Is Bill Maher really that ignorant?

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWork and a conference intervene to prevent a fresh dose of Respectful Insolence today. Fortunately, there's still classic Insolence from the archives that hasn't been moved over to the new blog. This one originally appeared on March 7, 2005.

The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is below.

When I first posted on this yesterday, I had hoped things weren't as they appeared. Although representing himself as a free-thinking skeptic who proudly trumpets his atheism and calls religion a "neurologic disorder," Bill Maher has, sadly, apparently officially passed from the realm of "smug but entertaining curmudgeon that I usually disagree with but sometimes find entertaining anyway" to full-fledged fruitloop, maybe even an altie. I base this judgment on statements he made on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, March 4. On that show, he stated that he doesn't believe in vaccination:

I don't believe in vaccination either. That's a... well, that's a... what? That's another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory, even though Louis Pasteur renounced it on his own deathbed and said that Beauchamp(s) was right: it's not the invading germs, it's the terrain. It's not the mosquitoes, it's the swamp that they are breeding in.

Sources: Here and here. There's also some very scary misinformation on his message boards from last year. (I realize that Maher probably has no idea what sorts of things people are saying on his message boards, but nonetheless the anti-vaccination fruitloops are out in full force there.) Once again, there is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever "recanted" on his deathbed and good evidence that he did not, as explained by Peter Bowditch. He certainly never said that Beauchamps was correct. This story is a myth promulgated by alties, plain and simple. I'm speculating that, as an atheist himself, Maher probably doesn't buy the rumors by some fundamentalists that controversial atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair recanted before her death and said that there is a god. He would quite rightly point out that there is no evidence that she ever did any such thing. (Such stories are also highly implausible because the only persons who could have witnessed such a conversion would be her kidnappers and killers.) Similar myths of deathbed recantations exist for Darwin, in which it is rumored that he renounced evolution before dying. Even most creationists do not believe these myths about Darwin's supposed "conversion" now, so ungrounded in any evidence are they. Yet, for all his self-proclaimed "skepticism" or "cynicism," Maher swallowed second-hand, unsubstantiated rumors and myths that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed and has now repeated these myths on HBO, despite the fact that there is no more evidence for them than there are for the myths of O'Hair's or Darwin's recantations.

What disappointed me, however, is that Dr. Bernardine Healy, former Director of the NIH, was a guest and that she didn't slap Maher down hard for his idiotic statements about vaccines and Pasteur. (It's possible that she was so taken aback by the ignorance revealed in his assertions that she was at a loss for words other than "Oh, dear," but that's no excuse.) Only Dave Foley-- of all people!--took Maher on, but then just mildly:

You gotta say, the polio vaccine turned out well. You know...

In fact, Maher even had the chutzpah to say this to Dr. Healy:

You're in denial, about I think is a key fact, which is it is the at... people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water... Yes, much of it is not our fault and we can't control it. But a lot of it we can and even the food people think is good for them, is bad, and I'm not presenting myself as a paradigm. I do cruddy things to my body too and I enjoy them. But when I do them, I'm not in denial. I'm not eating fat free cheese and saying: "You know what, I'm healthy for eating this." I'm saying: "Oh yeah, this is chemical goop and this is killing me.

"Aggregate toxicity"? Hulda Clark (also here, here, here, and here) or the chelationist about whom I complained couldn't have said it better. From this sort of scientifically and biologically flawed thinking, it's only a short step to advocating colon flushes or chelation therapy to eliminate vague and undefined "aggregate toxins" or "heavy metal poisoning." No, I am not saying that diet and environment don't matter as far as your health is concerned and that there are not substances to which we are exposed that are bad for us. What I am saying is that alties frequently blame some vague "toxins" or "aggregate toxicity" for a wide variety of ailments without ever specifying what the "toxins" are that are supposedly causing the disease in question. It appears that Maher has fallen into this mindset of lumping environmental factors we can control (diet, smoking) with ones we can't, and then attributing to them all some sort of vague "aggregate toxicity" (conveniently undefined or only very vaguely defined) as the root cause of disease. Alties make these sorts of assertions all the time. Indeed, they seem to be obsessed with "impurities" in their bodies, livers, colon, or blood, and many of their "cures" are purported to purge the body of these "toxins." (Sometimes their obsession with "toxins" reminds me of General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb and his obsession with the purity of his--as he put it--"precious bodily fluids" and maintaining his "purity of essence.") Unfortunately, alties almost never identify which specific toxins they are talking about, provide scientific evidence that these undefined "toxins" cause disease, or demonstrate that their favored remedies actually remove these "toxins" and cure the disease in question. Certainly, Maher's comments are consistent with this sort of mindset that "toxins" are to blame for all disease. He is at once seemingly skeptical of conventional medicine (but in reality it's only a knee-jerk distrust) yet at the same time very credulous when it comes to claims made by alties and apparently also to intimations of vast corporate conspiracies to suppress what he views as the "truth."

