May 10 2019

Apparently Medicine is Sorcery

According to Texas House Representative Jonathan Stickland, Texas pediatricians should mind their own business when it comes to vaccines, which, by the way, are sorcery.

That some state representative is completely clueless should come as no surprise, nor that he exposes his cluelessness on Twitter. Here is the now infamous exchange:

Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
You are bought and paid for by the biggest special interest in politics. Do our state a favor and mind your own business. Parental rights mean more to us than your self enriching “science.”
Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime. Like every other business. Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity. It’s disgusting.

In his first tweet Stickland starts with the shill gambit, which is a lazy personal attack used to casually dismiss the concerns of others. In this case Stickland is assuming, and publicly asserting, that the only reason a pediatrician might advocate for children getting vaccinated is because they are “bought and paid for.” He then basically tells the doctor to shut up, as if a medical doctor does not have a legitimate professional and even ethical responsibility toward the health of their patients. Finally he dismisses “science” as a conspiracy and asserts the rights of parents to be free from science.

That is a lot of nonsense to pack into one tweet.

Dr. Hotez, meanwhile, is not just any pediatrician. He has dedicated his career to developing and providing vaccines for tropical diseases, which mostly affect the world’s poor, which is why they are often neglected by corporations. Stickland could not have chosen a worse target for his conspiracy mongering. This is a guy who has specifically chosen NOT to work for industry, but to donate his time to the poorest in the world. Yeah – that guy’s a corporate shill.

Undeterred by this gaffe, Stickland feels comfortable calling medicine “sorcery.” Perhaps he was only referring to vaccines, but that is not clear, he just says “your sorcery.” That could apply to medicine in general, or even all of science in general, which fits with his prior dismissal of “science.”

But worse than that, pay attention to what he is fully saying in that final tweet. He is saying that medicine has to rely upon the government to make itself profitable. This claim is ahistorical. If anything, the more government gets involved in medicine the less profitable it is for doctors. The last few decades of managed care have largely been about reducing the profits in medical practice. But Stickland does not strike me as someone who lets reality get in the way of their narrative.

That tweet is also a broadside at all public health measures. Stickland apparently sees everything through the dense lens of business transactions. In that view there is no public good, only individual freedom. I am an advocate of personal liberty as much as anyone, but I also understand that there are other ethical imperatives when living in a society of millions of people.

For context, the evidence is overwhelming that vaccines are safe and effective. For an individual person, they are far more likely to be protected by a vaccine than harmed by it. There is no legitimate scientific basis for disagreement with this conclusion. The data are overwhelming.

But – there is another very important angle to vaccines. If they were just about protecting the individual, then adults have a right to refuse even safe and effective medicine. Refusing medicine on behalf of their minor children is another matter. With vaccines, however, the public has a legitimate interest in whether or not other people get vaccinated, and what those unvaccinated people do. This is because of community immunity – when enough people are vaccinated against a disease, this prevents the spread of that disease and protects vulnerable people.

Even if you look at this issue only through the lens of personal liberty, it favors vaccination. Children who have medical conditions that preclude them getting vaccinated have a right to attend school, to feel safe in public spaces, and not to have their life put at risk because of other people’s choices. We all have a right to our own bodies, but we also have a duty not to spread our diseases to other people. If we have the ability to safely prevent the spread of our disease to others, but we choose not to, and then to go out into public and put other people at risk, it sounds extremely lame to cry for your own liberty.

But this is the gaslighting that the anti-vaxxers are engaged in. They are simultaneously victims of this misinformation, but then become perpetrators of it. Stickland has an increased responsibility, however, because he is a public servant. His degree of ignorance, his casual insults and dismissal of a scientist and medical professional, and of science itself, are shocking and disgusting. I suppose he feels comfortable in the current political environment.

To be fair, however, and put things into perspective, Stickland is not exactly a respected member of his House:

“The actual votes he’s making are shocking,” a House member said privately. “He’s a joke on the floor, the least respected member of a 150-member body.”

That’s good to hear, and I hope it’s true. A conspiracy-mongering, science-denying, antivaxxer should be the least respected member of their body. Or, perhaps president.

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