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.