a number of issues, and for being unafraid to face criticism. Yet you carry on endorsing all this unscientific quackery touting alternative medicines and railing against vaccines. How about inviting a proper scientist on your show so you can educate yourself about the real science behind the “mainstream” medicine you so despise?
  8. Have you considered the possibility that promoters of alternative therapies aren’t really on to anything, but are simply finding the rules of evidence used in science rather inconvenient?
  9. Do you really think medical scientists would ignore a promising cancer therapy simply because it’s not backed by a large pharmaceutical company? Aren’t ego and achievement pretty powerful reasons for a scientist to go after whatever seems to work no matter the source?
  10. Do you believe in using rational based inquiry in all areas of knowledge? If so, how can you reconcile your advocacy of dubious alternative medicine treatments and constant flagellation of rationally driven western medicine along with continuous promotion of conspiracy theories(ex pharma out to get us) with your rejection of theism. Either you have not used skepticism to discount the latter or you reserve your rationality for specific areas of knowledge. Which one is it?
  11. Why do you advocate the use of science and reason when dealing with religious beliefs, but do not apply the same type of critical thinking to your beliefs about alternative medicine?
  12. Would you consider reevaluating your alternative medicine beliefs, using science and reason, in the same way atheists like yourself may wish to see religious proponents rationally reevaluate their religious beliefs?
  13. Alternative medicine beliefs do not use the scientific method, exempt themselves from scientific evaluation, and rely on the supernatural in their claims. How do your faith-based medical beliefs differ from faith-based religious beliefs?
  14. You’ve said that people who get the swine flu vaccine are idiots. Can you please explain the CDC’s position regarding this vaccination and their rationale for recommending it to certain populations?
  15. I enjoyed your anti-religion movie. It was funny. Will you be doing an anti-vaccine movie soon?
  16. Where are all of these people who were cured by alternatives to evidence- and science-based medicine? Why aren’t they all clamoring up to congressional hearings with proof of their *cures*? (re Maher to Letterman: truth be told,my father was treated for heart disease for many years and lived well for most of them. I remember a few woo-sympathizers telling me to “get him off those meds”,”try a natural approach.” Why,so he could be naturally dead?)
  17. How much money do the promoters/makers of “alternative” treatments put into research and development? How much money is spent on the preclinical and clinical research to show safety and efficacy? What percentage of each dollar made from the “alternative” treatments represents scientific research?
  18. We know that cig smoke causes lung cancer. What are the “toxins” you are talking about, specifically, that are causing the cancers you think can be cured by CAM. Also, where do the toxins go when you “detox” yourself? If we capture the coffee plus crap that comes out, will we find these toxins?
  19. Since you doubt the methods of conventional method for proving efficacy, how do you distinguish between alternative therapies which work and those which are snake oil?
  20. A friend had some back pain and went to his alt med practitioner and had cupping performed. As proof that cupping was drawing out toxins and not simply causing a bruise, he pointed out that the discolored areas were brown, not purple. But if I went to the same therapist, falsely complain of back pains, and they cupped me and raised the same discolorations on my skin, what would this mean to your theory of toxins?
  21. You have claimed that Pasteur recanted his germ theory on his deathbed. Doesn’t this seem to sound like the falsified claim by Lady Hope that Darwin recanted on his deathbed? do deathbed recantations even mean anything? Are you sure that you won’t have a “Come to Jesus” moment when you are on your deathbed?
  22. You have stated that, “Merely suggesting alternative medicine for cancer treatment can get an individual arrested in this country.” To date there are countless websites and companies that market and sell alternative based treatments specifically targeted towards individuals with cancer (Natural supplements, vitamins etc.). Can you cite any cases where suggestion of alternative treatments have actaully put people in legal jeopardy?
  23. Smallpox was eradicated worldwide through the use of vaccines. It is entirely possible that polio could be similarly eradicated. Should polio be allowed to flourish because you are anti-vaccine?
  24. On Larry King Live, you claimed that getting the influenza vaccine five years in a row increased the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s ten-fold. The only source for this claim is Dr. Hugh Fudenberg. Are you aware that in November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was “guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct,” and he was fined $10,000, ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs) and his medical license was placed on suspension. Since that time, Fudenberg’s medical license has lapsed. Do you still think Fudenberg is a reputable source for the claim about flu vaccines and Alzheimer’s?
  25. Are you an atheist; do you not believe in a god of any kind, yes or no?
  26. Did you say the following words and do they accurately reflect your views today? You said: “I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no.” I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books. I think that the people who think God wrote a book called The Bible are just childish. Religion is so childish. What they’re fighting about in the Middle East, it’s so childish. These myths, these silly little stories that they believe in fundamentally, that they take over this little space in Jerusalem where one guy flew up to heaven no, no, this guy performed a sacrifice here a thousand million years ago. It’s like, “Who cares? What does that have to do with spirituality, where you’re really trying to get, as a human being and as a soul moving in the universe?” But I do believe in a God, yes.”
  27. I’ve heard that you are anti-vaccination. Is that true? If yes, what would you do if you were bitten by a rabid animal? If get a rabies shot/vaccine – isn’t that a little hypocritical? Picking and choosing which vaccines you think are helpful and which are not? The whole purpose of vaccinations is that an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  28. Mr. Maher, one of the dangers that I have always believed that organized religion poses for people is that it promotes praying when one is sick as a plea for being cured. There is, of course, no evidence that people that pray when sick have any greater a chance of being cured than those of us that don’t. Don’t you beleive than, that anything that is promoted as a cure for ANY disease or sickness should be held to a high level of factual scrutiny and scientific study so that people are not taken advantage of like those that are told to pray for a cure? Do you have such evidence to support the claims that alternative treatments for cancer have a higher rate of cure than conventional medicine treatments?
  29. Do you understand why double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies are ultimately necessary to evaluate the veracity of claims put forth by both traditional scientific medicine, and so-called “alternative” medicine?
  30. How would you react to the prospect of an HIV/AIDS vaccine? [I like this one, because, as I have pointed out before, Maher gushingly praised HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore’s book.
  31. You have been an outspoken critic of global warming denialism, pointing
    out that much of the right wing denies the scientific consensus in favor of thei rconservative ideology. In light of this why do you choose to ignore the clear scientific consensus on specific issues of medical science like vaccines and cancer treatment?

To Richard Dawkins:

