After five years, Bill Maher lets his antivaccine freak flag fly again


Note added 2/10/2015: I’ve posted a followup in response to the skeptics who defend Bill Maher.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted the return of the antivaccine wingnut side of Bill Maher, after a (relative) absence of several years, dating back, most likely, to the thorough spanking he endured for spouting off his antivaccine pseudoscience during the H1N1 pandemic. This well-deserved mockery included Bob Costas taunting him on his own show with a sarcastic, “Oh, come on, Superman!” in response to his apparent belief that diet and lifestyle alone would protect him from the flu, as well as Chris Matthews doing the same thing, likening Bill Maher to a celebrity Scientologist denying psychiatry to his face. Then Michael Shermer took him on, gently remonstrating with him, which led Maher to go full mental jacket trying to defend himself. He was even slapped down by Senator Bill Frist for saying he doesn’t believe in vaccines or “Western medicine.” Of course, given that I’ve been covering Maher’s antivaccine proclivities for a decade now, I was under no illusion that he had suddenly gone a conversion to science. Rather, I just thought (correctly, as it turns out) that he was laying low, licking his wounds. So when he went anti-flu vaccine a couple of weeks ago, I wondered if that was a harbinger of things to come.

Then, earlier this week, I saw an editorial by Andrew Kirell, Will Bill Maher Address His Long History of Vaccine Skepticism This Week? Kirell concluded his op-ed asking:

And that brings us to this week. His Real Time panel includes no doctors, but features two conservative pundits and a journalist — any of whom will likely take the opportunity to prod Maher in light of this week’s news.

So will Maher address his history on the matter and say something controversial? It seems unavoidable.

If the episode two weeks ago was just the hors d’oeuvre, this week’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher was the main course of full-on antivaccine wingnuttery. Seriously, this might well be the worst Maher’s ever been with respect to science, yoking in appeals to ignorance, specious comparisons with anthropogenic global warming, various anti-pharma rants, and, of course, GMO hysteria. Here’s the offending segment (although Maher did mention earlier in the show that he’s not “antivaccine” just “anti-flu vaccine”):

For advocates of science, this is painful to watch, as Maher and his guests rubbish vaccines, “Western” medicine, GMOs, big pharma, Monsanto, and all the usual suspects that cranks and quacks attack. Before I address the specific misinformation and pseudoscience promoted in this episode, let me first note that clearly Maher must have learned something from previous embarrassments. For example, his exploratory rant against this year’s flu vaccine (whose efficacy is, unfortunately, less than usual and disappointing) was easily countered by Atul Gawande, a real physician and researcher, just as Bill Frist, a real physician, countered him before. Heck, even Bob Costas and Chris Matthews were able to counter Maher’s misinformation. This time around, Maher clearly made sure there was no one who was likely to contradict his quackery-laden views or take him to task for spreading antivaccine pseudoscience on his show.

First up, there was Marianne Williamson, who apparently ran for Congress last year. But there’s more than that. I had never heard of her before, but apparently she’s some sort of author and “spiritual teacher.” Her blog is New-Agey and woo-ey, as is she, as her Facebook profile shows:

Marianne Williamson is an internationally acclaimed spiritual teacher. Her first book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A COURSE IN MIRACLES, is considered a must-read of The New Spirituality. A paragraph from that book, beginning “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” – often misattributed to Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural address – is considered an anthem for a contemporary generation of seekers.

If you don’t believe me, then read this interview with her about the “Law of Divine Compensation.”

More tellingly, apparently before her appearance on Maher’s show she had been posting links to articles about the Gates Foundation. Or something. Whatever the reason, on February 1 felt the need to post this, where she states that she took down several posts, apparently about vaccines, because her fans were trashing her. At least, that’s all I could figure out from the comments:

Many of the comments after are a veritable hive of antivaccine sentiment, complete with links to articles by antivaccine loons like Gary Null, Sherry Tenpenny, and Mike Adams. If Williamson attracts such an antivaccine crowd, one has to wonder, particularly in light of her performance on Maher’s show. Certainly, even if she is not antivaccine, she is too clueless or doesn’t care enough to make a defense of vaccination.

Another of Maher’s guests is Amy Holmes of The Blaze, which Glenn Beck’s TV channel. Obviously, that’s a bad sign right there, given Glenn Beck’s propensity for conspiracy mongering. I couldn’t find any evidence that she’s ever voiced antivaccine views before (or, for that matter, anything much at all about vaccines). So we have another reporter, this time working for Glenn Beck. This is not a good indication that she has any scientific background.

Finally, there is conservative columnist John McCormack of the Weekly Standard. Contrary to a couple of conservatives who voiced some antivaccine-sympathetic nonsense last week, McCormack is the only one on Maher’s panel who showed a modicum of sense, although he was not willing to challenge Maher that strongly, and one of his challenges was a politically motivated misfire expressing anthropogenic global climate change denialism, as you will see. It’s basically fighting pseudoscience with pseudoscience, and that doesn’t really make a particularly good case.

You know things are not going to go well, scientifically speaking, when, right off the bat, Maher introduces the segment by referring to the meeasles outbreak as the “topic that’s getting everybody crazy in America” and then saying:

When I start these conversations, I always have to say: I’m not an antivaxer. I never have been. I’m an anti-flu shot guy I think that’s bullshit, and the fact that it was only 23% effective this week bears that out. But if Ebola was airborne, I’d get the vaccine tomorrow.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Good thing for Maher that Atul Gawande wasn’t there to school him about the flu vaccine as he did last time as Maher deserved to be schooled. Of course, Gawande is too nice to school Maher as he needs to be schooled and Maher would never allow anyone with both the knowledge and the necessary willingness to call Maher out properly to carry out the task on his show. It is, after all, his show. In any case, I’ve documented more times than I’d care to count that Maher is indeed antivaccine to the core—and pro-quackery to the core. Maher labors under the delusion that he is more rational than everybody else, and his smugness and condescension drip from his very essence, oozing from the television (or computer screen, depending on what you’re watching him on).

It gets even worse when Maher immediately starts complaining about the “attitude of the media,” which he characterized as “just a lot of shut the fuck up.” He even compared it to the first weeks of the Iraq war. This lead Williamson to chime in that the implication was that “if you had any skepticism whatsoever, you were antiscience.” Of course, Bill Maher is anti-science with respect to vaccines, even though he views himself as totally pro-science. So he lapped this up, particularly when she followed it up with the self-serving Maher-approved observation that there is a “difference between having skepticism about science and having skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry.” Truly her stupid did burn brightly. It burns brighter still. Even as she touts that she vaccinated her children, she goes on about how the government has “earned our distrust” and how the “government has suppressed information” and medicine has done the same, she bristles at being called antiscience for being suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry. Her conclusion? She says that the answer is “not to call us kooks” but for the government and pharmaceutical industry to “get their acts together.”

Of course, this is a tactic taken straight from the playbook of the antivaccine movement, to conflate (disingenuously) reasonable suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry’s previous misdeeds with suspicions of vaccines. They are not the same thing, nor is one as reasonable as the other. Whatever misdeeds the pharmaceutical industry might be guilty of, they do not cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. There is plenty of independent evidence to support the conclusions that vaccines do not cause autism, they do not cause neurodevelopmental disorders, and they do not cause sudden infant death syndrome, allergic conditions, or any of the other problems frequently ascribed to them by antivaccinationists. No matter how much the government or the pharmaceutical industry “gets its act together” it’s never, ever enough for kooks like Marianne Williamson. (I couldn’t resist.) Also, the claim that you “can’t question” is a favorite cry of the crank.

Help, help, I’m being repressed!

Unfortunately, Amy Holmes can’t resist adding to the stupid of the whole affair. She characterizes the news coverage as “gotcha politics,” in which Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul are made to look like kooks or “anti-science” (Holmes even does air scare quotes to emphasize the point), a comparison that literally made me do the rare double facepalm upon hearing it and practically shouting at the television. No wonder this woman works for Glenn Beck! She then points out that 48 states allow parents to have religious and/or personal belief exemptions. Yes, that’s true, but so what? It’s bad policy, and 48 states have bad policy. In any case, she tries to burnish her science bona fides by saying that she “doesn’t worship at the church of Jenny McCarthy” as she describes the case of a woman with a child with leukemia, but her overall attitude is that it’s “gotcha politics” to have called out Gov. Christie and Sen. Paul for their antivaccine nonsense.

It isn’t, and it isn’t “gotcha politics” to call Sen. Rand Paul antivaccine. He is.

At this point, John McCormack dives in as the seeming voice of reason, which is good. Unfortunately, he couldn’t resist making the claim that this is not a Republican problem but more of a “liberal problem.” It’s not. Antivaccinationism is very at home among libertarians and conservatives, and there’s no evidence that this is a “liberal problem,” the stereotype notwithstanding. As I’ve said so many times before, antivaccinationism is the quackery and pseudoscience that transcends political boundaries. By trying to paint antivaccine beliefs as more a “liberal” problem, McCormack shows his true agenda. (Hint: It’s not to defend science.)

If you want more evidence of this, then check out the next exchange. First, Maher makes this ludicrous analogy:

The analogy that I see all the time is that if you ask any questions, you are the same thing as a global warming denier. I think this is a very bad analogy, because I don’t think all science is alike. I think climate science is rather straightforward because you’re dealing with the earth. It’s a rock. I’m not saying I know how to deal with it, but climate scientists, from the very beginning, have pretty much said the same thing, and their predictions have pretty much come true. It’s atmospherics, and it’s geology, and chemistry. That’s not true of the medical industry. I mean, they’ve had to retract a million things because the human body is infinitely more mysterious. People get cancer, and doctors just don’t know why. They just don’t know why, and they don’t know how to fix it. And they put mercury in my teeth. My father had ulcers and they treated it wrong when I was a kid. Thalidomide. I mean I could go on about how many times they have been wrong. To compare those two science is, I think, just wrong.

And magnets, how do they work?

Seriously. This is nothing more than the “science was wrong before” gambit. Let’s just put it this way. Physics has gone through many iterations and has had to “admit” that many of its prior theories were wrong. Does Maher doubt, for instance, the theory of relativity, which supplanted Newtonian physics? His analogy is just so utterly, breathakingly stupid that I did the double double facepalm upon hearing it. In fact, doubting the safety and efficacy of vaccines is very much like climate science denialism. Both are areas of science that are well accepted by the scientific community and backed by enormous quantities of evidence.

Here’s where McCormack goes off the rails. He mentions that there is an M.I.T. professor, Richard Lindzen, who’s a climate skeptic, but there are no such professors that are vaccine skeptics. Of course, being a professor doesn’t mean you’re not a denialist, and in fact Lindzen is a denialist. He’s also the beneficiary of oil industry money, which is amusing because it led Maher to say the one thing he said in this entire segment that is mostly correct, namely that most climate “skeptics” have ties to industry. McCormack is also just plain wrong that there are no professors who are “vaccine skeptics.” For instance, there’s Christopher Shaw, who is a Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of British Columbia whose research specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. He’s also an antivaccine crank who thinks aluminum adjuvants in vaccines cause Alzheimer’s disease and autism. He’s appeared in the antivaccine propaganda movie The Greater Good and has been interjected himself into a sad case of an 18-year-old female who died suddenly, trying to blame it on Gardasil. Oh, yes, Mr. McCormack. There are definitely antivaccine professors out there. They are very much like AGW denialist professors in their modus operandi.

