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Richard Dawkins sues Josh Timonen

Wow. Just wow.

I realize that I haven’t exactly been enamored of Richard Dawkins lately, at least not as much as I was, say, three or four years ago. Most of this came about gradually, although the final nail was driven into the proverbial coffin last fall, when Atheist Alliance International bestowed the Richard Dawkins Award to that quacktastic anti-vaccine and anti-science believer in woo and cancer quackery, Bill Maher, an atrocity that I likened to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health. Actually, the second to last nail was probably driven in back in May when Richard Dawkins proclaimed that he was “proud to have presented the [AAI] award to Bill Maher.” The true final nail was driven in at TAM8 in July, when in response to questioning by JREF President D.J. Grothe during an interview Richard Dawkins once again defended the choice of Bill Maher and publicly poo-pooed his demonstrably harmful anti-vaccine and anti-“Western” medicine views as not being particularly significant or relevant to that choice.

Game over, as far as I was concerned. Dawkins was toast, at least to me.

Even so, I find it sad to have learned this morning via ERV that Richard Dawkins is suing the forum moderator of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Josh Timonen, for nearly $1 million embezzled from the Foundation.

Apparently, if Dawkins’ complaint is accurate, these are the sorts of things that the embezzled funds were used for:

Timonen’s “significantly older” girlfriend, defendant Maureen Norton, allegedly used at least $100,000 of the charity’s money to upgrade her Sherman Oaks home before she put it on the market.

A recent real estate listing describes improvements such as a “custom backyard pool and spa area with a wonderful waterfall and glass block fire pit plus custom seating for the ultimate outdoor living and entertaining experience,” according to the complaint.

Dawkins claims Timonen made off with 92 percent of the money generated at the store in 3 years.

Timonen has responded. Although I find his denial self-serving, I do find it odd that there have been no arrests. After all, embezzlement is a criminal offense. If I ran a charitable organization and discovered that an employee had embezzled close to $1 million, I’d have called the police, not the lawyers. Something more than meets the eye appears to be going on here.

In any case, this makes me wonder: What is it about rationalist/skeptic groups that make them seemingly have such a hard time running their organizations well from a financial standpoint? After all, just a couple of months ago the Center for Inquiry (CFI) sent out letters desperately begging for more contributions. The reason was that CFI had one large benefactor whose yearly contribution funded approximately 20-25% of the yearly CFI budget. As clueless as I may be about finances, even I know that you don’t use such donations to run the operating expenses of an organization, because you can’t count on them from year to year and it’s too big a chunk. You use this money for special short-term projects and a rainy day fund. Not surprisingly, when this mysterious donor stopped donating earlier this year, suddently CFI was in deep doo-doo from a financial standpoint, prompting the desperate plea for donations and deep budget cuts. I realize that the down economy has played havoc with many nonprofit and charitable organizations, but these issues with skeptical organizations seem to go beyond just that. Or is this just a problem with nonprofits in general?

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]

246 replies on “Richard Dawkins sues Josh Timonen”

If it’s a civil matter, I’m not sure any arrests would be made. I know precious little about the law though, and even less about California law, so please feel free to correct me.

Dawkins appeared live on Maher’s show about 2 or 3 weeks ago: I thought he was rather too courtly and unctuously appreciative of the host, who BTW, championed “Science” over “Superstition” or somesuch irony. True, Maher has been closetting his views recently even when la Grande Duchesse de Woo-ville Arianna appears. Possibly he’s trying to cultivate a new persona involving the greening of our economy where “green” means many things to many people, especially those in Mendocino County.

I don`t get the whole Dawkins love for Maher either. I wonder if it`s just a case of mutual back-scratching, with Dawkins defending Maher because Maher gives him more public exposure.

As for Timonen, it couldn`t have happened to a better person. If I remember right, the guy was a jackass who alienated a huge part of the senior board members and voluntary mods.

I don`t get the whole Dawkins love for Maher either. I wonder if it`s just a case of mutual back-scratching, with Dawkins defending Maher because Maher gives him more public exposure.

As for Timonen, it couldn`t have happened to a better person. If I remember right, the guy was a jackass who alienated a huge part of the senior board members and voluntary mods.

The question you posed about atheist groups is interesting, although I`d be careful about developing a generalization based off of just two groups. There`s just not a lot of public atheists who are actively involved inrunning groups like these, so it`s a smaller pool of financial and management talent.

It’s not just skeptical organizations – Embezzlement is probably the number one Church-related crime as well . Most organizations tend to trust people and do not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent this type of behavior. Nobody likes to think that it can happen to them, and nobody wants to work in a place where you are (apparently) under suspicion at all times. I think most people don’t want to take the necessary steps.

IANAL, but i am a designated accountant. The laws etc may be different in the US than in Canada, but the reason I was told more frauds are not charged criminally has to do with the standards of proof as well as restitution.