  1. Professor Dawkins, you stated that you were unaware of Bill Maher’s views about medicine. Fair enough, but why is it that, upon people complaining about his views, you showed absolutely no interest in finding out what Maher’s medical views were and why they upset your admirers? Given that Maher is being given an award bearing your name and that his medical beliefs are far better suited to one of the hapless quacks you skewered in the second half of your documentary The Enemies of Reason, don’t you think finding out what it is about Maher’s views that upsets advocates of science-based medicine would be important?
  2. Would it matter to you if the Richard Dawkins Award were given to a creationist? If it would (as I assume it would), then why doesn’t it apparently bother you that the RDA is being given to an advocate of a different, but equally fallacious and pernicious, form of pseudoscience, namely cancer quackery and anti-vaccine views every bit as loopy as those of Andrew Wakefield?
  3. What will be your position should Mr. Maher defend his anti-vaccine position in the future by referring to his prestigious science award, given to him by none other than Richard Dawkins?
  4. One of the strengths of science is the capacity to change interpretations as new information becomes available. With all that has been presented about Mr. Maher’s views of medical science, has your opinion of the appropriateness of giving him the Richard Dawkins Award changed?
  5. Since the Richard Dawkins Award, with your approval, is being given to a person who promotes Magical Thinking, why should we not consider you an “accommodationist”?
  6. You have implied that you are willing to overlook Maher’s stance on other issues because of the contribution he made with the movie Religulous. In the past, you have made common cause with those on who you disagree on certain issues (e.g. working with clergy in promoting the teaching of evolution), however, you have always been quite clear and explicit about the points over which you disagree with these sometimes-allies. Will you now clearly and unequivocally state that you do not share Maher’s views on vaccines, modern cancer treatment, and germ theory?
  7. People often charge you with being ideological in your militant atheism and accuse you of stepping outside the bounds of scientific evidence to promote atheism. How can you refute that charge, sir, if you allow a prominent promoter of anti-science woo to be given an award in your name for atheism? Doesn’t this reinforce the impression your critics have that you put atheism ahead of scientific rationality?
  8. Do you believe that vaccination is a safe and advisable approach for preventing diseases, and that people should be vaccinated according to international health organization guidelines?
  9. Is this specific instance in which Maher’s views were not made available in a timely matter or do you plan to continue to play the ignorance card while allowing awards to be bestowed upon individuals who clearly do not fulfill the criteria for recognition. How would you feel if an award representing fair minded skepticism in medical practises was given to a creationists. Perhaps then you would require rationality in all areas of knowledge?
  10. Alternative medicine beliefs do not use the scientific method, exempt themselves from scientific evaluation, and rely on the supernatural in their claims. How do Bill Maher’s faith-based medical beliefs differ from faith-based religious beliefs?
  11. You’ve accused moderate religionists of providing cover to the extremists because they offer no rational argument for differentiating good religion from bad religion. Similarly, alternative medicine proponents offer no rational standard for separating good alternative medicine from crazy alternative medicine. Once a doctor leaves behind the rules of evidence medical scientists normally use, once he skip independent peer review, controlled studies, and the constraint of prior plausibility, he’s entered the realm of faith based healthcare where all manner of harmful quackery becomes possible. I wonder how you reconcile your opposition to faith based arguments concerning the creation of the universe and life’s evolution with your approval of Mr. Maher as an appropriate recipient of the Richard Dawkins award, knowing how he frequently promotes faith based medicine?
  12. Math teachers know that students sometimes put down the right answer as a lucky guess or by copying someone else. That’s why they insist that students show their work. Professor Dawkins, shouldn’t you ask to see Mr. Maher’s work before awarding points for his “no God” answer? Given his credulous promotion of alternative medicine, it seems he doesn’t really get the scientific method. So I suspect he copied that “no God” answer from someone smarter who happened to be sitting near him.
  13. As many know, Simon Singh, a respected educator of the sciences, is currently facing legal battles in the UK from quacks. The scientific and rationalist societies rallied around him and launched a campaign against the bogus lawsuit. You, yourself, spoke in support of Simon calling him a “courageous hero” a few days ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/sep/20/richard-dawkins-libel-laws). Do you feel, then, it is appropriate to give the RDA to another staunch quack?
  14. Professor Dawkins, you have come out quite strongly against medical quackery, both during your documentary The Enemies of Reason and in the foreword to Snake Oil, and Other Preoccupations by John Diamond. How do you feel about having a man whose beliefs mirror those of Prince Charles (whom you castigated) or one of the quacks you skewered in The Enemies of Reason) bear an award with your name on it?
  15. What do you imagine John Diamond might say to Mr. Maher if he were alive today?
  16. Have you ever seen your documentary series The Enemies of Reason?
  17. How can the maker of the documentary The Enemies of Reason agree to and hand out an award to someone who would be a great punch ball in that very program?

To the AAI:

  1. One of the criteria for the Richard Dawkins Award is that the person “advocates increased scientific knowledge”. Will this criterion be dropped in light of the award going to an active promoter of pseudoscience?
  2. I’m told that the inscription on the Richard Dawkins Award to be given to Bill Maher reads, “for outstanding contribution to freethought in Religulous and many insightful criticisms of religion, presented to Bill Maher by Atheist Alliance International, Oct 2, 2009.” Yet, according to numerous sources, the criteria for the RDA are described thusly: “The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.” Did you change the criteria of the award so that you could give it to a celebrity like Bill Maher, even though, by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, it’s impossible to say that Maher “advocates increased scientific knowledge,” given his vocal advocacy of unscientific medicine and quackery?
  3. The Richard Dawkins Award is given to one who “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” On what efforts, in the furtherance of science, did the selection committee base this award to Bill Maher?
  4. This Award is suppose to go to an “outstanding ATHEIST” who “mirrors the UNCOMPROMISING nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.” Yet Bill Maher has gone on record that he is not an atheist. Please explain how this award is not compromising.
  5. Who was on the selection committee?

And, finally, I’m reposting a list of posts that detail in painful detail just how low Maher goes:

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    October 1, 2009

    A question for Maher would be something along the lines of: You’ve stated that you think the germ theory of disease is incorrect and that disease is a result of “aggregate toxins from the environment”. Assuming your views haven’t changed since then, can you explain the daily experiments on infectious disease conducted in all manner of labs world-wide that seemingly validate the germ theory every time they are performed? Please consider the role of negative controls and sham inoculations in your answer.

    Maybe a followup: How do you feel receiving an award given to you by, and in the name of, someone who holds your medical opinions in the same esteem you hold a Christian’s, Muslim’s or Jew’s religious opinions? [could use some rewording perhaps]

  2. #2 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    No one, least of all me, is arguing that Dawkins somehow supports quackery and that that’s the reason he didn’t object to the AAI’s giving Maher the RDA

    To be fair, I questioned it, and, in fact, you have included my question in your list for him. (yeah! I made the list) However, I prefaced my comments with the caveat that I haven’t read anything by Dawkins, and don’t know much of what he has said. I did say that, absent statements to the contrary, the fact that he fails to distance himself from the views of a known anti-vaxxer is a bad sign. In fact, I was informed that he did dismiss Wakefield in Enemies of Reason, indicating his anti-anti-vax stance. Nonetheless, I think it is still a fair question, but should be a soft one.

  3. #3 James Brown
    October 1, 2009

    Orc – you’re wrong on this one.
    While I agree that Maher’s views on some aspects of medicine (like flu shots) are simply wrong I don’t find this enough reason enough to give him a failing grade on a subject completely divorced from medicine like atheism.
    As a closer example would you disregard fellow atheist’s views on atheism because you found that he was a global warming disbeliever (or believer depending on your own views)? Even closer – would you disregard a fellow atheist’s views on atheism because he found Popper a poor choice for logic?
    I don’t think you would. You would attempt to school your friend in your own views but on a completely different subject you would support him.
    Right?

  4. #4 Scott
    October 1, 2009

    James,

    If you look closely, you’ll see that Orac isn’t questioning Maher’s atheism. Rather, he’s objecting to Maher getting an award for which atheism is only ONE of the criteria, while grossly failing on another one of the stated criteria.

    Now, personally I don’t object to it – they’re apparently treating the criteria as an OR not an AND, which I can accept. But you’ve quite badly mischaracterized the substance of Orac’s objection.

  5. #5 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    As a closer example would you disregard fellow atheist’s views on atheism because you found that he was a global warming disbeliever (or believer depending on your own views)? Even closer – would you disregard a fellow atheist’s views on atheism because he found Popper a poor choice for logic?
    I don’t think you would. You would attempt to school your friend in your own views but on a completely different subject you would support him.

    Speaking for myself, and not Orac obviously, absolutely I would have the same reservations about the RD Award going to a global warming denier.

    My views on the Maher controversy are a little more moderate than Orac’s, but not by a wide margin. If atheism is to mean anything worthwhile, it must be inextricably tied to skepticism and rationalism, and anti-vax propaganda and global warming denialism both severely violate those principles.

    (BTW, your point about Popper is kindof ridiculous… people can reasonably differ over which philosophers they admire, geez… but people can not reasonably differ over, say, germ theory or the existence of man-made global warming [though they could certainly reasonably disagree over the extent of the latter]. Those ideas have been so well-established as factual that to deny them is highly unreasonable and irrational.)

  6. #6 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    I don’t find this enough reason enough to give him a failing grade on a subject completely divorced from medicine like atheism.

    Did you even read Orac’s comment? It’s NOT an award for atheism only! Or, at least, it used to not be. To reiterate

    “The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.”

    Again:
    who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge

    One of the pillars of the RDA is to advocate increased scientific knowledge.

    Now, it’s one thing to claim that he wasn’t as active in that aspect of the award and was recognized mainly for his other contributions, but what we are saying is that Maher actively worked in opposition to that part of the award. He has tried to use his media to sabotage scientific knowledge.