Maher’s next argument is just plain dumb. He decides he’s going to liken vaccines to antibiotics and ask, “Can you just do too much of a good thing?” and “Is it limitless? Is there no amount that is too much?” At another point, he seems to imply that scientists were surprised that antibiotic resistance has become so widespread, when in fact it was scientist warning about overuse of antibiotics who foresaw this problem. This leads Williamson to repeat the tired old antivaccine trope of “too many, too soon” in the form of JAQing off. Maher feeds off of that by acknowledging that vaccines don’t cause autism and that he “accepts that,” but then pivots to the classic antivaccine trope that there are no long term studies of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children and “wonders” if people who’ve had a lot of vaccine have “robust immune systems.” He links this to more diagnoses of allergies, autoimmune diseases, and the like, in a classic bit of JAQing off in which he says he isn’t claiming that vaccines are responsible for this. He’s just asking questions, you know—and confusing correlation with causation.

As my good bud Mark Hoofnagle notes, he even does some serious mental gymnastics in which he goes on about how he thinks that if you don’t use your immune system, you’ll lose it. The problem, of course, is that vaccines activate the immune system by stimulating it with the same antigens that one finds in the pathogens that cause disease. They wouldn’t work if that weren’t what they do. So Maher can’t even keep a coherent train of thought. On the one hand, supposedly we have all these autoimmune diseases, presumably because vaccines stimulate the immune system too much, but then people who have been vaccinated don’t have as “robust an immune system.” Which is it Bill? And do you have the slightest clue how stupid about medicine you sound?

Obviously not.

At this point I can’t resist a little dig at Amy Holmes’ ignorance about smallpox. She notes that she has had a smallpox vaccine because she’s was born out of the country and notes (“thank goodness”) that we are “eradicating smallpox.” News flash for Ms. Holmes: We are not eradicating smallpox. We eradicated it decades ago, thanks to vaccines. There have been no natural cases since 1977, and the last known case was due to a laboratory accident in 1978. It’s been 37 years since there’s been a recorded case of smallpox, because of vaccines. It gets even worse. Maher makes an incoherent analogy to testosterone supplementation, in which such supplementation “makes your balls shrink.” He then analogizes that to vaccines and the immune system, implying that if you use vaccines your immune system thinks it doesn’t have to work so hard. Again, does this clown even know how vaccines work?

Maher also complains that he’s never had a “Western doctor” ask him about his diet. Really? If his anecdote is to be believed, then let me point out my anecdote. Every doctor I’ve ever had asked me about my diet. I also note that, until the last several years, I was actually pretty thin. Twenty years ago, I was actually skinny. However, as I got into my 40s and hit 50, biology betrayed me (as it is wont to do as one gets older) and, although I’m not fat, I’m no longer thin. Around that time, when I went from being thin to being average to being slightly overweight, lo and behold! My doctor started asking me about diet and lifestyle.

This leads to a curious rant about GMOs and an attack on Monsanto, or, as I like to call it, argumentum ad Monsanto. At this point, McCormack argues that GMOs have been a great force for reducing world hunger, which is undoubtedly true. Maher dismisses such arguments with a jaunty, “But I’m not a starving child in Africa. If I were a starving child, then, yes, I’d eat a GMO.” McCormack then asks what studies show that GMOs are harmful, which leads Williamson and Maher to become condescendingly dismissive, with “WTF? Are you kidding me?” looks on their faces. Of course, as I’ve described before, the only studies that have claimed to show dangers from GMOs are studies done by anti-GMO advocates and studies with very poor design. These are the sorts of studies that evidently impress Maher and Williamson, utter crap.

Maher believes himself to be the real pro-science advocate. He is about as wrong as wrong can be. He is anti-vaccine, anti-“Western medicine,” and in general antiscience, except for a limited number of areas of science that fit in with his ideological biases. As such, he’s an object lesson in how one can be intelligent and anti-science at the same time. He’s also an object lesson in how being an atheist and being pro-science are related only by coincidence. I had thought that Maher might have been sufficiently chastened by the spanking he received in 2009 and 2010 about his antivaccine stylings. Apparently five years have been enough time for his antivaccine freak flag to fly again.

He is no skeptic. He is no pro-science advocate. He’s an occasionally funny political comedian with delusions of grandeur with respect to his own rationality.