Sep 17 2015

Trump on Vaccines

I generally don’t cover purely political issues on this blog, but the second Republican primary debate from last night ventured into the area of vaccines and autism. Donald Trump has said in the past that he thinks the current “epidemic” of autism is caused by vaccines. He was challenged on this position during the debate, and face palms ensued.

Orac, perhaps presciently, gave a good recap of Trump’s anti-vaccine nonsense just yesterday. In 2007 Trump said:

“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor,” Trump said. “And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’ve giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”

That is pretty much exactly what Trump said during the second debate, almost word-for-word. This demonstrates several things about Trump, in my opinion. First, he feels comfortable forming his own opinions, based on nothing but casual observation and anecdote, even on complex scientific issues, without adequate information. The fact that the scientific community has come to an opposite opinion does not even seem to give him pause. Finally, he has learned exactly nothing on this issue over the last 8 years – nothing. He has added no depth or nuance to his position, let alone correcting his factual errors.

This belies Trump’s claim that, even though he may not currently have a mastery of the complex issues facing the world, issues the next president will need to deal with, he will master them by the time he takes the oath of office. On this issue Trump seems content to shoot overconfidently from the hip, not only missing the target but hitting innocent bystanders. He then blows the smoke from his pistol and holsters it with a swagger.

Let’s deconstruct Trump’s position.

First he claims there is an autism epidemic, citing as reference his own casual observations. On this issue Trump is dead wrong. I have written extensively about the fact that there is no autism epidemic. The apparent rise in diagnoses is an artifact of increased surveillance, broadening the definition, and diagnostic substitution.

Most recently there was an epidemiological study that reviewed autism prevalence around the world, and they found:

In 2010 there were an estimated 52 million cases of ASDs, equating to a prevalence of 7.6 per 1000 or one in 132 persons. After accounting for methodological variations, there was no clear evidence of a change in prevalence for autistic disorder or other ASDs between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, there was little regional variation in the prevalence of ASDs.

No increase in autism during the exact time period in which Trump claims there was an autism “explosion.”

What about the “massive injections?” Here I have not idea where Trump is getting his information. At various times he has referred to kids getting, “pumped with 10 and 20 shots at one time, with one injection that’s a giant injection.” At no time during the vaccine schedule are 10-20 shots given at once, individually or even if you count combination vaccines. It’s just not true. He also exaggerates the size of the needles and the amount of fluid injected, comparing them to “horse” vaccines.

The core of his claim is that vaccines are linked to autism. This, of course, is simply not true. There has been extensive research over the last 20 years showing no link between vaccines and autism. Further the research has shown that autism is largely genetic, and that the signs of autism begin before children get most of their vaccines. In fact a recent study finds that there are signs in the womb – before any vaccines.

The final component of Trump’s claims is that vaccines should be spread out, not given all at once. This is the “too many, too soon” meme that anti-vaxxers have been spreading. This has been studied also. The evidence clearly shows that delaying or spreading out the vaccines compared to the recommended schedule does not reduce the incidence of any adverse outcome, it may actually increase some adverse outcomes, and it increases the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Trump promises:

Trumps beliefs about vaccines and autism are completely wrong. There is no autism epidemic, vaccines are not linked to autism, and spreading out the vaccines is demonstrably a bad idea. Trump is promising that as president he will listen to his gut, and not to experts, even on a complex medical issue about which he has no expertise.

In my opinion, this type of overconfidence is perhaps the most dangerous trait for anyone with power to have.

Two of the Republican candidates are physicians, Rand Paul and Ben Carson. Carson was asked first what he thought of Trump’s opinions. To his credit he said that there is no link between vaccines and autism, although he stumbled around looking like he was desperately trying to look like he wasn’t criticizing Trump.

But then when Trump repeated the exact same nonsense I discuss above, Carson replied that he agrees that the vaccines are perhaps lumped together too much and could be spread out. This gave Trump the opportunity to say, “That is all that I’m saying,” and then give Carson a “good boy” pat on the shoulder.

The moderator then went to physician candidate #2, Rand Paul, for a “second opinion.” Paul, who is an extreme libertarian, predictably said that while he believes in vaccines, parents should have the choice. He then repeated the too many, too soon idea and agreed with spreading out the vaccines.

This was a disaster. Carson and Paul had an opportunity to sharply criticize Trump and expose him for the bloviating buffoon that he is, on a medical topic where they, as physicians, could credibly claim expertise and therefore have solid ground upon which to stand. It was a golden opportunity to stand up for science. They blew it. They gave Trump and out, in fact they supported him by echoing a key piece of his pseudoscience. Just stunning.


We live in a complex world in which the public and our leaders have to wrestle with complex challenges. Science is perhaps our most powerful tool for understanding the world, and knowing which interventions are likely to be effective.