  7. #7 bob
    October 1, 2009

    Bravo, Orac. I hope this post gets the attention it deserves.

    Also, I found the following line from Dawkins particularly disheartening: “I know nothing of any stance [Maher] may have taken on medical questions.”

    Sounds like it was written by a PR person. I’m sure Dawkins was just treading lightly and covering his bases, but come on! I quickly google things before posting anonymously on the internet to make sure I know what I’m talking about, but we’re to believe that Dawkins didn’t spend five minutes educating himself about Bill Maher when he heard about this award? Please.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    October 1, 2009

    FWIW, in defense of Dawkins point: I do not have cable. I do not watch Bill Maher on TV. I only see the very select videos people post now and then and so far that has been 100% atheism and related issues, or making fun of religion. Then I saw his movie, and loved it. So, I’m glad he’s getting the award.

    I totally get and respect the woo angle here, and this is a great platform to make people more aware. But it is also, to some extent, true that you are mainly pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful.

  9. #9 anthro
    October 1, 2009

    id you say the following words and do they accurately reflect your views today? You said: “I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no.” I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books. I think that the people who think God wrote a book called The Bible are just childish. Religion is so childish. What they’re fighting about in the Middle East, it’s so childish. These myths, these silly little stories that they believe in fundamentally, that they take over this little space in Jerusalem where one guy flew up to heaven no, no, this guy performed a sacrifice here a thousand million years ago. It’s like, “Who cares? What does that have to do with spirituality, where you’re really trying to get, as a human being and as a soul moving in the universe?” But I do believe in a God, yes.

    THIS is the reason Maher should not get the award (sorry for the length of the repost); he is not really an ATHEIST, which probably explains why he so easily accepts woo. Maher is like so many I know who have dumped their childhood religion, not for atheism, but for New Age and woo. Hell, even Dawkins is primarily concerned with ORGANIZED religion, not belief itself.

  10. #10 James Brown
    October 1, 2009

    Well I think putting atheism and science in the same yoke is unfair to both. The thing that links them is logic but it is still true that you can be an atheist and a non-scientist or an atheist and be completely wrong on some aspect of medicine. You can also be a scientist and a theist (think Francis Collins).
    Remember the Atheist Alliance International is not a science organization even though they use the word ‘scientific’ in the award description.
    I understand Orc’s complaint but I think it’s over drawn by a good bit.

  11. #11 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    Well I think putting atheism and science in the same yoke is unfair to both.

    Unfair? AAI is the one who hung that yoke on themselves! How is it unfair to ask them to live up to it?

    And the inclusion of science is not an accident. Although you say they are not an science organization, look at their mission statement. It also includes promoting science. So even if they change the criteria for the RDA, Maher is also inconsistent with their mission.

    No, atheism and science don’t have to go together. However, presumably, the AAIs appreciation for Dawkins comes not just because he is an atheist, but because he also spends his life advancing the cause of science, too.

  12. #12 DuWayne
    October 1, 2009

    Greg -

    What if Maher spoke out against human evolution, in favor of the notion that et’s seeded all other life and then put us here? At what point exactly, is it acceptable to say that an anti-science quack shouldn’t be getting an award for supporting science and reason, as well as atheism?

    If it were an award that is purely for advancing non-theism, I would say Orac is being unreasonable. But that is not the case here and Maher doesn’t fit the criteria. He is a quack – a dangerous quack, who espouses all sorts of dangerous nonsense. This asshole is an HIV/AIDS denialist among other sorts of insanity.

    At what point can we say that he most definitely is not a supporter of science and reason?

  13. #13 Joseph C.
    October 1, 2009

    Remember the Atheist Alliance International is not a science organization even though they use the word ‘scientific’ in the award description.

    We’re all aware of this. The less-than-subtle thing we’re complaining about is how the AAI is giving an award that carries the name of a prominent scientist to someone who aggressively professes anti-science views on national TV. Furthermore, the scientist, who has greatly profited from controversy, appears to be meekly avoiding the issue.

    We just want the Dawkins from Enemies of Reason back.

  14. #14 llewelly
    October 1, 2009

    Yet, according to the SEER database, the ten year survival rate for all cancers combined was 50.2% in 1975 and rose to 68.2% by 2001. The 10-year survival has increased from 44.5% in 1975 to 60% in 1996

    Wait. In 1975, was the 10-year survival rate for all cancers 50.2% or 44.5%? These two sentences seem to be either inconsistent, or referring to different work. If the second refers to a different work, it should either be removed, or altered to explicitly name what it refers to.

  15. #15 llewelly
    October 1, 2009

    Greg Laden | October 1, 2009 11:38 AM:

    I totally get and respect the woo angle here, and this is a great platform to make people more aware. But it is also, to some extent, true that you are mainly pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful.

    I do not watch tv at all. Like you, I have seen Maher’s movie, a few clips on the internet, and little else. If I wasn’t a regular follower of Orac’s blog, I would probably share your opinion.

    I strongly suggest you read the articles Orac has previously written about Maher, which are linked at the bottom of his article.

  16. #16 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    Being rational is really important. So long as we’re talking about my particular field of study. I don’t give a rat’s ass how people draw conclusions in every other field of study.

    Please don’t bore me with trivialities concerning vaccines, cancer, AIDS, or whatever. I’ve got some pretty important science to do.

  17. #17 Joseph C.
    October 1, 2009

    I’ve got some pretty important science to do.

    And books to be sold and signed. Don’t ask me any questions about your little kiddie medical science. Just shut up and buy my book.

  18. #18 JonA
    October 1, 2009

    Stalin did more to advance Atheism than any other person on earth, why not posthumously give him an award? Oh ya, because he was a dangerous maniac and was also anti-science. Why is it Maher is getting the award again?

    There’s no point in giving out award for being a prominent atheist if they don’t show the proper respect to science (and not just evolution), that it deserves.

  19. #19 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    I totally get and respect the woo angle here, and this is a great platform to make people more aware. But it is also, to some extent, true that you are mainly pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful.

    Really? Why is it not “helpful” and whoever said I’m pushing for “purity”? If the award were just for atheism or for making an anti-religion movie, I would never have written a word about this. But it’s not. Advancing scientific knowledge and, apparently furthering the values science and reason in the world.

  20. #20 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    Being rational is really important. So long as we’re talking about my particular field of study. I don’t give a rat’s ass how people draw conclusions in every other field of study.

    Yeah, more or less. At least that’s how the attitude strikes me.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Be it atheism or the skeptical movement, there seems to be a distressing tendency for the so-called reason-based community to give pseudoscience a pass when it comes to medicine. Outrageous nonsense is tolerated with a “shruggie” attitude when nonsense of an equivalent level of stupidity when it comes to evolution, for example, would bring down the righteous wrath of that community. Even Dawkins appears to have fallen into that trap with Bill Maher, and if he falls for that trap what hope is there?

    I’ve also said before that science-based medicine is all too often treated like the bastard stepchild of the skeptical movement. Not the majority, but a large enough minority that it truly distresses me.

  21. #21 Andreas Johansson
    October 1, 2009

    Orac wrote:

    Either that, or, as some people have told me through e-mail, including one prominent skeptic, awards are meaningless, a game, and the AAI picked Maher because he was famous. Maybe that person was right. I hope not.

    If it’s just a PR exercise, it’s having some success – thanks to your and PZ’s coverage, I’m now aware of the AAI and Bill Maher.

  22. #22 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    Orac, I maded you a cookie here.

  23. #23 Zombie
    October 1, 2009

    The whole point of ‘new atheism’ is that if you’re going to take science seriously, you have to take all of it all the way, to the point of accepting what science implies (according to the ‘new atheists’) about religion.

    Ignoring Maher’s views on vaccination or medical science is not consistent with that position. If you are going to insist on taking what the evidence says about religion seriously, then you’d better take what it says about medicine seriously.

    And Maher’s views will give Christian scientists a stick to beat Dawkins with: it can be used to ‘demonstrate’ that he cares more about attacking religion than supporting science.

  24. #24 Clark
    October 1, 2009

    What’s so frustrating about this is that I bet Dawkins would refuse money or awards given by the Templeton Foundation because of its religious beliefs and would probably encourage scientists not to accept Templeton grants. Yet there is a huge hypocrisy when he doesn’t care about Maher’s anti-science beliefs.

