It should come as no surprise to anyone here that I consider Bill Maher to be an antivaccine and pro-alternative medicine wingnut. Indeed, early on in my blogging “career” (such as it is), I used to blog about him fairly regularly, mainly because he served up deliciously stupid antivaccine red meat to a blogger like me on a depressingly regular basis. As hard as it is to believe, my first acknowledgment of Bill Maher’s antivaccine proclivities was nearly ten years ago, when Maher promoted the myth that Louis Pasteur had “recanted” on his deathbed, adding to that a statement that “I don’t believe in vaccination, either” because it’s a “theory that I think is flawed.” Indeed, he’s been promoting the lie that vaccines don’t work and that the influenza vaccine causes Alzheimer’s disease since before I started blogging (although it’s been nine years since I first noticed it) and proclaiming his lack of belief in “Western medicine” to the point of telling David Letterman after his heart surgery that maybe he could come off his medications.

A few years ago, though, Maher seemed to have made a strategic decision not to spout off so much about vaccines and his belief that, if you just eat the right foods and keep the body “pure,” you will be magically immune to the flu. Maybe it was because his pseudoscientific invocation of “will” was so ridiculous that Bob Costas mocked him for it on his very own show, dismissing his claim that he wouldn’t catch the flu on an airplane sarcastically by saying, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Or maybe it was the flak so justifiably aimed at the Atheist Alliance International for giving him the Richard Dawkins Award in 2009, which inspired me to liken giving Maher such an award to giving Jenny McCarthy a public health award. Back then, when he tried to defend himself, he just dug himself in deeper and deeper, to the point where Chris Matthews even compared him to a celebrity Scientologist like Tom Cruise denouncing psychiatry. Or perhaps it was Maher’s foolishly ignorant attempt to refute Michael Shermer’s open letter to him urging him to reconsider his antivaccine and anti-“Western” medicine views. Or maybe it was his endorsement of cancer quackery.

Whatever the reason, for the most part, Bill Maher has been relatively quiet about vaccines and medicine of late. Sure, I saw him or heard of him reverting back to form briefly on various occasions, letting loose with a sarcastic joke or two about big pharma or the like, but quite infrequently. He seemed to be sticking to politics and pop culture and laying off of medicine for the most part. Actually, I was grateful. It made Real Time With Bill Maher actually watchable for me, as in general I could compartmentalize and appreciate Maher’s other humor, as long as I wasn’t having his quack-friendly tendencies shoved in my face every episode. Too bad it couldn’t last. Or maybe it did, but Maher just can’t resist every so often letting people know he’s still antivaccine. Whatever the case, on Friday, Maher couldn’t resist reverting to form at the tail end of an interview with Dr. Atul Gawande. In fact, Maher couldn’t resist introducing his last question with, “I got a lot of shit a few years ago because I said that flu vaccines are bullshit.”

I bet you can tell where this was going.

Yes, Maher asked (with glee) about the news reports last week in which the CDC reported that the flu vaccine is 23% effective this year, you know, the stories and study that I discussed in depth on Friday. Maher continued by saying:

It’s a big scam to make money, but flu vaccines are bullshit. I was right, wasn’t I, Doc?

No, Bill. You’re the one who’s full of bovine excrement, not the flu vaccine. I suppose, however, that the story about this year’s flu vaccine not being well below its usual average in efficacy this year was just too big a temptation, rather like a huge piece of catnip to a cat or a big fat joint to, well, Bill Maher.

Dr. Gawande did his best to school the ever-ignorant Bill Maher, putting up with Maher interjecting periodically after parts of his explanation, “That’s why they’re bullshit.” For instance, Gawande explained patiently, in a manner that I envy greatly given that, were I being interviewed by Maher I’d have to resist with every fiber of my being the overwhelming urge to call Maher an idiot, that flu vaccines depend on an educated guess made in February about what strains will be circulating in the fall, and that’s why their effectiveness can vary so much from year to year. Of course, I don’t discount the possibility that Dr. Gawande was also resisting with every fiber of his being an overwhelming urge to call Bill Maher an idiot but was simply much better and hiding the inner struggle than I could ever be. Almost certainly he was, but his self-control is far greater than mine. That’s probably part of the reason why he’s on TV all the time, and I’m not. (That, and because he’s written some bestsellers, which reminds me: I really need to write a bestseller.)

Be that as it may, if you’ve read my two posts on why this year’s flu vaccine is not as good as we had hoped it would be, nothing that Gawande told Maher will come as a surprise to you. He basically explained to Maher, once again, the science. This led Maher to mock his explanation:

MAHER: What else would we use this method with? Let me just guess what would work?

