Oct 12 2009

Bill Maher Followup

If you peruse skeptical blogs you are probably familiar with the recent controversy over giving the Richard Dawkins award to Bill Maher by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). To summarize, the AAI decided to recognize Bill Maher with their award named after Dr. Dawkins. The award is for:

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.

The part that caused controversy was the bit about “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” A number of skeptics (Orac, I think, was most verbose) had a problem with this because Bill Maher is an advocate for medical pseudoscience. He does not believe in vaccines, he denigrates “western medicine” as a scam, and he has a problem with germ theory.

On RichardDawkins.net Josh Timonen gave was appears to be the official defense of the decision:

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.

This misses the point, in my opinion. If the award were solely for Religulous, and that were clear, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with it. But the award specifically cites “science” as a necessary criterion for the award. Giving the Richard Dawkins Award to Maher was the equivalent of giving a prominent advocate of creationism and intelligent design a science award because of their opposition to the 911 truther movement. I suspect that such a decision would not sit well with Richard Dawkins and some others who were perceived to be soft on AAI’s decision. The analogies to Miller and Hitchens are not apt – Maher is so far outside the scientific mainstream on medicine that it is incongruous to give him any science award.

I did not attend the AAI conference, but reports from those who did say that Dawkins, in introducing Maher, took care to criticize his views on medicine. PZ Myers writes:

The good news for all the critics of this choice is that Dawkins pulled no punches. In his introduction, he praised Religulous and thanked Maher for his contributions to freethought, but he also very clearly and unambiguously stated that some of his beliefs about medicine were simply crazy. He did a good job of walking a difficult tightrope; he made it clear that the award was granted for some specific worthy matters, his humorous approach to religion, while carefully dissociating the AAI from any endorsement of crackpot medicine. It won’t be enough, I know, but the effort was made, and talking to Dawkins afterwards there was no question but that Maher’s quackery was highly objectionable. I also got the impression that he felt the critics of the award were making good and reasonable points, and that he felt the awkwardness of the decision.

This can be seen as recognition by Dawkins that there were problems with the award. I can only assume that this was specifically in response to criticism about giving Maher the award, since when Dawkins was first asked about the decision he simply said that he was not aware of Maher’s views on medicine.

In the final analysis, the problem that many of us have with Maher getting the award is that the totality of his views clearly indicates that Maher is not a rationalist. Because his religious views happen to coincide with those of the AAI does not mean that his views stem from a rational or scientific worldview. In my opinion, AAI simply got snookered. They focused on one aspect of Maher’s opinions, ignored the big picture, and in the end gave a science award to a pseudoscientist.

We will get past this, but it is a sore spot that will continue to ache, because Maher is not going away. Every time he spouts his nonsense about medicine it will cut a little deeper. He is still at it – take a look at this recent interview with Bill Frist.

Frist is a doctor who has apparently kept up with the literature, and he seems to know what he is talking about. Although I have criticized Frist in the past for putting his own ideology ahead of science on the Terry Schiavo case, in this interview, Frist was the side of reason. Maher repeated his denigration of “western” medicine.

He also gets his facts wrong – he quotes Jonas Salk about the risks of live virus vaccines, without pointing out that the flu vaccine injections he is referring to are dead virus vaccines. Maher further argues that the flu vaccine does not work, when the data say otherwise. Here is an excellent review by Mark Crislip. The bottom line is that the flu vaccine works, but it is not perfect, and the primary problem (which Maher did get right sort of – it seems he can know the facts when it suits him) is that the flu strains are constantly evolving.

Maher also downplays the risks of the H1N1 pandemic. Here he is simply wrong – while H1N1 is not any more risky overall than the regular seasonal flu (which kills 36,000 people a year in the US alone), it kills more young healthy adults and pregnant women. Maher was telling pregnant women not to get vaccinated – Maher’s advice kills.

And that leads us back to the specific reason why many of us had a problem with the AAI award – it adds to the reputation of a medical crank who is using his celebrity to harm the public health (not intentionally, but that is irrelevant). There is direct harm in Maher’s medical views, and to me that trumps any other view he might have.

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