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My last entry for a long time on the Maher issue (I hope), plus a little history

I hadn’t planned on writing much, if anything more, about the whole Bill Maher debacle, but PZ has shown up in my comments and graciously tried to explain what’s going on at the AAI convention regarding the truly awful choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award:

Look, I don’t know what else I can say. I didn’t endorse Maher; if they’d run this decision by me months ago, I would have said, “Are you nuts?”. But of course, I have no clout with the AAI. Dawkins consented to the award initially, because he didn’t know much about the full views held by the crackpot; he would certainly have more clout than I do, but this was ultimately a decision by the AAI. I have discussed this with Dawkins one on one; he thinks Maher’s views on alt medicine are absolute rubbish, and isn’t happy himself…but he does still like the movie and thinks that that deserved an award. I have talked to members of the AAI committee that chose him, and expressed my displeasure without reservation.

We don’t think quackery is at all appropriate for atheism. The RDF is all about supporting reason and science, and they think Maher’s views on medicine are ridiculous. What more do you want?

I’ll also add that several people found Maher’s personal behavior at the ceremony to be rude and pompous; while he gave a very funny acceptance speech, I got the impression he didn’t like us much, either. Giving him the award was, in my opinion, a mistake, and I wish it could be retracted. But notice, please: I’m not the guy who decided to give it to him in the first place, nor do I have any power to take it away.

As for this peculiar argument that I’m somehow going soft on altie bullshit: when I told everyone to be civil and non-disruptive on our visit to the Creation “Museum”, were you all interpreting that to mean I was going soft on creationism? I wish people would notice that I never advocate violence or actions that might interfere with other people’s rights to speak and act (within reason) as they wish. This was more of the same. I was there making the same arguments against the choice of Maher that you are, with the people involved, but I wasn’t going to rush the stage and tackle Maher at this event.

As has been the case all along, there is a mixture of reasonable and not quite reasonable in PZ’s words. There also seems to be a bit of revisionist history there. For example, the bit about the Creationist Museum strikes me as a wee bit disingenuous. PZ can correct me if I’m wrong, but the reason he wanted everyone to be polite was because he didn’t want to give the museum officials an excuse to kick anyone out or refuse the group entry to the museum. But that’s merely an irritating quibble. Let’s look at the history of how the Maher Mess developed.

PZ now states that Professor Dawkins is distressed and unhappy now about the decision and detests Maher’s medical views. That’s good, and I have no reason to doubt this characterization of Professor Dawkin’s opinion. However, nearly three months ago, Dawkins airily dismissed said concerns in a comment on PZ’s blog when PZ’s readers started referring to Maher’s quack views. I think it’s worth reminding everyone 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.

Come to think of it, PZ himself said nothing about Maher’s quack views when he first announced on his blog the list of speakers for the AAI Convention. In fact, PZ referred to this list thusly:

By the way, if you’ve ever wanted to actually meet Mr Deity, you’ve got a shot: he’ll be speaking at the Atheist Alliance International 2009 Convention in LA this October. And it’s not just him, look at this phenomenal lineup of speakers.

At the top of that “phenomonal” list? Bill Maher. No mention of Maher’s support for quackery, though. If PZ was distressed by the selection of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award, there was no indication of it in the post.

PZ concluded with:

I’m going to be in there somewhere, too — I’m a late addition. It will be a wonderful assemblage of the godless. Plus one deity.

I reiterate that there was absolutely no mention in that post of Maher’s kooky medical views. If PZ was so distressed at Maher’s being selected right from the beginning, there certainly was no evidence of it back on July 20 when he made that post. It was only after some of PZ’s commenters started pointing out that Maher was a crappy choice because of his support of anti-vaccine views, strong advocacy of alternative medicine, PETA, and his sympathy for HIV/AIDS denialist views and after I likened giving Maher an award that has the word “science” anywhere in its list of criteria to giving a an award for public health to Jenny McCarthy that PZ wrote another post in which he urged people to “put Maher in the hot seat.” Indeed, I used that post as part of my inspiration to ask Bill Maher some questions, which I later expanded to a campaign to ask Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins some questions.

So, I have to wonder this. If the choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award bothered PZ so much from the beginning, why did it take reminders from his readers and me to goad him into starting to criticize him three days after his original post announcing the lineup for the AAI Convention? Did PZ warn Richard Dawkins back in July? If not, why not? Aren’t PZ and Dawkins buddies now? After all, PZ certainly seemed to spend a fair amount of time hanging out with Dawkins at this convention. In any case, isn’t that what friends do? Warn friends when a shitstorm’s coming their way?

I realize that neither PZ nor Dawkins had any say in who got the award, but it really does strike me as a FAIL on Dawkins’ part not to have taken the complaints more seriously right from the beginning. It’s not just me. With Dr. Benway leading the charge, the commenters at the RDF are also largely up in arms. Even worse, Paula Kirby (comment 478 in the RDF thread I just linked to) said this:

I don’t know how long ago it was, Steve, but I do know Richard has said he knew nothing of Maher’s views on medicine until just the other day.

I wonder if that’s true. Certainly, the way things went down at the AAI Convention suggests to me that it is. The problem is that the clamor and protest over Maher’s selection began way back in July, right after his selection was announced. If Dawkins didn’t know about it until “just the other day,” then I add the FAIL not just to him but to PZ and anyone else who both knew Dawkins and knew about Maher’s promotion of medical pseudoscience. By not warning him back in July, if that’s what indeed happened, they failed Richard Dawkins. Moreover, if it weren’t for a few of us refusing to let this issue go, I’m quite sure that it would have faded into oblivion, other than some grumbling on some discussion boards, long before the convention. Also, please note that, to some extent, I include myself in this FAIL. Even though Dawkins doesn’t know Orac from a box of blinking lights (assuming that, as a Brit, he’s familiar with the inspiration for my pseudonym), perhaps I should have tried anyway to find out how to contact him and then to do it. Mea culpa there. In retrospect, I could have name-dropped PZ as a means of trying to establish my cred. If Dawkins truly didn’t know about Maher’s looniness until a few days ago, then my mistake was to assume that he had somehow been informed, based on the chatter on his own discussion boards and PZ’s knowledge of Maher’s support of quackery.

