During last week’s CNN debate, the Republican presidential candidates discussed a number of controversial topics, from illegal immigration to the Iran Deal. However, buried within the standard conservative talking points, the question of vaccination and autism arose.
Despite two of the candidates, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, having medical degrees, no one appeared to understand or defend the true scientific research. The fact that vaccinations have no link to autism seemed entirely lost. In their attempt to build a compromise between science and politics, they managed to lose the value of both.
To his credit, during the debate Dr. Carson did say that there is “extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations.” However, when pressed by Donald Trump, he conceded that “it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time.”
This, of course, is nonsense. There is no evidence to suggest that the vaccine schedule needs any change at all. In fact, there is good evidence that delaying vaccines may actually make infants more likely to acquire preventable diseases like measles.
The worst part was, however, that there was an apparent consensus among the candidates on stage that the vaccination schedule needed to be changed. Not one among them, not even the two physicians, were willing to adhere to the evidence. Even stranger, none appeared concerned that they were giving forceful statements on standardized systems for the practice of healthcare. Would we ask senators for recommendations for the treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma? Why do presidential candidates think they need to micromanage healthcare?
Instead, there should be an honest discussion of solely policy, since the science is settled. As such, beyond changing the vaccine schedule itself, several of the Republicans also mentioned that children should be allowed to opt out for non-medical reasons. Of course, this idea is potentially harmful for the child, dangerous for the public at large and entirely unnecessary. But at least it lies within the realm of public policy and is worth discussing. For instance, there can be a clear, policy-driven argument made in favor of mandatory vaccination based on the notion that children need to be protected from poor decision making from their parents. But instead of discussing these issues in these terms, of individual liberties and the rights of parents over their children, the clear, scientific evidence is called into question. The real problem is they are blurring the boundary between politics and science, between values and truth.
We should not forget that even President Obama is guilty of this. During his 2008 presidential race, he was questioned about his stance on the vaccination-autism controversy. He replied that “The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.” At the same time, Hillary Clinton stated “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.” Now both Obama and Clinton are resolute in defending the value of vaccination. Obama recently stated that “the science is, you know, pretty indisputable” during an interview on the “Today” show this year, and Clinton now supports universal vaccination. But at the time, it was easy for even Democrats to fall for the trap of vague scientific concessions.
So why do both Democrats and Republicans both struggle with science? The answer lies in the inherent, compromise-focused nature of politics. Virtually every major policy achievement rests on the ability for two competing sides to find some shared compromise. The Affordable Care Act could not have passed without certain concessions on both Democratic and Republican sides. When controversy arises, politicians use compromise as a tool to simultaneously demonstrate humility and flexibility, while also effectively maintaining their original stance and allowing for progress.
However, science cannot be compromised. Ideally, politicians should be comfortable understanding that science is science, and politics is politics. But when these do clash, it is so much easier to just imply some sort of compromise, regardless of the facts. Perhaps this approach is appealing to voters, since many do not consider science a priority. But when policy-makers attempt to compromise science, they discard its entire value, resulting in an insult to both the scientists’ work and the public that depends on it.