James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.” – Carl Sagan
On Saturday Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine and author of numerous books including Why Darwin Matters, posted an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations”:
Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. . . You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.
Maher’s history of vaccine denialism is well documented (it’s also very hypocritical considering he’s laughed at Christians for refusing vaccines themselves). However, his most recent comments on Oct. 9th and again on the the 16th pushed his misguided views even further.
I can agree with Maher to a certain extent about his skepticism. Pharmaceutical companies with limited oversight, time pressures,and cost-benefit analyses to determine the amount they can expect to pay out in lawsuits versus how much they can make by cutting corners can (and have been documented to) result in unnecessary deaths. On other occasions there have been blatant abuses (like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment or the New York orphans suffering from HIV who were given experimental drugs) where state medical practitioners have engaged in unethical violations and gross medical malpractice. But to conflate these cases with a flu vaccine is just plain ignorant.
Nevertheless, I think a more pressing issue than demanding Maher’s apology is trying to understand how such conspiracy theories get formed in the first place. These views have a basis in a history of medical abuse that is not often discussed. As Michael Shermer has pointed out himself in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, when government officials, scientists, or academics don’t acknowledge (and condemn) such abuses, it can give the impression that this information is being actively suppressed.
For example, in the early period of American medicine doctors would regularly perform experiments on their socially “less valuable” patients. As Susan Lederer writes in Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War:
Before the discovery that monkeys could be infected with syphili and gonorrhea, the search for microbes of venereal disease prompted more than forty reports of experiments in which individuals were inoculated with the suspected germs of gonorrhea and syphilis. In 1895 New York pediatrician Henry Heiman . . . described the successful gonorrheal infection of a 4-year-old boy (“an idiot with chronic epilepsy”), a 16-year-old boy (an “idiot”) and a 26-year-old man in the final stages of tuberculosis.
Even after the atrocities of Dr. Mengele and the Nazi experimenters were exposed (and human experimentation was condemned as part of the Nuremburg Tribunal) patients continued to be subject to life threatening experiments without their consent. In Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome’s book, The Plutonium Files, it documents how human radiation experiments were performed between 1951 and 1962 by injecting various concentrations of plutonium into unknowing patients in the United States:
Physcians performed experiments on healthy people and sick patients without informing them of what was going on or getting their consent. Sick patients were preyed on most frequently. They were convenient, plentiful, and vulnerable, since nontherapeutic procedures could be administered easily under the guise of medical treatment. . . Terminally ill patients were perhaps the most vulnerable group of all. . . Women, children, unborn fetuses, minorities, the mentally retarded, schizophrenics, prisoners, alcoholics, and poor people of all ages and ethnic groups were targets.” (p. 214-215).
The 1994 Rockefeller Senate Report Examining Biological Experimentation on U.S. Military found that for fifty years the Department of Defense had intentionally exposed military personnel to dangerous substances without their knowledge or consent including mustard gas, radiation, and hallucinogenic drugs.
I shudder to think what occurred under the unprecedented secrecy of the past administration that felt it was essential to go to “the Dark Side” in their war on terror. But if our leaders were willing to use illegal chemical and experimental weapons on civilians in Iraq, I wouldn’t remain optimistic.
These past abuses are well documented, but easy access to this information is often hard to come by. I think that if there was a strong commitment to highlighting these past abuses and holding government officials accountable (by both acknowledging and apologizing for these crimes) it could go a long way towards promoting a public dialogue and building a culture of transparency.
However, none of this excuses Bill Maher’s silly statements about swine flu vaccines. All of these past cases were either classified military programs or were relatively isolated events that occurred where there wasn’t sufficient regulation. A national vaccination program with many layers of oversight during a time when the H1N1 virus is in the media spotlight is a very different situation. Any evidence of government malfeasance or medical malpractice would be pounced upon instantly by the partisan attack dogs at FOXNews (in fact, they’ll probably do it anyway without evidence).
The reality of past abuses doesn’t make Maher a “skeptic” or someone just “raising questions” about the safety of vaccines, it suggests intentional ignorance of something he could easily have his staff investigate. After the outcry to his statements on Oct. 9 he could have come out last Friday to say that he overstated his case and then have made a few simple statements about his larger concerns on oversight and transparency. This all would’ve gone away. Instead (whether it was pride, a desire to be contrarian, or because he subscribes to a Scientology-like distrust of Western medicine) he upped the rhetoric and made himself look like an ass.
However, while we point and laugh at the comedy of Bill Maher’s medical ignorance, it might not be a bad idea to reflect on the tragedy of our own. I’ve selected the above examples because they are some of the best documented and authoritative sources. I’m certain it’s only scratching the surface. While Maher is rousing the hobgoblins of medical conspiracy, there is also such a thing as a conspiracy of silence. That occurs when, either willfully or not, those who know better choose to say nothing.