What I want is not to keep harping on this (after this post, at least) but to look to the future.

This screw-up is all water under the bridge now. What I want to know is what the AAI and RDF are going to do after the convention to make sure a fiasco like this doesn’t happen again. This was a massively EPIC FAIL on the part of the AAI that ended up sliming Richard Dawkins. What can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again? That’s the important question now, as I’m sure PZ would agree, our disagreement over this whole mess notwithstanding.

Hopefully (and I’m sure that many, if not most, of my readers would agree), I won’t be posting about Bill Maher again for a long time. My desire to finally leave this issue behind notwithstanding, it’ll probably be just my luck that on Friday’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, Maher will finally proclaim that he thinks homeopathy can cure cancer.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

209 replies on “My last entry for a long time on the Maher issue (I hope), plus a little history”

I have to wonder, sincerely, if PZ sees any difference between the accommodation of Mooney and the accommodation of Maher.

Maher seems *dramatically* worse to me: he’s not an accommodationist after all but a promoter of dangerous pseudo-science. I understand this was an atheist conference, not exactly a “science and reason” conference, but still.

Why attack Mooney and defend Maher’s selection. Would it be OK to give Mooney the award? I’d certainly hope so, considering Maher. Would it be OK to give Karen Armstrong a Science and Reason award? I’d prefer her to Maher.

In defence of Brits ignorant about Bill Maher, all this one can say is that, well, he was ignorant of Maher’s views until Orac and others raised the matter. I suspect Dawkins – though well-travelled – fits the Brit sterotype too, in not knowing too much about Maher.

Bear in mind that Maher sprang to prominence in the UK from brief snippets (not on mainstream TV) where he took the piss out of Bush and fundamentalists. Those of you who saw his shows in their totality were ahead of us; you knew what he thought on Altmed.

With hindsight what Maher seems to want is easy targets: Bush obviously, then Christians… all well and good… when it came to Big Pharma, however, his jibes entailed his support for weird and unscientific irrationalism.

Let’s make this the last EPIC FAIL. (Says a guilty one.)

UK Visitor:
Maher seems reasonable in snippets until you get to see him in action for an hour. He’s not a skeptic, he’s merely contrary. His last show was called Politically Incorrect because that’s all and only what you got: alternative viewpoints without any consideration for their accuracy or relevance.

Maher’s shallowness is striking.

I think we need to calm down a bit. I read (almost) everything you and PZ write and I agree that Maher wasn’t the best choice. Even though I do like his show every now and then, I knew he wasn’t very reasonable as far as altmed is concerned. Even though the award states that science and reason are a criterion, I do not think that many people will make the connection between an atheist award and Maher’s woo support.
Maher will not start waving his “science and reason award” to people arguing about woo. Now its time to move on, and everybody will be more careful when its time to give an award again. If Maher start using the fact that he was awarded as an argument to support his opinion of woo, Dawkins can still withdraw his endorsement of the award.

Thanks, Orac, for all you’ve written on the subject. I’m hoping that the brilliant Stephen Fry will be considered for the award in the future, especially with his recent series Last Chance to See, which involves zoology and conservation biology. Fry is also the host of a very witty and intellectual program QI (Quite Interesting), and, unlike Maher, he’s actually funny. Nor does he have any quack woo medicine beliefs, AFAIK; I think his recent weight loss was the result of pretty standard diet and exercise changes.

@UK Visitor: Dawkins may not have known who Maher is, hell I’m british and I’d never heard of him before this business, but if he’s going to endorse a nomination for an award with his name on it a few minutes online would be a fairly good idea don’t you think?

Orac, enough of your schoolyard rants. I’m extremely disappointed with the flinging of testosterone here.

FTR: PZ has moved to the top of my ‘must read’ pile and you’ve been nudged down a bit. Keep it up and I’ll delete you like I did Isis.

@Mary

“Schoolyard rant”? Geez, you haven’t read some of PZ’s more–shall we say?–animated rants against religion, have you? At times, he makes me seem downright sedate in comparison.

Be that as it may, I note that Mary doesn’t refute anything I’ve said. Others have made some reasonable objections and counterarguments over the course of my several posts on this issue. That’s good. Vigorous debate is a good thing. I also note that none of those who have objected to my campaign has thus far or vigorously disagreed with my stand has threatened to “delete” me.

Perhaps you’d better just delete me and get it over with. I suspect that reading my blog will not be good for your blood pressure, and I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Besides, if you really want to see the “flinging of testosterone,” just wait until I get into another exchange with J.B. Handley of Generation Rescue. Now, that‘s “flinging testosterone.” What I’m doing right here, right now in this post is simply vigorously disagreeing.

Funny, though, that you characterize this vigorous disagreement between two men as “flinging testosterone.” Do you similarly think that the disagreement between Chris Mooney and PZ is “flinging testosterone”? I wonder…

Your point is a good one. In the age of the internet and Google, Dawkins could and should have been instantly informed of Maher’s promotion of pseudoscience – then he could have voiced his misgivings, Maher would have been quickly dropped, and everyone would have moved on by now.

Nobody in the wider world knows or cares about the distinctions between RDA, RDFRS, and Dawkins himself. Incorrectly or not, what will be gleaned from this episode is that what Dawkins represents has given what Maher represents the stamp of approval.

Wich is more important to atheists/skeptics/rationalists: promotion of rationalism or opposition to organized religion? Maher is not even an atheist. The message is that being against Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths is more important to atheists than fostering rationalism and reason.

In the hardline atheist community, Ken Miller is more risible a figure than is Bill Maher. Which, given their respective histories with regard to science and rationalism, is really nuts. I’m not saying that Miller’s views are not problematic in some respects. But I’ll take him over a conspiracy-monger like Maher any day.

