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Bill Maher Followup

by Steven Novella, Oct 12 2009

If you peruse skeptical blogs you are probably familiar with the recent controversy over giving the Richard Dawkins award to Bill Maher by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). To summarize, the AAI decided to recognize Bill Maher with their award named after Dr. Dawkins. The award is for:

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

The part that caused controversy was the bit about “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” A number of skeptics (Orac, I think, was most verbose)  had a problem with this because Bill Maher is an advocate for medical pseudoscience. He does not believe in vaccines, he denigrates “western medicine” as a scam, and he has a problem with germ theory.

On Josh Timonen gave was appears to be the official defense of the decision:

Whilst Richard was not involved in the decision, he is nevertheless happy to go along with it. Just as he worked with Bishop Harries to protest against creationist schools in the UK, and just as he regularly recommends Kenneth Miller’s books on evolution to religious people, he understands that it is not a prerequisite to agree with a person on all issues in order to unite in support of a common objective. Richard and Christopher Hitchens don’t see eye to eye on all political matters, but that doesn’t stop them from working together against the dangers of religion. Honoring the creation of ‘Religulous’ does not imply endorsement of all of Bill Maher’s other views, and does not preclude Richard’s arguing against them on future occasions. It is simply showing proper appreciation of his brilliant film.

This misses the point, in my opinion. If the award were solely for Religulous, and that were clear, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with it. But the award specifically cites “science” as a necessary criterion for the award. Giving the Richard Dawkins Award to Maher was the equivalent of giving a prominent advocate of creationism and intelligent design a science award because of their opposition to the 911 truther movement. I suspect that such a decision would not sit well with Richard Dawkins and some others who were perceived to be soft on AAI’s decision. The analogies to Miller and Hitchens are not apt – Maher is so far outside the scientific mainstream on medicine that it is incongruous to give him any science award.

I did not attend the AAI conference, but reports from those who did say that Dawkins, in introducing Maher, took care to criticize his views on medicine. PZ Myers writes:

The good news for all the critics of this choice is that Dawkins pulled no punches. In his introduction, he praised Religulous and thanked Maher for his contributions to freethought, but he also very clearly and unambiguously stated that some of his beliefs about medicine were simply crazy. He did a good job of walking a difficult tightrope; he made it clear that the award was granted for some specific worthy matters, his humorous approach to religion, while carefully dissociating the AAI from any endorsement of crackpot medicine. It won’t be enough, I know, but the effort was made, and talking to Dawkins afterwards there was no question but that Maher’s quackery was highly objectionable. I also got the impression that he felt the critics of the award were making good and reasonable points, and that he felt the awkwardness of the decision.

This can be seen as recognition by Dawkins that there were problems with the award. I can only assume that this was specifically in response to criticism about giving Maher the award, since when Dawkins was first asked about the decision he simply said that he was not aware of Maher’s views on medicine.

In the final analysis, the problem that many of us have with Maher getting the award is that the totality of his views clearly indicates that Maher is not a rationalist. Because his religious views happen to coincide with those of the AAI does not mean that his views stem from a rational or scientific worldview. In my opinion, AAI simply got snookered. They focused on one aspect of Maher’s opinions, ignored the big picture, and in the end gave a science award to a pseudoscientist.

We will get past this, but it is a sore spot that will continue to ache, because Maher is not going away. Every time he spouts his nonsense about medicine it will cut a little deeper. He is still at it – take a look at this recent interview with Bill Frist.

Frist is a doctor who has apparently kept up with the literature, and he seems to know what he is talking about. Although I have criticized Frist in the past for putting his own ideology ahead of science on the Terry Schiavo case. But in this interview, Frist was the side of reason. Maher repeated his denigration of “western” medicine.

He also gets his facts wrong – he quotes Jonas Salk about the risks of live virus vaccines, without pointing out that the flu vaccine injections he is referring to are dead virus vaccines. Maher further argues that the flu vaccine does not work, when the data say otherwise. Here is an excellent review by Mark Crislip. The bottom line is that the flu vaccine works, but it is not perfect, and the primary problem (which Maher did get right sort of – it seems he can know the facts when it suits him) is that the flu strains are constantly evolving.

Maher also downplays the risks of the H1N1 pandemic. Here he is simply wrong – while H1N1 is not any more risky overall than the regular seasonal flu (which kills 36,000 people a year in the US alone), it kills more young healthy adults and pregnant women. Maher was telling pregnant women not to get vaccinated – Maher’s advice kills.

And that leads us back to the specific reason why many of us had a problem with the AAI award – it adds to the reputation of a medical crank who is using his celebrity to harm the public health (not intentionally, but that is irrelevant).  There is direct harm in Maher’s medical views, and to me that trumps any other view he might have.

