Ben Affleck vs. Sam Harris on Real Time (And Some Poll Fact-Checking)

UPDATE 2: This story, as you know, has gotten quite a bit of play since the video aired. You can find various defenses of both Maher/Harris and Affleck on the interwebs, but I’ll link to a few here that I think are worth reading.

UPDATE: I re-watched the video this morning and agree with my initial assessment. I did want to fact check some of the poll’s both Maher and Harris cited (see below). Both were more or less correct. The internet is always a mixed bag, but it does look to me like a slight majority agrees that Affleck came off a bit foolish and clearly didn’t listen to or understand Harris’ argument. Anyway, they seem to have reconciled backstage (check out the comments on Harris’ feed for a reaction from his fans vs. the comments on someone like Reza Aslan’s feed for reactions from those crying bigotry):


It’s been an hour and a half since I finished watching tonight’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, and I’m still a little distraught.

For those of you who haven’t yet watched, the panel included Michael Steele, Nicholas Kristof, and Sam Harris, though you will hardly notice them because the fourth guest, Ben Affleck, was too busy acting like a drunken frat guy who thinks speaking loudly or passionately means you win the argument. He went completely bananas on Sam Harris, at one point calling him a bigot and suggesting his view of Islam was equivalent to racism (this is all from memory so I’ll rewatch and correct myself if I need to…Kristof also subtly defended the charge that Maher and Harris’ arguments* were close to racism). I’ve never seen someone misunderstand an argument as badly as Affleck did, and on top of that, I’ve never seen someone be so rude on Real Time (on Real Time!). Harris, who’s a pretty calm and measured person, simply couldn’t get a word in over Affleck’s belligerent ranting. It was one of the most tense panel’s I’ve seen on the show, and even Bill (who argued and interrupted his fair share as well) seemed caught off guard by it.

Take a look here:

(In case that video stops working, this link should have it as well).

Anyway, I now have a pretty low opinion of Affleck, and feel fortunate that most of what I have to hear him say is scripted by someone else.

*Maher and Harris aren’t equally careful in their criticisms of Islam, so part of the tension during this episode may have been lumping their respective views into one. Maher has a tendency to generalize a bit more in my opinion, while Harris is on record countless times admitting that the vast majority of Muslims are obviously not violent, etc, etc. But regardless, they are both criticizing ideology (the principle victims of which are overwhelmingly Muslim), so the ludicrous charges of bigotry or the even more ridiculous charges of racism against both hold no water.


Unlike Affleck, both Harris and Maher offered poll evidence to support their claims that radical Islam is indeed a significant problem and is not simply a “fringe” issue. But were their citations correct?:

