Sep 21, 2009

Debunking ALL Scientific Illiteracy

Source: Brad Levin, cropped from linux-works

It's often the case that right-wingers are cited for their woefully half-baked pseudo-scientific claims, but celebrities and commentators on the left side of the aisle are often left alone for one reason or another. Hypocrisy is a bitter tonic, though, and so letting it slide from one source because we generally agree is just unacceptable as unfairly lambasting the opposing side.

As you've probably guessed from the content of the picture, today's subject is Bill Maher, who is as avid in his endorsement of "alternative" medicine as Jenny McCarthy is in denying children necessary vaccinations. Much of Maher's rantings about natural or alternative medicine can be dismissed with a singular eye roll, because it even seems to fall on deaf ears in the company of his guests and studio audiences, but he makes one dangerous claim (in the Overtime with Bill Maher segment) that really needs to be addressed. Namely, that cancer research has not gone anywhere in the last fifty years. He says:

"The shit we've tried for the last 50 years doesn't [work]. I know they've made no progress as far as cancer in this country. So, yes, there are people who actually go out of this country when they get cancer. Some of them come back alive after a death sentence. But in this country you can't talk about that. I might get arrested right now."

Science blogger Orac, on his blog, Respectful Insolence, discusses the point of cancer research at length:

Bill's other problem is a common one. Like all too many people, he appears to view cancer as one disease. It's not. In some cancers, we've made enormous progress in the last 50 years. For instance, most leukemias and lymphomas were death sentences 50 years ago. Now many of them are highly treatable and even curable. Lest you think that I'm cherry picking the easy, another example is colorectal cancer. For patients with metastatic colorectal cancer, for example, the time of survival and quality of life can both be significantly improved by the new generation of chemotherapeutic, antiangiogenic, and targeted therapies, as The Cheerful Oncologist pointed out two years ago.

I'm not a scientist, so I cannot speak to these claims with my own data, but I can research the hell out of this stuff if need be. Maher's problem - and I'm a big fan of him and Real Time, BTW - is that he, just like people on the other end of the spectrum, replace knowledge with belief and allow dogma to lead their thinking. Bill Maher believes that practicing alternative medicine (and getting rid of "toxins") is a viable option, rather than taking prescribed medications and listening to professionals. There really is little scientific evidence to support his claims about, but he states them as fact and impugns the very people who have made great advances in medicine over the last few decades.

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