With the news that in addition to John McCain both Clinton and Obama have now pandered to anti-vaccine denialism I think it’s time to reiterate there isn’t a political party in this country that has a truly sound grasp on sound science. And in this instance it is clear that both sides are more than happy to pander to the denialists.
The fact is that there is no link between vaccines and autism. As time has gone on the denialists move the goalposts further and further back as the evidence for a link becomes increasingly unlikely. First it was thimerosal, and now 6 years after its removal from childhood vaccines we continue to see an increase in autism diagnoses. And what about that epidemic? It’s not really an epidemic.
This is one of the problems of medicine that occurs time and again with denialists. As our diagnostic criteria change, as our tests become more sensitive, as our screening becomes more rigorous, the appearance of many diseases and disorders tends to increase. Cranks routinely latch onto this as evidence we’re getting sicker, or are being poisoned by fluoride, or vaccines, or alien lizards running Monsanto, but the fact is when these public health interventions are rigorously studied, the link simply is not there. Autism is no exception. As the diagnostic criteria were widened, the stigma of diagnosis decreased (the damn Freudians decided to blame it on bad mothers so it wasn’t exactly a diagnosis that was sought out), and more social services and money were addressed to the disorder the population of children diagnosed with the disorder has widened. All attempts to link the autism with vaccines scientifically have failed, and the methods used by the anti-vaccine crowd to spread this myth are denialist to the last drop. They allege outrageous conspiracies implicating everyone from the CDC to the FDA to the average family doc. They cherry pick the scientific literature for every tiny little scrap they can twist to fit their position and ignore the rigorous international studies demonstrating no link. They put their faith in fake experts like the Geiers and crank journalists like David Kirby. They are the kings of moving the goalposts as exemplified in their unwillingness to admit that thimerosal had nothing to do with autism or their recent pathetic attempt to link mitochondrial disorders to autism in light of the Hannah Poling case. Logical fallacies are their bread and butter.
Vaccines are arguably the most effective life saver that evidence-based medicine has ever developed. Fear of vaccines in parents is natural. Utilizing a technology that puts your child at risk, even the astronomically small risk associated with vaccination, to prevent an illness they may never get interferes with the basic primal instincts of parents to protect their children from any harm. That and shots are scary. They make kids scared and upset.
Rational people realize that the benefits outweigh the risks, that the ride to the doctor is probably more risky than the jab, and vaccination is the responsible decision for a parent to make. And while I sympathize with the parents of autistic children who think vaccines are to blame the science is simply not on their side. The anti-vaccine cranks exploit this completely understandable but irrational fear in normal parents of harming their children, and in doing so are actively harming public health. The science-based medicine denialists then typically offer any number of unproven crank cures with which, for a price, you can experiment on your children. Testimonials abound, scientific evidence of their efficacy or a physiologic basis for the intervention is nowhere to be seen.
I am incredibly disappointed with both candidates for failing so thoroughly to stand up for science in this instance. I think it’s an excellent example of why ScienceDebate2008 is such an important objective. Science is not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican. And if we are interested in the voice of science wielding influence on public policy we have to realize that we have to act as an independent voice of reason. Citizens who think science is important and should inform public policy must become their own constituency. Having a presidential debate on science will make it clear that there is a large body of people in this country that value science and what it offers to society, and we demand to be listened to by both political parties.