Opinion | In a recent article in Forbes magazine titled “Bill Maher Supports Vaccine-Autism Connection,” Nina Shapiro, MD attacked comedian Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” for his interview with Jay Gordon, MD on Nov. 1, 2019 regarding vaccines.1 There were other similar articles published in the HuffPost, the Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Insider, but the title of Dr. Shapiro’s hit job is the most egregious.2 3 4 5
The titles of the other articles merely suggest that Maher thinks it is possible there may be a link between vaccines and autism. Dr. Shapiro’s headline outright says Maher maintains there is a connection. However, if you watch or read a transcript of Maher’s interview with Dr. Gordon, who is a pediatrician just like Dr. Shapiro, it is clear that neither Maher nor Dr. Gordon have come to a conclusion, but are in the process of considering the evidence while keeping an open mind.
In the entire interview, the ongoing debate about vaccines and autism is brought up only twice. The first time is when Dr. Gordon related how a pediatrician friend of his asked him, “Do you really believe that vaccines cause autism?” Dr. Gordon responded that he thought there is “an impact but that he couldn’t “prove” anything.6
Dr. Gordon said that he then asked his friend, “[D]o you believe that there’s no effect from vaccines on the incidence of autism?” His friend responded, “There might be a very small percentage of children who are adversely affected.”6
“That’s all!” said Dr. Gordon. “That’s all I’m trying to say!”6
Maher agreed and pointed out how unreasonable it was to think only a “crazy person” would take such a position.6
“What you’re just saying is slower, right?” said Maher. “Maybe less numbers and also take into account individuals… People are different. Family history. Stuff like that. I don’t think this is crazy.”6
Maher acknowledged that the “autism issue” has been studied a “million times, including out of this country…” But he noted that doesn’t mean you can simply ignore the parents who say, “I had a normal child [who] got the vaccine… this story keeps coming up.”6
It seems to me more realistic to me, if we’re just gonna be realistic about it, like it probably happened so rarely but no one wants… you can’t say it happens one in a million times because then somebody will think well it’s, it’s, now I could be that millionth one and you see, you scare people. So, you can’t say what might be the more realistic opinion.6
Dr. Gordon responded:
Regarding a lot of conditions and diseases there’s a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger. The National Institute of Health used to have a poster that you could buy it said, “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” And they were talking about diabetes, they were talking about arthritis and a lot of other conditions. Maybe that’s true about autism but again I talk much more quietly because I have no proof.6
“[My whole point with this is maybe, is that we just don’t know so much,” Maher said. “This whole situation to me is how you look at it as a patient. As a patient I’ve caught doctors not knowing what they should know. Some doctors keep up with what’s happening lately and some stop at medical school I’m told. Have you met doctors who are idiots?”6
If anything stood out in Maher’s interview with Dr. Gordon, it was Maher’s annoyance with the idea that many medical doctors seem to think they know it all and, thus, should not be questioned by their patients, especially about vaccines. Maher went on to emphasize how often doctors, medical studies and mainstream medicine, in general, have been wrong on so many issues. He asked:
But, but, here’s the thing… they’ve been wrong about so much. I object to when doctors, the people in the white coats, are like “Don’t ask any questions about this… when have we ever been wrong?”6
The conversation that Jay Gordon and Bill Maher had about vaccination reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago citing “medical error” as the third leading cause of death in the United States.7
Maher correctly observed that we are at the “beginning of understanding how the human body works.” He said that he thought vaccines to be a “great tool in the medical kit” but that that should be viewed as the “beginning of the debate,” not the end.6
“I don’t understand what they can’t get about that,” Maher said. “The big… yes… they work. So do antibiotics work, statins work, chemotherapy works. I’m concerned with what happens down the road.”6
The negative consequences, the side effects of vaccines is that what Maher was hinting at, and Dr. Gordon agreed. “Nothing is free. Nothing that I do right is free,” Dr. Gordon said, adding:
I feel like I should give you a little bit of a discussion before I recommend tylenol because of the impact on the liver. A discussion about ibuprofen before about the impact on the kidneys. And when someone gets antibiotics from me I talked to them about, you know, there could be a yeast infection you could get diarrhea and the rash–sorry about the diarrhea and the rash. But with vaccines, well, the discussion is closed.6
“That’s what I’m saying,” Maher said.6
Indeed, why should the discussion about vaccines be closed? Why do pediatricians like Dr. Shapiro feel they have the right to shut down the conversation about vaccination and health and denigrate other experienced and well educated pediatricians like Dr. Gordon, who believe that discussing potential vaccine side effects and what can be done to prevent them is reasonable, healthy and needed?
1 Shapiro N. Bill Maher Supports Vaccine-Autism Connection. Forbes Nov. 3, 2019.
2 Boboltz S. Bill Maher Says Vaccine-Autism Link Is Not ‘Crazy’: ‘We Don’t Know S**t’. HuffPost Nov. 2, 2019.
3 McDonald L. Bill Maher AGREES with Anti-Vaxxer doctor on his show and says it’s ‘realistic’ to believe debunked theory that childhood vaccines cause autism. Daily Mail Nov. 3, 2019.
4 Tran L. Firehosing: the systemic strategy that anti-vaxxers are using to spread misinformation. The Guardian Nov. 7, 2019.
5 Tenbarge K. Bill Maher agreed with a controversial doctor, repeating a debunked theory that it was ‘realistic’ that vaccines have caused autism in children. Insider Nov. 2, 2019.
6 Vaccine Discussion—Dr. Jay Gordon and Bill Maher. Children’s Health Defense Nov. 5, 2019.
7 Cáceres M. Study: Medical Error is the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. The Vaccine Reaction May 6, 2016.