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An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

Posted in News by Skepdude on October 16, 2009


From Fellow Skeptic Michael Shermer
Editor of Skeptic magazine and “Skeptic” columnist for Scientific American

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 “truthers”, Obama “birthers”, and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Richard’s foundation, which promotes reason and science.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection–Alfred Russel Wallace–was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.


Bill Maher gets schooled on vaccines by Bill Frist

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on October 11, 2009

Richard Dawkins’ problem: Bill Maher

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on September 29, 2009

Richard Dawkins is in hot water! The Atheist Alliance International has an award named after him which they award during their annual conference, and its description reads like this (according to Wikipedia, I can’t find a description of the award at the AAI website at all):

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.

I was able to find this short post on the AAI website about the upcoming 2009 convention though, and from there I get this quote which seems to validate the Wikipedia entry (emphasis mine):

We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and co-producer of the 2008 documentary movie Religulous, will be in attendance Friday evening to receive the 2009 AAI Richard Dawkins Award for his efforts to further the values science and reason in the world.

The case against this nomination has been made brilliantly by Orac, and I don’t need to repeat what he said except for the main point. One of the criteria for awarding the RDA is “advocates increased scientific knowledge”. Bill Maher does the exact opposite, and not only when medical issues are involved. To this day I remember listening in horror to the podcast version of the show when he and Ashton Kutcher, I think if my memory serves me correctly, were talking crap about the NASA orbiters sent to Mars!

Newsflash AAI: Bill Maher makes no effort to “further the values of science” in the world. He does make a great effort to further atheism, but he is as anti science as!

The AAI is whoring itself for the spotlight a celebrity like Bill Maher can shine on them, and I for one, and it appears Orac also, do not support this sort of behavior.

So why is this Richard Dawkins’ problem?  Well for one, even though he did not have anything to do with the selection process, the award bares his name. Secondly, he will be there at the convention, thus lending credence to the idea that he approves of Maher as a receipient. Thirdly one only needs to look at the convention website to see Maher’s and Dawkins’ pics front and center, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation Emblema right on the website banner, almost as big as the AAI portion of the banner.

For all intents and purposes it seems clear to me that RD is not an innocent bystander, whose name was “hijacked” by the AAI. If he did not support Maher as a recipient of an award bearing his name, he would say so openly not hide behind the “I did not choose him” excuse, because that is what in reality it is. It is clear that Richard Dawkins has no problem at all with this, even if Maher most clearly makes no effort whatsoever to advance the values of science; even though Maher takes every chance to trash science and push ridiculous “holistic” treatments whenever he cans; even when Maher ridicules the Mars probes as a waste of money. I guess having a celebrity on your side is more important than being intellectually honest. Here is a telling quote from an entry on the website:

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 is a load of crap, and I call bullshit. I am disgusted to see this sort of straw man arguing on this reputable website. No one is implying that Dawkins has to agree with Maher on everything. Our argument is simple, Maher does not fulfill the criteria that the AAI itself has set up for its award recipients. Dawkins needs to acknowledge this, and not pretend he does not understand our point, or pretend that he was not aware of Maher’s anti scientific views, and, at this point when it has all been pointed out to him, ignore it completely. That is not what a man of reason does!

Also, the point about disagreeing with Hitchens on political issues is a false analogy that does not apply. We’re not saying that Dawkins needs to agree with Maher on political issues, or social issues. We’re saying that it is dishonest to endorse Maher as the recipient of an award which in part is meant to honor him for his advancement and support for science, which he most certainly lacks to the highest degree, and at the same time try to hide behind the “I did not know/ I didn’t have anything to do with this” excuse. If you knew or not, were involved or not,  is irrelevant so long as you think they did the right thing and you ignore the evidence to the contrary. If you endorse this recipient, you cannot put up this sort of defense. It is dishonest and pathetic, and we expect more from one of the most prominent public figures of our movement.

Bill Maher may be a great atheist, and may have done more than anyone alive today to advance the cause of atheism. However, either the AAI needs to change the criteria for the RD Award, or they need to retract the award from Maher. Somehow, knowing human nature, I suspect neither of these will happen. They will proudly use Maher’s name and face until they can squeeze no more publicity out of it, and keep the word “science” in their award description, because everybody knows that word is prestigious. In the mean time a dangerously misguided woo woo lover will keep on spouting anti scientific nonsense as much as he can, because hey he got an award for advancing scientific knowledge. How’s that for irony?