Besides, if you really want to see the “flinging of testosterone,” just wait until I get into another exchange with J.B. Handley of Generation Rescue. Now, that’s “flinging testosterone.”

That would be flinging “sheets of testosterone”.

It’s only flinging testosterone if you disagree! Otherwise it’s reasoned argument.

Well, I guess it’s something that I have been moved from the category ‘tacitly approves of quackery’ to ‘didn’t criticize quackery soon enough or loud enough’. I’ve asked what else I can say in my repudiation of Maher, and apparently the answer is to invent a time machine and go back to repudiate him sooner.

The bottom line: I do not defend the Maher selection, and I’m with you 100% in thinking Maher is a kook who probably spends too much time listening to Ariana Huffington instead of thinking rationally, and that I would not have given him this award at all. Dawkins also thinks he’s a real wackaloon, but thinks the movie earned him some appreciation (by the way, I was not particularly happy with the movie and thought his Oscar performance was a red flag that he was an ass, and don’t really agree with Dawkins on this). I’m certain the AAI will be vetting their nominations much more thoroughly in the future — the committee members I talked to were regretful, both because they disagreed with the altie nutcase stuff, and because they had walked into a PR nightmare no matter what they did at this point.

So now we’re in this strange situation where I’m getting denounced for not being as quick or vociferous as you are on the Maher matter. You really don’t want to go down that road, man. I’ve got a long list of creationists who I’ve slammed harder than you have; shall I wave it around and declare that Orac is soft on creationism? No, because I know you aren’t. Similarly, I’m not soft on altie assholes, but I trust in other blogging watchdogs like yourself to cover that beat far more effectively and with more depth than I possibly can. I approvingly linked to your post documenting the sins of Maher and offering a list of good questions to hammer him with. I can’t be held at fault for lacking the expertise to put together a great dissection like that — I acknowledged your contributions on that.

As for all of the people making this silly claim that Dawkins should have just googled Maher — try it yourself. Maher is a minor media figure. Google him and you mainly get articles about his show, about Religulous, about public appearances, some of his humor pieces, and even his criticism of climate change denialists is fairly prominent. He looks like a funny skeptic from a superficial google search! His quackery is buried deep, isn’t a major feature of his public persona, and you need to plug in the right key words to find it on Google. It’s a bit disingenuous to argue that someone who wasn’t familiar with the Maher schtick ought to be able to find it with little effort.

Thanks for all you’ve written about this, Orac. I think this is a good place to end it, unless PZ or RD stops by and drops a deuce in the comments.

Of course, some people still aren’t getting the point. Like beebeeo @4: “Even though I do like his show every now and then, I knew he wasn’t very reasonable as far as altmed is concerned.”

Let’s replace *altmed* with *evolution*, and try and imagine what PZ and RD would have done. The analogy seems strange, because anti-evolution-ism is typically religion-based, but technically evolution is just a science issue and has no bearing on the a/theism question.

As for Orac’s question about what to do in the future, for me the answer is clear. Support efforts that promote science and skepticism, rather than support atheism itself. If organized atheism is willing to shelve science, then it’s too akin to a religion for my taste.

Actually, I do have one productive suggestion, at least.

It would be useful to have the Maher criticism moved up higher in google searches, so it would be a good idea for more bloggers to link to Orac’s questions.

I’m in the midst of getting ready to leave the meetings and vanish into airplanes for a while, but I’ll talk to Josh Timonen and suggest that one really good thing for the RDF to do would be to link to and promote Orac’s criticisms of Bill Maher. Seriously, they also agree with Orac — it’s just that as an organization they are trapped by the initial misstep, and as I mentioned above, there is nothing that they can do that isn’t a PR catastrophe. While the individuals see the problem, the organizations involved are tangled up in damage control mode.

PZ – it isn’t an issue of “vetting” the awardee. We aren’t talking about whether he has a mistress or failed to pay social security tax on a housekeeper. No, this was the AAI failing to even consider the criteria they provided for the award. We aren’t complaining because they failed to realize he was a medical quack, but because they didn’t even consider the “promotion of reason and science” aspect of their award. If they had, they would have found pretty quickly that he failed.

But I agree with PZ that it’s not reasonable to expect Dawkins to have googled Maher. Then again, he didn’t need to, because he was informed about it through PZ’s link to Orac’s blog. So what did he do when he learned Maher was a medical crank? Meh…

I said it last night. Instead of saying, “I didn’t know, but I liked his movie and think he’s funny,” would it have been so hard to say, “Really? I didn’t realize it. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have approved it. Oh well, too late now…”?

Would that type of comment on PZ Myers’s blog really have been so damaging or controversial, or insulting to Maher?

Then again, PZ indicates that Dawkins still does not object to Maher getting the award, so I’m not sure that would have been his statement. Medical science be damned…

As for all of the people making this silly claim that Dawkins should have just googled Maher รขย€ย” try it yourself.

OK:

Bill Maher vaccine
Bill Maher alternative medicine
Bill Maher (Wikipedia), specifically Views on Health Care

I do, however, appreciate your linking to me and suggesting that others do so. On the other hand, I still wonder why Dawkins wasn’t made aware of this problem back in July. Remember, in retrospect I now also include myself in the EPIC FAIL. Apparently I was too blinded or intimidated by the The Great Man even to consider trying to contact him myself. I also assumed that you or someone else had done so. It goes to show, as the saying goes, that when you “assume” you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

And, my “unless” comes true before my post even got submitted. PZ, you too are missing the point. Since you’re normally so good as slicing through BS, I suspect you’re being deliberately obtuse.

The problem isn’t what happened at the meeting; it went as well as it could have. The problem is what to do to prevent things like this from happening in the future. You say that this can be prevented by a more careful vetting process. I don’t trust this, since this problem wasn’t hard to foresee (your comment about googling Maher was asinine, as howtoplayalone already pointed out). Also, Maher wasn’t the only one there who was full of shit, as you pointed out yourself with Maurice Bisheff.

