Michelle Bachmann’s anti-vaccine statements cross the political pseudoscience divide

I don’t often blog about politics anymore. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, political bloggers are a dime a dozen. Rare is the one that interests me much. However, sometimes things happen that lead me to make an exception, except that this time it’s not really an exception because it has to do with two of the main topics that this blog is all about: science and the anti-vaccine movement. Those of you who watched the Republican debate the other day or saw the news reports about it yesterday probably know where this is going, but I’ll go there anyway. First, I can’t help but express my frustration that the Republican Party has so firmly become the anti-science party.

None of this is any news to those of us who have been blogging about science and anti-science cranks for a while. Indeed, the sharp turn against science by the Republican Party in recent years is one reason why I’ve referenced I Miss Republicans as one of my favorite posts expressing puzzlement, along with its followup I Still Miss Republicans so frequently. It’s also another reason why, given my previous politically conservative orientation, I frequently steal Ronald Reagan’s line about how I didn’t leave the Republican Party but rather it left me, as I also put the lie to Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” In any case, be it denialism of anthropogenic global warming, evolution, stem cell science, or any of a number of ideologically “inconvenient” findings of science, Republicans seem to have decided that being anti-science wingnuts has no downside and will somehow appeal to their base. These days, Chris Mooney, for all that some atheists vilify him, seems eerily prescient in his book from six years ago The Republican War on Science. Mooney’s only mistake? He didn’t realize at the time just how far into anti-science positions the Republican Party would ultimately dive. Who would have thought that the Bush Administration would seem almost rational by comparison with today’s crop of Republican candidates for president?

Interestingly, the problem of anti-science lunacy in the Republican Party has gotten to the point where it’s not just the science blogosphere has noticed. Indeed, some Republicans, including a candidate who probably doesn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of winning the nomination, John Huntsman fretted about how anti-science the Republican Party has become. This inspired Paul Krugman to write an article a couple of weeks ago that he called Republicans Against Science, in which he described the Republican candidates for their party’s nomination as Republican Party as “aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge.”

Arguably the most wingnutty of the Republican anti-science wingnuts has to be Michelle Bachman, whose abuse of science and reason has been a regular topic among bloggers on ScienceBlogs and elsewhere in the science blogosphere for quite some time now, saying such astoundingly ignorant things such as citing “hundreds of scientists” who think “intelligent design” creationism is good science and claiming that there “isn’t even one study” showing that carbon dioxide is harmful with respect to global climate change. In the interim, few politicians can bring home the stupid with such incredible regularity as Bachmann, who was also recently notorious for claiming that the recent earthquake and hurricane that hit the East Coast were God’s warning to America.

So it should, I guess, come as no surprise that Michelle Bachmann appears to have bought into anti-vaccine pseudoscience. During the Republican debate two nights ago, Bachmann lashed out at current frontrunner Rick Perry for his having signed an executive order mandating the HPV vaccine Gardasil for preadolescent girls in Texas. Now, believe it or not, there are valid reasons to criticize Perry for this decision not because Gardasil is harmful or not a good vaccine but because of the conflict of interest there appeared to be. Of course, “valid reasons” and a Michelle Bachmann screed tend to be related only by sheer coincidence, and so it was in this case:

The relevant quote:

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just wrong,” Bachmann said. “Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan.”

The Minnesota congresswoman went even further, accusing Perry of handing out favors to a company, Merck, represented by his former top aide, Mike Toomey.

“There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate,” Bachmann said. “The governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company.”

Note the anti-vaccine movement language about “government injections” and “negative reactions.” Chris Mooney also notes an interesting phenomenon, namely a Republican candidate considered to be a far right winger making an argument traditionally used by the far left, namely that Perry was bought and paid for by a large corporation, which is an interesting development in and of itself. More interesting to me, though is just how blatantly anti-vaccine Bachmann’s statements since then have been. Oddly enough, I didn’t really hear about Bachmann’s co-opting of anti-vaccine rhetoric for political gain until late yesterday, when I saw an NBC news report about her statements, particularly yesterday morning when, instead of backing off or trying to figure out a way to save face, doubled down on the idiocy on NBC’s “Today” show:

I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said.

She continued: “The mother was crying what she came up to me last night. I didn’t know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.”

Asked if she would continue to hammer away at the HPV issue, Bachmann said it was an appropriate way to draw “very real distinctions” with Perry over the use of executive power.

“You can’t abuse executive authority with executive orders, because there could be very negative consequences that the American people have to pay,” she said. “There is no second chance for these little girls if there is any dangerous consequences to their bodies.”

