The Science Trap

The major media, who are overwhelmingly supporters of the Democratic Party, believe that Republicans, by and large, are not as smart as Democrats. Republicans are more religious (hence less rational), and have resisted what the Democrats, the left, and the media believe is settled science on a most important subject: that the Earth is on its way to overheating, with catastrophic consequences to follow, due to high carbon dioxide emissions.

It matters not, of course, that the belief in “settled science," new data be damned (virtually no temperature change in close to 20 years), has made the climate change camp appear in many ways to be behaving like an intolerant religious group themselves. How dare conservatives mock the God of global warming? In particular, the left likes to believe that science in general is a major dividing point between the two political parties.

The 2016 Republican nominating contest is shaping up to be the most wide open in decades.  There are many potential candidates, and a large number of them are new to a national election campaign. Typically, the media can aim their fire every four years at a particular Republican or two who appear to have a good shot at becoming the eventual nominee of the party, and mount a full-scale dredging operating to find stuff to throw at them. The selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 demonstrated the power of the media when they aim their fire at a single candidate in a concentrated time frame. This year, because of the larger number of potential candidates competing for the nomination, the negative revelations about a particular candidate have more difficulty becoming big media stories that are widely picked up.

Last week, the Boston Globe broke away from "Deflate-gate" with a feature story suggesting that Jeb Bush may have been a prankster (a bully even!) while attending high school at Phillips Academy in Andover about 45 years back.

So far, Jeb has not withdrawn from the race.

This week, a few Republicans -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul -- stepped into the limelight with throwaway lines to add to a growing national debate about vaccinating young children. Of course, what they said -- promoting parental choice (individual freedom) and mentioning potential risks of vaccines -- are not unreasonable things to say as part of a general discussion about vaccines, so long as they do not detract from communicating a much more important message. Vaccinations have been extremely helpful in eliminating outbreaks of childhood diseases, avoiding vaccinations can damage herd immunity and create a public health problem, and the campaign against vaccinations -- in particular the vaccine/autism link -- has been totally debunked. There is, in other words, virtually no science on the side of the anti-vaccine camp.

Of course no drug is 100% safe, and any time you see a TV ad for a prescription drug, about 90% of the commercial describes awful things that could occur from taking it, though these events are usually extremely rare. That fact -- the rarity of the adverse events -- is why the drugs were able to gain approval from the FDA and are being marketed. The benefit outweighed the risk. In the vaccine debate, the benefit/risk ratio for vaccinating is extremely high.

The anti-vaccine camp has had many champions through the years, and prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities have been among the leading vaccine skeptics. In the 2008 Democratic nominating contest, then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offered comments not too different from what Rand Paul and Chris Christie stated this week.

Perhaps most damaging in getting the anti-vaccine campaign a national audience has been Oprah Winfrey. Miss Winfrey invited Jenny McCarthy, a leading proponent of the vaccine-autism link, onto her show, and refused in any way to challenge her nonsense:

“You’re mother warriors is what you are,” Oprah said in 2007, praising McCarthy and other moms dedicated to fighting autism. McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with the disorder, and she became convinced that vaccines had something to do with it.

“What number will it take for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have seen autism have been saying for years, which is, ‘We vaccinated our baby and something happened,’” McCarthy said during a fawning, sympathetic portrait on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“Right before [my son’s] MMR shot, I said to the doctor, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something,’ and he swore at me, and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot. And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, I hope he’s right.’ And soon thereafter -- boom -- the soul’s gone from his eyes.”

McCarthy was allowed to spout this, pushback-free, to Oprah’s massive and adoring audience.

Both Christie and Paul walked back their first comments on the potential dangers of vaccinations, and Paul got a vaccination on camera to prove his walkback was sincere. A Daily Beast writer then threw out an expletive at Paul, maybe for forcing him to rewrite his original story.

Seeing an opportunity with some of their potential opponents for the 2016 nomination stumbling, Dr. Ben Carson and Florida Senator Marco Rubio were very pointed in affirming their support for childhood vaccinations, as were Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has a health background himself, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Undoubtedly aware of their own more equivocal 2008 comments, both President Obama and Hillary Clinton issued their own statements yesterday, sounding like reformed pro-vaccinators.

Cruz was also quick to decry the vaccine controversy as “largely silliness stirred up by the media." Cruz pointed out that vaccination policy has been a state policy issue, not a federal one, and most states require childhood vaccinations unless there is a religious objection. A few states, such as California, naturally enough, have added a philosophical objection, and not surprisingly their non-compliance rate has soared, with an increase in outbreaks of measles and whooping cough among other infectious diseases once almost totally disappeared. Some of the centers of low vaccination rates are wealthy left-leaning cities such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Santa Barbara. Colorado, a state with a large number of both prosperous liberals and libertarians, has the lowest vaccination rate in the country at 81%.

Overall, as a fivethirtyeight.com survey reveals, vaccination is one of the few public policy issues on which the support level for a pro-vaccination policy is consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, all of whom agree with the science.

The vaccine story is unlikely to have legs. What it has demonstrated is that every time a Republican candidate responds to a question on a public policy issue, he or she can expect to have that answer scrutinized. There are no free passes for some issues, and it simply makes sense to think before answering. Rand Paul has become accustomed to positioning himself in opposition to the Republican consensus on a large number of issues, attempting to broaden his base of support among other voters who do not normally look at or listen to Republicans. It is not surprising that his first instinct was to push a libertarian approach. Christie, on the other hand, may not have so clear a political framework, but also seems to be trying at times to offer an alternative to the mainstream conservative views in his party. That is all fine and good. But sometimes, the mainstream views got to be mainstream because there is not a lot of real controversy about them. If you take your stand with Jenny McCarthy, you can expect to be ridiculed.