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“Oh, come on, Superman!”: Bill Maher versus “Western medicine”

I realize that I’ve spent a fair amount of verbiage (to put it mildly) expressing my frustration with celebrities whose support for pseudoscience and even outright quackery endanger public health. The two most frequent targets of the wrath, sarcasm, frustration, and puzzlement of me and my partners in crime at SBM have been Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey for their having emerged over the last two years as the most vocal celebrity faces of the anti-vaccine movement in general and the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue in particular and Oprah Winfrey for her promotion of pseudoscience, quackery, and mysticism on her show. That doesn’t even count Oprah’s inking of a development deal with Jenny McCarthy to do her own weekday talk show, which has poised McCarthy to walk in the footsteps of previous Oprah proteges, such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz. I’ve also lamented how celebrity physicians like Dr. Jay Gordon, Robert “Bob” Sears, and the hosts of the daytime TV show The Doctors have promoted, through the mantra of “balance,” anti-vaccine views in particular and pseudoscience about health in general.

As bad as celebrities such as Oprah, Jim Carrey, and Jenny McCarthy are, though, no one views them as skeptics, at least no one I know and no one in the skeptical movement. Even the reporters and newscasters who credulously interview them, I suspect, realize that Oprah, Jim, and Jenny are not exactly the most scientific of people. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years since I became more involved with the skeptical movement, it’s that being an agnostic, atheist, or skeptic is no guarantee against falling for pseudoscience. The problem is that when someone becomes associated with the skeptic movement for another reason, even if that person is a total woo-meister when it comes to medicine, they tend to be given a pass. I don’t give such people a pass because of their anti-religion views because I consider myself a skeptic and don’t really care much about religion, except when it intersects issues of science and health, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, faith healers offering prayer instead of medicine, and fundamentalists undermining the teaching of evolution. If someone who promotes pseudoscience is a prominent critic of religion, to me that makes it even worse when they spout nonsense.

I’m referring to Bill Maher, comedian and host of the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Thanks to an anti-religion movie (Religulous) and his frequent stance as a “skeptic,” many of my fellow skeptics consider him one of our own, even to the point of giving him an award named after Richard Dawkins. Yet, when it comes to medicine, nothing could be further from the truth. Maher’s own words show that he has anti-vaccine views, flirts with germ theory denialism and HIV/AIDS denialism, buys into extreme conspiracy theories about big pharma, and promotes animal rights pseudoscience. That’s not a skeptic or a supporter of science-based medicine.

BILL MAHER AND VACCINES

I never paid much attention to Bill Maher one way or another until about four years ago. Back in 2005, I started to notice that Maher seemed to be spouting what, as much as I hated to admit, sure looked like standard anti-vaccine talking points. For example, on December 15, 2005, Maher appeared on Larry King Live, and somehow the topic of the flu vaccine came up. This is the exchange that occurred:

MAHER: I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can…

KING: You mean you don’t get a — you don’t get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why?

MAHER: Because it’s got — it’s got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn’t prevent. First of all, that’s…

KING: I haven’t had the flu in 25 years since I’ve been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, 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. I would stop getting your…

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.

The antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism couldn’t have said it better! True, AOA didn’t exist in 2005, but if it had that’s exactly the sort of arguments you hear from it in 2009. I also can’t help but wonder if there were a not-so-subtle implication that Larry King is developing Alzheimer’s, thanks to his religious yearly flu vaccination.

As Skeptico pointed out, at the time that’s a very specific claim, namely that getting a flu shots more than five years in a row will increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease by ten-fold. Personally, I was (and still am) unaware of any good (or even not so good) evidence that flu vaccines can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, but I’m always willing to try fill in the gaps in my knowledge. That’s why I wondered what research, if any, supported Maher’s assertion. Based on past experience, my guess was probably none. I was right

Because I was curious about where Maher might have found such a claim, I did a little investigating. First, I did a simple Google search. Guess what website came up on the first page when I did my search? If you said the extremely flaky Whale.to website. . .you won! Here it is, right from the source:

According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (http://members.aol.com/nitrf), the world’s leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg’s speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer’s to quadruple statement is from John’s Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998. —-Ted Koren, D. C. http://www.odyssee.net/~expodome/autism.htm#Top Koren Publications (800-537-3001).

So in 2005, at least, Maher was getting medical information from the über-crank site Whale.to and regurgitating it as though Whale.to were a reliable source!

For those of you who haven’t heard of him before, Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who published an absolutely horribly designed study in the Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism, nearly all of whose authors later publicly retracted their authorship. Regular readers of SBM know that this study, now thoroughly repudiated, sparked a major scare in Britain and elsewhere regarding MMR, echoes of which persist even today. Since then, evidence has since come to light that not only shows that Wakefield accepted money from lawyers planning a class action suit against vaccine manufacturers; had an undisclosed conflict of interest in that he had a patent application for a single shot measles vaccine, which would be more valuable if the MMR were thought to be unsafe; and ultimately was accused of scientific fraud based on strong evidence published by investigative journalist Brian Deer.

Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious “treatments” for autism that led to some problems with his medical license. In November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was “guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct,” and he was fined $10,000 and ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs). His medical license was also placed on suspension. In March 1996, he was permitted to resume practice under terms of probation that did not permit him to prescribe any drugs. His medical license expired in January 2004; and in March 2004, he applied to have it reinstated. However, after a hearing in which the Board considered a neuropsychatric report issued in 2003, Fudenberg agreed to remain in a “retired” status and withdrew his application for reactivation of his license. Nowadays, Dr. Fudenberg runs a nonprofit “research” organization called Neuro Immunotherapeutics Research Foundation and still appears to be pushing dubious remedies for autism. He also charged $750 per hour for “review of past medical records,” $750 per hour for “determining what new tests need to be ordered; ordering of new tests; evaluation of new tests,” and $750 per hour for “determining which therapy will work and which will not; discussing this with patient along with an in-depth study of past medical history to determine what makes a patient better or worse.”

Of course, none of this means Dr. Fudenberg doesn’t make a valid point, but he certainly hasn’t supported it, as far as I can tell, and I looked. If you look at his PubMed publication list, you’ll find that there is nothing after around 1989 other than review articles, speculative articles in Medical Hypotheses, plus a a fair number of publications on his “transfer factor” in low impact journals such as Biotherapy. Looking at the list, a knowledgeable person can tell right about when Dr. Fudenberg started to descend into fringe medicine, sometime between 1985-1989. And, try as I might, I couldn’t find an article by Fudenberg to support his claim about the flu vaccine that Maher parrotted on Larry King Live.

In any case, the specific dubious autism treatment with which Dr. Fudenberg was involved is the use of something called “transfer factor” to make a combined measles vaccine and autism “cure.” The method of making these so-called “transfer factors” is bizarre in the extreme and involves injecting mice with measles, extracting and processing white blood cells, injecting the result into pregnant goats, milking the goats after kid-birth and turning the product into capsules for autistic children. In a patent application (based in part on the infamous Lancet paper) obtained by Brian Deer, Wakefield represented a vaccine/therapy for “MMR-based” autism using transfer factor as potentially a “complete cure” for autism or for “alleviation of symptoms.”

Also, try as I might, I couldn’t find any research that supports this assertion, at least not in PubMed. Any Google searches done inevitably brought up the same quote as above or variants of it, but no source pointed me to any actual research supporting Dr. Fudenberg’s claim, even though he did seem to imply that he had done a study. Certainly there is nothing I could find in the peer-reviewed literature when I searched Dr. Fudenberg’s name with the term “influenza.” Indeed, the only paper I could find on PubMed on the subject of the flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s disease concluded that past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza may protect against subsequent development of Alzheimer’s disease. This is, of course, not surprising, given the source of the claim, a source that Maher apparently thought credible.

But that’s not all. On that very same show in 2005, Maher also parrotted the claim that it was better sanitation, not the polio vaccine, that eliminated polio. This is simply not true. Better sanitation certainly helps decrease the incidence of such diseases, but sanitation was quite good by the 1950s in the United States, just before the polio vaccine was developed; yet polio outbreaks were still fairly common and still quite feared. (People over a certain age will remember polio scares that occurred throughout this country that would shut down public swimming pools and baths before the polio vaccine was developed.) In actuality, better sanitation may have made people more susceptible to severe complications from polio (as cleverly and simply explained in this neat little cartoon), because sanitation made sure that most people were no longer routinely exposed to the virus as children. Also going against Maher’s assertion is the observation that when polio vaccination rates fall, polio returns. It’s the same with other infectious diseases, like pertussis. Unless the disease has been completely eradicated, like smallpox (and thanks to vaccines), whenever vaccination rates fall, the disease will come back.

