My last entry for a long time on the Maher issue (I hope), plus a little history

I hadn’t planned on writing much, if anything more, about the whole Bill Maher debacle, but PZ has shown up in my comments and graciously tried to explain what’s going on at the AAI convention regarding the truly awful choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award:

Look, I don’t know what else I can say. I didn’t endorse Maher; if they’d run this decision by me months ago, I would have said, “Are you nuts?”. But of course, I have no clout with the AAI. Dawkins consented to the award initially, because he didn’t know much about the full views held by the crackpot; he would certainly have more clout than I do, but this was ultimately a decision by the AAI. I have discussed this with Dawkins one on one; he thinks Maher’s views on alt medicine are absolute rubbish, and isn’t happy himself…but he does still like the movie and thinks that that deserved an award. I have talked to members of the AAI committee that chose him, and expressed my displeasure without reservation.

We don’t think quackery is at all appropriate for atheism. The RDF is all about supporting reason and science, and they think Maher’s views on medicine are ridiculous. What more do you want?

I’ll also add that several people found Maher’s personal behavior at the ceremony to be rude and pompous; while he gave a very funny acceptance speech, I got the impression he didn’t like us much, either. Giving him the award was, in my opinion, a mistake, and I wish it could be retracted. But notice, please: I’m not the guy who decided to give it to him in the first place, nor do I have any power to take it away.

As for this peculiar argument that I’m somehow going soft on altie bullshit: when I told everyone to be civil and non-disruptive on our visit to the Creation “Museum”, were you all interpreting that to mean I was going soft on creationism? I wish people would notice that I never advocate violence or actions that might interfere with other people’s rights to speak and act (within reason) as they wish. This was more of the same. I was there making the same arguments against the choice of Maher that you are, with the people involved, but I wasn’t going to rush the stage and tackle Maher at this event.

As has been the case all along, there is a mixture of reasonable and not quite reasonable in PZ’s words. There also seems to be a bit of revisionist history there. For example, the bit about the Creationist Museum strikes me as a wee bit disingenuous. PZ can correct me if I’m wrong, but the reason he wanted everyone to be polite was because he didn’t want to give the museum officials an excuse to kick anyone out or refuse the group entry to the museum. But that’s merely an irritating quibble. Let’s look at the history of how the Maher Mess developed.

PZ now states that Professor Dawkins is distressed and unhappy now about the decision and detests Maher’s medical views. That’s good, and I have no reason to doubt this characterization of Professor Dawkin’s opinion. However, nearly three months ago, Dawkins airily dismissed said concerns in a comment on PZ’s blog when PZ’s readers started referring to Maher’s quack views. I think it’s worth reminding everyone what Dawkins wrote:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

Come to think of it, PZ himself said nothing about Maher’s quack views when he first announced on his blog the list of speakers for the AAI Convention. In fact, PZ referred to this list thusly:

By the way, if you’ve ever wanted to actually meet Mr Deity, you’ve got a shot: he’ll be speaking at the Atheist Alliance International 2009 Convention in LA this October. And it’s not just him, look at this phenomenal lineup of speakers.

At the top of that “phenomonal” list? Bill Maher. No mention of Maher’s support for quackery, though. If PZ was distressed by the selection of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award, there was no indication of it in the post.

PZ concluded with:

I’m going to be in there somewhere, too — I’m a late addition. It will be a wonderful assemblage of the godless. Plus one deity.

I reiterate that there was absolutely no mention in that post of Maher’s kooky medical views. If PZ was so distressed at Maher’s being selected right from the beginning, there certainly was no evidence of it back on July 20 when he made that post. It was only after some of PZ’s commenters started pointing out that Maher was a crappy choice because of his support of anti-vaccine views, strong advocacy of alternative medicine, PETA, and his sympathy for HIV/AIDS denialist views and after I likened giving Maher an award that has the word “science” anywhere in its list of criteria to giving a an award for public health to Jenny McCarthy that PZ wrote another post in which he urged people to “put Maher in the hot seat.” Indeed, I used that post as part of my inspiration to ask Bill Maher some questions, which I later expanded to a campaign to ask Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins some questions.

So, I have to wonder this. If the choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award bothered PZ so much from the beginning, why did it take reminders from his readers and me to goad him into starting to criticize him three days after his original post announcing the lineup for the AAI Convention? Did PZ warn Richard Dawkins back in July? If not, why not? Aren’t PZ and Dawkins buddies now? After all, PZ certainly seemed to spend a fair amount of time hanging out with Dawkins at this convention. In any case, isn’t that what friends do? Warn friends when a shitstorm’s coming their way?

I realize that neither PZ nor Dawkins had any say in who got the award, but it really does strike me as a FAIL on Dawkins’ part not to have taken the complaints more seriously right from the beginning. It’s not just me. With Dr. Benway leading the charge, the commenters at the RDF are also largely up in arms. Even worse, Paula Kirby (comment 478 in the RDF thread I just linked to) said this:

I don’t know how long ago it was, Steve, but I do know Richard has said he knew nothing of Maher’s views on medicine until just the other day.

I wonder if that’s true. Certainly, the way things went down at the AAI Convention suggests to me that it is. The problem is that the clamor and protest over Maher’s selection began way back in July, right after his selection was announced. If Dawkins didn’t know about it until “just the other day,” then I add the FAIL not just to him but to PZ and anyone else who both knew Dawkins and knew about Maher’s promotion of medical pseudoscience. By not warning him back in July, if that’s what indeed happened, they failed Richard Dawkins. Moreover, if it weren’t for a few of us refusing to let this issue go, I’m quite sure that it would have faded into oblivion, other than some grumbling on some discussion boards, long before the convention. Also, please note that, to some extent, I include myself in this FAIL. Even though Dawkins doesn’t know Orac from a box of blinking lights (assuming that, as a Brit, he’s familiar with the inspiration for my pseudonym), perhaps I should have tried anyway to find out how to contact him and then to do it. Mea culpa there. In retrospect, I could have name-dropped PZ as a means of trying to establish my cred. If Dawkins truly didn’t know about Maher’s looniness until a few days ago, then my mistake was to assume that he had somehow been informed, based on the chatter on his own discussion boards and PZ’s knowledge of Maher’s support of quackery.

What I want is not to keep harping on this (after this post, at least) but to look to the future.

This screw-up is all water under the bridge now. What I want to know is what the AAI and RDF are going to do after the convention to make sure a fiasco like this doesn’t happen again. This was a massively EPIC FAIL on the part of the AAI that ended up sliming Richard Dawkins. What can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again? That’s the important question now, as I’m sure PZ would agree, our disagreement over this whole mess notwithstanding.

Hopefully (and I’m sure that many, if not most, of my readers would agree), I won’t be posting about Bill Maher again for a long time. My desire to finally leave this issue behind notwithstanding, it’ll probably be just my luck that on Friday’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, Maher will finally proclaim that he thinks homeopathy can cure cancer.