The Maher conundrum

Oh, boy. As many of you already know, the big AAI conference is taking place in LA at the end of this week — I’ll be there! — and they are giving Bill Maher an award. This is a problem. Maher made a provocative movie about religion this year, Religulous, and that’s the kind of thing we want to acknowledge and encourage, but at the same time…Maher is as loopy as they come on medical matters. He’s a conspiracy theorist who blames Big Pharma for controlling health care, thinks modern medicine is a failure, and promotes ‘alternative’ therapies that don’t work. It is a serious embarrassment.

I think it is an excellent idea to ask difficult questions and put Maher on the spot, as Orac has proposed, and the last thing any skeptic or rationalist should do is ask critics to be silent. However, we have a couple of small problems here.

One is that some people (not Orac) have been threatening to disrupt the proceedings at the meeting. Nope, not good: there is a difference between asking hard questions and interfering with the event so no one gets to ask questions. Let’s nip this one in the bud: do not show up at the meeting with the intent of turning it into something equivalent to those townhall teabagger shouting matches. I think you’re entirely right to be pissed off at Maher, but that doesn’t justify disruption.

Another problem is that Maher is going to be well insulated. He’s showing up for the award ceremony, which will NOT have time scheduled for a Q&A, and I think he’ll be vanishing right afterwards. We’re not likely to have an opportunity for discussion.

And yet another problem: people are barking at Richard Dawkins. Dawkins does not support quackery. This isn’t an issue on which he’ll disagree with any of you, but he’s also there to talk about his exciting new book, not about fake cancer cures. I suspect he’s not looking forward to a lot of time-wasting headaches over this issue, and if it sounds like it’s going to eat up all of his time with the public, he’ll probably do the rational thing and cut back on spending time with the public. This is not to be encouraged.

I have some suggestions.

I’m going to be printing out Orac’s excellent complaint, and if you’re going, you should, too. I’ll keep an eye on the comments in the next few days for more good questions.

If we get an opportunity in an open forum to pin Maher down on these questions, let’s do it. Let’s do it politely and according to the rules of the session. That’s fair game.

If you find yourself with a chance to ask Richard Dawkins questions, though, please stick to issues that interest him. If you ask him about acupuncture, he’s going to be as dismissive as all of us other skeptics, so there really isn’t much point to going on about it. Don’t waste an opportunity to converse with Dawkins on a bunch of annoying noise. OK?

However, I’ve probably got a greater likelihood of getting a shot at a private conversation with Richard Dawkins than most readers here; maybe, and this is a very thin maybe, I’ll even get an opportunity to collar Maher. I may also get a chance to talk with some of the other organizers of the conference. If that happens, I’ll pass along the complaints, and I’ll try to drill down and get some good answers for you…which, of course, I’ll post here.

I think that’s your best strategy for actually getting answers to the questions Orac is asking, rather than simply triggering a shouting match. While shouting matches are fun, we should want something a little more thoughtful out of these fellows.