We need to demand from our elected representatives that they:

– Have a basic civic scientific literacy.

– Will listen to and respect the legitimate expertise of experts who have spent their careers studying complex subjects.

– Will properly use the best science available to inform public policy

– Will not trump (pun intended) the consensus of scientific evidence and opinion with their own ideology, naive impressions, or anecdotal experience.

I think it’s pretty clear that Trump fails on every count.

23 responses so far

23 thoughts on “Trump on Vaccines”

  1. Orac says:

    Oh, Donald Trump was saying some pretty idiotic things about Ebola, too, during the scare several months ago.

  2. carbonUnit says:

    Trump is an idiot (or plays one on TV) so I’m not surprised by anything he says.* Carson was the big disappointment in this. He should have come out swinging about the anti-vaxx misinformation, that’s his profession! Instead he was equivocated.

    I was also unhappy to hear them all talking uncritically about medical marijuana. I have no problem with it for treatments that are proven effective and safe. I fear it is the next great alt-med.

    *When Trump talked about surrounding himself with experts to deal with issues, I’m surprised nobody asked him if they would be the same crack team that determined that Obama was no a US citizen. (Guess that would not have played well to the base.)

  3. RNAworld says:

    Dr. Carson is apparently also a climate change denier and evolution denier. so much for the physician in the group standing up for science.

  4. carbonUnit says:

    Should have been “Instead he [Carson] equivocated.” I’d forgotten Paul was also a doctor. Bad on him too. Doesn’t a child get exposed to way more pathogens every time they are on the floor/sticking stuff in their mouth than they get in all their shots combined? And the exposure is generally good for them, building the immune system and preventing the formation of allergies.

    This whole bunch seems to be up for individual rights, even when they impinge on the rights of others or the society in general.

  5. Johnny says:

    Is Rand Paul an extreme libertarian? I got the impression that he was more moderate than his father Ron Paul. But I may be wrong. I have not been following the Republican primaries very much.

    In any case, this is a great example of why skepticism and scientific literacy are necessary for a democracy to function properly. A point Carl Sagan repeatedly made in The Demon-Haunted World and in various interviews. Clearly we have a long way to go.

  6. Lukas Xavier says:

    Trump is not an idiot. He’s a fairly intelligent narcissist. His priority is to say whatever will keep him in the headlines. He has grasped the idea of the Reality TV generation: All that matters is whether people know your name.

    We know his name. He has succeeded. Now the only question is how long he can keep it going.

  7. BBBlue says:

    To all,

    Among all candidates of both parties, and plausible potential candidates like Jerry Brown, who would consider to be the most pro-science, skeptical candidate?

  8. Johnny says:

    @BBBlue: I’m not an American. As an outsider, it seems to me that for people who support science and secularism (like I do), Democrats are generally (but not always, there are individual exceptions) preferable to Republicans. But at the same time the Democrats don’t seem particularly passionate about supporting those either. To be “less worse” than the alternative is not a very strong defense.

    If Neil deGrasse Tyson ran for president… well I’d apply for American citizenship just to vote for him!

    The recently elected leader of the British Labour Party is (surprise, surprise!) a fan of alternative medicine:

    “I believe that homeo-meds works for some ppl and that it compliments ‘convential’ meds. they both come from organic matter…” Source:

  9. carbonUnit says:

    Heck with most pro-science and skeptical, I’m still working on least scary.

  10. Willy says:

    carbonUnit: Spot on!!!!!!!!!! While some Dem positions coincide with “science” presently, it’s all about the “base”. I don’t see a single candidate in either party who wouldn’t dump science for political gain. I see no statesmen on the horizon. Politics has merged with marketing to a scary degree.

    Trump?! Good grief, I thought he’d be gone long ago. Lukas X is right–it’s all about name recognition and Trump is riding a wave of general, widespread dissatisfaction like a pro. I doubt his vaccine foolishness will do anything but help him. I hope I’m wrong.

    Re Jerry Brown, this AM I read a portion of a recent talk of his where he said (AGW and forest fires are the context) “…What we see in Europe now with mass migrations, that will happen with California…Central America and Mexico, as they warm, people are going to get on the move.”

    Perhaps the Brown quote is out of context if his entire speech is read, but, based on what I read, he’s still riding a moonbeam or maybe a bullet train.

  11. …”If Neil deGrasse Tyson ran for president… well I’d apply for American citizenship just to vote for him!…”

    The crank Timothy Leary once suggested that the president of the American Physical Society should automatically and simultaneously be president of the United States. Scientist in Chief does have a nice ring to it.

  12. Willy says:

    It’s all so depressing, so here’s a chuckle:

    A priest, a rabbi, and a preacher walk into a bar. The bartender asks “What, is this a joke?”