In criminal law, you must prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case it’s to a balance of probabilities. Financial fraud often involves “cooked books”, for example, that by definition make it difficult to prove diversion. As an accountant and auditor I can attest to that. However, the balance of probabilities is an easier standard to meet.

Also, with civil litigation there is a greater chance of actually getting money back. You can file a notice of pending litigation and attach it to assets, blocking their sale. You can obtain injunctions against diversion of assets. If you win your case you also get your lawyers fees as part of the settlement. You may also receive other damage awards, plus interest. And bankruptcy rarely extinguishes debt related to judgements.

These results are highly unlikely to come about in criminal court. A judge can order restitution, but for some reason they rarely do. You can get some blocking of asset diversion in a criminal case, but it’s a more onerous process involving court appearances, as I understand it.

While it may be satisfying to think of the guy rotting in jail, it’s more satisfying to get some of the money back, no?

Personally, I went off Dawkins when I read him writing nonsense about evolution.

In The God Delusion, he denies any role for genetic drift in evolution.

…This is just nuts. The role was elucidated in the 1920s.

Non-profits are really ripe for the picking, be they religious groups, skeptic groups or other societies. Trust is a cornerstone of their arrangements, and a lack of resources means that there is usually minimal segregation of duties and little oversight. Add to the mix frequent small transactions, especially cash based, and you’re just waiting for embezzlement.

I’ve long planned after I retire from my current job to create a consulting company that goes into churches, charities and the like and sets up a system of controls and designs systems to reduce the opportunities for embezzlement. Especially after my best friends church was a victim!

The civil and criminal actions are not mutually exclusive however. If Dawkins really had the resources and evidence, he would be taking both actions right now. My guess is the case isn’t as cut and dry as Dawkins’ compliant initially suggests.

Hey, I too was highly sceptical of Bill Maher (whose done a lot to demote theism), when I heard his anti-vac “comical” tirades (we all laugh at the things we find unimportant). But I DID read he explained and apologised on-show, that his main rants were against the swine-flu vac (which turned out to be not so important as it might), and for me it was more a “he’s a lil’ to uneducated in this aspect”. He likes bashing big companies and likes bashing “big pharma”, and they need bashing but if he says “science over superstition”, he’s got it right.
Anyway Bill Maher has his heart in the right place. And his brain as well, so
Cheers!

I joined a horse group a while ago. My very first mailing, before even receiving any group membership paperwork, was a letter sent to all members about firing the treasurer, suspected embezzlement, and “we’re looking into this.”

This summer, more than 3 years after I joined, they informed the membership that they finally had all the evidence and they were pursuing criminal charges. I think the total amount was less than $20k.

$1mil+ probably would be even more complicated.

Foundations need to bite the bullet and hire professionals with a track record. Preferably with actual companies that do business with other entities so they can get references. This transatlantic marriage was ripe for infidelity. Who was doing the bookkeeping? Who was doing the accounting? It should never be the same person . . . ever. Hire professionals.

If I were a superstitious sort, I’d say it was Karma for that tacky scarlet letter logo. What the hell kind of designer uses Zapfino?

Sad news. A million dollars in a trust could fund annual scholarships for a lot of kids to attend skeptical summer camps, stuff like that, for many years to come.

I’d like to see some non-profits set up with nearly full transparency –e.g., bank transactions viewable on line, with perhaps the names of individual doners who want to remain anonymous listed as aliases.

Too many charities today have very high overheads. Donations are used to get more donations, essentially.

A really transparent charity would do well, I think.

True, you can pursue both avenues, but there are good reasons for not doing it. First, the courts frown on forum shopping. The reason *I* wouldn’t pursue criminal charges, were I Dawkins (and keep in mind, I’m a real law-n-order kinda gal) is a matter of expense. Pursuing criminal charges of fraud can be an expensive endeavour. Sure, it’d be nice to believe that the police cover the costs of pursuing the charges, but the foundation would still need to hire an attorney, pay for record production, etc if they wanted a relatively speedy trial . None of that money gets reimbursed, which would eat into the foundations currently slender resources.

On a purely pragmatic level, I’d be following the same course as Dawkins, as much as I’d like to see the guy in jail too. It most emphatically does not mean that there is more to the story. Frankly, I’m impressed that it’s going this far – the vast majority of employee fraud or embezzlement are NEVER taken to either court. Usually the employee is terminated without a reference and never reported at all.

It happens. All charities and foundations have to deal with this and as new comers we can’t expect to have everything magically work out for us. However noble our ideals and goals might be they can’t shield us from something everyone has to deal with.

Hopefully everyone learns from this and, if Mr. (not sure what to address him as anymore) Dawkins allegations are true, the stolen money is returned and goes to some worthy cause.

