Monday, November 16, 2009

Bill Maher on Vaccination

Bill Maher has attempted to clarify his position on vaccination [Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having]. His blog is a lot like his TV show. It's a confusing, rambling, attempt at justifying an indefensible position using (attempted) humor, sarcasm and anecdote as a substitute for rationalism.

The question is whether vaccinations are good or bad. It's a strictly scientific question with a well-known scientific answer.

As far as I can tell, these are Bill Maher's main reasons for opposing vaccinations.
  1. You wouldn't need to have vaccinations if you had a healthy immune system to begin with. (And I'm sure he has some opinions on what you should eat to ensure a healthy immune system.)

  2. The success of vaccinations has been exaggerated by the medical community but he's not accusing anyone of a conspiracy.

  3. Vaccines have bad things in them and they may be harmful to healthy people.

  4. Vaccinations are supported by drug companies and you need to be skeptical about anything that's supported by large for-profit corporations.
I'm just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country, I'm not telling a specific pregnant lady what to do. With unlimited air time, I would have, for example, added to my discussion with Dr. Bill Frist on October 2 that, yes, any flu or health challenge can be dangerous when you're pregnant, and if your immune system is already compromised by, for example, eating a typical American diet, then a flu shot can make sense. But someone needs to be representing the point of view that says the preferred way to handle flus is to have a strong immune system to begin with, and getting lots of vaccines might not be the best way to accomplish that over the long haul.

Now, sometimes its OK to fuck with nature -- I believe "intelligent design" is often anything but intelligent; that "God's perfect universe" is actually full of fuck ups and design flaws, like cleft lips and Down Syndrome -- so correcting nature is sometimes the right thing to do. And then, sometimes its not. For me, the flu shot is in the "not" category.

In addition, my audience is bright, they wouldn't refuse a flu shot because they heard me talk about it, but if they looked into the subject a little more, how is that a bad thing? If they went to the CDC Web site and saw what's in the vaccine -- the formaldehyde, the insect repellent, the mercury -- shouldn't they at least get to have the information for themselves?
Instead of setting up this straw man of me not understanding germs or viruses, let's have a real debate about how much we should use vaccines and antibiotics. Of course it's good that we have them in our arsenal, but isn't the real skeptic the one who asks if these powerful but toxic methods do harm to what actually is a a very good defensive system, the one you were born with?

Also, I have never said there was a medical conspiracy. In fact, when Howard Dean asked me that, my response was "I wouldn't call it a conspiracy." Any more than there's a conspiracy for the Pentagon budget to be obscenely bloated and operated largely for the corporate welfare of defense contractors. If these are conspiracies, they're mostly legal ones that happen in plain sight. (Good time here to plug the hostess' book, Pigs At the Trough, it's all in there!) I have, in fact, used the phrase "medical-pharmaceutical-food industry" complex in comparing it to Eisenhower's famous depiction of a "military-industrial complex."
I believe in science and I believe in studies to determine the truth. I also believe Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was correct when he said recently on MSNBC: "If you've got a checkbook in this town, you can get just about any set of facts you want." So if I remind you of a conspiracy theorist, you sometimes remind me of Britney Spears when she said "we should just do whatever the president says to do, and not ask questions and just support him." The medical community can be brutal on dissent, which would hold more weight if I thought this was a terribly healthy country, which it isn't. Health care is one sixth of our economy, and we spend way more on it than any other nation. The elephant in the room of the health care debate is that we are going to have a high health care bill every year no matter what law they pass because we're sick -- we need a lot of drugs and services.

Am I a conspiracy theorist if I suggest that since the network's nightly news broadcasts are sponsored almost entirely by prescription drug ads, that you might have to hold your breath a long time before you hear the alternative point of view to using pharmaceuticals to cure all our ailments?

Is it conspiracy theory to believe that American medicine too much treats symptoms and not root causes of disease? I always ask my friends when they go to the doctor for something, "Did your doctor ask you what you eat?" The answer is almost always 'no,' and a lot can be cured with diet and a healthier lifestyle. (And a lot can't. I also understand the role of genetics and generations of artificial selection). But Americans don't want to hear that, so doctors don't push it. It's easier and more profitable to write a prescription for Lipitor. They're not bad people, and at the end of the day, you can't make someone eat right. I like and respect all the M.D.s I've had over the years, and for the record, I have a naturopath doctor and I have a Western doctor. I would make an analogy to Republicans and Democrats: in both politics and health, I don't commit to either party because I'm on the side of the truth, whoever has it. In both cases, I'm an Independent.
This last quotation is the most revealing of all. Bill Maher listens to his naturopath doctor and feels competent to distinguish the truth when his quack doctor disagrees with evidence-based medicine (e.g. "Western" medicine).

In addition to falling for quackery, Bill Maher is making an elementary error in logic. Yes, it's true there are problems with modern medicine and the influence of drug companies, especially in the USA. But that's not to be confused with a rational discussion about the value of vaccinations. The scientific judgment about whether vaccinations are good or bad is independent of any opinions you might have about conspiracies, imagined or otherwise. The real question isn't about drug companies, it's whether you accept science or quackery.

The scientific evaluation of vaccination takes place in many countries throughout the world, including those with socialized medicine. They have all concluded that vaccinations are a proven technology that prevents disease.

[Hat Tip and Thank-you to esaul]


  1. Is it conspiracy theory to believe that American medicine too much treats symptoms and not root causes of disease?

    Woo woo woo. Vaccines are not "symptomatic relief."

  2. Another fact that never seems to be pointed out is that big pharma doesn't make all that much on the production of vaccines, as compared with the drugs used to treat disease.

  3. I'm curious to know what "artificial selection" he's talking about.

  4. This is a perfect example of the fallacy that when two groups have opposing points of view, the truth necessarily lies in between.

    Bill Maher knows this is false when it comes to intelligent design creationism, but can't see it here.

  5. Maher's first point is actually well-taken. Prevention should definitely be stressed more and a healthy immune system can fight infections better and reduce the probability of getting them.

    But he gets all the details wrong. Naturopathy does not help, even if it involves natural substances like fruits that might have some value.

  6. Anonymous says,

    Maher's first point is actually well-taken. Prevention should definitely be stressed more and a healthy immune system can fight infections better and reduce the probability of getting them.

    Let's think about that for a second.

    Imagine that you are a well-to-do parent living in a Western industrialized nation. You and your spouse are healthy adults and you are able to provide everything necessary so your children can be as healthy as possible.

    Would you get them immunized against measles, mumps, and diphtheria?

    If the answer is "no," then you are stupid and you are a menace to your children and other people's children.

    If the answer is "yes," then your argument, and Bill Maher's, is irrelevant: being healthy is not a substitute for immunization.

  7. I take Anonymous' comment to be in the vein of "healthy populations are less susceptible to infections"; ie it's a good idea but distinct. If you are vaccinated doesn't mean you won't weaken your resistance by bad diet, just as having a good diet doesn't mean you can forgo vaccination.

  8. Roundup of bloggers critical of Maher's article, including this post.

    If he hadn't received the Dawkins award I doubt there's be this much outcry.

  9. Being healthy is not a substitute for immunization; when did I say that? The real point I was making is that prevention is often not stressed as much as cures when it should be, especially by the media.

  10. Unfortunately, this discussion is centered too much on the indidviduum. Thereby oe misses important aspects of vaccination campains which are rather to protect a population than a single human being by interupting the infection chain. Vaccinating the healthy population will also protect the weak like immunocompromised patients, newborns etc.