It’s taken quite some time, but the camel’s back is officially broken. I fucking can’t stand Bill Maher.
I don’t know where to begin, really. I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, but Religulous was a mixed bag. And now, between the AAI debacle and his renewed rampaging against basic medicine, as well as the frothing and infighting he’s inspired in the skeptic and atheist communities, I’m finally done with the asshole.
I guess the place to begin is AAI. I don’t know, I think there’s some tackiness involved already with their Richard Dawkins Award, and the criteria don’t help assuage my concerns. Here’s what the award was supposed to honor (according to the Wikipedia page):
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.
Wikipedia cites the Atheist Alliance website as their source for that quote, but the site is poorly designed, and neither the search function there nor Google can find anything about the Dawkins Award anywhere on either that site or the convention site. I’ve heard charges that the criteria were changed after the Maher controversy started, but I can’t confirm that. What I can tentatively confirm is that there’s no apparent mention of the criteria on their site. There is this telling bit:
We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and co-producer 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.
Here are the problems: first, Maher is avowedly not an atheist. While all the direct quotes addressing his agnosticism, disavowal of the term “atheist,” and vague spirituality come from years back, I seem to recall even in “Religulous” he claimed that atheists were just as dogmatic, or something along those lines. It wasn’t until just before the convention, when he had Dawkins on his show, that he claimed that title for himself.
Second, there is no way that anyone can claim Maher “further[s] the values of science and reason.” There wasn’t any science in “Religulous,” and even the reason was a bit light. I don’t watch “Real Time,” but I’ve seen enough clips of his antivaccination, antimedicine views to know what an antiscience kook he is. I’m convinced that the only reason Maher buys into global warming and evolution is because his political opponents are against them, not because he understands or trusts the science. His views on medicine have been and continue to be insane and dangerous–and probably spurred again by his anti-corporate political beliefs. He thinks that vaccines are a less settled science than global warming, overestimates the role of nutrition in disease prevention, subscribes to various flavors of detox woo, and generally distrusts “western medicine.” All this should rather disqualify him for any award based around the promotion and advancement of science.
And I’m sure that there were others in 2008 who would better deserve this kind of award. What about the people who organized the London bus signs? How about Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who made serious waves with the Washington Christmas sign, have expanded their billboard campaign, and have continued their radio show and other ways of promoting both atheism and reason. What about Simon Singh, who has taken on the British Chiropractic Association in an ongoing campaign against pseudomedicine? These are just a few, off the top of my head, and there are others who have done more–and consistently–for science and reason than Maher.
Which has skeptics in an uproar, and rightly so. And no one has been roaring louder than Orac, one of my favorite bloggers, who has discussed Maher’s woopidity in the past. Unfortunately, I think Orac got a little overheated in one of his last posts on the subject. For context, Orac’s discussing a post by PZ at the AAI convention. PZ talked about Dawkins’s introduction of Maher, and how Dawkins had to walk a tightrope in the speech between acknowledging Maher’s contributions to the atheist movement and dissociating himself and the AAI from Maher’s stupid views on science and medicine.
I don’t envy the position that Dawkins was put in, there. AAI fucked up in their choice of Maher, and it’s not as though Dawkins was in on the decision. He’s also on a book tour, and apparently wasn’t familiar with either Maher or his views (outside of “Religulous”) until fairly recently. He could have disavowed Maher and refused to present the award, in which case I imagine AAI would have replaced him with someone who would give a glowing boilerplate introduction. By staying involved, Dawkins was able to throw a few punches in as well as acknowledging Maher’s contributions.
Anyway here’s what Orac had to say about it:
As for the “tightrope,” well, suffice it to say that I’m still less than impressed. PZ is right about one thing; it wasn’t enough. To me, this whole fiasco is pretty strong evidence that, if atheism and science come into conflict (unless, of course, that science happens to be the science of evolution, in which case I highly doubt that this controversy would have been so flippantly dismissed), for Richard Dawkins atheism wins hands down, and science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community. Atheism is clearly what’s more important to Dawkins now. As long as he bashes religion, Maher’s a-OK with him and only gets a brief remonstration for his promotion of quackery and anti-vaccine views.
Orac’s posts on the matter, especially some of the later ones, came across to me as mildly unhinged (such as where he criticized PZ for not complaining about Maher in a post that was clearly just a list of speakers–no one was commented on), and this quote is really the apex of that. Richard Dawkins cares more about atheism than science? Yes, I’m sure that’s why he just wrote a science book about science and is touring the country to read scientific excerpts from that science book. That claim, I think, is ludicrous.
Furthermore, it’s not “atheism and science” coming into conflict, as Orac suggests. It’s an atheist group and science coming into conflict. It seems that by the time anyone knew about Maher’s receiving the award, the choice had already been made. So what to do, have all the prominent speakers pull out of the conference? Or use the moment to remind people that atheism isn’t a dogma, and that we can vociferously disagree with one another–and with the organizations that supposedly speak for us? Perhaps there wasn’t enough of that, but it’s not reasonable to claim that this was a conflict between “atheism and science.”
And then there’s this bit: “science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community” Quoi? I’m sorry, Orac, but I’m not entirely clear on this: which reality-based community are you talking about? Certainly not the skeptical community, which gets more vitriolic about antivaccinationists and the dangers of alternative medicine than any other subject. Certainly not the skeptical community who rallied behind Simon Singh in his legal battles. Certainly not the skeptical community who take every quack’s attempt to silence a skeptic and spread it like wildfire around the Internet. Certainly not the skeptical community who has tirelessly fought against the Mercury Militia and the Jenny McCarthy and Oprah followers. Certainly not the skeptical community who typically cut their teeth on debunking homeopathy. Certainly not the skeptical community who trumpets every child’s death due to faith healing and quackery. Certainly not the skeptical community whose top luminaries include a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a cancer surgeon. No, it must be some other reality-based community that Orac is talking about, because the one I’m a part of makes medicine a primary focus.
So, overall, I don’t think anyone comes out of this looking good. Maher is a contrarian idiot, and has reaffirmed that since the conference ended. The AAI made a boneheaded mistake and apparently is more concerned with covering it up than addressing it, which certainly doesn’t give me any desire to be associated with them. Dawkins comes across as someone who doesn’t pay enough attention to what’s done with his name and assumed endorsement (see also: the Brights). I think PZ makes it out relatively unscathed, though I’m willing to reconsider that. And Orac comes across as someone who wrote one too many insolent posts on this subject.
But while my opinion of the latter three isn’t enough to tarnish my opinions of them more than a little, Maher’s continued use of creationist-style arguments to promote his antiscience views has led me to the conclusion that he’s a world-class asshat, and I’m as done with him as I am with Ben Stein. At this point, I’m glad I haven’t bought “Religulous”: I don’t think I could stand to watch Maher for that long anymore. Fuck ‘im.