In The God Delusion, he denies any role for genetic drift in evolution.

Having read The God Delusion, and several of Dawkin’s other works, that doesn’t strike me as likely.

@G. Shelley: The exact words are something like “there is much debate over whether genetic drift has any role in evolution”, as a casual dismissal followed by him pretty much dismissing it in favur of a natural-selection-only view. I think it’s chapter… maybe 2-4 I don’t have my copy to hand, and am not sure if I still own it, to be honest, since I was so disgusted by that bit. It was simply insane.

Should read “pretty much dismissing it completely in favour of a natural-selection-only view”.

Perhaps it can be argued that he just over-simplifies for the general public. However, given how much space he gives to off-topic musings in every book, I think he could have managed somewhere to fit in a brief statement about genetic drift’s role, as has been known since 1920s studies that lead to the modern synthesis.

Adam C, are you talking about this?

“Biologists acknowledge that a gene may spread through a population not because it is a good gene but simply because it is a lucky one. We call this genetic drift. How important it is vis-a-vis natural selection has been controversial. But it is now widely accepted in the form of the so-called neutral theory of molecular genetics. If a gene mutates to a different version of itself which has an identical effect, the difference is neutral, and selection cannot favour one or the other. Nevertheless, by what statisticians call sampling error over generations, the new mutant form can eventually replace the original form in the gene pool. This is a true evolutionary change at the molecular level (even if no change is observed in the world of whole organisms). It is a neutral evolutionary change that owes nothing to selective advantage.”

What is it about this that strikes you as nonsense/nuts/insane/disgusting?

Embezzlement and fraud can be a problem for any organization. I’ve heard a few stories from family members who work with small/medium-sized businesses; one story involved a sum similar to that in the OP. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of doctors are defrauded by their bookkeepers.

For all we know Dawkins has filed a report with the police. Considering that they probably received the report recently I do not find it all that surprising that they have not had time to take any action yet.

It’s not just skeptical organizations – Embezzlement is probably the number one Church-related crime as well .

And schools, especially PTAs and the like.

Something more than meets the eye appears to be going on here.

Do we really need to start speculating about possible conspiracies on the basis that there have been no arrests? Then again, there was the whole authorship of some articles on RD’s site changing authorship from Timonen to RDF and back to Timonen after Tmonen pointed it out in his blog post (he posted a google cache to prove it). Still, that’s no reason to start thinking in terms of conspiracies.

I mean, Dawkins has showered so much praise onto Timonen, even dedicating his latest book to him, and jumping rather ferociously to his defense when the forums were shut down. I think it’s safe to say that for Dawkins to have so suddenly turned around and sued Timonen there has to be a very good reason, especially seeing as how it threatens to reflect poorly on atheists as whole (even though it of course shouldn’t).

A situation tangentially ‘like’ this is a reason I had nothing to do with atheist organizations for a couple of years (to the point where Im still wary of even subscribing to the big groups magazines).

The ‘best’ cure Ive seen is to have division and overlap of responsibilities. No one person ever is 100% in charge of any one thing.

We have this with OKC Atheists (along with regular elections), and when I spoke at the TX Freethought Convention, I had no less than six people double-check that I had been paid (I didnt know I was going to get paid anything. someone could have just pocketed the cash and no one would have been the wiser).

Not everybody gets satisfaction knowing that a person is in prison. I haven’t had a large sum of money stolen from me, but I think I’d be a lot more interested in getting money back and a lot less interested in jail time for the thief.

I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find that a significant percentage of humanists wouldn’t be interested in pushing for criminal charges. (Obviously, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago doesn’t share this view)

Mark P.:

And schools, especially PTAs and the like.

And museums: Woman Sentenced For Embezzling Money From Bellevue Museum.

I have helped audit a PTA, and another group… both were very painful, but necessary. I am presently a treasurer for a parent group, and it would be incredibly easy to skim off some of the donations. Though with the total funds being less than a thousand dollars, it is not worth it … and it is not in my nature (I actually kick in my own money to bring amounts like $21.45 to $25).

I don’t have much to say on the topic in general, but am I the only one who finds it weird that the complaint not only mentions that Timonen’s girlfriend is “significantly older”, but puts it in scare quotes?

I don’t have much to say on the topic in general, but am I the only one who finds it weird that the complaint not only mentions that Timonen’s girlfriend is “significantly older”, but puts it in scare quotes?

It might be an actual quotation, though it hardly seems relevant either way.

The allegedly embezzled sum was $375,000. However, RD is demanding $950,000 plus punitive damages.

I’m on the board of a local charity. When I was elected for the board I asked several questions including when the last financial audit was. It was ten years previously, just before the board’s treasurer was elected. I strongly recommended the board have an audit done immediately if not sooner. The only one not in favor of this was the treasurer. As might be expected, she was skimming several thousand dollars per year from an organization which was just scraping by.

