Bill Maher is a crank

I must admit I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Maher. He is a funny guy, he is good at mocking some of the more ludicrous aspects of politics, and he has been an effective critic of this administration and some of its more egregious policies.

However, I’ve also long held the position that both liberals and conservatives alike must own up to their own extremists. Liberals must own up to the fact that they don’t have a universally-solid grasp on scientific truth, and just like the right wingers, we have people and movements within the left wing that are cranky and denialist. I would say left wing crankery includes animal rights extremism, altie/new age woo, and anti-technology Luddites.

Bill Maher is one of these cranks (he scores 3/3), and if the liberals want to represent themselves as truly pro-science we must make a concerted effort to reject the unscientific beliefs of these crackpots. We must call out Bill Maher on his BS (we have before as has Orac), and call him a crank for his unscientific, and frankly insane beliefs about medicine, disease, “toxins” and health.

As PAL has already pointed out and I wholeheartedly agree, Bill Maher made an outrageous statement Friday night on his show Real Time. In an interview with Arlen Specter, who’s life was saved by medical science, he said:

Because President Bush actually brings up a good point, because you can’t catch cancer, but people in this country treat it like you can. What you do is you hatch cancer by human behavior. Most cancer, there is of course some genetic cancer, but most of it is by behavior…

But doesn’t that tell you something about our system, why do you have so much faith in Western medicine when they get it so wrong, when the third-leading cause of death in this country the health care system itself. Isn’t the paradigm wrong?

Where to begin with such a pair of despicable statements? For one, this is a classic crank attack on medicine, using the IOM report, as PAL mentioned, to attack medicine ironically in the midst of one of its attempts to be self-correcting. The misunderstanding that anti-medicine cranks are exploiting in this report are that the overwhelming majority of “mistakes” in that report were things like failure to rescue (failing to recognize when a patient starts circling the drain) and hospital acquired problems like decubitus ulcers and nosocomial infection. What does that mean? That means the failure of medicine that the IOM is being critical of reflect failures to save the lives of people that are critically, critically ill. These are failures in saving people from death. These are mistakes in a population that are actively dying (failure to rescue), or so sick that they are unable to even move under their own power (decubitus ulcer), or immune compromised enough that they can’t defend against infections (nosocomial infections). These mistakes are a problem, and I don’t seek to diminish the importance of finding ways to avoid them. The IOM report represents the efforts of medicine to correct preventable failures in medical care that are very serious, and we’ve spent the last decade trying to resolve (we will likely spend many more). For example the recent War Games video I posted was an example of attempts to train medstudents and interns how to recognize and deal with rescue situations more quickly and effectively.

But Bill Maher makes it sound like doctors are stalking healthy people in the streets and beating them to death with ball-peen hammers. You don’t go into your doctor’s office for a routine visit and acquire a c. difficile infection or MRSA or decubitus ulcers or a “failure to rescue” mistake. We’re talking about very sick people who often wouldn’t be alive in the first place without medical intervention, who doctors, albeit for some preventable reason, are failing to keep alive or inadvertently make worse. That doesn’t stop Maher from making it sound like we’re running people down in the parking lot, and I don’t appreciate the implication that doctors who sacrifice so much time and effort saving lives are heedlessly killing people.

Further it is exceptionally ignorant for ignoring the incredible net contribution of medicine to extending and improving life. Why do we live longer on average than any generation in human history? Childbirth no longer represents a major threat to a woman’s life. Children don’t die from ordinary illnesses and infections. Major traumas like gunshots, fractures and massive blood loss no longer are an instant death sentence – we often can put people right back together after amazing injuries. How have we managed to cure diseases like polio, or cure Senator Specter’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma? Evidence-based medicine and the applied science of modern medical care is the answer to all those questions. No magic crystal, acupuncturists needle, or diluted tincture has accomplished these feats.