Frankly, I don’t know if supporting atheism in and of itself is worth as much effort as it is currently garnering. It’s important for the sake of civil rights and discrimination, but it’s also easily misled. Plenty of people are atheists for irrational reasons: they hate religion, they like being contrarian, it seems “alternative” and trendy, etc. If atheists aren’t careful, these wackaloons might swamp the movement. If science and reason are given top billing, the atheism will also get promoted by proxy.

bob: “Let’s replace *altmed* with *evolution*, and try and imagine what PZ and RD would have done.”

Excellent point.

Even if a recipient were not a creationist/IDist but merely a anti-natural selection crank on evolution to the degree of, say, Mae-Wan Ho, Rupert Sheldrake, Antonio Lima-de-Faria, or the balloon animal guy whose name escapes me, the award would have been publicly rescinded without hesitation.

The organization’s damage control choice of going through with the travesty is due to medicine being lower on the list of priorities than organized religion and evolution. But a little PR pain earlier on would have been a far better alternative. This will be a lasting shame, the atheist version of “cdesign proponentsists.”

ISTM that organizations that want to associate themselves with science and reason ought not to get into “damage control modes”. I know it’s endemic in bureaucracies, but surely the RDF can take a lesson from Dawkins’s own retelling of the respect shown an elderly scientist who admitted he was wrong? (Which is in one of his books, but unfortunately I forget which.)

If you’re wrong about an empirical question, no amount of “damage control” is going to make you less wrong, or even make you seem less wrong. It will only make you look ridiculous. Whether or not Maher should be given an award isn’t an empirical question, but people are familiar enough with organizational waffling that it doesn’t really convince anyone anymore.

Orac does have a point that nominees should be more thoroughly vetted in advance in the future, though.

Some people really aren’t getting it. Why would anyone, when considering giving Maher an award for Religulous, type “maher’s views on healthcare” into google? The movie is what made him prominent in the atheist community. That tends to focus one’s interests; health is the focus of this blog and the readers here, so of course you’d go searching for his views on a subject of direct and immediate interest to you. Dawkins would have been more likely to search for “maher’s views on religion” or “maher’s views on evolution” or “maher’s views on science”, while some other organization might have searched for “maher’s views on immigration” or “maher’s views on marijuana”, and each would give a different picture of the guy.

Seriously. No one was expecting a quack, based on his positions on religion and evolution. No one was expecting a racist or a pedophile or a flat-earther, either, so no one would have thought to go looking for evidence of those things.

But I agree with PZ that it’s not reasonable to expect Dawkins to have googled Maher.

Maybe not when Dawkins first learned of the selection of Maher. Indeed, I have always maintained from the very beginning that I don’t blame Dawkins for not knowing about Maher’s views when he first approved AAI’s selection of Maher, given that Maher is little known outside of the U.S.

But why the hell not expect Dawkins to have Googled Maher after the complaints about Maher’s anti-vaccine views, HIV/AIDS denialism sympathies, PETA membership, and other pro-quackery views started to roll in? Dawkins lost more than two months’ heads-up over that. Instead, we got the “la-de-da” comment of how Dawkins “knows nothing” of Maher’s views on medicine.

Hi PZ,
I keep hearing about the ‘PR nighmare’ and while I don’t doubt that it is/was one, it would be great to know why–was it the RDFSR sponsorship that got in the way of a more definitive reaction? The charges that you and/or Richard are ‘soft on woo’ are, ridiculous, I agree, but I would like to know how you respond to the perception that in this case, a united cause of ‘atheism’ was prized over the value of science and reason.
Most of all, I would like to know what changes will be made with regard to the AAI and its big-name supporters. We’re hearing a lot about the AAI people who didn’t want Maher to receive the award–what about those who did? What about the reports of standing O’s and general warm welcomes Maher received from the attendees? Does it give any of the great defenders of science and reason (you, Richard, Dan…) pause to continue to be affiliated with an organization who, despite its professed commitment to rationality has apparently thrown its doors open wide to all kinds of wooly thinkers as long as they’re godless?

Can AAI be fixed? Is it worth fixing? At the very least it seems that some review of organizational priorities is in order. I’d hate to think that the only consequence of this debacle is for the AAI to develop better public relations strategies.

Oh, and re: Mary:

FTR: PZ has moved to the top of my ‘must read’ pile and you’ve been nudged down a bit. Keep it up and I’ll delete you like I did Isis.

Is anyone else thinking ‘Word Processor of the Gods’ here?

Mare, my fingers tingle with irony as I write: Your concern is noted.

Some people really aren’t getting it. Why would anyone, when considering giving Maher an award for Religulous, type “maher’s views on healthcare” into google? The movie is what made him prominent in the atheist community. That tends to focus one’s interests; health is the focus of this blog and the readers here, so of course you’d go searching for his views on a subject of direct and immediate interest to you. Dawkins would have been more likely to search for “maher’s views on religion” or “maher’s views on evolution” or “maher’s views on science”, while some other organization might have searched for “maher’s views on immigration” or “maher’s views on marijuana”, and each would give a different picture of the guy.

Bill Maher science

@23

Wouldn’t you have to know that Bill Maher was anti-vaccine or into alternative medicine to Google those terms? I mean, you might be a homophobe*, but if I didn’t suspect that you were specifically a homophobe, why would I Google “orac homophobe”? And yet if I didn’t Google it, why would I suspect you were?

Also, remember that the Google results pages change continuously. What they look like now is not what they look liked back when it would have made a difference, even if you did know what to search for.

*I chose that example because I trust you’re not a homophobe, btw.

I’d like to hear more about how folks at AAI decided on Maher. Did they consider others? Who was on the committee? Young Comedy Central viewers who haven’t biked around the block yet? So Cal New Agers? Anxious entertainment industry wannabes?

