The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award (a.k.a Bill Maher): Antivaccine lunatic and quackery supporter

Here we go again. The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, anti-vaccine wingnut and lover of cancer quackery Bill Maher, decided to use the occasion of the season finale of Real Time with Bill Maher to answer some of the criticisms that have been leveled against him. All I can say is this: I’m incredibly grateful that this is the season finale of Maher’s show. I don’t think I can take much more of his moronic anti-science stances being proudly trumpeted.

It was painful to watch and showed very much that Bill Maher still doesn’t get it. In fact, if anything, he escalated his quack arguments to a whole new level. True, he states up front that he isn’t a germ theory denialist, lamely claiming that maybe he was a “bit too cocky” when he said that diet and healthy living (plus avoiding the ubiquitous “toxins”) would protect him from the flu, but that’s a load of steaming, stinking, toxin-laden bullshit, as my posts on the subject over the last five years show. Here is but a small sampling:

No, what Maher has said in the past was far, far more than just arguing that a healthy diet and exercise can maximize your resistance to infection with the flu or other infectious diseases, which is true but in a trivial sort of way. If that’s all Bill Maher had said, then I would have had little or no problem with him. But that’s not all that he said or even what he said. Rather, he parroted a lie about Louis Pasteur that he had “recanted” on his deathbed, echoing the same sorts of false “deathbed conversion” stories that circulate claiming that Charles Darwin recanted about evolution. The implication was plain: That Pasteur had doubted germ theory on his deathbed and come over to his rival, Antoine Beauchamp, who had claimed that it wasn’t the microbes that caused disease but rather the “biological terrain.” While it is true that immunosuppressed or debilitated patients are more susceptible to various infections, many, many pathogenic microbes can still cause serious disease in perfectly healthy people. The strain of virus responsible for the 1918 influenza pandemic, for instance, tended to kill younger and healthier people. Indeed, it got started in the U.S. in an Army barracks, and it doesn’t get much healthier than young men between the ages of 18-22 in the military. Similarly, the current H1N1 (a.k.a. “swine flu”) pandemic shows disturbing signs of similarly affecting the young more severely. Maher also said on many occasions that he views disease as being due to “aggregate toxicity” from all the “toxins” of modern life and the “poisons” that we ingest.

Bill Maher’s claim that he is not a germ theory denialist rings hollow. He mouths the words, but his history shows otherwise.

Then Bill goes completely off the rails:

…I do understand the theory of inoculation. Yes, you give someone a little bit of the disease and it fools your body into providing antibodies which fight it. Brilliant! Bravo! Maybe there is some occasions where inoculation is a wise thing to do. I hope not. I hope I would never have to have one because, you know, to present it just as this genius medical advancement, no, it’s actually a risky medical procedure that begs long term cost-benefit analysis.

If anyone still doubts that the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award (Bill Maher) is anti-vaccine, pure and simple, to his very core the above statement should lay to rest any doubts. Vaccination is not a “risky medical procedure.” It is among the safest medical procedures there is. Depending on the disease, it is also among the most effective. Arguably, no medical intervention ever envisioned by human beings has saved more lives at so low a cost and so low a risk as vaccination. His ignorance is just as toxic as any of those “toxins” he fears, particularly his ignorance that vaccination has undergone and continues to undergo long term cost-benefit analyses, safety monitoring, and study.

The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award is an anti-vaccine loon, plain and simple. He then goes on to prove it even more conclusively:

I mean if you don’t believe me, just look on the CDC website as to what is in the swine flu vaccine. You know, aluminum, insect repellent, formaldehyde, mercury, you know, that’s right on their website. Don’t take it from a talk show host.

Oh, no! TOXINS! Injected into the children! Oh, the humanity!

I suppose I should be relieved that the the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award didn’t parrot the anti-vaccine lie about “antifreeze” or “fetal parts” in the vaccines. I suppose I should be grateful for small favors. Of course, mercury is so….2004 or 2005. For one thing, it hasn’t been in chldhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine since late 2001. More importantly, numerous studies have failed to show a link between mercury and autism–or any other neurological condition, for that matter. The idea that mercury in vaccines somehow causes autism is a failed hypothesis, so much so that anti-vaccine zealots started to distance themselves from it two years ago. Why do you think they came up with “too many too soon” and “green our vaccines“?

