The Scientific Activist

Via the ABC News blog Political Punch comes news that senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain has taken a strong stance on the discredited link between vaccination and autism… a stance contrary to scientific consensus. Here’s what Jake Tapper wrote:

At a town hall meeting Friday in Texas, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared that “there’s strong evidence” that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was once in many childhood vaccines, is responsible for the increased diagnoses of autism in the U.S. — a position in stark contrast with the view of the medical establishment.

McCain was responding to a question from the mother of a boy with autism, who asked about a recent story that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program had issued a judgment in favor of an unnamed child whose family claimed regressive encephalopathy and symptoms of autism were caused by thimerosal.

“We’ve been waiting for years for kind of a responsible answer to this question, and are hoping that you can help us out there,” the woman said.

McCain said, per ABC News’ Bret Hovell, that “It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

The established medical community is not as divided as McCain made it sound, however. Overwhelmingly the “credible scientists,” at least as the government and the medical establishment so ordain them, side against McCain’s view.

Moreover, those scientists and organizations fear that powerful people lending credence to the thimerosal theory could dissuade parents from getting their children immunized — which in their view would lead to a very real health crisis.

Over at Respectful Insolence, Orac has already taken this one on (and has blogged quite a bit about this topic in general before). In short, based largely on circumstantial evidence, the idea emerged in the 90s that mercury-containing preservatives (particularly thimerosal) found in vaccines were responsible for the increased number of cases of autism reported in recent years. However, it cannot be stressed enough that this link has been thoroughly discredited, and McCain’s view on the subject is not one held by the scientific community.

Now, I don’t expect a president–much less a presidential candidate–to be well-versed on all scientific topics. But, what’s striking about this is just how definitively McCain has stated his position on this issue, especially compared to some of his past waffling. This is the same man who last year couldn’t say whether condoms help prevent the spread of HIV! Coupled with McCain’s past support of teaching intelligent design in schools, a not-so-rosy picture emerges regarding McCain and science.

Orac succinctly explains why this latest revelation is particularly disturbing:

This is worse, though, than pandering to creationists. Presidents don’t have much power to determine how evolution is taught at the local school lever, but he does have enormous power over the public health apparatus of the nation in the form of the CDC, FDA, and NIH. Encouraging antivaccinationists can lead to a public health disaster in the form of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Vaccines are effective. Period. And, universal vaccination forms one of the fundamental pillars of modern medicine. Although the anti-vaccination movement is very marginal, it becomes truly dangerous if it is able to convince significant numbers of parents to prevent their children from being vaccinated against otherwise preventable diseases. By lending his own credibility to this pseudoscientific nonsense, McCain is committing a scientific sin bordering on unforgivable.

In this case, I’m inclined to believe that McCain has just been subject to poor scientific advice. However, if that is the case, he needs to find new scientific advisors pronto… at least if he wants to maintain any shred of credibility within the scientific community.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    March 3, 2008

    McBush is clueless. All that time in a Vietnamese prison cell turned his brain to mush. Or maybe it was the vaccine that the Navy injected him with.

    The take-home message: McBush = Huckabee without the squirrel.

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    March 3, 2008

    McCain is of course wrong.

    What is also worth noting is that neither Clinton nor Obama will give a straight answer when asked about the vaccine-autism link.

    http://www.ageofautism.com/2008/03/obama-and-clint.html

    Hillary Clinton in fact said

    We don’t know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism – but we should find out.

    That would be the equivalent of ‘evolution is scientifically controversial’, no?

  3. #3 DrBadger
    March 3, 2008

    I don’t see what he has to gain by this. Is he just stating things against scientific evidence because he’s so used to it? Or does he really want the mothers-of-autistic-kids-who-are-currently-suing-vaccine-compnaies vote?

  4. #4 Idlethought
    March 4, 2008

    From Town Hall to Village Idiot.

  5. #5 Martin Robbins
    March 4, 2008

    While I don’t like him, I think picking on McCain over this is unfair when Obama and Clinton are at least as bad, if not arguably worse – http://layscience.net/?q=node/55

  6. #6 Nick Anthis
    March 4, 2008

    Martin,

    You certainly raise a good point, and I’m not happy at all with Obama’s and Clinton’s statements on this issue. Their statements sound for the most part like vague political wavering–which isn’t very impressive, but isn’t particularly dangerous. What’s worrying (and so striking) about McCain’s statement was how firm it was. Neither Obama or Clinton argued that mercury in vaccines was a likely cause of autism.

    As pointed out in your link, Obama goes so far as to say “I support the removal of thimerosal from all vaccines and work to ensure that Americans have access to vaccines that are mercury free.” Clinton says something similar. To be fair, under the precautionary principle, thimerosal has been virtually completely phased out of vaccines in general, and has been removed from all regular childhood vaccines. Therefore, I’m not sure what sort of an effect this proposed Obama/Clinton policy would have.

    In the end, I don’t agree with their statements (and I’m disappointed in both Obama and Clinton), but, unlike McCain, they haven’t directly made pseudoscientific statements on this subject. Regardless, they’ve made me a little more skeptical of them, so my radar is definitely up to catch anything else anti-scientific coming from them.

  7. #7 isles
    March 5, 2008

    It’s easy for McCain to stand up at a podium today and validate some angry mercury mom. What will he say to the mom a year from now who loses her infant to pertussis thanks to an outbreak fueled by parents who decided not to vaccinate their kids thanks to remarks like his?

  8. #8 Rich LaRocco
    April 1, 2008

    This isn’t the first time McCain has taken a position in support of a theory that has not been proved scientifically. I’m speaking of man-caused global warming. Recently I completed an analysis of the Nenana Ice Classic and concluded that the median date for iceout of the Nenana River over the past 91 years is the same date for iceout in the first 45 years of record keeping. Yet some “scientists” will use the records of just the past five or six years and make insupportable conclusions, ignoring the overall data and failing to point out or notice that there were previous short-term cold and warm cycles. Science should not be subject to political considerations but should be based on a dispassionate analysis of data. Current scientists should not fail to consider the historical and even prehistorical records of cooling and warming periods as recorded in tree rings, fossil records, human record keeping, etc.

  9. #9 mcitp study guide
    February 2, 2010

    I ALSO DONT AGREE WITH CLINTON AND OBAMA STATMENTS AS THEY ARE POICTICIANS AND AND THEY CAN JUST DO POLITICS AND DONT HAVE ANY IDIA ABOUT SCIENTIFIC REAL KNOWLEDGE.

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