Thursday, October 01, 2009

Questions for Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins


Sometime tomorrow Richard Dawkins will be presenting the Richard Dawkins Award to Bill Maher at the Atheist Alliance International convention in Los Angeles.

Why is this a problem? It's a problem because Bill Maher is a kook. He believes in all kinds of strange things about alternative medicine, cancer, and immunizations.

Orac has the documentation at Respectful Insolence: Some "inconvenient questions" for Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins tomorrow. He also has a list of question for Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.

PZ Myers will be at the convention. His attempt to defend Maher and Dawkins isn't working, in my opinion. Orac takes him on and exposes the hyprocrisy of the whole sorry episode. Maybe there will be fireworks at the convention tomorrow? I sure hope so. Giving the Richard Dawkins Award to Bill Maher is a travesty.


  1. It never fails to amaze me how one man (Dawkins) can be so stunningly correct about the evils of religion and equally stunningly incorrect about evolutionary biology.

    Suzan Mazur interviews Lynn Margulis:

    "Francisco Ayala is presenting at the "evolutionary mechanisms session" in Rome. He was trained in Catholicism, Spanish-style, as a Dominican. We were in California at a meeting with Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb. At that meeting Ayala agreed with me when I stated that this doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is dead. He was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism's now dead.

    The components of evolution (I don’t think any scientist disagrees) that exist because there's so much data for them are: (1) the tendency for exponential growth of all populations -- that is growth beyond a finite world; and (2) since the environment can’t sustain them, there’s an elimination process of natural selection.

    The point of contention in science is here: (3) Where does novelty that’s heritable come from? What is the source of evolutionary innovation? Especially positive inherited innovation, where does it come from?

    It is here that the neo-Darwinist knee-jerk reaction kicks in. "By random mutations that accumulate so much that you have a new lineage." This final contention, their mistake in my view, is really the basis of nearly all our disagreement.

    Everybody agrees: Heritable variation exists, it can be measured. Everybody agrees, as Darwin said, it’s heritable variation "that’s important to us" because variation is inherited. Everyone agrees "descent with modification" can be demonstrated. And furthermore, because of molecular biology, everybody agrees that all life on Earth today is related through common ancestry, as Darwin showed.

    Everybody agrees with ultimate common ancestry of Earth's life, because the DNA, RNA messenger, transfer RNA, membrane-bounded cell constituents (lipids, the phospholipids) that we share – they’re all virtually identical in all life today, it's all one single lineage. So that part of Darwinism – that we’re all related by common ancestry –no scientist disagrees with.

    The real disagreement about what the neo-Darwinists tout, for which there's very little evidence, if any, is that random mutations accumulate and when they accumulate enough, new species originate. The source of purposeful inherited novelty in evolution, the underlying reason the new species appear, is not random mutation rather it is symbiogenesis, the acquisition of foreign genomes.

    When (Stanley)Salthe says we haven't seen that, he’s talking about new species. He’s not saying we haven’t seen natural selection, he's saying we haven't seen natural selection produce new species, this particular aspect of neo-Darwinism." - Lynn Margulis

    Now write 1000 times: darwinism is dead...darwinism is dead...darwinism is dead...(

  2. First, Full-on symbiogenesis (fusion of two genomes) is extremely rare, and as far as I know, is almost entirely restricted to closely related plant species (e.g. "hybrid species").

    Second, horizontal gene transfer definitely happens in some taxa, but it is not the source of evolutionary novelty. Mutation is. Point mutations, gene duplications, chromosomal duplications, inversions...the list goes on. These generate fantastic amounts of genetic diversity. No hocus-pocus or velvet worm sex needed.

    Third, If there was no ultimate source of novelty, life would have burned through its initial standing variation very quickly. This is because natural selection and drift tend to reduce variation in biological populations.

    Fourth, biological species are not formed by 'random mutations' per se. They are formed when a lineage splits (e.g. becomes allopatric) and different allelic combinations are fixed in the two populations. These alleles can be derived from the standing variation of the original population, or from de novo mutations. The subsequent fixation of these alleles can happen through natural selection or drift. Either way, this ultimately results in two reproductively isolated groups, aka "species".

    In short, Darwinism is not dead, Dawkins is still relevant, and Margulis is rapidly losing credibility.

  3. Argh, could we not let this thread be hijacked by the Wagner-troll?

    On-topic: That's some smack-down by Orac, and unfortunately I have to agree with him that PZ is being too nice to Dawkins. And this whole mess illustrates why I have to say, from time to time, that atheism per se is beside the point. It's critical, skeptical, evidence-based thinking that's important. Rejection of religion (IMNSHO) is one proper outcome of that process, but not the only one, and for practical purposes not necessarily the most important one.

  4. I agree with you. Maher is a kook and the entire affair is a joke.

    Arguments in support of Maher make the people using them look either petty ("good science in my field matters, but who cares about medicine or the rest of reality?") or obsequious ("don't bother the important people your tiresome concerns")

    Intelligent people can disagree over many issues. But not over whether HIV causes AIDS or whether vaccines are a government conspiracy to keep people sick!

    I hope Dawkins has the balls to say something fierce. If he sucks up to Maher, I'm afraid my respect for him will vanish.

    Maher may be famous, but he's not important.

  5. Lets just call it what it is - accomodationism, in this case accomodating woo-supporters rather than supernaturalists.

  6. Interesting point about Mr. Maher. Many years ago, I quit the Catholic Church as I just didn't believe any of the theology and, because I actually missed church, I joined a Unitarian Church.

    I was so happy that one place actually admitted that there was no truth to conventional theology (e. g., this is where Mr. Maher is).

    But over time, I came to realize that while conventional nonsense was dismissed at the UU church, other types of nonsense (healing crystals, dousing, etc.) was embraced by many. :-)

    I think that we are seeing this with Mr. Maher: he made a decent film (Religoulous) so people embrace him without seeing ALL of what he thinks.

  7. Harriet said:
    "I think that we are seeing this with Mr. Maher: he made a decent film (Religoulous) so people embrace him without seeing ALL of what he thinks."
    I don't think its that simple. Mahers medical quackery is well known in skeptical circles. On the other hand one can agree with some things a person says or does while simultaneously disagreeing with other things - a point that Joshua Rosenau over on thoughts from Kansas on scienceblogs seems to be missing in his current series of posts on this issue.

  8. On balance, Bill Maher is a bad choice for this award. Sure, he is a high profile atheist, but he is also a high profile Kook AND he promotes the idea that if you are "skeptical and evidence based" then you will end up in the same new-age bullshit that he is wallowing in. Not worth it.

  9. On the other hand one can agree with some things a person says or does while simultaneously disagreeing with other things...

    In principle, yes. But if someone says enough silly things then at some point I begin to suspect a basic defect in their thinking. If they get something right now and then, it may only be by accident. Set against the context of his medical woo-ery, Maher's anti-religion stance begins to look like uncritical contrarianism, rather than principled skepticism.

  10. Maher is a kook. He's also a prominent atheist. Surely the award isn't for a scientist?

  11. Maher’s kooky quack ideas should be vigorously challenged.

    However his anti-religious work is admirable and that is what he is being awarded for. There aren’t many who have done more than he has on the popular public forum. At the moment it is the outspoken comedian who is best suited to make average people think.

    Now that George Carlin is not with us no one better fills his place than Maher. What a relief from the perpetual avalanche of sentimental faith crap spilling out of all corners of the media. Maher is the right pick for the subject.