I never watched Oprah, because she was a gullible woo-artist; I don’t watch Dr Oz, because he’s quack; and now all I can say is fuck Bill Maher, because he’s a crank on so many things. On his latest show, he surrounded himself with Marianne Williamson, a “spiritual teacher” and proponent of prayer, Amy Holmes, a news announcer for The Blaze (Glenn Beck’s spinoff), and some guy who didn’t say much, and he went off on a grand tour of kook talk, confident that his panelists wouldn’t disagree with him. Watch. Be embarrased for him.
I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I never have been,he told his panel.I’m an anti-flu shot guy. I think that’s bullshit and I think the fact that it was 23 percent effective this week bears that out. But if Ebola was airborne, I’d get the vaccine tomorrow.
Yeah, you’re an anti-vaxxer. We understand why this year’s flu vaccine had reduced effectiveness; the influenza virus is a combinatorial machine that varies its antigens regularly, tossing up different arrangements of allelic versions of its coat proteins, like a Vegas slot machine. Scientists have to make an estimate of the likely arrangment to spread rapidly, and they have to do it months ahead of time, because it takes a lot of lead time to produce the vaccines. This year, they were wrong in which strain would predominate. It happens; it’s just like NOAA, looking at emerging tropical storms, and estimating likely tracks for where they will hit the mainland. Sometimes conditions shift and they’re off by a few hundred miles. Same with the vaccines — biology is no more predictable than a cyclone in this regard.
But here’s the thing: it’s 23% effective. That’s not nothing. I got a flu shot, knowing that this year’s batch was far from perfect, because a little bit of protection is better than no protection.
But that’s not the part that had me fuming. It’s the bit around 4 minutes in, in which he pretentiously announces to us that not all science is alike, and climatology is a good science, so he accepts global warming, and he also explains that there is also consensus among climate scientists (he also argues that the earth is just a rock, so it’s simple enough to understand — but then, as he demonstrated so well on this night, Bill Maher is a goddamn idiot). And then he tells us that medical science is nothing like that,
because they’ve had to retract a million things.
People get cancer, and doctors just don’t know why, he says, condescendingly. His father had ulcers, and they treated it wrong when he was a kid.
Science is a trial and error process. It is not an infallible track that leads invariably to correct answers, instantly and every time. When he says that climate science is completely right, that’s because he has only the most superficial knowledge — he knows a little bit about the conclusions they’ve reached now, but nothing about how they came to those answers. I guarantee you, there was a long slow gradual effort to understand climate, with false starts and dead ends and pointless detours all along the way, because that’s how science works.
When medical scientists retract something, it’s because they’re doing normal science. Of course there are errors along the way! The whole point of science is that you generate hypotheses, you make tentative conclusions, and you test them, and sometimes you’ll confirm your hypothesis (which means you’ve learned something), and sometimes you’ll falsify it (in which case you’ve learned something else). Do you know why Maher’s father got the wrong treatment? Because the cause of ulcers, the bacterium Helicobacter pyloris, was not discovered to be the causal agent until 19-fucking-84. Maher is complaining about an important medical discovery, one that won the Nobel Prize, because scientists didn’t discover it soon enough for him.
As for cancer, he has no idea of the huge strides that have been made in the last few decades to understand the molecular causes. We can tease those apart pretty thoroughly; the problem is that cancer is a thousand diseases with a thousand alternative pathways that lead to the malignant state, and we don’t know how to treat them all. But like ulcers, this pompous ignoramus thinks we ought to be able to just snap our fingers and solve all the complex problems right now, because science.
Science, that is, which Bill Maher does not understand.
Next he goes off on a standard anti-vax trope: but maybe we’re giving kids too many vaccines.
There have been no long term studies of groups of people who get a lot of vaccines, he whines. The kids are getting three times as many vaccines now as they did in the 1980s!
It’s absurd. You are continuously assaulted by potential pathogens, while the vaccination schedule hits you with…26. Simply living slams you with far more foreign insults to your immune system. Maher tries to argue that maybe the bad thing about vaccines is that they insulate us from our environment.
your immune system is not up to par, he implies, because
you don’t use your immune system. Christ. Vaccinations specifically challenge your immune system, that’s how they work, and there are multitudes of pathogens you encounter — we’re not living in bubbles, you know.
And yes, there have been a great many studies of vaccine safety — it is completely settled science, every bit as robust as the climate science he touts. The difference? Kooks build contrived, nonsensical stories in an attempt to discredit climate science, and Bill Maher dismisses them. Kooks build contrived, nonsensical stories in an attempt to discredit biomedical research, and Bill Maher…complains that they’re called kooks, and calls in a claque of kooks to surround him and agree with him.
Then it just goes downhill. He complains about doctors: they never ask the most simple, important things, like “what do you eat?” To which I must ask, “what kind of doctor does he go to?” I suspect that it’s more that a Big Important Celebrity like Bill Maher doesn’t pay any attention to what the doctor says, because I routinely get asked about diet and exercise, those basic things, and my doctors hand out pamphlets with diet recommendations, and they regularly tell me lists of things I should avoid and what I should eat, with careful qualifications (for example, fish is a good heart healthy protein source, they say, but at the same time you shouldn’t have it more than once a week, because of concerns about mercury.) I don’t think most general practitioners would recognize the caricature he was peddling.
He rants about GMOs. You want to see something? Jump ahead to 11:05, where the hapless middle panelist asks, “But what studies have shown that GMOs are harmful?”, and Marianne Williamson makes a melodramatic and totally condescending gasp, and speechlessly touches his arm. That was not informative. Go ahead. Tell me about these studies from reputable scientists that show GMOs are harmful to your health. Are these going to be from the same kind of people who are horrified that food contains genes?
Finally, just to confirm that he’s a goddamn moron, the man who just complained that doctors don’t know what causes cancer sneers that doctors
demonize things like the sun. Guess what, Maher? We do know that genetic damage causes cancer. Radiation causes genetic damage. And that great big glowing ball in the sky is great big radiation source.
At the end of this segment, Marianne Williamson just has to jump in and praise intercessory prayer — which is all bunk, a collection of badly designed studies with nonsensical results. This is what happens when you open the door to anti-science lunacy, Mr Maher: you get bit in the ass by clowns. Oh, well. You and Oz and Oprah and all the other shills for bullshit will at least have the comfort of all the money from the gullible that will come rolling in.