Thanks again to Skeptico, for giving me the heads up. I also suggest contacting Bill Maher through his show's website and asking him if, as such a "rational" and "skeptical" person, he feels any responsibility for peddling false information about vaccines and Pasteur. Suggest that he should revisit the issue on a future show and provide actual evidence for his assertion about Pasteur or his "not believing" in vaccines. Perhaps he could even invite someone who is capable of providing a strong rebuttal to his claims, someone who knows a thing or two about the myths promulgated by anti-vaccine activists and how they are fallacious.

Peter Bowditch, perhaps--by satellite from Australia?


1. Given that the episode in question originally aired two and a half years ago, it's probably pointless at this point to write Bill Maher. That shouldn't stop you from doing so the next time he starts spewing woo-friendly nonsense or antivaccination idiocy--that is, if you still watch the show. I can't really stand to anymore, other than if the "New Rules" segment happens to be on.

2. The official transcript of the show in question was been posted here. As you can see, the original first attempt at transcription I cited above was quite accurate.

More like this

What I am saying is that alties frequently blame some vague "toxins" or "aggregate toxicity" for a wide variety of ailments without ever specifying what the "toxins" are that are supposedly causing the disease in question.

It would be interesting to see how many of these statements you could take them and find/replace "toxins" with "thetans" or "spirits", without any loss of informational content...

Thank you for pointing out a public health nuisance. My father had to face such wisdom around 50 years ago. He was a civil engineer in charge of water works for a large part of Washington State. He was trying to convince local water districts to fluoridate their water. Fluoride attracts nuts like a magnet attracts iron, and he had to fence with kooks at every public meeting he attended (on his own time) to explain the health benefits to the public. BIll Maher seems not to have been reached yet by the folks against dental advantages of fluoridated water, but give him time.

Didn't flouridation cause an increase in hip fractures in the elderly? I don't know how well that study has stood up, but still...
With the proliferation of oddball studies and plain stupid science it becomes apparent, to me anyway, that the public voice of the medical community is more a shrill cacophony that only tries to appear reasoned and reassuring and has made things even scarier because of that.
Here's a laundry list right off the top of my head.
What happened to fat and cholesterol? Remember that tube of blood that was supposedly half fat because the source of the blood had eaten a cheeseburger? Man, that was stupid on the face of it but dr mcdougal used it for years. Do we really want human/animal embryos? Genetic engineering was supposed to provide cures for a wide range of diseases, it seems that what it does best is kill study participants. We are told microbes are bad, then told that without exposure to them we raise wimpy immune systems. Doesn't taking a full course of antibiotics do the same? Shouldn't they just assist the immune system, lest it become wimpier? Has there been a major breakthrough discovery in our generation? Transplantation is good, but dicey. Cancer is still cancer but the tests are better. Plus, it seems we eliminated a prescribed medicine (hormone replacement therapy) and that helped the cancer rates but it's tough to claim a victory over a cancer that doctors actually caused. With the way psycotropics are prescribed these days you'd think there were advances there but anti-depressants are not that effective and the little tranquilizer pills so many of us take are just benzos, and speed is still speed(ADHD). Give it a new name and make it time released. Big deal, you need an MD for that? Schizophrenia? A little more manageable but if that disorder weren't so serious the newer drugs would not even be considered due to the high rate of life threatening adverse reactions. Having a cold or flu is still the same as it was 50 years ago. Certainly no improvement there and no new drugs even for the symptoms, much less a cure.
I could go on with that (it was fun) but is it any surprise that people latch on to this toxin thing? Hell, there's probably a wide range of studies to back them up! Some of these studies might be good ones, but what are the odds of that? I agree, it's very stupid to tell people they are being poisoned unless you have the proof to back it up.
We used to wait for our ship to come in, maybe the messiah or for the savior to return; now we just wait for our apropriate diagnosis.
The medical community brought this on itself, though. And it still does, everyday.