Since 2005, I’ve noticed that, virtually every time Maher is on Larry King Live or other talk shows (or at least whenever I happen to catch him), it seems almost inevitable that he’ll have a bit of a rant against flu vaccines and “Western medicine.” Maybe it’s just confirmation bias on my part for noticing Maher’s tendencies, or maybe it’s because hosts of various talk shows know that Maher holds these wacky views and that asking him about them will produce rants that will make for entertaining, if unenlightening, television, much like what getting Jenny McCarthy on their show to talk about autism will accomplish.

“OH, COME ON, SUPERMAN!”: FLIRTING WITH GERM THEORY DENIALISM AND TELLING CARDIAC PATIENTS TO THROW AWAY THEIR MEDS

Over time, it became clear to me why Maher held such beliefs about vaccines in general and the flu vaccine in particular, particularly the belief that vaccines could somehow weaken the immune system. Of course, this made me wonder how Maher could reconcile his support for the HPV vaccine and his extreme skepticism over the flu vaccine. (My guess is that Maher’s for the HPV vaccine because fundamentalist Christians are against it.) If the flu vaccine “weakens the immune system” and makes you more susceptible to the flu, as Maher has said, then why wouldn’t Gardasil, for instance, also “weaken the immune system”? Inconsistencies aside, the reason behind Maher’s extreme “skepticism” about vaccines appears to derive from two beliefs. First, Maher appears to flirt with germ theory denialism, a common source of anti-vaccine views (after all, if germs aren’t the primary cause of infectious disease, then vaccination is unnecessary), and, second, he has an extreme distrust of big pharma, the latter of which is not necessarily unreasonable when in taken in reasonable doses, but Maher takes his dislike of big pharma into extreme conspiracy theory paranoia.

Let’s go back even further in time to an episode of Real Time With Bill Maher from March 4, 2005 in which Maher expounded:

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.

It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, but I will anyway: There is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever “recanted” on his deathbed and good evidence that he did no such thing, as explained by Peter Bowditch. There is no record that Pasteur certainly ever “recanted” and said that Beauchamps was correct. This story is a myth, plain and simple. I’m speculating that, as an atheist himself, Maher probably doesn’t buy the rumors by some fundamentalists that controversial atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair “recanted” before her death and said that there is a god. He would quite rightly point out that there is no evidence that she ever did any such thing. (Such stories are also highly implausible because the only persons who could have witnessed such a conversion would be her kidnappers and killers.) Similar myths of deathbed recantations exist for Darwin, in which it is rumored that he renounced the theory of evolution before dying. Even most creationists do not believe these myths about Darwin’s supposed “conversion” now, so ungrounded in any evidence are they. Yet, for all his self-proclaimed “skepticism” or “cynicism,” Maher swallowed second-hand, unsubstantiated rumors and myths that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed and repeated them, despite the fact that there is no more evidence for them than there are for the myths of O’Hair’s or Darwin’s recantations.

Maher went on:

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.

Aggregate toxicity”? Hulda Clark couldn’t have said it better. From this sort of scientifically and biologically flawed thinking, it’s only a short step to advocating colon flushes or chelation therapy to eliminate vague and undefined “aggregate toxins” or “heavy metal poisoning.” No, I am not saying that diet and environment don’t matter as far as your health is concerned and that there are not substances to which we are exposed that are bad for us. What I am saying is that alt-med mavens like Bill Maher frequently blame some vague “toxins” or “aggregate toxicity” for a wide variety of ailments without ever specifying what the “toxins” are that are supposedly causing the disease in question. It appears that Maher has fallen into this mindset of lumping environmental factors we can control (diet, smoking) with ones we can’t, and then attributing to them all some sort of vague “aggregate toxicity” (conveniently undefined or only very vaguely defined) as the root cause of disease. Sometimes this obsession with “toxins” on the part of people like Maher reminds me of General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb and his obsession with the purity of his–as he put it–”precious bodily fluids” and maintaining his “purity of essence.”) Certainly, Maher’s comments are consistent with this sort of mindset that “toxins” are to blame for all disease. He is at once exceedingly skeptical of conventional medicine (but in reality it’s only a knee-jerk distrust) yet at the same time very credulous when it comes to claims made by alt-med and apparently also to intimations of vast corporate conspiracies to suppress what he views as the “truth.”

As a sidebar, it is of interest to note that Maher’s guest on this show was former NIH director Bernadine Healy. Of late, Healy has become beloved of the anti-vaccine movement because she apparently believes that vaccines can cause autism, or at least that the question hasn’t been studied enough. It also certainly helps that, as a former director of the NIH, her sympathies with the anti-vaccine movement allow J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, and other anti-vaccine activists to point to her as an “authority” that doesn’t consider them to be cranks. Indeed, the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism named Dr. Healy its Person of the Year for 2008. Four years ago, when I first saw this episode of Maher’s show, I was puzzled why Healy didn’t lay the big hurt on Maher for his germ theory denialism and anti-vaccine views. Now I suspect I know. She sympathizes with them.

Lest you think this is old news and that Maher has changed his stripes, on an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman in 2008, Maher had this to say:

Why is there mucus?…It’s because your body is toxic and it’s trying to create a river to get rid of these toxins.

He then had the chutzpah to lecture David Letterman, who had recently returned to work after having had to undergo coronary artery bypass for heart disease:

Maher: You know, I do love health as an issue. This is what I read about when I have time off.

Letterman: Are you interested in medical journals and that sort of thing?

Maher: Not Western medicine, I think we’re being poisoned…I would love for you to investigate the possibility that your health issues might have arisen from the fact that you’re being poisoned by America.

As Soberish pointed out at the time, Maher wasn’t talking about pollution. He was talking about pharmaceutical drugs. He even concluded by suggesting that David Letterman, who had just survived a heart attack and bypass surgery, should consider giving up all his heart medications and turn to natural solutions. Medical advice doesn’t get much more irresponsible than that.

Perhaps the most amusing example of Maher’s crank tendencies also occurred in 2008, when, again, on Real Time With Bill Maher, the subject of the flu and flu vaccines came up, and, after explaining how it isn’t the virus but rather how healthy and free of “toxins” one is that determines whether a person gets the flu when exposed to the influenza virus, Maher said, “I would never get the flu on an airplane,” presumably because his immune system is so healthy and there is no “swamp” there for the virus to breed in.

An exasperated Bob Costas retorted brilliantly, “Oh, come on, Superman!”

I think that’ll be my retort to Maher whenever I hear his germ theory denialism rants.

Unfortunately, Maher wasn’t finished, continuing, “The model you have is wrong. You’re thinking that the problem is the mosquitos, not the swamp. If there’s no swamp, the mosquitos can’t take root.” There was a pause, after which Maher said, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

Why, yes, Bill. We do.

All I could think when I viewed that exchange is: Who’d have thought that Bob Costas, of all people, would be the voice of rationality, as he tried to set Maher straight on a number of issues, such as when Maher ranted on and on about drug side effects? It’s just another bit of data to show why Maher is not a real skeptic, nor is he a critical thinker. Indeed, the older Maher gets, the more of a crank he appears to be becoming on medical issues.

Unfortunately, anti-vaccine wingnuttery and flirting with germ theory denialism aren’t all the woo that Maher is into.

SYMPATHY WITH HIV/AIDS DENIALISTS

I wrote at length about the death of Christine Maggiore late last year. As you may recall, Maggiore was a prominent member of the community of pseudoscience boosters known as HIV/AIDS denialists. They’re known by this term because they deny the link between HIV and AIDS and claim that HIV does not cause AIDS. About what the believe to be the cause of AIDS, they are, as many pseudoscientists are about their claims, very vague and “hand-wavey.” Often they attribute it to something that sounds a lot like Maher’s “aggregate toxicity,” namely assaults to the immune system due to drug use, promiscuous sex, and other factors. During her time after discovering she was HIV(+), Maggiore came to believe that HIV does not cause AIDS and stopped taking her antiretroviral drugs. A charismatic and dynamic woman, she quickly became a leader in the HIV/AIDS denialist movement. Worse, she refused to take AZT when she was pregnant with her daughter Eliza Jane Scovill and refused to have her tested for HIV. Unfortunately, the result was that Eliza Jane died a preventable death in 2005 due to Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and HIV encephalitis. Maggiore continued to argue that it wasn’t HIV that killed her daughter and even hired a veterinary toxicologist named Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati, who proceeded to spin the autopsy report in a most outrageous fashion, as I documented.

So why am I rehashing all of this?

It’s because Bill Maher appears to be down with the HIV/AIDS denialism movement as well, having posted a favorable review of Christine Maggiore’s book What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong? From AliveandWell.org:

This is a book everyone should read, and not a moment too soon! One of the most corrosive flaws in America is our tendency toward conformity; in the quest to understand AIDS, it has been stifling. Christine Maggiore prompts the kind of questioning that is the lifeblood of scientific inquiry.

