Shermer nails Maher

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2009 2:00 pm

Skeptic Michael Shermer wrote an open letter to antivaxxer Bill Maher, and to be frank, Shermer hit it out of the park. There’s nothing I need to or can add to what he wrote. Go read it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Debunking, Skepticism

Comments (42)

  1. Okay Dr. Plait, you are getting slow when a slacker like me beats you to the punch. Of course, you are probably much busier than I am…. Nevermind!

  2. Dr. Plait, you might also want to mention that that open letter was published on that bastion of anti-vax woo, The Huffington Post.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/an-open-letter-to-bill-ma_b_323834.html

  3. “There’s nothing I need to or can add to what he wrote.”

    You could correct his mistaken comment that an individual creature experiences evolution, the example he gave being how the immune system learns to fight new pathogens. Adaptation within a single individual is NOT evolution. Sure he puts “evolves” in quotes the first time, but that is too subtle and too easily mistaken, and he later drops the quotes and says that vaccination works on the principles of evolution, which is not entirely correct – in fact, with too rapid evolution vaccines would not work at all, as in the case of AIDS and the common cold.

  4. Anyone mind helping me out here? I’m dealing with a couple rabid antivaxxers, and I could use a bit of help.

    Thanks much.

    ~~~~The EGE

  5. Rich W.

    Here here!

    I applaud Maher for being unafraid to voice the obvious. I further applaud HBO for providing the forum to do so. But when it comes to the antivax…Bill is up in the night.

    I agree with Maher in that we eat rubbish for food. I further agree with Maher in that we need to exercise more. I agree with Maher in that drug companies are pushing ethical boundaries in the way that they market their products in the USA. I think that Maher (and others, e.g. Michael Pollen) may be on to something in that our food is making us ill (although the research will be difficult at best). But I think that the train of thought needs to be kept on the tracks though.

    Kudos to those for calling him out on this.

  6. AndyM

    Unfortunately I wouldn’t say that he ‘nails’ him. The facts surrounding Bill Maher’s stance on anti-vax are not accurate as described by Shermer. Bill has said many times that evolution is the reason why vaccinations are ineffective. In essence he says that the virus’ evolve to work around the vaccinations being developed to become more powerful and that people are comprimising their own immune systems with a vaccination instead of strengthening them (nonsense I know!). He isn’t saying that evolution applies in all cases except for virus’ as what appears to be the bases for Shermer’s argument. It is a good attempt though — would like to see more.

  7. @EGE

    Some resources you might want to take a look at are the CDC, AAP and FDA web sites on vaccines, antiantivax.flurf.net (click on my name), Facts, Not Fantasy (click on Larian’s name) and the Science-Based Medicine Blog’s topic-specific reference page on vaccines and autism.

  8. Mike

    I’ve been reading Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things” lately. It’s fantastic, that guy is an ambassador of skepticism. =)

  9. NewEnglandBob

    Mike #5. That book by Shermer got mixed reviews. I read it earlier this year and I gave it a mediocre review – I am just not a fan of Shermer’s writing style.Not coherent enough.

  10. Calli Arcale

    zandperl:

    Adaptation within a single individual is NOT evolution.

    This is true if you’re talking to an evolutionary biologist. But the term evolution has broader usages outside of that field, and it can correctly be applied to processes within a human body. I’m not sure Shermer is right to use it to describe the way the immune system learns, but then, I don’t know much about the actual mechanics of immunology. There *does* appear to be an evolutionary process at work in how the *brain* learns. It’s not the same as the evolution of new species, but the process can rightly be called “evolutionary.”

    Also, you might not want to quibble too much about the use of the word “evolution” to describe things other than species on an astronomer’s blog. ;-)
    Stellar Evolution

  11. @ The EGE, I posted as well. What a whiney blog though….

    RE: Why People Believe Weird Things. I found the book okay. There were some chapters that were brilliant, and then there were some that just made me not care at all. Generally though, I like Dr. Shermer’s writing. Particularly his SciAm bits!

  12. Brian Wood

    I loved this article. If you watched Real Time on Friday, Maher was awfully defensive about the criticism he took last week, which one could assume included Shermer’s piece. He gave some pretty weak excuses for some of the things he’s been saying, and is definitely worth a look. I’m glad skeptics like Shermer have finally gotten to him.