Before Orac, I admit I didn’t know about Maher’s anti-“Western medicine” stuff. I hardly ever watch TV. The little I’ve seen of Maher I’ve liked. I almost downloaded one of his “New Rules” books from audible.com a year ago.

I can believe the AAI might not have known about Maher’s anti-medicine side. If so, when did they become aware? Was their discussion about how to handle the contradiction inherent in handing the RDA to an “Enemy of Reason”? Did unconcious wishful thinking cause them to minimize the worry?

These kinds of psychological and social autopsies help me understand SNAFU physiology. They make me politically smarter. But they’re hard to do if people feel unbearably shamed.

So I’d like to put aside personal accusations of bad faith. Humans can’t help being human, and most aren’t good at managing battles on several fronts at once (Orac, being super-human, might be an exception). Cake-and-eat-it-too dilemmas trip us all up from time to time.

PZ, please respond to Jennifer B Phillip’s comment at #30. This defending of RD is making you look pathetic. Fine, he had no way of knowing ahead of time, and we all honestly disagree about what should have been done once he was made aware of it. Fine. Please provide your thoughts about what to do going forward, because everyone agrees that *something* needs to be done to prevent this in the future.

One point here: Google results differ from country to country.

Also, it cannot be expected that people try to google someone with every anti-science trigger word one can think off – you have to know that there is something to look for.

Maher looks superficially acceptable for foreigners, until they start digging a bit. Dawkins had good reason to believe that the AAI had vetting him before deciding to giving him a prize.

Personally, I think that the AAI should have withdrawn their prize to Maher, when they became aware of his quarkery, and perhaps have changed it to a prize to the movie, if that was possible. That would have sent a clear, pro-science message.

This isn’t about Richard Dawkins sitting around doing Google searches. The point is that with networked media, these things are not dependent on a single individual’s research. There is swarm intelligence. And within that swarm certain individuals could have voiced their concerns much more loudly.

Post-hoc BS rationalizing about how supposedly tough it is for an online community to find out some basic facts about a public figure is even more weak than granting an award that stands for rationalism and science to a kook with a merely perfunctory disclaimer.

The whole thing is kind of disappointing, though I get how these internecine ScienceBlog disputes come up. It seems like a lot of folks on the atheism side don’t see that our atheism should be a /result/ of our skeptical and rationalist ways of thinking, rather than of convincing arguments by popular atheists.

No really slagging PZ or Dawkins, who make good and convincing arguments, but things keep coming close to praising Maher for his anti-religious propaganda value rather than looking askance at his anti-science views.

Um. Yeah, I’m a bit muddled. Basically – lots of atheists seem to have been treating atheism and scientific thinking as separate domains, and really shouldn’t.

So now we’re in this strange situation where I’m getting denounced for not being as quick or vociferous as you are on the Maher matter. You really don’t want to go down that road, man. I’ve got a long list of creationists who I’ve slammed harder than you have; shall I wave it around and declare that Orac is soft on creationism? No, because I know you aren’t.

Bit of a straw man here, I’m afraid. I never said you were “soft on altie bullshit.” Really. I didn’t. Go look at every post on this matter that I’ve done and see if you can come up with anything I’ve said that says you or Dawkins have gone soft on alt med. Indeed, I even intentionally went out of my way to praise the alt med section of The Enemies of Reason–more than once!–and point out my positive review of it when it first came out. What I said was that being pro-atheism appears to have trumped being against altie bullshit. A subtle, but important, distinction, I think.

@31

Yes, that’s the Google results page for “Bill Maher science” for today. Do you know what it looked like a few months ago?

I think people just assumed he was pro-science, which as we have seen was a mistake. Mistakes happen. I have no doubt that such assumptions will not be made in the future, as no-one would want to repeat this PR mess. Presumably the AAI thought that withdrawing the award would also result in a PR mess. It was a lose/lose scenario, as all those involved have admitted.

Still, at least you get to laugh at some people you don’t like, so it’s not a complete loss.

Then you should also by now have seen that I responded to the question of why Dawkins should have Googled “maher vaccine.” ๐Ÿ™‚

I can believe the AAI might not have known about Maher’s anti-medicine side. If so, when did they become aware?

Too late?

Come on Orac, I used to think you were really with it, but you’ve totally overblown this subject. I generally agree with you, but you’re now to the point of just screaming over details.

Weeks ago when RD approved of Mahar because of the movie, while stating he wasn’t aware of Mahar’s medical stance, he was doing that oh so very odd British thing that Americans rarely understand. He was being polite, while admitting he was ignorant about Mahar’s other beliefs.

Obviously since that time he educated himself. When RD presented the award he stated his full views.

Regarding PZ, its a false analogy to discuss his rules for his group visiting the Creation Museum. First because there were signs posted (or so I’ve read from people who commented during the presentation) at the AAI presentation that disruptions would not be tolerated, second because PZ smartly didn’t want this to turn into a mirror of the teabagger events you americans are so fond of throwing. A room full of screaming Orac’s would have bruised the skeptical movement far more than politely awarding a good movie while pointing out the other serious flaws in Mahar’s ways.

Yes, we understand and mostly agree with your points Orac, but this is a schoolyard rant by you. Your denial only proves it …

Can the school kids please raise their hands and tell us which logical fallacy this is?

Orac – “Schoolyard rant”? Geez, you haven’t read some of PZ’s more–shall we say?–animated rants against religion, have you? At times, he makes me seem downright sedate in comparison.”

Yes Children! this is the logical fallacy of “Tu quoque” Justifying a wrong action because someone else does it! Gold Star!

I for one am very glad Orac is done writting on the subject.

I also laugh at Isis’ response … from her blogging, her whole life seems to be one big logical fallacy. I stopped reading her blog months ago.