That’s right. To Bill Maher, apparently, all that science showing that HIV/AIDS denialists to be wrong is mere “conformity,” as is, apparently, all that science showing his rants about the flu vaccine to be wrong. We wouldn’t want to be “conformists,” now, would we?

Be that as it may, it makes a lot of sense that Bill Maher would be sympathetic to the HIV/AIDS denialist movement. After all, as I pointed out before, its ideas of what causes AIDS are very similar to Maher’s ideas of what causes disease in general and the flu in particular, namely some sort of “aggregate toxcity” or assault on the immune system due to “toxins,” drugs, or (of course) pharmaceuticals (pushed by the drug companies to make you sick and keep you dependent on them, naturally) that lead to disease, with the infectious agent being more of an opportunist than anything else. True, there is no doubt that there are opportunistic pathogens that can only cause disease in a compromised host, but, contrary to the concepts that drive the extreme skepticism people like Bill Maher have towards big pharma, the flu virus and HIV are perfectly capable of causing disease in healthy host.

Even a host like Bill Maher, who thinks he’s freed himself of all that aggregate toxicity, rendering him like Superman, immune to the flu and other infectious diseases. I hope for his sake that reality never reveals his views for the hubris that they are.

THE PROBLEM WITH BILL MAHER

Regular readers may wonder why I bothered to write this piece. The reason is simple. Because of his vocal stance against religion as demonstrated by his movie Religulous, people who should know better consider him part of the skeptical and science-based world view. Indeed, what prompted me to write this is that Maher is being given an award. In fact, he’s being given the Richard Dawkins Award, which the Atheist Alliance International awards to one person every year based on these criteria:

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Note one of the major criteria for the award: “Advocates increased scientific knowledge.” Certainly Maher earns an EPIC FAIL on that aspect, at least. Given that Richard Dawkins made an excellent two-part documentary about pseudoscience for the BBC, entitled The Enemies of Reason, the second part of which was primarily about quackery and medical pseudoscience, you’d think that he’d be unhappy about having an award bearing his name be given to a person who would not have been out of place as one of the quacks that Dawkins skewered in the second half of his documentary, The Irrational Health Service.

You’d be wrong.

When commenters on the popular science and atheism blog Pharyngula started complaining about Maher being given an award with the name of a prominent and outspoken scientist, Richard Dawkins, on it, this is how Richard Dawkins responded in the comments:

The Richard Dawkins Award (RDA) has no connection with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The RDA was instituted by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) several years before RDFRS was founded, or even thought of. This year, the committee of AAI took the decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher. They asked me, as an individual, if I approved, and I was delighted to do so because I find him, and especially Religulous, very funny. I know nothing of any stance he may have taken on medical questions.

This year, RDFRS agreed to jointly sponsor the annual conference of AAI. The decision to do so had nothing to do with the AAI’s decision to give the RDA to Bill Maher.

In essence, the great Richard Dawkins, the man who is viewed as standing up for science and reason against the forces of superstition and pseudoscience, the man who made a documentary largely about medical pseudoscience (The Enemies of Reason) that contained one of the best illustrations of why homeopathy is nonsense I’ve ever seen, in essence pled ignorance. That in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad. What was so shocking to me was that, given his history and prior stances on medical pseudoscience, Dawkins showed such an utter lack of curiosity over whether there was anything to the allegations against the person receiving an award that bears his name. In other words, he came across as simply not really caring much about whether Maher promoted anti-vaccine views and quackery or not, as long as Maher was against religion.

WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?

The reason I was inspired (or, if you will pushed) to write this piece is in fact by my disappointment that any organization ostensibly dedicated to reason and science, among other things, would given an award to Bill Maher. Indeed, from my perspective, Bill Maher and the reaction of much of the skeptical and science-based community to him, those who think they are supporters of science-based medicine and foes of quackery, are of a piece with my experiences dealing with other medical issues. I’ll illustrate what I mean by citing science blogger Jason Rosenhouse, who strongly defended the choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award:

I do not believe that Maher rejects the germ theory of disease. Yes, I’ve seen the quotes, but I think there are more charitable interpretations. There have been other places where he has said things that seem to accept the germ theory.

But let’s suppose he does. That’s “anti-science” (as opposed to ignorant or misinformed or whatnot) only if you think science is primarily a list of facts to which you must give your assent. If we’re serious about science being an investigative method as opposed to a list of facts, then rejecting some consensus view does not make you anti-science.

Now I’ll try to illustrate what I mean by saying that the defenses I’ve heard of the decision to give Bill Maher this award are deeply inconsistent with how skeptics generally view other topics:

I do not believe that Michael Behe rejects evolution. Yes, I’ve seen the quotes, but I think there are more charitable interpretations. There have been other places where he has said things that seem to accept evolution.

But let’s suppose he does. That’s “anti-science” (as opposed to ignorant or misinformed or whatnot) noly if you think science is primarily a list of facts to which you must give your assent. If we’re serious about science being an investigative method as opposed to a list of facts, then rejecting some consensus view does not make you anti-science.

Sounds a bit different, doesn’t it?

Here’s the reason I made this comparison. If there’s one thing the skeptical movement is very good at combatting, it’s creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism. That’s because evolution is the central organizing principle of biology. What’s depressing is that an otherwise sensible man like Jason apparently doesn’t appreciate that germ theory is far more than just a “consensus” viewpoint in medical science. In fact, it is a major theory (word choice intentional) every bit as central to medicine as evolution is to biology or relativity and quantum mechanics are to physics. As one of my favorite bloggers Skeptico pointed out, rejecting germ theory is as fundamentally a rejection of science as rejecting evolution, and it just as much involves the rejection of the scientific process that tells us that bacteria causes disease. I also can’t help but point out the parallel between Maher repeating a germ theory denialist myth that Louis Pasteur somehow “recanted” on his deathbed in favor of Louis Beauchamps (who thought that bacteria were merely opportunistic bystanders feeding on dead cells and not the true cause of infectious disease) and the not infrequent creationist refrain that Charles Darwin “recanted” on his deathbed.

Jason, like many skeptics, also betrays a profound ignorance of the anti-vaccine movement. The parents who worry about vaccines (largely because of the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement) could be described as Jason describes them, but the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, not so much. Just a bit of time lurking on any anti-vaccine board (something I’ve done a lot of) will demonstrate not just a profound suspicion of but also an extreme hostility towards medical science, mainly because science doesn’t tell the parents what they want to hear, namely that vaccines caused their children’s autism and that the biomedical quackery to which many of them subject their children will “cure” their children. Science says that neither of these assertions are true. As far as science as a process rather than just a collection of facts, you’ll also see a profound antipathy towards the scientific method itself in favor of anecdotal evidence and “mommy instinct.” In fact, Jenny McCarthy herself is an excellent example of this. She once said “Evan [her son] is my science” on The Oprah Winfrey Show and scoffed at all the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism and that “biomedical” quackery can’t “recover” autistic children, because, well, she’s seen it herself. Meanwhile Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups keep up a constant stream of propaganda attacking every scientific study that fails to find a link between vaccines and autism, not to mention anyone who calls them on their nonsense, like our very own Steve Novella. Indeed, the same hostility towards the scientific method and the fruits of that method that form the basis of scientific medicine is evident in huge swaths of the “alternative medicine” movement, where anecdote is valued over controlled studies, correlation is confused with causation even after science fails to find evidence of causation, and “personal experience” matters more than clinical trials or basic science.

I realize that I’m citing anecdotal evidence (which is usually a no-no on SBM), but forgive me a movment as I lapse into an expression of opinion. It is my perception that many skeptics who are hardcore rational when it comes to issues like evolution, paranormal phenomena, and other areas of pseudoscience all too often tend not to understand the important of science-based medicine–or even what science-based medicine is. Moreover, there does seem to me to be a strain of sympathy for the anti-vaccine movement among skeptics. I’ve seen it myself. For example, when I’ve been to meetings with skeptics, namely people who actually belong to skeptical organizations like the Center For Inquiry or who attend meetings like The Amazing Meeting, when it comes to vaccines, pharma, and medicine, I am continually discouraged by how many “skeptics” actually buy into at least some medical pseudoscience. Indeed, recently I have gotten into discussions with a skeptic about vaccines, and I was surprised at how she actually thought there was something to the claimed link between vaccines and autism and how her doubts could not be easily assuaged. Meanwhile, a lot of skeptics I’ve encountered, although they don’t buy the claims of “alternative” medicine or the anti-vaccine movement, appear to be “shruggies,” in that they don’t much care about them either or see why we at SBM get so worked up about them.