Bill Maher is a Luddite, who has tried to blame the death of bees on cell phones has engaged in anti-vaccine wingnuttery, routinely complains of mysterious “toxins”, supports animal rights extremists, and generally has a disgusting “blame-the-victim” mentality towards health. Lung cancer may be a largely self-inflicted illness, but the other big cancer killers? Breast cancer? Prostate cancer? Pancreatic and colorectal cancers? Each may have a small environmental component, but most cancers aside from those caused by cigarettes have much more minor contributions from lifestyle and environment. That is not to say these contributions do not exist, but compared to cigarettes the relative risks of misbehavior are astronomically smaller. Most of these cancers have overwhelmingly genetic risk factors and the number one risk factor is almost always family history. Maher’s statement that cancers are “hatched” or that there is only “some” genetic component is typical of his ignorance of medicine, his blame-the-victim mentality towards disease, and is just as despicable as his depiction of medicine as a killer.

Liberals have to own up to the fact that they have cranks in their midst as well. Bill Maher is the left-wing version of Dinesh D’Souza or Jerry Falwell. His views on science are no more elevated, and when in conflict with his ideology, no less hateful towards science, or the people he disagrees with.

Comments

  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    April 7, 2008

    I heard that on Friday night and yelled so loud at the TV that my wife came down stairs to make sure I hadn’t blown an artery .

    I’ve gotten to the point where I can hardly watch him any longer. Between this recent comment and one a few weeks ago where he said that he wouldn’t get sick being around sick people on a plane because he lives right, it’s gotten to be almost unbearable.

    He’s as big a quack as anyone out there. I can’t wait until he has Jenny McCarthy on. Oh wait, yes I can.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    April 7, 2008

    I agree with you 100% – I guess our planets must be in alignment dude. Oh, wait, I mean our bio-rhythms are simoultaneous.

    Seriously, I DO like it when he sticks to Bashing Bush… or is that now like clubbing baby seals?

  3. #3 Yurko
    April 7, 2008

    ABSOLUTELY! Bill Maher acts like the only brand of magical thinking that is a problem in this country is belief in a god or thinking 9/11 was an inside job.

    I’ll still watch his show, as the panel usually ends up discussing something that was completely overlooked by mainstream media, and he is occassionally funny, but he’s not someone who’s opinion should be considered representative of the left on a lot of things.

    at least he doesn’t have Ann Coulter on any more.

  4. #4 Orac
    April 7, 2008

    I’ve gotten to the point where I can hardly watch him any longer.

    I haven’t been able to watch Maher for quite a while now. He’s a complete and utter crank when it comes to medical and scientific matters, proof positive that being an atheist does not in any way guarantee rationality–or even being more rational than a fundamentalist. He’s antivaccination and a germ theory of disease denialist. (Yes, it’s true.) I will admit that I have on occasion found his “New Rules” segment amusing, but that’s about the only part of his show that I can stand to watch anymore.

  5. #5 Orac
    April 7, 2008

    Liberals must own up to the fact that they don’t have a universally-solid grasp on scientific truth, and just like the right wingers, we have people and movements within the left wing that are cranky and denialist. I would say left wing crankery includes animal rights extremism, altie/new age woo, and anti-technology Luddites.

    Indeed. Anti-scientific medicine denialism seems to me to be more common among “liberals,” particularly anti-big pharma conspiracy-mongering. Antivaccinationism seems to be pretty common among both liberals and conservatives, just with different angles. Liberals distrust the vaccine manufacturers and “big pharma,” while conservatives tend to distrust the government, CDC, FDA, and any vaccine mandates requiring mass vaccination.

  6. #6 padraig
    April 7, 2008

    I’d like Bill to know about two women I know that passed away in the last 10 years.

    One was a lifelong non-smoker who died from metastatic lung cancer. I’d like Bill to explain to her family which lifestyle behavior of hers “hatched” her cancer.

    The other had virulent cancer that the doctors attempted to cure, with her consent, with a highly dangerous bone marrow transplant. She told me her chances were at best 10% of surviving with the treatment, but 0% without. Unfortunately the treatment failed. Technically she was killed by the health care system. Would Bill like to explain why the health care system was at fault here?