“Oh, come on, Superman!”: Bill Maher versus “Western medicine”

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on September 8, 2009

Skepdude says – Excellent post. Simply excellent!


I realize that I’ve spent a fair amount of verbiage (to put it mildly) expressing my frustration with celebrities whose support for pseudoscience and even outright quackery endanger public health. The two most frequent targets of the wrath, sarcasm, frustration, and puzzlement of me and my partners in crime at SBM have been Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey for their having emerged over the last two years as the most vocal celebrity faces of the anti-vaccine movement in general and the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue in particular and Oprah Winfrey for her promotion of pseudoscience, quackery, and mysticism on her show. That doesn’t even count Oprah’s inking of a development deal with Jenny McCarthy to do her own weekday talk show, which has poised McCarthy to walk in the footsteps of previous Oprah proteges, such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz. I’ve also lamented how celebrity physicians like Dr. Jay Gordon, Robert “Bob” Sears, and the hosts of the daytime TV show The Doctors have promoted, through the mantra of “balance,” anti-vaccine views in particular and pseudoscience about health in general.

As bad as celebrities such as Oprah, Jim Carrey, and Jenny McCarthy are, though, no one views them as skeptics, at least no one I know and no one in the skeptical movement. Even the reporters and newscasters who credulously interview them, I suspect, realize that Oprah, Jim, and Jenny are not exactly the most scientific of people. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years since I became more involved with the skeptical movement, it’s that being an agnostic, atheist, or skeptic is no guarantee against falling for pseudoscience. The problem is that when someone becomes associated with the skeptic movement for another reason, even if that person is a total woo-meister when it comes to medicine, they tend to be given a pass. I don’t give such people a pass because of their anti-religion views because I consider myself a skeptic and don’t really care much about religion, except when it intersects issues of science and health, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, faith healers offering prayer instead of medicine, and fundamentalists undermining the teaching of evolution. If someone who promotes pseudoscience is a prominent critic of religion, to me that makes it even worse when they spout nonsense.

I’m referring to Bill Maher, comedian and host of the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Thanks to an anti-religion movie (Religulous) and his frequent stance as a “skeptic,” many of my fellow skeptics consider him one of our own, even to the point of giving him an award named after Richard Dawkins. Yet, when it comes to medicine, nothing could be further from the truth. Maher’s own words show that he has anti-vaccine views, flirts with germ theory denialism and HIV/AIDS denialism, buys into extreme conspiracy theories about big pharma, and promotes animal rights pseudoscience. That’s not a skeptic or a supporter of science-based medicine.



Put Maher in the hot seat

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on July 23, 2009


Some people are quite rightly appalled that Bill Maher won the Richard Dawkins Award from AAI, and is at the top of the list of speakers at the AAI conference. I sympathize; Maher certainly has some wacky ideas, and I even gave him a mixed review on his movie, Religulous. (I also must repeat a clarification: the Richard Dawkins Award is not given by Richard Dawkins or the Richard Dawkins Foundation: it is an award by Atheist Alliance International, named after Richard Dawkins.)

However, let’s be clear about the obvious. He is being given this award for making a movie this year that clearly promotes atheism and mocks religion, and that’s all that is being endorsed. Not many people have done that, and it’s especially unusual in that it was a movie entirely about ridiculing religion, and it was a mainstream movie with wide circulation. That’s it. It would be difficult to ignore, and it’s something AAI would like to promote.

Let’s be clear about something else. This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. Our strategy for dealing with these ideas is the same as the scientific approach — constant, relentless criticism. There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma.


Bill Maher gets the Richard Dawkins Award? That’s like Jenny McCarthy getting an award for public health

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on July 23, 2009


Although I often don’t agree with him and have cooled on him lately, I still rather like–even admire–Richard Dawkins. While it’s true I’ve taken him to task for having a tin ear for bioethics, lamented his walking blindly right into charges of anti-Semitism(no, I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite), and half-defended/half-criticized him for seeming to endorsing eugenics. What’s really irritated me about him in the past, though, is his use of the “Neville Chamber atheist” gambit that I so detest, so much so that I once featured Dawkins in a Hitler Zombie episode (albeit not as the victim). On the other hand, I loved Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason, particularly Dawkins’ demolition of Deepak Chopra and other woo-meisters. Indeed, his explanation of the ridiculousness of the pseudoscience that is homeopathy was about as clear and visually compelling as any I’ve ever seen, and I loved how he and P.Z. Myers totally pwned the producers of Expelled! last year.

