Social Media, Rhetoric, and Science – Antivaxxers

In a recent news conference, Donald Trump (née Drumpf) proclaimed that that he had won the presidency by the largest electoral college margin since Ronald Reagan. When an earnest (but obviously “dishonest”) reporter challenged him and pointed out that William Jefferson Clinton and Barack Obama had larger majorities in the electoral college, Trump, the fabulist-in-chief, did not lose a beat. Like the old Grinch, Trump was “so smart and so slick, he thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!”

From his whopper, Trump retreated to the assertion that he was talking only about Republican presidents. But the earnest young reporter was relentless and pressed the challenge. And when pressed, Trump lamely offered1:

I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.”

Oh my. As John Adams, observed, before he became President:2

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

For a President who regularly embraces alternative facts, who has such a tenuous relationship with reality, and who says whatever was last whispered in his ear, we would expect science to be challenging. Some observers might note that Trump’s behavior mirrors how some lawyers treat scientific evidence and issues in litigation. Rhetoric has its place in science, but scientific disputes cannot be advanced simply because someone gave you “some information.” And yet, people try all the time.

If you search out the The World Mercury Project, you will be treated to a video of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who had made a career for the lawsuit industry of pursuing dubious scientific claims.3

The video, also available on YouTube, is vintage Kennedy, self-aggrandizing, and holding forth with accusations against pharmaceutical companies and vaccine manufacturers of “child abuse,” and “even worse.” The epistemic arrogance continues with assertions that Kennedy knows how to fight them, the greedy, murderous bullies.

The Trump presidency, with its alternative facts and its bullying, has emboldened conspiracy theorists of all stripes.

Last week, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., along with Robert De Niro, convened a news conference on Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce their latest stunt, a $100,000 cash reward to the first person who comes forward with a “peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that the mercury in vaccines is safe.” National Press Club Conference (Feb. 15, 2017) [Expurgated Version].

A stunt, of course, because no one study would “demonstrate” safety, although the mass of epidemiologic evidence does. Furthermore, even in face of the overwhelming evidence that thimerosal in vaccines is not associated with autism, we could always hypothesize that there is one child who has some unique susceptibility.

The anti-vaxxers are quick to jump on the individual susceptibility argument. At their (fake) news conference, Kennedy and De Nira exhumed Bernadine Healy, who died in 2011, for a replay of a 2008 interview, in which Healy speculated that the then available science had not ruled out the existence of susceptible subgroups of children, who might be at risk from some one or multiple vaccines. Healy is best known as the first woman physician to serve as Director of the National Institutes of Health, from 1991 to 1993. For her acknowledgement that there might be vulnerable subgroups, and that this issue of idiosyncratic reaction should be studied, Healy was named 2008 “Person of the Year” by the anti-vaccine group, the Age of Autism.

Not surprisingly, anti-vaxxers Kennedy and De Niro, and their followers, missed the obvious. Healy’s suggestion that there might be a vulnerable subgroup of children is not evidence that thimerosal or any vaccine or vaccine regimen is unsafe.

Also not surprisingly, President Trump, with his affection for alternative facts and speculative conspiracy theories, is in the same epistemic muddle as Kennedy and De Niro. While still a candidate, Trump met with Andrew Wakefield and other dubious characters from the anti-vaxxer movement. With his propensity to repeat whatever was last said to him, Trump tweets about “doctor-inflicted autism,” and other claims.

And to make matters worse, toady American Republican party cannot seem to distance themselves from whatever nonsense Alt-President Trump dishes out. Pratik Chougule, an executive editor at The American Conservative recently wrote a disturbingly uncritical essay in support of Trump’s twittering approach to scientific policy. Pratik Chougule, “Why the Kennedy-De Niro Vaccine Challenge MattersA presidential commission led by Robert Kennedy Jr. could raise uncomfortable questions about the incentives driving vaccination recommendations,The American Conservative (Feb. 15, 2017) (noting that Trump has said that he couldn’t care less’ about the shills of conventional medical wisdom, the pharmaceutical companies, and their ‘fudged up reports’. In typical fashion, he declares that ‘the doctors lied’ and that he is ‘being proven right about massive vaccinations’.”)

Sad. Fake news. Fake science. Where is Daubert when you need it?


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