Sunday, October 25, 2009

no further questions, your honour

An interesting discussion in the comments to a recent post prompts me (via some thought association which isn't perhaps immediately obvious) to link to some stuff I've had knocking around in the to-blog pile for a while.

There was a bit of a furore recently about the decision of the Atheist Alliance International awards panel to give an award to American comic and talk-show host Bill Maher in recognition of the impact made by his film Religulous (this site claims to have the whole movie in downloadable form).

No complaints about the film, though I haven't seen it, and from the YouTube clips available he does seem to be having a pop at some pretty easy targets (David Icke, for goodness' sake, though on the other hand this bit is pretty good), but the sceptical and scientific blogging community were not best pleased given Maher's well-known and very public barking nuttery regarding medicine, and vaccination in particular. On top of all this, the fact that the award is called the Richard Dawkins Award (though Dawkins isn't personally involved in the selection process) and that Dawkins himself had already agreed to turn up in person and present it caused a bit of flak to head Dawkins' way as well.

In the end his website issued a slightly sniffy statement defending the decision (or more accurately distancing Dawkins from it slightly), and insisting that we should all focus on the movie, and according to those who were there on the night Dawkins issued a mild rebuke (in a very civilised English sort of way) about Maher's bizarre anti-science crackpottery before handing over the award, and honour was generally seen to have been preserved on all sides.

The whole affair raises some interesting questions, though, like: is it possible to arrive at the right answer by the wrong route? Well, that one isn't so interesting, because clearly the answer is yes. However: how accommodating should the sceptical community be to people who've arrived at, say, atheism through an irrational process? Back when I was sitting mathematics exams you were told to "show your working", and marks would be docked if you failed to do so, or if there were errors in the method you used to reach an answer, even if it was the right answer. After all, science is a method, it's not a set of answers. If you haven't grasped the method, what use are your answers? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In Maher's case I suspect it's a general knee-jerk contrarianism and iconoclasm, which would explain him being simultaneously an atheist and an anti-vaxxer - i.e. it's just a case of finding what the consensus of opinion or the most powerful lobby group is on any particular issue and taking up an opposing position (I suspect Penn & Teller of doing the same thing). Interestingly, I gather that Maher has spoken in favour of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, presumably because his finely-calibrated controversyometer told him there was more mileage in pissing off the religious lunatics who oppose it on the grounds that it is a one-way ticket to an endless teenage bukkake sex orgy (I'm paraphrasing Stephen Green of Christian Voice here, but only slightly).

But does it cheapen or undermine the sceptical/rationalist/scientific cause to sweep objections like that under the carpet in the case of Maher? In other words, should the AAI have given the award to someone else? Or is it just the best and most pragmatic approach to fall in behind Religulous and the award on the grounds that that'll expose the film to the widest audience? Or is there a danger that this will be seen as some sort of endorsement of Maher's position on vaccines, particularly as whenever someone on his show is able to get a word in edgeways and challenge him on it, he does the usual trick of putting his hands up and claiming he's only asking for a "debate" on the subject? I mean, debate is good, right? This is trick #1 in the creationist playbook, after all. Or (last one, promise) would a public dispute be playing into the religious media's hands? You can see the headlines now: Atheists In Schism Over Dogma - We Told You Science Was Just Another Religion.

The image on the right here is from this brilliant range of Teach The Controversy T-shirts. Just watch yourself wearing them in certain American states. There's even a David Icke one! And a Bertrand Russell one!


The Black Rabbit said...


Don't give Maher the award because he shows a lack of rationale with regards to many aspects of science - medicine and vaccinations in particular.

Or do give him the award, because in religious (or non religious) matters he seems very rational?

Depends on how you define science (and rationale AND atheism) I suppose?

Science - (in my basic in-head dictionary) - knowledge based on observable and recordable phenomena?

Rationale - a demonstrable set of reasons or principles?

Atheism - a denial of god(s)?

Thats a pretty basic definition set, granted, but its the best I can come up with at 6am.

Science uses rationale (or "reason"), but is not the sole preserve of it.

Atheism uses rationale and reason, but again is not the sole preserve of it.

Because BOTH atheism and science depend on rationale and reason, does not mean they are the same.

I think organised atheists (such as the AA) will tend to struggle if they confuse science, atheism and rationale or reason.

As you know, I'm afraid I believe that religion cannot be knocked down by science. By definition that is clear, infuriating though that must be for some.


One might hope it CAN be shattered (eventually I suppose) by rationale, or reason.

I think one can be rational and reasonable without being scientific (in the case of religion or lack of, for example).

One cannot be scientific though, without being reasonable and rational.

Does that make any sense at all?

Anyhoo -

On that basis, the AA were right to award Maher (if the film was that good) I think.

electrichalibut said...

I'm not sure I know what I think about the award, as you can probably see from the long list of questions.

My view is that rationality and scepticism inevitability inevitably lead to atheism. If you arrive there without having started from rationality and scepticism, then you're still in danger of believing irrational things in other areas.