Bill Maher and “anti-science”

Last week, I expressed my surprise and dismay that the Atheist Alliance International chose Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award. I was dismayed because Maher has championed pseudoscience, including dangerous antivaccine nonsense, germ theory denialism complete with repeating myths about Louis Pasteur supposedly recanting on his deathbed, a href=””>hostility towards “Western medicine” and an affinity for “alternative medicine,” a history of sympathy to HIV/AIDS denialists, and the activities of PETA through his position on its board of directors, all facts that led me to liken his receiving the Richard Dawkins Award to giving an award for public health to Jenny McCarthy. I was not alone, either. Larry Moran, Matt D., and Skepacabra agreed with me.

When I wrote that post, I expected some pushback, and I hadn’t really expected to be writing any followup posts. After all, to my surprise P.Z. Myer’s defense of the decision was tepid at best, and the strongest he could come up with was to urge attendees to the AAI convention to “put Maher in the hot seat.” Then over the weekend I noticed that someone unexpected took me to task. Not just took me to task, but lambasted me. Normally, I don’t know if I would have bothered to respond or not, but this criticism came from someone I normally like and respect. Worse, the arguments were shockingly weak compared to his usual posts. Given that, I felt he deserved at least a brief reply (except that this is Orac we’re talking about and “brief” is not really in his vocabulary). I’m referring, of course, to Jason Rosenhouse, who thinks that Bill Maher is a a fine choice for the Richard Dawkins Award.

Basically, Jason argues that Maher isn’t primarily known for his pseudoscientific views on medicine and vaccines, which is mostly (but not completely) true. After all, Maher’s views on alternative medicine and vaccines are well known enough that it’s virtually inevitable whenever Maher is being interviewed by Larry King, David Letterman, and other hosts of talk shows that he will be asked at least one or two questions about these topics. Indeed, Larry King, ever since Maher’s first anti-vaccine tirade that I’m aware of in 2005, pretty much always asks Maher about the flu vaccine whenever he is on King’s show. Maher may not be primarily known for his views on “Western medicine,” but they are well known and he not infrequently spouts off about them on television to millions of people. In any case, Jason in essence does what other Maher apologists I’ve seen do and completely ignore the criteria of “who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge.” Jason also virtually concedes that Maher is not really an atheist, waving it away by saying:

The fact that he has some vague belief in a higher force in the universe hardly negates all of the good work that he is done in areas of relevance to the award. He has defintely raised awareness of the nontheist life stance through the media and the arts, and certainly helps teach acceptance of the nontheist lifestyle, just as the award describes.

Well, yes, but that’s only one criterion out of four, and fortunately Skeptico has already addressed this argument. In any case, Jason appears to be conceding that, at best, Maher meets only 2/4 criteria, with 1/4 (science) an EPIC FAIL and the other 1/4 questionable at best. If Jason thinks that’s the only criterion that matters and is willing to ignore the rest, I guess there isn’t much more to say other than that, personally, when an award is given, I prefer that the recipient actually meet all of the listed criteria. (I’m funny that way.) The recipient doesn’t have to meet all of them equally and could even be a little shaky on one or two of them. But miss any one of them by so much that he might as well be on another planet? I don’t think so. As I’ve pointed out before, Maher’s views on medicine and science would have made him a perfect “victim” of one of Richard Dawkins’ deconstructions in part 2 of his BBC documentary Enemies of Reason, right there with the homeopaths, crystal users, and various other woo believers.

I do find Jason’s defense rather interesting in that, in essence, it says that the criteria for the Richard Dawkins Award don’t really mean anything, which to me implies that the award itself doesn’t mean much of anything. Apparently it can be given to almost anyone, as long as he meets just one of the four criteria strongly enough, even if he gets an EPIC FAIL on at least one. He doesn’t even have to be anything resembling a rationalist! He can advocate whatever pseudoscience he wants, and as long as he “raises awareness of the nontheist life stance through the media and the arts” and “helps teach acceptance of the nontheist lifestyle” whatever woo he believes him is all good.

As long as it’s not God or religion, of course.