  • Harris: “To give you one point of contact, 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should’ve been prosecuted.” This is correct. Source: Note that the link to the full report is broken, so if anyone finds it please send. Also note this isn’t a Pew poll, so I think it’s reasonable to question the reliability to some extent.
  • Maher: “I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that says like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.
    • Update: Many have reported (and I did so originally) that this was an exaggeration from the actual figure of 64%, taken from this Washington Post article by Max Fisher. However, this seems to be an error. Originally pointed out by a reader of this post, the 2013 Pew Report on which Fisher is basing his figures shows, on page 219, the general sample for Egyptians favoring death for apostasy: 88%. It appears that Fisher worked off of page 55 of the report and multiplied the 86% sub-sample (for Egyptians Muslims who favor Sharia) by the general sample of Muslims who favor Sharia (74%), to arrive at 64%. He didn’t seem to notice (and I didn’t either) that page 219 shows the general sample. For the skeptical, just cross-check the countries and figures on page 55 with those on page 219. You’ll find that they’re different (meaning they are two different data sets), and that, as you would expect, most sub-sample figures are higher than general sample figures (since again, the sub-sample is looking at Muslims who favor Sharia). Egypt is an exception to this, where the general sample figure is higher than the sub-sample, though only slightly. See also this 2010 Pew Report, asking a similar question of Egyptian Muslims and getting a figure of 84% (page 14).
  • Harris also puts forward an estimate for the proportion of “jihadists” and “Islamists” among all Muslims (essentially the extreme believers), as 20%, but admits this is more or less a guess based on a number of different polls. I’m not sure which polls he is referring to, but the same Pew report above does cite 8% of Muslims in the U.S. as believing suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified, and much higher figures for many countries. Some people have cited that the respective number for all Muslims believing this is 28% and for U.S. Muslims , 19%, but these, as far as I can tell, are wrong. The first figure, if it exists, doesn’t come from the Pew report (they give no cumulative estimates for all Muslims), and the second seems an incorrect interpretation of the data, where they have simply subtracted the number that said suicide bombing was never justified (81%) from 100%, and assumed the rest said it was okay, which is a completely incorrect way to interpret poll results (sometimes people refuse to answer, etc).
  • And just for fun, let’s analyze Affleck’s claim that: “ISIS couldn’t fill a Double-A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia…” That seemed a little wrong to me, as the number of ISIS fighters in Syria alone has been estimated at 50,000 (also I’ve been to a lot of minor league baseball games). So, I took an average of the capacity size for 31 different Double A (AA) ballparks across the U.S., and got a figure of 7,565. Then I simply divided that number into the most recent estimate of ISIS’s size I could find, cited here at 80,000 (combined from Syria and Iraq). The result? The members of ISIS could easily fill up more than 10 Double-A ballparks in Charleston, West Virginia.
  • Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has posted some notable charts from the Pew report, along with comments about the episode. Check out the “Must a Wife Always Obey Her Husband?” results.

The Uncertainty Blog gets its 15 minutes…

Well, this was cool. Sean was nice enough to link to my summary of his recent Intelligence Squared Debate. The shout out resulted in a 1,300% traffic increase on this site compared to last month – not bad for the most amateurish of amateur blogs. The most touching aspect of all this attention? I noticed a complete stranger use my (admittedly uncreative) nickname, Dr. Heaven, to refer to Eben Alexander while commenting on a blog post. Maybe it will catch on.

You can now find Sean’s thoughts on the debate here, and Steve Novella’s here.

Update: Since this post, some of the stuff at the Uncertainty Blog has been published over at Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True. Those posts have generated and awful lot of traffic, but still nowhere near the amount my review of the Sean Carroll vs. WLC did. I started to wonder why, given that Sean and Jerry both have similar online presences. So I did some searching, and the answer made me smile. Someone a bit more popular happened to share the link, though I didn’t realize it until now (sorry if this fawning makes you cringe…I’ve always been a huge admirer of RD, primarily for his scientific work):


Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.


So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.



Play by Play: William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll

Last week I posted my initial thoughts after watching the Craig v. Carroll Greer-Heard Forum debate, and admitted that I wasn’t adequately summarizing my favorite part, Carroll’s closing remarks. You can skip to them by watching the video yourself, but interestingly, this poker forum (yes poker) has a really good play by play summary thanks to user Zumby – Carroll himself actually posted it via Twitter earlier today.

I’ve pasted Zumby’s description of Carroll’s closing below (emphasis is mine):

“Carroll’s Closing Remarks

Confesses a bit of frustration as Craig just recapped arguments Carroll believes he already dealt with so says he will take the opportunity to speak directly to the Christian audience.

But first he notes that Craig repeatedly claimed to be “astonished” by the claim that universes don’t need outside causes and quotes David Lewis that “I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare” and says that he gave an explanation of why this is the case. Carroll claims that “popping into existence” is not the right phrase to use when talking about the beginning of the universe. The right phrase is “There was a first moment in time”, which is a much less astonishing claim. The question is then “Are there models like this?”. Carroll always laughs away the claim about his diagram, asserting that Craig has not understood what the arrows are representing. On Boltzmann brains, Carroll reiterates that Boltzmann brains are a model-dependent problem, and in this model they are not a problem.

