Maher's Mainstream Media Anti-Vaccination Campaign

Maher Still Loco on Vaccinations:

As he has for years, Bill Maher continues to spread disinformation about vaccines. In countless news cycles Maher infuriates doctors, public health officials, and responsible citizens with his bizarre warnings about letting a government "stick a disease into your arm".

Challenged to get a word in edgewise between his fusillades about "mercury" and "diet" and natural "immunity", doctors and scientists nevertheless patiently correct his errors. They explain that a vaccine is not "a disease" but a disabled virus that looks to the immune system like a live virus or bacteria and therefore prevents infection by the actual deadly virus or bacteria1 like polio, measles, diphtheria, or influenza.

But the talk show host persists, as is his habit. Last month, Bill "I'm also not f-king my interns" Maher baffled amiable talk-show panelists Alec Baldwin, Chris Matthews and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley by rehashing his concerns with vaccines. Wikipedia-Polio_physical_therapy2.png Yesterday, Maher continued his rant in a rambling column at The Huffington Post titled "A Conversation Worth Having". He noted he wanted to:

"clear up a few things about my beliefs concerning the flu shot, vaccines, and health in general...I will admit, I have gone off half cocked on this issue sometimes, and often only had time on my show to explain a fraction of what needed to be explained, and for that I am sorry...I agree with my critics who say there are far more qualified people than me"

Mea culpa? Unfortunately (and spoiler alert for the 2800 word article) no. I didn't say "anyone who gets a flu shot is an idiot", Maher said, "it was bad". Then, "vaccination is a nuanced subject, and I've never said all vaccines in all situations are bad..." Nuanced?

Discerning Maher's Health Prescription -- "Sometimes It's OK to Fuck with Nature"

Maher writes "I'm not a germ theory denier" and claims "I do understand the theory of inoculation". With such pronouncements he exudes all the candor of an intelligent design proselytizer putting quotes around "the theory" of evolution. To a doctor who corrects him, Maher retorts snidely "Thanks, Doc, I thought there might be a little man inside the needle. Yes, I read Microbe Hunters when I was eight." Which is confusing since didn't he say: "the conversation is worth having?"

Cocksure and funny, Maher acts as though he's arguing the correct side of a clear line eight year old can see - you don't need to be a doctor or scientist. To one side of the line there are the OK vaccines, except, he hedges, vaccines are unproven. To the right, there are the not-OK vaccines that we should be debating, like flu vaccine. But actually, if you can't already tell, there is no line or margin, because Maher is arguing the same old run-of-the-mill anti-vaccine/medicine/science schtick you've already heard. He allows that "sometimes it's OK to fuck with nature" and prescribe medicine, but listen to enough Maher and you realize he maligns all medicine, all vaccines.

Casting Aside Science

Sure, at first you may be confused because he mixes recognizable words within gobbledygook. Do doctors ever ask patients what they eat, he asks rhetorically? No, he answers, "and a lot can be cured with diet and a healthier lifestyle" -- then Maher adds in parentheses -- "And a lot can't [be cured]. I also understand the role of genetics and generations of artificial selection". So mixing perhaps diet and exercise with pedigreed petunias and genetically altered crops?

Despite his clear understanding, lets review. The risk of some diseases, like diabetes Type II, can be reduced with healthier lifestyle. Some conditions, like obesity can be prevented with diet, and losing weight reduces the risks of morbidity and mortality associated with conditions like heart disease. True. But diet won't prevent crippling polio, or a flu pandemic or death of a pregnant woman, or stop a kid from succumbing to weeks of illness and a 105 degree influenza fever. And typical of Maher's machinations on science, medicine and disease, he jumps down the rabbit hole with "genetics and "generations of artificial selection". Scientists use artificial selection to breed products like corn by selecting for certain traits. Humans are not hothouse flowers, subjected to "generations of artificial selection".

How Does Maher Distinguish Himself From Dr. Beetroot?

In cajoling his audience to exercise skepticism and caution and arguing for "debate", a word that should tip anyone off to incoming falsehoods; Maher says:

"Someone needs to be representing the point of view that says the preferred way to handle flus is to have a strong immune system to begin with..."

Actually, we can think we recognize this "point of view". Take, for instance South Africa's former health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, (known derisively as Dr. Beetroot), who spent years telling South Africans to boost their immune systems against the AIDS virus with diet, beetroot and lemon.

In a familiar refrain, the South African Mbeki government insisted that Western drugs were too profit oriented and dangerous. As a result of this decision, hundreds of thousands of South Africans died from AIDS, and the dying isn't over, since infectious disease pandemics gather momentum over time. Newly elected President Zuma recently warned that the death rate from AIDS may overtake the birthrate in that country.

Is Maher's argument any different than that of Tshabalala-Msimang's? What de-marks greedy Western medicine from essential life-saving medicine? How does Maher, a board member of the "Reason Project", which is dedicated to scientific and secular knowledge, identify good medicine?

How is Maher's Position Different Than A Mennonite's?

Instead of agreeing with scientists and doctors, Maher chooses to listen to Barbara Loe Fisher who he finds "extremely credible":

"after devoting her life to studying this, she says that flu vaccines aren't proven and...points out that what we need, but do not yet have, are studies of vaccinated vs unvaccinated children."

