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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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