  25. #25 El cos
    October 1, 2009

    Likely the AAI got word(if at all) along with Dawkins close to the meeting. Half from being embarrassed to take any steps to revoke it and half from not giving a rat’s ass about Maher’s other views and here we are. PZ partially supports the points made above although he does not think making our views heard at the conference(ie challenging Dawkins et al) is the best way to proceed. But what are the alternatives? The topic in question will likely never come up again. Also, PZ should be careful about making haphazard suggestions lest someone take him up on th
    them. :)

  26. #26 El cos
    October 1, 2009

    WTF is aggregate toxicity? Maher keeps pressing this in one of his vids. I never realized his aggregate ignorance on all issues of health. He also suffers from an inflated ego which, when combined with dubious scientific knowledge leads him down the rabbit hole. Unlike Alice however, he seems to be stuck there forever, never being able to emerge from his dream world.

  27. #27 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    Orac, I maded you a cookie here.

    Recommending Steve Novella and me for the RDA, and likening me to Ash, too?

    I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy!

  28. #28 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    Here’s a link to a video about some environmental activists. It illustrates a way to oppose something without getting all crazy and disruptive about it.

  29. #29 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    WTF is aggregate toxicity? Maher keeps pressing this in one of his vids. I never realized his aggregate ignorance on all issues of health.

    Ah, yes. It’s the usual alt-med obsession with “purity of essence” and the evil “toxins” that supposedly cause all disease. It leads to ridiculous ideas like coffee enemas to “detox.” I’ve never seen Maher advocate that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he thought it was a good idea. In any case, Maher seems to think that if you eat right and get rid of the toxins you won’t get sick ever and can avoid the flu. Nothing against eating right and exercising, but I’m sorry. Even though being healthy can lower one’s risk of succumbing to infectious disease, those bugs can still get you, no matter how much tofu you eat or how many coffee enemas you shoot up your backside.

  30. #30 LindaRosa
    October 1, 2009

    Hmm. Use of the word “mirror” in the definition of the Dawkins Award reminds me of something Maher said on The Daily Show:

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-september-30-2008/bill-maher-pt–2

    “I don’t say there’s no god. I’m not an atheist, because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainly of religion.”

    With this poor opinion of atheism (and poor understanding as well), it’s odd he would accept an award for being and “outstanding atheist,” no?

  31. #31 Sid Offit
    October 1, 2009

    You’ve said that people who get the swine flu vaccine are idiots. Can you please explain the CDC’s position regarding this vaccination and their rationale for recommending it to certain populations?
    ———————————-

    Any government bureaucracy needs to defend its reason for being and assert its importance. These entities want to survive and they want to grow. As long as the CDC can manufacture fears about killer diseases such as the mumps, measles and novel, pandemic influenzas it can justify its its existence and its 9 billion dollar a year budget.

  32. #32 AntieverythingElf
    October 1, 2009

    I think there’s an underlying divergence in motives amongst atheists that is being exposed here. Some are simply pro-reason, and others are mainly anti-religion.

    If your main drive is purity of reason – and from that standpoint, find atheism to be rational, oppose religion and woo and such, then Maher is obviously an enemy of that worldview. But if being anti-religion is the most important goal, as Maher and Laden might be characterized, Maher’s voraciousness on this matter should be accommodated despite his weakness in other areas.

    In other words, I think the anti-religious zeal is blinding some fellow atheists from their pursuit of reason and knowledge. If you get lulled into thinking that we should fight *against* religion, instead of fighting *for* reason – you’ll always end up getting corrupted in a similar trap like Maher has exposed. It’s a subtle difference that takes a unique situation to illustrate.

  33. #33 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    Can we please ignore Sid just for this thread? This is a discussion that embodies real meaningful disagreement within the skeptic community; it is not a particularly good time for engaging with the credulous community. It will just confuse the discussion and hijack the thread.

  34. #34 rrt
    October 1, 2009

    Gotta say I can’t agree totally, Orac. I agree with You pretty much across the board–challenge Maher and Dawkins over this, civilly but firmly, absolutely. And if this award as anything to do with science, Maher doesn’t deserve it (and if it was just atheism, still not sure Dawkins should be part of it.)

    But I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say Dawkins doesn’t care about your objections, that he’s just disregarding them. I think it’s quite clear from his, Timonen’s and Myers’ comments that he’s trying to play diplomat here. He doesn’t want to stir up trouble, and he’s hoping to keep the focus on the positive (that Maher challenges religion). And as other commenters have observed, there was apparently some conscious diplomatic and PR wrangling on AAI’s part in picking Maher; they know he’s risky, but they want to exploit his popularity.

    I also sense a version of the accomodationist fight in this. It seems to me a core part, maybe the biggest part, of that fight was priorities. The Mooneys think science must come first, while the PZs think atheism comes first or at least doesn’t have to be compromised to push science. It seems to me that you’re thinking science-based medicine–YOUR priority–is being thrown under the bus here. I think you’re right, but I also think you’re letting that skew your perspective a little.

    I don’t agree with the choice, I wouldn’t have handled the griping coming from our camp the way they have, and I’d be right up there asking Dawkins the questions if I was attending (sorry, PZ, but I think the situation demands this specific kind of public visibility, despite Dawkins’ inconvenience). But I think it’s important to remember that there WERE reasons for the choice and the subsequent waffling. We may not like them, but I think they’re understandable and I think they should mitigate some of our outrage. I see where they’re coming from.

  35. #35 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    AntieverythingElf has put it very well, however, I just want to add one caveat: That does NOT mean that the for-reason type of atheists cannot at times make common cause with others who share similar goals. Dawkins’ collaboration with CoE clergy in fighting Creationism is an example of this.

    Similarly, I don’t think we have to hate on Religulous just because the guy who made it is kind of a tool… we can still make common cause with him.

    What is troubling here is the lack of clarity on the part of the AAI and Dawkins. As I have described many times (in the interests of not being too spammy, I will refrain from linking to my blog for the umpteenth time..), I would be okay with all of this if Dawkins and/or the AAI would make their disagreement with Maher explicit.

    But as long as it is not explicit, this would be like if when Dawkins teamed up with the Bishop of Oxford to combat Creationism in UK schools, all of a sudden he went mum on the topic of religion. In reality, there was always perfect clarity on where Dawkins and the Bishop agreed, and where they disagreed.

    The lack of corresponding clarity in this situation is what I think most of us are objecting to. We want clarity, not “purity” as Greg Laden seems to think.

  36. #36 Sid Offit
    October 1, 2009

    @James

    Can we please ignore Sid just for this thread
    ————————–

    The fear is strong with you James Sweet

  37. #37 Chris
    October 1, 2009

    No, Sid Troll, you are just not worth the electrons.

  38. #38 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    I think it’s quite clear from his, Timonen’s and Myers’ comments that he’s trying to play diplomat here. He doesn’t want to stir up trouble…”

    With me? FAIL!!!!!!

    Oh, you don’t mean with me. I’m not important. Maher is. I can understand that. Fair enough.

    What’s not fair enough: expecting anything less than pure white hot rage. From me.

  39. #39 bob
    October 1, 2009

    I agree about ignoring the trolls. The relevant thread over at Pharyngula got derailed by some weird racist guy, and any chance of productive conversation flew out the window. Let’s not let that happen here.

    @Greg Laden: Purity? Are you kidding? Expecting the recipient of a supposedly science-based award to accept the germ theory of disease is “pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful”? You’re showing less perspective than PZ has.

    @rrt: There’s no doubt that RD/PZ/AAI are just playing nice and dancing around Maher’s quackery. That’s exactly the problem. Like another commenter said, would they be happy giving an award to Stalin or Mao? (After all, those guys promoted atheism.)

  40. #40 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    also sense a version of the accomodationist fight in this. It seems to me a core part, maybe the biggest part, of that fight was priorities. The Mooneys think science must come first, while the PZs think atheism comes first or at least doesn’t have to be compromised to push science. It seems to me that you’re thinking science-based medicine–YOUR priority–is being thrown under the bus here. I think you’re right, but I also think you’re letting that skew your perspective a little.

