Is Bill Maher really that ignorant? Part 2

The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is below.

When I first posted on this yesterday, I had hoped things weren't as they appeared. Although representing himself as a free-thinking skeptic who proudly trumpets his atheism and calls religion a "neurologic disorder," Bill Maher has, sadly, apparently officially passed from the realm of "smug but entertaining curmudgeon that I usually disagree with but sometimes find entertaining anyway" to full-fledged fruitloop, maybe even an altie. I base this judgment on statements he made on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, March 4. On that show, he stated that he doesn't believe in vaccination:
I don't believe in vaccination either. That's a... well, that's a... what? That's another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur theory, even though Louis Pasteur renounced it on his own deathbed and said that Beauchamp(s) was right: it's not the invading germs, it's the terrain. It's not the mosquitoes, it's the swamp that they are breeding in.
Sources: Here and here. There's also some very scary misinformation on his message boards from last year. (I realize that Maher probably has no idea what sorts of things people are saying on his message boards, but nonetheless the anti-vaccination fruitloops are out in full force there.) Once again, there is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever "recanted" on his deathbed and good evidence that he did not, as explained by Peter Bowditch. He certainly never said that Beauchamps was correct. This story is a myth promulgated by alties, plain and simple. I'm speculating that, as an atheist himself, Maher probably doesn't buy the rumors by some fundamentalists that controversial atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair recanted before her death and said that there is a god. He would quite rightly point out that there is no evidence that she ever did any such thing. (Such stories are also highly implausible because the only persons who could have witnessed such a conversion would be her kidnappers and killers.) Similar myths of deathbed recantations exist for Darwin, in which it is rumored that he renounced evolution before dying. Even most creationists do not believe these myths about Darwin's supposed "conversion" now, so ungrounded in any evidence are they. Yet, for all his self-proclaimed "skepticism" or "cynicism," Maher swallowed second-hand, unsubstantiated rumors and myths that Pasteur recanted on his deathbed and has now repeated these myths on HBO, despite the fact that there is no more evidence for them than there are for the myths of O'Hair's or Darwin's recantations.

What disappointed me, however, is that Dr. Bernardine Healy, former Director of the NIH, was a guest and that she didn't slap Maher down hard for his idiotic statements about vaccines and Pasteur. (It's possible that she was so taken aback by the ignorance revealed in his assertions that she was at a loss for words other than "Oh, dear," but that's no excuse.) Only Dave Foley-- of all people!--took Maher on, but then just mildly:
You gotta say, the polio vaccine turned out well. You know...
In fact, Maher even had the chutzpah to say this to Dr. Healy:
You're in denial, about I think is a key fact, which is it is the at... people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water... Yes, much of it is not our fault and we can't control it. But a lot of it we can and even the food people think is good for them, is bad, and I'm not presenting myself as a paradigm. I do cruddy things to my body too and I enjoy them. But when I do them, I'm not in denial. I'm not eating fat free cheese and saying: "You know what, I'm healthy for eating this." I'm saying: "Oh yeah, this is chemical goop and this is killing me.
"Aggregate toxicity"? Hulda Clark (also here, here, here, and here) or the chelationist about whom I complained couldn't have said it better. From this sort of scientifically and biologically flawed thinking, it's only a short step to advocating colon flushes or chelation therapy to eliminate vague and undefined "aggregate toxins" or "heavy metal poisoning." No, I am not saying that diet and environment don't matter as far as your health is concerned and that there are not substances to which we are exposed that are bad for us. What I am saying is that alties frequently blame some vague "toxins" or "aggregate toxicity" for a wide variety of ailments without ever specifying what the "toxins" are that are supposedly causing the disease in question. It appears that Maher has fallen into this mindset of lumping environmental factors we can control (diet, smoking) with ones we can't, and then attributing to them all some sort of vague "aggregate toxicity" (conveniently undefined or only very vaguely defined) as the root cause of disease. Alties make these sorts of assertions all the time. Indeed, they seem to be obsessed with "impurities" in their bodies, livers, colon, or blood, and many of their "cures" are purported to purge the body of these "toxins." (Sometimes their obsession with "toxins" reminds me of General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb and his obsession with the purity of his--as he put it--"precious bodily fluids" and maintaining his "purity of essence.") Unfortunately, alties almost never identify which specific toxins they are talking about, provide scientific evidence that these undefined "toxins" cause disease, or demonstrate that their favored remedies actually remove these "toxins" and cure the disease in question. Certainly, Maher's comments are consistent with this sort of mindset that "toxins" are to blame for all disease. He is at once seemingly skeptical of conventional medicine (but in reality it's only a knee-jerk distrust) yet at the same time very credulous when it comes to claims made by alties and apparently also to intimations of vast corporate conspiracies to suppress what he views as the "truth."

Thanks again to Skeptico, for giving me the heads up. I also suggest contacting Bill Maher through his show's website and asking him if, as such a "rational" and "skeptical" person, he feels any responsibility for peddling false information about vaccines and Pasteur. Suggest that he should revisit the issue on a future show and provide actual evidence for his assertion about Pasteur or his "not believing" in vaccines. Perhaps he could even invite someone who is capable of providing a strong rebuttal to his claims, someone who knows a thing or two about the myths promulgated by anti-vaccine activists and how they are fallacious.

