Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Confronting Science Denialism in the Trump Era

Our last post discussed President Trump’s advocacy of a link between vaccines and autism, while also noting that Trump has taken that stance despite the fact that the “link” has been well-debunked by several large-scale scientific studies (1). Also, our post made a case for biomedical scientists to speak out against Trump’s anti-vaccine pronouncements.

So, as Trump does when rejecting the findings of climate scientists, he similarly misrepresents and ignores the vast amount of scientific evidence that confirms the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. And this is happening while he asserts daily that any facts, which call his positions to account, are “fake.” Moreover, his millions of followers, who feast on his “alternative facts,” can pass them on with a click. See Aside 1.

[Aside 1: Trump surrogate, Scottie Nell Hughes, “explained” that everybody now had their own way of interpreting whether a fact was true or not.There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” she declared. Thus, “a large part of the population” will pick and choose whatever “alternative facts” confirm their views (2).]

Many biomedical scientists now feel an urgent need to speak out against vaccine non-compliance. Yet others argue that scientists hurt the cause when they take political sides. Nonetheless, science is founded on honesty and rigor. And, if scientists do not speak out when their findings are distorted or ignored by politicians who put forward policies that harm the public, who else will? So, our concern here is to consider how we might effectively engage not only anti-vaxxers, but science denialists in general. It is important that we consider this, since we have not been especially effective in the past at curtailing science denialism (e.g., re evolution and human-caused global warming).

A key prerequisite for effective communication is that each party listen to, and acknowledge the others point of view. This may be difficult to accomplish with science denialists under any circumstance. But it is most difficult in public discussions, where a group of committed denialists is unlikely to allow the free and open discussion that is essential. Even if you should happen to get your points out, hard-core denialists in the audience will probably not consider them (see Asides 2 and 3). So, in front of a group, address your remarks to the skeptical and undecided members of your audience, rather than to the stanch denialists. Your chance of influencing undecided or skeptical individuals is much greater in a one-on-one discussion. But whether before a group, or in a one-on-one discussion, your major asset and advantage is that the scientific consensus supports your position. Focus on the evidence.

[Aside 2: Hard-core denialists provide but one example of a more general phenomenon that is well known to social scientists; people zealously resist challenges to their most strongly held beliefs. Moreover, studies show that threatening those beliefs has the effect of people clinging to those beliefs even more fervently; the so-called “worldview backfire effect.” Thus, the stronger your evidence-based arguments against the vaccine-autism link might be, the stronger your disputants might cling to their anti-vaxxer position. The reason is the same as that which makes religious and political zealots immovable. See Aside 3.]

[Aside 3: Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who many consider to be the greatest Jewish philosopher, confronted dogmatists in the 12th century, when writing his Guide to the Perplexed; his attempt to reconcile the Old Testament bible with what he considered to be the irrefutable scientific worldview put forth by Aristotle and other eminent Greek philosophers. In brief, Maimonides argued that the bible should not be taken literally but, instead, should be read metaphorically. Then, it could be entirely consistent with the truths arrived at through science and reason. Yet, Maimonides realized that most people did read the bible literally, and that to challenge their traditional point of view would be equivalent to challenging their faith itself. Thus, he realized that his arguments would be listened to by only a small group of the most open-minded readers.]

University of Sussex social anthropologist, Melissa Leach, suggests that scientists need to be more empathetic to the personal and cultural beliefs that cause people to reject scientific evidence (3). To that point, scientists need to listen to and understand the reasons why denialists seek alternatives to science, before they might be heard in turn. And scientists must be careful not to imply to science deniers that they are ignorant or irrational (see Aside 4). “Dismissing public and political concerns about health interventions as unscientific, irrational or misled fails to do justice to the different perspectives in play… It is why we see backlashes to even the best-intentioned initiatives (3).” In addition, scientists should not fall into the trap of advocating for an abstract principle. If you are perceived as an advocate, you will lose trust as an unbiased knowledge broker. So, stick to the evidence. Patiently and clearly connect the dots.

[Aside 4: It may surprise some that science denialists do not sort cleanly along income or education demographics. For instance, the movement to forgo vaccinations has become popular in some more liberal and affluent communities; the organic grocery demographic. Also, consider the example of conservative columnist George Will; an obviously well-educated and sophisticated individual, who nonetheless steadfastly maintains that since climate change happened naturally in the past, we cannot know that human-caused carbon pollution will cause harmful climate changes in the future. Others have noted that Will’s logic is equivalent to saying that since nonsmokers died of lung cancer in the past, we cannot know that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer now. Will also is not moved by the fact that there is a consensus among climate scientists—based on the accumulation of massive evidence—that human-caused carbon emissions are changing the climate. Climate scientists are now as certain of that conclusion as biomedical scientists are that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.]

Better communication with science denialists is not easy for reasons noted above. Moreover, many science denialists have learned to rebut the consensus view by cherry-picking “scientific” evidence that might cast doubt on the consensus view; irrespective of whether their selected evidence came from poorly conducted experiments. Moreover, denialists may throw their “alternative facts” at you so fast that, in refuting them, you exhaust your energy and patience well before you get to make your own argument (see Aside 5). And there still will be vociferous politicians, who will continue to misrepresent and ignore science, to advance their own agendas.