Addressing the audience, Carroll points out that very few people become theists because they think theism provides the best model of cosmology. There are better reasons to become a theist: community, sense of the transcendent, fellowship with fellow man etc. 500 years ago, Carroll would have been a theist. These days, there is not empirical support for theism. So what should a modern theist do in light of the finding of science? One thing would be to deny science, as the creationists do. A second way is to deny the implications of science and to say none of the finding of science has altered the fundamental view of reality put together 2000 years ago. Carroll see’s two problems with this approach. First, it’s wrong, as he has tried to show in this debate, but strategically it’s a bad move as it marginalises [sic] theists as a part of the wider intellectual community. This is an important time for discussing the future of our species, and clinging to outdated beliefs may isolate theists from being part of the discussions. But there is a third option. We admit we were wrong 2000 years ago. But, this person could reasonably say, religion is much more than just theism. There is a place for insight about the human condition, to feel camderadrie with your fellow man. Perhaps naturalism can learn from religion and the lives of the saints. Naturalism may have replaced theism, but has not replaced religion. The lives we lead now are not dress rehearsals. What matters is what we can do to make the world better. There are hard questions of meaning and morals. Naturalism has picked the low hanging fruit. We will get there faster if we all climb together.” – User Zumby on


Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

Watch: William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Brisbane debate. Now up!

It’s here!

See previous post for background. Slight caveat – if you’re not familiar with WLC, you might think the other guy, Lawrence Krauss, is coming across a little rudely. He is, but that’s only because he considers WLC dishonest (see post here ) and agreed to the discussions (this is the first of three) mostly to make that point.


Life, the Universe and Nothing: Has science buried God? from City Bible Forum on Vimeo.

Does God Exist? William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, First Post-Debate Analysis

If you read my post here, you know WLC and Lawrence Krauss just finished a three-night debate series at various locations throughout Australia. The host organization is currently working on editing the videos, and they should be released soon. In the meantime, I’ve been following Life, the Universe and Nothing’s facebook page to read reactions from those in attendance, trying to piece together how each performed.

As you might expect, comments are mixed, with theists generally siding with WLC and skeptics with Krauss. Surprisingly, however, there is a little buzz suggesting that Krauss actually trounced WLC in the final debate (recall that WLC is almost never beaten in debates by atheists, not because he makes good arguments, but because he’s such a practiced and formidable debater). Here’s a brief review from Christadelphian Unbelievers:

I never thought that I would live to see William Lane Craig beaten in a debate with an Unbeliever; but tonight (16 August 2013) I saw him outgunned by Lawrence Krauss.
The moderated discussion in the Melbourne Town Hall was packed to the back and it was a thrilling night. Bill spoke first with his usual style and closely reasoned arguments. It was WLC at his best and I cringed at the thought of Lawrence having to handle such a strong presentation.But when it was LMK’s turn to speak we were treated to a devastating barrage of blockbuster points one after another that never seemed to end.

The moderated discussion afterwards was poorly moderated by someone who hardly spoke a word and at times looked as if he was reading a newspaper. The two protagonists tore into each other unrelentingly; but WLC sensed that he was fighting a losing battle and before long Krauss had taken over the evening.

In one sense there was nothing new in the points made. It was the dazzling new style of Krauss that amazed me. He’d done his homework, learned from his losses to WLC in the past and lifted his game substantially.

Nevertheless, Bill did well and acquitted himself with his usual dignity. He was firm, but respectful to Lawrence; his keen intelligence added considerable depth to the scintillating discussion. I only wish that the discussion had lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was superb.

I’m excited for the videos, and have been checking for them every day since last week (I will post as soon as they go up). Krauss apparently used a “bullshit” buzzer in the first debate to combat inaccuracies and lies, in addition to creating this post-debate video: