Quoth Michael Minkoff, let’s not keep healthcare safe and secular!


I’ve been a bit of a bad, bad boy. Well, not exactly. Rather, I’ve just been a bit lazy and/or forgetful. I know, I know. How can the ultimate Tarial cell-fueled supercomputer in the neat, compact form of a Plexiglass-encased cube of multicolored blinking lights be lazy or forgetful? Maybe “lazy and forgetful” are the wrong words. After all, my namesake (or should I say “‘nymsake”) Orac was well known for being easily distracted when he encountered an observation or question that interested him (such as black holes and limericks), so much so that it sometimes got the crew of the Liberator into trouble. It’s not for nothing that I frequently liken myself to Dug the Dog when he sees a squirrel.

In any case, a couple of months ago, when the Center For Inquiry launched its Keep Health Care Safe and Secular initiative, somehow I never mentioned it. There’s a lot there for skeptics to like, particularly the opposition to quackery, the antivaccine movement, and the infiltration of religious control over health care choices, particularly women’s reproductive health. I will admit that, although I’m very much in favor of withdrawing care in hopeless situations if that’s what the patient or, if the patient is not competent to decide due to unconsciousness or whatever other reason, if that’s what the family wants, as a physician I wasn’t at all pleased with CFI’s staunch advocacy for physician-assisted suicide. But overall, the campaign is something I can get behind, my disagreement with one part notwithstanding.

Fortunately, fellow Michigan skeptic Ed Brayton gave me an excuse to promote this CFI initiative by pointing me in the direction of a truly quackalicious attack on it by someone named Michael Minkoff entitled Anti-Faith Center for Inquiry Fights for “Safe and Secular” Healthcare.

Oooh. Scare quotes! That’ll convince ‘em!

You can get an idea of the silliness of Minkoff’s argument right here:

Presumably, the Center for Inquiry is all about choice and freedom of inquiry, so it’s odd that they should start a campaign that attempts to end choices and extinguish inquiry. For instance, their pro-vaccination campaign seems hellbent on forcing people to get vaccinated.

Minkoff says that as though it were a bad thing.

Of course, the CFI campaign does nothing of the sort. With exceedingly rare exceptions, we don’t “force people to get vaccinated” in this country. Rather, we do have vaccine mandates, which require adherence to the recommended vaccine schedule if parents wish to enroll their children in public schools or in day care facilities. It’s a system that’s worked for a long time (at least until the Internet helped fuel the rise of the current generation of antivaccine activists), and no one’s strapping children down against their parents’ will and vaccinating them. Moreover, as I have discussed before many times, all states permit medical exemptions to vaccination (as well they should!). As far as nonmedical exemptions go, all but but two states (Mississippi and West Virginia, believe it or not) allow religious exemptions to vaccination (which are frequently abused), while nineteen allow philosophical exemptions based on “personal beliefs.”

Nothing in CFI’s campaign says anything of the sort. Rather, CFI advocates countering vaccine misinformation promulgated by the antivaccine movement and the rolling back of philosophic and religious exemptions. It’s a massively uphill battle, as the experience in California recently has demonstrated. Two years ago, the California legislature passed California Bill AB 2109. All AB 2109 did was to require parents to speak to a doctor or school nurse and have him or her sign the form before a personal belief exemption would be permitted. True, the bill was also amended to include “naturopathic physicians” (i.e., quacks), who are the favored health care provider of many antivaccinationist because naturopaths tend to be antivaccine themselves, as “health care practitioners” permitted to sign the forms, but overall it was a win against relentless opposition, including celebrities like Rob Schneider.

Given the degradation of herd immunity occurring due to the increasing use of non-medical “philosophical” exemptions to vaccine mandates, idea was simply to make it a little more difficult to obtain a philosophical or religious exemption to the school vaccine mandate than simply signing a piece of paper, the thinking being that parents who weren’t necessarily opposed to vaccines but just never bothered might take that way out. When the bill was passed, however, Governor Jerry Brown basically neutered it with a signing statement that basically went against the clear language of the law and instructed the California Department of Public health thusly:

Additionally, I will direct the department to allow for a separate religious exemption on the form. In this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner’s signature.

The result was a form that was no more helpful than the old form. Basically, Jerry Brown betrayed the children of California and subverted the clear intent of AB 2109 as a sop to the religious. This is the sort of thing CFI is opposing.

Minkoff is also unhappy about CFI’s position on women’s reproductive health, ranting that “their reproductive health campaign seeks to force taxpayers to pay for other people’s abortions and birth control.” This is, of course, a silly argument, given that the government “forces” people to pay for things they don’t approve of all the time. Pacifists can’t refuse to pay taxes because they disapprove of massive military spending, for instance. Ultraconservatives can’t refuse to pay their payroll tax because they disapprove of Social Security and Medicare. Advocates of drug legalization can’t refuse to pay taxes because their taxes go to fund the drug war. I can’t refuse to pay taxes because I disapprove of the hundreds of millions of dollars that go to fund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Center’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, whose budget rivals that of NCCAM and whose acronym (OCCAM) is about as wrong as wrong can be. Supporter of quackery are forcing me to pay for research into quackery through my taxes!

You get the idea. The idea behind CFI’s campaign is that certain religions shouldn’t be able to impose their religious beliefs through government policy on women who may not share those religious beliefs, such as conservatives whose religion objects to birth control doing everything they can to deny access to birth control to women who have every right to use it.

And don’t get Minkoff started on alternative medicine:

And their alternative medicine campaign seeks to snuff out any medical practices that fall outside the “conventional medicine” umbrella.

Again, Minkoff says that as though it were a bad thing.

Of course, all CFI is doing is opposing (1) the spending of taxpayer dollars on medicine that is not science-based or is even pure quackery, as much of CAM is; (2) large pharmacy chains selling homeopathic quackery and other supplements; (3) the infiltration of pure quackery into hospitals (such as reiki); and (4) the senseless slaughter of animals to produce “alternative medicines,” such as rhinos for their horns.

In addition, the CFI has petitioned the FDA to regulate homeopathic remedies as they do drugs. Unfortunately, it’s probably an effort that’s doomed to fail without a change in the law. The reason, as Jann Bellamy explained, is that in 1938 when the Congress passed the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act, the Act’s principal author, Senator Royal Copeland, was a physician who practiced homeopathy. He managed to include all the articles monographed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS) in the definition of drugs within the FDCA. The end result was that, if the product is in the HPUS, it’s legal. As long as that part of the law stands, it’s unlikely that the FDA will ever regulate homeopathic remedies. Similarly, it would likely require a change in law to allow the FDA to regulate homeopathic remedies as it does other drugs, just as it would take a change in the Dietary Supplement and Health Act of 1994 (DSHEA) to allow the FDA to regulate supplements more closely. Indeed, even small attempts to tighten up the DSHEA of 1994 meet with fierce resistance from the supplement lobby, chief among them Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). If anything, more attempts have been made to weaken the already weak DSHEA than anything else.

Of course, Minkoff will have none of this, because to him CFI and skeptics like me are apparently totally “arrogant”:

I’m so sick of this pompous attitude. There is a reason why people don’t listen to pro-vaccination campaigns, pro-abortion rants, and diatribes against alternative medicine. Because they are just as manipulative, arm-twisting, intractable, and unreasonable as they say their opponents are. If anything, inquiry requires an open mind.

Ah, yes. Such doggerel. Skeptics are not only “arrogant” but they’re “close-minded.” Of course, this is the classic whine that, because I don’t accept your evidence-free (or even evidence-challenged) viewpoint or at least treat it with respect, even though it deserves no such consideration, I must be “arrogant.” It’s also the appeal to the open-minded. As I like to say, being open-minded is indeed necessary for science, but one can’t be so open-minded that one’s brain oozes out from his ears.

Being open-minded means considering ideas on their merit, such that if sufficient evidence can be marshaled in support of a claim the open-minded person will change his mind. Mr. Minkoff is more than welcome to demonstrate that alternative medicine is supportable by the evidence and see if he can change my mind. Instead, he cries, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” (By those nasty skeptics and atheists, of course!) In reality, such appeals to open-mindedness are ad hominem attacks designed to make their opponent appear intolerant without the pesky need to provide actual evidence, science, and logical arguments to support their position. What Minkoff really means by “open-minded” is “credulous,” although he doesn’t realize it, which is why his conclusion is pure hilarity:

For all their espousals of open-mindedness, the Center for Inquiry has a vision for the world that is unbendingly totalitarian and as narrow as the edge of a scalpel. The Center for Inquiry is right: religious dogma—faith—is the problem here. But not the Christian faith. As is proved time and time again, the greatest threat to freedom and inquiry in the world is the irremediably close-minded secular faith.

I’m only surprised that Minkoff had sufficient self-control not to actually mention Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin (and, of course, Chairman Mao). The problem, of course, is that CFI is not acting on “faith,” secular or otherwise. It is simply advocating for policies rooted in evidence and science and not constructed to allow religious beliefs to be favored over others.

I was curious who Michael Minkoff is, given that I haven’t seen arguments this bad in a while. I noticed that he’s obviously creationist, having penned a howler entitled Evolutionists Continue Their War on Science, complete with tedious ranting about “materialists in white lab coats” and a lot of handwaving. It did, however pique my interest enough to think that maybe I should look at some newer creationist claims in more detail. On the other hand, if the quality of his anti-evolution arguments is any indication, creationists haven’t gotten any more clever since last I really paid close attention to their arguments.

As for Minkoff, I think Ed nails it when he tells Minkoff that if he thinks vaccinations don’t work and cause all sorts of horrible things he’s just wrong. Of course, I rather suspect that Minkoff is one of those conservative/libertarian types who is in favor of “health freedom” and is prone to antivaccine views because he hates the idea of the big evil government telling him what to do more than anything else, regardless of the effect on other people. Either way, his attempt to attack CFI is breathtakingly dumb. As one of Ed’s commenters wondered, would Minkoff complain if people with Ebola virus disease were forced to be quarantined, or would he be fine with them living next door and using homeopathy to treat their disease?