Mar 04 2008

McCain’s Autism Gaffe

It must be tough being a presidential candidate. You have to field so many questions, and there are hidden landmines everywhere. Well, John McCain recently stepped on a doozy. When asked about vaccines an autism he is quoted by ABC News’ Bret Hovell as saying:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

Yikes. This is yet another example of why, in today’s science and technology dominated world, we need leaders with a modicum of scientific literacy. I don’t expect every politician to be completely up to date on every complex scientific question, not even every one that has political implications. The big ones, sure. Politicians need to have an opinion about global warming, the utility of biofuels, the importance of science education, and why intelligent design is not science.

On a host of other issues they should at least have the sense to know that they should keep their mouth shut, at least until they have been briefed by a credible and competent science advisor. Otherwise they risk making the kind of gaff that McCain just made.

I suspect that McCain was not pandering, but just was blind sided by that question and thought he had sufficient information to give a definitive answer. I suspect he was not aware at the time that his comments do not reflect the current scientific consensus of opinion. In fact the evidence suggests that there is no autism epidemic, and overwhelming supports the conclusion that there is no link between thimerosal and autism. McCain seems unaware that thimerosal is no longer contained in the routine childhood vaccine schedule, and therefore he is probably not aware of the fact that its removal from vaccines has not altered the rate of increase of autism diagnoses.

But at this point I can only speculate about what he knows and believes. Therefore I have sent an inquiry to the McCain campaign asking for clarifying information. If I get any response I will publish it here.

Meanwhile, McCain’s comments are already brewing a small storm of controversy. David Kirby, who never misses a trick when it comes to distorting reality and making terrible arguments to support his position, is already exploiting McCain’s gaff. He writes:

Your courage — some would (and will) call it lunacy, or at best political suicide — to step into this quagmire, while running for President, no less, is an inspiration and comfort to those of us who continue to ask such discomfiting questions in the public realm.

What self-serving garbage. Kirby clearly envisions himself as a courageous soldier going against the tide of evil. But of course all cranks present themselves this way. This is identical to the ID proponents over at the Discovery Institute presenting themselves as oppressed and calling for academic freedom. Kirby is not asking “discomfiting” questions – he is making scientifically absurd statements defending a position that is demonstrably wrong with fallacious arguments. Now he is trying to picture himself as a defender arm-in-arm with a “War Hero. U.S. Senator. De Facto Presidential Nominee.” We will seee how long McCain sticks by his side when he learns what he really has stepped into.

Also, Kirby is just making a false argument from authority. As if being a war-hero gives McCain the background and knowledge to understand the relevant scientific evidence concerning autism and vaccines.

To be absolutely clear – this is not a political blog and I have nothing against John McCain politically. But when politicians step into the scientific arena, they better know what they are talking about. McCain clearly does not on this issue. We will see how quick a learner he is.

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