Is Bill Maher really that ignorant?

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWork and a conference intervene to prevent a fresh dose of Respectful Insolence today. Fortunately, there’s still classic Insolence from the archives that hasn’t been moved over to the new blog. This one originally appeared on March 7, 2005.

The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is below.

When I first posted on this yesterday, I had hoped things weren’t as they appeared. Although representing himself as a free-thinking skeptic who proudly trumpets his atheism and calls religion a “neurologic disorder,” Bill Maher has, sadly, apparently officially passed from the realm of “smug but entertaining curmudgeon that I usually disagree with but sometimes find entertaining anyway” to full-fledged fruitloop, maybe even an altie. I base this judgment on statements he made on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, March 4. On that show, he stated that he doesn’t believe in vaccination:

I don’t believe in vaccination either. That’s a… well, that’s a… what? That’s another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory, even though Louis Pasteur renounced it on his own deathbed and said that Beauchamp(s) was right: it’s not the invading germs, it’s the terrain. It’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the swamp that they are breeding in.

Sources: Here and here. There’s also some very scary misinformation on his message boards from last year. (I realize that Maher probably has no idea what sorts of things people are saying on his message boards, but nonetheless the anti-vaccination fruitloops are out in full force there.) Once again, there is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever “recanted” on his deathbed and good evidence that he did not, as explained by Peter Bowditch. He certainly never said that Beauchamps was correct. This story is a myth promulgated by alties, plain and simple. I’m speculating that, as an atheist himself, Maher probably doesn’t buy the rumors by some fundamentalists that controversial atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair recanted before her death and said that there is a god. He would quite rightly point out that there is no evidence that she ever did any such thing. (Such stories are also highly implausible because the only persons who could have witnessed such a conversion would be her kidnappers and killers.) Similar myths of deathbed recantations exist for Darwin, in which it is rumored that he renounced evolution before dying. Even most creationists do not believe these myths about Darwin’s supposed “conversion” now, so ungrounded in any evidence are they. Yet, for all his self-proclaimed “skepticism” or “cynicism,” Maher swallowed second-hand, unsubstantiated rumors and myths that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed and has now repeated these myths on HBO, despite the fact that there is no more evidence for them than there are for the myths of O’Hair’s or Darwin’s recantations.

What disappointed me, however, is that Dr. Bernardine Healy, former Director of the NIH, was a guest and that she didn’t slap Maher down hard for his idiotic statements about vaccines and Pasteur. (It’s possible that she was so taken aback by the ignorance revealed in his assertions that she was at a loss for words other than “Oh, dear,” but that’s no excuse.) Only Dave Foley– of all people!–took Maher on, but then just mildly:

You gotta say, the polio vaccine turned out well. You know…

In fact, Maher even had the chutzpah to say this to Dr. Healy:

You’re in denial, about I think is a key fact, which is it is the at… people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water… Yes, much of it is not our fault and we can’t control it. But a lot of it we can and even the food people think is good for them, is bad, and I’m not presenting myself as a paradigm. I do cruddy things to my body too and I enjoy them. But when I do them, I’m not in denial. I’m not eating fat free cheese and saying: “You know what, I’m healthy for eating this.” I’m saying: “Oh yeah, this is chemical goop and this is killing me.

“Aggregate toxicity”? Hulda Clark (also here, here, here, and here) or the chelationist about whom I complained couldn’t have said it better. From this sort of scientifically and biologically flawed thinking, it’s only a short step to advocating colon flushes or chelation therapy to eliminate vague and undefined “aggregate toxins” or “heavy metal poisoning.” No, I am not saying that diet and environment don’t matter as far as your health is concerned and that there are not substances to which we are exposed that are bad for us. What I am saying is that alties frequently blame some vague “toxins” or “aggregate toxicity” for a wide variety of ailments without ever specifying what the “toxins” are that are supposedly causing the disease in question. It appears that Maher has fallen into this mindset of lumping environmental factors we can control (diet, smoking) with ones we can’t, and then attributing to them all some sort of vague “aggregate toxicity” (conveniently undefined or only very vaguely defined) as the root cause of disease. Alties make these sorts of assertions all the time. Indeed, they seem to be obsessed with “impurities” in their bodies, livers, colon, or blood, and many of their “cures” are purported to purge the body of these “toxins.” (Sometimes their obsession with “toxins” reminds me of General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb and his obsession with the purity of his–as he put it–“precious bodily fluids” and maintaining his “purity of essence.”) Unfortunately, alties almost never identify which specific toxins they are talking about, provide scientific evidence that these undefined “toxins” cause disease, or demonstrate that their favored remedies actually remove these “toxins” and cure the disease in question. Certainly, Maher’s comments are consistent with this sort of mindset that “toxins” are to blame for all disease. He is at once seemingly skeptical of conventional medicine (but in reality it’s only a knee-jerk distrust) yet at the same time very credulous when it comes to claims made by alties and apparently also to intimations of vast corporate conspiracies to suppress what he views as the “truth.”

Thanks again to Skeptico, for giving me the heads up. I also suggest contacting Bill Maher through his show’s website and asking him if, as such a “rational” and “skeptical” person, he feels any responsibility for peddling false information about vaccines and Pasteur. Suggest that he should revisit the issue on a future show and provide actual evidence for his assertion about Pasteur or his “not believing” in vaccines. Perhaps he could even invite someone who is capable of providing a strong rebuttal to his claims, someone who knows a thing or two about the myths promulgated by anti-vaccine activists and how they are fallacious.

Peter Bowditch, perhaps–by satellite from Australia?


1. Given that the episode in question originally aired two and a half years ago, it’s probably pointless at this point to write Bill Maher. That shouldn’t stop you from doing so the next time he starts spewing woo-friendly nonsense or antivaccination idiocy–that is, if you still watch the show. I can’t really stand to anymore, other than if the “New Rules” segment happens to be on.

2. The official transcript of the show in question was been posted here. As you can see, the original first attempt at transcription I cited above was quite accurate.