No criminal charges were filed but after the civil case she ended up owing almost $100 thousand in restitution. Plus we have annual audits by an accounting firm.

#33 wotty: It is pretty much standard practice to sue for more than was embezzled, to cover court costs and compensate for damage to reputation, lost time, and of course (in a charity’s case) the loss of many potential donors. The court does not have to award all that was asked for afaik– they can settle on a number in-between.

And I did not know he was American. Being an international case will indeed complicate things.

For those of you who don’t insist on regular audits.

I’m remotely affiliated with a nonprofit that hadn’t made sure to spread the auditing and oversight responsibilities around properly. Luckily all that happened was that some filings got missed and everything was quickly, and fairly cheaply cleaned up. Unfortunately a huge amount of stress was involved, people blew up at each-other and friendships were strained. As nasty as it felt from the inside it was about as good as it gets when external, paid, auditors aren’t used.

“but these issues with skeptical organizations seem to go beyond just that. Or is this just a problem with nonprofits in general?”

I would say that embezzlement or other issues are most definitely not unique to skeptical organizations – any one can be vulnerable to that sort of thing if they don’t think to implement proper oversight from the outset.

I know the church I attend audits the books more or less annually (I can’t quite confirm this as I can’t stand going to the annual Vestry meetings where the finances/budget are discussed) via an independent auditor.

And the problem doesn’t have to be embezzlement, of course. You could run into trouble if the person put in charge of the finances turns out to be incompetent at the tasks involved, no matter how likeable or trustworthy he or she is, or how competent in other fields.

“6

Josh has joined the RationalSkepticism.org forum, which was set up in response to the demise of the old RDF forum. A thread about this topic in which Josh is currently active can be found here; http://www.rationalskepticism.org/news-politics/dawkins-sues-josh-timonen-t14455.html

Posted by: HughMcB | October 24, 2010 1:12 PM”

Well, following your link we discover that:

“MODNOTE
Members please be advised that joshtimonen joined as a member here during the course of this thread and he is therefore now protected under the Forum Users Agreement.”

Which agreement states:

“You may not:

* Start critical threads about other members”

Nice web forum. All you have to do to preclude negative threads is to join and you are magically insulated from criticism. Maybe the Catholic Church should join? And Mike Adams? And…well, with such a stupid policy I can’t really think of “RationalSkepticim.org” as worthy of its name. Skepticism that applies only to non-members–a move right out of the crank playbook.

But, as to the OP here, it think it is silly to lump your dislike of Dawkins support for Bill Maher with his organization allegedly being a victim of criminal embezzlement. It is a non sequitur. You are basically saying you don’t like the guy thus anything bad that happens to his organization is somehow related–but it isn’t. I think you would rightly tear apart anybody who tried such a feeble connection for their own purposes.

#33 wotty: It is pretty much standard practice to sue for more than was embezzled, to cover court costs and compensate for damage to reputation, lost time, and of course (in a charity’s case) the loss of many potential donors. The court does not have to award all that was asked for afaik– they can settle on a number in-between.

I’d sure bloody hope it costs more than simple restitution. If not, then basically there is no penalty for getting caught.

“You don’t get to keep the money you stole” is not a penalty. It is the obvious starting point. A penalty means it actually costs the perp something, as opposed to just not getting to keep the booty.

Meh, sorry, but really, who effing cares?
T’aint medicine, t’aint rational thinking. t’aint anything but a spat.
Why are you bothering with this?

One other possible reason for Dawkins selecting civil court rather than criminal court (and, as others have noted, it’s possible that criminal proceedings could still happen) is that he may be hoping to persuade Timonen to settle out of court with the threat of a civil trial. Even a civil court would end better for Timonen than a criminal one, despite the higher standard of evidence — it doesn’t look good on employment applications when you have to say “yes” when asked if you have ever been charged with a felony.

Pablo: not getting to keep the money is a nice thought, but sadly, often impractical. It is very rare for an embezzler to still have the money to return; the majority spend it immediately. Efforts can be made to recover it, but these efforts are themselves costly, and there is no guarantee that the recipients of the stolen money will be persuaded to give it up. Here in Minnesota, the Tom Petters case (massive financial fraud case) has been particularly painful for the many charities that he gave generously to. This one investigator has had the unpleasant job of calling up each of those charities and asking them to return the money. Some have been able to; most have already spent it, and since they had no way of knowing it was the proceeds of a Ponzi scheme, it’s hard to fault them for it and punish their worthy causes.

Full restitution in many of these cases is simply not possible. It’s worse when the thief turns out to be a compulsive gambler; the money pretty much evaporates at that point, and the only way they can hope to repay is to work to earn the money back, and if they’ve stolen more than a few thousand, their odds of that are poor at best — especially as they may now have a felony conviction for a financial crime. Who wants to hire somebody who stole huge amounts of money from his last employer?