I don’t want to be totally negative about this and don’t mean to imply that all (or even most) skeptics hold these sorts of views. For example, Phil Plait, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the great James Randi himself (who is currently undergoing chemotherapy) clearly “get it.” Indeed, the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel that I was honored to participate in, along with fellow SBM bloggers Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, and Joe Albietz is but one example demonstrating that. But there does appear to be a contingent in the skeptical movement that shows far more deference to the claims of medical pseudoscientists than it should. To me, Maher’s antivaccine nonsense and revulsion towards what he sneeringly refers to as “Western medicine” (you can almost hear him spit the term out, so great is his contempt) is even worse than creationism in that it has real, measurable health consequences for a lot of people. In particular, the anti-vaccine movement has resulted in the resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases, while cancer quackery results in direct harm, as has been documented time and time again on this blog and elsewhere. Given how Bill Maher promotes anti-vaccine views, in particular with respect to the flu vaccine, with the H1N1 flu pandemic that has developed over the last several months, his message will be as bad as any that Jenny McCarthy or Oprah Winfrey can spread, the only difference being that his reach is not as great as Oprah’s. (Maybe it’s on par with Jenny McCarthy’s.)

Those of us who have combatted pseudoscience in medicine know that the very term “Western medicine” is a code word among advocates of unscientific medical practices for scientific medicine or, as we like to call it on this blog, science-based medicine. We know that there is no “Western” or “Eastern” medicine. There is medicine that has been validated through science as effective and possessing a reasonable risk-benefit ratio; there is medicine that has been shown not to be effective; and there is medicine that has not yet been subject to adequate study. Most of “alternative” medicine falls into one of the latter two categories, and any “alternative” medicine that can be scientifically validated will cease to be “alternative” and become just “medicine.” Neither “Western” nor “Eastern” nor “alternative.” Just “medicine.” George Lundberg put it best:

There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking. Whether a therapeutic practice is “Eastern” or “Western,” is unconventional or mainstream, or involves mind-body techniques or molecular genetics is largely irrelevant except for historical purposes and cultural interest…

It’s a shame that neither Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, the Atheist Alliance International, nor a fair fraction of other self-proclaimed “skeptics” seems to “get it” with regard to this simple fact. From Maher, I don’t expect any better. Richard Dawkins and the Atheist Alliance, however, should know that actions speak louder than words, and right now their actions belie their dedication to science and the promotion of scientific knowledge.

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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63 thoughts on ““Oh, come on, Superman!”: Bill Maher versus “Western medicine”

  1. Mojo says:

    It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, but I will anyway: There is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever “recanted” on his deathbed and good evidence that he did not, as explained by Peter Bowditch. He certainly never said that Beauchamps was correct. This story is a myth, plain and simple.

    It shouldn’t be necessary, because “deathbed recantations” of this sort wouldn’t matter even if they were true, as they are merely attempts at an argument from authority (if Maher can’t spot the fallacy here he’s not much of a skeptic). What matters is the evidence supporting the theory.

  2. OldGene says:

    Thank you – this is informative. The only time I’ve seen Maher is on youtube dealing with creationists.

  3. kausikdatta says:

    Thank you for writing this post. It summarizes very well Bill Maher’s well-publicized dabbling in pseudoscience. When I wrote to the Atheist Alliance International expressing my shock at the award to Bill Maher, I received a typically “hand-wavey” (as you nicely put it) kind of reply from the president of AAI. Very reminiscent of the cognitive dissonance that one finds in religious scientists, the AAI’s reasons for awarding Bill Maher seemed to focus on the latter’s anti-religious stance, notwithstanding his very obvious anti-science sympathies.

    This is why I was dismayed at the lukewarm response of the Scienceblogger community (with one exception) at this – what I consider to be an outrage. One of my most favorite and followed bloggers even gave an “ahem! Cough! Cough!” kind of justification, and many of the commentors agreed -

    He is being given this award for making a movie this year that clearly promotes atheism and mocks religion, and that’s all that is being endorsed. Not many people have done that, and it’s especially unusual in that it was a movie entirely about ridiculing religion, and it was a mainstream movie with wide circulation. That’s it. It would be difficult to ignore, and it’s something AAI would like to promote.

    - though for the sake of fairness, I must point out that he did encourage people to go upto Maher at the AAI convention and question him on his anti-science stance. I don’t know if anybody actually did that.

    But as an atheist, I find it quite telling that an organization like the AAI would get in the wagon with even something that the cat brought in as long as there is a whiff of an anti-religious message. My ascent to atheism has been based on thought, reason and sanity, and here was a prominent atheist organization championing a purveyor of profound unreason. If that is not a disconnect, what is?

    I was glad to notice at least that the “Richard Dawkins Award” is not given by Richard Dawkins or his foundation; it is an award by AAI, named after Dawkins – though I would have expected him to make a hue and cry about lending his name – as a man of science – to an award that was given to a pseudoscience-promoter. Imagine if there were to be an Andrew Wakefield Award for Excellence in Vaccine Research, or a Jenny McCarthy Award for Public Health Studies!

  4. David Gorski says:

    Imagine if there were to be an Andrew Wakefield Award for Excellence in Vaccine Research, or a Jenny McCarthy Award for Public Health Studies!

    Dammit! I wish I had thought of that line! :-)

  5. psychability says:

    ” Being wrong about a scientific question doesn’t make you anti-science.”

    This is Jason Rosenhouse’s justification for the award and appears to be that of Dawkins as well. While being wrong about a scientific question certainly doesn’t make you anti-science, refusing to evaluate a scientific question using the scientific method certainly does.

    Ignorance of Maher’s disdain for (science-based) medicine is now proving an embarrassment to Dawkins and AAI. Their decision to gloss over their error is more disturbing than is the error. Leaders like Dawkins need to be loud and clear in their support of the scientific method as applied to all scientific questions. He has not only disappointed his supporters but risks being chosen as a poster child for alt-med. Once Dawkins discovered the error in this award choice, I would have liked to see how a hero deals with being shown to have made a mistake.

  6. Clark says:

    Having conducted thousands of criminal and civil investigations since 1980, including an ongoing investigation into what is alleged to be HIV denialism and pseudoscience, I am repeatedly struck by the hostility and anger directed by ostensibly coherent academics against those who question HIV and AIDS causation.
    If a bunch of people suggested that the Earth was flat, the idea that NASA would spend millions of dollars to hire academics to quash such rumors would be preposterous. After all, anyone with a question can Google hundreds of images of the earth and decide for themselves.
    This is clearly not the case with HIV/AIDS. Shortly after I began to investigate allegations that Peter Duesberg PhD was guilty of genocide in Africa, the physician who made the allegation began to pressure me into abandoning my investigation. His pressure increased during the next two weeks until one of his collaborators, Brian Foley PhD of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, used a fake name to attack one of my witnesses and another initiated a sustained ID theft attack against me. If the so-called denialists and pseudoscientists were really crackpots, why were ostensibly legitimate scientists attacking me for conducting a legitimate investigation as a licensed private investigator? Their behavior was something more akin to organized criminal enterprises than legitimate academic activity.
    It is undeniable that legitimate science stands on its own merits. Legitimate science does not require the kind of enforcement or intimidation that Galileo endured when he suggested that Pope Urban was wrong about the geocentric universe. Real scientists do not hire filter salesmen like Nick Kontaratos to pretend they are career investigators to publish books like “Dissecting a Discovery” for Nature editors like Barbara Culliton to praise.
    I worked closely as Christine Maggiore’s private investigator from June 2008, when I met her, until her passing the following December. We found considerable evidence that the LA County Deputy Coroner had made significant errors in numerous cases that included Maggiore’s daughter, who we would have proven died from anaphylactic shock rather than what the coroner incompetently concluded.
    As for PCP being found in Christine’s lungs, real scientists know that PCP exists naturally in the lungs of all normal human beings. Real scientists know that, when we die, PCP does not immediately die with us. Real scientists know that death compromises immune function in a way that permits opportunistic pathogens still living in body tissues to multiply unimpeded by immune function. Real scientists know that any pathologist will find PCP in the lung tissue of any dead person within a few days of death if the evidence is not otherwise compromised. Real scientists understand how easy it would be for a pathologist or doctor, corrupted or influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, to use the presence of PCP as evidence of an AIDS death, just as the doctors who work for mining companies like DeBeers diagnose AIDS and HIV to avoid the multi-billion dollar liability that comes with admitting that their unprotected miners have actually succumbed to the effects of mine-related silicosis, pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, and tuberculosis.
    I’m not a scientist. If I looked through a microscope I could likely not tell the difference between silicosis and PCP. I do, however, understand and recognize criminal behavior and motive when I see it.
    Based upon the overwhelming and easily articulated evidence that I have collected since May 2008, it is clear that something is amiss in the alleged science known as HIV and AIDS. Those who care to read Robert Gallo’s original four published reports that appeared in the journal Science in 1984 will find that none of them show exactly how Gallo proved that HIV exists, attacks cells and causes AIDS. Anyone who looks at ANY subsequent report will see that they generally discuss aspects of scientific research that merely assumes that HIV attacks cells and causes AIDS – exactly the same way that Pope Urban’s countless volumes of astronomical evidence proved that the Earth was the center of the universe.
    Those who rationally and impartially examine the notable lack of evidence that HIV=AIDS=DEATH cannot help but notice how hard the pharmaceutical industry’s highly paid marketers promote HIV testing and attack those, like Christine Maggiore, who question that lack of direct evidence. At some point, even rational people will observe that, like Gertrude, the HIV advocates “doth protest too much.”

