Bill Maher flames out in a pyre of stupidity over vaccines–again

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again.

Yes, I know I’ve used this clip before at least twice and the line in it several more times over the last couple of years. However, sometimes it’s just so completely appropriate to how I’m feeling about a topic I’m about to write about that I just don’t care and have to use it again. This is one of those times. The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award bestowed upon him by the Atheist Alliance International (a.k.a. Bill Maher, anti-vaccine comedian and host of Real Time With Bill Maher, has decided, after an all too brief absence, to lay down a swath of burning stupid about vaccines again. When last we left Maher, he was busily embarrassing himself on the last two episodes of his television show, first by getting slapped down hard by Bill Frist, of all people (and, after his antics during the Terry Schiavo controversy, Bill Frist comes across as the voice of reason compared to Maher, Maher’s got a serious problem) and next having his arguments dismembered unceremoniously on the season finale of his show, concluding with his having his head handed to him (nay punted right back at him like a smug, smirking football) by Chris Matthews, who compared him to a celebrity Scientologist like Tom Cruise attacking psychiatry.

The horrified look on Maher’s face was priceless. Direct, hit Chris, right below the waterline. I only wish you had had time to finish the job while the woo ship Maher was listing and taking on water.

If you had, I might not have had to see this assault on reason by Maher published on Sunday on–where else?–that bastion of anti-vaccine quackery, The Huffington Post, in the form of a post entitled Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having, a post that he also crossposted on his own blog here. All I can say is this: If you had any doubts that Bill Maher is an unreconstructed anti-vaccine loon, this post provides conclusive evidence, all topped off with a heapin’ helpin’ of arrogance of ignorance and that special brand of vacuous self-absorption that few aside from celebrities are capable of. Oh, the pain to read this.

First off, Maher is apparently very, very unhappy that he’s been sucked into this debate. More like he’s never actually been called out so publicly for his medical and scientific ignorance before or so clearly revealed to be anti-science when it comes to medicine. He doesn’t like it, not one bit. So he starts out by complaining about how the topic is coming up in every interview he does these days. I also think he was particularly hurt by Michael Shermer’s excellent (but far too polite for the situation) Open Letter to Bill Maher. Never does it cross Maher’s fragile eggshell mind that the reason that the topic of vaccines in general and the flu vaccine in particular are coming up so often in his interviews is because of–oh, maybe, just maybe–his history on the topic. It’s not as though Maher hasn’t been laying down swaths of antivaccine nonsense hither and yon since at least 2005, which was the first time I noticed him. It’s not exactly a secret that Maher’s been an anti-vaccine loon who “doesn’t believe in Western medicine” for many years now. He’s been “questioning” vaccines and “Western medicine” (a code word for science-based medicine among the woo set) for years now, both in his comedy act and on his show. So–surprise! surprise!–when a flu pandemic shows up in 2009 and the government gears up for a mass vaccination program to combat it, why is Maher surprised that the topic comes up a lot on his show or whenever he does interviews? More likely, he’s surprised at the amount of justified criticism he’s taken for his anti-scientific health views. After being given a free pass for at least five years, suddenly people are noticing just how flaky Maher’s medical views are. So now, a month after the most recent season of his show ended, he shows up on that quackfest known as HuffPo to try to defend himself.

The results, predictably, are pathetic. He starts out with an argumentum ad populum, along with a bit of conspiracy-mongering:

I agree with my critics who say there are far more qualified people than me — its just that mainstream media rarely interviews doctors and scientists who present an alternative point of view. There is a movement to stop people from asking any questions about vaccines — they’re a miracle, that’s it, debate over. I don’t think its that simple, and neither do millions of other people. The British Medical Journal from August 25 says half the doctors and medical workers in the U.K. are not taking the flu shot — are they all crazy too? Sixty-five percent of French people don’t want it. Maybe its not as simple as the medical establishment wants to paint it.

