My fellow sceptics.
We need to talk about Bill Maher.
I don’t think it’s possible for Bill Maher’s viewpoints on medicine to have escaped your RADAR. Even for the big organisations (seeing as The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science responded to Pharyngula’s blog when it was raised in the comments section).
So the question then becomes: Why has this man not been challenged by the sceptical community at large? In fact, why do some sceptics defend his positions?
The hostility to medical science that Maher has expressed over the years, and continues to express, is the same as those on anti-vaccine forums, and is deeply unscientific.
The shunning of scientific investigation for gut feeling anecdotal evidence? That’s anti-science. Endorsement of alternative medicine and outright lying about vaccines? That’s anti-science.
Maher does both of these.
Maher isn’t a healthy, questioning sceptic in regards to medicine.
And we need to say so.
Don’t believe me?
Allow me to explain.
I’m not going to bother explaining how vaccines do not cause autism, or how alternative medicine which is proven to work is just called medicine, or how there is no conspiracy by Big Pharma to keep us sick (although I’d recommend everyone read the book Bad Pharma). You already know this. The writing’s on the wall.
Instead, I’m going to dissect and analyse Bill Maher’s views on the above, providing and linking evidence where I can find it about what was said and when.
The thing is: he doesn’t get to put his un-reason up on the same shelf as my reason.
Let’s wind the clock back to allow me to explain why.
Back in 2005, Maher had the following exchange with the Larry King (quoting directly):
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.
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 webpage Maher quoted from was this one. The ‘research’ quoted was by Dr. Fudenberg. The same one who co-constructed the Lancet paper linking MMR with autism. Yeah, the fraudulent one. And the same one who the South Carolina medical board in 1995 found “guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct” and suspended his medical license. And the one who scammed people with “transfer factors” to cure autism.
Incidentally, there is no paper in the peer reviewed literature written and published by Dr. Fudenberg to back up his claims about transfer factors. How weird.
In the same year, Maher also flirted with germ theory denialism on his show.
Here’s the quote from March 4 2005:
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.
Sounds like a creationist saying Darwin renounced evolution on his deathbed, doesn’t it? Never mind Pasteur never renounced it on his deathbed, it’s not relevant. The fact he brought it up at all speaks to the fact his position has no evidence. But I thought he’d only believe things which had evidence?
And the fact Maher didn’t think to fact check that and abandoned his scepticism for a dubious rumour at best doesn’t sound like a man who follows evidence, does it?
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.
And I’m just going to let that quote hang for a moment and let it sink in. This is a man who is a self claimed sceptic, I’ll add.
But that was 10 years, ago. Surely things have changed?
Well, let’s consult something more recent. Like this horrifying exchange from 2008.
In the same year, David Letterman invited him onto his show where the following exchange occurred:
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.
It gets worse.
Here’s a review posted by Bill Maher about Christine Maggiore’s book What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong?
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.
Christine Maggiore was an HIV/AIDs denialist. The book in question is linked here. It talks about how HIV doesn’t cause AIDs. Despite 25 years worth of evidence to the contrary.
AIDs denialism costs lives. It cost the life of her daughter, and eventually, her own life at the young age of 52 caused by Pneumonia. Even if the AIDs denialism crowd spun their deaths to be not HIV related.
Are we still going to labour under the delusion that his anti religious stance is more important than his anti medical one?
Bill Maher promoted an unscientific AIDs denying book calling it “scientific inquiry”, most likely because the book talks about things such as the ever ambiguous ‘toxins’, ‘drugs’ pushed by Big Pharma to keep you sick and destroy your immune system (like, say, AIDs).
Am I saying he’s an AIDs denier? No. But, given his acute scepticism about Pharmaceutical companies, the fact he has endorsed an AIDs denial book in the not too distant past must be addressed.
If we jump ahead in time to when Swine Flu was all the rage, Maher’s anti-vaccine position hadn’t faltered much either. Just look at his Twitter feed.