  13. As I said in my own blog. His hypocricy is very convenient when he sees “the enemy” lined up against him:

    New Rule: If you don’t think your daughter getting cancer is worse than your daughter having sex, then you’re doing it wrong. Last year, science came up with a way to greatly reduce cervical cancer in young women. It’s a vaccine that prevents women from getting HPV, which is a sexually transmitted disease that acts as a gateway to the cancer. And the vaccine is so good, it could wipe out HPV. I keep a stockpile near my hot tub, and I can tell you, that tingling sensation means it’s really working. And I’d say that even without the endorsement deal.

    Now for the bad news: Not everyone is pleased with this vaccine. That prevents cancer. Christian parent groups and churches nationwide are fighting it. Bridget Maher — no relation, and none planned — of the Family Research Council says giving girls the vaccine is bad, because the girls “may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”

  14. One thing I would add is that people used to die from epidemics by the millions before we got vaccines, and that thanks to vaccine we eradicated smallpox and near-eradicated polio. Vaccines have always made a huge difference in the quality of life of people, it’s mind-boggling people don’t see it.

  15. Gary Ansorge

    11. Larian LeQuella

    “may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”

    Yeah and when we developed the Pill and allowed abortion they said EXACTLY the same fraking thing. I will note, all those free sex encouraging advances STILL didn’t allow me to get freely laid. I really had to work at it, as in, “Please,please,please,,,for about a thousand times,,,”.

    Eventually, if you beg enough,,,

    I will note the major reason for allowing medically approved abortion was because women were dying from SELF-induceed abortion. WHy? Gee, I guess they were having sex out of wedlock(funny word there. Does that imply when you’re wed, they lock you up and throw away the key?). So, if women had premarital sex w/o the pill, w/o medical abortions won’t they still be having premarital sex DESPITE not having the HPV? Gee, I kinda think so.

    So, the real value to the HPV vax is reducing future health care costs for cervical cancer and, as we all know, that’s anathema to big phama/medecine,,,SNARK!!!

    GAry 7

  16. Ty

    I just got back from getting a bunch of vaccines in prep for a trip to Africa.

    Thank you, science, for allowing me to travel and not get hepatitis, typhoid, and polio.

  17. kd9280

    Wired magazine’s cover article is on anti-vaxxers

    http://www.wired.com/magazine

    Might wanna check it out

  18. Bill

    As much as the anti-vaccine rhetoric of the antivax movement bothers me, I’ve gotta say that I may be even more concerned about the way that they undermine the scientific and medical communities.

    The antivax issue is troubling, but with any luck, it will eventually be overwhelmed by actual…oh, what’s that word I’m looking for…oh, yeah – RESULTS of vaccination programs. True, each time evidence against a particular antivax claim mounts, they shift the goal posts, but eventually they’ll run out of room. I shudder to think how much unnecessary harm may be done before that happens, but I’ve gotta believe that it’ll happen SOMEday.

    In the meantime, though, they’re trashing the scientific and medical community in order to poison the well of evidence against their beliefs, mostly through pushing the idea of Big Pharma(c)(tm) conspiracies. And every person who buys into that will close their mind against science just that much more. Those people will certainly downplay scientific education for their own children, and may very well affect the quality of science education in general.

  19. Chip

    On his latest “Real Time” show Maher backtracked on vaccines a little bit while Alec Baldwin and Chris Matthews poked some holes in his anti-vax statements. I hope Maher, whose sardonic wit is often right on target about a lot of things, admits he is completely wrong about vaccines. His distrust stems from his dislike of big pharmaceutical corporations and his support for the “slow food” movement, i.e. local produced healthy food over commercial junk food. But with medicine, he confuses the beneficial tools themselves (vaccines) with corporate greed.

  20. James

    Unfortunately the CDC and The FDA, along with the medical collages say that the mercury used in the shots is a presertive. The shots I got in the military, and by my private witch doctor all are dry in a vaccum jar, so no preservitives are needed, ask for them. not the premixed stuff.
    Wonder why the swine flue of the 50’s is nearly the same as the flu now, and little mutated. The other flus were mutated out so you had to get a remade shot different then the ones you got in the 2008’s.
    Did you read the one of the spitzbergen discovery several years ago? by american big pharma.
    If I read my jornal of medicine of new England, and the equivalivant of the same of england and the Scientific American about then they described the symptoms and the currant debacle. And by the way, more people in the 50’s died of the shots then the Flu.