    I agree with a lot of this, but disagree with the conclusion. I absolutely think that that science-based medicine is being thrown under the bus. The problem I have is that I don’t see why any part of rationality has to be thrown under the bus?

    In fact, I am 100% behind Myers’ attacks on accomodation. He actually convinced me. That is why it is so frustrating to see him come and be accomodating on this matter. Apparently to him, accomodation is only a problem when it is your issue, and not someone else’s.

    I thought these guys were opposed to the concept of accomodation. Apparently, it only matters to them when it is there pet issue.

    So in the end, I am less bothered by the fact that they throw my issue under the bus, but how they can argue so vociferously against accomodation on their issue, and so easily close their eyes and even participate in the practice for someone else’s. It makes their case against accomodation far less compelling to me, because I realize they don’t really mean it.

  41. #41 mariana
    October 1, 2009

    Ooo, this should be good. Wish I could attend.

    Religiousity a brilliant movie?? That makes Michael Moore movies sheer genius, and Expelled eligible for a similar accolade.

    btw, ordered Dawkins’ new book yesterday. Wish I could pick one up at the conference and get it signed…but if I was there he might not sign it after I asked him a pointed question. Maybe I could flirt… ;)

  42. #42 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    Similarly, I don’t think we have to hate on Religulous just because the guy who made it is kind of a tool… we can still make common cause with him.

    And certainly I’m not saying that. I haven’t even seen the movie. I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

    The lack of corresponding clarity in this situation is what I think most of us are objecting to. We want clarity, not “purity” as Greg Laden seems to think.

    Bingo!

  43. #43 Karl withakay
    October 1, 2009

    One more if it hasn’t been brough up yet. (We can use the Hitler Zombie too, can’t we?)

    To Dawkins:

    If Bill Maher were an vocal anti-Semite and holocaust denier, would you still be delighted with his receiving the Richard Dawkins Award on the grounds that you find him, and especially Religulous, very funny, and know nothing of any stance he may have taken on holocaust questions?

  44. #44 Orac
    October 1, 2009

    I thought these guys were opposed to the concept of accomodation. Apparently, it only matters to them when it is there pet issue.

    Bingo! Again.

    Actually, though, regular readers of this blog know that I’m not really opposed to a fair degree of accommodation and have said so. What bothers me is that this incident appears to suggest that both Dawkins and Myers are also accommodationists when it comes to a particular bit of science that they aren’t as passionate about. To some degree that’s understandable, human nature even, but it suggests that they value atheism over science. I’m exactly the other way around. I don’t really care that much about atheism per se; I do care a lot about science and reason.

    Maybe it really is two world views we’re looking at here, one in which fighting religion is viewed as the overriding objective and one (mine) where science and reason are the overriding objectives.

  45. #45 rb
    October 1, 2009

    Orac, I am with you (even though I am a theist, so I really don’t care what the AAI does). I am 100% against rewarding woo. woo kills.

    I do enjoy watching the rationalizing that the atheists are doing here. It reminds me so much of my church going friends. I think this proves one thing that Maher was correct on. Atheism (unless based in reason, not just anti-authoritarianism) IS just the mirror of religion. South Park had it correct.

  46. #46 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    I do enjoy watching the rationalizing that the atheists are doing here. It reminds me so much of my church going friends. I think this proves one thing that Maher was correct on. Atheism (unless based in reason, not just anti-authoritarianism) IS just the mirror of religion. South Park had it correct.

    Uuuuhhhhhh, except that probably half the atheists here are agreeing with Orac…

    Okay, I lied, I’m going to link to my blog one more time. I have put an anchor tag directly to the relevant paragraph.

    My point is that the healthy debate amongst the atheist community about the validity of giving Maher this award is itself proof that atheism is not “just the mirror of religion” as you say. Here we have two luminaries in the so-called “New Atheist” movement, Dawkins and PZ, and a sizable fraction of the SB atheist community are holding them to the flames. Does that sound dogmatic to you???

    “Mirror of religion” my ass..

  47. #47 Zombie
    October 1, 2009

    Ah, look, just as I predicted. The theists are using this as a stick to beat Dawkins with, and an excuse to reiterate the dishonest “atheism is a religion” nonsense… in this very thread.

    This is why accomodating Maher is a terrible idea.

  48. #48 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    Ah, look, just as I predicted. The theists are using this as a stick to beat Dawkins with, and an excuse to reiterate the dishonest “atheism is a religion” nonsense… in this very thread.

    Indeed. Because the theists can’t imagine a world without some infallible object of worship, they assume that our infallible object of worship is Dawkins. Hint: He ain’t, but unfortunately that is the perception.

    Which is why I am more concerned about seeing Dawkins issue a clarifying statement than I am about the actual award. The award going to Maher is a decision I am not crazy about, but I’m not outraged either. But if Dawkins fails to clarify his disagreement with Maher, then the theists have an angle to accuse our “prophet” of fundamentalism, and therefore spin our “religion” as being fundamentalist.

    While the fact that a whole heapin’ pile of us disagree with Dawkins here gives me some comfort, unfortunately the theists are apparently blind to that.

  49. #49 Skeptico
    October 1, 2009

    I, too, was disappointed with PZ’s request to go easy on Dawkins.  Obviously, be polite, don’t disrupt proceedings a la wingnut at a townhall meeting.  But don’t bother the great man with “a bunch of annoying noise”? Why the hell not?

    And again, in the comments we have the people who are quick to criticize woo in their own fields, but when it’s in someone else’s field, well, it’s not really that important apparently.

    Greg Laden wrote:

    I totally get and respect the woo angle here, and this is a great platform to make people more aware. But it is also, to some extent, true that you are mainly pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful.

    Greg, would you be happy if an atheist accepting this award was also a global warming denier, who said that global warming science had been refuted, was just a con to support left wing alternative energy suppliers, that we should all drive big SUVs because driving fuel efficient cars actually hurts the environment, that we should listen instead to people like Joanne Nova to get the facts on climate science. Would that be OK with you? I’d really like to know.

    James Brown wrote:

    Well I think putting atheism and science in the same yoke is unfair to both. The thing that links them is logic but it is still true that you can be an atheist and a non-scientist or an atheist and be completely wrong on some aspect of medicine.

    Well of course you can, but the question is, should such a person be given an award for increasing scientific knowledge when he’s constantly promoting these wrong views, and ridiculing people who are right on the subject?

  50. #50 Phoenix Woman
    October 1, 2009

    What’s happening here is that the AAI wants to show how “hip” it is by honoring a Real! Live! Atheist! Celebrity! (even though, as LindaRosa pointed out at Comment #30, Maher denies being an atheist). Dawkins probably doesn’t think it’s a big deal — at least, not worth confronting the AAI publicly, with the corresponding risk of angering nominal allies — so he chooses to keep mum.

    All of which translates into a big fat (if unintended) dissing of science-based medicine, but hey! The AAI gets to look cool!

  51. #51 Skeptico
    October 1, 2009

    I, too, was disappointed with PZ’s request to go easy on Dawkins. Obviously, be polite, don’t disrupt proceedings a la wingnut at a townhall meeting. But don’t bother the great man with “a bunch of annoying noise”? Why the hell not?

    And again, in the comments we have the people who are quick to criticize woo in their own fields, but when it’s in someone else’s field, well, it’s not really that important apparently.

    Greg Laden wrote:

    I totally get and respect the woo angle here, and this is a great platform to make people more aware. But it is also, to some extent, true that you are mainly pushing for purity in a way that is not helpful.

    Greg, would you be happy if an atheist accepting this award was also a global warming denier, who said that global warming science had been refuted, was just a con to support left wing alternative energy suppliers, that we should all drive big SUVs because driving fuel efficient cars actually hurts the environment, that we should listen instead to people like Joanne Nova to get the facts on climate science. Would that be OK with you? I’d really like to know.

    James Brown wrote:

    Well I think putting atheism and science in the same yoke is unfair to both. The thing that links them is logic but it is still true that you can be an atheist and a non-scientist or an atheist and be completely wrong on some aspect of medicine.

