I remember when James Randi exposed the supposed psychic faith healer, Peter Popoff by revealing that he was receiving secret radio messages from his off-stage accomplices. That was smart skepticism. That was when we could say “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!” and argue that putting these frauds under a spotlight was a good and effective move in discrediting them (never mind that after that setback, Popoff is still bilking gullible people out of their money with the same schtick). It’s the kind of activity I imagine as a fruitful approach for skeptics to take, and it’s as old as Houdini.
But now imagine a different flavor of skepticism, in which Randi had instead given them a literal spotlight, putting them up on a podium, shining a bright light on them, aiming cameras at their faces, and then letting them do their spiel, pretending to “heal” audience members, and all the while he sat back with a smug look on his face. Then he sits them down and has a sincere face-to-face talk with them, praising their people skills, agreeing with them that science doesn’t have all the answers, suggesting that their showmanship provides “food for thought”. Then, when he gets criticized for fluffing a fraud, he declares “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!”
Would anyone else see the problem with that? Because, while I can’t imagine Randi pulling such a shady stunt, that is exactly what Bill Maher does every week. He provides a platform for awful people under the pretense of bringing nonsense into the daylight, but he never really confronts any of them. He certainly never confronts them effectively.
So this week Maher brought an anti-vaxxer and a far right propagandist onto the stage.
The latest edition of Real Time featured the “edgy” funnyman jousting with Dennis Prager, the right-wing propagandist behind PragerU (a conservative, fact-averse YouTube-video factory posing as a university whose greatest hits include an anti-immigrant manifesto by Japanese internment-defender Michelle Malkin; a spiel about how police actually don’t discriminate against black men; and a whole lot of “War on Christmas” content), and Dr. Jay N. Gordon, one of the leaders of the anti-vaxx movement who once defended not administering the measles vaccine to his patients by calling it “a benign childhood illness.”
First up was Dr. Gordon, and lo and behold, Maher not only declined to challenge the controversial pediatrician’s anti-vaxx views, but agreed with them.
“You know, to call you this crazy person—really, what you’re just saying is slower [vaccinations], maybe less numbers, and also take into account individuals,” said Maher, in response to Dr. Gordon’s comments that vaccines may cause autism. “People are different. Family history, stuff like that. I don’t think this is crazy. The autism issue, they certainly have studied it a million times…and yet, there’s all these parents who say, I had a normal child, got the vaccine…this story keeps coming up. It seems to be more realistic to me, if we’re just going to be realistic about it.”
“Maybe is my whole point with this. We just don’t know so much,” Maher added, calling vaccines “the beginning of the debate” and saying that he’s “concerned about what happens down the road.” (Virtually the entire medical community is in agreement that vaccines don’t cause autism.)
Next came Dennis Prager, who joined USC journalism professor Christina Bellantoni and former Obama undersecretary Richard Stengel for the panel portion of the show.
“The Russia collusion thing didn’t turn out to be anything,” offered Prager in a stunning denial of reality. No pushback from Maher. Russia “didn’t undermine our democracy” during the 2016 election,” offered Prager in a stunning denial of reality. Minimal pushback from Maher. There was some silly back-and-forth sniping about whether or not Trump is a fascist, whether or not he was guilty of a quid pro quo with Ukraine, Hillary Clinton’s email server (because of course), and the two closed things by suggesting that the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh may have been false.
These people love to come on Maher’s show because they know he won’t challenge them in the slightest — their crazy ideas will even be normalized, treated as just the usual bit of banter. Maher occupies this strange middle-ground where he gets to pretend to be controversial and edgy, simply by sharing the screen with a wide range of views, but he doesn’t expose anything. What he provides isn’t sunlight, but a kind of murky twilight in which every idea blurs into a dim ambiguity, and in which he gets defended by everyone, atheist, skeptic, conspiracy theorist, quack, because he’s got them all fooled into thinking he’s on their side.
Skeptics: your whole raison d’etre is the idea that you’re harder to fool. So why do you put up with this charlatan?