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Bill Maher attempts to corroborate his theory that Americans are stupid by behaving like one

"If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot." -- Bill Maher, Twitter, September 26, 2009

"This is not a liberal versus conservative issue. This is a science versus nonsense issue." -- Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times health blogger

Bill Maher may as well believe in Creationism, for all he knows about science or religion. (See above.) The problem I've always had with him is that, no matter what position he may take up, his reasoning is likely to be manifestly unsound. Listen to him talk and most of the time you soon realize he doesn't know what he's talking about. It doesn't matter if you eventually "agree" with his stance because he's reached it for invalid reasons.

Take his latest anti-vaccine pronouncement, made to Bill Frist on Maher's HBO show: "I would never get a swine flu vaccine, or any vaccine. I don't trust the government, especially with my health." OK, fine. If Maher doesn't "believe" in vaccines, or the ability of the U.S. to provide a working one, he's free to pass and to keep himself quarantined if he gets sick so he doesn't infect anybody else. When he reaches Medicare qualification age (he's 53) he can choose not to take advantage of it or any other health insurance he doesn't believe in and pay cash for his hospitalizations and medical treatments. But telling people (like young people and pregnant women) who are at high risk from serious flu complications not to get vaccinated because he doesn't "believe" in vaccines or doesn't "trust the government"? That's sick.

On his Los Angeles Times blog, Booster Shots, Thomas H. Maugh II takes Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to task for spreading misinformation about the flu vaccine (Limbaugh: "I am not going to take it, precisely because you are now telling me I must..."), but his words apply as well to Maher's equally loony illogic:

The swine flu vaccine is made in the same plants as the seasonal flu vaccine, by the same manufacturers using the same techniques. It's just a slightly different virus. In fact, it will probably be a component of the seasonal flu vaccine next winter. That vaccine has now been given to hundreds of millions of people, with no side effects worse than a sore arm, and has been proved time and again to be between 50% and 80% effective.... It's amazing how the same people who think the government is incompetent also think that the swine flu campaign is a vast, secret government conspiracy. You can't have it both ways.

Indeed, in the interview above Maher attempts to frame his opinion as one in which he agrees with some conservatives -- another indication of his characteristically superficial view of the world. New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope writes about why nobody should share Maher's unfounded beliefs:

Mr. Maher questioned letting someone stick "a disease into your arm," wrongly implying that the flu shot contains a live virus. The flu shot is a killed vaccine. (Only the nasal mist vaccine contains a weakened live virus.)

He said he did not believe that healthy people were vulnerable to dying from the new H1N1 virus. This contradicts statements from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that young, healthy people from ages 5 to 24 appear particularly vulnerable to this flu. About a third of the 76 children who have died of H1N1 since April have had no underlying health problems.

Mr. Maher also discouraged pregnant women from getting vaccinated. Studies show pregnant women are among the most vulnerable to serious complications from H1N1.

Phil Plait at Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy blog writes of the Frist/Maher interview:

Frist is correct, the things Maher says about vaccines are dead wrong. I wonder if Maher will now do the research instead of just continuing to buy into his flawed belief system?

That's right, Maher loses a simple argument -- on the facts -- to Bill Frist, the doctor and former Senate majority leader who once claimed he could make a determination about Terri Schiavo's condition by watching a video tape. How times have changed.

Last month, the blog Science-Based Medicine offered a a broad debunking of Maher's pseudo-scientific beliefs (rooted, he says, in a skepticism of "Western medicine," which he likens to "being poisoned by America"). Blogger (and doctor) David Gorski notes that Maher is just one of many celebrities who have taken to talk shows promoting their tinfoil-hat beliefs, including "Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey for having emerged over the last two years as the most vocal celebrity faces of the anti-vaccine movement" and "and Oprah Winfrey for her promotion of pseudoscience, quackery, and mysticism on her show." And let's not forget Shirley MacLaine and her past lives. Gorski writes of Maher:

Unfortunately, if there's one thing I've learned over the years since I became more involved with the skeptical movement, it's that being an agnostic, atheist, or skeptic is no guarantee against falling for pseudoscience. The problem is that when someone becomes associated with the skeptic movement for another reason, even if that person is a total woo-meister when it comes to medicine, they tend to be given a pass. I don't give such people a pass because of their anti-religion views because I consider myself a skeptic and don't really care much about religion, except when it intersects issues of science and health, such as Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, faith healers offering prayer instead of medicine, and fundamentalists undermining the teaching of evolution. If someone who promotes pseudoscience is a prominent critic of religion, to me that makes it even worse when they spout nonsense. [...]

As "Religulous" demonstrated beyond any doubt, Maher's methods are those of the fire and brimstone televangelist. He may claim to be a "skeptic" or an "agnostic" or an "atheist" or a "liberal" or a "libertarian" but he doesn't practice critical thinking so it hardly matters what labels he puts on his beliefs. They're his opinions but he can't defend them with evidence. His statements of disbelief about vaccines or germ theory or HIV/AIDS are not unlike, say, those of the Holocaust denier he refuses to engage in "Religulous." (Instead of demolishing that cretin, Maher walks out on the interview in a huff -- another example of his refusal to engage in logical argument.) Pseudo-science and magical thinking are still pseudo-science and magical thinking, no matter what beliefs they're used to promote.

When it was announced that Maher, of all people, would receive the Richard Dawkins Award from Atheist Alliance International, genuine skeptics were outraged. (Dawkins' own web site issued a disclaimer, saying that the award was to honor "easily the most prominent film against religion in the United States last year" [that would be the dreadful, hypocritical "Religulous"], and that the award "does not imply endorsement of all of Bill Maher's other views, and doesn't preclude Richard's arguing against them on future occasions.")

The blogger known as Skepacabra observed:

Now I'd heard that Maher had wacky beliefs about medicine but I hadn't really heard him discuss them. But perhaps I just didn't want to hear them and just wanted to believe Maher was as rational as he seemed to be when criticizing religion. [...]

I'd rather the receiver of the Richard Dawkins Award believe and promote the view that the Earth is 6000 years old than have them promote germ theory denial and anti-vaccinationism. It's not even close. And I would prefer Maher just believed in a young Earth than his current beliefs on medicine.

Amen. But Maher's faulty reasoning has been the source of my argument with him all along. Whether it's "Religulous" or Obama's TV appearances or his hypocritical accusations of stupidity, Maher's irrational views may earn him the title of crank, but they aren't worthy of an intellectual skeptic.

PLEASE READ this article from FactCheck.org: "Innoculation Misinformation."

UPDATE (10/18/09): More on Maher's misrepresentations in the comments below. Meanwhile, check out this October 18 "60 Minutes" report, which explains how the flu lowers resistance and allows serious -- even life-threatening -- respiratory infections (like pneumonia) to take hold. It focuses on a 15-year-old high school football player who suffered respiratory failure after getting H1N1 -- and then thinking he was over it. His teammates and classmates got the flu, too, but his was the rare serious case.

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