  7. weing says:

    One thing’s for sure, not all atheists are skeptics. I believe the converse is also true.

  8. David Gorski says:

    @Clark:

    Oh, goody. We have an HIV/AIDS denialist. I was disappointed that none of them showed up earlier for my Christine Maggiore post. In fact, Clark, if you liked this post (of which a discussion of HIV/AIDS denialism was only a small part), you’ll love my post on Christine Maggiore. In it, I address a lot of your nonsense about PCP and Christine Maggiore.

    Don’t thank me. It was my pleasure.

  9. David Gorski says:

    @weing

    I agree with you for the most part.

  10. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    “One thing’s for sure, not all atheists are skeptics. I believe the converse is also true.”

    This has been my experience as well. Which is likely why you get denialists at meetings such as TAM. Atheist go to find others who do not believe in God, but otherwise may not have developed a world view of scientific naturalism. In places such as the Netherlands, you will find many more atheists than in the U.S., but you will also find quite a bit of woo-woo (apologies to those readers of this site from the Netherlands).

    I get outraged that famous people are given open microphones on national T.V. and are allowed to spew nonsense. This is not ‘balanced’ reporting. Balance implies that 2 views have similar merit.

    Maher tells the world unequivocally that the flu shot will hurt you because it has mercury. His statement is nonsense and does not provide ‘balance’ to fact. He has no idea what form of mercury is in the flu shot. As has been discussed on this blog many times, ethyl-mercury is in the shot. Comparing ethyl -mercury to methyl-mercury is like comparing apples and oranges. The preservative ethyl-mercury has never been shown to be toxic, even at fairly large doses. It is methyl-mercury (such as from industrial waste and fires) that is toxic. But let’s put this into further perspective.

    The adult flu shot (not the baby flu shot) is the only vaccine we routinely give that is still preserved with thimerosal. A standard adult dose contains 25 micrograms (that’s 25 millionths of a gram) of the less toxic ethyl-mercury. A standard can of albacore tuna contains 75 micrograms of the more toxic methyl-mercury. Even if the 2 kinds of mercury were equally toxic, it would take 3 flu shots to equal one can of albacore tuna! And I like tuna. Swordfish is good too. It would take about 7 adult flu shots to equal one 6 oz piece of swordfish. We could go on, but you get the picture.

    Now, I’m hungry.

    By the way, get your seasonal flu shots this month. The H1N1 is already causing great problems in colleges that have resumed Fall classes. The H1N1 vaccine will likely be ready for the general population in late October, or early November. Hopefully, not too late.

    For real information on seasonal influenza, the seasonal flu shot, the H1N1 and the H1N1 vaccine, check out…

    http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/vis/downloads/vis-flu.pdf
    http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/general_info.htm

  11. splicer says:

    “a development deal with Jenny McCarthy to do her own weekday talk show, which has poised McCarthy to walk in the footsteps of previous Oprah proteges, such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz”.

    It will be interesting to see what level of woo will be showing up on the new Dr. Oz show which will be starting soon. He may be able to distance himself somewhat from it when he has more control of the content. We can only hope due to his popularity and the large audience he will be reaching.

  12. DevoutCatalyst says:

    “…It will be interesting to see what level of woo will be showing up on the new Dr. Oz show which will be starting soon. He may be able to distance himself somewhat from it when he has more control of the content…”

    I’m not so sure about that. I’m paraphrasing, but Dr. Mehmet Oz once weighed in on astrology, saying “I don’t understand how it works, but their calculations are very complex, there must be something to it…”

    —from an article in Esquire.

  13. Harriet Hall says:

    Oz has control of his own OR and he lets energy medicine practitioners in there to wave their hands at his patients during open heart surgery.

  14. Mark Crislip says:

    All the other aspects of the skeptical movement are mostly entertaining: UFO’s, nessie, ESP etc. are fun to read about and give insights into how people think.

    Alt med kills. Like Christine Maggiore. That’s why alt med is different and why it matters if an atheist gets an award why simultaneously being a goof about health care.

  15. Harriet Hall says:

    As for compartmentalizing skepticism, when I started writing the SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine, there were cancellations. One man complained that it was OK to be skeptical about other things, but being skeptical about alternative medicine was going too far.

  16. qetzal says:

    I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots).

    That’s certainly not true today. Some flu vaccines still contain mercury in the form of thimerosal, but other do not. None contain aluminum.

    Although this quote is supposedly from 1997, I had the impression that flu vaccines have never included aluminum-based adjuvants. Does anyone know?

  17. David Gorski says:

    Alt med kills. Like Christine Maggiore. That’s why alt med is different and why it matters if an atheist gets an award why simultaneously being a goof about health care.

    Exactly. That’s exactly what annoys me about this so much.

    Would AAI ever consider a moon hoaxer, a Holocaust denier, a 9/11 Truther, a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, or a creationist for this award, even if that person were an atheist? No way in hell. But if it’s “just” someone who’s into alt-med or “just” expresses anti-vaccine sentiments, then everyone’s a shruggie, saying, in essence, “What’s the harm?”

    Quackery kills. Antivaccine pseudoscience kills. You can’t say that about creationism.

  18. David Gorski says:

    As for compartmentalizing skepticism, when I started writing the SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine, there were cancellations. One man complained that it was OK to be skeptical about other things, but being skeptical about alternative medicine was going too far.

    Although you’ve never told me this before, sadly, I’m not surprised by your story.

  19. tmac57 says:

    I enjoy Bill Maher’s humor, and I find him to be skeptical about many issues ( in a good way), but when he opens his mouth about health and medicine…. Its kinda like when you meet some like minded stranger at a party, and you are having an interesting and fun conversation,and you think that you might have found a new friend, and suddenly, they start casually making nasty racist remarks. Its just very jarring to me psychologically.

  20. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    Bill Maher has many contradictory viewpoints. (Like you mentioned, he is against the flu vaccine but for Gardasil.)

    He often talks about how we are too prudish in the US and that we should tolerate nudity. However, he once went on a rant about nursing mothers, and how they only nurse their babies in public to get attention for themselves. As someone who supposedly believes in “natural” medicine, how can he be so against breastfeeding? (I guess there is not enough woo around it for him.)

  21. Calli Arcale says:

    (I guess there is not enough woo around it for him.)

    In that case, I think we could turn him around on public breastfeeding pretty easily — there is a TREMENDOUS amount of woo around breastfeeding, as I discovered when I was nursing my babies.

    Regarding atheism, I definitely do see a range of motivations. Some become atheists because they are skeptical of God. That is, they see no evidence, no rational reason to believe, and so therefore they make the quite reasonable choice to not believe in God. They put God in with the Tooth Fairy. While I disagree with them, I cannot present any evidence to the contrary, and so I consider this stance eminently reasonable — and perfectly skeptical.

    Some become atheists for a more — dare I say it? — spiritual and personal reason. They see the inherent beauty in the Universe, and are driven by a passionate desire to see more of it, to plumb its hidden depths. They do not see any reason for a God in it, and indeed, feel that such a thing would sully it somehow. The world is so beautiful — to say that it was created or somehow altered by a entity outside of it would be to disrespect it, to take away some of the credit for its natural beauty and awesome splendor. Poetic atheists, you might say. I don’t know if this is why Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) became an atheist, but to read his blog posts on astronomy, I get the impression that this would resonate with him. He clearly sees a beautiful Universe, glorious entirely in and of itself, and not requiring some outside agency just to call it good.

    But others become atheists because they hate religion. They often join skeptical organizations, because many atheists are skeptics and people tend to want to hang out with like-minded folks a fair amount of time. This is not unreasonable; we are social animals, and we need to spend a certain amount of time in the company of friendly folks. (This is not to say that atheists can’t socialize with theists. They certainly can. But enough awkward silences can nudge a person towards other social groups.) These atheists may become skeptics, and if they do, that is a wonderful and good thing. But not all of them will. Most will need to bury the hatchet with religion first (hatred is a great source of bias), but even if they can’t be properly skeptical (as opposed to knee-jerk dismissive) on that topic, they should be able to become skeptical on others.