  21. Jefferson

    Here is a link to an article that was published in a German newspaper:

    http://www.thelocal.de/national/20091018-22649.html

    It would appear that the German Armed Forces, Government Members, pregnant women and children will be given a different H1N1 vaccine than the general population, for no specific reason:

    “The general population will be offered the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine, called Pandemrix, which contains a new booster element, or adjuvant, as well as a preservative containing mercury.”

    “Chancellor Angela Merkel, her cabinet members and ministry civil servants as well as those working for other agencies will get Celvapan, produced by US firm Baxter, which does not have the adjuvant or the preservative, according to Der Spiegel.”

    “It is thought the adjuvant may lead to a stronger reaction in the patient – which to a certain degree is the point, meaning the vaccine can contain less of the virus yet still provoke the crucial immune system reaction.”

    “But this is also what some say is the additional risk – and has led to stocks of the traditional kind of vaccine being bought in for pregnant women and young children.”

    “Celvapan does not contain the adjuvant or the preservative. Rather, it contains entire dead viruses rather than the pieces which are in the traditional vaccine. The Baxter version is the one being given to the armed forces, as well as being made available for pregnant women and children.”

    “It seems now that ministers and civil servants are to be included in that category.

    “We have bought 200,000 doses of the non-adjuvanted vaccine Celvapan from the company Baxter,” Christoph Hübner, spokesman for the Interior Ministry confirmed to Der Spiegel.”

    “It will be used for “state servants responsible for the maintenance of public order,” the magazine reported. Next to members of the cabinet and civil servants, this includes staff of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, which took the decision to order the new vaccine from GSK for the rest of the country. No explicit reason was offered as to why they should get the Baxter vaccine rather than the GSK version.”

    Which begs the obvious question: Why? Any ideas, guys?

    More here:

    “Chairman of the German Medical Association’s Drug Commission Wolf-Dieter Ludwig said the situation was a scandal. “We are unhappy about this vaccination campaign,” he said. The point of it was unknown, he suggested. “The health authorities have succumbed to a campaign by the pharma companies, which simply want to earn money from a supposed threat.”

    “Meanwhile some medical associations are advising their members not to administer the new vaccine. President of the German Association of General and Family Medicine, Michael Kochen, has called on German general doctors not to give it to patients. “The risks outweigh the benefits,” he said.”

    “Wolfram Hartmann, president of the Association of Paediatricians, accused the government of making false scientific statements. He said children under the age of three should not be given the shots.”

    “The vaccine has not been tested on them, thus the risk is simply too great for it to be used,” he said, adding that children’s immune systems tend to overreact, which could be exacerbated by the adjuvants. He also criticised the use of mercury-containing preservatives. “One has deliberately kept this stuff out of vaccines for small children,”he said.

    Wwwwwwwwhat? Some strong words from people who are not your average Joes’. This is not Bill Maher. After all, these are certified medical officials. Wow! Dunno, but I think Herr Shermer would most likely not “hit it out of the park” were he to engage in an epistolary exchange with these guys on the topic of vaccination. Me thinks Shermer would end up “in a hole” in no time. Welcome to the Major Leagues, Michael!

  22. Beelzebud

    It’s nice to see Shermer writing about something besides his libertarian evangelism, for once.

  23. Nigel Depledge

    zandpearl (3) said:

    You could correct his mistaken comment that an individual creature experiences evolution, the example he gave being how the immune system learns to fight new pathogens. Adaptation within a single individual is NOT evolution. Sure he puts “evolves” in quotes the first time, but that is too subtle and too easily mistaken, and he later drops the quotes and says that vaccination works on the principles of evolution, which is not entirely correct – in fact, with too rapid evolution vaccines would not work at all, as in the case of AIDS and the common cold.

    Actually, many immunologists refer to this process as evolution, because generations of immune cells are selected for the antigen-binding properties of the antibodies that they produce. The currently-accepted model of immunology is (approximately) that on first encountering an antigen, the immune response is not very specific and takes some time to get under way. Subsequently, as the relevant part of the immune system fine-tunes itself through an evolutionary process of recombination and selection, far more specific antibodies are produced. If the same antigen is then encountered again, the immune response is much swifter and much more specific. It is after the second encounter that B-lymphocytes (memory cells) are produced, conferring a long-term immunity (or resistance). This is also why so many vaccines are more effective when multiple doses are given.