Meanwhile, aluminum is the new mercury, even though it has an excellent safety record going back 80 years as an adjuvant in vaccines. Come to think of it, the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award blamed the flu vaccine and its aluminum for Alzheimer’s disease, parroting yet another anti-vaccine lie from another anti-vaccine whackaloon named Hugh Fudenberg, and he was doing it back in 2005! So this latest bit on aluminum is nothing new for the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award. As for formaldehyde, as I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions before, that’s one of the all-time dumbest anti-vaccine arguments of all. Indeed, when our resident anti-vaccine apologist pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon tried the “formaldehyde gambit,” I schooled him so hard that he never repeated it again.

I will admit that the “insect repellent” gambit is a new one on me. I looked at the CDC list of vaccine ingredients and couldn’t find anything resembling a pesticide or insect repellant chemical. I may not know enough to have identified it; so I did a bit of digging. Guess where I found this one? Really, take a guess? Surprise, surprise! I found it on the uber conspiracy website, which complains about the adjuvant MF59, stating that it is made up of Tween 80, squalene, and Span85, about the last of which it says:

Span85: Patented by the now defunct Chiron (bought by Novartis). Its chemical name is Sorbitan Trioleate. It is an oily liquid used in medicine, textiles, cosmetics, and paints as an emulsifier, anti-rust agent, and thickener. [Some factories in China specialize only in manufacturing Tween 80 and Span 85.] According to the Pesticide Action Network North America [PANNA], this chemical is used as a pesticide. It is also used as an adjuvant and is “toxic to humans, including carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity.”(16)

This is just plain silly, because, as revere has pointed out, the H1N1 vaccines used in the U.S. have no adjuvant, MF-59, squalene, or otherwise. Indeed, he was concerned about the lack of an adjuvant because without an adjuvant the vaccine requires more antigen to provoke an immune response. Given that the U.S. has purchased a lot of antigen, thus squeezing the supply for other nations, revere concluded that the U.S. should use an adjuvanted vaccine as well, particularly given that MF59 has been used in Europe for a dozen years without mishap. Basically, Maher’s whine appears to be an even more ridiculous version of the “squalene gambit.” Again, remember that the dose makes the poison. As is the case for aluminum, there is no good evidence that squalene or MF59 is harmful at the doses used in vaccines and plenty of evidence that it is safe. It’s also possible Maher may have meant polyoxyethylene sorbitan, which is sometimes be used in an insect repellents. Whatever the case, it’s nothing more than using scary chemical names. I guess the “insect repellent” gambit is the new “formaldehyde” and “fetal cells” gambit, if you know what I mean.

Next, Maher will be complaining about the dihydromonoxide in vaccines. After all, it’s the biggest component, and it can kill!

In any case, that’s not all the pseudoscientific nonsense that the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award lays down. He immediately launched into a diatribe blaming his childhood allergies on vaccines or perhaps the “mercury they drilled into my teeth,” plaintively arguing, “So, I’m not a nut for asking…They do some stupid things, and you’re not a nut for asking.”

Oh, goody. The old “I’m just askin'” gambit. Ugh. Actually, Bill, you are a nut for asking because the questions you ask reveal that you have no clue what you’re talking about.

But that’s not the worst. This is:

People have said, “Well, Bill, there are people now dying of the swine flu who were in good health.” By whose standards? Hospitals serve Jello. They have fast food franchises in their lobby. The autopsy report on Michael Jackson came back, and they said he was in good health. OK, to me he looked a little pale. So, I don’t always agree with what Western medicine says means good health.

Holy flaming non sequitur, Batman!

Finally, we have the “censorship gambit,” with the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award pontificating after Chris Matthews asks him why countries require vaccination before you can enter them, asking rhetorically if they’re all wrong:

What I know is that what Western medicine likes to do is to close off debate.

Bullshit, Bill. Bullshit.