Fisher is not a scientist or a doctor, and that's ok, anyone can educate themselves about vaccinations. Based on her experience parenting and in public relations, Fisher started a vaccination information center, appears on talk shows, testifies at events like the "Vaccine Policy Analysis Collaborative: A U.S. Government Experiment in Public Engagement", and gives lectures to naturopaths, chiropractors, and groups like "Body by God". Who's to say she can't do all that?

But given that Maher says she's devoted her life to studying vaccinations, you'd think she'd understand that vaccinating some children against polio, but not others, as she proposes in her hypothetical "study" would be medically unethical. It's medical ethics 101, a doctor would know this, as would most cogent adults. I'd think that Maher would also see the moral quagmire.

Furthermore, unfortunately, there's lots of evidence to prove that what Fisher and Maher say is the untested theory of vaccination is flat out false. As the NYT reported in 2003:

"The last two American polio outbreaks were in Amish and Mennonite communities in 1979 and in a Christian Science school in Connecticut in 1972. Measles killed 3 students of 125 infected in a Christian Science school in 1985, and a similar-size outbreak among the Amish in 1987 and 1988 killed 2 people. In 1991, 890 cases of rubella, leading to more than a dozen deformed children, hit Amish areas."

Since then, Africans who believed rumors that vaccinations are an attempt by Westerners to spread the HIV virus or sterilize Nigerians, started a polio epidemic. The Amish also suffered polio outbreaks. Mennonites, who don't believe in vaccination but do believe in travel caused outbreaks of measles in Minnesota, then South America. Like the Amish, Mennonites don't believe in vaccinations or insurance, but do believe that hospitals should cure them for a discount, once they get sick.

How is Maher's position different then that of a Mennonite? Can we have this conversation? How does Maher square his position on vaccines with his libertarian views, when people end up demanding hospital bailouts because they didn't take it upon themselves to prevent illness?

The Dredged Up "Under-reported Point of View" is Often Wrong, Concludes A Bright Person

The consequences of not vaccinating become graver and more frequent as more people refuse vaccinations. The value of vaccinations is not "debatable". Vaccinations have saved millions of lives, saved millions of dollars by keeping people out of hospitals, and boosted productivity of nations. But Maher ignores all this and calls for some cost benefit analysis, which is familiar anti-science denialism.

Maher appeals to all of those who eschew facts and take solace in unpopular views.

"I'm just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country, I'm not telling a specific pregnant lady what to do...[I]t's just that mainstream media rarely interviews doctors and scientists who present an alternative point of view..."

Pregnant women and kids are most susceptible to dying from H1N1 virus. Pregnant women have decreased lung capacity that increases the threat of pneumonia, and they have decreased immunity due to their pregnancy. The reason the media doesn't interview doctors and scientists with "alternative points of view" on the subject, is because doctors and scientists agree that vaccines save lives, and that pregnant woman and parents of children shouldn't die because they've been convinced by talk show hosts to doubt the CDC, the doctors, and the scientists.

Maher's is not selling an "under-reported medical point of view", as he claims, rather he's latched onto a non-medical, non-science point of view. Hmmm....why does he persist?

Bill Maher's Mainstream Media Profit Motives

Unbelievably, after flogging his point of view for years, Maher says he has no motive and expects no outcome: "[M]y audience is bright, they wouldn't refuse a flu shot because they heard me talk about it...." But his audience claps when he talks non-scientific hokum -- perhaps only because they're prompted? Either they're not thinking at all, or they're confused about science, or they're easily swayed by paranoid views, or they think they're at a gladiator show - in which case they will eventually be disappointed by the "debate." Can such folks be considered "bright" in the 21st century?

To the point, though, if Maher's especially non-bright, non-medical, non-scientific point of view weren't selling, weren't rewarded with clapping and viewers and advertising dollars, would he still be ranting on? Maher's anti-vaccination position has populist appeal that draws viewers and boosts ratings. His refutation of "mainstream media's profit motives" sells well. But lets be clear. HBO's Real Time, with millions of viewers each night, is mainstream media. What's not? Acronym Required, for instance, is not "mainstream media". So by his reasoning, you should listen up here. (No, actually I advocate you to do your own research and consult your own MD.)

And why pick on science? Scientists are a remarkably easy target, as we noted before when John McCain chronically made fun of science research. When Maher chose to accost religion, at least 50% of Americans are quite religious, and that's a lot of potential audience members to insult. Plus, religious people can get dangerous. Other Maher campaigns have also backfired, like when Maher's remarks about military recruiting spurred one Congressman to demand that Real Time be canceled.

Considering his options then, and the groups he's already alienated, scientists make a good target. They're pretty tame, therefore easy to pick on safely, and a select target for a large potential audience, since everyone's thinking of getting the flu vaccine. Maher can perhaps equivocate about good vs. bad vaccines and fool a lot of people. So Bill Maher and his mainstream media show try to expand his audience by maligning science to become more mainstream? So they forsake scientists, but also pregnant moms and kids in the process? Is this the conversation? More or less? Bravo, talk show host!


Photo used via Creative Commons license.

1 11/19 Added "bacteria"

Acronym Required wrote on vaccinations previously, for instance in Vaccinations, Why the Worry? we wrote about the long history of rebellion against vaccinations. We also wrote about vaccinations here and in various posts and vaccines for specific illnesses.

Bill Maher's shenanigans have been will covered by scientists like Respectful Insolence here and here, by Pharyngula; by Aetiology here and here here and by many others.

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