No. Just watch.
…I do understand the theory of inoculation. Yes, you give someone a little bit of the disease and it fools your body into providing antibodies which fight it. Brilliant! Bravo! Maybe there is some occasions where inoculation is a wise thing to do. I hope not. I hope I would never have to have one because, you know, to present it just as this genius medical advancement, no, it’s actually a risky medical procedure that begs long term cost-benefit analysis…
… I mean if you don’t believe me, just look on the CDC website as to what is in the swine flu vaccine. You know, aluminum, insect repellent, formaldehyde, mercury, you know, that’s right on their website. Don’t take it from a talk show host.
Wow. Just wow, Bill.
First of all, that statement clearly shows any sort of understanding about how vaccines work. Vaccines don’t “give someone a little bit of the disease”, they provide a protein, or antigen, which mimics the infectious disease in question to prompt an immune response. Live attenuated vaccines are similarly made by genetically engineering the virus so that it is no longer virulent and its replication potential is low or nonexistent.
Also, fun fact in case you end up reading this, Bill: your body has produced more formaldehyde reading this than you’ll ever get from a vaccine. And I hope you don’t like pears, because that shit is loaded with formaldehyde.
Here’s another: Thimerosol, the scary sounding word with the scary sounding mercury in it? That’s ethyl mercury. That gets flushed out of your body. Methyl mercury, also known as the “bad” kind, is found in things like, I dunno… Tuna.
Interestingly, I couldn’t find this claim about insect repellent anywhere on the CDC website. Isn’t that strange? It’s almost like he lied about finding it on the CDC website. Maybe… Rense.com? The crazy conspiracy website, perhaps?
But if we’re gonna play the chemical game, why don’t we talk about the chemical in every home filled with deadly Sodium and Chlorine? (Otherwise known as table salt).
But the best quote was this one:
What I know is that what Western medicine likes to do is to close off debate.
This is Denial Mindset 101. The debate about vaccines went a way Maher didn’t like. Scientific medicine does debate. It debates about what works and what doesn’t to improve the health of the population. Scientific medicine is great at debate. Maher just doesn’t like the conclusions it reached. And speaking of debate…
Just to say that we need a debate about it. Just to say that the science is not settled. What I was attacked for was to say that I don’t believe in this, that we should look into it, and lots of people feel the same way. This is not settled science like global warming. That’s what they’re trying to say, that it’s as crazy as fighting global warming or evolution.
… Sounds like a creationist, doesn’t it? It definitely sounds like an AGW denier.
The debate already happened. This IS settled science. Fighting it IS like fighting evolution. It IS like fighting man-made climate change. And the tactics borrow pretty heavily from the deniers handbook. To take an excerpt from the brilliant book Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy
Denialism is the outright rejection of science and medicine. It involves actively contradicting and disregarding medical advice. It is steady state. Denialism is not open to criticism, and evades modification. Denialism is only open to additional evidence supporting its tenets and such evidence most often comes from the misuse of science and from pseudoscience.
One feature of denialism is the tendency to think of the denialist position as beleaguered, and under attack and in a minority that has to stave off the assaults of the vast wrong-thinking majority. As a consequence, those involved in denialism often, in the other justifications for their position, declare their strong allegiance to the principle of free speech. Interestingly, then, denialists often set themselves up as plucky underdogs, battling for their right to speak the truth against a tide of misinformation and, as often as not, conspiracies aimed at keeping them silent.
Sounds like Bill fits that definition, doesn’t it? Maher isn’t just asking questions (AKA JAQing off). The questions were asked. They were answered. Maher didn’t like the answers. This isn’t someone who is open to evidence and is willing to change their mind. This is clear cut, crystal clear, black and white denialism.
This isn’t new for Maher. He’s subscribed to the “too many too soon” argument put out by the anti pharma crowd, in spite of what the evidence says. Just watch this episode of Overtime.