But that’s not what bothered me most about Jason’s post. This is:

While I’m at it, I’m really tired of people being described as “anti-science” when what is meant is that they do not accept the scientific consensus on some issue. Orac writes:

I know that some of this may seem a bit repetitive, but I want to emphasize just how anti-science Bill Maher is.

Oh please. Being wrong about a scientific question doesn’t make you anti-science. It might make you ignorant or misinformed or confused or various other bad things, but not anti-science. Maher isn’t running around saying that people need to think less and feel more, or that they shouldn’t worry about defending their beliefs with evidence, or that some ancient holy text trumps anything a scientist says.

Maybe, but if that’s the only criteria for “anti-science” that Jason recognizes, he has a very narrow view indeed of what constitutes being anti-science. In fact, I suspect that’s just the reason he could make such a jaw-droppingly misguided statement (that, and I also suspect that he really, really likes Bill Maher and was pissed off at me for criticizing him so harshly). I was also surprised that Jason would be so annoyed at my calling Maher “anti-science,” given that in the past he himself has not been shy about using the term to describe creationists. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Here’s a quote about Republicans:

The bottom line is that there is a stark, important difference between the parties on this issue. The Republican party is anti-evolution, and generally anti-science. The Democratic party is not. That the Republicans are sometimes supported by people who are pro-science does not change that simple fact.

Hmmm. I’m sure Maher would say he is pro-science, too, but he is profoundly anti-medical science in his stances. I also thought that Jason didn’t like labeling people who may just be “misguided” as “hostile to science.” I’m sure he’ll give many reasons why Republicans are not just misguided but actually anti-science, but let’s move on. Here’s an interesting quote that comes after a discussion of how saying that the Bible says how the world began and how life and humans came to be is profoundly anti-science:

Furthermore, there comes a time when the allegedly scientific arguments you are making are so weak and ignorant that you brand yourself as anti-science simply by offering them. Creationists love science and love what it can do? Then why do they persist in arguing that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution? Why do they argue that natural selection is a meaningless tautology, or that the fossil record contains no transitional forms, or that elementary probability theory proves evolution is false, or that all of the hominid fossils paleontologists have collected are either fully ape or fully human? If you love science then you pause a moment to educate yourself about the basics of the subject. You try to understand what evolution actually asserts before producing countless books condemning it. You don’t routinely quote scientists out of context for the purpose of distorting what they believe.

Referring to creationists as anti-science is not meant as a description of how they see themselves. It is meant as a description of what they are.

And the same is true of Maher from my perspective.

Jason tries to explain away, for example, Maher’s rejection of germ theory:

I do not believe that Maher rejects the germ theory of disease. Yes, I’ve seen the quotes, but I think there are more charitable interpretations. There have been other places where he has said things that seem to accept the germ thoery.

But let’s suppose he does. That’s “anti-science” (as opposed to ignorant or misinformed or whatnot) only if you think science is primarily a list of facts to which you must give your assent. If we’re serious about science being an investigative method as opposed to a list of facts, then rejecting some consensus view does not make you anti-science.

Let me try recasting that for Jason:

I do not believe that Michael Behe rejects evolution. Yes, I’ve seen the quotes, but I think there are more charitable interpretations. There have been other places where he has said things that seem to accept evolution.

But let’s suppose he does. That’s “anti-science” (as opposed to ignorant or misinformed or whatnot) noly if you think science is primarily a list of facts to which you must give your assent. If we’re serious about science being an investigative method as opposed to a list of facts, then rejecting some consensus view does not make you anti-science.

Sounds a bit different, doesn’t it?

Moreover, germ theory is far more than just a “consensus” viewpoint in science. In fact, it is a theory (word choice intentional) every bit as central to medicine as evolution is to biology or relativity and quantum mechanics are to physics. As Skeptico pointed out, rejecting germ theory is as fundamentally a rejection of science as rejecting evolution, and it just as much involves the rejection of the scientific process that tells us that bacteria causes disease. I also can’t help but point out the parallel between Maher repeating a germ theory denialist myth that Louis Pasteur somehow “recanted” on his deathbed in favor of Louis Bechamps (who thought that bacteria were merely bystanders and not the true cause of infectious disease) and the not infrequent creationist refrain that Charles Darwin “recanted” on his deathbed.