It’s scientific medicine where the debate occurs. There’s been endless debate over who should be vaccinated, how effective the vaccine is, how bad the pandemic is going to be, who’s at most risk for the swine flu. That’s exactly what scientific medicine (referred to disparagingly by the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award as “Western medicine”) excels at. The problem is that the debate over whether vaccination works and is effective has already occured and didn’t go the way Bill Maher believes. He doesn’t like that. Maher even spews the easily refuted claim that it wasn’t the polio vaccine that eliminated polio.

The stupid, it burns. Paralyzingly. As if Maher contracted polio of the intellect.

Chris Matthews was brilliant, though, when he asked Maher why he’s “fighting this fight.” Maher’s lame response:

Just to say that we need a debate about it. Just to say that the science is not settled. What I was attacked for was to say that I don’t believe in this, that we should look into it, and lots of people feel the same way. This is not settled science like global warming. That’s what they’re trying to say, that it’s as crazy as fighting global warming or evolution.

Actually Bill, the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, I’ll tell you something: It’s arguably even crazier than fighting global warming or evolution. As harmful as anti-evolution or AGW denialism can be, the consequences are far off in the future, particularly for AGW denialism, where it’ll be decades at least. That makes it hard for many people to understand the harm, and perhaps somewhat understandably so. For anti-vaccine pseudoscience like what Bill Maher spews, the public health consequences are immediate and severe. People will die now, possibly lots of people, particularly children. Chris Matthews nailed it perfectly, too, when he compared Bill Maher to Tom Cruise denouncing psychology and therapy. The horrified look on Bill Maher’s face after that accusation was priceless. I suspect that Maher had never had his medical ignorance so pitch perfectly called out before.

Unfortunately, there’s little or no hope that Maher will change, I’m afraid. After all, he was clearly responding to criticism from the New York Times and possibly Michael Shermer’s open letter to him yesterday. The very fact that Maher went out of his way to say that he is a germ theory denialist tells me that maybe, just maybe, my criticisms have bubbled up through various others to penetrate the southern California, celebrity woo culture in which Maher thrives, to bother him a bit. After all, at the risk of partaking of the arrogance that the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award has in abundance, I was one of the earliest bloggers, possibly (although I’m not sure about this) the earliest, to point out Maher’s germ theory denialism. Certainly, I was hammering this home long before PZ Myers, Michael Shermer, or virtually any other skeptic other than perhaps Skeptico (who is probably the only one who started in on Maher before I did) had even heard of Maher’s promotion of quackery. I’ve been the most consistent at hammering away at him for it over the years.

Yeah, I know I’m being a bit pissy and perhaps even a bit petulant and childish, but I think I’m entitled to indulging the less savory sides of my personality in this case, at least just a little bit. Please indulge me. While I’m glad to see others finally–finally–waking up to what a pseudoscientific whackaloon Maher is, it’s hard for me not to remember four and a half years of sounding the alarm, with very few paying much attention except for sporadically. Certainly the AAI didn’t pay any attention whatsoever.

My annoyance at the sudden outrage of Johnny-come-lately’s aside at something that those of us who have been paying attention have known at least since 2005, the charge of germ theory denialism clearly got to Maher. It really appeared bothered him. However the chickens finally came home to roost, Maher has at long last been confronted with just how batshit insane science-based physicians and rational lay people think he is on the issues of vaccination, the flu, and infectious disease in general, and he doesn’t like it one bit, particularly being appropriately compared to AGW denialists, creationists, and, above all, Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, instead of doing what rational, science-based people do when faced with science and scientists telling him he is wrong, it is abundantly clear that the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, Bill Maher, is simply retreating further and further into quackery, anti-vaccine lies, and pseudoscience.

ADDENDUM: Ye gods! The world has truly turned upside down. There’s another post on that vast repository of antivaccine woo, The Huffington Post, entitled Bill Maher Is Still Wrong About Swine Flu Vaccine. When I see three posts in less than a week on HuffPo defending the swine flu vaccine, I worry. A lot. I seriously fear that it’s a sign of the Apocalypse.

In any case, the usual cast of HuffPo anti-vaccine wingnuts have already descended. Here’s another chance to lend some tactical air support.