Is Bill Maher really that ignorant? (part IV): Bill loves him some cancer quackery

I’ve asked at least three times on this blog, “Is Bill Maher that ignorant?”

The first time was four and a half years ago, when, in a fit of germ theory denialism, Maher proclaimed erroneously that Louis Pasteur had “recanted” on his deathbed, while spewing nonsense hither and yon about how disease isn’t primarily caused by microbes but by “aggregate toxicity,” whatever that means in woo-speak. The second time I asked the question occurred in 2008, when Maher lectured David Letterman about “toxins” and and suggested that he consider giving up his heart drugs and pursue “natural” therapies. The third, and perhaps most hilarious, time came when Maher proclaimed that he never gets the flu and wouldn’t get the flu on an airplane, leading his guest Bob Costas to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, come on, Superman!”

Bob Costas won my respect that day. My favorite part was when Maher looked at his guests and observed, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

Why, yes, Bill, we do.

In between it all, I’ve taken the odd pot shot at Maher for his sympathy to HIV/AIDS denialism and his general anti-vaccine idiocy. More recently, I’ve complained about Maher’s being awarded the Richard Dawkins Award by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI), likening (quite correctly, in my not-so-humble opinion) giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health and pointed out that Maher is anti-science to the core, at least when it comes to medical science. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of Maher’s fans.

I regret nothing.

Not only do I regret nothing, but now, a mere two weeks before the AAI Convention, Maher has provided me with more ammunition. In fact, this is probably the most blatant bit of crankery I’ve seen from Maher in a long time. Watch and learn. The “alternative medicine” nuttery begins at around the 0:50 mark:

Laetrile? Truly, the stupid, it burns!

The segment above comes from something called Overtime With Bill Maher. Basically, it’s a segment in which the audience submits questions, a few of which Maher and crew pick to respond to on the web after Real Time with Bill Maher airs. This particular edition aired last Friday, and in it Maher makes several nonsensical and obviously erroneous claims.

It begins with a question from an audience member: “Will the implication of universal health care help or hinder alternative medicine?” You know that’s just like holding a piece of bloody, dripping meat in front of a pit bull that hasn’t eaten in two days, and Bill goes after it just like the pit bull would tear into a piece of meat–and with just as much grace. Well, Bill doesn’t do it immediately. Rather, he does it after his guest, Jeffrey Toobin, paraphrases one of my favorite sayings by pointing out that “medicine is medicine,” continuing, “If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

To which Bill hops in ranting, “That’s not how this country works.”

Don’t I know it, Bill! Quackademic medicine is infiltrating medical academia at every level. How this country works these days is to accept pseudoscience and quackery as being on par with scientific medicine. How this country works is for woo-friendly legislators like Senator Tom Harkin to force pseudoscience upon the NIH and to slip provisions in one of the Senate versions of health care reform legislation declaring “alternative” medicine practitioners to be considered legitimate health care practitioners.

None of this keeps Maher from proclaiming that “alternative medicine often is illegal in this country.” As if that would be such a bad thing. Personally, I’d say right to Maher’s face that it’s a good thing to protect patients from charlatans who claim to be able to cure terminal cancer, like Hulda Clark or Nicholas Gonzalez, every bit as good as Bill thinks it would be to protect the public from large pharmaceutical companies. In fact, I’d tell Maher that, in my not-so-humble opinion, the problem with this country is not that “alternative medicine” often is illegal, but rather that the most egregious examples of quackery are not illegal often enough and that quacks all too frequently quite literally get away with murder.

Maher then goes on to say that you can go to jail for “so much as suggesting any alternative treatment for cancer.” Bullshit, Bill. I bet Bill can’t name a single person who has ever been sent to jail for “suggesting any alternative treatment for cancer.” (Not even Kevin Trudeau, although he did go to jail for credit card fraud years before he discovered “alternative medicine.”) But Maher can go on to rant about how Toobin supposedly doesn’t “understand how much the pharmaceutical companies have their tentacles wrapped around the government in this country.”

Toobin then (weakly) challenges Maher by asking, “For selling people Laetrile?”

Maher responds that he “doesn’t know whether Laetrile works,” but that he knows that “the shit we’ve tried for the last 50 years doesn’t. I know they’ve made no progress as far as cancer in this country. So, yes, there are people who actually go out of this country when they get cancer. Some of them come back alive after a death sentence. But in this country you can’t talk about that. I might get arrested right now.”

Bullshit, again, Bill. No one’s going to throw you in jail for spouting your ignorant nonsense. I would, however, love to know who these patients are who went out of the country for “alternative” medicine and survived? Coretta Scott King? Farrah Fawcett? Michael Landon? Steve McQueen (who, by the way, used Laetrile, among all sorts of other “alternative” or “unconventional treatments”)? Really, Bill, who are these survivors who were given death sentences and then remarkably cured at foreign clinics? Inquiring minds want to know!

Also, we do know that Laetrile doesn’t work. The studies were done well over 20 years ago and were resoundingly negative. The NCI states that Laetrile doesn’t work against cancer, and patients can suffer complications of cyanide toxicity from it. If you “don’t know” whether laetrile works or not, it’s because you’ve drunk the Kool Aid.

