Quoth Richard Dawkins: “I am proud to have presented the [AAI] award to Bill Maher”

It just so happens that I was up quite late last night doing–what else?–writing yet another grant application (well, two actually). Even though the grants aren’t due until Wednesday, Tuesday happens to be my operating room day, meaning I need to get this done and buried by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. In any case, I had been planning on just posting a rerun or two, as is my wont when real life gets so crazy that even my rapid-fire blogorrhea is curtailed, and then someone had to go and send me something that merits at least a brief bit of Insolence. Try as I might not to get sucked into this issue again, I failed utterly, because it just irritates me that much.

Do you remember last fall how I made a bit of a stink about something? (I know what you’re thinking: Orac? Make a stink about something? Perish the thought!) In any case, this time around the particular stink I raised was about what could only be described as the purest burning stupid, namely the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) awarding the Richard Dawkins Award to that anti-vaccine loon with germ theory denialist and anti-science (at least medical science) tendencies, who’s become a target of special oppobrium on this blog for his using his celebrity (and Twitter) to spread his pseudoscience, which even includes cancer quackery. No, I’m not talking about Jim Carrey, although when I learned about the AAI’s selection I did liken giving Maher the Richard Dawkins Award to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health. The reason is I got so annoyed is because part of the award criteria is that the winner “through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge,” and an example of someone who is about as far from doing that as can be imagined, at least when it comes to science, is Bill Maher.

So what do I see over on Dawkins’ website? Well, at first it looked to me like a little video of Maher attacking Muslim religious extremists. So far, who cares? But then I saw a comment from Richard Dawkins himself:

This is the kind of thing that justifies the AAI in giving him that award last year. I know he doesn’t always talk sense about medical matters, but this splendid little recital makes it all worth while. I am proud to have presented the award to Bill Maher. I especially like the sting in the tail where he makes as if to say something concilatory about decent, moderate Muslims: They only want to be left to subjugate their women in peace (or words to that effect).

Keep up the good work.


“I know he doesn’t always talk sense about medical matters”? Now there’s an understatement! That’s like saying Ken Ham, Casey Luskin, or Michael Egnor doesn’t always talk sense about evolution. “Doesn’t always talk sense about medical matters”? It’s more like “purposefully abuses his celebrity to spread misinformation about vaccines and scientific medicine to the point where even his guests are sometimes appalled at his ignorant pontificating,” particularly Bob Costas, who mocked him with a hearty “Oh, come on, Superman!” when Maher in essence claimed that he never gets sick because of his superior diet and lifestyle, implying that he doesn’t need vaccines. In fact, Bill Maher really does share a lot of characteristics with Jenny McCarthy when it comes to that sort of thinking. McCarthy thinks she cured her child of autism and could make him autistic again if she ever let up. There does seem to be the delusion of complete control shared betweeen them, and McCarthy and Maher apparently both believe that they’re being “poisoned” by big pharma.

Personally, I thought this matter was over and I had hoped that Dawkins had learned his lesson. Apparently I was wrong. Despite all the assurances that I got from various people defending Dawkins that, really and truly he did “get it” about medical science, Dawkins still blithely dismisses Maher’s promotion of quackery and antivaccine beliefs as “not always talking sense about medical matters.”

How disappointing. It’s not as if decorum forced Dawkins to be nice and soft pedal Maher’s support for pseudoscience. He could simply have remained silent, rather than posting in the comments after this video. He didn’t.

Here’s the problem. Bill Maher has a lot of the “right views” when it comes to science, but he appears to have come to them in the wrong way. He hasn’t come to them through science, evidence, and reason. He appears to have come to them because they are contrary to his political enemies. Consequently, because he detests organized religion (I won’t get into the questions of whether he’s even an atheist or not), he supports evolution and attacks “intelligent design creationism.” The reason is simple. Religious conservatives detest evolution for religious reasons and promote ID. Maher supports the scientific consensus behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW) because political conservatives tend to be the ones attacking it. We even see this in his selective support of one vaccine. Maher likes HPV vaccines like Gardasil and believes that they work because religious conservatives view the vaccine as the tool of the devil, giving teens an “excuse” to be promiscuous. Yet he distrusts vaccines in general because it fits in with his Hollywood hip, New Agey beliefs about medicine that would make him fit right in with the woo-sters promoting crystals, homeopathy, and all manner of pseudoscience that Dawkins lampooned in The Enemies of Reason.

I’m sorry, but to me it matters how one comes to the “right” beliefs. Just because your belief happens to agree with science does not necessarily mean that you used science and reason to come to those beliefs, and few people provide a better example of that principle than Bill Maher.

And apparently Richard Dawkins doesn’t care. Or at least he has gotten over whatever discomfort he might have felt last fall over the AAI’s selection of Maher to receive an award named after him. I guess promoting atheism really does trump promoting science, at least when that science is medical science.

Or maybe it’s just my lack of sleep making me crankier than usual.

ADDENDUM: The discussion thread that follows makes me think that I’ve taken the TARDIS back to September or October and read threads about Bill Maher on RichardDawkins.net yet again. There are the handful of people there who know what a kook Maher is and how he is not a champion of reason by any stretch of the imagination. Then there are those who seem receptive to his anti-“Western” medicine method. The thread even degenerated into a discussion of Linus Pauling’s descent into orthomolecular medicine and vitamin C quackery. Hey, guys! If you want to know about Linus Pauling and happen to see this, then check out these posts:

Vitamin C and cancer revisited
Vitamin C and cancer: Has Linus Pauling been vindicated?

The answer to the last question is, “No.”