The topic of autism and antibiotics comes up half way through, and it’s a doozy.
For starters, evidence of cesarean sections and autism, or antibiotics and autism, being linked is hard to find in the peer reviewed literature (as in, I couldn’t find any). And environmental risk factors in causing autism have thus far been inconclusive.
Also, spoiler alert – the answer to the question about if antibiotics are responsible for the autism epidemic is no. The rise in autism can be attributed to a broader diagnosis and greater awareness. Not antibiotic over-use.
Another spoiler – do antibiotics suppress immune function? No.
Is any of this challenged? No.
Antibiotic overuse is a real problem. But it isn’t causing autism.
And that was pretty damn recent. Like 2014 recent. 2014!
But that was in the past, man! Quit living in the past! I hear you cry. It’s 2015, Maher’s changed.
Right off the bat he opens with:
When I start these conversations, I always have to say: I’m not an antivaxer. I never have been. I’m an anti-flu shot guy I think that’s bullshit, and the fact that it was only 23% effective this week bears that out
First off, Bill: you have been anti vaccine. Citations 2005, 2008… everything I wrote above, really. Also, I’d just like to point out that being against the flu vaccine does make you anti vaccine in some function.
And third, Bill clearly doesn’t get what 23% effective means, and how badly wrong he is about it and the effectiveness. The flu shot still works. Otherwise the NHS wouldn’t waste their budget on providing free ones to people who were vulnerable, and they wouldn’t consider the flu immunisation program cost effective.
Not a good start, Bill.
And it only got worse from there:
The attitude of the media this week kinda pissed me off. It was just a lot of ‘shut the fuck up’. Y’know, it reminded me of the Iraq War; the first weeks, just ‘don’t ask any questions’.
Sounds like a rehashing of “Western medicine closes off debate” with “just a lot of shut the fuck up”, doesn’t it? Except this one is worse because now it’s like the Iraq War. Maher just loves JAQing off on his show when the topic of medicine comes up.
Which is when Marianne Williamson chimed in with
if you had any skepticism whatsoever, you were antiscience.
No, you’re anti-science when the science rules the evidence is not in your favour, and you continue to hold your non-evidence based position. The fact that whenever science says you’re talking out of your arse, your response it to move the goal posts rather than embrace the evidence is profoundly anti-science. And it’s definitely not scepticism.
And it isn’t “gotcha politics” to call out Gov. Christie and Sen. Paul on their anti-vaccine bollocks.
This doesn’t sound like someone who will believe something for which there’s evidence, does it?
Here’s another gem:
The analogy that I see all the time is that if you ask any questions, you are the same thing as a global warming denier. I think this is a very bad analogy, because I don’t think all science is alike. I think climate science is rather straightforward because you’re dealing with the earth. It’s a rock. I’m not saying I know how to deal with it, but climate scientists, from the very beginning, have pretty much said the same thing, and their predictions have pretty much come true. It’s atmospherics, and it’s geology, and chemistry. That’s not true of the medical industry. I mean, they’ve had to retract a million things because the human body is infinitely more mysterious. People get cancer, and doctors just don’t know why. They just don’t know why, and they don’t know how to fix it. And they put mercury in my teeth. My father had ulcers and they treated it wrong when I was a kid. Thalidomide. I mean I could go on about how many times they have been wrong. To compare those two science is, I think, just wrong.
No. Doubting vaccines is very much like doubting climate science. Or doubting evolution. The science is well accepted by the scientific community and backed by enormous quantities of evidence.
And the argument that “it was wrong in the past” is another healthy scooping of bollocks as well. Science has been wrong about all sorts of things. That’s the whole point of science. It changes it’s mind when it’s wrong.
Oh, sure, he said he accepts that vaccines don’t cause autism, but then beautifully pivots into another load of anti-vaccine crap about vaccinated versus unvaccinated children and “wonders” if people who’ve had a lot of vaccine have “robust immune systems”. Sounds like a JAQing off version of his original stance on vaccines suppressing immune function and causing allergies, doesn’t it?
