Apr 03 2012

Donald Trump – Anti-Vaccine Crank

From time to time celebrities publicly discuss their opinions on scientific topics, and the results are usually not pretty. I have discussed previously the folly of Jenny McCarthy, for example, in using her dubious celebrity to promote anti-vaccine nonsense. Now The Donald has joined the ranks of people who are mostly famous for being famous who feel their celebrity gives them license to pontificate publicly about complex scientific issues. Trump told a Fox News audience that he strongly believes vaccines are causing the increase in autism diagnosis. He based this upon his scientific training, thorough reading of the relevant scientific literature, and consultation with experts – no, I mean based upon his casual observation and naive assumptions. Hey, he has an anecdote.

Here is the core of his rant:

“I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject. You know, I have a theory — and it’s a theory that some people believe in — and that’s the vaccinations. We never had anything like this. This is now an epidemic. It’s way, way up over the past 10 years. It’s way up over the past two years. And, you know, when you take a little baby that weighs like 12 pounds into a doctor’s office and they pump them with many, many simultaneous vaccinations — I’m all for vaccinations, but I think when you add all of these vaccinations together and then two months later the baby is so different then lots of different things have happened. I really — I’ve known cases.”

OK, it’s easy for a lay person to get caught up in a complex scientific question and get overwhelmed by information from one side. If you naively watch Loose Change, for example, without being familiar with the whole 911 conspiracy thing you might be led to believe there is something sinister going on. That’s how propaganda of that sort often works – overwhelm your audience with factoids, distorted and cherry-picked information, and apparent correlations and weave them into an emotionally compelling story. If you listen to just one side of any scientific debate you will probably be convinced that that side has a strong and perhaps even iron-clad case. Only when the other side has an opportunity to make their case do you see how the information you were given was systematically biased in one direction.

Unfortunately, it is part of human psychology that once we attach ourselves to one side of a controversy we tend to stick to our guns. We invest in that side, identify with it, and then defend it at all costs. Humans are generally quite skilled at rationalization (probably because we get so much practice), so it can be hard to dislodge someone from a position they strongly hold. We often refer to this phenomenon as “drinking the Kool-Aid” (named after the Jonestown cult that committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned flavored drink that actually was not Kool-Aid).

Part of the point of science and skepticism is to transcend this basic human psychology by investing in a process, not a conclusion – the process of science. It is better to listen to whatever logic and evidence says is most likely to be true, rather than what we wish to be true or whichever “side” we have already invested in. We also recognize that many scientific topics are very complex, and require a large body of specialized knowledge in order to know and understand the relevant evidence. This is why we look to expert opinion to help us make sense of complex questions, and why a consensus of expert opinion should not be casually tossed aside.

While the tendency to do just that is not unique to celebrities, the fact of their celebrity often makes them feel justified in putting forward their own personal opinion on topics. This is probably especially true of those like Trump who are very successful in one area of their life, in his case finance. What we have in Trump, apparently, is the perfect storm of arrogant ignorance.

Just about everything Trump said was demonstrably wrong. First he assumes that the increase in autism diagnosis is due to a real increase in the prevalence of autism. As I have discussed previously, this is likely not true. Most if not all of the increase is due to the broadening of the definition of autism, diagnostic substitution, increased surveillance and awareness, and an increased willingness to accept the diagnosis.

Donald then buys into the “too many too soon” propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement. He refers to injecting “monster vaccines” into tiny child bodies, and advises the expert medical community to spread out the vaccine more. Trump is probably unaware of the fact that this has already been studied. The evidence available indicates that adhering to the standard vaccine schedule was associated with no negative outcomes, but spreading out the vaccines was associated with a higher risk of developing vaccine-preventable illness. That’s strike two.

