HBO’s Real Waste of Time with Bill Maher
Bill Maher does not profess to be a philosopher, scientist, or thinker, so it is unfair to write an article critiquing him as such. He is a comedian whose facile intelligence impresses few except for his self-righteously leftist audience. But behind every popular comedian stand popular values and ideology — in Maher’s case, a fashionable brand of materialist atheism advanced by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Yet Maher is only a secondhand dealer in these ideas; his self-professed superiority over dumb, religious rednecks is a veneer that belies his own unthinking dogmatism.
His show Real Time with Bill Maher is riddled with arguments like this:
“When all of the scientists are on one side, except for the ones who are on the Exxon payroll, I go with them, I go with their expertise. Not everyone believed in evolution when Darwin first proposed that theory, but over time we got to a point where they all said, ‘This is the settled science now, we have to move on to the next idea.’”
The reason this argument sounds good on its face is because Maher comes across as a cosmopolitan who believes in science over superstition and corporate greed. His audience bleats loud enough to drown out not only a response, but even the ability to think for a minute that what he just said was nonsensical and fallacious.
The fallacy here is that this argument is self-defeating. In order for a new idea to overturn an older, established one, someone has to propose the idea, and it will not, by definition, be part of the established scientific consensus. If he had Real Olden Time back when Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection, his argument would have prevented Darwin’s theory from being accepted because all of the scientists were on one side.
Now Maher might come back and say that this isn’t his argument for the validity of global warming, but rather just something that guides his thinking. The problem is that Maher uses this argument a lot. The structure of most of his arguments consists in marshaling a few facts and quoting a few experts to make him seem more intelligent than he really is.
But before we even get a chance to think through this, he’s on to his next crowd-pleaser:
“Does it bother you that we are the only country that has a conservative party that calls it a hoax?”
Again, sounds great because it plays into his crowd’s vision of itself — sophisticated citizens of the world, eschewing the provincialism of the dumb rednecks who deny global warming. Only the argument is a terrible one. Simply because a majority of countries in the world believe something does not make it true. When America shook off British tyranny to establish a federated country based on individual liberties and property rights, it was the only country to have done so up until that point. Or as Maher would say, “Does it bother you that we are the only country in the world that has a secessionist movement that wants to break free from Great Britain?”
For all his professed love of scientists, facts, and objectivity, Maher does not understand how science works. Scientific revolutions are not linear, orderly events. Sometimes a patent clerk from Bern writes a paper that overturns hundreds of years of thinking in an instant. Yet one could easily imagine Maher ridiculing Albert Einstein. “When all the scientists and Isaac Newton are on one side, I go with the scientists …”
But Maher will have none of this. To him the science is settled because a certain percentage of reputable scientists say the science is settled.
Whatever one’s position on global warming, this is exactly the sort of terrible argumentation that gets a cheap applause line, but prevents thoughtful analysis. He is able to use it to diminish anyone who challenges the Goresque view of climate change or the neo-Darwinian account of evolution.
But what happens when Maher is forced to deal with someone like Thomas Nagel — someone who is both admired by the cognoscenti and skeptical of evolution.
Nagel, a professor at New York University, is one of the world’s most well-regarded philosophers and a winner of the Balzan Prize, the Nobel of philosophy. He is a thoroughgoing atheist and proud of it. But he is also skeptical of the classical account of evolution as presented by Maher’s gurus, the Four Horsemen — Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. To Maher, this must be unthinkable.
How can a brilliant atheist philosopher with degrees from Cornell, Oxford, and Harvard write an article defending intelligent design? Doesn’t he know that only Republicans believe it? He would probably have a good one-liner to trip Nagel up because Nagel doesn’t write in one-liners. His argument against the dominant conception of evolution is not easy, but it is worth recapitulating.
The argument goes that the materialist interpretation of evolution implies that what gets naturally selected are not “truth” traits, but rather “survival” traits. As Nagel writes in the New York Review of Books, “On that view beliefs are states of the brain, and natural selection favors brain mechanisms solely on the basis of their contribution, via behavior, to survival and reproduction.”
While in certain instances these “truth” traits and “survival” traits overlap, such as when there is a lion charging after you, it is less clear that they overlap when it comes to more abstract beliefs, such as evolution or quantum theory.
Nagel continues, “Still, when our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our distant ancestors needed to survive — as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — [Alvin] Plantinga’s skeptical argument remains powerful. Christians, says Plantinga, can ‘take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.’ Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?”
This is not an easy argument to explain in print and even harder with Maher wielding his audience against you. The point is, however, Nagel is not sure of what theory to believe, but he is skeptical of unguided natural selection for good reasons. Who knows — maybe advances in quantum theory will dispel our belief in the constancy and determinacy of the laws of nature. The only certainty is that Maher’s sycophantic fawning over the established scientific community will only impede man’s search for truth. He is, in a very real sense, the enemy of human progress.
It makes sense that Maher has a popular show — after all, his show is entertaining and he is the voice of the intelligentsia. But don’t let him fool you into thinking that because he’ll tell you he smokes pot a lot, he is some outsider or hip libertarian. He represents the establishment in all its hubris and certitude. Don’t let him fool you into thinking he is above partisan hackery and that he is more scientific than his opponents. While overdone humility leads to unnecessary skepticism, in Maher’s case it seems warranted. He knows a little about a lot and he shouldn’t be so proud of it. Yes, he’s clever, but that’s because he towers like Aristotle next to the stooges and human straw men he has on as opponents. But the thing is, he couldn’t last one round in a ring with Nagel. One-liners are no substitute for considered thinking. A witty saying proves nothing, except that a witty saying proves nothing.
Max Raskin is a journalist and political advisor. He has written for Businessweek and Bloomberg News both in the United States and abroad as well as for a number of national political campaigns. He earned a degree in history from New York University. Follow him on Twitter.