An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations


From Fellow Skeptic Michael Shermer
Editor of Skeptic magazine and “Skeptic” columnist for Scientific American

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 Richard’s foundation, which promotes reason and science.

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 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.”

With respect,

Michael Shermer

Huffington Post
I know this is long, but it didn’t seem right to reprint only part of it. I like Bill Maher, but on this subject and his defense of PETA, he really bugs me. It drives me crazy to listen to his arguments against vaccinations and pharmaceuticals.

What do you think?

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14 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

  1. Full disclosure: It takes a lot of meds to keep me alive on a daily basis.

    Pic of Daily Meds (not shown: remicade, insulin and a few rx ointments)

    I find his attitude towards the pharmaceutical companies derisive, condescending and mean spirited. I understand his general point, but he goes too far and is irrational about it.

    1. I know a lot of people that don’t immunize. If they’re ok w/ it, I’m ok w/ it. I think one can see how important it is for me to have the various inoculations and vaccines. I got a cold a few years ago and it turned into a 6 month fight for my life w/ double pneumonia. Some of those meds are immune suppressors, like chemo medicine. If I have to take antibiotics for an infection, I can’t get my treatments…not good, actually very bad. I’m careful, very very careful. I have a minimum of 2 doctor’s appointment every month (pain mgmt and rheumatologist) and often three or four. There’s a reason I have so much time to be on the various M[c]S sites throughout the day.

      1. I’m not ok with people that refuse immunizations. They’re putting themselves at risk, and by extension, putting me at risk.

        why wouldn’t you protect yourself from polio, or the chicken pox?

        1. As long as I’m vaccinated, I don’t really care what other people do. It does allow for small pockets of outbreaks (small pox has been seen in increasing numbers since its vaccination is no longer mandatory). In NY a judge approved an injunction against the mandatory vaccination of medical personnel. Some nurses organization is suing (or whatever it’s called) so they went before a judge and got the injunction. Why medical personnel wouldn’t want the vaccination is beyond me. What are they afraid of? If I were in charge of a hospital, I wouldn’t allow any medical personnel w/out the vaccination to work. That’s prolly not allowed though. What if a nurse has H1N1 and works in the ER, how many people could she make sick? That’s insane.

        2. There is no chicken pox vaccine, genius. Also, I NEVER get sick. For me the flu is some phelgm in a tickled throat. Maybe a lil diarrhea. It’s nothing my constitution can’t handle without any change of lifestyle. Maybe a Kombucha, cuz it’s kinda gross and cool. You not okay with me skipping vaccinations? You can stick your vaccinations in my cold, dead hands.

          1. O so it only works for 5 years, and then you have to be revaccinated, as opposed to catching it and being immunized for life. I guess if you didn’t get it as a child, it’d be a good shot to get as an adult, whose life is potentially threatened by it. I already had it, and before 1995. No wonder I never heard of it. I cheerfully withdraw my jab at your intellect, good sir.

            I could see this turning into a nasty debate, filled with ignorant rankor and enlightening testimony.

          2. People aren’t always immunized after they have it once. I’ve had the pox twice, once when I was 2 or 3 and again when I was 10.

            And what you’re referring to is called a ‘booster shot’, which is perfectly normal, though according to this: over 90% of people that got the vaccine in their study were still immune 20 years later.

            This just makes me scratch my head: wtf are people thinking?

  2. He did go a bit overboard. I am still on the fence. Never have flu shots either and I have a bad immune system. Also take lots of pills like you, just not as much. Well only 3, but I am already so sick of them.

    1. I do all my pills for the week on Sunday night, so that’s my set-up for keeping them all straight. Put ’em on a table and go through them one at a time. It does get to a bit much, some pills are once a day in the morning, some are once a day before bed and some are twice daily. There’s a few I’m working down, so I have a pill cutter. I have two lotions for my face, one ointment for hands and feet, insulin injections several times a day and Remicade IV infusion once a month. All these meds costs ~$7,000+ per month. I pay ~$500+ per month. W/out insurance…don’t even want to think about it.

      1. That’s uber lame nyokki. I have insurance(with help from my parents because I am such a mess). I get the generic form of the drug and pay $10 bucks each. I take one in the morning, one twice per day and another one in the evening. My health seems to be pretty stable at the moment with changing my diet and working out all the time. I see the doctor once a year now. That is a giant expense too.

        I hope your health improves nyokki and you are able to take less stuff in time. Insurance is so fucked nowadays though, people are fucked if they do and fucked if they don’t. The system needs so much work.

        1. $500 per month for some 15 meds and treatments is not bad at all. It would be less if I were allowed to use both my rx cards at the same time like I do w/ my reg ins. But I have to use mine (primary) the fill out complicated forms to send into hubby’s rx plan. I shouldn’t complain too much tho, since I have yet to submit any rx’s this year. I keep intending to and never seem to get around to it.

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