  24. John

    “A new study in the leading scientific journal NeuroToxicology lends further credence to parents and scientists concerned about an increasingly aggressive childhood vaccine schedule and toxic vaccine components. A team led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that infant macaque monkeys receiving a single Hepatitis B vaccine containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal underwent significant delays in developing critical reflexes controlled by the brainstem.” – Medical news today, oct 3rd.

    I guess shermer is unaware of current research, eh?

  25. Nigel Depledge

    AndyM (6) said:

    Bill has said many times that evolution is the reason why vaccinations are ineffective. In essence he says that the virus’ evolve to work around the vaccinations being developed to become more powerful and that people are comprimising their own immune systems with a vaccination instead of strengthening them (nonsense I know!).

    Strangely, this isn’t as far-out-there as most of the antivax nonsense.

    It is true that, by vaccinating ourselves, we apply a selection pressure to the virus to evolve a way around that. However (and it’s a big “however”), if our vaccine is sufficiently effective, we overwhelm the virus’s capability to evolve new strategies or new surface proteins. Which is how we were able to eradicate smallpox, and how we should be able to eradicate polio (the worldwide polio eradication effort only failed through the diligent efforts of antivaccination campaigners in Nigeria).

    Those viruses that evolve fast enough for vaccines to be either ineffective or not very effective are not evolving any faster because of vaccination. They evolve rapidly because that is the only way they can survive our immune response! Similarly, it could be pointed out that attempts to produce a vaccine against “the” common cold were abandoned once it was discovered how rapidly the varius viruses evolve. (IIRC there are about 50 different viruses from several different families that all produce cold symptoms, so there isn’t any “the” common cold.)

  26. Nigel Depledge

    @ John (24) – hey, here’s a radical idea for you:

    Instead of parroting a mass-media news article about a scientific paper*, perhaps you should find and link to the actual paper? Because without the support of an actual rigorous study, I have no reason to believe anything you say.

    * Or were you unaware how appallingly inaccurate most mass-media articles are about scientific issues?

  27. Justin Olson

    @ 24. John:

    The first author of that study, Laura Hewitson has a child who is a petitioner in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Also another author, pseudoscientist Andrew Wakefield acted as a paid expert in MMR-related litigation. Those are huge conflicts of interest!

    From Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog:

    ‘Why did the investigators look at thimerosal-containing hepatitis B vaccination? There’s no thimerosal in the hepatitis B vaccine anymore and hasn’t been since 2001. In fact, if you read the methods section of the paper, you’ll see that Hewitson et al added thimerosal to Recombivax HB (Merck) in order to recreate that thimerosal feeling from the 1990s. Why would they do that? Especially since the authors state in the conclusion that the study design “was not able to determine whether it was the vaccine per se, the exposure to thimerosal, or a combination of both, that caused these effects.”

    I note that anti-vaccine groups like TACA funded this study, which certainly cost at least $100,000 to do, probably considerably more. They would not have invested the money if they didn’t expect a payoff.’

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/10/some_monkey_business_in_autism_research_1.php

  28. @James

    And by the way, more people in the 50’s died of the shots then the Flu.

    Citation, please.

  29. @John

    Here is a critique of that monkey study: http://tinyurl.com/y8zgzsn

  30. @John

    In addition to what Nigel said, you may want to wander over to Science-Based Medicine and do a search for “monkey”. Some decent critiques of that study.

  31. Ernest

    The following articles raise some very serious questions about the pharmaceutical industry’s ethics.

    This case deals with a repeat offender and it has to do with a previously banned drug:

    Pfizer pays Record $1.3 Billion Penalty for Drug Misbranding
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aNU0b7fJdVUg

    U.S. court imposes penalty on Pfizer unit in Bextra case
    http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssHealthcareNews/idUSN1636788820091016

    Should we trust these guys?

    Just a thought here: are we absolutely sure they are not doing the same thing with the H1N1 vaccine (i.e. giving kickbacks to physicians to push the vaccine)?

  32. Levi in NY

    The title of this post burned a mental image in my brain that I most definitely do not want there. Thanks Phil.

  33. John

    @Todd W, Justin Olson

    Great, so we’ve established that peer-reviewed research is biased and based on the agenda of those who fund it.

    Lets talk about glaxo…… :)

  34. Justin Olson

    That’s called the Hasty Generalisation Fallacy, John. You’re being intellectually dishonest… just like the INDIVIDUALS who carried out that “research.”

