Friday, September 25, 2009

Bill Maher and His Role in Anti-Science

I recently was amazed at the amount of crap that Bill Maher stated in this video:

First off, it is not true that you go to jail in the USA if you practice alternative medicine. Rather, alternative medicine is protected. For example, anything you consume can be protected as a "dietary supplement" under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was pushed by the bipartisan team of Orrin Hatch (R) and Tom Harkin (D) (bipartisan does not mean good). The DSHEA states that it is up to the dietary supplement manufacturer to ensure the product is safe. There is no need to prove efficacy or safety in a controlled setting prior to marketing. Further, while it is true the manufacturer must ensure that any material on the label is true, any claim can be stated by using the catch-all phrase:

"These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent _______."

In other words, "we made all this shit up and didn't even bother to test it. Here, have seconds." The FDA only steps in if they can find evidence that it is harmful after people have been affected; e.g., Zicam. In fact, Zicam is a great example because it is even mislabeled as a homeopathic treatment, but is not one since the concentrations in Zicam are way too strong - strong enough to have any effect (whether good or bad) disqualifies it as being homeopathic. So, not only are alternative medicines not regulated as medicines, there is not a regulation on themselves.

Second, Bill Maher's statement that we have not improved in the cancer fight is a bold face lie. Cancer rates have been steadily declining for years. But why research when you can just make crap up?

Third, his statement that we have such a big health care system because "we are so sick" is absurd. I am going to refrain from the public/private debate because this blog is about science and engineering and not politics. But Maher's assertion about the size of our health care system is not correlated with any health markers. Rather, it is simply a matter of diminishing returns and efficiency. In fact, if our problem was simply tied to health, we would not be arguing over whether people are covered by insurance. Instead, we would be fighting about ways to make people healthier; e.g., tax on sugars, increased physical education in schools, anti-smoking legislation, etc. (Note: I am not giving any opinion on whether we should do any of these; I am just stating that we would probably be debating these topics.) Regardless of your stand on health insurance, this is largely absent from the debate, except as a way to raise funds for a form of public health. The reason is that our health is not tied to the increase in health care costs.

Next, Maher goes into the conspiracy theory that "Big Pharma" is only interested in treating symptoms is wrong on two fronts. First, several Western medicines and treatments are specifically designed to treat the underlying disease and not symptoms. For example, antibiotics are specifically designed to kill the bacteria causing the infection. You cannot get more offensive than that. If you have heart surgery, an improperly or non-functioning heart valve is either repaired or replaced. This is not to say that all Western medicines treat the underlying case. In some cases, there is no proven cure; therefore, we do the next best thing, which is to manage symptoms. This does not mean that research there is no research into fixing the underlying cause. For example, in 2007 we saw the first vaccine against bird-flu and in 2006 we saw Gardasil. Second, when did alternative medicines start treating diseases? For example, homeopathy was developed before Germ Theory and specifically treats symptoms. Like cures Like? That is treating symptoms. If I have a cold, homeopathy says that the cure is onion because both cause my eyes to tear and agitate my mucus membranes. These are not the cause for the cold - they are the symptoms. Not one homeopathic practitioner ever links onion to the death of viral rhinopharyngitis.

I have no idea why Maher gets a pass from the skeptical and scientific community. It's likely due to his non-religious beliefs. However, this is a gross mischaracterization. The truth is that Maher is religious, but not in the Westernized "only one God in the sky" fashion. He's religious in that he believes in unproven methodologies. Jeffrey Tobin is right: there is no such thing as alternative medicine; it's either medicine, unproven, or disproven. Acupuncture? It's not alternative; it's not medicine because it does not work any better than a placebo. Anytime you put faith in unproven methodologies, you are making a non-scientific statement about the world. Saying there is a "life force" called Qi is nothing more than a religious statement.

Even if Maher were correct about cancer rates not declining (and he clearly is wrong), it does nothing to validate his point. This is simply a straw-man argument. Just because we do not have a solution does not mean you get to make up whatever crap you want to fill in the holes. It does not work for Intelligent Design and it does not work for medicine. Of course, science does not know everything. If it did, we would not be running experiments because, we would already know the answer. But that does not mean that we do not know something. Is there a cure for all cancer? No, but that does not mean we have not found ways to cure some cancers, detect and treat earlier, and increase the life expectancy if diagnosed.

So, to sum up: Bill Maher has more in common with Creationists than he would probably like.

1 comment:

Willster said...

Nice post. Bill Maher does have a lot in common with Creationists, along the lines of his arrogance in understanding the issues.