By Tom Fitzsimmons (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

No, the medical community didn't bring this on us--we did. We want instant results, we over-hype preliminary studies, we believe medical myths that science shows are bunk, yet myths keep being repeated as fact.

HRT was demanded by women wanting relief from the symptoms of menopause, and it was provided. The demand for ED drugs is high despite the risk factors. It's a two way street. Don't go blaming the science when it's the pharmaceutical companies providing these things. And we can't blame Big Pharma completely--people want something for cancer, something for mental illness, something to relief suffering, and they want it now. Not many people want to put up with pain and discomfort, whether it's psychological or physical. Some people are so desperate they'll try anything, and then they freak when it doesn't work perfectly. Modern medicine is a fairly new science.

Until people open their own eyes, and question honestly without trying to put a spin on what may be a marginally positive benefit to a treatment, then this outcry or frustration with medicine and science will abate some. Science is wonderful, but it's not easy.

While I'm at it, there's a woman writing for the NY Times that appears to be a bit confused about things. They ran this article by her yesterday touting the benefits of garlic.….
I have not seen one study that shows that garlic does anything but make my food more interesting. Hydrogen Sulfide? Gotta get me some of that! And check out how much garlic they say you should eat!
The funny part about this is she has evidently replaced the writer they had that debunked this stuff. I'm sure he wrote about garlic recently(I can't find it unfortunately and don't recognize any of the Vital Signs writers now) saying there was absolutely no proof it did anything therapeutic. Her name is Tara Parker-Pope. Isn't that precious?

By Tom Fitzsimmons (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

Garlic prevents disease - eat enough of it and infectious people (and everyone else) will stay a safe distance away from you. Echinacea has a similar effect.

By Freddy the Pig (not verified) on 16 Oct 2007 #permalink

That third comment made my jaw drop.
People in this day and age have no sense of moderation in what they do.

Don't want a wimpy immune system? Don't get one. Go outdoors and exist in nature. You MIGHT get sick a few times, but we have these nifty things called white blood cells that memorize ways to fight off new infections so they can do it better next time. And by the way antibiotics do in fact assist the immune system. If you are so sick that your immune system is shot, you can't just take a pill to fight it off. Your immune system is key for antibiotics to work.

Secondly, psychotropic drugs have helped people in more ways than you can imagine. Lets stop giving schizophrenics their anti-psychotics and see how well they get along in society.
Lets stop giving speed to narcoleptics so they can fall asleep in a situation where they might get hurt for doing so.
Lets stop giving suicidal people SSRIs, just let em die. Waaaay easier.

As for what you said about the flu. We don't use antibiotics on the flu or the cold for two very good reasons.
number one, the cold is a virus and antibiotics don't work on viruses.
Second, giving antibiotics to every single person who ever got the flu would create a super flu. You know those scary unstoppable infections you hear about? Yeah, we don't treat the flu because we don't want any more of those things around. Plus you get over it in a few days anyway.

All I'm trying to say is moderate. If you're slightly sick, just chill and let your body work it out. If you're REALLY sick, get some help.
If you never go outside or come in contact with people, you will get a weak immune system. The opposite will build it up.

I am getting quite fed up with people who don't trust modern medicine. If you don't appreciate whats been done over the last 100 years to keep us healthy, go see a shaman and see how much good his chanting does for ya.

By Eddard Rightly (not verified) on 17 Oct 2007 #permalink

Bill Maher isn't a skeptic, he's a contrarian. He builds his fame not on a scientific breakdown of the facts, but on humorous snide commentary. Sometimes his commentary is close to the truth, but other times it isn't.

In this contrarianism he shares company with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Apart from the fact that there is, as you put it, "no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever 'recanted' on his deathbed and good evidence that he did not", one could add that the truth of the theory depends on the evidence for or against it, not on the firmness of the theorist's convictions. Hence, even if Pasteur did recant, it would be neither here nor there.


Eddard Rightly said: "Second, giving antibiotics to every single person who ever got the flu would create a super flu. You know those scary unstoppable infections you hear about? Yeah, we don't treat the flu because we don't want any more of those things around. Plus you get over it in a few days anyway."

Sorry, but this is incorrect. Like a cold, the flu is viral, not bacterial. We don't take antibiotics for the flu because they have no effect on the flu virus. And "no effect" means they don't cause super-flu pathogens.