First, heres where I agree. I still maintain that it was an “EPIC FAIL” on Dawkins part not to have made the kind of announcement he made on the podium at the AAI as soon as the complaints started to be made. I also do not buy at all the argument that its tough to find Maher’s stance on these issues (links provided @ 23 are similar to those I found two seconds after reading that silly paragraph).

That all being said I think this has gone completely overboard at points.

Frankly I have had it with the suggestions that Dawkins and Myers do not care about alt-med. PZ regularly posts on “altie bullshit”, Dawkins writes about it, and he (as you well know) made a 45 minute television show about it. Not exactly a trifling investment of effort.

What happened here was that Dawkins was put in the awkward position by the AAI and he handled it poorly. But this is one situation out of many to look at. Dawkins screwed up, and taken in a vaccum I would agree that he appears to care more about atheism. But taken with what he has done, even just done recently, to repudiate alt med, I think that it is absurd to argue that somehow this makes alt med his “neglected stepchild”. By the way, I am quoting Orac here but this is mostly directed at the vitriol in the comments….mostly.

PZ screwed up even less. I can’t think of anything he has really done besides not initially going after Maher and trying to defend Dawkins too much (although I think that some defense is warranted obviously, given the last paragraph). This is not nothing, but it is far less than would deserve being told he does not care about quackery.

In conclusion though. by all means continue to try and get Dawkins attention, perhaps he will post a more complete criticism of Maher on his website. The real target here should be the AAI though. They have commit the most EPIC of the fails here, and they are the ones who should be expected to explain what they will do to avoid this bullshit in the future. As well as apologize, and perhaps post a criticism of their own.

(By the way that “….mostly” thing was actually an obscure South Park reference and not an attempt at being passive aggressive.)

Two weeks ago I gave a public talk on theory of mind and autism. Several healthcare folks expressed surprise at the end of my talk at my firm claim that there’s no science to support the vaccine-autism link, or the “toxin” etiology of autism. They’d been led to believe these notions were “common knowledge.”

I was surpised by their surprise.

I have this impression that integrative medicine is not controversial on the West coast. Articles like the one below appear in the paper. People read them and think, “oh that’s nice.”

http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2009/09/new_clinic_opens_at.html

How to communicate the “holy crap!” I feel at this state of affairs to the basic scientists? Maybe they’d feel it if they could imagine 20 years of ID in science classrooms, and a world where people generally respond to criticim of ID with, “Really? There’s some problem with design theory?”

@Mary – Thanks for the reference to a new blog.

@Isis – I’ve added you to my list of ~daily blog checks.

Just thought everyone should know that. ๐Ÿ™‚

Yes Children! this is the logical fallacy of “Tu quoque” Justifying a wrong action because someone else does it! Gold Star!

Not at all. I was merely using that example to point out Mary’s double standard when it comes to schoolyard rants. She’s all mad at me for being so mean and issuing “schoolyard rants” but doesn’t mind it when PZ goes all “schoolyard ranty” on some creationist or religious loon or other. It was also a bit of self-deprecating humor, as well, but you left that part out, namely the part where I said that, if you really want to see testosterone flinging, wait until the next time I take on the anti-vaccine loon J.B. Handley. And it is, to some extent. My criticisms of Dawkins and PZ, however, are not “testosterone flinging” or schoolyard rants. If you like, I could show you some of my real schoolyard rants. Usually they involve anti-vaccinationists.

Basically, I rather suspect Mary likes schoolyard rants, the exception being when they’re directed at a target she likes.

Why do people keep saying this? Neill @46: “Frankly I have had it with the suggestions that Dawkins and Myers do not care about alt-med.”

Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ on a Stick, no one is saying that! (Orac, in particular, pointed this out explicitly from the get-go!) You people are arguing like creationists. Try responding to what people are ACTUALLY saying.

Or, continue arguing against the caricature of our position you’ve constructed in your head. It seems to be what everyone prefers to do, anyways. I suppose it is easier.

It is beyond hilarious to me that my name has been brought up in a comments section that never invovled me. I thank you all for the lipservice and the resultant traffic. Still, this breed of atheism that some seem to be supporting is looking an awful lot like the religious factions said atheists abhor so much.

The solution here seems simple to me. If principles and the truth are so important to this group, then as soon as they became aware of Maher’s antiscience views they should have picked up the phone, called the dude and said, “ix-nay on the award, bitch. You hate science.” Done. Move on.

Really, are the perception of atheism and the “PR” problem more important that the truth? If atheist leaders start fucking the atheist equivalent of altar boys, we are all totally screwed. You guys had better get PZ his pointy hat and Prada shoes, STAT.

Logically fallacy, indeed.

This entire episode is one of the reasons several of my friends and I have started to use the somewhat tongue in cheek term amystic-i.e., skepticism of anything supernatural. A surprising number of people who claim to not believe in gods, seem to have no problem with equally nonscientific or supernatural beliefs in other areas.

I don’t think science-based medicine is viewed as the red-headed step-child among the skeptical movement generally. The problem is that since the early 1990s, the vitalists have been far more successful at gaining ground in medicine than the creationists in biology.

The resistance to woo that was present when I was training has been broken. No resistance; no apparent problem from the vantage point of the world outside of medicine.

Here’s a recent comment from a thread at RD.net from a fellow atheist:

Dr Benway – No I did not learn that junk food is bad for you in medical school. Let me be more specific. It isn’t junk food itself, but a junk food diet. Excessive intake can lead to obesity and diabetes which in turn can lead to heart attack and premature death. You don’t have to be a doctor to know this. It is general knowledge, In much the same that heavy smoking can lead to lung cancer or alcoholism can lead to cirrhosis. The problem with diet is a particularly bad one in America where apparently a third of adults are overweight, some even seriously so.

The over-emphasis upon the content of one’s diet in the etiology of disease, the scientifically meaningless categorization of “junk” food vs “non-junk” food –this chap is reading from the naturopathy play book but doesn’t know it. More frighteningly, med students are reading from the same book and don’t know it.