Through it all, even though I don’t always agree with Richard Dawkins mostly on matters of religion versus atheism and how to advocate for reason, I have never doubted that he is a force for reason to be reckoned with. I’ve even briefly met him, although I highly doubt that he’d remember me, my being one of dozens of people who shook his hand that day nearly two years ago in New York. There’s even an award named after him, the Richard Dawkins Award, which the Atheist Alliance awards to one person every year based on these criteria::


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.

Past recipients have included James Randi, Ann Druyan, Penn and Teller, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, all worthy recipients. 

So the other day I was rather shocked to see who the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award will be. If you read Pharyngula, you knew the answer a couple of days ago.

 Bill Maher.

 When I found this out, all I could think was: WTF?

 Let’s backtrack a minute. Longtime readers of this blog know that I do not think much of Bill Maher. Oh, sure, I find him occasionally somewhat amusing. For example, his New Rules segment is sometimes pretty funny. However I can’t really watch Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO, mainly because Maher’s smugness irritates the crap out of me. But none of that has anything to do with why I find his receiving the Richard Dawkins Award to be about as inappropriate as giving Jenny McCarthy a public health award–and for much the same reasons. After all, Bill Maher is a woo-meister supreme and, like Jenny McCarthy, an anti-vaccine crank, as I’ve documented time and time again on this very blog. He’s also a big time PETA supporter and a germ theory denialist.


Bill Maher Evolution & Swine Flu

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on May 3, 2009

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Bill Maher & Mike Huckabee Discuss Faith

Posted in Skepdude, Video by Skepdude on November 3, 2008

How not to fight religious superstition

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 28, 2008


In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations — is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies — such as they are — of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets – $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!


Superstition, pattern seeking and loss of personal control

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 7, 2008


A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.

Think of Maher as a comedian-turned-social commentator in the style of Jon Stewart (though Maher was doing his Politically Incorrect show on Comedy Central and then ABC before the Daily Show got started. He is now the host of Real Time on HBO). Maher, much like Stewart, takes on the role of a modern day Socrates. He admits he doesn’t know much (though, just as in the case of the Greek philosopher, it’s clear that he actually knows a lot more than his self-important, shallow targets do), and goes around “simply” asking questions. The questions we encounter throughout Religulous, however, are devastating. Posed to rabbi, priests, ministers, Jesus impersonators and just every day folks, they are meant to expose the ignorance that underlies much religious faith, as well as the tendency of some religious “leaders” to take easy advantage of their flock.

After the movie, though, I got into a conversation with my friend Phil (the editor of this blog) about whether religion is a cause or a symptom of society’s maladies. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil, and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

This is of course related to the questions of where religion comes from and what function, if any, it plays at the social or psychological level, both of which have increasingly been under the scrutiny of science. In my next entry I will deal with a recent study of the sociology of religion, but here I’d like to comment on research addressing its psychology. A paper in Science (3 October 2008) by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky reports on experimental evidence that links lack of control by individuals to their proneness to find patterns where none exist, and to develop superstitious behavior.

Lacking control over one’s circumstances is a well known source of anxiety, a situation that activates the brain’s amygdala, the roots of the fear response. And it is also understood that there is a correlation between unpredictability of events and superstition: for instance, people have studied tribes of fishermen fishing at increasing distances from the land, hence in deeper waters and faced by more unpredictable dangers, and have found that the farther out one goes the more the tribe develops superstitious rituals related to fishing. (A similar phenomenon occurs in sports, where there is a correlation between the unpredictability of one’s role in the game and personal superstition: baseball pitchers, for instance, are particularly prone to it.)

Whitson and Galinsky put their subjects in a variety of experimentally induced situations where they had different degrees of control, to see how they reacted to a variety of perceptual tests. The results were stunning: people who felt little or no control over a given situation were much more prone to see patterns where there were none, make up superstitious scenarios, and invent conspiracy theories to explain their situation! Why on earth should this be? The authors conclude that inventing patterns is a cognitive way to regain psychological (certainly not real) control over events, thereby reducing stress. Interestingly, however, another way to achieve the same result was to allow individuals to contemplate and affirm their values, after which their proclivities toward conspiracies and non-existing patterns regressed toward those of the control subjects. Indeed, Whitson and Galinsky suggest that this may be one reason psychotherapy works: the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

The lingering question, of course, is why would making up an imaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically. After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one. But here perhaps we enter into the area where sociological explanations may be helpful, and I will refer the reader to my next installment on this topic. Meanwhile, tell your friends to go see Religulous, or at the least to sign up for therapy.


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