Peter Bowditch, perhaps--by satellite from Australia?

UPDATE/ADDENDUM 03/08/2005: The official transcript of the show in question has been posted here. As you can see, the original first attempt at transcription I cited above was quite accurate.


  1. The Healey thing bothered me too. I wonder if he knew she would lay down, and that's why he chose her for the panel.


  2. I actually met Dr. Healey and have seen her speak. This was back when I lived in Cleveland and she was at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She didn't strike me as the sort of person who would lay down. On the other hand, she may not have known that Pasteur didn't recant on his deathbed. That myth is so prevalent that even many doctors don't realize that it isn't true.

  3. Entertainers, especially entertainers who practice opinionated entertainment such as "stand-up" must present opinions that are marketable. I suspect that Maher's buyers like gun control, PETA and some goofy health related notions. He is probably a better salesman if he too believes these goofy notions. So he probably does believe what he says but he could be just blowing smoke for the target audience.

  4. Given Maher's long involvement with PETA and rather loopy statements on animal rights (not to mention some of the statements he in other parts of this very broadcast, as he was kissing up to Ward Churchill), I rather suspect he really believes this stuff.

  5. 'Although representing himself as a free-thinking skeptic who proudly trumpets his atheism and calls religion a "neurologic disorder," '

    maybe not a disorder----but if it produces that much fear of imaginary places it certainly is something negative.

    I like Maher, I agree with you on the vaccination topic. I also disagree with his stance on Peta and a few others but I think what he says about religion is oftentimes mroe right than wrong.

  6. I used to kind of like Maher, but I really think that as he gets older he's getting flakier and flakier.

  7. I don't understand people who rant on and on about "toxicity" and how bad our food and air and water are. How do they explain the increases in longevity and quality of life that were perhaps the most marked feature of the second half of the twentieth century and that continue apace? Certainly we can do better, but most people in the "industrialized" world are living better, healthier lives than people ever have. What kind of warped perspective do these nuts have?

  8. Mahr has no target audience outside of those heavily involved in finger-painting. He lost his mind when the war started. Last I heard…he was doing some standup routine..going on about how disgusting pregnant women are. That’s when my boyfriend changed the channel. Might be an interesting case for the fizzy-chia-trists.

    Re: Alties. Live and let live. Pizza is the most organic thing that goes into my body. I do have one question about the “organic-all natural-unprocessed” crowd. If it’s so good for you, how come everyone you see in the health food stores is thin, pale and kind of…well, unsteady? Besides, I don’t understand the mind set that works so hard at making food tasteless, then says, “I don’t do politics.”

  9. He's arrogant as well. The "are you out of your mind" look he gives many guests who disagree with him and his condescending attitude are priceless.

  10. Maher still has his moments. But even during Politically Incorrect, which I thought would be a natural fit for my sense of humor and love of politics, I found him insufferably sure of himself: not his ideas but his self.

    And Tommy Chong has no problem pullin' off the reefer bit cuz he plays a dufus. Maher is quite simply showing the dangerous of habitual usage right up front and center. Altie indeed!

  11. One correction: Maher is not an atheist. He makes fun of religion, but he has declare many times that he believes in God, and he has made it clear that he thinks atheism is a laughable position as well. He's not even agnostic. I think he would best be described as a Deist.

  12. I find the 'deathbed' recantation theorem vastly amusing: they said the same about; Voltaire, Thomas Paine, & Ingersoll (albeit this was religious in nature). It seems that everyone w/an axe to grind pounces in & claims that hoary old chestnut the moment an opponent passes away. Here is death's sting!

  13. I like Bill Maher, but I don't agree with him on everything. This is one of those things. He really needs someone on the show to accurately represent the medical community. Clearly California has gotten to him with this alternative medicine garbage. I look at alternative medicine as another religion, and quite frankly I'm surprised he doesn't. He has said he isn't an atheist on a few occasions, though it is difficult for me to believe because I think so similarly regarding religion and I am an atheist. Sanjay Gupta did a fair job at discrediting Maher's silly medical opinion in his appearance on the show so there is some hope.
    Things I don't agree with him on are many : Filesharing and fair use, medicine, that one time he thought Bush might be right about Iraq. There have been a few others I'm sure, but don't get so incredibly irritated about it. It is just a television show, he gets plenty of guests, and obviously he's changed his mind before on things.

  14. our opinions mean nothing, and it's easy to sit here on the internet and bash someone in a very hypocritical way 'bill maher is arrogant and thinks he's right about everything' and YOU DON'T?? please. The fact is he's rich and famous and doesn't care what you think... what would you rather be, that, or the person bitching about that

  15. It's even easier to spout off nonsense without any facts to back it up, as Bill Maher does when it comes to his antivaccination stance.

    As for whether I think I'm right about "everything," well, no I don't. But I do believe I'm right about this for the simple reason that I have the data and research to back me up. Bill Maher doesn't.


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