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With a rebel yell, they cried Maher, Maher, Maher

by Phil Plait, Nov 18 2009

Oh, that Bill Maher. It’s time to change his show’s name to "Antireality Time". Because when he talks vaccines, he wanders into major woowoo territory.

I don’t need to debunk his antivax nonsense, since actual doctors who have facts at their fingertips do it so well, like in this tirade from Orac and in Steve Novella’s more measured (but just as devastating) response.

But there is one thing I want to mention. My favorite part is when Maher says:

I agree with my critics who say there are far more qualified people than me — its [sic] just that mainstream media rarely interviews doctors and scientists who present an alternative point of view.

First off, that’s total baloney. Go watch the news and other talking head shows; they often have people talking up the "alternative" (that is to say, wrong) point of view when it comes to vaccines. And if these people aren’t certified physicians, what does that tell you? Maybe you’ll come to the correct conclusion that the overwhelming majority of physicians think antivaxxers are full of it.

And second, about talk shows not having "alternative" viewpoints — and this is critical — why should they? When the weatherman talks about lightning in your area, should he give equal time to the Zeus theory?

Feh. Maher digs himself deeper every time he talks about this. Some people hold him up as an icon of skepticism, but it’s simply not true. A lot of non-believers love his ideas and attitude when it comes to religion, which is fine, but it doesn’t translate to his other beliefs, especially when it comes to real medicine. What he does isn’t skepticism, it’s dogma, and just as dogmatic as the religions he mocks.

Originally posted on the Bad Astronomy blog.

52 Responses to “With a rebel yell, they cried Maher, Maher, Maher”

  1. There are not two valid sides to every story. Opinion is not as valid as fact. I am really sick of this new world we live in, where if you’re not giving equal time to the Zeus theory of lightning, you’re being close-minded.

  2. James says:

    The Zeus theory of lightning!!! OMG!!! I’m so totally going to use that!!! Phil Plait FTW!!!

  3. Nayr says:

    Finally, definitive evidence of Zeus! Li li li li li li li, die infidel dogs!

  4. AUJT says:

    From the FWIW dept., for me, skepticism has been a process and I trust that when Bill Maher has enough credible data that he he will side with the science on the vax issue. I simply believe that he speaks from ignorance, that he doesn’t have good information for whatever reason. I think that Maher is a reasonable person (IOW, I believe that he is capable of saying “I was wrong”, perhaps not in those words ;-)), I just hope his ego doesn’t get in the way.

    And perhaps I’m totally wrong.

    • AUJT – I think you are totally wrong. You are confusing two situations.

      Sometimes, people speak out of their proverbial ass. They jump to conclusions because they are comforting or popular and just lack information. That is not the case with Maher on vaccines.

      The context that is more appropriate to Maher is that he is buried inside a highly developed alternative point of view. The anti-vax movement has a ton of information. Their problem is not simple ignorance, it’s process. They spend a lot of time dismissing the evidence which contradicts their beliefs, and promoting that evidence which seems to support it. They also have a highly developed narrative of corporate greed, medical establishment bias, and government malfeasance.

      In short – they are creationists. Creationists have written books chock full of information they think supports their beliefs. Read the Discover Institute blog and you will see what I mean.

      Lack of information is not the problem. They are overwhelmed with biased information, and it is all filtered through a distorted world-view and conspiracy thinking.

      This means that simply providing more information is not enough. Maher cannot be saved by information. He needs to radically change his process and his assumptions. He needs to climb out of a very deep hole of conspiracies and pseudoscience. You’ll have as much luck doing this as converting your average creationist.

      • Tim says:

        I agree, with Maher it is an epistemological problem. He does not just rail against “western” medicine, he rages out against “western” anything. I remember a while back ago he had Christopher Hitchens on and asked why America was so far behind Europe and Hitchens had to correct him.

        While I do share a view of religion that is superficially similar to Mr. Maher I know that I do not agree with him because the conclusion that religion is ridiculous is a consequence for me, it is the bi-product of the rational mind. Maher doesn’t respect rationalism. He regards it as his foe.