    Well of course you can, but the question is, should such a person be given an award for increasing scientific knowledge when he’s constantly promoting these wrong views, and ridiculing people who are right on the subject?

  52. #52 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    Maybe it really is two world views we’re looking at here, one in which fighting religion is viewed as the overriding objective and one (mine) where science and reason are the overriding objectives.

    This is somewhat of a side note, but I actually advocate a balanced approach between those two overriding objectives, i.e. I think that fighting religion as a goal in itself is defensible — or at least, fighting against the undue deference afforded to religion.

    Even if there were no association whatsoever between religion and anti-scientific ideas like creationism, woo, etc., the fact that I am not allowed to criticize religious ideas in polite company (while all other ideas are fair game) is a problem and worth fighting against.

    As I said, though, this is a tangent, because I mostly agree with your implied sentiment: A worldview that is pro-science and pro-reason, but not anti-religion, is perfectly acceptable; while a worldview that is anti-religion, without also being pro-science and pro-reason, is troubling.

    (Me, I’m going for the trifecta ;p )

  53. #53 rrt
    October 1, 2009

    Bob, pablo, (Dr. Benway, I think?):

    I agree too. I think SBM is getting compromised here, and shouldn’t be. I’m very surprised Myers didn’t let the appearance of accomodationism change what he said–I know Dawkins is a friend and he thinks challenging Dawkins here is more a matter of little benefit at the cost of disrupting his intended topic…but I think that underestimates the value of getting this out in the open, and of getting a clear statement from Dawkins. I’m also a little surprised Dawkins hasn’t taken the opportunity to defuse this by speaking clearly now–I know the British have better manners, but I also know Dawkins is quite ready to speak frankly most of the time.

    I just think it is important–subtle, but important–to understand that this probably wasn’t pure, callous, flippant disinterest. It was a bad call, but how it was made matters to me and mitigates my displeasure. I can understand how others wouldn’t agree, but I think it matters. But in this situation I wouldn’t change anything Orac’s planning to do.

  54. #54 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    I can’t keep up with conversations in multiple spots. Please read this.

    That fishy smell we’ve been smelling? I may have found an explanation.

    AAI president Stuart Bechman has a very interesting background.

  55. #55 george pace
    October 1, 2009

    Sorry if this is too long… Last Sunday, September 27, I wrote both AAI and The Richard Dawkins Foundation (TRDF) expressing my surprise and displeasure about Bill Maher receving the award from AAI and Mr. Dawkins approval thereof. I have heard nothing from the TRDF, but i did receive a response Monday (I wrote back immediately) from Victor Nagornny of AAI. I’ve included my original email, his response, and my response, line by line to his comments about giving the award to Maher. All of the points made have been made here on the blog, but I thought it might be interesting for people to see the kind of response AAI offers. Weak. Very weak. Haven’t heard a thing from them re my criticisms of their response.

    My original email to AAI:

    i really hope you will consider rescinding awarding bill maher anything that claims to imply respect for the scientific method or critical thinking skills. his anti-science views regarding medicine and health issues (including being an anti-vaccine advocate and an hiv/aids denialist, among other views) clearly disqualify him from any award involving an appreciation of critical thinking skills. what a horrible mistake on your part. a really bad example. from what i’ve read, he even says that he is not an atheist.

    ************************

    Here is the response I got:

    From: Viktor Nagornyy
    Subject: Re: [AAIC Contact Form] maher award
    To: surfgeorge@yahoo.com
    Date: Monday, September 28, 2009, 1:48 AM

    Thanks for your feedback. He’s receiving an award for exposing religious nonsense in his movie Religulous. Nobody is perfect, and nonbelief does not require science in any way. It’s just something extra that helps understand the world. Just remember that not all atheists believe in evolution, big bang, some are communists, some are anarchists, some are anti-gay, and some even believe in the secret.

    We have a diverse community, and we need to embrace it rather than ostricize [sic] anyone. After all, we are not Catholic Church.

    Thanks.
    **********************
    Here is my response to Mr. Nagornyy:

    “Thanks for your feedback. He’s receiving an award for exposing religious nonsense in his movie Religulous.”

    **** Yes, I understand that. However, he is not receiving the “Award For Exposing Religious Nonsense in a Movie”, he is receiving the “Richard Dawkins Award”, the criteria for which include (as I find it stated online):

    who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge;

    Bill Maher clearly from his many statements regarding medical and health matters (anti-vaccine advocate, HIV/AIDS denialist, cancer treatment, etc.) is NOT advocating “increased scientific knowledge”. Quite the opposite. His failure to use critical thinking skills and examine all the evidence in a rational and methodical manner totally disqualifies him IF the criteria for the Richard Dawkins Award printed above is correct.

    “Nobody is perfect,”

    **** Yes. But there are people who meet the criteria stated for the award, and Bill Maher is not one of them. I’m sure there are atheist rapists, murderers and pedophiles, etc., but do they deserve to be lauded publicly in any way for their views on religion? Even if they meet the criteria for an award? I’m just asking, since you seem to be saying that the only thing that matters is one’s view regarding religion/theism.

    “And nonbelief does not require science in any way.”

    **** I never suggested it did. You once again are avoiding the point I made in my original email: that Bill Maher does not meet the (“advocates increased scientific knowledge”) criteria your organization states exists for the award he is receiving. Just change the damned criteria! By avoiding answering the question of how you consider that Maher’s views coincide with that criteria, and instead bringing up red herrings like “no one is perfect” and “nonbelief does not require science” you, or your organization, appear somewhat irrational. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. I’m sure there are many many irrational atheists. You can be as inconsistent as you want, about anything. I just don’t think it likely helps the image of atheists to be seen as inconsistent post hoc rationalizers. I’m guessing that you’ve received feedback from others saying essentially the same thing. Maybe it’s just me. Because I’m an atheist myself, I believe that an organization such as yours that receives public attention puts me, as an atheist, in a bad light when you do irrational inconsistent things and then make lame excuses about it. Doesn’t help the cause.

    “It’s just something extra that helps understand the world.”

    **** Yes. And that “something” is included in the criteria for the Richard Dawkins Award. You seem to avoid this point in your entire email. Why?

    “Just remember that not all atheists believe in evolution, big bang, some are communists, some are anarchists, some are anti-gay, and some even believe in the secret.”

    **** Yes, and are you giving any of them awards that include criteria for the award that is contradicted by their many public statements and actions? Well?

    “We have a diverse community, and we need to embrace it rather than ostricize anyone.”

    **** Ostracize? Another red herring! Who said anything about ostracize? I’m talking about giving someone an award who’s public statements clearly contradict the criteria for the award. Why do you change the subject? How would you ostracize someone anyway?

    “After all, we are not Catholic Church.”

    **** Really? Thanks for that clarification, because it somewhat seems as if you are acting in a similar manner: doing as you please, acting in a contradictory manner to your stated beliefs, avoiding answering a direct question about the contradictions, and arguing from authority (yes, it is your award and you can give it to whomever you please using whatever reasoning, or lack of reasoning, you choose).

    “Thanks.”

    Thanks for your consideration,
    George Pace

  56. #56 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    My prior comment may be in the spam filter.

    You must read this link regarding AAI president Stuart Bechman:

    http://blogs.venturacountystar.com/letters/archives/2005/07/atheist_speaks.html

    The Star mentions as an interesting fact that Mr. Bechman served as the 2004 Green Party congressional nominee for most of Ventura County, but a more interesting fact might be that Bechman has long served as a Sunday school teacher at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley. I’ve never heard of any other “atheist” serving as a religious educator in a Christian church, and I’m not sure why The Star failed to share this fact with readers, unless, of course, it wasn’t familiar with Mr. Bechman’s religious leanings.

  57. #57 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    Ostracize? Another red herring! Who said anything about ostracize? I’m talking about giving someone an award who’s public statements clearly contradict the criteria for the award. Why do you change the subject? How would you ostracize someone anyway?

    Apparently, the AAI is “ostracizing” me because they are not giving me an award. WAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!

