Sunlight + fertilizer is no longer a good disinfectant

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?


  1. Sonja says

    That interview confirmed to me (again) that Bill Maher cannot recognize a fallacious argument and he can spew them with ease. His rant was like a lesson in how to make bad arguments — specifically those which open up the possibility that anything can be true, but present zero evidence. He’s supposed to be an atheist, but he’s using the same techniques religions have always used, and using them in support of dangerous anti-vaxx propaganda.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    …never mind that after that setback, Popoff is still bilking gullible people out of their money with the same schtick…

    Then sunlight is a rather poor disinfectant when the infection is left alive to grow and fester again, isn’t ? These assholes–Poppoff, Gordon, Prager, and perhaps Maher–don’t just need to be exposed, they need to be punished. Their needs to be real and dire consequences for spreading misinformation that could harm the survival of our species and damage civilization.

    But no, that would be wrong. Freedom of speech, the press, and religion MUST be protected, because we all know that the Common Human is a rational being rather than a dimwitted ape who can barely wipe their own asses properly, much less govern themselves in an increasingly complex political and economic reality. They will always discern falsehood from truth!

    Always! (eyeroll emoji)

  3. monad says

    Maher is light but not sunlight; it has been obvious for a while he is only showing part of the spectrum.

  4. kome says

    If a political subreddit became a person, it’d look like Bill Maher. He doesn’t know much about anything, doesn’t let that stop him from having absolute convictions about everything, and is perfectly fine letting his platform be hijacked by rape-apologists, white nationalists, anti-Semites, and science deniers of every sort so long as everyone agrees that legalized pot is cool and it’s fine if he doesn’t believe in god.

  5. blf says

    (Pedant.) Since when is sunlight plus fertilizer said to be a disinfectant?

    The original saying is “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” (Louis Brandeis, 1914, writing about publicity and its effects on corrupt or dubious practices / practitioners).

  6. microraptor says

    My recollection of Maher is that he himself is a rape-apologist and anti-vaxxer so I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that he’s being hijacked by such people. As for the rest, he doesn’t have much concern as long as he’s the center of attention and gets to say his thing.

  7. says


    blockquote>Skeptics: your whole raison d’etre is the idea that you’re harder to fool. So why do you put up with this charlatan?

    That’s what they claim, but I remain skeptical that they’re harder to fool.

  8. blf says

    Damn it, broken tag!

    I’m skeptical  ;-) … the tag seems to have done what this blog seems to intend it to do when incorrectly-applied, as it seems to have been…

     😊 😊 😊

    (Perhaps needless to say, I almost made a similar mistake myself in this snark…)

  9. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Since when is sunlight plus fertilizer said to be a disinfectant?

    It isn’t. The point of the post is that the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” reasoning is inapplicable if you combine exposure with metaphorical fertilizer.

    PS: just noticed this the other day. :O)

  10. blf says

    (Continuing pedantry) I realise the point of the OP is “fertilizer” negates the disinfecting power of “sunlight”. The OP’s title, however, says something entirely different, “Sunlight + fertilizer is no longer a good disinfectant” (my added emphasis). Hence the previous pedantry.

  11. says

    I’ve always liked Bill Maher. I’ve been a fan of his for about the same length of time that I have been a fan of PZ. Maher illustrates the concept that nobody is perfect. Gandhi slept with little girls. MLK was unfaithful to his wife. Thomas Freekin’ Jefferson owned slaves. But the thing is, he’s much more than 80% on the side of rationality and science. I know he’s’ a borderline anti-vaxxer. I know he thinks people are fat because they haven’t been shamed enough. He thinks GMOs are a bad thing. He serves on the board of Peta.

    And yet, he has said on several occasions that “when you exclude women from a situation or process, everything will immediately go to shit.” That’s feminism in a nutshell.

    He also once said: “It’s greener to drive a Humvee than to eat a hamburger in a Prius.” I’m not sure it’s true but it drives its point home very well.

    80% of the time he says all the right things and has all the right opinions. He has odd spots. Who hasn’t? I’ve stopped expecting 100% from any human being.

  12. Susan Montgomery says


    I think it’s a quantity vs. quality issue. For example, I have read Ayn Rand extensively. That includes her major novels and several of her essays. There are some parts of what I’ve read where I agree with her a lot, some parts which, while I don’t agree I can see a logic behind the writing and a small number of things with which I vehemently disagree with. Sounds like a “few odd spots”, yes?

    But those odd spots include the notion that women – even powerful women – are objects for powerful men, that women don’t merely lack sexual consent but desire to be physically and sexually violated by those powerful men and, as an added bonus, the overall sociopathy – if not psychopathy – of the people she holds as heroes. Not all ideas are equal and these ideas negate whatever good ones she may have had.

    The same is true for Maher. He may agree on a lot of cheap and easy issues, but he punts or flat-out switches sides when it matters.

  13. mattandrews says

    But the thing is, he’s much more than 80% on the side of rationality and science. I know he’s’ a borderline anti-vaxxer. I know he thinks people are fat because they haven’t been shamed enough. He thinks GMOs are a bad thing. He serves on the board of Peta.

    Christ, these aren’t “odd spots”. These are some genuinely harmful and ignorant views for any person to espouse, let alone someone who is allegedly “80% on the side of rationality and science” and has a national TV show.

    Maybe it’s just me, but those kinds of repellent views should elicit more than a shrug and a “Eh, whaddya gonna do?”

  14. anchor says

    Ignoring for the moment all of his alleged opinions or convictions, I find it impossible to watch somebody standing before a live audience who lights up with a smirk of pleasure whenever he scores approval.

    A moment’s reflection ought to reveal that if his opinions or convictions on issues that also happen to be consistent with actual evidence and solid reasoning are all arrived at by the same criteria that shove that smirkster’s opinions so completely off into wooey-gooey territory, its an indication his opinions and convictions on anything aren’t to be trusted even if one ostensibly agrees with his ‘conclusions’.

    He’s a third-rate stand-up comic who acts as if he’s conducting a political campaign for popularity. His pseudo opinions and convictions are primarily motivated by a need to obtain pop approval, less by any reasoning or moral justification. That makes him nothing more profound than a self-serving shmuck. A false and insincere one. He’s counterfeit currency based on his adopted ‘politically incorrect’ standard (adopted because it sounded like an effective way to market his brand) that carries compound interest on hypocrisy.