        I think the skeptic community has a tendency to side with people who share our conclusions even if those conclusions are formed for the wrong reasons. I think we need to stop that because skepticism is a process, not a set of conclusions. We should be willing to spend our time with people who disagree with our conclusions but accept our method rather than going along with people who share our conclusions but reject skepticism and rationality. When we don’t, people project their reasoning onto our various movements and groups, and that sort of thing is not good for skepticism.

      • AUJT says:

        Hi Steven. “AUJT – I think you are totally wrong. You are confusing two situations. ”

        Perhaps. I suppose that time will tell. With all the feedback that Maher is getting and seemingly reading or listening to we’ll know sooner than later I think.

        “The context that is more appropriate to Maher is that he is buried inside a highly developed alternative point of view.”

        I’d like to think that he’s not so buried in it that he’ll do or say anything to defend his position. Maher needs his perspective countered and I commend you guys for doing so. I hope that he listens and does his research while Real Time is on hiatus and hopefully, when the show returns (in March?), that he’ll tell us what he found, that maybe he wasn’t entirely right. ;-) We’ll see.

      • tmac57 says:

        While Maher does seem to show some flexibility on his ideological positions at times, I do think that in this case he might be a little too entrenched. He has repeatedly shown a kind of ‘arrogance of good health’ syndrome, whereby a person who is having no current health problems, will attribute their situation to a superior lifestyle, and knowledge, that allows them to be exempt from the degradations that all the rest of us believers in “western medicine” will fall prey to.
        It might take a serious illness for him to have his beliefs challenged, and then if he is really smart, he will come over to the side of reason, and go see a ‘Real Time’ Dr.

      • Max says:

        Maher admitted that he eats junk food, or something to that effect, but at least he realizes that it’s unhealthy. So if he gets sick, he has an excuse.

    • Max says:

      “I trust that when Bill Maher has enough credible data that he he will side with the science on the vax issue.”

      The key word is credible. What may be credible to you is not credible to the anti-vaxers. The one I debated in another thread dismissed all studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and even by the CDC.

  5. Max says:

    Keep Zeus out of my weather forecast, and keep astronomy out of my horoscope.

  6. Max says:

    Oh, that Bill Maher. It’s time to change his show’s name to “Antireality Time”.

    And he could have so many celebrity guests: Tom Cruise, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Suzanne Somers, Charley Sheen, Rosie O’Donnell, Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris, the list goes on.

    • Tim says:

      Chuck Norris? I’m a bit confused on that one. Chuck Norris seems like Waldo in that category, can you be a little more specific?

      • Bob Svercl says:

        Chuck Norris would fit in with the other celebs because he is part of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools which actively promotes Young Earth Creationism over evolution.

      • Tim says:

        Oh Chuck…

        Still seems a little extreme to put him with the others, but I looked into the Bible group and these people are nuts. Oh Chuck…

      • Beelzebud says:

        He’s actually more nutty than the others. I don’t recall any one else on that list advocating armed rebellion, which he has.

  7. Sajanas says:

    Is perhaps possible that people have been healthy too long? With antibiotics and vaccination, the scourge of infectious disease has lost some of its former sting. And since the major killers are now heart disease and cancer, which can be controlled in their way by healthier living, this notion of “live healthy and don’t worry about disease” seems to be getting applied to inappropriate locations.
    Perhaps Bill Maher doesn’t realize how hardcore the vaccinated diseases are? I’d love to see his Yellow Fever survival diet. Its not like these are caused by you living poorly, they are caused by organisms that are actively trying to bend you to their reproduction. The only way to fight infectious diseases is to use drugs, vaccinate, or to not be exposed. Its a shame that he never learned this when they started teaching it in grade school.

    • Max says:

      “The only way to fight infectious diseases is to use drugs, vaccinate, or to not be exposed.”

      As far as not being exposed, there’s hygiene, sanitation, quarantine, sick leave, pest control, safe sex, etc.
      Living poorly, smoking, obesity or malnutrition, are all risk factors.

  8. Nexus says:

    i think a lot of people are incredibly confused as to what constitutes ‘credible’ information. Many people seem to watch YouTube videos where a nurse is being interviewed about his/her (usually a ‘her’) stance on vaccines, which is often a negative one. My own experience with ‘nurses’, my mother being one, is that they are really shallow when it comes to understanding basic scientific method, and often, the basic biology behind how vaccines work, how they are produced, and comparing other issues such as death rates between H1N1 and other influenza A strains. Because nurses are part of the ‘medical’ community, many laypeople will trust the opinions of nurses. This isn’t to say that all nurses are incompetent – I’m just trying to point out a serious educational difference between your average MD and RN.