Trump caps his rant with an anecdote from someone who works for him, possibly the source of the anti-vaccine propaganda in which he is now so thoroughly steeped. This is the common tale of a child who was allegedly perfectly normal at 2 years old, then got a “monster vaccine”, and then two months later had serious neurological problems. I cannot comment on this specific case, because it is a hearsay anecdote. But when similar cases are investigated it is often found that signs of autism were present long before parents  later report them to have begun. When objective evidence is available, there is no correlation in timing between vaccines and autism onset. It is only later, in the parents memory, that the spurious correlation exists.

No one likes to hear this – that their memories are not accurate, but deal with it. The scientific evidence on memory is quite clear on this point – our memories stink. We fuse and distort memories, we rewrite them every time we recall them. We tend to compress timelines (a process known as telescoping), and we tend to anchor one event to another events. These distortions are also not random – we develop a narrative of what we think happened, and then systematically adjust the details of our memories to match and enhance the narrative. Once a parent thinks that vaccine caused their child’s disorder, they will come to honestly remember the standard tale – my child was perfect, he got a vaccine, and then all the problems began. Objective facts, however, rarely support such clean stories.

Further, even when a temporal correlation with vaccines exists, this correlation does not prove causation. Children receive vaccines throughout the time period when the symptoms of autism become noticeable or prominent to the point that they cannot be ignored.  Anything that develops in young childhood, therefore, will have some correlation to vaccines.

I don’t necessarily blame Trump for being so hopelessly wrong in his “theories.” He is the victim of a well-funded propaganda organization dedicated to blaming vaccines for autism and anything else they can. I do blame him to some extent – he is a person of means and should know enough not to trust what is essentially rumor and opinion. To the credit of one of the reporters of Fox they pointed out that the consensus of scientific opinion is that vaccines do not cause autism, and even mentioned that it was once blamed on mercury, which was removed from vaccines years ago, but the prevalence is still rising. Trump responded to this with a dismissive, “I know” – meaning that he knows scientists disagree with his opinion. He must have a very elevated assessment of his own scientific opinions, therefore, to so casually toss aside the opinion of actual experts.

But here is what I mostly blame Trump for – expressing his ill-conceived opinions on national television knowing that his celebrity will give them undue attention and weight in the public’s eye. I do hold celebrities responsible for using their celebrity to advance their personal opinions on important medical issues. They are not medical experts. They should not be giving out medical advice on national television, without making the effort to vet their opinions with experts. That is irresponsible, even callous. For this reason Trump deserves to be ridiculed for his opinions. He is not just a private citizen who ran afoul of bad information. He is a public figure, and failed to recognize or adhere to the responsibility that comes along with that.

Share

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Donald Trump – Anti-Vaccine Crank”

  1. Artur Krolon 03 Apr 2012 at 11:10 am

    The thing with Trump is that he has a surprisingly strong influence, given that he is, in fact, simply a (extremely high-stakes) gambler, one who tends to gamble with other people’s money and leave them with the losses, if he happens to have bad luck. He had, however, built a very convincing (to the lay-people) facade of “proper” business for his gambling. As such, it is both easy to see how he could fall into such propaganda (he’d already fallen to, among others, MLM propaganda with Kiyosaki), but also how he could consider himself in a position to give suggestions to experts on issues he doesn’t quite understand.

  2. CrookedTimberon 03 Apr 2012 at 11:45 am

    Good grief what an idiot. As of a few years ago Donald Chump was just the weird looking rich guy with casinos and a penchant for horribly gaudy decorations. Now he has been exposed as a birther, an anti-vaccine nutter and who knows what other wacky delusions he harbors.

    So – word around the campfire is that the next DSM manual might tighten the definition for an autism diagnosis after the last couple iterations have broadened the definition. If that happens and the number of diagnoses drops, do you think the anti-vaccination crowd will view it as a real drop? And why couldn’t they see that the exact same thing happened in reverse (at least part of the increase).

  3. DS1000on 03 Apr 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Just as a side note, does anyone know why the rise of autism is so big in the news lately? It’s been on the top of CNN and other news pages for at least a couple of weeks. So far they aren’t doing a terrible job, but still the closest they can bring themselves to the actual truth is saying something along the lines of “the rise is probably partially due to expanded diagnosis”.

