Probably one of the most harmful fallacies that one can engage in is the argument from authority. It's probably one of the biggest issues that I have with the religious, as many of them will cite the words of a holy book or a holy man as being all the evidence that they need - even when it contradicts the evidence that's right in front of their faces. Of course, many believers will accuse us nonbelievers of doing the same thing, but I think that generally speaking, they're wrong.
For instance, creationists like Kirk Cameron like to constantly attack Darwin's Origin of Species as though it's held up as some sort of infallible book on the part of those who accept Darwinian evolution. Well, it's not. From what I understand, there's a lot in there that Darwin got wrong (while still getting the big ideas right). You'll never hear a Christian say, "Well, Jesus got the big ideas right, but he was wrong about a few things."
Fundamentalists like to point to guys like Richard Dawkins as though he's some sort of cult leader of us atheists. Personally, I like Dawkins quite a bit. I've read one of his books, and I'm in the middle of his latest. I like the way he puts things, and I admire his dedication to intellectual honesty. However, if he were to start saying tomorrow that aliens built the pyramids, I'd dismiss him as a crackpot. I wouldn't believe it just because he's saying it. I suppose I would if he could produce some actual evidence for it. (And don't go telling me that there already is evidence for aliens building the pyramids.)
So, what do I do now that somebody whom I normally like is starting to spread some nonsense? Well, I'm going to call him out on it. (Of course, he'll likely never read this, but I'm going to add myself as one more voice of opposition on this issue.) In this case, I'm talking about Bill Maher. I think that he's a pretty funny guy, and I enjoyed his movie Religulous. Sure, sometimes he's pretty arrogant, and there are a few times when he's gone over the line (like when he made the joke about our soldiers raping women overseas). I like him because it's nice to have somebody out in the mainstream speaking on behalf of the skeptics out there.
So why does he have to get on board with this anti-vaccination bandwagon? From what I've seen, his arguments are all pretty weak. First of all, he uses the term "Western medicine". Look, there's stuff that works and stuff that doesn't work. The stuff that works is called "medicine" and it doesn't matter if a dude in America or a dude in China discovers it - they both use the scientific method to figure out how to make it.
He also uses the "I don't trust the government" line about vaccines. I guess this is one of those moments that separates the skeptics from the cynics. I'm a skeptic, and I don't necessarily trust the government either. However, I don't think that it's in the government's best interest to let a disease spread throughout the country. Even if there is some elite cabal who would save a vaccine for themselves and nobody else, by the time it had spread through the entire population, it would have evolved to the point where their vaccine might not even work any more. Plus, read some history. How many people are dying of polio in this country nowadays? Vaccines save lives, and that's a fact.
Is the field of scientific medicine perfect? Of course not, and it makes no claims to be infallible. However, spreading ignorance the way Maher is doing is a disservice to his fans and humanity in general. I hope that he wakes up and gets on the right side about all this.
If you want to read more from folks who put this argument much better than I do, read the following:
Michael Shermer's Open Letter to Bill Maher
PZ Myers - Bill Maher still doesn't get it.
PZ Myers - Another thing that annoyed me...
This "Stan Lee Challenge" is a tribute to the Captain America story in Tales of Suspense #71: "...When You Lie Down with Dogs!"