    Part of my worry is that some nurses, with substandard comprehensions of biology, virology, and immunology, will disseminate information that is untrue. I recall an incident where I spoke to someone who had taken a nursing course: his description of vaccines involved something along the lines of, “Basically, with a vaccine, you are injected with the virus, and that’s why people get sick after getting the vaccine”. If I had the power, I would have flunked this individual from nursing school.

    – The H1N1 vaccine is made with the protein coat of the H1N1 virus. Given that the protein coat (hemagglutinin) is just that, a protein coat, and does not consist of viral RNA, replicase or other components, part of the virus in the vaccine cannot replicate in your body.

    • Max says:

      Even if they didn’t disseminate bad information, the mere fact that a third to a half of “healthcare workers” refuse to be vaccinated sends a message to people.
      Bill Maher found it convincing, and argued that, “The British Medical Journal from August 25 says half the doctors and medical workers in the U.K. are not taking the flu shot — are they all crazy too?” I think he got all the facts wrong, but you get the idea.

      • Sajanas says:

        But how many of healthcare workers smoke? I know in my time volunteering at hospitals, a lot of nurses and doctors hung outside for smoke breaks. Shermer makes a valid point that the wisdom of the masses isn’t necessarily true and compelling evidence.
        People just hate to get shots, and I think rather than meditating on whether people think vaccines are hazardous, its better to wonder that people would rather a 5% chance at getting sick for 3 weeks than a 100% chance of getting a needle in their arm.

      • tmac57 says:

        Needle phobia seems like a poor reason to avoid a flu shot. I really, really hate needles, and have had phobic reactions to getting injections, but flu shots (which I get every year) scarcely bothers me.The last one I had I didn’t feel at all.

      • Nexus says:

        You’re comparing smoking to getting a vaccine. These are two different things: smoking is optional, and to not smoke increases your health and the health of those in whose vicinity you may normally be smoking.

        However, getting a vaccine, while optional, is optimal for you and those around you, whether or not they have been vaccinated – due to herd immunity. By being vaccinated, you are preventing the virus from a) infecting you, and b) spreading from yourself to others.

        Plus, in the long run, it is a lot cheaper (resource-wise) for people to be vaccinated pre-emptively than to deal with a full blown epidemic of, in this case, H1N1, that would increase the number of people in ICUs, on special heart-and-lung bypass (ECMO) machines and, subsequently, in morgues.

      • Sajanas says:

        I was more trying to make the point that health care workers are not necessarily practicing proper personal health care, either by smoking, or by not getting vaccines.
        Frankly, I’m surprised its not mandatory for health care workers. The worst thing that can happen in a health care environment is to get someone carrying a virus around all the sick people. Not every virus or bacteria is easily communicable if you have proper sanitation, but flu (and others) are certainly more likely to get around.

  9. Beelzebud says:

    While I agree that Maher is way off-track here about the flu vaccine, I’m curious as to why many are totally misrepresenting what he has said. He is not anti-vax like Jenny McCarthy, and does not promote the vaccine = autism link, and is not urging people to not have their babies immunized. Is it unreasonable to say that healthy people don’t really need the flu vaccine? That seems to be the crux of his argument, even if he spews a lot of hot air that clouds the issue.

    I see people now conflating him with Jenny McCarthy and other full blown anti-vaxers, when that is clearly not what he’s saying at all.

    • Nexus says:

      People who believe that they do not need the H1N1 vaccine because they are, by definition, healthy do not understand the nature of the H1N1 virus. H1N1, unlike previous strains of influenza A, is killing young, healthy people. I highly recommend reading some journal articles on the topic – as published by actual researchers and MDs who have dealt with H1N1 over the past year.

      I’d post links here, but the anti-spammer kicks in and won’t let me. :)

      • Majority of One says:

        Every person that I know of (the hospital where I work has had one death) that has died of the swine flu also had other health problems. In the case of the person who died at my hospital, she had pneumonia and she was extremely obese, both factors adding to her inability to fight something that most people are easily able to do.