And of course there’s interest that the money could have been earning if the legitimate owner had received it… the money being paid back has lost value due to inflation and so it should be a larger amount just to be equivalent to what was stolen—to say nothing of punitive damages. Perhaps the girlfriend might be forced to contribute some of the profit from her renovated house if someone can prove that it was renovated with profit from a crime.

In non-profits you tend to get a lot of work done by volunteers or people working for less money than they normally would get paid. This means you generally get a few people doing a lot of the work. It makes it easier to embezzle. Also I think (but have no evidence) that perhaps people feel more entitled to the money, feeling that since they are giving their time to the organisation without pay or for less than their time is worth that it balances out somewhat.

Dawkins has made it clear that he does not agree with Maher’s views. How often do we see scientists working with religious people who support their cause but have bizarre anti-science beliefs in other areas. Very few of those scientists are so upfront about. I know Dawkins award was for science but how many awards for science has Francis Collins won? How many of those people who introduced him made a point to disagree with his view that humans could not have evolved without god?

I’m not saying you are wrong just be aware that the choices available are that we avoid giving out accolades to those who hold unscientific beliefs (which means most religious scientists are out) or we acknowledge them but maintain clearly that the scientific community disagrees with these people. Those who oppose giving the award to Bill Maher but don’t have a problem with giving awards to religious people particularly when their bizarre beliefs are not questioned are being philosophically inconsistent.

Tort:

[H]ow many awards for science has Francis Collins won? How many of those people who introduced him made a point to disagree with his view that humans could not have evolved without god?

As far as I know, atheism was not a criterion for any of the numerous awards that Collins has won, but promoting “increased scientific knowledge” is a criterion for the Dawkins Award. I submit that despite his evangelical beliefs Collins has a record of doing lots of good science over the years. Maher, despite his on-again off-again atheism (perhaps anti-religionism is a better label) has a record of promoting medical misinformation and quackery.

For Orac and myself, good science is the primary concern; for others in the skeptical movement, atheism appears to be the primary concern, to the point of making excuses for irrational people like Bill Maher. Orac and I are in the minority, I fear, and I don’t think that bodes well for the future of the skeptical movement.

It’s pretty much standard in charitable organisations – including many churches, and also apparently the RDF – to operate on trust, because you share a common aim to which you are committed. And sometimes this will break down, particularly if remuneration arrangements are not clear.

If I read it right, Richard Dawkins handed over the running of the commercial arm of the RDF to Josh Timonen because, as a UK charity, the RDF was not permitted to have a commercial arm, with the understanding that JT would hand back the profits as a charitable donation.

If this arrangement was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ rather than an official one, and if the nature of the alleged embezzlement is that JT didn’t give as large a donation out of the earnings he generated as was expected, it may be hard to demonstrate that he owes this amount.

I’m not saying you are wrong just be aware that the choices available are that we avoid giving out accolades to those who hold unscientific beliefs (which means most religious scientists are out) or we acknowledge them but maintain clearly that the scientific community disagrees with these people. Those who oppose giving the award to Bill Maher but don’t have a problem with giving awards to religious people particularly when their bizarre beliefs are not questioned are being philosophically inconsistent.

As Pieter says, atheism was not a criteria for any of the awards Collins has won.
It is absolutely not philosophically inconsistent to oppose giving a science and atheism award to an atheist who actively opposes real medical science, while accepting that a well respected scientist who has actively contributed to science deserves a scientific award which refers not at all to either atheism nor philosophical naturalism.

I like Richard Dawkins, although I may not always agree with him on everything. I’m often amused by Bill Maher, although I don’t agree with him much at all, and think some of his opinions are wrong to the point of dangerousness.
Finally, I know next to nothing of the accused in this case, and so I really have to say that, while the little I’ve heard of him is negative, I really cannot form an opinion at this time. I guess I’ll wait and see.

Nice web forum. All you have to do to preclude negative threads is to join and you are magically insulated from criticism. Maybe the Catholic Church should join? And Mike Adams? And…well, with such a stupid policy I can’t really think of “RationalSkepticim.org” as worthy of its name. Skepticism that applies only to non-members–a move right out of the crank playbook.

That was probably added to prevent people from starting threads that are nothing but bitchfests.
I think you are taking the interpretation of that rule much too literally and you expanded on it way too much.
Besides, you can make a thread critical of someone’s ideas and actions without being directly critical of that person. (Even though I feel connecting those actions directly to the perpetrator of said actions is totally fair)

Peter B:
Thankyou for proving my point, I actually was a bit worried posting this because I haven’t heard Orac make the bad science argument I talked about and though I had heard it before I didn’t have a link handy to show that I was not making a straw man argument.