39 Responses to “Bill Maher Followup”

  1. Thomas Nickledock says:

    In a just world, Maher would get sick so he’d have to choose between casting off his silly views and dying young.

  2. “In a just world, Maher would get sick so he’d have to choose between casting off his silly views and dying young”

    However in this world, if Maher contracts the flu (H1N1-2009 or regular seasonal) he will likely attribute it to his falling short of a proper lifestyle practice. He’ll probably claim he ate some non-“organic” food, inhaled someone’s secondhand smoke, or drank tap water, or otherwise ingesting some evil toxins that made him sick.

    The woo-meisters are pretty consistent in the view that when their health regimens/protocols don’t work, it’s because you either didn’t follow them closely enough (and they’re often so complex or rigid that nobody can follow them), or you didn’t believe in them strongly enough for the mind-body aspects to have an effect. (You didn’t have enough faith, you’ve got to have faith!)

    • Brian M says:

      Reminds me of how theists set up a win-win situation. If you are sick (or otherwise in a bad situation), pray for jesus to solve your problems. If your problem is solved, it was jesus. If it wasn’t solved, then you didn’t pray hard enough…

      Too bad us rationalists cannot set this kind of BS up. I guess we are all just too smart for that crap.

    • Max says:

      The woo-meisters are pretty consistent in the view that when their health regimens/protocols don’t work, it’s because you either didn’t follow them closely enough, or you didn’t believe in them strongly enough for the mind-body aspects to have an effect.

      That’s what they tell their followers, but if the woo-meisters themselves get sick, would they admit to not following their own regimens?

      Here’s how Suzanne Somers reacted to her diagnosis of breast cancer.,,20134247,00.html

      Somers at first desperately wanted to make sense of her illness. “Health and fitness and strength are my life,” she says. “I eat well, I don’t drink caffeine, I’ve never smoked, I’ve always exercised. I kept looking at myself and thinking, ‘How could I look so healthy?’ ” Then she realized, “I could guess until the day I die and never have an answer.” And so she stopped asking, “Why me?” and started thinking, “What now?”

  3. Carl says:

    As I blogged about, Maher’s work on Religulous is really identical to Ben Stein’s on Expelled. He’s ideology-driven and not a thinker, and perfectly willing to deceive if it helps his cause.

    • Max says:

      It’s also similar to Borat in that Maher is an entertainer who’s there to deliver his punchline and cut to the next scene.

  4. Beelzebud says:

    This is also where I part ways with Maher. He’s good on a lot of issues, but his advocacy of quack medicine makes me roll my eyes in disgust.

  5. I think it’s correct for skeptics to consider Maher a pseudoscientist. His views on medicine are clearly contrary to the best available medical science — a field he has no qualifications to critique.

    But this only highlights other fractures within the skeptical community. Without wishing to derail this thread, I raise a question (for discussion elsewhere):

    If we must denounce Maher for his pseudoscience, what is the appropriate response toward skeptics who (without relevant peer reviewed publications or qualifications) reject the best available science on climate?

    • While I don’t want to pull the “No True Scottsman” gambit,I would say that there’s a difference between a rational skeptic and a denialist

    • Max says:

      I agree with Steve that “There is direct harm in Maher’s medical views, and to me that trumps any other view he might have.”

      Climate skeptics don’t cause direct harm. There’s no law against practicing climate forecasting without a license.

      • Max says:

        Climate skeptics don’t cause direct harm.

        Maher merely encourages wrong beliefs that have a cost measurable in human suffering. Again, not to take this thread too far off topic, but encouraging wrong beliefs about climate change likewise has a cost measurable in human suffering.

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        Your comparison isn’t remotely apt, Daniel. I see what you’re trying to do, but Maher isn’t merely rejecting medical science and incurring a “cost measurable in human suffering.” He is actively promoting dangerous quackery.

        If you want to compare this situation to climatology, a mere global warming skeptic doesn’t cut it. You’d need someone who thinks emitting greenhouse gases and cutting down forests *helps* the environment and is thus *good*. You’re selling Maher’s nonsense short.

        So, to answer your question: yes, if the skeptical community encounters a villain from the Captain Planet cartoon, we ought to denounce him.

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        You’d need someone who thinks emitting greenhouse gases and cutting down forests *helps* the environment and is thus *good*.

        There actually are well-funded people who literally campaign for us to “Contact your Senator and Congressman today, and remind them that CO2 is not pollution—and more CO2 results in a greener Earth.”

        (Only time will tell the full human cost of climate change denial or the promotion of quackery. In my opinion, climate change is likely to come with a higher toll.)

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        If someone associated with that website receives an award somehow related to science, then I think there ought to be backlash from the skeptical community. Do you disagree?

