Sep 12 2016

Clinton Health Conspiracy Update

clinton12I wrote a couple weeks ago about health conspiracies in the current presidential campaign. I concluded that presidential candidates should be transparent about their health, given the job for which they claim to be qualified. At the same time, it seems to be standard procedure now to use health issues as another source of mudslinging.

As with many things, the public will have to sort through the fog of campaigning and biased reporting to try to figure out where reality lies. Perhaps most challenging is to filter out our own ideology and biases.

Both candidates this cycle are on the older side, 68 and 70 for Clinton and Trump respectively, and so health is more of an issue. There hasn’t been any update for Trump, he has still only released a rather dubious letter from his physician, not actual health records. The situation with Clinton has been very active.

Clinton has Pneumonia

The big news is that yesterday, at a 911 ceremony, Clinton did not feel well and had to abruptly leave. The press was kept in the dark for 90 minutes, after which time they were told that Clinton was “overheated” and dehydrated, and is now feeling better. The campaign later released information that two days earlier, on Friday, Clinton was diagnosed with a mild case of pneumonia and that was the cause of her not feeling well on Sunday. The pneumonia was also blamed for her recent persistent cough.

Clinton has now canceled the next few days of campaigning to rest and recover. This is all very plausible, but is problematic for Clinton given that it is occurring amid conspiracy theories about her health. This will likely also renew calls for Clinton to release more complete health records.

The Conspiracy Theories

None of this makes the conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health more plausible, but it may make them more relevant. I already dealt in the article two weeks ago with the claims that Clinton has Parkinson’s disease or seizures. There is no evidence that she has either.

Parkinson’s disease is particularly implausible, as it is virtually impossible to hide the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Patients with PD have many visible symptoms, such as changes in the way they walk, the way they move, their facial expressions, and they may also have a characteristic tremor. Clinton has simply been on camera too long for her to hide this diagnosis.

If you want some first hand examples of the kind of discussions that are taking place, just read the comments to this Facebook post on the SGU page about the topic:

The top comment right now is this:

Bullshit. She has something going on. Explain the CHAI TEA event. Explain the starring in wonder at the ceiling event? Explain the handler running to her when she blanks out. Explain the coughing.

They are all explained as side effects of a powerful Parkinsons medication.

What appears to be happening is that the far right have created a conspiracy narrative about Clinton’s health. Those who are ideologically predisposed to this narrative then engage in aggressive confirmation bias, or simply adopt the claims of others who are engaging in confirmation bias.

The process is identical to that of UFO conspiracy theorists who pore over hours of NASA video and thousands of pictures looking for anomalies or anything they can interpret as alien. Those opposed to Clinton have cherry picked apparently unusual episodes of her on video and then weave them into the ill-health narrative.

As with many conspiracy theories, if you pile enough curious episodes together it can create the powerful (if misleading) impression that something must be going on. That is the basic strategy of the Loose Change video, for example.

Individually, however, none of these episodes is evidence that Clinton has a neurological disease. The “chai tea” episode was not neurological, and seems to have been just an awkward exaggerated surprise for rhetorical effect. The “freezing” episode appears to be nothing more than a protest interrupting Clinton’s talk. The “aid” was secret service giving her the all-clear.

Shifting Gears

Conspiracy theories are nothing if not adaptive and opportunistic. Like all good illusions, you adapt the narrative to the facts that happen to exist, and the illusion becomes much more compelling.

The neurological narrative is not panning out – not that the conspiracy theorists are abandoning it. The debates, however, will likely kill this narrative in terms of affecting the election. If Clinton can be sharp for two hours continuously on live TV, it is difficult to maintain a conspiracy theory about her mental function.

So, the conspiracy is shifting over to adapt to events, such as the Labor Day speech in which Clinton had a persistent cough. This was explained by her campaign as allergies, and now (based on a reexamination by her physician) as a mild pneumonia. I, of course, have no idea what the truth is and can only comment on the plausibility of the claims.

Conspiracy theories now focus around the cough. The most extreme version claims that Clinton coughed up two pieces of flesh into her glass during the coughing fit. This is classic anomaly hunting. Take a really close look at the video, which the YouTube video conveniently shows zoomed in and in slow motion.

What I see are reflections on the glass as Clinton tilts her glass up. Notice there are no splashes or any disturbance of the water in the glass. Where do these alleged pieces of tissue go? At the end, they clearly just dissipate as glimmers of light.

Further, the claim is that Clinton “coughed up” these alleged objects, but she is not coughing at that moment, she is drinking. The claim also lacks any plausibility. If she actually coughed up tissue, she would be coughing much more violently than she is, and there may even be spatters of blood.

At most you could claim that the objects were sputum – not tissue, but secretions coughed up from the lung. However, her coughing is not strong enough to produce sputum, and what we are seeing does not look like sputum. Her voice sounds like the cough is coming from the back of her throat, not her lungs.

The cough is the kind of cough you can have when you have a cold, or a scratch in the throat, allergies, or mild pneumonia. I’ve had a cough like that just from a dry throat from talking extensively at a conference. It could also be a symptom of something more serious, but there is no evidence to conclude that.


It is not my purpose here to defend Clinton or make any political statement, simply to address the medical claims that are going around social media. What is interesting is the degree to which people tie their analysis of the health claims with their political ideology.

In other words, if you are against Clinton politically, you are more likely to believe the evidence that she has health problems. If you support her politically, you are more likely to dismiss them.

Further, when I criticize some of the health claims because they are inept or simply wrong, I am often accused of supporting Clinton, as if the two are inextricably tied. But I am not being pro-Clinton, I am just being anti-conspiracy theory.

As I said above, I have no knowledge of Clinton’s health status and whether or not the current information we are being given by the campaign is accurate and complete. I can only comment on plausibility and the evidence that is presented.

What I can say is that Clinton does not have Parkinson’s disease (of course I cannot rule out an extremely mild or early case that would give no evidence on video). The evidence presented also does not support or constitute a diagnosis of seizures, or any other neurological condition.

The cough is less clear. What we can say based on the evidence is that she has a persistent cough, but the cough that I have seen on all the videos is fairly mild. The claim that she coughed up tissue into her glass is absurd and can be easily dismissed based on the evidence provided.

The campaign’s claim that she has pneumonia is plausible, but has not been verified with evidence or independent examination. I cannot rule out that the cough is a symptom of a more serious pulmonary condition based on the evidence in the public domain. Clinton might be well-advised to make her medical records public to put to rest (reasonable) speculation about her health.

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