If you actually opposed bad science, then you should oppose giving Francis Collins an award for the promotion of science (I don’t actually know whether he has won any) because he is promoting bad science, the example I gave (though there are others) is that the evolution of humans required divine intervention. That is bad science. I’m not saying only give science awards to atheists, I’m saying religion is not a defence to making a bad scientific claim.

I agree that Dawkins has put atheism ahead of medical science here. I think he is entitled to, as long as he is clear about it and he has been. What I am saying is that the two choices you have are:

1. Exclude those who push unscientific views
2. Allow them to be recognised for their work in some areas (Maher does a lot for atheism) but be clear about what you disagree with

Those are the choices, you don’t get a special allowance for religion or any other craziness you have a soft spot for. The problem I have had with this is that while I do disagree with Dawkins and giving the award to Maher it’s a personal preference of mine. He is still being intellectually honest, many of the people who I have argued with about this have been quite happy to differentiate bad science based on religious belief and that is not intellectually honest.

His name’s Pieter B and he proved nothing about your point.

You said nothing about “giving Francis Collins an award for the promotion of science”, you said “how many awards for science has Francis Collins won?”

That’s for “science”, not “the promotion of science”. Undeniably Francis Collins has done a lot of “science” and deserved his awards, whatever you think about his religious views.

The only person giving a special allowance for anything here is you when you try to equivocate between Maher winning an award he only half-qualified for and Collins winning awards he actually deserved. Presumably because you support Maher’s non-wacky views.

First off I’d like to apologise to Pieter B for my typo, in this I’m genuine although there is a fair amount of sarcasm to come.

Ender, wonderful.
I notice you didn’t address the point and accused me of being a cancer quack, truly a crapulent performance. I talked about the philosophical difficulties surrounding Maher, you decided that therefore I must hold his views, either this is because you believe people only hold philosophical positions when they agree with the person they are defending or you are just being an arsehole. Actually scratch that you’re acting like an arsehole either way.

My point stands either way whether giving an award in general for science or for the promotion of science. I did a quick google search, we can pick his National Medal of Science for biology. I’m happy to give him this award provided we say that some of his views particularly on evolution of humans and abiogenesis are not supported by science. They are directly applicable to the award. If you want to be intellectually honest, if you want to be philosophically consistent and your reason for saying Maher should not win an award for science because of his promotion of unscientific views then you have to oppose that and other awards given to Collins and other religious kooks.

@Tort: Ender suggested you agree with Maher’s non-wacky views. Quackery is among Maher’s wacky views.

You’re right I misread that, sorry. I still stand on the point that if you only only hold a philosophical position when you agree with the person you are defending then you are an arsehole.

Newton was perhaps the greatest polymath that ever lived but he wrote more words in his role as a theologan than he did as a natural philosopher. The fact that he claimed “Jesus was sent to Earth to operate the levers of gravity” or the fact he wrote almost a million words on the numerology of 666 does not detract one iota from his achivements. The principa is, and will remain, one of the greatest intellectual feats of all time.

Dawkins is not in the same league as Newton but the same principle applies, nothing he does will change the fact that “the selfish gene” will remain a classic piece of scientific litrature for generations to come. Nothing he does will make “Unweaving the rainbow” less of an eye-opener to people who believe the feeling of religious awe is something only religious people can feel. Some other great works from Dawkins include, Climbing mount improbable and The blind watchmaker, every one of his books are brilliant examples of scientfic communicator in the tradition of Sagan, Bronowski, Feynman, et al.

Sure Dawkins has his faults and foibles as we all do. But before you write him off just because he associates with someone you don’t like, ask yourself this; how do your own achievments stack up against his?

What is it about rationalist/skeptic groups that make them seemingly have such a hard time running their organizations well from a financial standpoint? Orac

Perhaps it’s because they’re not genuinely rationalist or skeptical. Or maybe it’s because nihilism mixed with ego driven arrogance doesn’t tend to promote a sense of morality.

every one of his books are brilliant examples of scientfic communicator in the tradition of Sagan, Bronowski, Feynman, et al.

Mentioning Bronowski and Feynman along with the other two is a pretty insulting. Brownowski and Feynman never practiced evidence free science, as far as I can recall. And Feynman was, as someone recently said, only ten-times smarter than just about anyone else. Dawkins, especially, has had an unfortunate effect on biology, popularizing the introduction of the standards of the so-called sciences into what used to be a far more rigorous interpretation of actual data and physical evidence, turning it into story telling. And that practice has infected all kinds of academic fields, economics, one of the more disturbing. Though since his adaptationist religion began with Malthus, it’s a development that has some interesting features. It’s too bad that modern evolutionary science, which lacks narrative appeal, is at a disadvantage over that story telling. It will suffer from it, which is unfortunate.