Bill’s other problem is a common one. Like all too many people, he appears to view cancer as one disease. It’s not. In some cancers, we’ve made enormous progress in the last 50 years. For instance, most leukemias and lymphomas were death sentences 50 years ago. Now many of them are highly treatable and even curable. Lest you think that I’m cherry picking the easy, another example is colorectal cancer. For patients with metastatic colorectal cancer, for example, the time of survival and quality of life can both be significantly improved by the new generation of chemotherapeutic, antiangiogenic, and targeted therapies, as The Cheerful Oncologist pointed out two years ago. In fact, I liked The Cheerful Oncologist’s posts so much that I’m going to steal the graph that he stole from this article to drive the point home:


As one can see, the survival for untreated metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC) is in the range of 4-6 months. Older adjuvant chemotherapy regimens could result in median survivals of approximately 12 months. Over the last decade or so, recently developed chemotherapy regimens have pushed the median survival to nearly two years. In fact, my best friend’s father is evidence of that. He has metastatic colorectal cancer but has been doing well for quite a while now. He even still plays golf regularly. He knows that sooner or later his cancer will claim him, but in the meantime he’s enjoying his life for as long as possible, which is all that any of us can really do. As the authors conclude:

FU has been the cornerstone of treatment for mCRC for over 40 years. In the past few years, the introduction of more effective chemotherapeutic agents and targeted agents with their promising activities and mild toxicity profiles has pushed the overall median survival time from 12 months to 2 years. However, as discussed, there are still many challenges facing oncologists. Research is ongoing to understand these issues, and significant advances are expected through the implementation of well-designed clinical trials and continued preclinical investigation.

Moreover, if you look at the SEER Database, you will see a much different story. For all cancers, five year survival has improved from 50.2% in 1975 to 68.2% in 2001, and 10-year survival has increased from 44.5% in 1975 to 60% in 1996. Moreover, it’s not just quantity of life but quality of life. For instance, thirty or forty years ago, women underwent either radical or modified radical mastectomy for breast cancer. These days, maybe 25% still require mastectomy and virtually none of them require radical mastectomy. (Indeed, I’ve never even seen a radical mastectomy, and I began my surgical residency in the late 1980s.) That’s because surgeons, as part of multidisciplinary teams including medical oncologists and radiation oncologists, figured out that it’s usually not necessary to do a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. The same survival rates can be obtained with less invasive surgery. The same is true in other areas, such as the aforementioned colorectal surgery, where more and more colon operations are being done using minimally invasive methods.

It was science that accomplished this. Not the outrageous quackery that Bill Maher promotes. Science. Bill Maher doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. As usual. True, we have definitely not made as much progress as we would desire, and there are still a depressing number of cancers for which we don’t do much, if any better, than a couple of decades ago, but overall there has been slow progress. It remains incredibly hard to have to tell so many cancer patients that we cannot cure them, but that there remain a number of patients with cancer that we can’t cure doesn’t mean we’ve made “no progress.”

That doesn’t stop Maher from parroting the usual alt-med nonsense about “wholistic” medicine as opposed to drugging people with the evil products of the even more evil big pharma, after which he finiishes with his usual rant about Western medicine, in which he claims that the reason “people are so sick” is because “Western medicine…only treats symptoms. That’s how they keep the scam going. If you only treat symptoms, of course people are always going to be sick. Yes, Nasonex will stop you from sniffling. It will shove the mucus right down your throat.”

I wish someone would shove the utter nonsense that Bill Maher spews on such a regular basis back down his throat.

I know some of my readers will think I’m beating a dead horse over this. I also know that I haven’t exactly endeared myself to AAI members by constantly harping on just how idiotic it was to have chosen Maher for any award that has the word “science” anywhere in its criteria. It wouldn’t have mattered on iota to me if the AAI had chosen to give Maher a “best atheist movie” award or some sort of activism award. But it didn’t. It chose to give Maher and award, one of the criteria of which involves advocating “increased scientific knowledge,” and that irritated the crap out of me. I even realize that my expressing just how disappointed I was in Richard Dawkins’ nonchalant, “he’s anti-religion, so who gives a rat’s ass about his views on alt-med?” reaction to criticism of the selection doesn’t endear me to Dawkins’ fans.

I don’t care. His “shruggie” attitude towards someone who should have been featured in the second part of Dawkin’s documentary, The Enemies of Reason, as one of the woo-meisters he skewered demands his being called out.

In fact, I’m going to put into operation earlier than I had previously intended something I had planned on doing ever since I found out that Maher was going to be given the Richard Dawkins Award. My original intent was to posted a request a few days before the AAI Convention. What would this request be? I was planning on requesting from my readers suggestions for questions to ask both Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins at the AAI about Bill Maher’s beliefs in quackery and woo. I will repeat the request in one week. Then, the day before the AAI conference begins, I will post a list of these questions, assuming I have a sufficient number of good ones. Yeah, I’m trying to make trouble, and I don’t apologize for it. In fact, I’m just doing what PZ suggested, and helping to give those of you who are disgusted with Maher as I am ammunition to help put him in the hot seat.

Attendees of the AAI conference, feel free to use them. Put Bill Maher on the spot. Put Richard Dawkins on the spot.

Reason, rationality, and science demand it.