Wrong!… and Socially Irresponsible

Last Friday night, the comedian and social critic Bill Maher stated that vaccinations for the swine flu did no good. In a discussion with heart surgeon and former Senator Bill Frist, Maher went on to say that immunizations aren’t that helpful for any diseases and then proceeded to claim that because the flu virus mutates so quickly, immunizations do no good. Maher ignored both Frist’s statistical proofs and his personal experiences as a doctor, dismissing the statistics out of hand and the experience as “anecdotal.” Not only that, but he apparently dispatched a twitter message to thousands suggesting that anyone who got a swine flu vaccination was an idiot. Since I’ve just recently discussed the ignorance of the anti-vaccine advocates, I won’t deal in detail with the medical side here, but with an equally troubling aspect of Maher’s totally false assertions.

Frankly, I’d always thought Maher was more intelligent than that, but clearly he’s out of his depth when talking about diseases. Yes, the flu virus does mutate, but the mutations in the course of a year don’t render the vaccination ineffective, and in fact, one of the reasons why young people, those under 30, are at so much greater risk than older adults is because those who are older have been exposed to flu strains and vaccines with similarity to the H1N1 strain, and those past exposures have given them greater resistance, and in some cases, immunity.

But what concerns me most about Maher’s ignorance and arrogance — and he was arrogant and patronizing in the interchange — was what it reveals about too many of the current generation of commentators and comedians. If I claim something untrue and libelous about someone, particularly in print, I could face a lawsuit and be responsible for damages. If Maher, or any other popular media figure, purveys blatantly wrong information that could lead to someone dying because they decided not to be vaccinated, there’s no effective way to prove that the individual refused vaccination solely because of Maher’s comments, even though those comments create and reinforce an unfounded belief among some segments of the population that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous. In effect, Maher and others who purvey falsely dangerous information get a free pass.

The First Amendment effectively guarantees the freedom of the press [and media] to allow writers and talking heads to spout any nonsense they want, but the problem with this is that in our media-driven culture, all too many people take as gospel what their favorite “talking head” says. That’s one reason why so many Americans believe things that aren’t true and that may be harmful, or in this case, deadly to them. Yet trying to legislate a fix here is far worse than the problem, because, unlike the case for vaccines, many public issues aren’t nearly so clear-cut as to what is “the truth,” and all too often government itself has a vested interest in misrepresentation.

Thus, public figures, whether they like it or not or whether they accept it, do in fact have a social responsibility not to set forth total falsehoods as truth. The right to freedom of speech may allow a freedom from moral and ethical standards of conduct, as too many public figures seem to demonstrate at least upon occasion, but those freedoms do not make the purveying of falsehoods ethically correct. And when a public figure forthrightly advocates a course of conduct that creates a public hazard or danger, the rest of us have a responsibility to bring such to light those falsehoods and misstatements.

So I’ll put it as clearly as I can. Maher’s words were not only flat-out wrong; they were blatantly socially irresponsible… and, with thousands of lives at stake, that is inexcusable.

4 thoughts on “Wrong!… and Socially Irresponsible”

  1. mcjoe says:

    You are spot on with this one. Too many people take what the cult of personality says as gospel.

    I took your advice about spreading the word… and used twitter!

    Not to beat a dead horse, but this is yet another example of how social media can be used for good (granted the converse is true as well, but that shouldn't stop us from presenting our viewpoint).

  2. Nate says:

    I think one of the most pointed criticism of social media (and electronic media in general) is that the speed at which it operates leave no time for critical reflection. When an issue is only relevant for a week at most, then anything you have to say had better be said within that week or nobody will be listening. And for most important issues, a few days is not enough time for anything other than reflex opinion.

    I usually like Bill Maher, but he was absolutely wrong on this one.

  3. jim says:

    It is disturbing when people take the unfounded opinions of people they know on medical issues and run with them. I know people like to spout off on many topics they know little about ( myself included, hee hee) but DR T is probably right when he feels it happens a lot on ghealth issues. Why? I think that while many people don't have much of an opinion on relative strengths of metals and harass engineers about it, everybody, to some degree or other, is engaged about health issues and put some thought and a lot of concern into it.

    But I think I know what Mr Modesitt is getting at when he says "trying to legislate a fix here is far worse than the problem". I enjoyed his novel Flash, where one of the things the protagonist had to deal with was that in this future setting libel legislation was so wrong that any type of media had to have definitive proof before they could say anything about any one, any politician or any corporate entity. Sounds good, but it meant unsrcupulous individuals got a free ride unless they could be unequivocally shown to be doing something illegal.

  4. bill says:

    I agree with you on the irresponsibility of Bill Maher. Fact has never entered in many of his statements

    Bill C.

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