  58. #58 BA
    October 1, 2009

    Two ways of coming to atheism seems right but I have a problem with equating science and reason. Reason/logic have their place and that place is synthesizing experience/observations. This synthesis is then evaluated through further observation Pure reason can be, and likely is, incoherent more often than not. No grounding in experience means synthesis is built on speculation alone. Logical methods cannot save one from false axioms.

    Science as an epistemology can lead one to atheism but it is not all scientists who come to that conclusion and some do not care to address questions of faith/creation/etc with the epistemological stance that guides their scientific inquiries. Synthesizing experience to address questions addressed by religion, such as creation, can thusly lead to the scientist to atheism. Atheism can also be built on apriori assumptions that are sweeping generalizations with severe limitations rather than experience (e.g., religion is bad – a bias I hold as well but not one that enters into my embrace of atheism). Reason or deductive process that leads to atheism, I believe makes one more likely to accept strange bedfellows. That said, Dawkins and PZ are in a strange position in that they have come to atheism through synthesizing experience but are in the politically uncomfortable position of being ignorant of Maher being a walking/talking contradiction. There seems to be squirming and it is deserved though many of those defending the accomodationist stance seem to have come to their atheism as an act of reason I would equate with faith given the falseness of the assumptions that have likely led them to their atheism.

  59. #59 matilda
    October 1, 2009

    OMG, do you not realize that Bill Maher is alternative because it gets him laid? It’s all about pussy.

  60. #60 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    Hah! I’m on a mailing list with Viktor Nagornyy. He heads up Rochester Atheists, which is where I live, in addition to being the convention director for AAI.

    He’s definitely more on the anti-religion than pro-reason side of things, but to his credit he is extremely active in trying to get atheists organized and doing volunteer work, etc.

    Frankly, from what I know of him, I am not at all surprised at his response :)

    http://www.nagornyy.com/?page_id=2

  61. #61 James Sweet
    October 1, 2009

    Oh, and if I can ever get my shit together to come to one of these meetups, I’ll probably meet Viktor in person. If I’m feeling feisty, maybe I’ll bring up the Maher controversy. hahahaha….

  62. #62 rrt
    October 1, 2009

    George pace:

    Woah. That reply pretty squarely puts AAI in the “anti-religion but ‘meh’ to pro-science/reason” category. I’m with James Sweet…that’s troubling.

  63. #63 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    Reading Viktor Nagornyy’s email provokes in me a desire to ask: “Mr Nagornyy, it’s often said that ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ What do you think that means? And could you tell me what’s similar about a hammer and a screwdriver?”

    The “where’s the lesion” game is a personal hobby.

  64. #64 Pablo
    October 1, 2009

    I want to repeat, if this were just a question of, “Has Maher done enough to promote science and reason?” it would be very different. If, for example, it was just a case that the topic never came up on his show, and he was a little weak in that category.

    However, he has actively campaigned AGAINST science. How can that be considered acceptable by anyone who values science and reason, especially someone like Dawkins?

  65. #65 LindaRosa
    October 1, 2009

    I was wondering…

    Did Dawkins and AAI just do a poor job at vetting Maher, and then they found it hard to get out of their arrangement with Maher?

    Did AAI want someone who would draw paying convention-goers, and the award was a way to get out of paying a celebrity many thousands of dollars for speaking?

    The Viktor Nagornyy response lets us know that AAI doesn’t give a fig about who they give an award to. So I think it may be safe to assume AAI was after celebrity draw.

    As for Dawkins, could his reaction have been anticipated? Perhaps.

    For example, Dawkins has been tight with Sam Harris, while saying nothing, to my knowledge, about Harris’ many positive statements about Eastern mysticism, ESP, etc. It took James Randi to challenge Harris on those issues, and Randi got an unsatisfactory response from Harris.

    Still, that blasted award has the word “science” in it, and that remains a big problem for the defenders of science.

  66. #66 bob
    October 1, 2009

    Ugh … really weak sauce from the AAI. This just keeps getting worse. I guess there’s still hope for Dawkins; maybe he’ll call out Maher on his show tomorrow. By now, he can’t possibly claim to “know nothing of any stance [Maher] may have taken on medical questions.”

  67. #67 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    To quote our friend Carl: “The simplest thought like the concept of the number one has an elaborate logical underpinning. The brain has it’s own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.”

    I submit that words like “religion” and “God” and “atheism” require the context of the scientific method to be meaningful. Atheists can’t throw science under the bus without becoming unintelligible.

  68. #68 Antiquated Tory
    October 1, 2009

    What strikes me is the questionable utility of atheism that is not derived from a scientific approach. Surely it’s its derivation from scientific naturalism that gives this “new atheism” a claim to greater validity than theism? Otherwise, it’s just a statement that “God does not exist [but invisible pink fairies might].” And if it isn’t just a mirror of religion–and I think that psychologically it clearly fills the role of religion for some atheists–I could see it devolving in that direction. Wait until there are enough atheists, and watch the schisms…

  69. #69 Joseph C.
    October 1, 2009

    OMG, do you not realize that Bill Maher is alternative because it gets him laid? It’s all about pussy.

    Why would a guy who has his own TV show need to put up a front to get laid? Heck, even Rush Limbaugh has gotten action because of who he is.

  70. #70 Barn Owl
    October 1, 2009

    Some are simply pro-reason, and others are mainly anti-religion

    @ 32: A key distinction; thanks for describing it so succinctly. I find the latter approach to be boring, unproductive, and overwhelmingly unfunny. I’ve been an atheist for most of my life, and have never been inclined to join any of the societies for atheists and skeptics. The apparent emphasis on anti-religion, sometimes at the expense of science and reason, doesn’t appeal to me. The example of Maher and the RD Award is this problem writ large.

    And thanks to Orac for the extensive posts on Maher’s medical science idiocies and nutrition woo, and for soliciting and collecting all the questions. People like Maher cannot resist sharing health “advice” and dietary recommendations, and so if I had a chance to ask him a question, I would pose as someone with a chronic disease or genetic cancer predisposition (e.g. lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, neurofibromatosis type 1), and solicit his opinion on treatments. He’d reveal his ignorance and idiocy immediately.

  71. #71 Badger3k
    October 1, 2009

    I had considered joining one of the atheist groups, but after this whole mess, I know who I won’t be giving money to. I really need to write a letter stating that, if I can get off my lazy butt. You think a lot of letters saying we decided not to give would have any effect?

  72. #72 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    A Googling tangent of little significance, though interesting: AAI president Bechman got caught between some sympathy for Christine Maggiore and a strong reaction against Maggiore from his own board of directors about three years ago. The outrage over Maher might remind of that.

    http://www.rethinkingaids.com/challenges/Maggiore-Atheists.html

  73. #73 Dr Benway
    October 1, 2009

    I had considered joining one of the atheist groups, but after this whole mess, I know who I won’t be giving money to.

    Letters saying you aren’t going to give money count if you’re already an established doner. Otherwise the subtext is read as, “I’m a bullshit manipulator. Don’t take anything I say seriously.”

    Some are simply pro-reason, and others are mainly anti-religion

    Let’s call the former “atheists” and the latter “yaytheists” so we don’t get confused.

  74. #74 John Ellis
    October 1, 2009

    If Lysenko had made this film, would he get the award? I doubt it. Or at least RD would be up in arms then. Its like celebrating Wallace and his spiritualism rather than Darwin. I suspect though, at least in the US, many atheists did not come to that state via evidence based reasoning but by simply being ‘anti-’. They are anti religious authority and anti medical authority. They are not pro science save as it suits them to attack something or someone they don’t like.

    Personally I think the world would be a better place if people gathered evidence and acted in accordance with it as best they may. This is the prime thing to strive for. Atheism is a likely consequence, but entirely secondary, like having a healthy diet or getting your kids vaccinated.

  75. #75 Cath the Canberra Cook
    October 1, 2009

    I really like the pro-reason and anti-religion distinction. Though “atheist” and “antitheist” seems more accurate than Dr Benway’s funny “yaytheist”. But what does that mean? Yay, theists??? How about Naytheist?

    Although I am quite anti-religious, it is for pro-reason reasons. (And also pro-human rights reasons, which most personally touches me where women’s rights are concerned.)