  7. #7 Steve Schonfeld
    April 7, 2008

    Further it is exceptionally ignorant for ignoring the incredible net contribution of medicine to extending and improving life. Why do we live longer on average than any generation in human history? Childbirth no longer represents a major threat to a woman’s life. Children don’t die from ordinary illnesses and infections. Major traumas like gunshots, fractures and massive blood loss no longer are an instant death sentence – we often can put people right back together after amazing injuries…

    People have either never experienced or have completely forgotten the bad old days. The expectation is that bad stuff doesn’t happen and that if it does, “the system” is to blame.

    Another classic example of this is the often-heard sentiment that it is “unnatural” for parents to bury children while for most of human history it was far more common for parents to bury children than the other way around.

  8. #8 Lindata
    April 7, 2008

    My Zen student/organic farmer daughter whom I admire for her fierce and loving being and politics, is attracted to homeopathy. Sigh.

    You are so correct that we need to enlighten the cranks where we find them. I am dismayed by “Green960″, San Fransisco’s Air America channel that broadcasts the worst “alternative” junk on the weekends. I’ll go now and write them a letter.

  9. #9 Tracy
    April 7, 2008

    Doctors do a disservice by not knowing much about nutrition and how eating certain foods — and avoiding others — can prevent certain diseases.

  10. #10 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    April 7, 2008

    Doctors do a disservice by not knowing much about nutrition and how eating certain foods — and avoiding others — can prevent certain diseases.

    If a food or diet is known to prevent diseases, more than likely it is Doctors involved in studies on said foods that can show this link not new-agey “health food” salesmen and woo practitioners.

  11. #11 PalMD
    April 7, 2008

    Doctors do a disservice by not knowing much about nutrition and how eating certain foods — and avoiding others — can prevent certain diseases.

    Could you perhaps give an example for the doctors in the audience?

  12. #12 mwb
    April 7, 2008

    The thing that perplexes me about Bill Maher’s quackery is that he supports universal health care. He often cites superior cost/care trade offs in Canada and European countries. When he cracked jokes about the Republicans in the SCHIP scuffle, he certainly wasn’t fighting for children to be subjected to the pseudoscience he subscribes to.

  13. #13 Ben_Wraith
    April 7, 2008

    After watching the premiere of Battlestar Galactica, it left me feeling quite disgusted to be subjected to Maher’s quackery. It looks like he has some interesting guests lined up next week, but I’m not sure I can continue watching his show.

  14. #14 Jillbryant
    April 9, 2008

    Sorry – I don’t think it’s anti-science to not be a fan of Western medicine and pharmacology.

    I believe good nutrition, exercise and stress-releasing activities are your best defense against disease. I think there are some amazing drugs out there that we are lucky enough to have access to and that they have been so misused by the public (and over-prescribed by doctors) we now have super diseases who have mutated and are immune to their usage. I think there is proof there is a cultural aspect to cancers that can be related to environmental and nutritional differences. There also have been studies to show that stress is a real health deterrent.

    None of this seems in the slightest new to me or anti-science (in fact, I was raised this way by my family which is mainly made up of people in the sciences). That doesn’t mean that my father wasn’t given extra years by his by-pass (which his DOCTOR told him he might not have needed if he had healthier eating habits and exercised more) but, it also means I’ve rarely taken anything more than an aspirin in my life except under extraordinary circumstances. My mother worked on her microscope at home as a cytotech when we were kids and we often looked at her books of cancer cells and understood that there were certain known nutritional and environmental that triggered or, to some level made you more prone to some cancers. Is that anti-science?

    I think Maher is pretty hardcore about it like any new convert- I believe he was pretty unhealthy until he changed his lifestyle – but I think there is a lot of truth in what he says.

    I really don’t get the level of animosity against him.