  6. claude says:

    I was there and felt Dawkins response and indtroduction cleared the matter up quite nicely. With that said, Mahr is in the business of controversy. If we hold so tightly to our own beliefs or non beliefs what does this make us? Is there no room to step outside our box. I get it the fact that some of Mahrs beliefs are quite wrong and quite dangerous but is there a chance that he may review those beliefs now that he has full recognition of the Atheist community. Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the outcome is it up to Bill Mahr to decide. In the end I felt it was a good decision to award him and I have doubt next years receipent will most likely be a lot less controverisal.

    • I doubt Maher will change his views at all unless anti-science becomes mainstream. He’s been presented with the facts time and time again; it would be sad if he changed his mind only due to popular opinion rather than factual information.

      Should anti-science become mainstream, his natural, blind contrarian, anti-establishment tendencies might kick in, like they have with the HPV vaccine.

  7. Cambias says:

    When Maher slings insults at conservatives or religious people, he’s clever, hilarious, a genius. When he does the same thing to scientists and doctors . . . all of a sudden he’s not so funny? Maybe he’s really a jerk and an idiot all the time, even when he says things you agree with.

    • Eternally Learning says:

      It’s not how he says these things that we have the problem with, it’s what he’s saying. He is praised for the way he says things because he is very effective in getting his points across. That is why it is so dangerous for him to be spouting out his dogmatic quackery, he says it in much the same manner in which he says other things that are rational.

  8. AwedCoupleMo says:

    I used to argue constantly with an old friend of mine about numerous topics. He was pretty much a true believer in every conspiracy theory and pseudoscientific aspect of medicine, nutrition, etc. The one area where we agreed was that we were both atheists. Frankly, that was of little or no consolation to me. He was my first clear example of the notion that it doesn’t matter what you believe as much as how and why you believe.

    Who knows why Maher holds such clearly irrational beliefs about medicine and nutrition? Is he an overall rational person who has this small corner of his worldview as an anomoly? Is he a bit of a sheep who is influenced by certain hipsters with whom he runs? Is he an example of the partitioning of the mind? Who really knows?

    I thought Religulous was pretty good for what it was, but I don’t think it warranted staining the AAI with having given Maher recognition. The Skeptic/Atheist “movement” already has enough intellectually lazy, group-think douchebags, who would rather drink skeptically than think skeptically, that we don’t need to further our own damage in perception by swinging from Maher’s nuts.

  9. aaron says:

    No one last year reached more people with the rational message of this godless world we inhabit then him…

  10. MadScientist says:

    I’m no fan of Bill Maher, but if we took that sort of attitude with awards, no one will ever receive an award because we’ll always find some excuse not to hand out the award. The award is more about being non-theist and the “advocates increased scientific knowledge” seems to be a newspeak afterthought. I would imagine when that was phrased the notion of “increased scientific knowledge” was fairly narrow (mostly evolution + some basic geology to counter creationist claims) and not medicine etc. If anything the organization should choose its wording more carefully since the likes of Maher certainly don’t encourage increased scientific knowledge with their anti-medicine bullshit. I really have no idea why Orac has his panties in such a knot though.

  11. Jerry Schwarz says:

    I don’t fault the AAI for giving Maher the award. They are basically a single issue organization and Maher’s movie furthered their cause. As an atheist myself I don’t object to their pursuing it. In my dream world there wouldn’t be religion or pseudoscience. But if given the choice between eliminating religion and eliminating pseudoscience, I would prefer to eliminate pseudoscience in general and medical quackery in particular. So I join and support organizations with that aim.

    Some day a skeptic organization may give an award to some religious person who has furthered our cause. It is conceivable, for example, that Francis Collins might fight to eliminate NCCAM.   And if he did so he would deserve every award that skeptic organizations have to bestow.

    • MadScientist says:

      Good point. In other fields, religious people are often our greatest allies in organizations such as Americans United. Going back to Maher’s movie, I choose not to watch it because of his active support for quackery but I’m not going to be howling and telling other people they shouldn’t watch it because I choose not to. Mel Gibson movies are also off my list since he hates all jews for no good reason; some of my jewish friends think I’m weird because they’ll still watch a Gibson movie while I won’t (and I’m not even a jew).

  12. Cambias says:

    If a person’s other beliefs don’t matter, then why not give the award to al-Qaeda? They’ve done a lot to fight Christianist nonsense. Sure, they believe in some other nonsense of their own, but that doesn’t matter, right?

    • MadScientist says:

      Read the blurb – the award is for promoting “non-theism”, not hatred or anti-christianity.

  13. Alex says:

    As a resident of Tennessee I am very disappointed in Mr Frist. He was totally insane as a senator, and now he’s become awesome. Is there something in the air in the capitol? The water? As soon as he left he became a normal intelligent human being.

