Bill Maher and the Conspiracy of Medical Ignorance

"Keeping an open mind is a virtue, but, as the space engineer
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.

More like this

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again. Yes, I know I've used this clip before at least twice and the line in it several more times over the last couple of years. However, sometimes it's just so completely appropriate to how I'm feeling about a topic I'm about to write about…
Here we go again. The 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, anti-vaccine wingnut and lover of cancer quackery Bill Maher, decided to use the occasion of the season finale of Real Time with Bill Maher to answer some of the criticisms that have been leveled against him. All I can say is this:…
I promised last week in a post in which I described Bill Maher's latest pro-quackery remarks (this time, supporting cancer quackery), today is the day that I'm going to ask you, my readers, for some help. As I complained a while back, Bill Maher, who is anything but a rationalist or a booster of…
Vacation time! While Orac is off to London recharging his circuits and contemplating the linguistic tricks of limericks and jokes or the glory of black holes, he's rerunning some old stuff from his original Blogspot blog. This particular post first appeared on December 19, 2005. I don't know if…

Well, there's another side to things. Conspiracy theories breed where there's uncertainty.

I did a pubmed search on longitudinal studies of flu vaccine efficacy and safety, and found very few. One study found that for children between 3-7, the regular flu vaccine did nothing to reduce in-patient and out-patient care; others did find efficacy for the elderly population.

There was one very poor study (at least I found it so) comparing the effects of the Japanese mandatory flu vaccination program for school-children over the 30-odd year history of the program -- the authors claimed unequivocal benefits, but no better than directly vaccinating the elderly; even that appeared to be interpreting the results in light of the desired results.

Of course, the simple minds then turn that into a CT, jumping from lack of long-term support into "the vaccine is gonna kill you". But often the CTs are windows into where ambiguity really does exist -- sometimes for practical reasons (good longitudinal studies are hard and expensive due to all the confounding factors), and sometimes for self-interested reasons (no one really wants to know why X or Y happened).

Then this is amplified by a dismissive reaction -- instead of looking at where real ambiguity may exist that is driving the hysteria, the CT'ers are dismissed as deluded (as they surely are), rather than focusing on the driving question. Once those are answered, the CT'ers remaining are a marginal group (who worries about the Masons nowadays other than the fringe nutz? But there were real reasons to at least investigate 200+ years ago)


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


I agree it's a different situation. There's even more reason to rush into production and make mistakes, BECAUSE of the spotlight and media attention. There's also a greater profit to be made when you can't make your product fast enough to meet demand, due to a scare-hungry media pumping fear into the population on a daily basis. These factors CONTRIBUTE to the probability of a faulty product, rather than allay those probabilities.

GlaxoSmithKline, one producer of the H1N1 vaccine, is already filling 440 million orders, worth some $3.5 billion. The CEO of GSK, Andrew Witty, after charges of profiteering, claimed that there would be one price for the vaccine in the rich countries, and a reduced cost for the poor. However, even though GSK has a presence in over 70 countries, almost 50% of their business comes from the United States, where the Government still doesn't collectively bargain for lower drug prices and the health care system is a joke.

I see reasons to doubt the claim that this vaccine is healthy, and very few reasons to just take the profiteers word for it that it's not. There's even growing evidence that no flu vaccine significantly decreases the cases of death in the elderly and the very young, so why take this blind leap of faith? Is it because someone hit you over the head over and over again in every science class you ever took that SCIENCE is always checked and replicated and bad science is rooted out. The priests of this religion, like every other, were lying to you.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 20 Oct 2009 #permalink