      • Tim says:

        All the more reason that people should get vaccinated.

      • tmac57 says:

        Do you understand the idea of ‘herd immunity’? From your comments, it doesn’t appear that you do.

  10. Madeingermany says:

    It pains me so much to hear Maher talk such baloney about vaccines.
    Because I’m with him on so many other things.

  11. Paul says:

    Thanks – yet again – Phil.

    Your diligence on this topic is an inspiration to those of us determined to silence this assault public health.

  12. Majority of One says:

    As a member of the “medical community” myself (not a nurse BTW), I disagree with Mr. Maher if he has indeed come out as an anti-vaxer along the lines of Jenny McCarthy, et al. She is wrong and needs to shut up. Having said that, I think the flu vaccine should be used for the elderly, pregnant and at-risk patients and for medical personnel who choose to take it due to the risk of exposure and then the risk of further exposing a vulnerable population. For the majority of people I think it is unnecessary. In relation to the flu vaccine I think that is what Mr. Maher is saying as well, and that he is not against the polio vaccine and vaccines along those lines. At least that is how I have understood his position. If I’m wrong, my bad. And if I’m wrong, he’s wrong, his bad.

    • Pete says:

      Why do you feel it is unnecessary?

      • Majority of One says:

        I just said I think it is necessary for the vulnerable in the population. The rest of us can build up a good immune system naturally. I’m not anti-vaccine. Far from it. And, I don’t give a shit if big pharma is getting rich off of it. We’re just getting pill happy and shot happy and “hand me something to fix this” happy instead of working on the real problem.

        I guess I have “herd immunity” naturally because I was exposed to swine flu directly and did not contact it. Either because of good hand hygiene or a good immune system.

        I’m trying to give a middle of the road voice on this instead of the EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE VACCINATED vs. NO ONE SHOULD GET VACCINATED BECAUSE IT CAUSES BLAH BLAH BLAH extremes.

      • Tim says:

        You drive in the middle of the road then you are going to hit somebody head on.

        Everyone should get vaccinated. There is nothing wrong with getting vaccinated and plenty right. Who cares if we are pill happy or not if the pills work (or shot, or nasal spray)? If I had an infection and one person told me to take the antibiotic and the other told me not to, the right answer is not to take half a dosage, truth isn’t determined by compromise. There is right and there is wrong. Even when considering the gray areas the area is only gray because there is more than one right answer, but there are still right answers. An unrelated example of a gray area would be a 21 year old dating a 16 year old. There might be some gray area there, but gray area or not a 44 year old “going out” with a 4 year old would clearly be wrong.

        My point is that just because somebody says that you shouldn’t get vaccinated doesn’t mean that their opinion should carry equal weight to the scientific method. Vaccines are safe, flu is not safe, get the vaccine.

        P.S. What is the “real” problem and why would taking shots and pills take us away from solving this “real” problem?

      • Max says:

        “I guess I have ‘herd immunity’ naturally because I was exposed to swine flu directly and did not contact it. Either because of good hand hygiene or a good immune system.”

        Do you know what herd immunity is? It’s when enough of the population is immune that it reduces the spread of the disease to people who are not immune. For example, herd immunity protects people who are too young or too allergic to get vaccinated. There’s no herd immunity to swine flu yet.

  13. I absolutely refuse to stand in line with the other sheeple and subject myself to voluntarily poisoning myself whilst keeping the pockets of the big pharma execs jingling. *takes a drag of a cigarette* Who the hell do they think they are? They’re obviously keeping us sick! *takes a sip of bourbon (Wild Turkey)*

    HELL NO! I’m very, very angry even though my Botox injections make me look pleasantly surprised!

  14. Cambias says:

    I’m amused by people who decry Maher’s blatant idiocy on vaccines and other pseudosciences, but think he’s a genius when he mocks religion or their political opponents. Ever wonder if he’s really a full-time idiot?

    • tmac57 says:

      So, if a person is wrong about one thing, they are automatically suspect about all of their beliefs. Is that about right?