  15. #15 MarkH
    April 9, 2008

    Sorry – I don’t think it’s anti-science to not be a fan of Western medicine and pharmacology.

    Well then your thinking is flawed. It is antiscience because medicine is applied science to human disease. Pharmacology is a rigorous science requiring proof of efficacy of interventions.

    I believe good nutrition, exercise and stress-releasing activities are your best defense against disease.

    All true, all things that are part of medical training, and hardly alternative (unless your idea of nutrition is bizarre of course)

    I think there are some amazing drugs out there that we are lucky enough to have access to and that they have been so misused by the public (and over-prescribed by doctors) we now have super diseases who have mutated and are immune to their usage.

    There are a few bugs that have become resistant to some antibiotics, this is true, but antibiotics represent a small but important subset of the medical armentarium. Even the bugs that have done this are not causing “super diseases”, as our normal immune system readily handles them. It usually requires immune compromise before these bugs have a shot at you (after all we docs and nurses are around them all day every day), and even then we still can treat them. But yes, bacterial resistance is a problem.

    I think there is proof there is a cultural aspect to cancers that can be related to environmental and nutritional differences.

    Quite true, especially with regards to esophageal cancer (eating fermented foods – highest in asian and mid-east populations), skin cancers have geographic predisposition, and breast cancers are more common in the West (quite possibly do to higher screening but also other risk factors), prostate cancers are more common in northern climes especially among populations with darker skin etc. However, all these cancers do occur everywhere, and the relative risks, though different, do not mean they can be avoided by some magic combination of diet and exercise. Shit happens everywhere, on every diet, and while these interventions may give you a perception of control over your health, they are not absolute by any stretch of the imagination. Often one diet is just a trade-off in one set of cancer risks for another set. Increased sun exposure may lower your prostate risk but will increase your melanoma risk. A western diet avoids esophageal and gastric cancers but is higher risk for colon and breast. No one has figured out the perfect diet and the emphasis on “nutrition” is often just as vague and hazy as definistions of “alternative” and “holistic”.

    None of this seems in the slightest new to me or anti-science (in fact, I was raised this way by my family which is mainly made up of people in the sciences).

    And here we have the completion of the red herring. None of these things were said by Bill Maher either. Bill Maher accused medicine of being the #3 killer of people and saying that most cancer is self-inflicted. I would say that is only true of smoking. Other cancers, for most people, are not so easily avoided or so perfectly associated with a risky behavior.

    I think Maher is pretty hardcore about it like any new convert- I believe he was pretty unhealthy until he changed his lifestyle – but I think there is a lot of truth in what he says.

    I really don’t get the level of animosity against him.

    There is very little truth in what he says, and the animosity comes from the antiscientific, small-minded, ignorant, and historically retarded attack on Western medicine as some great killer of Americans. Western medicine is the great extender of life. His appeal to Specter that we should start taking alternative medicine is also fundamentally anti-science as alternative is just slang for BS.

    All the things you cited are aspects of real Western medicine. The importance of diet, exercise and stress reduction are well-ingrained in our literature and any good doctor encourages these behaviors in their patients. That does not mean there is a magic anti-cancer diet, or that most cancers are environmental. Even on a perfect colon protective diet of an aspirin a day, plenty of roughage and avoiding red meat you still will be at risk of the disease, and the best thing for you is colonoscopy at 50, and routine surveillance after that. Cancer is first and foremost a genetic disease, and this blame-the-victim mentality of alties towards cancer isn’t particularly welcome either. The best prevention isn’t diet but surveillance by your doctor, as all diet will give you is a false sense of security.

  16. #16 James
    April 9, 2008

    “The best prevention isn’t diet but surveillance by your doctor, as all diet will give you is a false sense of security.”

    When the placebo effect has such a high efficacy rate (is it generally around 50%?) I would rather trust my body’s own immune system through a very natural, raw-food oriented- what our species ancestors eat: tons of leafy vegetables- diet than to take a synthetically made pill that doesn’t take into effect the various combinations of factors that our immune system uses. Even if it is purely the placebo effect that i am receiving I am at least not imposing something unnatural, though “scientfic” into my system.