  13. AmateurSkeptic says:

    Finding colossal ignorance on science among Republican candidates is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Views on Evolution:

    Ben Carson: He may be an acclaimed neurosurgeon, but Carson casts his lot with the creationists. “Evolution and creationism both require faith. It’s just a matter of where you choose to place that faith,” he declared in 2012, proceeding to imply that evolutionists lacked an ethical framework.

    Mike Huckabee: During a 2007 GOP presidential debate, the Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor indicated that he doesn’t accept evolution. “But you know, if anybody wants to believe they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it,” he said.

    Rick Perry: Calling evolution just a “theory that’s out there,” Perry proclaimed in 2011 that “God is how we got here.” Creationism and evolution should both be presented in public schools, he added.

    Rick Santorum: Denouncing the idea that evolution is “above reproach,” Santorum said in 2008, “I obviously don’t feel that way. I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution, and do believe that it is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

    Jeb Bush: Asked in 2005 whether he accepted evolution, Bush affirmed that he did — but that it shouldn’t be taught in schools. “Yeah, but I don’t think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you,” Bush said. “And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.” Later that year, he argued that students should be presented with “varying viewpoints.”

    Chris Christie: Does Christie affirm evolutionary science? “That’s none of your business,” he replied with characteristic brusqueness in 2011. “Evolution is required teaching,” he added. “If there’s a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism, that’s not something we should decide in Trenton.”

    Ted Cruz: While his kooky father would like you to know that evolution is a Communist lie, the Texas senator himself “won’t discuss evolution directly,” the New Yorker reported.
    Bobby Jindal: The Brown University biology major, Rhodes scholar, and scorner of “the stupid party” feigns ignorance on the subject, emphasizing last year that he’s not an “evolutionary biologist” and contending that local schools should decide what they teach.

    John Kasich: During his 2010 run for Ohio governor, Kasich seemed to place evolution and creationism on a par with one another, saying only that both evolution and “creation science” should be taught in classrooms.

    Rand Paul: During his 2010 Senate campaign, Paul courted young earth creationists and said he would “pass” on the question of how old the earth is.

    Marco Rubio: Asked the earth’s age in 2012, Rubio replied, “I’m not a scientist, man.” He added, “At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all.” After his remarks on the earth’s age were widely derided, Rubio acknowledged that it’s 4.5 billion years old, but maintained that that wasn’t inconsistent with creationism.

    Scott Walker: He’s going to punt on this one.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    Mike Huckabee: “But you know, if anybody wants to believe they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it”

    DESCENDANTS of a primate?
    The ignorance burns.

  15. tmac57 says:

    I, for one, welcome our new primate ancestor overlords 🙂

  16. mumadadd says:

    In the UK “trump” is a kiddy-friendly way to say “fart”.

  17. mumadadd says:

    Apt or not apt? I can’t tell because we don’t even know what matter is!

  18. zorrobandito says:

    Look people, Donald Trump is only trying to get attention, and he’s succeeding. The people who like him are largely ignorant of all this science also, and they’re tired of being talked down to.

    He says what they all would say if they got the chance, and they love it. He cannot possibly do anything but help himself by saying stuff like this.

    This is what comes of allowing the two parties to repeatedly nominate nebbishes whose only virtue is that they are reasonably comely, and are in the pocket of big money. Surely you don’t think that Bush or Clinton has the best interests of the people of this country at heart?

    Unfortunately what comes out of all this is…..Trump. Let’s hope he isn’t elected.

  19. Bill Openthalt says:

    AmateurSkeptic —

    Mike Huckabee: During a 2007 GOP presidential debate, the Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor indicated that he doesn’t accept evolution. “But you know, if anybody wants to believe they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it,” he said.

    Did anyone notice the anti-evolution backlash against the discovery of Homo naledi in South Africa? Ex Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted:

    “Science is materialism – it’s facts that can be proven. No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon -sorry”

    He got support from the South African Council of Churches.

  20. AmateurSkeptic says:


    My father spent many years dealing with the South African Council of Churches before the Dutch Reformed Churches of South Africa could be persuaded to drop their support for apartheid. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us to help correct his allies on this one.

    On a related note, the election of Thabo Mbeki (a leading proponent of HIV/AIDS denialism) as president of South Africa illustrates that scientific illiteracy is not a bar to the highest office in that country. Let’s hope that the same isn’t true in our country.

  21. Pete A says:

    Donald Trump’s Twitter hosted Q&A #AskTrump backfired (as expected). I really enjoyed this question:

    #AskTrump You say the Bible is your favorite book. Do you have any other favorite books that you’ve never read?
    — Frank Conniff (@FrankConniff) September 21, 2015

  22. Bill Openthalt says:

    AmateurSkeptic —

    May I enquire what is your country? I am an ex-South-African living in Luxembourg.

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