    Sadly, some, like Maher, will not succeed in that. He seems to be an atheist because he hates religion. I can understand that; religion has been responsible for some of the greatest evils in history. But he is not skeptical — he accepts uncritically those things which conform to his world-view, and rejects those which do not.

    Ultimately, I think it is not healthy to simply hate religion for the evils that have been done through it. For one thing, to do so is to ignore the potential for evil which remains in every one of us, religious or otherwise. The horrors committed under Saddam Hussein were not done in the name of Allah; they were done in the name of Saddam Hussein — there is a larger phenomenon at work, fundamental to human nature and human society, which permits this sort of evil to happen, regardless of whether it is in the name of a god or other supernatural entity. When religion has done horrible things, it has done them as an integral part of the culture — where does religion stop and culture begin? The answer is that it doesn’t; the two permeate one another. We only give it a special name when it worships a supernatural entity. And maybe that’s a mistake, because it leads us to thinking that it’s belief in the supernatural entity that is the problem, rather than the “us versus them” mentality that arises in human society. You can fall into that trap regardless of what you believe. The only good defenses, in my opinion, are critical thinking and compassion. We need to be aware of our own deficiencies, and we need to be kind to those who are different from ourselves, if for no other reason than because they might turn out to be right after all.

    Even Bill Maher. I won’t believe his rants against the germ theory of disease until the evidence points that way, but if I met him at a party, I would be nice to him. I disagree with him on many points, but like anyone, he is more than those points.

  22. Hubbub says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I remember the “Oh Come on, Superman!” last year as the seminal moment where Bill really went off the deep end for medical quackery (at least on his HBO show).

    As much as may agree with him on other issues, I absolutely agree that we should really take him to task for his woo…

    … and don’t get me started this year’s RDF award.

  23. MBoaz says:

    Thanks for another great post Dr. Gorski.

    Yes, it’s a shame that Bill Maher, who’s always so quick to point out what a “stupid country” we live in, has grown so acclimated to the stench of his own bullshit that he can’t recognize his chronic verbal diarrhea. I really want to like Maher. He can be pretty funny, even clever sometimes, but every single time health/medicine is brought up he says something so misinformed or downright stupid that I just have to shake my head in disgust. Too bad.

  24. Richard says:

    MBoaz, you beat me to it. What really burned me up was when he said on CNN that America was a “stupid country.” He should speak for himself. Also, I couldn’t agree with you more, Dr. Gorsky and others. Alt Med kills. It subverts science and the scientific basis of our established institutions. It’s just as bad as creationism, if not worse.

  25. halincoh says:

    Though our skeptical movement is a diverse movement in terms of how we all arrived here and though critical thinking should be our defining essence, we also know that there is a strong anti religious component to “us” as well. Methinks the hard core atheists got a tad carried away with Mr. Maher, for he is a very visible poster boy for atheists in general.

    Maher started to disgust me a couple of years ago when I started to pay close attention to all that he was saying.

    The lesson learned here should be that while it is true that some, if not a great many, critical thinkers may be atheists, not all atheists are neccessarily critical thinkers.

    We must LISTEN carefully, critically, to a whole body of work, then make our choices.

  26. Dr Benway says:

    Yeah. What’s up with Richard Dawkins? I expected better.

  27. TsuDhoNimh says:

    Transfer factor? Trying to follow that chain of reasoning makes my branez asplode!

  28. TsuDhoNimh says:

    # qetzal Although this quote is supposedly from 1997, I had the impression that flu vaccines have never included aluminum-based adjuvants.

    In the USA, they don’t have adjuvants (at least now). In Europe, they do, but I don”t know if they are aluminum or other compounds.

  29. Bill Maher said he isn’t an atheist. He just doesn’t believe in organized religion. So why did he receive this ‘award’, he doesn’t qualify on any level. Into the fookin’ sack….

  30. Tim Kreider says:

    Another amusing inconsistency in Maher’s ideology: doctors and drugs cause harm and ignore the “true” cause of disease, but the US is backwards and evil for not having universal access to such treatments. Why would you want single payer if you believe modern medicine is worse than a waste of money?

    I find Maher funny but way too partisan and ideological to take seriously as an analyst. His anti-religion stuff is not terribly sophisticated or original (I’ve seen hbo show but not movie).

  31. mhodges says:

    This article is full of so much tortured logic, you think the author must misunderstand the word science.

    I’ll point out a couple glaring holes in the author’s logic, and leave it as an exercise to the reader come to their own conclusions as to the rest.

    1) The author claims that “So in 2005, at least, Maher was getting medical information from the über-crank site Whale.to”. What is the evidence for that?

    I did a simple Google search. Guess what website came up on the first page when I did my search? If you said the extremely flaky Whale.to website. . .you won!

    So Bill Maher couldn’t have heard it from a friend or doctor, he couldn’t have read it print media or online at another site?

    2) I sorry but people get their information about the world for a lot of sources, and not all of those sources turn out to be reliable. But that doesn’t make you a crank, it just means you were honestly misinformed. If someone at Apple announced a new multi-touch Tablet PC, but then later it turns out the announcement was a prank, am I a crank because I believe it? No, I was just misinformed. Bill Maher isn’t a scientist or doctor and just like the average person he doesn’t have the time or resources to fact check all the peer reviews of every article published by a medical doctor. Here’s a second analogy: if people now start saying that Bill Maher gets his information from Whale.to does that make it true? Gorski MD wrote that on the intertubes, so do I hold “wacky views” if I believe it and it turns out to be false?

    What’s up with the claim that Maher promotes animal rights pseudoscience? You provide no support for that claim, and I can’t even imagine what it means.

    As someone who makes a living within the medical system, Dr Gorski clearly has a bias against criticism which threatens his field. But before you jump to defending Big Pharma take a look at this Frontline program and tell me that the doctors and drug companies behind this kind of uncontrolled experiment on millions of children is not SICK:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/medicatedchild/

  32. David Gorski says:

    Bill Maher has been on the board of PETA (also in Wikipedia) and is frequently a vocal supporter of PETA. I didn’t go into that because the post was already getting too long, but it could well have been another section. Maybe I’ll add that as a section now that you mention it. I wouldn’t want to neglect any of Maher’s support of pseudoscience.

    As for my “evidence,” fine, let’s for the sake of argumetn Maher got his information from somewhere else. In that case, he credulously swallowed a secondhand account of misinformation from a dubious source. That hardly makes him less of a crank. He believed it because he wanted to believe it; because he “doesn’t believe in ‘Western’ medicine.” In fact, it doesn’t matter where he got the information. It’s such a load of bollocks and, when taken in the context of the rest of his support for pseudoscience

    I do like your “pharma shill” or “pharma brainwashed” gambit, though. Gee, like I’ve never had a defender of a pseudoscientist accuse me of that before. So original. Who here has said that big pharma is all sweetness and light? Certainly not me. In fact, among the bloggers here, I tend to be the most routinely critical of big pharma. It’s not even close. Here are five examples:

    Another challenge to surgical dogma
    When fraud undermines science-based medicine
    Vertebroplasty for compression fractures due to osteoporosis: Placebo medicine
    FDA approval of drugs and transparency in clinical trial results
    Threats to science-based medicine: When clinical trials for new drugs are designed by the marketing division

    I look at any threat to science-based medicine, wherever it comes from, pharma, quacks, CAM supporters, or, yes, Bill Maher.

    You really don’t know what you’re talking about, do you? I am, however, amused by your trying to suggest that I don’t understand what science is. Gave me a chuckle, it did.

    Gee, you didn’t happen to be on the committee that chose Maher, did you?

  33. weing says:

    mhodges,

    I’m glad that someone out there agrees that Cheney and company were misinformed about WMDs in Iraq.

  34. mhodges says:

    >amused by your trying to suggest that I don’t understand what science is.

    excuse me, but is this statement based on the principles of science and logic which you purport to be promoting, or are you jumping to conclusions as you’ve already conceded:

    “So in 2005, at least, Maher was getting medical information from the über-crank site Whale.to ”

    >I’ve never had a defender of a pseudoscientist accuse me of that before.

    eh? Now Bill Maher is a pseudoscientist? Is he practicing science? lol You make as many claims without evidence as he does!

    Regarding animal rights pesudoscience, do we have another logical fallacy here: Guilt by association? Maher is a vegetarian and supports the mission of PETA? So what? I’m a vegetarian and I support PETA’s mission too. Does that mean I believe in every statement they make? Nope. You remind me of those critics of Obama who assumed that he must share all viewpoints and values with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

    really messy thinker you are.

  35. David Gorski says:

    Regarding animal rights pesudoscience, do we have another logical fallacy here: Guilt by association? Maher is a vegetarian and supports the mission of PETA? So what? I’m a vegetarian and I support PETA’s mission too. Does that mean I believe in every statement they make? Nope.