Thanks Andreas.

Tort:

I still stand on the point that if you only only hold a philosophical position when you agree with the person you are defending then you are an arsehole.

And who could disagree with that? It’s unarguable.

However, no one here is doing that.

All that has been said so far is:

Award for performing science : Collins fulfills this whatever his other beliefs are.

Award for promoting science and atheism : Maher does not fulfill this as he actively promotes pseudoscience.

You might think that awards for performing good science are in fact awards for performing good science and having the correctly vetted philosophical naturalist beliefs that are clearly not necessary for performing good science, and that no matter your scientific achievements you shouldn’t win a scientific award if you’ve also engaged in the thoughtcrime of being religious, but no-one else does. That’s stupid.

And Atheism has to do with Science Based Medicine how?

And why do science bloggers care about what Atheist Alliance International does with it’s awards?

Because Science Blogs is an atheist website with atheistic interests and an atheistic agenda. Science is a tool not a psuedoreligion whose purpose is to bash out religion through passive aggressive techniques.

I believe Harriet Hall showed the sentiments of SBMers when she said: “If science is not the best way to determine what’s moral, what is the best way?”

@Ender

What makes religion different from other pseudoscience? As far as I can see, all Tort is saying is that religion shouldn’t get a pass, which makes sense. A scientist who promotes any form of intelligent design is just as deserving of an award as someone who promotes any form of germ denialism, however deserving that those in charge determine them to be.

You could make the point that Bill Maher isn’t a scientist, and is therefore less deserving than Collins because he doesn’t actively contribute to a scientific field through published studies, but you don’t. Instead, you argue that Maher’s woo is unforgivable but Collins just doesn’t have the “correctly vetted philosophical naturalist beliefs” and is being accused of “thoughtcrime,” which is silly. Tort is just pointing out that if one is going to be accomodationist about religion, they gotta be accomodationist about any wacky, unevidenced belief held by those who are presumably helping the cause in some other way.

Anthony McCarthy, Dawkins has had a big effect on the public understanding of evolution. In terms of actual scientific research, not so much. He was never a prolific researcher and is best known for the promotion of the ideas of other scientists (notably RA Fisher). I work in genetic myself and don’t see Dawkins own research as having any major influence on the work of fellow geneticists (apart from encouraging some of them to write their own books).

Nothing makes it different mikerattlesnake, the difference is in the award:

The one Maher got was for promoting science and atheism – 50% of which he fails.

The ones Collins has got are (probably) for doing science – none of which he fails.

Tort is just pointing out that if one is going to be accomodationist about religion, they gotta be accomodationist about any wacky, unevidenced belief held by those who are presumably helping the cause in some other way

If he was doing that then he was just being silly.

No-one is suggesting that the reason Collins deserves his awards for science because we must accommodate the religious – we are saying he deserves his awards because he’s done the science!

To suggest that you do not deserve your award for ‘doing science’ when you have done the science, but also believe in God, is indeed to suggest that you don’t deserve your award for thoughtcrime.
What else but his thoughts disqualify him from the awards he deserves?

I still respect many of the things Dawkins has said, but my key problem with him is that he appears to value anti-religiousness (not just atheism) above critical thinking and science, and his anti-religiousness skews his perspective on, for lack of a better word, evil.

In the God Delusion, he pretty much states that the psychological abuse of children via religious indoctrination is a worse crime than what he seems to consider a little harmless buggery.

Sigmund, the widespread belief among non-scientists and even some scientists, that invented, explanatory myths about the entirely unobservable , entirely undocumentable, entirely unknown common behavior of our human and pre-human ancestors, is reliable enough to constitute sound science is directly attributable to Richard Dawkins. That dishonest and self-serving idea has spread, quite literally, throughout the social sciences and even into a lot of biological writing. If you doubt that it’s socially and politically effective, go read David Brooks and other right-wing pillars of Republican reaction.

I had been aware of the popularity of evidence free science among the “skeptics” and the new atheists but it wasn’t until I’d read Hawking’s latest stuff that I came to realize that it was ubiquitous. I’d known that much of the orthodoxy around cog-sci and behavioral sci constituted a kind of materialism in the gaps but I hadn’t realized how serious that problem was until just a few weeks back. I think it’s a real danger to the integrity of science and a danger to democratic politics. I’m also beginning to understand why so many of the popular figures of those fads turn out to be right wing libertarian crackpots. It’s a deeply anti-intellectual movement, in contradiction to its claims.

Many years ago, I worked for a 501(c)3 organization. One day, one of the top people in the accounting department just wasn’t there anymore. (I don’t remember if he was the comptroller or not.)

I heard via the rumor mill that he had been fired for embezzling, and that they weren’t suing because he had gambled away the money so there was no point.