[Aside 5: To that point, in 2013 Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini put forward Brandolini’s law (also known as the “Bullshit Asymmetry Principle”). It states: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”]

In early February 2017, scientists across the United States began to plan a March for Science, to take place in Washington on April 22; Earth Day. Are organized marches an effective way to promote a pro-science agenda? Some scientists say that the march might be counterproductive. For instance, Geologist Robert Young, of Western Carolina University, argued that the march “could deepen the divide between conservatives and liberals, reinforce the idea that scientists are a political interest group…There’s a section of the American electorate—whether we like to acknowledge it or not—that has become skeptical of science. . . I don’t think that scientists standing in Washington, giving speeches and holding signs, is going to convince those people that they need to pay attention to our concerns… Somehow, as a community, those of us who care about science need to find a way to communicate with those folks…It has to be direct communication or ways that we have not imagined yet (4).”

Young’s remarks provoked a notable backlash on Twitter, with most scientists coming out in favor of the march. Also, consider the outcome of a 2012 march in Ottawa, by Canadian scientists opposed to the anti-science policies of Canada’s conservative Harper government (Aside 5). The Canadian march did not diminish the credibility of the participants, nor did it lead to polarization of the public. Instead, by bringing the Harper government’s anti-science policies to the public’s attention, the march may have helped to elect the more pro-science government of Justin Trudeau in 2015. So, one might hope that an American march might have a positive effect here, even if only to stem the tide of misinformation being fed to the American public.

[Aside 5: Canadian scientists protested the Harper government’s restrictions against free communication between scientists and the media; particularly communications that opposed the government’s pro-industry environmental policies. Scientists who did not comply might have their research programs terminated. In the U.S., in December 2016, then President-elect Trump asked the Department of Energy for the names of career employees and contractors who attended U.N. climate talks over the past five years. He also requested emails of those meetings. The DOE responded with a statement saying that Trump’s request had “unsettled” many in its workforce, that the DOE would “be forthcoming with all [publicly] available information,” but that it would withhold “any individual names.”]

There is no middle ground between objective science and unsubstantiated “alternative facts.” As stated most eloquently by Wendy Palenfeb: “Evidence and objective reality are the foundation of successful policy and governance. Openness is as vital to science as it is to democracy. We cannot allow hard-won knowledge to be ignored or distorted (5).”

References

  1. President Trump’s Advocacy of the Debunked Link Between Vaccines and Autism, Posted on the blog January 26, 2017.
  2. Charles Sykesfeb, Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying, NY Times, February 4, 2017.
  3. Melissa Leach, Accommodating dissent, Nature 450, p283, 22 November 2007, doi:10.1038/450483a.
  4. Diana Kwon, Will a March Help Science?, The Scientist, February 2, 2017.
  5. Wendy Palenfeb, When Canadian Scientists Were Muzzled by Their Government, NY Times, February 14, 2017.]

Addendum

Prompted by President Trump’s comments asserting a link between vaccines and autism, on February 7, 2017, more than 350 medical and professional organizations sent the President a letter stating that vaccines are a safe and most effective means for protecting the health of children and adults and saving lives. The text of the letter, and its signatories, can be accessed from: The week in science: 10–16 February 2017. Nature 542, (16 February 2017) doi:10.1038/542276a

President Trump’s Advocacy of the Debunked Link Between Vaccines and Autism

On March 28, 2014, more than a year before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, he tweeted: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”

Although Trump’s anti-vaccine sentiment has not been a secret, he nonetheless took the medical community by surprise when, on January 10, 2017, just days before he was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, he met with anti-vaccine activist, Robert Kennedy Jr., at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where, per Kennedy, Trump asked him to head a new government commission on vaccine safety (1).

Kennedy claimed that representatives of Trump’s transition team approached him before the meeting to ask whether he would be interested in participating in a vaccine inquiry. Moreover, he stated that Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway; and then Vice President-elect Mike Pence also attended the meeting. A few hours later, a spokesperson for Trump confirmed that Trump was “exploring the possibility of forming a committee on autism,” but added that no final decisions had been made (1).

The “possibility” that Trump might form a committee on vaccines and autism (irrespective of who heads it) raises fears in the medical community that, by doing so, Trump would give a sense of legitimacy to the discredited anti-vaccine point of view, which, in turn, would give many parents misinformation regarding the crucial need to get their children vaccinated. Vaccines are safe and effective. What’s more, they have prevented more human (especially childhood) suffering and death than any other measure in history! If Kennedy’s panel (or any other action by Trump, which reflected his “alternative” view of vaccines) led to even a small decrease in vaccination rates, the result would be the otherwise preventable deaths of children, including infants too young to be vaccinated (2), as well as the elderly.

