An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations
By MICHAEL SHERMER
Added: Fri, 16 Oct 2009 23:00:00 UTC
An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations
From a Fellow Skeptic
By Michael Shermer
Editor of Skeptic magazine and âSkepticâ columnist for Scientific American
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 âtruthersâ, Obama âbirthersâ, 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 bodyâs immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system âadaptsâ to the invading pathogens and âevolvesâ 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 scienceâs 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 weâve 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 âtrust the governmentâ to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about âbig pharmaâ 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 (âbecause it workedâ), 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 itâs 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 âI was wrong.â Perhaps we donât 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. Iâve 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, âI changed my mind. I was wrong.â
Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner -... Comments
Science has an uneasy relationship with journalism, so what can be done by both sides to improve coverage
Will Self - BBC News Magazine 100 Comments
We chase "fast culture" at our peril - unusual words and difficult art are good for us, says Will Self.
Annie Murphy Paul - New York Times 26 Comments
New support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.
Nick Cohen - The Spectator 40 Comments
If you turn on the news tonight and hear of a bomber slaughtering civilians anywhere from Nigeria to the London Underground, I can reassure you of one point: the bombers will not be readers of Richard Dawkins.
Amol Rajan - The Independent 39 Comments
Their assault illustrates the extent to which defenders of religion still dominate our press, the brutal retaliation exacted on clever opponents of faith and the incorrigible stupidity of Sayeeda Warsi's claim about "militant secularism" last week.
Richard Dawkins - RichardDawkins.net 341 Comments
I can’t help wondering at the quality of journalism which sees a scoop in attacking a man for what his five-greats grandfather did.