Republicans aren’t anti-vaccine. (Yet)

Last night’s G.O.P debate was notable for many reasons, but it was a particular low point for anyone concerned about public science literacy.  It’s becoming increasingly evident that the G.O.P. candidates are being duped by a false narrative of political polarization on the issue of vaccine safety.  And that is alarming.

This  is a better illustration of what vaccination is really about. Courtesy of Microsoft stock images, so it's even free!
What vaccination is really about. Courtesy of Microsoft stock images.

The CNN moderator for the debate last night asked Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, to respond to Donald Trump’s often repeated assertion of a link between vaccines and autism. That link is a lie, but neither Dr. Carson nor Dr. Rand Paul (an ophthalmologist) called it out as such. Dr. Carson vaguely (but correctly) stated “There has — there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism,” and “Vaccines are very important,” but then he qualified this by saying “Certain ones. The ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, there are a multitude of vaccines which probably don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases,” and “You know, a lot of this is — is — is pushed by big government.” Dr. Paul didn’t do much better, saying “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom.”

(Source for transcribed quotes)

Let’s be perfectly clear: None of the objections Trump raised to vaccines have the slightest basis in biology, medicine, or reality. None. Not one. Nor does the “too many too soon” argument that Dr. Carson floated. As Tara Haelle put it:

“The problem is, our country doesn’t make or recommend vaccines that aren’t important, that don’t prevent death. So, I have a question for Dr. Carson. Below are the vaccines recommended through age 18. I’d like to know which one of these we should “use discretion” with. Which ones are not important enough to administer?”

You can check out the list and the rest of her article here.

Trump will be Trump, but we deserve more from the two physicians in this race. To be honest, I believe that both of them understand and accept the science on vaccines, but they’re pandering to what they believe Republican voters want to hear. But study after study has shown that vaccines are not a partisan issue–the same proportions of conservatives and liberals both accept that they are safe, sound, and necessary to combat infectious disease. Carson and Paul are completely out of touch with conservatives on this issue, and unfortunately their assumption about what their base wants to hear on this issue may itself change those numbers. Colin McRoberts discussed the potential consequences of turning this into a partisan issue a few months ago:

“Right now, most people support vaccination and reject anti-vaccine talking points. (I know that can seem implausible, given how visible those hoary anti-science stories are online. But vaccination rates don’t lie—the vast majority of parents reject anti-vax scaremongering.) If we start drawing party lines on top of the vaccine debate, people will start to use their party affiliation to define their position on vaccines. They won’t realize they’re doing it. They’ll honestly think they’re making decisions about vaccines based on the facts. But they’ll be judging those facts based on the community they belong to, the way we all do. So we can’t let those communities be defined as anti-vax communities!”

Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, nicely articulated the dangers of having presidential candidates giving legitimacy to dangerously unscientific positions:

“A lot of what Trump says—diplomacy by yelling, for example—would be dangerous if put into practice. But most of it, assuming he doesn’t actually get elected, won’t be put into practice. The refusal to inoculate children, though, is something that his admirers can try at home. No other candidate was willing to anger the ideologues by standing up for something as suspicious as science.”

We have seen the consequences of not vaccinating children earlier this year. Do we really want more outbreaks of preventable disease to threaten our communities?  The use of vaccines to protect the health of our children is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue. It’s simply what the best science available overwhelmingly supports. I urge conservatives in the Republican party to make this point to your representatives. Only the base can hold the leadership to account, and this is one issue where we all need to take a united stand.


Good science communication means never calling them “retard” – even if you’re Nassim Taleb

Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.

Anger Controls Him by Jessica Flavin

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Please don’t politicize vaccine refusal

Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.

The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)

Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”

Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.

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The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.

This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier pieceThe Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate.  Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.

I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?

"Alu finds a friend"

Not a friendly conversation.

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We were wrong about Bill Nye

Nye and Ham

Many of us in the scientific community have a longstanding policy not to debate with creationists, in part because doing so gives an unwarranted credibility to their disingenuous arguments. So when Bill Nye chose to debate Ken Ham in the Creation Museum on whether creationism was a viable explanation for life, there was a lot of wincing and predictions that Nye would unintentionally do damage to public perception of evolution. I was also skeptical that this debate would do any good. But I think that most of us scientists had overlooked the fact that Nye is an experienced entertainer as well as science educator–a combination of traits that most of us don’t possess, and one perfect for this venue. Nye did an astounding job at calmly explaining the overwhelming evidence for why creationism (with special attention to Noah’s ark and the flood) simply couldn’t explain the origins and diversity of life on earth. Ham, on the other hand, seemed really flustered and didn’t even make an attempt (beyond trotting out token creation scientists in an attempt to give creationism some legitimacy) to address the questions at hand with evidence. He was completely out of his league, and it showed.

Ken Ham's explanation of evolution
Screenshot of one of Ken Ham’s slides explaining what a non-Young Earth Creationist Christian must believe about God’s plan.

One of the most telling parts of the debate was the question that was asked of both men: “What, if anything, would convince you to change your mind?”

Ham’s answer: “Nothing.”
Nye’s answer: “Evidence.”

I really encourage you to watch the entire debate here, but if you’re not up for three hours of viewing (and I don’t blame you), you can see shorter excerpts and an interview with Nye here.

And here are some other reactions to the debate:

Nye was right to do this debate. Not only did he win with excellent presentation and overwhelming evidence, he managed to convey to viewers the beauty and humility of the scientific process. Nye didn’t have any problem saying to some questions: “I don’t know–but I can’t wait to find out!!!”: the motivation that drives every single scientist when he or she goes to work in the morning. If nothing else but this gets conveyed to the people who watched the debate, I’d still be pretty happy. I don’t know if the people in the Creation auditorium had ever heard the evidence he presented before. (They seem to be proud of their lack of understanding of evolution). I doubt he changed any of their minds, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the people watching the stream went to bed last night with a slightly better understanding of the scientific process. I hope they did.