And for his tarade on “Western Medicine”, see his shrunken testicles. Oh, and stay out of the Sun, too. Ignoring the clear link shown in the literature of the damage UV exposure can do to your skin. It’s all just demonising. Isn’t it?
*sigh* “We don’t know and we don’t trust Monsanto”.
This isn’t healthy scepticism.
This is indefensible.
It’s obvious that Bill Maher has been nothing but a contrarian for some time now. The reason he can adopt rational, evidence based positions on matters such as climate change or evolution is simple: it pisses off Republicans. However in regards to vaccines, GM crops and evidence based medicine in general he embraces the same camp as the tin foil hat wearing conspiracy brigade.
Still don’t believe me about him being a contrarian? Watch this excerpt about Tamiflu. Seems a bit more rational, doesn’t it? Except it was in the context of bashing creationists. So it was okay to support then.
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.
This is Contrarian lesson 101. If it pissed off creationists, Maher was down for it.
You might argue this is all hyperbole. It isn’t.
He might argue he’s not anti vaccine. He is.
He might argue he’s not anti-medicine. He is.
The simple fact of the matter is Bill Maher is not a sceptic. He adopts positions based on his own personal ideological tenants.
So, you might be asking: what does this have to do with me?
Maher’s viewpoints haven’t escaped question and backlash by sceptics, and I’m not saying we’re responsible for Maher and his brain or that people are condoning his position. In fact, it was good that Richard Dawkins called out Maher on his quackery in 2009.
But it’s not enough.
To single out two organisations – the RDFRS and AAI, both of which have failed to call Maher out on his quackery publicly, is allowing him to continue to hold and express anti-science viewpoints which are dangerous to wider society and public health. This is not okay.
This man is on the Project Reason advisory board. A board designed to promote scientific knowledge. It is a position he has not earned. And he doesn’t belong on the board. But no one seems to care about his unreasonable viewpoints on medicine.
We can’t let this inaction continue because he happens to be an atheist. Being an atheist does not make you a sceptic.
Here’s another glaring example of inaction by the sceptical community. Back in 2009, when The Atheist Alliance International (AAI), gave the Richard Dawkins award to Bill Maher, some people thought this was inappropriate.
Why? Because to get the award, you have to meet the following 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.
Maher doesn’t fit this bill. And his condemnation of religion isn’t enough to outweigh his medical views. And if you’re not sure how his medical views are relevant to my complaint, read the 3rd and 4th lines again. And again. And again.
The RDFRS response was disappointing:
Whilst Richard was not involved in the decision, he is nevertheless happy to go along with it. Just as he worked with Bishop Harries to protest against creationist schools in the UK, and just as he regularly recommends Kenneth Miller’s books on evolution to religious people, he understands that it is not a prerequisite to agree with a person on all issues in order to unite in support of a common objective.
I have to critique this stance. And this, more damning quote, from the RDFRS website:
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.
Calling Maher out at the 2009 Ceremony isn’t enough. The continued efforts of the AAI and RDFRS in standing up for science and the dedication to promoting scientific knowledge are hindered by their failure to address Maher’s denial (and it IS denial) of “Western” medicine and vaccines.
He doesn’t ‘Advocate increased scientific knowledge‘. Him being anti-religion doesn’t absolve him of that. It’s not enough.
Supporting the endowment of this award to Bill Maher with only a stern telling off, in my eyes, is missing the point. He shouldn’t have been given the award at all.
And allowing Maher to continue to get away with this is not okay.
It’s not okay for sceptics, to wash their hands of any responsibility to hold Maher to account for his unscientific views.
It’s not okay for people who claim to be sceptics to get a free pass on this issue. Richard Dawkins did a (frankly brilliant) documentary on the dangers of irrationality in healthcare. It’s not okay that we won’t stick up for science and evidence and turn a blind eye to Maher because he happens to be against religion.