    It’s more than “guilt by association.” Maher has been on PETA’s board, fer cryin’ out loud. That’s a high level advisory position, way more than just being a member.

    In any case, you really don’t know very much about PETA, do you? Let’s find out if you do. What do you think about PETA’s opposition to animal research?

  36. CertifiedCyborg says:

    David, the Behe Evolution analogy looks like it was taken straight from one of Orac’s posts on respectful insolence: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/07/bill_maher_and_anti-science.php

    It’ll look a bit funny for anyone who reads both blog’s, so you should probably reference even if it was unintentional.

  37. David Gorski says:

    I’m quite aware of the source of that analogy, but, trust me when I assure you that I have no need to reference it.

    Think about it. :-)

  38. tmac57 says:

    mhodges-”Bill Maher isn’t a scientist or doctor and just like the average person he doesn’t have the time or resources to fact check all the peer reviews of every article published by a medical doctor.”
    What you forget here, is that UNLIKE the average person, Maher has a massive audience of average persons who very likely will be somewhat influenced by his views, since they are probably already fans. This puts Maher in a much more responsible position of needing to fact check his information, before widely disseminating it to his fan base, lest he do harm to others by promoting dubious medical beliefs.

  39. Chris says:

    CertifiedCyborg, it is uncanny how Orac and Dr. Gorski seem to think with the same mind! ;)

  40. kausikdatta says:

    Dr. Gorski, is this the first time – the war between the nom de plume and self, id and super-ego fighting each other to death? :D Freud would be delighted!

    mhodges clearly has a candle lit for Bill Maher, which is why s/he is unable to go beyond the superficial to take a hard look at what Maher is or does.

    Maher is not a scientist. But that inconvenient little fact has not stopped him from promoting pseudoscience, whether it be through his popular show and large fan base, or as a member of the PETA board.

    David appears to be bang-on, mhodges. You don’t really know what you are talking about, do you? Before accusing people of being Pharma-shills, do tell me: do you understand the concept of science-based medicine?

  41. CertifiedCyborg says:

    Ha, I’ve been reading this blog for so long and never picked it up!

    Well good work in presenting two posts on it, each equally informative and entertaining.

    I feel like such a fool :P

    Not as much of a fool as Maher though, that guy should have been nominated for the douche-bag of the year award, not the Richard Dawkin’s Award, I mean come on. He’s a politically charged deist with an anti-religious bent, not a skeptical role model.

  42. Jurjen S. says:

    “The model you have is wrong. You’re thinking that the problem is the mosquitos, not the swamp. If there’s no swamp, the mosquitos can’t take root.” There was a pause, after which Maher said, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

    Well, quite. The whole “swamp and mosquitoes” analogy comes from malaria, so-called because it was thought to be caused by “bad air” (mal aire in French, hence the name) from swamps. The French in Algeria drained the swamps because they thought those were the cause; in doing so, they happened to destroy the mosquitoes’ breeding grounds, so that was effective. But where the analogy fails in this case is that Maher’s germ theory denialist position is not that “swamps cause mosquitoes, mosquitoes cause malaria,” but that “swamps cause malaria, and malaria causes mosquitoes.”

  43. DeathAngel says:

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been watching Bill Maher’s Real Time for a year or two now, ever since an American friend told me about it. I enjoy my one hour of entertainment every friday. He can be very funny, he has interesting people on and he is not one to let go easily, which makes him such a nice change to the normal (news) media.
    But his ideas about health, medicine and food are just increasingly annoying and often angry me, because I think “damn him, he should know better!”. He advertises “doubt” concerning religious ideas. But he jumps on some “alternative medicine” train right off the bat? I didn’t think his track record was this bad though.

    But I can’t complain too loudly, in Germany a professor named Claudia Witt was appointed to a spot at the Berlin Charité to research alternative medicines and the declared goal of the charity organization funding her work is not to do scientific research on acupuncture and the placebo-effect or the like but – and I paraphrase – “to further the acceptance of alternative medicine in the scientific and western medicine community”. Very open minded research stance….

  44. laursaurus says:

    “I’m referring to Bill Maher, comedian and host of the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Thanks to an anti-religion movie (Religulous) and his frequent stance as a “skeptic,” many of my fellow skeptics consider him one of our own, even to the point of giving him an award named after Richard Dawkins. Yet, when it comes to medicine, nothing could be further from the truth. Maher’s own words show that he has anti-vaccine views, flirts with germ theory denialism and HIV/AIDS denialism, buys into extreme conspiracy theories about big pharma, and promotes animal rights pseudoscience. That’s not a skeptic or a supporter of science-based medicine.”

    Until recently, I was unaware of this popular topic of skepticism. After years of treating occasional bouts of insomnia by turning on Coast to Coast, I was astonished at the weird stuff so many people actually believe. I discovered the world of podcasts about 6 months ago and eagerly downloaded shows that introduced me to this intellectually satisfying area of critical thinking. However, the sarcastic and cynical tone of many shows left me very disappointed. Finally, I discovered Skeptoid which I consider one of, if not, the best podcast on iTunes. I enthusiastically joined the email discussion list and quickly encountered the whole ideology surrounding the “Skeptical Movement.” The existence of this seemingly paradoxical term is once again reinforced in this article. Since every self-proclaimed skeptic would insist that he values logic, reason, and evidence above religious conviction, it is puzzling how devout Atheism is not only required, but a badge of honor. The new Atheists have struck gold by discovering previously closeted hatred for Christianity. With the highly popular anti-Bush rhetoric playing on like a broken record, this deep-seeded disdain has bubbled up to the surface. For every rare American who dislikes Obama for his race, there are at least a thousand who despise GW for being an Evangelical Christian. Because Jesus directed Christians to turn the other cheek, this group is a ridiculously easy victim.
    It is astonishing that by merely creating film eliciting hatred for those of a specific creed, one earns prestige in the world of the Skeptical Movement. Maher hasn’t contributed anything to the cause of promoting critical thinking. “Religulous” was nothing more than “preaching to the choir” of militant Atheists. His malinformation about vaccination qualifies him for the ire held for the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Oprah. If the Skeptical Community genuinely has scruples, Maher ought to be chastised and immediately be banished. What exactly is valued by skeptics? The information this man is spreading is not just politically incorrect, it’s deadly. Will there be a website titled “Bill Mahr’s” body count tracking the number of this season’s flu deaths? No doubt about half of the self-proclaimed, critical thinkers reading this will neglect to be vaccinated because they personally aren’t concerned about getting the flu. To hell with all the people they wind up infecting! Maybe they aren’t as educated as they thought about herd immunity. Or do they just not care about anyone but themselves? Just how strong are those morals they claim to have without religion?

    Mahr personifies one of Dennis Prager’s classic quotes:
    “If you don’t believe in something, then you’ll believe in anything.”
    He’s also a spokesman for PETA, btw. Ad hom attack, so I saved it for last.

  45. Harriet Hall says:

    “devout Atheism is not only required, but a badge of honor.”

    I don’t think that’s true. Hal Bidlack, the MC at James Randi’s Amazing Meetings, believes in God and is highly respected in the skeptical community. His God is not a personal God who answers prayers, but more of a Deist God. The skeptical movement does not attack unprovable claims of the existence of God, but it asks for evidence when someone makes a testable religious claim, such as the efficacy of prayer or a 6000 year old earth. A person can be a skeptic and use critical thinking and reason for most areas of life and still choose to accept some things on faith or tradition. As long as they don’t ask us to accept testable claims without testing, and as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on others, skeptics need not be atheists. And many skeptics refuse to call themselves atheists, much less devout ones, because they think agnosticism is a more rational stance. Atheism does not imply hostility to religion: it just implies that one does not accept theism.

  46. Harriet Hall says:

    “Just how strong are those morals they claim to have without religion?”

    I don’t think there is any convincing evidence that religious believers are more moral than non-believers. In fact, there is some evidence suggesting just the opposite.

    If you are moral only because of your religious belief, how could we trust you if you lose your faith? (Many or most believers have doubts at times, even Mother Teresa).

    I agree with Michael Shermer. In his book The Science of Good and Evil, he shows that we all evolved to have a moral sense. We know instinctively that some things are “wrong.” We rationalize or appeal to religious arguments to try to explain or justify what we feel.

  47. kausikdatta says:

    @laursauras: a single post, and already evidence of so much confusion, eh?

    …eagerly downloaded shows that introduced me to this intellectually satisfying area of critical thinking. However, the sarcastic and cynical tone of many shows left me very disappointed.

    Yes, sarcasm and cynicism are but a part of the tools the atheist commentators use to counter the fervent blatherings that many religious zealots keep uttering. One needs to be able to scratch beneath the surface to see the layer of rationality. But, of course, that is hard work.

