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.