From the same poster:

Giving a depressed person drugs is attacking the symptom, not the cause. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the solution to this problem, not pill-popping.

“Attacking the symptom, not the cause” is another naturopathic mantra with little scientific significance.

The assumption that MDs are inappropriately prescribing antidepressants is now “common knowledge.”

Hi Isis

The subject of sexual exploitation in organisations is important to you, which is commendable. You are no doubt aware of the systemic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, an organisation you are a member of. What are you doing about this? Have you written to any bishops? Have you threatened to cease donations? How extensive would the abuse have to be for you to leave the organisation?

If you have a blog-post addressing this, I’d be grateful if you could provide a link. I tried searching your blog, but could only find stories about abuse in academia. I wouldn’t want to conclude that your silence over the institutionalized child abuse of the organization you are a (proud?) member of was an endorsement of the abuse.

PZed and Richard Dawkins:

Are you aware that the American Medical Student Association supports naturopathy?

http://www.amsa.org/naturopath/

Everything Bill Maher says about “toxins” and “BigPharma” has long been said before by the naturopaths.

You see, in medicine it’s not the poor weak pseudoscience scratching at the door hoping to get in, as with the ID proponent and biology.

PZ, at any point BEFORE the conference you could have gone “crackergate” on maher and the AAI, but you didn’t. you still haven’t. The accommodation you made had nothing to do with the award, it had everything to do with an attitude that you would let that issue slide. It is your lack of realization that you, along with all of us, must pick our battles, and admitting that this one wasn’t yours.

XD,

This is a valid question, and I have remarked about it in comments, but I have few real posts in my earlier days at ScienceBlogs. As my blog has evolved I have found myself much more interested in addressing injustice in the academic institution as opposed to religious ones. I am but one woman and have had to pick my battles for this space.

My real life self is personally acquainted with her Bishop and has worked within her diocese to put new (well, not so new anymore, but in the scope of 2000 years…)protections in to safeguard the well-being of children. She has relationships with her clergy and has questioned the role of women in her church. My pseudonymous self has written on a few occasions when I felt my Pope was doing something contrary to science and medicine.

our question could be framed another way — how much discrimination, fucking of female undergraduates and graduate students by male professors, and over racism, would I be willing to tolerate before leaving academia. The answer is, clearly, and awful lot. Then again, I believe in science more than the people who are conducting it.

But, I came to ScienceBlogs to write about minorities and women in academia. Assuming that my silence on any issue means that I condone it would be terribly short-sighted of you. What I point out above is that the group mentioned here seems more tolerant of its award recipient spouting other “non-data based” claims than they would if he claimed there was a God. That seems like much more of a logical fallacy to me.

Please everyone, read the link above at the American Medical Student Association link. Really look it over.

Can you see what I see? The red-neck creationists are children in comparison to this multi-billion dollar coalition of corporations, professional organizations, and celebrity backers (hello Huffington and Maher!).

The vitalists have their own wedge strategy, which I wrote about here: http://tuftedtitmouse.blogspot.com/2009/03/mapping-emergence-of-integrative.html

Getting into the IOM (Institute of Medicine), expanding scope of practice laws at the state level for alternative practitioners, establishing departments of “integrative medicine” at academic centers –all achieved.

The next objective: coverage for supplements equal to prescription drug coverage. Maher, like a lot of medical marijuana advocates who view the supplement category as a potential path toward legalization, will not be on our side.

I think both PZ Myers and Orac give global warming deniers a way too easy ride. They’ve gone soft on the people who have hijacked the skeptic label.

Like most of the skeptical community by the way.

Each has his/her priorities. Seems rather obvious here.

bob:
I think I was very clear that for the most part I completely agree with the criticism being made. I also agree that most of the commenters taking issue with Dawkins’ response are not making this point.

You appear to have just assumed that I am part of the mob making endless excuses for everything Dawkins has done and that (as anyone who actually read my posts with a tiny bit of care would have noticed) is quite far from the truth. I have made it very clear in every post I have put up here that I agree with the bulk of the criticism. In fact I think I have probably over-emphasized it.

I am not, never was, and never will claim that all of the criticism has been of the flavor I was addressing. In fact, as I said, most of it has definitely not been of this flavor. I am sure that you have never made this accusation yourself given how aggressively you went after my post, but if this is the case than I was not talking to you bob. I was referring to a few comments that did take that tactic.

How many times do I need to say this before the people here get over their urge to jump all over everyone who even briefly appears to be disagreeing. On 99 percent of this whole fucking debate, I AGREE WITH YOU!

And come on, arguing like creationists?

The med student stories really upset me. Students are in no position to sort science from pseudoscience.

I’m astonished that it only took a decade to make obvious lies acceptable truth, and further, to erase the memory of this transformation.

My teachers from the 1980s are all retired now, save a few emeritus exceptions. Doctors are older than basic scientists when they start their academic careers. Perhaps this explains in part how the institutional memory in medicine can seem so short.

Sailboat time.

I think both PZ Myers and Orac give global warming deniers a way too easy ride. They’ve gone soft on the people who have hijacked the skeptic label.

Really? Have I proposed giving an AGW denialist an award, one of the criteria of which is “advocates increased scientific knowledge”?

Nope.

@Benway,

You just made my day. I knew there was a reason I didn’t join AMSA. I thought it was my own sheer laziness until now.

At the same time, I’m a bit disheartened that the academic open-minded/celebrate diversity environment has atrophied us to where our “best and brightest” students can’t spot obvious nonsense like homeopathy.

@58

I’m happy to hear that you have confronted the problem of institutionalized sex abuse in the Catholic Church IRL.

What I point out above is that the group mentioned here seems more tolerant of its award recipient spouting other “non-data based” claims than they would if he claimed there was a God.

I think you’re right, but as the organisation and award are principally about atheism, is it any surprise? As you say, we all pick our battles, i.e. some things, in some circumstances, are seen as more important than others would be in different circumstances.