The idea that vaccines might cause autism first gained widespread attention in 1998 after the British medical journal, The Lancet, published a study involving only 12 children, by former British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, which claimed to find a link between the measles vaccine and autism. However, an investigation by the British Medical Council later found that data in The Lancet paper was fraudulent. Moreover, Wakefield’s study received financial support from lawyers representing parents of autistic children; a conflict of interest that Wakefield did not disclose. The British Medical Journal took the extraordinary step of publishing a report in which it concluded that Wakefield’s study was not simply bad science, but a deliberate and elaborate fraud. The Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. A subsequent large scale study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, involving more than a half million children, found no evidence whatsoever of any connection between vaccines and autism (2).

Some individuals, including Kennedy, believe that thimerosal (a mercury compound once added to some vaccines as a preservative) is the link between vaccines and autism. However, thimerosal was added only to killed vaccines (e.g., the vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus), whereas the MMR vaccine—the original source of the vaccine controversy—is a live vaccine. What’s more, all vaccinations in the United States have been thimerosal-free since 2001, while new cases of childhood autism have not abated since then. Furthermore, extensive studies by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and by the US Institute of Medicine, could not find any connection between thimerosal and autism (2). At first, Kennedy completely ignored these studies, but later asserted that these government agencies were participating in a major cover-up (3).

Considering: 1) the overwhelming scientific evidence against the anti-vaccine point of view, 2) the extensive expert advice available to Trump from physicians and biomedical scientists both within and outside the government and, 3) the unceasing federal oversight of vaccine safety (by the both the CDC and the FDA), why would Trump reopen this issue at all, especially via a panel headed by a layperson, when doing so under any conditions will undermine public health? Is it to distract the public’s attention from more politically troubling issues, or is it merely a play to his base, or does Trump actually believe what he says?

Ben Carson, a physician and former presidential aspirant, and now Trump’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, framed the vaccine issue as a matter of government infringement on the peoples’ liberties; a point of view that resonates with the political right (see Aside 1.), as does Trump’s bizarre view, as tweeted in 2012, that: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.”

[Aside 1: Carson, a physician by background, ignores the crucial concept of herd immunity. People who cannot get vaccinated (e.g., young infants, pregnant women, children suffering from leukemia or other immune deficiencies) are yet protected from measles by herd immunity; that is, the immunity in the entire population that results when a high enough percentage of individuals has been vaccinated. When that level of compliance is attained, there are not enough susceptible individuals in the population to sustain the chain of transmission. Thus, vulnerable individuals, who cannot be vaccinated, pay the price for vaccine noncompliance by those who opt out.]

What might Trump’s position on vaccines portend for those biomedical scientists and physicians who would publicly oppose his anti-vaccine sentiments? For a hint, this past December Trump’s transition team asked the DOE for a list of its employees who worked on climate change, or who had attended climate change meetings, thereby raising the specter of repercussions against those who do not adhere to Trump’s stance on the climate change issue. Would the prospect of such repercussions undermine the willingness of physicians and scientists to speak out against Trump’s stance on vaccines?

This past week, Tom Price, Trump’s pick to head the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), rejected the claim that vaccines are linked to autism. He did so during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, thus offering some hope that the Trump White House might not pursue its debunked stance on vaccines. Nonetheless, bearing in mind Trump’s unpredictability, and his alternative view of reality regarding other issues, scientific and otherwise, scientists must remain vigilant, and be willing to speak out against policy decisions based on ideological political agendas or “alternative” views of reality, rather than sound scientific evidence.

“Scientists, medics and commentators who have fought vaccine disinformation in the past must take a deep breath and return to the fray. There is no need to wait for this commission to be announced officially. There is no need to wait until it issues its findings. There is no cause to be surprised if it shows little regard for science — or even if it targets scientists who speak out in favor of vaccination… Lives are at stake (4).”

References:

  1. Shear MD, Haberman M, and Belluck P, Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety. NY Times January 11, 2017.
  2.  Andrew Wakefield and the Measles Vaccine Controversy, Posted on the blog February 9, 2015.
  3. Mnookin S, How Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Distorted Vaccine Science, Scientific American, STAT on January 11, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/.../how-robert-f-kennedy-jr-distorted-vaccine-scie…
  4. 4. Trump’s vaccine-commission idea is biased and dangerous.  Nature 541:259, 2017. doi:10.1038/541259a

Addendum: The following is from the January 11, 2017 NY Times report (1).

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kennedy have described themselves as “pro-vaccine.” But they have repeatedly expressed concerns about what they claim is a link between vaccines and the development of autism. At a Republican presidential debate in September 2015, Mr. Trump described knowing people personally who had seen a cause and effect.

“Autism has become an epidemic,” Mr. Trump said in the debate. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.”

“I am totally in favor of vaccines,” he added. “But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me.”

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly used Twitter to spread his concerns about the safety of vaccines. In particular, he has often raised doubts about giving children vaccines in a single large dose rather than several smaller ones… Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Trump “believes in those anecdotal stories” about the dangers of vaccines. He said the president-elect “says if you have enough anecdotal stories saying the exact same thing, that you can’t dismiss the validity.”