Nov 04 2019

The Problem with Bill Maher

Bill Maher is a divisive figure among skeptics because he is somewhat of a contradiction. On the one hand he is capable of taking down certain forms of irrationality with humor and satire in a very effective way. He is a warrior and an entertainer, and when he is championing something we agree with, we love it. But then he takes positions that are as irrational as the ones he attacks. So there is definitely a “glass half-full” issue with perception.

I see Maher as a cautionary tale – clearly there is something wrong with his process, and since he is trying to be skeptical but also clearly failing, we should perhaps try to figure out what that is. I have no personal insight into the man, I can only base my judgement on information in the public domain. However, that information is substantial since he has a regular TV show in which he espouses his views.

Let’s consider the latest episode which has inspired another round of skeptical outrage. On a recent show he had on Dr. Jay Gordon, infamous anti-vaccine pediatrician, and essentially agreed with his anti-vaccine nonsense. Here is Dave Gorski’s review over at SBM. And here are a couple of Maher’s key points:

“You know, to call you this crazy person—really, what you’re just saying is slower, maybe less numbers, and also take into account individuals. 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.”

Maher is desperately trying to portray himself as reasonable, while spouting utter nonsense. What Maher is defending is the anti-vaccine trope of “too many, too soon,” (the flip side of slow down and not so many). This is Dr. Gordon’s line also. Let’s deal with this claim first – the vaccine schedule is not arbitrary. It is evidence-based. In fact, this exact claim has been directly researched, comparing the standard vaccine schedule with a slower and reduced schedule. What they found was that there was no down side to the vaccine schedule, no advantage to Gordon’s or anyone’s slower schedule, but there was a disadvantage in that it left children susceptible longer to vaccine-preventable diseases. It turns out, surprise surprise, that basing the vaccine schedule on evidence rather than shooting from the hip because of your feelings, yields better outcomes.

So yes, Maher, it is “crazy” (although, to be clear, that is not the term I would use because it stigmatizes mental illness, but I will leave that to a separate post) for a doctor to rely on their own experience and subjective feelings over expert-reviewed evidence and the standard of care. That makes you a bad doctor.

Next up is a blatant straw-man fallacy – Maher arrogantly thinks he is smarter and has a more thoughtful approach to medicine than the world’s medical experts who have dedicated their lives to thinking carefully about medicine. Do tell, Maher – we should take family history and individual medical history into account when individualizing treatment to specific patients based on current evidence? Interesting idea. You should give lectures at medical schools and share your wisdom. Perhaps publish your critique in a peer-reviewed medical journal. We’re all fascinated by your uncanny insight (am I laying it on too thick?).

As further evidence of Maher’s guru-like medical insight, he then goes on to counter the mountain of scientific evidence he admits to with, “It seems more realistic to me…” Sure, there many be many scientific studies showing no correlation between vaccines and autism – there is simply no signal in the data – but on the other hands we have these anecdotal reports. Let’s be realistic here. If there’s one thing that history has shown, it’s that anecdotal reports are entirely unreliable, subjective, biased, and misleading…but that doesn’t really support his point, so just forget that. Let’s get back to Maher’s subjective, poorly informed, non-expert feelings.

So what is Maher’s major malfunction? Again – based on the evidence in the public domain – what I have observed is that Maher does not really follow a process of logic, science, and critical thinking. He apparently takes positions for other reasons, based on ideology with a huge helping of arrogance. He then defends his positions with logic and critical thinking as much as he can. So when his positions happen to be reasonable, he sounds like a champion of critical thinking. When he defends the scientific consensus, like on global warming, or when he takes on religion-based anti-science, he champions skepticism. But then he pivots to positions that are not based on the scientific consensus, and he engages in willful motivated reasoning, untempered by humility.

That, I think, is the cautionary tale. Just because you are right, in line with science, and can defend yourself with good principles of skepticism on some issues, that does not make you right on every issue. You have to approach each issue with humility and the acknowledgement that you may be wrong. You should be very concerned when your views do not conform to legitimate experts. The chances are overwhelming that the reason for the disconnect is because your are not an expert, and not because you are smarter than all the experts.

Maher has made himself into a cautionary tale for skeptics, and perhaps that my be his greatest service.



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