Ah, yes. Two big fat logical fallacies. First, there’s the straw man argument. No scientist says that vaccines are a “miracle” and that’s it. What scientists do do is to reject the pseudoscientific, germ theory denialist blather that celebrity idiots like Bill Maher routinely lay down for popular consumption. Are scientists who proclaim the evidence for evolution sound and that for creationism to be “pseudoscience” declaring Darwin to be a miracle and “that’s it”? No, they’re slapping down pseudoscientific, religion-inspired anti-science. Particularly rich is the other logical fallacy on display here, argumentum ad populum (one of my favorite logical fallacies). It’s pretty funny coming from someone like Maher, who in the post points out how he makes fun of religion, saying he’s the “religion guy” not the “vaccine guy.” Here’s a hint: Religion is very, very popular, particularly in the United States. Does its popularity mean that Maher is wrong about it? How about this example? Lots and lots of people believe in ghosts. Does that mean ghosts are real? Lots of people believe 9/11 to have been an inside job. They associate with or are sympathetic to a group known as “9/11 Truthers,” a group that Maher himself has correctly mocked as a bunch of conspiracy theorist loons. Does that mean the Mossad brought down the Twin Towers? Or how about the multiple polls that show that 50% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution. Hmmm. Maybe that means there’s a legitimate reason to doubt the theory of evolution. No, I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimate controversies to discuss about the flu vaccine. Because a lot of people are afraid of them doesn’t mean they’re unsafe.

Now here’s where it gets hilarious. Bill Maher tries to demonstrate that he’s serious, maaaan! He understands complexity and nuance. Really:

Vaccination is a nuanced subject, and I’ve never said all vaccines in all situations are bad. The point I am representing is: Is getting frequent vaccinations for any and all viruses consequence-free? I feel its unnecessary and counterproductive to try and silence people with condescension. Michael Shermer wrote me an open letter and felt I needed to be told that “vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given.” Thanks, Doc, I thought there might be a little man inside the needle. Yes, I read Microbe Hunters when I was eight, I have a basic idea how vaccines work.

Nice condescending snark. And to a buddy like Shermer, too! You don’t think Maher is a bit peeved that Shermer called him out publicly, do you? Given the monumental depths of ignorance that Maher has displayed, though, can anyone blame Shermer for feeling the need to explain the situation to Maher as though he were an eight-year-old before he read Microbe Hunters? I don’t blame Shermer one bit, that’s for sure. Maher needs the blog equivalent of speaking very slowly and spelling things out with very clear enunuciation, and even that probably won’t get the message through. In any case, Bill seems even more condescending when he lectures that vaccines are a “nuanced subject”? Really, Bill? I never would have guessed that you appreciated this fact from your statements on them. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some things Maher has said. I wonder if he thinks these statments are “nuanced”:

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.

Yep, lying about Louis Pasteur and saying you “don’t believe” in vaccination sure seems “nuanced” to me. And Maher sure sounds like he understands vaccination when he says things like:

  • “I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic.”
  • “A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.”
  • “Well, I hate to tell you…but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease.” (Note, as I described, this is a lie hawked by antivaccine macher Hugh Fudenberg.)
  • “A flu shot just compromises your immune system.”

Yep, that’s a pretty nuanced set of views there, Bill. Of course, Maher has an excuse for his lack of nuance:

Some of it can’t be helped, some of that is the nature of the show we do: live, off the cuff, lots of interruptions. Some of it was just from me being overexcited about finally finding a health regimen that actually made me healthier and feel better. And many a time I have wanted to stop the show and clarify a point or provide the nuance I think it deserves, but I am serving many masters, and you have to get out of the way as much as you can so the guests can say their piece.

Really? It seems to me that Bill’s gotten plenty of opportunity to pontificate on vaccines to his heart’s content. Personally, my guess is that a lot of his producers probably wish he’d shut up about vaccines and stick to politics. He only embarrasses himself whenever he discusses medicine. No one expects serious medical discussions from Maher, but, geez Louise, could we at least not have to put up with full blown, full mental jacket paranoid conspiracy theories about “Western medicine”? I do like his excuse that “if he had only had more time,” he’d have…well, read Maher’s own words:

I’m just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country, I’m not telling a specific pregnant lady what to do. With unlimited air time, I would have, for example, added to my discussion with Dr. Bill Frist on October 2 that, yes, any flu or health challenge can be dangerous when you’re pregnant, and if your immune system is already compromised by, for example, eating a typical American diet, then a flu shot can make sense. But someone needs to be representing the point of view that says the preferred way to handle flus is to have a strong immune system to begin with, and getting lots of vaccines might not be the best way to accomplish that over the long haul.