    Example of Hasty Generalization:

    Bill: “You know, those feminists all hate men.”
    Joe: “Really?”
    Bill: “Yeah. I was in my philosophy class the other day and that Rachel chick gave a presentation.”
    Joe: “Which Rachel?”
    Bill: “You know her. She’s the one that runs that feminist group over at the Women’s Center. She said that men are all sexist pigs. I asked her why she believed this and she said that her last few boyfriends were real sexist pigs. ”
    Joe: “That doesn’t sound like a good reason to believe that all of us are pigs.”
    Bill: “That was what I said.”
    Joe: “What did she say?”
    Bill: “She said that she had seen enough of men to know we are all pigs. She obviously hates all men.”
    Joe: “So you think all feminists are like her?”
    Bill: “Sure. They all hate men.”

  35. I was both disappointed and shocked at Maher’s antivax comments. He repeatedly castigated the Bush administration for ignoring science and dismissed 9-11 conspiracy proponents as wackos who ignore the obvious.

    Yet he turns around and does the exact same thing himself? What the hell?

  36. Keith

    I wish Michael Shermer would take Meryl Dorey and Jenny McCarthy head on. But then again he might refuse to engage in a battle of wits with people who are unarmed.

  37. Nigel Depledge

    Justin Olsen (28) said:

    The first author of that study, Laura Hewitson has a child who is a petitioner in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Also another author, pseudoscientist Andrew Wakefield acted as a paid expert in MMR-related litigation. Those are huge conflicts of interest!

    Not only that, but Wakefield (who started the MMR scare in the UK) actually made up his results to “suggest” a link between MMR and autism.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    John (34) said:

    @Todd W, Justin Olson

    Great, so we’ve established that peer-reviewed research is biased and based on the agenda of those who fund it.

    Well, first off, no. You’re wrong. We have established that the antivaxxers are behaving unethically in order to push their own agenda.

    Most peer-reviewed research is as unbiased as it is possible for human being to get.

    What has been established is that the antivaxxers are prepared to lie about the facts to push their agenda.

    Lets talk about glaxo……

    I guess you refer the the established past unethical behaviour of various big pharma companies. Well, that’s been established for some time, and it’s not news. Several of them have pushed their potentially-biggest money-spinning drugs using every trick in the book.

    However, since that has nothing whatever to do with vaccines, it is irrelevant. Vaccines do not make big profits for big pharma. Even if they did, that would not change the fact that vaccines work, and that the benefits of vaccination hugely outweigh the risks.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    More on peer review…

    In general, if a study has not passed through a process of peer review before publication, it probably won’t be worth reading.

    However, peer-review is not a guarantee of quality, it is merely the first step in a process. Most journal editors struggle to persuade established scientists to review papers – after all, it is unpaid and takes time away from doing science and generating results and writing grant applications. In many cases, a Principal Investigator will delegate reviewing a paper to a post-doc or a PhD student. Peer review sometimes also permits an eminent scientist to quash criticism of his / her own work. So, the peer review process is flawed, but no-one has yet thought up a better way to do it.

    As I said, though, peer review is just the first step in a process.

    Once a paper is published, it may be subjected to a far wider range of criticism. Competition between two rival ideas is one of the ways in which science progresses, but there have to be wrong ideas published for this competition to occur.

    Often (and especially if a paper is controversial), other researchers will attempt to duplicate the work described in a paper. Failure to achieve this will result in the science community as a whole rejecting the initial idea, especially if several other groups have tried and failed to duplicate a published result. That’s why most scientists do not believe “cold fusion” is possible (aside from the lack of a credible mechanism).

    Ultimately, though, the arbiter of truth is reality. In any controversy, we will eventually have enough evidence that the correct idea prevails.

    This is the current state of affairs with respect to vaccines. The actual evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the benefits outweigh the risks substantially.

  40. Zucchi

    @James

    And by the way, more people in the 50’s died of the shots then [sic] the Flu.

    Any chance of you providing a shred of evidence to support this ridiculous assertion?

  41. Frank

    I’m pro-evolution, and pro-vaccine, but personally I thought that was a terrible letter that does more to confuse people about evolution than it does to educate people about vaccines. Plus, it’s a total non-sequitir. There is nothing contradictory about being pro-evolution and anti-vaccine. Come on.

    I don’t watch Bill Maher, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he tears this letter apart, because it would be quite easy for him to do so. I am not very familiar with Shermer, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen of him, and I’m surprised that a fellow skeptic is capable of such twists of logic.

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