  4. SARAon 03 Apr 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I think Donald Trump likes controversy. He’s not an idiot, he’s a manipulative publicity monster. I doubt he cares about the subject, or whether it’s true. He wants people to talk and write about him. So he chooses topics that get people fired up.

    I sometimes wonder if he deliberately chooses topics where it’s so obvious that he is wrong, as a way to mock his followers.

    I don’t think he’s naive. I don’t think he’s stupid. And I don’t think he’s ill informed. I think he’s egotistical publicity monger who is really good at what he does.

  5. Kory Zimneyon 03 Apr 2012 at 4:04 pm

    “I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject. You know, I have a theory — and it’s a theory that some people believe in — and that’s that celebrities publicly discuss their opinions on scientific topics. We never had anything like this. This is now an epidemic. It’s way, way up over the past 10 years. It’s way up over the past two years.” That’s why I think we have had an increase in autism…sorry just a little sarcasm, or maybe it’s actually the cause? ;)

  6. lizditzon 03 Apr 2012 at 4:14 pm

    does anyone know why the rise of autism is so big in the news lately?

    Because CDC announced they were going to release new autism figures last week, and did.

    Reliable coverage:

    David Gorski MD at Science Based Medicine
    Autism prevalence: Now estimated to be one in 88, and the antivaccine movement goes wild

    Orac Knows at Respectful Insolence (do read the comments from knowlegeable folk)
    The antivaccine movement resurrects the zombie that is the “autism epidemic”

    Matt Carey at Autism Science Foundation
    A summary of the CDC autism prevalence report

    Sullivan at LeftBrain/RightBrain

    Autism News Beat
    Autism Speaks and the epidemic of self interest (on the CDC report as interpreted by Autism Speaks)

  7. lizditzon 03 Apr 2012 at 4:15 pm

    DS1000, I have a comment in moderation with facts and links to responses to last Thursday’s announcement of new estimated autism rates.

  8. lizditzon 03 Apr 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Also, yesterday (April 2) was National Autism Awareness Day (in some circles) or better, the start of Autism Acceptance Month (advocated by most autistics)

  9. Oracon 03 Apr 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I don’t necessarily blame Trump for being so hopelessly wrong in his “theories.”

    I do.

    Trump is a beautiful example of crank magnetism. Remember his shameless pandering to the birther movement when he was running for the Republican nomination? At the time I thought that he was probably just shamelessly pandering to the most ridiculous (as in deserving of ridicule) elements of the Tea Party, but seeing his latest antics makes me think that he really believes birtherism, just as he appears to really believe in vaccine-autism conspiracy-mongering. What’s next for The Donald? 9/11 Truth? Moan hoax conspiracies? The possibilities are endless.

  10. Oracon 03 Apr 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I think Donald Trump likes controversy. He’s not an idiot, he’s a manipulative publicity monster. I doubt he cares about the subject, or whether it’s true.

    Actually, in this case I think Trump probably does care about the subject. He’s just completely wrong. He is, after all, buddies with Bob and Katie Wright, founders of Autism Speaks the group Allison Singer left because it wouldn’t abandon funding studies into the vaccine-autism link after all the overwhelming evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism. He’s done fundraisers for them and apparently knows them pretty well.

  11. Woodyon 03 Apr 2012 at 9:02 pm

    “Most if not all of the increase is due to the broadening of the definition of autism, diagnostic substitution, increased surveillance and awareness, and an increased willingness to accept the diagnosis.”

    I think that is an overstatement. Some of latest research on this by Peter Bearman at Columbia University estimates that such factors probably account for just over 50% of the observed increased prevalence. That leaves a lot unexplained. This was reviewed in the November 2011 Nature special issue on autism, which is public access for those interested.

    That said, the vaccine hypothesis is a dead horse. Moving on to more relevant hypotheses isn’t helped by ridiculous statements by Trump.