The danger is that indiscriminate use of antibiotics applies selective pressure on all of the *bacteria* we expose. Even if we take them for a legitimate reason, like bronchitis, we expose all of the bacteria in our bodies to the antibiotics and their selective power. So the danger is the breeding of broadly resistant bacteria, not viruses like flu.

By Lynn Fancher (not verified) on 17 Oct 2007 #permalink

My favorite yoga dvd claims that "toxins" are squeezed from the organs and released from the body during twisting postures. I love the yoga workout, but I always get a giggle out of this part of the routine! :-)

"Bill Maher isn't a skeptic, he's a contrarian. He builds his fame not on a scientific breakdown of the facts, but on humorous snide commentary. Sometimes his commentary is close to the truth, but other times it isn't."

I think your right on the money there...

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 17 Oct 2007 #permalink

Bill Maher is a libertarian, isn't not taking vaccines part of the libertarian agenda?...Cause vaccines are a way for the government to control you?

I think it is fair to say that BM is a freethinker and skeptic, and he has an almost unmatched ability to cut through obscuring verbage and muddled thinking. On the health issues, he has been always spectacularly wrong ... in part, this is antiestablishment thinking running deductive amok (pharmaceutical corporations trying to sell state sanctioned recreational drugs instead of BM's favorite pot (this comes up almost every show), ergo most if not all medical drugs are useless, ergo vaccinations are useless as well.

susan said "Cause vaccines are a way for the government to control you? "

How exactly does that work? How does avoiding illness facilitate government control? How does avoiding a 1 in 500 chance of death with measles, or another substantial chance of disability with pertussis, measles, mumps, Hib, etc. facilitate government control?

I recently read the biography of Maurice Hilleman (_Vaccinated_ by Paul Offit), the fellow who is responsible for several vaccines including the MMR... can you tell me which branch of which government he worked for?

I am presently reading _A Thousand Splendid Suns_ by Khalid Hosseini. I am at the part where the Taliban have taken over Kabul. In the book all of the hospitals are closed to women except one. There are armed guards at the "men's" hospitals to keep women out. The one hospital that women are allowed to go does not get any supplies, so one of the characters has to undergo a Cesarean section without anesthetic.

Does the American government assign men with guns to come to your house to force your children to be vaccinated? Do they force your children to go to public school? Are your children denied any kind of education? Are you forced at gunpoint to become vaccinated? Does your employer force you to become vaccinated?

Excuse the bluntness... it may be because I am reading this book, which happens to be written by a medical doctor. Here is his bio: ... ooh, he is a cutie-pie! Now if you will excuse me, I need to finish his second book (the first one of his I read was an autographed one lent to me by a friend who left Iran in 1980... she was at the bookstore near where she worked when he came by, they had a nice long conversation since they were about the same age and left for exile at about the same time... her name is very close to one of the major female characters!).

Oh, and another reason... I have had the opportunity to also live outside the USA. If you think that the American government is controlling... you should try living in a country where if you are caught without your vaccine record in the interior by the Guardia Nacional you WILL be dragged in and given a yellow fever vaccine! (at that time in the early 1970s is was common for high school boys who left the Canal Zone would get forced haircuts from la Guardia... fun times! ... oh, and Omar Torrijos would confiscated copies of the Miami Herald at Tocuman Airport if they had unflattering articles... I find libertarians very amusing)

I wonder how much longer until someone decides to bring back bleeding as a cure-all....

Bill Maher is a libertarian, isn't not taking vaccines part of the libertarian agenda?...Cause vaccines are a way for the government to control you?

A libertarian??? He can call himself a horse too but that will not actually make him one.

For him to claim he is makes him either (a) unaware what a libertarian is or (b) dishonest.

One of the 'golden' issues for libertarians is gun control. Maher is in favour, ego he is not a libertarian. Another issue is state funded education: just about all libertarians think the state has no business 'educating' people. Maher not only supports state education, he opposed home schooling, and home schooling is another libertarian 'golden' issue. He supports widespread regulation on 'green' grounds (and as he does not support the germ theory of disease, his grasp of science is about as good as a Scientologist, i.e. he is completely gonzo) and so he is far from a laissez faire capitalist, to put it mildly, which is pretty much a pre-requisite for being a genuine libertarian (so called 'left libertarians' are libertarians in the same sense that cannibals are vegetarians).

Bill Maher is funny and he is even occasionally correct, but he is not a libertarian.