A Response To Bill Maher’s Opposition to Vaccinations

Bill Maher has an entertaining show on H.B.O. and I often agree with him, but his ignorance of medical science rivals the ignorance exhibited by those on the right who deny evolution and climate change. I even noted recently that when he had former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist on a recent show I wound up agreeing with Frist as opposed to Maher.

When right wingers deny evolution or climate change, many Republicans will join with them–especially if they are running for president. In contrast, many on the left condemn Maher’s ignorance of science just as strongly as we condemn the anti-scientific attitudes of the right. Michael Shermer, Editor of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American has posted an open letter to Bill Maher at RichardDawkins.net:

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 “truthers”, Obama “birthers”, and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Atheist Alliance International.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See www.sciencebasedmedicine.org for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace—was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.

One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say “I was wrong.” Perhaps we don’t do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I’ve done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, “I changed my mind. I was wrong.”

South Carolina Republicans Resort To Anti-Semitic Sterotypes

We’ve been so busy laughing at all the conservative denials over the amount of racism on the right that the anti-Semitism on the right has been ignored lately. Rachel Weiner points out an example.

Two South Carolina County Republican Party chairmen stepped up to rebut criticism of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in a newspaper editorial Sunday. But their defense of the senator might be overshadowed by their use of an anti-Semitic stereotype to praise him.

After a Democratic state senator wrote in The State that DeMint didn’t bring enough money back home, Bamberg County GOP Chairman Edwin Merwin and Orangeburg County GOP Chairman James Ulmer responded that he was just looking after the nation’s pennies — like a Jew would.

“There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves,” Ulmer and Merwin wrote in a joint letter published by The Times and Democrat. “By not using earmarks to fund projects for South Carolina and instead using actual bills, DeMint is watching our nation’s pennies and trying to preserve our country’s wealth and our economy’s viability to give all an opportunity to succeed.

And the Republican Party wonders why their optimistic predictions of picking the Jewish vote aren’t working out. The Republican Party has become primarily the party of southern white men–complete with all the baggage that carries.

Obama Administrations Announces Change in Marijuana Policy

AP reports on a change in policy with regards to medicinal  marijuana from the Obama administration. This comes in response to the policy under George Bush to ignore state laws, again demonstrating that many Republicans are only concerned about states’ rights when it suits their policies. From AP:

The Obama administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state laws, under new policy guidelines to be sent to federal prosecutors Monday.

Two Justice Department officials described the new policy to The Associated Press, saying prosecutors will be told it is not a good use of their time to arrest people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state laws.

The new policy is a significant departure from the Bush administration, which insisted it would continue to enforce federal anti-pot laws regardless of state codes.

Fourteen states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Harry Reid Is Right on Fixing Medicare Payment Formula Independent of Health Care Reform

The Washington Post attacks Harry Reid for separating fixing the Medicare payment formula from the overall health care reform proposals. Harry Reid is right on this. The Medicare payment formula is flawed–so flawed that every year Congress acts to override the formula. Fixing this formula will result in greater spending than it it wasn’t fixed, but budget numbers based upon maintaining the formula are imaginary. Regardless of whether there is comprehensive health care reform, this is money which will continue to be spent every year, as has been the case in the past.

The idea when the formula was established was to tie physician reimbursement to overall health care costs under the assumption that this would give physicians an incentive to keep health care costs down. A formula was written to determine physician reimbursement under Medicare which would pay more if health care costs were kept down but pay less if costs rose.

While in theory this might make sense the formula has not worked. Individual doctors have very limited control with regards to overall health care costs which have increased with increasing technology and an aging population. The price of injectable drugs, primarily administered by Oncologists, has been responsible for much of the increases which would have triggered pay cuts to all doctors. In recent years the formula would have cut physician reimbursement by double digits every year. Realizing that this would cause physicians to be unable to afford to see Medicare patients, every year Congress has acted to block the cuts which the formula would enact.

Fixing this formula is an independent problem from this year’s health care proposals. The goal has been for these proposals to be budget neutral. If the costs of fixing the Medicare formula are included as a cost of health care reform, it will be necessary to reduce spending elsewhere, such as with lower subsidies to assist those with difficulty in paying for medical insurance.

The Washington Post writes, ” The Medicare payment formula is one of a number of fiscal time bombs that will need defusing soon: the alternative minimum tax, the Bush tax cuts, the estate tax, other expiring tax provisions.” This is true, but these budget problems need to be fixed as part of an overall fix to the budget. Fixing the Medicare payment formula should not be done at the cost of health care reform.