In another depressing display of scientific illiteracy, several Republican candidates decided to take jabs at vaccines last night, including Ben Carson–you know, the guy with an actual medical license.
It began, of course, with Trump echoing the wearied, thoroughly debunked lie that vaccines cause autism. Here’s a nice synopsis of over two dozen peer reviewed studies demonstrating that vaccines don’t cause autism, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Trump then went on to claim that “autism has become an epidemic,” which is also false (to most experts in autism epidemiology, the main factor accounting for the boost in autism prevalence is increased awareness of the disorder), in addition to being a downright insult to millions of autistic Americans.
Of course, this is Trump we’re talking about. We don’t watch a Republican debate to see America’s favorite toupéed meat popsicle spout enlightened scientific facts! Then again, there were some actual medical doctors in the room. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Carson to not only make Trump look like a blithering dunce, but show the country that having a medical degree could actually be a mite useful in the Oval Office.
Surprise! It didn’t go down that way.
Carson started out doing right by the science. “We have extremely well documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations,” he said. Good. He should have shut his trap there, but then he proceeded to hedge his way back to the Stone Age.
“Vaccines are very important, certain ones. The ones that would prevent death or crippling,” Carson said. “There are others, a multitude of vaccines that don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases.”
Yeah, that’s a crock of crap. Each and every one of the vaccines the CDC recommends for children through age of 18 prevents a disease that could cause serious debilitation or death. Vaccines are intended to keep children safe from things like Hepatitis B (which can cause liver cancer), polio (which can lead to paralysis), and influenza (which kills hundreds of children every year). It’s not clear which vaccines Carson was suggesting parents take additional “discretion” with, but suffice it to say that the basis of this statement is fundamentally flawed.
And it gets worse. Here’s Carson’s response to Trump’s claim that we should have “smaller doses” of vaccines over a “longer period of time:”
“It is true that we are probably giving way too many [vaccines] in too short a period of time, and a lot of pediatricians now recognize that and, I think, are cutting down on the number and the proximity in which those are done.”
There, Carson just flunked his MCATs. This is not how vaccines work, not at all. Vaccines are precisely manufactured to stimulate the body’s immune system to produce enough antibodies that it “learns” a disease—so that when we’re actually exposed to the real thing, our immune systems produce a large enough, fast enough response to avoid getting sick. If you decrease the dose or frequency, you render a vaccine ineffective, in the same way that lowering the dose of an antibiotic will decrease your odds of getting better. Doing so weakens herd immunity, which protects people who are too young or ill to be immunized. And weakened herd immunity is the reason we have measles outbreaks at Disneyland.
There are only two possible explanations for Carson’s statements last night: One, the man really has forgotten everything he learned in immunology 101, in which case case, we all ought to be questioning his status as a credible medical professional.
Two, Carson is spinelessly pandering to the anti-science sentiments of his party. It’s one thing for scientifically illiterate men like Ted Cruz to mangle basic facts, but it’s downright dangerous when a person with degrees and letters after his name chooses to do so. Doctors who undermine the established science of their field for political gain are no better than climate scientists who do so for industry funding. And they should be discredited all the same.
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