    Are homeopaths over the top and extremists with a lack of scientific method? Yes they can be, but so can doctors be greedy pill pushers that refuse to give the time needed to accurately view the holistic body without succumbing to blinders that isolate what they want it to be.

    The problem science has now with the growing “quackery” is that they have failed the people in addressing their problems both physically and emotionally and by denying what truth there is in the naturalpath remedies that anecdotally have worked for centuries (and usually have tipped scientists off to the isolated compounds they use to make medicines).

  17. #17 ozzy
    April 9, 2008

    “naturalpath remedies that anecdotally have worked for centuries”

    Just because something has been used for centuries doesn’t mean it worked. The main problem with your statement is the “anecdotally have worked” statement. You have to remember that even in “The East” medicinals were sold/prescibed by people who made a living off of these goods. So, of course they worked because the guy could always point to Johnny who via the placebo effect or just by processes unrelated to the medicinal was healed. It is becoming clearer and clearer after every additional study is published that these naturalpath remedies are nothing more than placebos. Another thing, countries who practice eastern medicine were/are not living longer than western medicine cultures. So please I’ll take my Western medicine over Eastern medicine anyday.

    On another note, cancers are very good at evading immune responses. And no amount of leafy-green vegetables is going to change that. I wouldn’t be too confident in the ability of your immune system once a tumor has formed without some help from drugs.

  18. #18 jillbryant
    April 9, 2008

    “Well then your thinking is flawed. It is antiscience because medicine is applied science to human disease. Pharmacology is a rigorous science requiring proof of efficacy of interventions.”

    The reason I am not a fan is not because of your definitions ….it is the execution I have trouble with. If you want a list of all the reasons that have lead me to this, I can just start with the small focus group of my family and friends (including a sister who died while having an ovarian cyst removed – but I just use that as one datapoint since her doctor sucked at applying science to human disease) and I promise you it is a very long list.

    What I have learned is you have to ask questions (and to run from doctors who don’t encourage an informed patient), you try to have everything on your side (which does include good nutrition and I can be more specific if that seems too vague), you only use drugs when you must (because, personally, I think that pharmacology’s rigorous science requiring proof of efficacy is being controlled by the money men – not the scientists….I would say I’m anti-greed here, not anti-science – some of the new drugs are truly incredible) and to be as well informed as possible (which I am in total agreement means knowing what you are genetically predisposed to) and to be open to interesting possibilities. Since an aspirin-like substance is found in the bark of a tree, penicillin is a mold – you just never know.

    As far as Maher, the stat, #3 killer? I don’t know where he got that from. It would be interesting to find out since I don’t believe he wold make a stat up. Since sick people are the ones that go to doctors, would they have died anyway is the question? And, as far as nutrition and exercise giving you a false sense of security – unless we get better healthcare costs going, that might be all people have so I wouldn’t knock it…

  19. #19 PalMD
    April 9, 2008

    The stat is from the Institute of Medicine report. A little on it is here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2008/04/smoke_and_mirrorscult_medicine.php

  20. #20 Jill Bryant
    April 20, 2008

    Read this:
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080418/hl_afp/euhealthantibiotics_080418151535
    Thought about MarkH.

    Also brought up our discussion to a cancer research scientist at one of my parents’ dinner parties. Although somewhat secretive, he told me he is working on targeted therapies which I have been hearing about – going after the cancer cells and leaving the healthy cells alone. He said he actually was very interested in the whole alternative medicine world since it can lead to ground-breaking work and something about published studies on diet, insulin, something – I had a little too much wine for accurate details. But – he is in the research end and not working as a doctor so perhaps that’s the difference in attitudes.

  21. #21 tiffany and co
    November 1, 2009

    The stat is from the Institute of Medicine report. A little on it is here:

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