    … every self-proclaimed skeptic would insist that he values logic, reason, and evidence above religious conviction, it is puzzling how devout Atheism is not only required, but a badge of honor.

    One cannot be a skeptic unless one values logic, reason and evidence. But your use of the word ‘devout atheism’ quickly marks you as one of the ‘concern trolls’ that one sees on the atheist websites and blogs. Atheism is not a religion, nor an ideology, that one can be ‘devout’ to. It is simply an absence of belief in a supernatural deity. For many, reliance on and use of logic, reason and evidence is the cornerstone of their disbelief in the supernatural. For many others, as Harriet mentioned, their view of the supernatural is distinct, and intentionally kept separate, from their use of logic and reason. We have all seen how much at odds this latter group is with the evangelical, fundamentalist, biblical-literalist christians in this country. By using the terms such as ‘devout atheists’ you are clearly buying into the propaganda spread by rank idiots whom I don’t need to name.

    The new Atheists have struck gold by discovering previously closeted hatred for Christianity.

    Holy smokes! You ARE one of those, aren’t you? Atheists have no ‘hatred’ for christianity, islam, hinduism, zoroastrianism, or any other religion of any description. What they are vocal against are (a) the imposition of the said religions by the religious on others, and (b) the profound lack of any kind of reason and logic in the religious screeds.

    For every rare American who dislikes Obama for his race, there are at least a thousand who despise GW for being an Evangelical Christian. Because Jesus directed Christians to turn the other cheek, this group is a ridiculously easy victim.

    And what cheek would that be? Perhaps we should ask the choir boys. ‘Ridiculously easy victim’? Are you blind to the current events, or just plain dishonest?

    It is astonishing that by merely creating film eliciting hatred for those of a specific creed, one earns prestige in the world of the Skeptical Movement. Maher hasn’t contributed anything to the cause of promoting critical thinking. “Religulous” was nothing more than “preaching to the choir” of militant Atheists.

    Yes, and precisely for that reason, many of the prominent atheist commentators were dismayed and outraged. And Bill Maher is not even an atheist as he has repeatedly mentioned on his television appearances. But unlike the actions of the ‘evangelical christians’, the atheist commentators have suggested that the fellow atheists pose these highly relevant questions (such as Maher’s anti-vaccine, woo-promoting stance) to Bill Maher at every possible opportunity.

    If the Skeptical Community genuinely has scruples, Maher ought to be chastised and immediately be banished.

    Yes, that’s a seasoned response of the evangelical christians, isn’t it? Excommunication, eh? Unfortunately (for you), reasonable people – the critical thinkers, the rationalists – do not work like that. They would rather attack Maher’s weird, pseudoscientific propositions at every opportunity and show them up for the meaningless babble they are. The idea is to promote the importance of questioning, of reason, of science, and NOT ad hominem attacks.

    No doubt about half of the self-proclaimed, critical thinkers reading this will neglect to be vaccinated because they personally aren’t concerned about getting the flu. To hell with all the people they wind up infecting! Maybe they aren’t as educated as they thought about herd immunity.

    Jeez! Talk about strawman arguments. Projection much? I am not going to qualify that idiotic statement by responding further.

    … do they just not care about anyone but themselves? Just how strong are those morals they claim to have without religion?

    The best for the last. This once I shall assume that you are genuinely interested in finding out more about this. Harriet has already mentioned Michael Shermer’s book. For an online, readily accessible knowledge base, look in the Talk Origins Archive and either go through the Index or search for Evolution of Altruism. This “morality = religion” canard is a product of the ripe minds of religious proselytizers of various description. It has been convincingly debunked many a times.

  48. marilynmann says:

    Interesting post. I have not been paying any attention to Bill Maher and after reading this I certainly won’t be motivated to do so.

    I have a question, though, about an assertion I have seen from a couple of physicians (Juan Gervas and James Wright) who oppose vaccination against swine flu. One of their arguments, as I understand it, is that people who are exposed to swine flu will gain long-lasting immunity to swine flu or other similar flu viruses. Whereas, people who are immunized, assuming the vaccine works for them, will have only short-term immunity. They argue therefore that people should avoid the vaccine so that they can gain this “long-lasting natural immunity.”

    I suspect there are fallacies in this argument but I don’t know enough about the topic of flu or flu vaccines to identify what they are. Can anyone help me out?

    One thing that does occur to me is that the strategy they propose requires subjecting oneself to an immediate increased risk in order to reduce a future risk that may never materialize.

    Source: http://www.equipocesca.org/…/swine-flu-vaccines-gervas-and-wright-sep-2009.doc

  49. kausikdatta says:

    @Marilyn: I see that you have posed the same question in revere’s blog also [SBM broke your long link: the correct one is here. It is a word document.

    Someone far more knowledgeable than I am would perhaps address this question of yours. Meanwhile, let me share my thoughts on this.

    the strategy they propose requires subjecting oneself to an immediate increased risk in order to reduce a future risk

    This is similar to the ridiculous ‘pox parties’ anti-vaccination parents often subject their children to in this country. You suspect rightly that there is a fallacy in the arguments of messrs. Wright and Gervas. There are, in fact, two.

    First, the 2009 H1N1 strain has been seen to cause disease with lethal outcomes in several countries. In fact, according to CDC,

    2009 H1N1 influenza virus seems to be causing serious health outcomes for:
    1. healthy young people from birth through age 24;
    2. pregnant women; and
    3. adults 25 to 64 who have underlying medical conditions.

    Note that ‘healthy young people’ bit, and in addition, the bit about ‘underlying medical conditions. In such a situation, it is extremely irresponsible to suggest that people should deliberately let themselves be exposed to the virus.

    Secondly, the question of ‘long term immunity’ is a moot one. There is no evidence that exposure to the 2009 H1N1 flu virus provides better immunity than the vaccine. Besides, given the genomic changes that the flu virus undergoes, it is highly unlikely that one time exposure (as also vaccination) will provide immunity against novel flu strains that may occur in future. For example, the 1976 swine flu virus and the 2009 H1N1 virus are different enough that a person vaccinated in 1976 cannot have full protection from the 2009 H1N1, and should be vaccinated for the 2009 strain.

    Vaccination remains the best way to prevent influenza infection and its complications, and is the best public-health tool available. Pretending otherwise, as messrs. Wright and Gervas are doing, is disingenuous, and dishonest at worst, and misinformation such as this seriously impacts public health, since the situation is of great concern; as estimated by the CDC, more than one million people became ill with novel H1N1 flu between April and June 2009 in the United States.

    FDA has just approved four 2009 H1N1 vaccines earlier in September. Based on preliminary data, the approved vaccines induce a robust immune response in most healthy adults eight to 10 days after a single dose.

    I don’t know enough about the topic of flu or flu vaccines

    There is an easy remedy to that. Do go and explore the H1N1 pages at CDC. They are very informative for a starter.

  50. wstrinz says:

    Thank you for writing this. This is the kind of thing that divides true skeptics from religion, anti-establishmentism, and most other ideological groups. We don’t close ranks around “one of our own” when their character is called into question, we explore, learn, and find out the truth. Being skeptical of other skeptics is perhaps even more important than going after non-skeptics. It’s extremely important that we demonstrate at every possible opportunity that we are interested in truth, not a belief structure or an ideology.

  51. Thanks for the reporting, David. I had been enjoying Maher’s show until his recent rant about alt-med. Until then, my kook radar had been silent. I watched a couples year’s worth of the guy’s shows without detecting anything except a lot of good, wholesome atheism and skepticism. Except for the occasional blip of mild paranoia about Big Pharma, and a couple mentions of unspecific toxins, he sure seemed like a good skeptic to me.

    I’d heard a few rumblings about his anti-vaccinationism, which seemed entirely at odds with the Bill I knew. I was then reassured by his “tamiflu is for sinners” monologue on May 1, 2009: “Since viruses, like swine flu, get to be potentially deadly because they ‘evolved,’ if you don’t believe in evolution and you get it, you have to pray it away. You can’t crap all over Darwin and stem cell research and global warming and then come crawling back to science when you want Tamiflu. That’s for us sinners.” (http://www.hbo.com/billmaher/new_rules/20090501.html)

    Funny stuff, and hardly the mind of an anti-vaxer at work. Granted, he didn’t address anti-vaccination directly there, but he does seem to be aware that vaccines are medicine. And so I thought perhaps the allegations that he was an anti-vaccinationist were exaggerated, or out of date. Could his views on the subject be evolving, improving? A skeptic can hope.

    Of course, it only takes one black swan to prove that not all swans are white. And it only takes one rant about the evils of “Western medicine” to prove that Bill Maher’s views haven’t evolved enough, and his popularity combined with his ignorance is literally dangerous. What an utter bummer.

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