No doubt if Maher had “more time,” we would have heard more of the same sort of misinformation, ignorance, and misunderstanding of science saying that vaccines harm the immune system, diet and exercise and the right supplements can protect you from infectious disease, and “Western medicine” is plotting to keep you fat, unhealthy, and dependent on its drugs. This is utter nonsense. There’s no doubt that in general it’s a good idea to try to stay healthy through the right combination of diet and exercise, but nutrition and exercise are not going to protect Bill or anyone else from the flu. Has Bill not heard? The H1N1 strain of the flu is actually more dangerous than your average flu for the young. It’s struck down, for example, Prof. Keith Fagnou, a 38 years old chemist, who died from the what appears to have been H1N1 infection is a very short time. He had no underlying medical conditions and was perfectly healthy. H1N1 has been taking a high toll among children, as well. Once again, this is nothing more than more of the same implication from Maher that, if you just “live right” and eat right, you will be somehow magically immune to the flu, combined with the lamest disclaimer ever about Maher’s downright irresponsible and dangerous advice telling pregnant women not to get vaccinated against H1N1, advice that has the potential to result in deaths and complications.

Maher then makes this virtually explicit and gets despicable:

Now, sometimes it’s OK to fuck with nature — I believe “intelligent design” is often anything but intelligent; that “God’s perfect universe” is actually full of fuck ups and design flaws, like cleft lips and Down Syndrome — so correcting nature is sometimes the right thing to do. And then, sometimes its not. For me, the flu shot is in the “not” category.

Nice sensitivity, there, Bill. I’m sure people with Down Syndrome and cleft lips like to be referred to as “nature’s fuck-ups.” His lovely sensitivity, aside Maher has a germ of a point, but not in the way he thinks. Nature is indeed a harsh mistress. There are all sorts of microbes out there that routinely cause disease and death, yes, even to perfectly healthy (or seemingly so) middle-aged comedians who think that their bitchin’ diet protects them from anything. These microbes can’t be reasoned with. They don’t respond to “intention.” They don’t care that much about your diet or what supplements you take. Vaccines can help us overcome that. Moreover, there’s no logic there. Down syndrome can’t be corrected, while cleft lips can. Flu can be prevented. Not as effectively as we might like, given the vagaries of having to guess the flu strain against which we need ot vaccinate each year, but the risk-benefit ratio for prevention is clearly in favor of vaccines. Moreover, there’s nothing “unnatural” about the flu vaccine, as Maher implies. It simply activates the immune system using the same sets of antigens that the flu virus itself does.

But what really bothers me about this part is that Maher seems to have fallen for what is one of the most despicable parts of “alternative medicine,” namely the thinking, every bit as magical as any religion that Maher mocks, namely that , if you only just eat the right foods, take the right supplements, and do the right things, you’ll never get sic. Here’s the despicable part. The implied converse of that world view is that if you get sick it must be your fault for not doing the right things. That smug attitude permeates the entire post, particularly the part where Maher disparagingly says that the flu vaccine might be worthwhile if you’re sick already or your immune system’s somehow compromised then you might need the flu vaccine. Maher, of course, being among the “righteous” (namely an alt-med aficianado who does everything right, or at least so he thinks) he doesn’t need vaccines.

And to listen to Maher, his audience is bright. Oh so bright. So much brighter than those stupid rubes and sheeple like Britney Spears who just do what they’re told and get vaccinated. Too bad Maher isn’t bright enough to realize that he’s far more of a stupid rube and sheeple than the worst parody he can come up with of people who accept the efficacy and safety of vaccines. He’s been fed a bunch of antivaccine nonsense and lapped it up eagerly like, well, a sheep, as he demonstrates when he regurgitates the formaldehyde gambit and claims that there’s insect repellent in vaccines (the former of which I’ve deconstructed here and the latter here), clearly proving that he’s learned absolutely nothing.

But how can that be? Maher’s so smart! Just like his audience! Just ask him! That’s when Bill Maher Super Genius takes pity on us poor ignorant schlubs who just don’t understand:

But just to reassure all those people who have such a romantic attachment to vaccines: I know, there are vaccines that have had their battles with the bad guys and won — great! And if you have a compromised immune system and can’t boost it naturally, as in poor countries where the children are eating dirt, then a vaccine can be a white knight — bravo!

Yep, if you have an emotional attachment, it’s OK! Of course, to Maher, no vaccines are needed for us upstanding white people in rich countries! Bill doesn’t think most of us need them. Only those poor blighted colored people suffering in poverty need them. (Yes, that’s what Bill sounds like to me.) And Maher parrots again the anti-vaccine claim that it wasn’t the polio vaccine that eliminated polio, citing “interesting facts on the other side.” That is simply not true. The vaccine eliminated polio from the U.S. After all, 50 or 60 years ago, American cities still lived in fear of summer polio outbreaks, often leading to the closing of public swimming pools and other measures. Sanitation wasn’t particularly bad back then. Actually, it was pretty good. Yet we still had tens of thousands of cases of polio a year. Whenever vaccination efforts flag, polio returns.