    • Charles L Davis Jr says:

      Alex: In a word…politics. Many are the politicians that have left office and had a seeming change of heart when all the while they were mearly being silent while in government service. Dr Frist, as he chose to be called that night, was a surprise to me…but only because I knew of him as a Senator. I was not surprised to hear a medical professional…like myself…call Bill on his quackery. The old saying is that politics makes strange bedfellows. I am glad Bill got the award…I like Bill but he, like Glenn Beck or Rush, is an entertainer first and foremost. Same as Ben Stein, same as Jon Stewart or a host of others. I think Bill would be amused that people would be tuning into his blatantly leftist show for medical advice…I just don’t think his core demographic would be persuaded much…I like to think they are smarter than that…like you or I. Frist’s appearance reminded me not to assume everyone in Washington is an a-hole, though some are to be sure, on all sides of the aisle. Politics is an ugly business at best and corrupts the best of men and women right down to their cores. No one is going to base policy on Bill Maher’s thoughts, even if some are quite beguiling. All the best to a southern brother (sister?) in the Volunteer State. PS the leftist crack is not meant as a dig…just a statement of fact.

  14. Luke Vogel says:

    Now you’ve done it Novella! You’re picking on the wrong crowed. Soon you will find yourself labeled an “accomodationist”, “apologist” or told you are “an atheist, but…”.

    Since it has been said and defended vigorously lately that “science can study the supernatural” by the same “vociferous atheist”, do you really expect a respect for science and reason to extend throughout, well, science and reason?

    I’ve already dropped thinking of myself as a Humanist (due to the cowardliness and greed that usurped skepticism towards claims made “for atheism” the past couple years), Skeptics, especially ones who should know better such as Shermer have also shown a lack of fortitude to focus on the irrationality coming from our “own camp”, so that’s not a title I wear either anymore. The incessant whining about being told to “shut up” will undoubtedly come your way, Novella.

  15. Kitapsiz says:

    H1N1 argument by Bill Maher … “let’s try ‘Who Cares’ for $1000, Alex!”

    Maher is an idiot of cosmic proportions; those who listen to him and believe him, must therefore be at an even lower level of intelligence to accept him as an authority. Hopefully, those people encounter H1N1.

    As for the hubbub about this virus, it’s just garbage. It isn’t nearly the worst, nor is it the last, nor does it matter so much as long as people are still irresponsible with their bodies.

    Not withstanding, human population reduction is a positive. We need a good global viral outbreak, it’s good for the species as a whole.

    • aaron says:

      I hate the idea of a ‘good global virus’… Its a terrible idea unless you would like you and your friends and family to be be the first victims. Better still, wish death on noone.

      • Kitapsiz says:


        As if there is any choice in the matter. It will happen at some point, else, history has never repeated.

        Those who can’t sustain will fall, it is merely a matter of percentages of gene expression.

        Choice is not an option, and population reduction is a positive occurrence.

    • Max says:

      “We need a good global viral outbreak, it’s good for the species as a whole.”

      Yeah man, without a global viral outbreak, we’ll have problems like a global viral outbreak.

  16. Luke Vogel says:

    BTW, here’s video of Dawkins making the presentation to Maher (a hero of freethought indeed).

    He slightly mentions “disagreeing” with Maher over “medical matters”. He then goes on about the award doesn’t mean he would have to agree with Maher on everything, then using an example of Hitchens’ support of the Iraq war.

    So maybe P.Z. Myers can support his contention of what Dawkins said by noting; “but he also very clearly and unambiguously stated that some of his beliefs about medicine were simply crazy.”

    Not quite P.Z., and like Timonen, this stuff gets fluffed over (all while claiming your holding others feet to the fire) at a terrible expense. How does what Maher has said on “medical matters” advocate increased scientific knowledge, why is it suck a “tightrope” Dawkins had to walk? Could he be more pc then dancing around with identifying the problem as disagreements over “medical matters”?

  17. dan felt says:

    Maher is paranoid from years of smoking weed.

  18. Chris Rowan says:

    I think Maher’s views on medicine are influenced by his PETA association.

    I also think his issue with immunizations are to do more with the additives than the actual virus injections. On that I might have to agree.

  19. Theistic Atheist says:

    On top of it all, you know what makes this award freaking hilarious? It’s main point: “The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist…”

    Medical quack or not (and he seems to be), Maher is not even a freaking atheist!!! Check out the Wikipedia bio of Bill Maher, on his views of religion. Several times, in different venues, Maher denies being an atheist, and says that he believes in some sort of vague higher power.

    The problem is that atheist organizations will seemingly take any opportunity to promote themselves, damn the facts. Since Maher has publicity, we won’t check the facts or let his non-atheism get in the way of giving him an atheist award. Unbelievable!