What got to me is that they were also avoiding all publicity (hence, office rumor mill and I have no idea if the members were told anything). Apparently lawyers are so expensive that they had agreed to simply give him the minimal “This person was employed here in $job during these dates. Company policy is not to provide more detailed references,” leaving him free to find another job, and embezzle and gamble away more money.

@60

To make it clear: I don’t think Maher deserves the award. The point that Tort was making is that you seem to make some distinction between woo-ey beliefs and religious beliefs, and that that distinction is false.

I would agree that Maher hasn’t done the science, but mostly because he’s not a scientist or any sort of researcher, and less because he has some woo-ey beliefs. Taking it from Dawkins point of view, presumably he thinks that promoting Atheism has scientific value because there is no evidence for god any plenty of evidence for a godless universe, making “no god” the most scientific conclusion (I disagree that this merits an award for “promoting science” but generally agree with the conclusion). If this is his justification, you can’t take issue with his germ denialism (as it is in an irrelevant field) if you don’t take issue with someone in another field who does good work, but promotes religious nonsense outside of his/her work in that field.

Personally, I am critical of both religious and woo-ey folks, but I don’t think a few woo-ey/religious beliefs should disqualify anyone from this sort of award. I would argue that the stridency with which Maher pushed his particular beliefs combined with a dearth of published research disqualifies him, but the actual beliefs are no worse than religious ones.

I’ll give Maher his due for exposing Christine O’Donnell’s wackiness. Other than that, I don’t really take him seriously or think he’s especially reliable. He wouldn’t get work in network TV if he was.

I’ll wait this one out. The nice thing with US lawsuits is, we’ll see the documents the claim is based on. So we’ll see if it’s a case of “the guy embezzled the money he was supposed to raise for charity” or “the charity wrote a lousy contract that left most of the money with the fund raiser”. Since fundraisers keeping 75% of the money raised isn’t unheard off (not to say common for commercial fundraisers) we’ll have to wait for the jury.

@mikerattlesnake
That’s very interesting, but also completely unrelated to whether you can decry Maher’s Awards and accept Collins’s Awards while remaining philosophically consistent.

Which you can.

On what you said: Dawkins may well have decided that promoting Atheism was important enough that it merited throwing one of the criteria for the award under the bus, and not bothered to announce the change to the Award, but as you say, it does not change the fact that Maher was a bad choice.

I would argue that the stridency with which Maher pushed his particular beliefs combined with a dearth of published research disqualifies him, but the actual beliefs are no worse than religious ones.

Well in general… wait, what does in general mean? Fuck it, lets compare Collins and Maher.

Collins: Believes in and practices good science except he believes in a Creator God

Maher: Believes in good science except where he advocates wholesale skepticism of ‘Western’ medicine, acceptance of pseudoscientific pseudomedicine, and other anti-scientific beliefs.

Well, Maher’s definitely not as bad as a creationist, but he’s a whole lot worse than Collins, and anyone else who accepts all current science but also believes in a God.

Simply put –

A belief in a God that does not contradict science = less bad than Belief in pseudoscience that does contradict science.

For Orac and myself, good science is the primary concern; for others in the skeptical movement, atheism appears to be the primary concern…Orac and I are in the minority, I fear, and I don’t think that bodes well for the future of the skeptical movement.

Agreed on both points.

The one Maher got was for promoting science and atheism – 50% of which he fails.

I’ve never really enjoyed Maher. But to be fair, he has promoted science in many areas: evolution, 911 conspiracy, etc. Medical quackery seems to be his only failing. I’ll grant you it’s a BIG failing, and I’m not excusing it. But human nature being what it is, if we only give awards to people everyone agrees are 100% rational 100% of the time, it’ll be a pretty short list of awardees.

As for the embezzlement story, as has been pointed out, it’s far from uncommon in the non-profit world.

I don’t know WScott, would you give a humanitarian award to someone who has promoted peace and harmony in over twenty countries, except for the Congo where they promoted wholesale slaughter and rape?

Medical science is a huge part of science, and if you fail at that you can’t possibly hold yourself up as a supporter of “Science”.

Maher is an easy call. He is not a skeptic, he’s a contrarian, whose opposition to authority is on automatic pilot.

@ender

But “science” is a huge field. If we assume that Dawkins gives award for promoting specific kinds of science and not science in general and that he considers promotion of atheism to be a scientific endeavor, that’s enough for Maher to meet the criteria. A religious scientist who makes great strides in physics, but is an avowed creationist still could deserve a “science” award, though I’d definitely want it worded more specifically.

Shorter: I disagree with Maher getting any science awards, but I also disagree with your compartmentalizing of religion and woo as two seperate entities. In other words, Collins is more deserving of an award because of degree, not type, of woo.

Woo. Such a useful word if you don’t really care about intellectual honesty. Is M-theory “woo”?

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