It’s not okay that, in 2015, Maher is still allowed to be a fountain of bullshit with no condemnation by big sceptical groups.
It’s not okay that these alarm bells about Bill Maher have gone ignored for years.
And it’s really not okay that this needs to be explained.
We need to make this clear: Bill Maher cannot be allowed a free pass because he happens to share people’s views on religion. If we don’t stand up for reason and science, then it’s both cowardly, and undermines our efforts in the battle for a reason based, rational world.
As a movement, we need to clearly and publicly stand up for genuine scepticism. For real evidence based thought. For rational people who follow the evidence.
I want to leave you with a quote from Dr Aaron Carroll in regards to the Alan Wakefield and the anti-vaccine movement:
It’s easy to become cynical about people’s loss of trust and understanding in science, to the point that you think it’s unlikely that we will ever be able to convince some people that the MMR vaccine is safe. That’s a tragedy in and of itself. It’s easy to believe that the perpetrator of this fraud will not suffer the repercussions he deserves. Many still continue to lionize him and believe him to be a victim of some powerful cabal.
I think it’s likely that children have not been given an MMR vaccine because of this fraud. I think it’s likely children have gotten sick because of this fraud. I think it’s likely children have died.
I hope we can find some way to change that in the future.
A fellow sceptic.
Corrections and Addenda read pls (15/2/15)
Okay, I wanted to make a few things clear in the article ever since this thing took off on reddit and annoyed some Maher fans.
First off, I don’t hate Bill Maher, and I don’t have an ax to grind. That’s not to say I retract what I said about Maher, I stand by the points I made. But criticism of Maher’s medical stance =/= hating Bill Maher. I happen to find him pretty funny. A sceptic? No. But funny? Most of the time, yeah. And likeable? I think so, anyway. That doesn’t stop his views on medicine being crap, mind. And that’s the point of the word wall.
I can’t get behind some of the abuse been thrown at Maher in the Reddit section though. I don’t happen to think it’s very productive, and it’s a bit mean. My (I think) valid critique of his anti medical, anti-GMO viewpoints which, I think, have much more immediate consequences on the health of society than creationism does; is not an excuse to say mean things about him.
I also don’t think it’s helpful when people say that we shouldn’t hold him to the same standard as, say, politicians who ignore evidence based reason in favour of ideology. Sure, Maher isn’t running for public office. And I like my politicians to be trained in science, I mean let’s not forget the Coalition government of the UK employing a climate change denier for an Environmental Secretary. Or when Prince Charles’ Foundation for Integrated Medicine lobbied the government to water down their critique of homeopathy *puns*. No one’s arguing that politicians and people with political influence shouldn’t be criticised when they’re allowed to hold irrational and anti science beliefs. They should.
But this doesn’t absolve Maher. He DOES have a show on HBO. One which is watched and is popular. He actively shapes and influences political discourse in the US, and he’s framed himself as a sceptic – a man of reason and evidence based thought. But he’s not an evidence based man. People agree with him (listen to how his audience applauds when he says irrational crap). Even if he’s just a clown, he will have an effect on voters. Influential people shouldn’t have dangerous ideas.
The link provided about Bill Maher being defended by some sceptics was the defense of him being given the Richard Dawkins Award, not his medical views. That probably should’ve been made more clear. Sorry about that.
I still disagree with him being given the award, but that falls down to opinion. Maybe the stated reason of it was Religilous and Religilous alone that won it was enough, and Dawkins did give him a stern telling off and said his views on medicine were stupid was enough and you could very reasonably argue that.
Regardless, the link provided in the article falls into the Religilous is enough camp, not his antivaxer views (Even if it DOES stray into some light defense about half way through saying that he isn’t really anti science because he’s just ignorant. A position dealt with very well by Skeptico in the comments section).