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.

28 responses so far

28 thoughts on “McCain’s Autism Gaffe”

  1. Jim Shaver says:

    Dr. Novella:

    Regarding your statement that we will see how quick a learner John McCain is, you probably shouldn’t hold your breath. He was one of the candidates during an early Republican debate who answered the “Do you believe in evolution?” question in an obviously anti-science, if wishy-washy, way. He said something about when he looks at the Grand Canyon, he just knows that it was designed by a creator.

    Also, during his campain he has freely admitted that he is very superstitious. One of these statements was in response to a simple question about whether he predicted victory in one of the state primary races in which he had a big lead. Oh no, he wasn’t predicting anything, he’s too superstitious to do such a thing.

    Like you said about your personal opinions, I have nothing against John McCain personally. I respect him, and if he were my neighbor I’m sure we would get along well. But I have had many neighbors over the years with whom I have been friendly, and I wouldn’t vote for any of them were they to run for President of the United States.

  2. Journalism is rife with the “gotcha” approach, wherein you ask as many questions as possible on as wide a range of tpoics as possible and hope somebody screws up… gotcha.

    The autism/vaccine issue is a small one on the presidential election menu and is one that is resolved by simple science, not political support for or against. I don’t hold candidates responsible for stupid utterances on these side issues. If they stumble on a main issue: foreign policy, economy, defense, health care, etc., sure, ding ’em good. But I’m not sure McCain nor any other presidential candidate would answer the same if given a bit or warning and allowed to research the issue.

    I don’t feel any candidate needs to be always right every time on any question asked. Nobody is that well prepared, nor needs to be. Unfortunately, candidates constantly pressured by media seem to think a wrong answer is better than “I don’t know, I’d have to look into it.”

    I also don’t think candidates and the general public are as acutely attuned to pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and the like as are skeptics, though I was they were.

  3. Dang, no edit function. Sorry about that.

  4. Potter1000 says:

    Don’t worry, DevilsAdvocate. I was they were, too.

    I like Dr. Novella’s non-political presentation of this topic, but I’ve gotta say this is just one more reason I liked McCain a lot more before this primary season came along.

    By the way, Obama has a PDF statement about science on his website that, although somewhat general and safe-sounding politically, was pretty well written, I thought. I even drooled a little bit while reading it. Also, I wrote to his campaign asking him to accept the invitation to the science debate in April. I hope lots of people tell these candidates that we’re interested.

  5. Roy Niles says:

    John McCain knows that if he said anything else about the Grand Canyon, he’d be suspected of atheism. Then it’s catch 22, as nobody would then follow up in a way he could deny it without looking even more like a creationist. None of the front runners have ever given the slightest hint that they are other than the conventional Christian. There has to be some lying in there somewhere. The point is that we don’t allow them to take the fifth in political debate, and so they all must lie as appropriate.
    And we tend to trust their judgement in part by how adroitly they walk this line.

  6. Aaron S says:

    @Jim Shaver: I don’t know about the “superstition” thing, not sure what you mean. But the “Grand canyon” thing is the kind of stuff that really starts to bother me. Now he makes this crap counter-scientific autism statement.

    I really don’t have much tolerance for this kind of bullshit. If he didn’t know he should have said “that is an issue for the relevant science experts and committees and agencies to deal with”.

  7. Freddy the Pig says:

    Aaron – I would have been inclined to cut him some slack until I read your post. His spouting off about something he knows nothing about is arrogance (or maybe pandering). I would respect a politician who had the courage to say “I don’t know, this is something that should be left up to the scientific experts” rather than shooting from the hip. Unfortunately, I think much of the public does not respect this sort of humility.

  8. isles says:

    McCain has showed breathtakingly bad judgment here – and it wasn’t just a mistake from being caught unaware. The mercury mom who asked the question had been cultivating him for months, and was herself being groomed by other anti-vaccine activists. McCain has no excuse – he had plenty of time to check this out.

    Sadly, the other major candidates aren’t all that much better. Both Obama and Clinton responded to questionnaires from an “autism activist” organization with concern over the “autism epidemic” and support for removing thimerosal from vaccines.

    Pretty sad all around.

  9. isles says:

    Has showed? Eeek. Sorry.

  10. Nitpicking says:

    A gaff is a big hook used to pull fish out of the water. A “gaffe” is a mistake.

    Sorry, I’m

    I agree with most of the substance of this entry, except I’m angrier at McCain than Dr. Novella.

  11. aj says:

    Mr. Sanjay Gupta, I mean Novella

    It’s easy to see who owns you by the way you pour on these vaccines stories, stick to doctored Big Pharma statistics, and gloss over first hand testimonies. How about doing news about private studies

    McCain is irrelevant

  12. nitpicking – thanks.

    aj – the study you are referring to is not a scientific study, but a survey. Surveys are prone to known biases that make them all but useless as scientific data. This is also old news. Keep up.

