Posted by: Ticktock | April 23, 2008

Obama and the Vaccine Debate


Barack Obama recently made scientifically misinformed statements about the connection between vaccines and autism.   A few bloggers including Orac and Pharyngula are very concerned about his responses, which in my opinion, are the innocent political maneuverings of an intelligent candidate.  Obama has played his cards safely, but in the process, he has annoyed the science bloggers (enough for some to consider changing their vote). 

Meanwhile, the vaccine activists are elated that they’ve won another battle.  I don’t really think there’s reason for either side to panic here.  Take a look at Obama’s actual statement.

“We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Skeptics know from reading Dr. Novella’s blog that the autism rate statistics are misleading because doctors have widened the diagnosis to include a larger spectrum of children.  But, the average American would only look at the statistics (1:10,000 in 1994 compared to 1:150 in 2007), and immediately think Obama was a Class-A Moron for denying that the rates are increasing.  Scientists and skeptics know that there is a more nuanced explanation, but technically Obama is right- the rates of diagnosis are skyrocketing.

Obama also stayed on the track when he said that “many people are suspicious” because that is true.  He pointed to the activist who asked the question when he said “including this guy”, which indicates to me that he does not acknowledge a link but does acknowledge the opinions of the person askng the question.  Smart move!  This is a highly volatile and sensitive topic.  Obama doesn’t want to portray himself as the dismissive elitist asshole he was accused of being during the manufactured “bitter”gate.  Far better for him to understand the concerns raised by many Americans who are tangentially or deeply knowledgable of the vaccine debate, but to also avoid soiling his hands in bad science.

Obama left us a clue that he is on the side of science.  He did say that the science is inconclusive, even though that is misleading and probably wrong.  I do know that the issue is being talked about and researched further, so he isn’t too off-track by saying that.  It should be noted that he believes in following where the research leads us.  A-Champ sent out a questionaire to all the candidates, and this is one of Obama’s responses…

And I will ensure that sound and unbiased science, not ideology, guides decisions made in my administration… I will ensure that the process of approving vaccines is based on science and research – not ideology or other motives.

Surely, this son of an atheist scientist mother named Stanley learned to respect the division of science and religion, and to respect that division while under oath.  He has said before (noted at Science and Engineers for America) that he believes “evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels”.  This goes along with other statements such as…

“I’m a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.”

Barack Obama isn’t the only candidate to speak up in favor of the vaccine activists.  Hillary and McCain have also done their part to bring down science for the sake of political pandering.  We, as science advocate voters, should relax and look at a candidate’s entire message before we criticize one answer on the complex and sensitive subject of autism posed by a person who is probably emotionally and personally involved in the topic.  It’s all politics. 

We should understand that these candidates are trying to get elected without betraying their core values.  They walk a fine line every day- topics like autism and vaccines are just one of many in which average voters are not going to get a clear answer.  If Obama were to take sides with science, he would be insulting a small but vocal population of emotional parents.  If he were to side with the vaccine activists, he would insult science and all who believe in it.

Obama did the right thing by carefully wording his response to indicate that he would follow the research wherever it may lead. His answer to that tough question is just one of the many reasons that I support him for president.


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