Later, in an interview with Sean Hannity, a Rush Limbaugh wannabe without even Rush’s occasional entertainment value, Bachmann pulls the “I’m not a doctor” gambit coupled with the “I’m just telling you what this woman said” gambit. She then launches straight into the “health freedom” gambit by saying that she wouldn’t want the government to mandate an injection for her child, which makes me wonder whether her children have been vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. Indeed, I wonder: Why hasn’t anyone asked her that question since her debate appearance? It’s an obvious question! Come on, journalists, ask! Here’s the clip:

And here’s the news report that inspired me to blog this issue:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I think it’s telling that even Sean Hannity, who kisses Michelle Bachmann’s tuchas at every opportunity, is giving her a hard time over this.

As I’ve pointed out time and time again, Gardasil is incredibly safe by any measure. Also by any measure, it’s been very heavily tested and monitored. Of course, there is no evidence at all that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation. I’ve also pointed out how the vast majority of the reports of adverse reactions after the HPV vaccine made to the VAERS database were almost certainly not due to Gardasil and have castigated Medscape, of all publications, for buying into anti-vaccine myths about Gardasil. Meanwhile the American Academy of Pediatrics immediately issued a press release to correct Michelle Bachmann’s false statements about Gardasil. What Bachmann is peddling is pure pseudoscience. I suppose I shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised, given how gullible she is when it comes to science in general and how much she allows ideology to trump science.

What pleasantly surprised me was the reaction to Bachmann’s pandering to the anti-vaccine movement. I noted during the 2008 election that all the major candidates pandered to some degree to some anti-vaccine beliefs. John McCain, for instance, ignorantly parroted anti-vaccine claims. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fell into the same trap of wanting to seem “balanced.” It was a minor kerfuffle. This time around, Bachmann’s ignorant statements have caused a lot of Republicans to express dismay, with some even likening her to anti-vaccine wingnut Jenny McCarthy. Conservative bloggers Ed Morrissey, The Right Scoop, Jonathan Adler, and even Instapundit (who accused Bachmann of going after the Jenny McCarthy vote) have piled on. Shockingly, even the looniest of right wingers I know of right now, Emperor Misha of The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, asked For Crying Out Loud, Michelle, You Just Had to Go and Do It, Didn’t You? Of course, this is a guy who routinely refers to President Obama as “Ogabe” on a blog where terms like terms like “Fabulous Obamanomics Utopia™” are thrown around as though they were clever and bloggers think nothing of advocating extrajudicial murder. It’s also a blog where anthropogenic global warming denialism runs rampant with bad arguments and one of the bloggers refers to supporters of the science of anthropogenic global warming as Assholes, Charlatans, Frauds & Libelers. In other words, it’s a blog that makes Vox “Hey, It Worked for Hitler” Day look almost rational by comparison.

Well, not really. Nothing can make Vox Day look the least bit rational, even by comparison.

It does make me wonder, though. The current crop of Republican candidates thinks nothing of attacking the science of evolution, anthropogenic global warming, and anything else that goes counter to their ideology. What is it about attacking vaccines that causes many of them, even ones with ideas that are otherwise truly loony, to recoil in horror? It happened to Bachmann, even though the conservative fundamentalist religious wing of the Republican Party hates Gardasil because they think it will encourage promiscuity. I think I know.

Whether it’s true or not, anti-vaccine views tend to be associated in the public mind with New Agey, liberal types. Although I frequently point out that anti-vaccine views actually span the political spectrum (look up General Bert Stubblebine III and Rima Laibow if you don’t believe me), there is at least a grain of truth to this perception in that vaccine resistance does appear to be high in West Coast and East Coast enclaves brimming with affluent people with liberal political leanings, places like the Bay Area, Seattle, parts of New York City and the like. Even though there are strains of anti-vaccine belief among some of the more Libertarian elements of the conservative movement, echoing nicely with “health freedom” beliefs, it hasn’t stuck, and conservatives do not view themselves as “anti-vaccine,” unlike those “loony Jenny McCarthy types.” As a consequence, I think it actually shocked many Republicans to hear anti-vaccine views so baldly stated right in the middle of a Republican debate by one of its major candidats for president. To those of us who are aware of the principle of crank magnetism, which states that people who support one form of pseudoscience tend to be credulous enough to believe in other forms of pseudoscience, it is no surprise that Bachmann has apparently come out as being anti-vaccine. To Republicans, crank magnetism is fine about evolution and global climate change, but should that crank magnetism drift into areas that are perceived as being “liberal” pseudoscience, watch out!

That’s what Michelle Bachmann did on Monday and Tuesday, drifted away from “conservative” ideological pseudoscience into what is perceived, again rightly or wrongly, as “liberal” pseudoscience, and that’s why she’s paying the price. Questioning evolution or AGW? Hey, that’s skepticism! Anti-vaccine views? Hey, that’s liberal crazy talk!