  12. sonicon 04 Apr 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Excellent summery of the issues.
    I wonder if someone would really think something is true about autism because ‘trump said so.’
    I wonder if someone could say that to me without me laughing out loud.
    Somethings are better left to the imagination… :-)

    Woody-
    Agreed- the prevalence might be increasing– for the sake of argument-even assuming increase in prevalence is true– vaccines not the cause…

  13. BobbyGon 04 Apr 2012 at 5:41 pm

    He has a “theory”? LOL.

    Gotta love the guy.

    http://www.bgladd.com/DonaldDiplomat.jpg

  14. Dirk Steeleon 04 Apr 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Steven, I have noticed how rarely you get involved with the comments or debates that arise from your blogs. Obviously you are a busy man. But probably it is because you only write in order to feed your insatiable ego? Or are there other factors involved?

  15. cwfongon 04 Apr 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Well, he thinks I’m unarguably wrong and you’re unarguably a nutcase.

  16. Dirk Steeleon 05 Apr 2012 at 5:47 am

    @cwfong

    ‘Well, he thinks I’m unarguably wrong and you’re unarguably a nutcase.’

    Well that is not what my psychiatrist says.

  17. Watcheron 05 Apr 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Your psychiatrist says CW isn’t wrong?

  18. rootsmusicon 06 Apr 2012 at 8:42 am

    Speaking from my vast experience as a personal anecdote, and based on all of the literature of the science (of which I tried to read some), psuedoscience (of which I read some and heard lots) and anything I ever heard around a church about raising babies (I’ve raised a few), and child development, it is my esteemed opinion that a sweet little 12 pound baby should be expected to change quite a bit over the next two months. And the two months after that and the two months after that. My 16 year had a vaccination a couple of years ago and now she’s driving. She didn’t used to do that.

    “when you add all of these vaccinations together and then two months later the baby is so different then lots of different things have happened.”

    Add up vaccinations
    See baby develop
    Conclude lots of different things have happened

    Duuhhh

    Is that a triple non sequitor?

    “I really — I’ve known cases.”

    Declare oneself an authority and argue from it.

  19. thunderbirdon 06 Apr 2012 at 10:01 am

    >>‘Well, he thinks I’m unarguably wrong and you’re unarguably a nutcase.’

    > Well that is not what my psychiatrist says.

    I imagine your psychiatrist says “my boat payment is due so, I better not lose another patient.” To himself, of course.

    I’m trying to decide whether your original comment was not-too-subtle sarcasm or a joke. It doesn’t matter, because Poe’s Law ensures the latter will be mistaken for the former, so I’ll comment on that basis. I think he doesn’t get involved because he’s said what he wants to and is willing to let commenters comment. Also I imagine he doesn’t want to bully people from his position of editorial power.

    Plus, he probably thinks you’re trolling.

  20. Dirk Steeleon 06 Apr 2012 at 4:03 pm

    ‘I’m trying to decide whether your original comment was not-too-subtle sarcasm or a joke.’

    It was said with tongue firmly in cheek. Also posted on the wrong thread (so it may have made a lot less sense). My stupidity is currently unbounded!

  21. Dirk Steeleon 06 Apr 2012 at 8:54 pm

    But I think my point is relevant. Why use a blog when one does not want to engage in the subsequent debate? Why not head straight to a Fox news interview? One can rely on ‘devoted followers’ of course to uphostler one’s beliefs, but Steven writes a blog. Why? Oh wow! Trump disses vaccines. Shock horror! Creationism may be taught in schools! How terrible! We do not have these issues in Europe at all!! It is all so easy for him. So if Steven wants to just express his opinion and ignores anyone who disagrees.. we can all do that. No problem. I have my own blog. It is egotistical in the extreme. I ignore all refutations of my opinion. My self belief remains intact. Bla bla bla……

  22. BillyJoe7on 07 Apr 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Dirk,

    Some things are just too obvious.
    Donald Trump talking as an authority on vaccines – via the university of google! – is a joke. Period.
    Get over it.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.