PZ and RD are against all non-data based claims, but choose to concentrate on those inspired by religion. Orac is against all non-data based claims, but chooses to concentrate on those inspired by woo. You are against all sex abuse, but choose to concentrate on those that happen in academia.

@Neill: Thank you for the further elaboration of your views, even though I couldn’t parse much of it. Still, I stand by my response to your previous post. I quoted you directly, and what you said was a complete strawman of Orac’s (and plenty of others’) point.

Here is what you said: “Frankly I have had it with the suggestions that Dawkins and Myers do not care about alt-med.” I’ll again repeat that no one seems to be saying that. It’s not clear from your reply @61 whether or not you still think people are offering that criticism of RD/PZ. If they are, then I agree with you that they’re off-base. But, since I don’t think people are saying that, then you are arguing like a creationist, because attacking strawmen is tactic number one out of the anti-evolution playbook.

While I could continue to point out fallacies and contradictions … well, maybe just one more:

… Hey Isis, I called you out because of your sarcastic response to Mary, You involved yourself here, I didn’t just pull your name out of my butt. Shouldn’t you be off blogging about the Canadian Bishop who was just caught with child porn? … You know, the Bishop who brokered the deal to compensate people victimized by your church in his area years ago, but only removed himself now, decades later, when he himself was caught? At least for this one your great leader actually accepted the resignation instead of just moving your good Bishop KiddieFiddler to a more obscure corner of the world to continue hurting kids.

… Instead lets look at the common ground. Most of us seem to agree that no skeptic is the perfect skeptic. We all have areas of interest, none of us can be fully informed on every topic. Many good atheists can’t help saying “oh my god”, but they are still good atheists.

Could Richard Dawkins have refused to issue the award? Yes, but instead he chose to be present where he could make a statement in person against Mahar’s other issues and could discuss the issue with others at the event.

Could PZ have told the masses to rise up and stop the presentation? Yes, and like typical americans no doubt plenty of yahoos would have shown up and turned it into a skeptic’s teabagger event and we’d all come out looking like idiots. Maybe Orac wishes he had a sufficient following to wield such powers, but has not yet gained the wisdom to know when doing so will cause more damage than good.

Regardless we now know that we need to pay more attention to how the AAI operates. Those of you who contribute to the organization need to become better informed, work towards becoming more involved with their processes to prevent future embarrassments, or if warranted remove yourself from future contributions.

Orac are you a member of the AAI? If you’d like to help in a productive manner to steer them in a better direction, you can start your journey here:

http://www.atheistalliance.org/Support-AAI.html

As you say, we all pick our battles, i.e. some things, in some circumstances, are seen as more important than others would be in different circumstances.

Yes, it’s my impression that the skeptical community is made up of individuals with a variety of core concerns. This is why we should spend some time arguing over priorities, to expand areas of agreement between us.

If the AAI are willing to compromise their rationalist/pro-science stance regarding alt med in service to the marketing of atheism, physicians will go elsewhere. Perhaps the AAI don’t really care about that. Perhaps, in fact, they have more alt med practitioners on their rolls than MDs.

Hey Joseph C, are you the genius “Joseph C” that gave a crazy chiropractor student an epic and totally beautiful spanking on this site a few months ago? Dude was insisting med school was only 3 years in spite of links to schools saying otherwise?

If so, you just made my day.

And, now Ken decides to start attacking Orac for things he didn’t advocate:

“Could PZ have told the masses to rise up and stop the presentation? Yes, and like typical americans no doubt plenty of yahoos would have shown up and turned it into a skeptic’s teabagger event and we’d all come out looking like idiots. Maybe Orac wishes he had a sufficient following to wield such powers, but has not yet gained the wisdom to know when doing so will cause more damage than good.”

Orac suggested nothing of the sort. You would know this if you had read what he’s been saying all along.

Ken, and others: please pay attention what people are actually saying before finalizing your opinion on the matter. You might discover that you agree with them. You might also prevent yourself from looking like an idiot. (Well, maybe.)

seriously, pz

THE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY TO MAHER’S NUTTALK IS WITHIN 6 LINKS OF A GOOGLE SEARCH OF *maher*.

thats it, all he had to do was google maher and the info was there, maher alone with no other words. what will you tell us next, that dawkins doesn’t know what wikipedia is? give us some more revision.

you guys would willingly desecrate one of a religions most symbolic objects- yet wait, the atheist maher? you and dawkins obviously tried to cover this shit up as best you could *even as* shit just kept hitting the fan.

FWIW, I think Orac has been very reasonable and civil with respect to this Bill Maher controversy. I haven’t noticed any testosterone flinging.

That said, it is true that Orac uses a certain style on this blog that may not be to everyone’s taste. Hey, just don’t read this blog if you don’t like it. Or read it and take him to task in specific instances when you think he goes a little overboard. Whatever, who gives a shit.

Ken, you’re a hilarious little muffin, but you’ve got one point that is worth pondering. We all have the battles we choose to pick, and here Captain Question Everything has been shown to be just as guilty as the rest of us of charry picking what he chooses to address when it comes to making a point. ie, he is absolutely no different than those he chooses to attack on his blog. I won’t go so far as to say that he is not an advocate for science, because I do not believe that to be correct, but I will say that he probably has a larger agenda.

I’m going to simply leave you with the irony of this statement:

Could Richard Dawkins have refused to issue the award? Yes, but instead he chose to be present where he could make a statement in person against Mahar’s other issues and could discuss the issue with others at the event.

thats it, all he had to do was google maher and the info was there, maher alone with no other words. what will you tell us next, that dawkins doesn’t know what wikipedia is?

Or maybe that Dawkins’ computer only allows him to search the Wikipedia of the present, not the Wikipedia of the future. You do realise that Wikipedia changes over time, don’t you?

xd,

you do realize that wikipedia also has a history button that lets one track changes to articles?

fyi, the medical section of maher’s wiki page has been there with much the same information and wording since at least 0ct 2008

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