    Also, the study is hardly unbiased. It was conducted by generationrescue, a group with an ideology. They knew the results they wanted.

    So you are cherry picking bad evidence and arguing that it should trump better evidence. And you use this as a basis to assume that I am “owned.”

    Thanks for once again demonstrating the sloppy thinking on the anti-vaccine side.

  13. Amon1492 says:

    I find myself frustrated and appalled that McCain, as the Republican Presidential Nominee, how can express an opinion on autism and vaccines that is full of such bunk.

    I expected a better response from someone running for the highest office in the United States and arguably the most powerful position on Earth. His response is no better than some celebrity-toon on the Oprah Winfrey Show; devoid of scientific evidence and pandering to the fears of dubious citizens.

    McCain is either completely ignorant of the facts and evidence to the contrary or is blatantly appealing to the voodoo religious evangelists are spouting concern over autism and its apparent “rise” among American children.

    My gravest concern is if McCain is either unwilling or unknowingly capable of deferring such topics to competent science advisers (or at the least scientific studies debunking any evidence of vaccines as the cause of autism) – we can look forward to a possible term under a man who lets superstition and baseless pseudoscience determine his policies.

    Scientists and Skeptics should take note and consider this as a small example of the whole McCain package.

  14. Steve Page says:

    I’m not sure that I like the idea of being owned by a big farmer; still, you’d get plenty of fresh air, I suppose.

    aj could do with listening to a couple of episodes of the SGU, or at least reading the “How to Argue” doc on the NESS homepage.

  15. Take a deep breath and reread Roy Niles’ post.

    Anybody who takes a politican’s words at face value during a campaign is begging for disappointment.

  16. Amon1492 says:

    I hardly believe McCain would lose votes by pointing to his scientific advisers or by saying the evidence does not support vaccines (or any chemicals contained within) being the cause for autism.

    At what point should we take the candidates’ responses at face value? Once they are elected into office?

    Where’s the straight talk? (No pun specifically against McCain, but this is for all of them – Obama and Clinton included).

  17. Steven R says:

    I think aj is being satirical, and if not then the world of education really needs help.

    I can honestly say though, last time i was injected with aborted fetal tissue, i did not feel bad at all, and the formaldehyde smoothies my doctor advised me to drink have had no ill effects to date. However, i did feel a little, funny when i had to take some monkey kidney cells in suppository form. I dont know what the sensation was, but it wasnt bad.

    Really now, no one(here) is making the claim that lead, mercury, and other things of that nature are good for you in high quantities. The issue here is how much of X material is bad, or good for an individuals health.

    Also, you should try to make an actual claim rather than just being passive aggressive about everything, it doesnt really help in having a discussion about something, in fact, it is counter productive. Alternatively, you dont really care about trying to come to an honest conclusion about the topic at hand.

  18. Potter1000 says:

    Also, although “gaffe” seems to be the preferred spelling, most dictionaries just list “gaff” as an alternate spelling with the same meaning. Perhaps that’s due to mistakes ultimately being accepted, but nevertheless you weren’t actually wrong before, Dr. No.

    May I call you Dr. No?

    By the way, that was very funny, Steven R.

  19. Potter1000 says:

    I just realized I said “most dictionaries” as if I went to the Library of Congress and sampled all the dictionaries they had. I should say “the two I looked at.”

  20. Nitpicking says:

    The thing is, if I were in the room with McCain I could, I think, make him understand.

    “The vaccine haters are American versions of Lysenko.” A commie-fighter like Senator McCain would get that instantly.

  21. tk42 says:

    One of the most important things a President does is make appointments. I need to know that McCain will not make appointments to the CDC, for example, that will compromise vaccination programs. Vaccines are arguably the most successful medical technology in history, but their strength depends on public trust and compliance. I’d hate to be a single-issue voter, but this one is a really big deal to me. (I’m a med student.)

    On another note, would folks please refrain from pointing out insignificant typos in Dr. Novella’s *daily* posts? I have no idea how he finds the time to be so active online given the demands of academic medicine, and I certainly don’t want him wasting that time checking grammar. I’m a big grammar nerd, too, but come on… It’s a blog, not a text book.

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  23. champagnej says:

    I can’t wait til my kids are the only ones being vaccinated

  24. Potter1000 says:

    tk42, I understand what you’re saying about typos in a daily blog with lots of content, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out mistakes that Dr. Novella then has the option of correcting if he wishes. As a professed grammar nerd yourself, you must understand that grammatical errors can detract from what anybody is trying to say–whether it’s a book or an e-mail or a blog post. And this blog is very well written, so Dr. Novella obviously cares about the quality of presentation to some extent.

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