      • Majority of One says:

        I guess. That seems to be what I get on this site as well. You’ve got to be skeptical of everything I’m skeptical about in order to be right. Bill is right about some things. He’s entertaining to us non-believers when it comes to religion and I’m quite sure a lot of religious people think he’s the biggest idiot on the planet because he doesn’t believe in their invisible friend. He could be a rocket scientist with a PhD in smart and they’d still think he’s an idiot. We don’t need to be hypocritical on this issue and think like they do.

      • Tim says:

        I doubt he thinks that. I think what Cambias is trying to say is that Mr. Maher seems to have something wrong with his reasoning process therefore one should evaluate his other conclusions which may seem to be correct, but which he may have arrived at for all the wrong reasons. This means that his mind moves along a certain track and he could easily discard his beliefs (which some agree with him on) and move onto a set of beliefs directly opposed to those previous beliefs thinking that one logically follows the other.

        Reason is more important than any given set of conclusions.

        P.S. If you are right though and he is just saying that if Maher is wrong on this then he must be suspect about all other beliefs then that would clearly be logical fallacy and you would be right. I don’t think he meant that though.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’ve listened to a lot of Maher on Real Time, and I think his reasoning abilities are fairly good. He doesn’t always have the right facts though (a problem that is widely shared throughout the media). What I think is going on in this instance, is he has developed a blindside about medicine, for whatever reason, and is stubbornly sticking to it instead of re-examining his position. That is where his reasoning is breaking down. The question is, will he work his way back around, and in the end admit he was in error. I believe it is possible, from what I have observed, but I sure wouldn’t put money on it.

      • Max says:

        I agree we should criticize bad arguments even if we agree with the conclusion.

        For example, in his open letter to Maher, Michael Shermer argued that to be anti-vax is to be anti-evolution because viruses and immunity evolve. I’m sorry, but that’s a lame argument.
        Contrast that with Steve Novella’s spot-on analogy of Maher’s “annoyingly childish view of modern medicine” to that of “a creationist’s view of evolutionary biology.”

      • Cambias says:

        Tim sums up my position, probably better than I did. If someone who says things I agree with also says things which are blatantly idiotic, it should make me re-examine the positions we agree on, as well.

      • Majority of One says:

        This is one of those areas where there is some gray, IMHO. I’m pro-vaccine when I think they’re necessary, and I’m anti-vaccine when I think they’re over used and could potentially cause more harm than they prevent. In the case of the flu — yes it sucks to get sick and miss work for a few days, but you get over it and live. What if you’re that one in a million that has a bad reaction to the flu vaccine and dies? That is especially tragic given that having the flu wouldn’t have killed you.

        Again, I say, get the vaccine if you’re in a high risk group — in other words if getting the flu would be LIFE threatening. Polio, measles, etc. can kill so the benefit outweighs the risks.

        As I understand it, this is what Mr. Maher is saying, while also trying to be glib, flippant and of course funny. It doesn’t make me question his religious views. Also, if someone comes to the same conclusion about something as I have, only due to bad information, or faulty logic, I just figure they got there more intuitively than the facts may have let them. I still congratulate them on getting to the right answer.

      • tmac57 says:

        Majority- What you are missing in this discussion, is that first of all, previously healthy people do die from the flu, and secondly, if you contract the flu you become a carrier. You could isolate yourself at that point when you realize that you are sick to prevent transmission, but you are contagious for a day or two before you have symptoms. Also, most people do have others living with them, who now are at risk. So, the point is to immunize yourself for your protection, and for the protection of those that you might also come in contact with, some of which might be at a greater risk of death.

      • Max says:

        Majority of One – “What if you’re that one in a million that has a bad reaction to the flu vaccine and dies? That is especially tragic given that having the flu wouldn’t have killed you.”

        People with egg allergies are advised to discuss the risks and benefits with their doctor. They also have to worry about mayonnaise and anything else that contains eggs.

        The risk of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome from the flu itself is about ten times higher than developing it from the flu vaccine. So the flu vaccine may actually LOWER your risk of developing GBS.

        In any case, people don’t think twice about taking far bigger risks with less benefit, like using a cell phone while driving.

  15. DangerMouse says:

    Zeus Theory! A new meme for sure!
    Thanks, Phil, you rock!

  16. steelsheen11b says:

    Maher is such an unconscionable ass hat but fools like him…