Moreover, Maher’s support of germ theory and vaccines is very opportunistic. He denies germ theory when it comes to vaccines, in particular the flu vaccine, but supports vaccines when it comes to the HPV vaccine because it ticks off the fundamentalists. He claims that flu shots are a “scam” and uses evolution to justify why. He denies that “Western medicine” has much value and blames disease on “aggregate toxicity.”

Of course, far be it from me not to note that of late Jason seems to have changed his tune, for example:

Hostility toward evolution is not the result of some all-encompassing antipathy toward science. It is the result of certain very bad religious ideas that too often go unchallenged. Hostility toward global warming is not the result primarily of scientific ignorance. It is that there are powerful interests heavily invested in the status quo, coupled with the basic inertia that makes people reluctant to make major changes to their way of life.

Hostility toward vaccinations does stem largely from ignorance, but anti-vaccers are strongly aided in their views by an unscrupulous media (both traditional and new) that is willing to present uncritically the crassest sort of sensationalist quackery.

So maybe Jason’s thinking has “evolved” since he was last happily labeling creationists “anti-science.” Fair enough. However, from my perspective his thinking has evolved in the wrong direction. He was closer to reality before.

Jason also betrays a profound ignorance of the anti-vaccine movement. The parents who worry about vaccines (largely because of the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement) could be described as Jason describes them, but the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, not so much. Just a bit of time on the anti-vaccine boards will demonstrate a profound suspicion of and extreme hostility towards medical science, mainly because it doesn’t tell the parents what they want to hear. As far as science as a process rather than just a collection of facts, you’ll also see a profound antipathy towards the scientific method itself in favor of anecdotal evidence and “mommy instinct.” Jenny McCarthy herself is an excellent example of this. She once said “Evan [her son] is my science” on The Oprah Winfrey Show and scoffed at all the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism because, well, she’s seen it herself. Meanwhile Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups keep up a constant stream of propaganda attacking every scientific study that fails to find a link between vaccines and autism. Indeed, the same hostility towards the scientific method and the fruits of that method that form the basis of scientific medicine is evident in huge swaths of the “alternative medicine” movement, where anecdote is valued over controlled studies, correlation is confused with causation even after science fails to find evidence of causation, and “personal experience” matters more than clinical trials or basic science.

No, the anti-vaccine movement is profoundly anti-science at its very core, as is the alternative medicine movement, and Bill Maher gives every indication of buying into much of the philosophies of both.

I rather suspect I know why Jason reacted so negatively to my use of the term “anti-science” to describe Bill Maher (I’m sure he’ll tell me I’m wrong). Part of the reason, of course, is because my criticism of Maher ticked Jason off because he clearly likes and admires Bill Maher. Fair enough. No one likes to see their heros gored, even when deserved, and admiration of a person can lead one to circle the wagons when that person is criticized. Far more importantly, though, I suspect that it’s because Jason is much more interested in evolution and threats to evolution. He’s far more passionate about defending evolution against the anti-science forces that threaten it than he is about medical science or defending it against the anti-science forces that threaten it. He appears simply not to understand that the philosophical basis behind what Maher spouts when it comes to medicine is every bit as anti-science as anything put out by the Discovery Institute.

In fact, I’d argue that in one way Maher’s antivaccine nonsense and revulsion towards what he sneeringly calls “Western medicine” is even worse than creationism in that it has real, measurable health consequences. Even though I’ve fairly often written about creationism and the pseudoscience and religious belief trying unsuccessfully to masquerade as science that it is, because I’m a doctor and very much interested in quackery, Maher’s health claims bother me even more than creationist nonsense does. I react to it more vociferously. In other words, Jason cares most about evolution, and Maher supports evolution. I care about scientific medicine, and Maher is anti-scientific medicine. Perhaps that is why I get so worked up over Maher’s promotion of pseudoscience, antivaccinationism, and quackery and Jason, sadly, does not.