GAWANDE (leaning forward): Meaning…?

MAHER: Meaning if you’re guessing what would work and you don’t know and you’re going to inject that into your body, that’s a good plan?

Gawande again tried to explain the rationale, namely that we do know what components will work if we can predict what strains will be circulating with sufficient accuracy. It was, not surprisingly, in vain. While he was trying to explain what you and I know about the flu vaccine, Maher looked at him with his smarmy, smug look, interjecting mocking little “yeahs” and a “twenty-three, Doc.”

The interview ended with Bill Maher blithely dismissing Gawande with an airy, “We’ll just agree to disagree here” and a joke about how he’s not the Pope and therefore won’t punch Gawande.

I left the whole thing annoyed. (Of course.) However, I was not surprised. Certainly I was under no illusion that Maher had changed his antivaccine views, his tendency to conspiracy theories about big pharma, or his proclivity to support quackery. He had just been spanked down a few years ago and decided to take this opportunity to let his antivaccine freak flag fly again.

Same as it ever was.


  1. #1 Chris
    February 8, 2015

    Mr. Keller: “Please stop harassing me.”

    When you write what you wrote on your initial visit here on Comment #142 you cannot expect it to be taken with sweetness and total acceptance. You reap what you sow.

    I then asked you why we should take your inflammatory statement over the scientific consensus, and you retorted that I called you a liar.

    If you don’t like how you are treated, then perhaps you should try communicating in the manner that you wished to be treated. Or just stay away from this blog, or any other blog that does not take blanket declarations without any real evidence.

  2. #2 lilady
    February 8, 2015

    “I’m done with you and your accusations. Please stop harassing me.”

    And, I’m done with you and your false accusations. I am not a liar and I am not harassing you…and no one on this thread is going to steal your identity or the identity of your uncle.

    Learn how a science blog works or just leave.

  3. #3 Tom Keller
    February 8, 2015

    Chris: I never said that you called me a liar. I asked if you were calling me a liar because I didn’t understand the way you phrased your response.

    lilady: Yes, I am seeing how at least this science blog works. Anyone who doesn’t toe the line is told to leave.

  4. #4 Tom Keller
    February 8, 2015

    By that I mean, anyone who has any disagreement at all is made unwelcome. Way to convince people.

  5. #5 Narad
    February 8, 2015

    By that I mean, anyone who has any disagreement at all is made unwelcome. Way to convince people.

    Allow me to quote:

    I’ll never have that shіt put in my body.

    Dale Carnegie, you’re not.

  6. #6 shay
    February 8, 2015

    Keller, you came here looking for a fight and you got one. Why are you acting so surprised?

  7. #7 Chris
    February 8, 2015

    Mr. Keller: “Chris: I never said that you called me a liar.”

    This is what you said: “Are you calling me a liar?”

    I think we ave found the crux of your problem: you have issues with reading comprehension. Which is why I am not going to take your anecdote as evidence of the effects of the influenza vaccine over the research done by actual scientists.

  8. […] couple of weeks ago, I noted the return of the antivaccine wingnut side of Bill Maher, after a (relative) absence of several years, dating back, most likely, to the thorough spanking he […]

  9. #9 Tom Keller
    February 9, 2015

    Narad: Yeah, you’re right. Bad first impression on my part. Sorry about that.

    shay: No, I never wanted a fight. I just wanted to present another point of view. My surprise is the meanness from many of the people here.

    Chris: Um…you don’t see the difference in a statement and a question? And you say my problem is reading comprehension.

  10. #10 lilady
    February 9, 2015

    Tom Keller, you need to know how science blogs work.

    When you came here with your pugnacious attitude and your childish unsubstantiate accusation/remarks, you should expect that some commenters are going to ask for some details about which type of flu vaccine your uncle received, which you claim “put him in the hospital” Lacking that information, lacking the symptoms which supposedly were associated to a severe adverse event, and, lacking a physican’s diagnoses for your uncle’s symptoms, you resorted to personal attacks against multiple commenters, calling them liars and harassers who might also be cyber thiefs. That’s a spectacular display of school girl taunts.

    None of us believe anything you have posted, because we’re quite used to drive-by cranks and trolls who pull those same stunts.

    A fight you were looking for and a fight you got. If you cannot master the art of posting cogent arguments with a the bare minimum of proof, perhaps you should consider taking leave of the arguments which you, and you alone, started.

