Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.
It is with reluctance that I decided to write about this topic again, given how many times I’ve written about it over the last decade, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog and given how little his fans seems to care when I do. I’m referring to the antivaccine stylings of comedian and political pundit Bill Maher, something I’ve been writing about for over a decade now. Indeed, a little more than five years ago, I stirred up a bit of trouble in the skeptical community through some particularly harsh criticisms of Bill Maher, in particular of the Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) decision to award Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. More than once, I’ve likened giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.
Arguably Maher reached his peak of antivaccine advocacy through his weekly HBO talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher, five years ago, when the H1N1 pandemic was going on and public health officials were working hard to persuade people to get vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. Indeed, it got so bad that his own guests, such as Bill Frist and Bob Costas, were openly dissing him on his own show for his antivaccine views. Perhaps my favorite example came from Bob Costas, who in response to a wild claim by Maher that he doesn’t worry about getting the flu, even in the crowded confines of an airplane because of his superior lifestyle that apparently made him immune, blurted out, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Even worse, a friend of Maher, Michael Shermer, published an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations” in—of all places—The Huffington Post, which led Maher to respond, both on his show (in which he referred to vaccination as a “risky medical procedure”) and in a post on HuffPo himself entitled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having“. It was, as a certain “friend of the blog” put it, a pyre of stupidity.
Several incidents have recently created divisions within the skeptical community. The latest one was over a casual comment Michael Shermer made in an online talk show. He was asked why the gender split in atheism was not 50/50, “as it should be.” He said he thought it probably was 50/50, and suggested that the perception of unequal numbers might be because attending and speaking at atheist conferences was more of “a guy thing.” They might have asked him to explain what he meant. They didn’t. He didn’t mean to say it was encoded in the male DNA. He was simply recognizing a reality of our society: male/female interests and behavior tend to differ due to all sorts of cultural influences. Among other things, women might find it more difficult to attend meetings because of lower incomes and the need to arrange for babysitters. Watching sports on TV with other guys and beer is a guy thing too, but not because it’s hardwired into the male brain. It’s a guy thing because of customs and attitudes in our society. And it certainly doesn’t mean women are less capable or that societal influences can’t be overcome.
Nevertheless, Ophelia Benson assumed Shermer meant:
that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”
That’s not what he meant. It’s not fair to judge him by one off-the-cuff remark. His record stands for itself: there is not a hint of sexism in his writings and he has always fully acknowledged women’s intelligence and their ability to think critically.
In a rebuttal article, Shermer quoted me:
I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.
PZ Myers called this “a sexist remark.” (more…)
I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.
So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.
My eyes lit up.
A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.
Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.
Some of the content is repetitious for those of us who have read Shermer’s previous books and heard him speak, but the value of the new book is that it incorporates new research and it puts everything together in a handy package with a new focus.
I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.