What’s really hilarious are the “experts” that Maher cites. They include the grande dame of the anti-vaccine movement and founder of the National Vaccine Information Center (what a wonderfully Orwellian name!), Barbara Loe Fisher. Suffice it to say that she runs the one of the oldest and largest anti-vaccine organizations in the country, one that just held a quackfest a month and a half ago in which the anti-vaccine movement cleverly camouflaged itself as a seemingly legitimate medical conference. Maher’s second cited expert is–get this!–Dr. Russell Blaylock. You remember Dr. Blaylock, don’t you? I recently discussed his crank magnetism in response to his being featured in Suzanne Somers’ recent paean to cancer quackery, Knockout. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a taste again:

Let’s put it this way. A physician lionized on Alex Jones Prison Planet TV is not exactly–oh, how shall I put this?–the most reputable or reliable of medical sources. Suffice it to say that this is the same Alex Jones whose websites, Prison Planet and Infowars, are chock full of New World Order and Illuminati conspiracy woo. Blaylock also is a passionate believer in the myth that vaccines cause autism.

Yep, there’s a convincing “expert” beloved of the very 9/11 Truthers and conspiracy theorists Maher likes to mock.

But who, pray tell, is Maher’s third “expert”? If you haven’t read his post yet, take a guess. I bet you can figure it out. That’s right, it’s our old friend Dr. Jay Gordon! You remember Dr. Jay, don’t you? The likable but extremely misguided pediatrician who thinks that anecdotes trump science and epidemiology and who insists, even though he’s been forced to admit many times that there’s no evidence for his beliefs, that vaccines cause autism. Nice guy or not, a credible voice on vaccines, Dr. Gordon is not. Gee, I wonder if it was Dr. Jay who taught Maher the formaldehyde gambit. Let’s put it this way. Choosing these “experts” to listen to regarding vaccines is akin to choosing Casey Luskin or William Behe as “experts” on evolution or Orly Taitz as an “expert” on Barack Obama’s biography.

Strike three! Maher’s out!

Well, not quite. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to hilariously pathetic effect Maher just refuses to admit when he’s been defeated:

While we’re on the subject of bacteria, let me say clearly I understand germ theory also — I believe they also covered that in Microbe Hunters — nor have I ever said I was a “germ theory denier.” What I’ve been saying is that Western medicine ignores too much the fact that the terrain in which bacteria can thrive is crucial and often controllable, which shouldn’t even be controversial. I don’t care what Louis Pasteur said on his death bed — it was probably, “Either the curtains go or I do” — that’s not the point!

Gee, I think a little bit of Orac penetrated that celebrity bubble of Maher’s, don’t you? Of course, Maher leaves out what he’s really said, namely this to Dr. Bernadine 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.

You know, what I don’t understand is this. If vaccines “compromise your immune system” and flu shots are “the worst thing you can do,” then why on earth would they be expected to help people with supposedly weakened immune systems such as those poor children in Africa living in filth that Maher mentioned earlier? Wouldn’t vaccines make the situation worse and harm all those children with “weakened immune systems”? Do I detect a bit of damage control here? A bit of “readjustment” of the story, so to speak? A bit of using whatever sticks, even if the result is a contradictory mess of nonsensical arguments? Is the Pope Catholic?

But, really, you nasty skeptics who criticize poor, poor Bill, Bill Maher is the “real” skeptic! Not you! HimJust ask him:

And it’s precisely because I am a Darwinist that I fear the overuse of antibiotics, since that is what has allowed nasty killer bugs like MRSA to adapt so effectively that they are often resistant to any antibiotic we can throw at it. There are consequences to vaccines and antibiotics. Some people want to study that, and some, it seems, want to call off the debate.

Instead of setting up this straw man of me not understanding germs or viruses, let’s have a real debate about how much we should use vaccines and antibiotics. Of course it’s good that we have them in our arsenal, but isn’t the real skeptic the one who asks if these powerful but toxic methods do harm to what actually is a a very good defensive system, the one you were born with?