  76. #76 Ender
    October 1, 2009

    yaytheists?? yaytheists?!?!? naytheists, you fool!

  77. #77 Ender
    October 1, 2009

    Well damn. That’ll teach me for posting before refreshing.

  78. #78 Cath the Canberra Cook
    October 1, 2009

    Great minds, Ender :)

  79. #79 rb
    October 1, 2009

    someone needs critical reading skills:
    I didn’t say atheism is a religion. I said Atheism (UNLESS BASED IN REASON , not just anti-authoritarianism) IS just the mirror of religion.

    I have also stated that Maher is not an atheist, he is currently ‘atheist’ in practise, because in the US, religion has power, authority. Just as, in his opinion, Doctors and pharma have power (listen to his rants, he supports woo not because he believes it, but because he feels woo is being beat down by doctors and pharma.)

    I also agree with Orac, PZ has become an accomodationist. very disappointing.

  80. #80 JohnV
    October 1, 2009

    I spent some time this afternoon looking up Lysenko to see if he’d be a good example to use [avoiding work]. Neat that I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines.

  81. #81 JMG
    October 1, 2009

    Remember the Atheist Alliance International is not a science organization even though they use the word ‘scientific’ in the award description.

    This kind of weasle reasoning. How come a recepient of this award (in this case) gets a free pass on his obviously anti-science views when they relate to medicine and biochemistry? He’s not even a good representitive for nontheistic beliefs. His opinions toward religion and God are kind of half-assed, from what I’ve read. And for some reason, it’s “okay” to give him a pass on his other crazy beliefs. As other people may have pointed out (sorry for repetition) if he didn’t “believe” in evolution, people would not be as receptive to Maher receiving this award.

  82. #82 Zombie
    October 1, 2009

    Now, to be fair to anti-theists, it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist without having a scientific motivation. There are very good moral and social reasons to object to religion without considering science, and I suspect there are a lot of atheists who came to atheism, or became more outspoken, for moral reasons rather than scientific ones.

    That said, it’s no better to be anti-science as an anti-religion atheist than to be anti-science as any other sort of creature, and if an organization claims to award prizes on the grounds of defending science as well as promoting atheism, they ought to be fairly judged on that.

  83. #83 Rita Wing
    October 2, 2009

    Is it only me, or do the photos these two luminaries choose to put out indicate a pair of self-satisfied divos?

  84. #84 Joseph C.
    October 2, 2009

    Is it only me, or do the photos these two luminaries choose to put out indicate a pair of self-satisfied divos?

    That is Bill Maher’s MO. He’s always most impressed with whatever he has to say, no matter how inane it is.

  85. #85 James Sweet
    October 2, 2009

    Is it only me, or do the photos these two luminaries choose to put out indicate a pair of self-satisfied divos?

    Well, Maher always looks like that. It’s kindof his schtick. Which is fine, really; I mean, he’s a comedian, and his comedic persona is a pompous ass. That part doesn’t really bother me…

    Not sure what you mean about Dawkins. I don’t care for that picture either, but it’s because he looks distinctly uncomfortable for some reason. Like either he has to go to the bathroom really badly… or maybe he just found out the guy behind him is a germ theory denialist. heh… IMO, almost every single photo I’ve seen of him would have been a better choice… but what do I know?

  86. #86 UK Visitor
    October 2, 2009

    Perhaps because I’m in the UK I didn’t know until last week that Bill Maher was a) not even an atheist and b) goes all funny and glazey-eyed when he talks about modern medicine and vaccines.

    Coming to this controversy fresh, it strikes me it’s as much about celebrity culture as any atheist award. I’ve seen starf***ing from inside TV and it’s not pretty: everyone wants to meet a star, and whatever that star has to say doesn’t matter a hoot compared to the fact of his/her celebrity.

    I suspect it’s not just Bill Maher who goes glazey-eyed occasionally – it’s those who want him on their podium at and will (reluctantly? willingly?) swallow their views to arrange it.

  87. #87 lichen
    October 2, 2009

    thanks for sticking with this Orac

  88. #88 DuWayne
    October 2, 2009

    Thanks Benway, thanks a lot

  89. #89 ltcpmax
    October 2, 2009

    Bill Maher is a loud and obnoxious public figure.

    He is woefully uninformed on many issues, and stridently works to prove that point. He reminds me of the garage bands of high school.. “if you can’t be good, be loud!”

    He is a former comedian, who now is a nasty, spiteful political commentator. Not analyst. Not insider. Think loud and often noxious spectator, like a Philly Eagles fan.

    As a immunologist, he makes a mediocre comedian.
    As a scientific thinker, he seems illiterate and without critical reading skills.
    As a historian (Pasteur’s recanting, Polio, etc) he makes a fine fine Jaywalking ALL STAR.
    He spews half truth and poorly digested “webformation” loudly and repetitively, and unfortunately has somehow developed credibility with the general public, particularly those that see conspiracy and black helicopters at twilight.
    Mercury is a plot, flouride is a plot, 9-11 was a Bush-Pentagon-Toyota-Glaxo-G8 conspiracy…

    He really needs to stop espousing his wacky medical theories, put down the microphone, log off the webblogs, and GET back on his antianxiety medications!!

    just my thoughts….

    Max

  90. #90 Orac
    October 2, 2009

    9-11 was a Bush-Pentagon-Toyota-Glaxo-G8 conspiracy…

    Let’s give credit where credit is due. As much as I despise Maher’s alt-med wackiness, I have to admit that he actually does a pretty good job of debunking 9/11 Truth movement nonsense.

    All the more shame.

  91. #91 tom
    October 2, 2009

    you guys actually thought mahers movie was good? there was no science, no logic, nothing in it of any substance.

    i mean sure, everyone gets a kick out of laughing at those couple idiots on the other side of the battle, but lets not pretend maher has ever been, in any sense, a logical person; his movie misleads young people into thinking that how rationality is done.

    this fiasco just proves to me what i had a sneaking suspicion of already: theres idiots on both sides of the isle, and a lot of propaganda. theres some intelligent religious folk and some intelligent atheist folk, but the majority of the people on both sides…

  92. #92 James Sweet
    October 2, 2009

    tom — I generally don’t go around implying people are stupid based solely on their taste in movies. If that’s the type of person you want to be… well, hey, I can’t stop you.

    Out of curiosity, why do all movies have to contain science? It almost makes me think you live a dreary depressing existence… but, then again, I wouldn’t want to go judging people I’d never met based solely on their taste in movies…

  93. #93 smith123
    October 2, 2009

    I think you can post questions for Mahers show which has Dawkins on it (and is before the award is given). It might be a good idea for those of us who can’t go to the conference to at least try and ask him those hard questions.

    Heres a url http://boards.hbo.com/topic/Maher-Overtime/Submit-Questions-Overtime/2000009131

  94. #94 Orac
    October 2, 2009

    An update! Post your AAI Convention experiences here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/10/the_time_has_come.php

  95. #95 tom
    October 2, 2009

    i wasnt aware i was calling anyone stupid for their taste in movies. what i said was that i cant believe anyone actually liked the movie; there was nothing funny about it all.

    not all movies should contain science obviously, but a documentary that seeks to decry religious-people for their irrationality should be more than a crass, irrational piece of propaganda.

    aside from his humor, which maybe i just dont get, maher has never been a rational individual, and, in fact, he reminds me horribly of glenn beck or rush limbaugh: contentless, witless entertainment masked as legitimate political discourse; neither responsible nor entertaining.

  96. #96 hoody
    October 13, 2009

    The questions are excellent. However, I find the entire kerfuffle as illustrated by Dawkins and PZ as one of faith-based hero-worship. This is not a truth pursuit; this is the fomentation of a faith-based agenda. And when it becomes faith-based, it becomes increasingly resitant to pesky, empirical facts. Cult of Personality starts to overwhelm and excuse individual mistakes/foibles. Thoughts passed as facts become cant that then become dogma.

    You, Orac, ARE pursuing the truth. And good luck with that. I mean that in all admiration and sincerity. As most prophets are despised in their hometown, so shall you in the Pharyngulite/Dawkinsian villages. Good luck all the same.

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