  11. #11 Eamonn
    February 9, 2015

    Did you see his show on Friday night? Oh God it was awful! No scientists on the panel to refute his talking points. Amazing to see him resort to the same fallacies that he lampoons in creationists and climate deniers every other week.

  12. #12 Tom Keller
    February 9, 2015

    I have called no one a liar.

  13. #13 Michael
    February 9, 2015

    I think you guys to chill out on the flu thing. This si not measles or the other horrors. Many humans worldwide do not take it and do not need to take it. Conflating the Flu shots with stuff like rubella et al is causing the anti-vaxxers to grow in sizze.

    As scientists we observe and report yes? Well these people see othemselves/others nottaking flu shot, living just fine for year after year and decide all the panic over it is nonsense (which it is) and decide all other vaccines are also hogwash.

    Stop it with the flu hysteria already. It is only creating more dangerous anti-vaxxers.

  14. #14 Julian Frost
    Gauteng East Rand
    February 10, 2015

    Blow it out your backside, Michael. Every year, numerous people die from the flu. During the 1918-1919 epidemic, more people did than died during World War 1, which lasted 4 1/2 years.
    Here’s my story: I developed a bout of flu one year that lasted 3 weeks and caused me to lose 9 kg. I survived, but it took months for me to recover. Not everyone is that lucky.

  15. #15 shay
    February 10, 2015

    Michael — go to the CDC website and read how many children died of the flu last year.

  16. #16 Tom Keller
    February 11, 2015

    Okay, I looked it up. 96 for the 2013-2014 flu season. Not a lot, considering there are 73.6 million children in the US.

  17. #17 Julian Frost
    Gauteng East Rand
    February 12, 2015

    @Tom Keller:

    96 for the 2013-2014 flu season. Not a lot, considering there are 73.6 million children in the US.

    The US has access to the best medical technology in the world. Around the world, thousands die from flu every year.

  18. #18 Brett M.
    February 16, 2015

    I agree with everything you say, but I just wish you had a more composed tone and didn’t sound so petulant and bitter. If only for the reason that I REALLY want Bill Maher to get himself informed. I like his show a lot, and most of his views, but I hate these alt-med views of his, and I feel like he IS open to listening to real information. You have to realize that the anti-vax rhetoric is incredible persuasive and intuitive sounding to many people, and he has read a lot of stuff that has made him nod along. It takes an equally deliberate, intuitive and persuasive effort to rebut that stuff effectively if you actually want to change minds. I know it’s easy to just mock someone and call them an idiot (I’m guilty of it), but if you are a real scientific mind with a unique ability to correct the misinformation, you’ve gotta do better than this. He would read this and say you’re trying to just “shout him down” and in some ways he’s right.

  19. #19 Dangerous Bacon
    February 16, 2015

    Why so much anger, Brett?

    I’m with you completely, but I fear your hostile tone is fatally damaging this attempt to reach out to pro-vaccine people.

  20. #20 Orac
    February 16, 2015

    Of course, I can’t help but note that there have been several efforts over the years on the part of skeptics, including at least one very prominent skeptic, to provide Maher with an “equally deliberate, intuitive and persuasive effort to rebut that stuff effectively.” For example, Michael Shermer tried back when Maher was in full antivax wingnut mode over the H1N1 pandemic:

    It didn’t work:

    People have been trying the calm, reason-based method of trying to persuade Maher of the error of his ways for years. It hasn’t worked. Maher remains an antivaccine loon.

  21. #21 TBruce
    February 16, 2015

    Okay, I looked it up. 96 for the 2013-2014 flu season. Not a lot, considering there are 73.6 million children in the US.

    Oh well,then…

  22. #22 Narad
    February 17, 2015

    if you are a real scientific mind with a unique ability to correct the misinformation, you’ve gotta do better than this

    Brett, I wonder exactly what you’re getting at here. Is it that you don’t understand “the information,” which would allow you to “rebut that stuff effectively if you actually want to change [Maher’s] mind[]”?

    I mean, I couldn’t care less about Maher’s “mind,” and if this venue were of any concern to it, then it wouldn’t be you trying to stand in for it, or pleading that one just try to talk to it in a fashion that you think will be acceptable to it.

    Then again, I think Big Atheia is occupies a place on the conceptual ladder near Vinu Arumugham, so perhaps I’m out of touch with the relevant fraction of his sub-100 viewership.

  23. #23 Narad
    February 17, 2015

    ^ “is occupies”

  24. […] Bill Maher: Still an antivaccine wingnut after all these years by Orac […]

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