So much crank magnetism, so little energy left in my aching hands to type more responses! I do like the little nod to the straw man logical fallacy. Unfortunately for Maher, I don’t think he quite understands what it is. Be that as it may, note how Maher cleverly, but ignorantly, conflates two quite different issues, the issue of antibiotic resistance, a serious problem, with vaccines, as though the consequences of vaccines are horribly resistant bugs like MRSA or vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, wrapping them all up in “Darwinism” in order to show his science and skeptical cred. Look! See! I like real science and you don’t! They aren’t the same thing, though, and Maher doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as usual. As I’ve seen commenters say here and elsewhere, smallpox vaccination didn’t result in resistant strains of smallpox. It resulted in the eradication of smallpox! But, hey, to point that out is to “muzzle” Maher, to try to call off debate! Yes, Maher wants open “debate”! Just like creationists do! Just like 9/11 Truthers do! Just like Holocaust deniers do! Just like Moon hoaxers do!

I’m just asking questions, you know. Teach the controversy! Come on, Bill, it’s not “suppressing debate” to call a medical ignoramus a medical ignoramus. Make no mistake, you are a medical ignoramus.

Of course, contrary to Maher’s assertions, in reality these very issues are debated, frequently and loudly, in scientific conferences, in policy forums, and at the highest levels of science, industry, and government. The key words are “in reality.” In science, these things are debated in reality, not in the fantasy world of woo in which Maher lives. True, he denies that he’s a conspiracy monger and even tries to convince us that he isn’t, but he fails miserably. I guess ranting about how drug companies just doesn’t convince me. But that’s just me. Of course, to Maher, we “not true skeptics” are nothing but sheeple doing what the government tells us to do:

I believe in science and I believe in studies to determine the truth. I also believe Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was correct when he said recently on MSNBC: “If you’ve got a checkbook in this town, you can get just about any set of facts you want.” So if I remind you of a conspiracy theorist, you sometimes remind me of Britney Spears when she said “we should just do whatever the president says to do, and not ask questions and just support him.” The medical community can be brutal on dissent, which would hold more weight if I thought this was a terribly healthy country, which it isn’t.

Maher sure has a funny way of showing his “belief” in science and studies. Again, maybe it’s just me, but parroting the misinformation and canards of the anti-vaccine movement, misusing and abusing invocations of evolution, and citing die hard anti-vaccine advocates and anti-vaccine apologists doesn’t strike me as being particularly devoted to science, and Maher sure does like the fallacy of the golden mean, a.k.a. the argument to moderation or the middle ground fallacy:

I always ask my friends when they go to the doctor for something, “Did your doctor ask you what you eat?” The answer is almost always ‘no,’ and a lot can be cured with diet and a healthier lifestyle. (And a lot can’t. I also understand the role of genetics and generations of artificial selection). But Americans don’t want to hear that, so doctors don’t push it. It’s easier and more profitable to write a prescription for Lipitor. They’re not bad people, and at the end of the day, you can’t make someone eat right. I like and respect all the M.D.s I’ve had over the years, and for the record, I have a naturopath doctor and I have a Western doctor. I would make an analogy to Republicans and Democrats: in both politics and health, I don’t commit to either party because I’m on the side of the truth, whoever has it. In both cases, I’m an Independent.

That’s odd. Every doctor I’ve ever had since becoming an adult has always badgered me about what I eat and whether I get enough exercise (which I don’t). Ditto friends’ doctors and families’ doctors. Ditto every primary care doctor whom I know. If what Maher says is true, I have to wonder how they train the doctors out in Malibu. But notice how Maher, true to his alt-med proclivities, blames the victim. To him most diseases are caused by lifestyle and can be “cured” (not just managed, cured) with diet, supplements, and exercise, although he does acknowledge, apparently, that some diseases have a genetic component. How nice. But check out that fallacy of the golden mean, otherwise known as the fallacy of moderation or the middle ground fallacy. Note how he assumes that “Western medicine” is the equivalent of naturopathy and that, as a result, it’s a good idea to have both a naturopath and an evil allopathic–sorry, I mean “Western”–doctor.

Unfortunately for Maher, science and medicine are not politics or religion. You don’t just split the difference and pat yourself on the back for your wisdom. It may work that way in politics, but it sure doesn’t in science. It’s obvious from this pathetic “defense” of his anti-vaccine and anti-science views that Maher doesn’t really know what science is or how it works. He thinks he does, but he doesn’t. He thinks he understands something about medicine, but he doesn’t. He thinks he’s a skeptic, but he’s not–and never will be. He denies being anti-vaccine, but he clearly is.

No doubt, if Maher were ever to see this, he’d call my pointing out his ignorance as “stifling debate.”