The Daily Show: Hilarious segment about vaccines, not so hilariously wrong about the politics of vaccine denialism

Not surprisingly, being a guy who leans mildly left, I like The Daily Show. Jon Stewart and his writers are incredibly adept at skewering all manner of bovine excrement, be it political, scientific, or otherwise. In particular, the way Stewart and company skewered the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) for its promotion of the chemical industry. Indeed, Samantha Bee, who did the infamous Little Crop of Horrors segment that mocked ACSH for its defense of pesticides über alles and its criticism of Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative.

Another Daily Show segment by Samantha Bee is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and the skeptical blogs. As is usually the case with one of Bee’s segments, it’s quite funny. It mocks the antivaccine movement. It also features one of my heros, Paul Offit. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, although Bee nails it when it comes to pointing out that antivaccine sentiment is antiscientific and just as immune to change as any global climate change denialism or creationist views, she gets it wrong when she parrots the standard stereotype that vaccine denialism is primarily a liberal issue. Check it out the report, An Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy:

In the piece, in particular Bee makes fun of a crunchy lifestyle blogger, Sarah Pope, who, after establishing her liberal-crunchy bona fides (after Bee’s amusing prompts, of course), rattles off pretty much every antivaccine trope and bit of misinformation and pseudoscience in the antivaccine canon, claiming herd immunity is myth, that vaccines cause autism, that they don’t work, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Yesterday, Pope wrote about the interview thusly:

“The Epidemic of Idiocy” that The Daily Show segment labels the no-vaccination movement is head scratching given that the anti-vaccine movement is being led by the most educated in our society.

Are all those parents with college degrees, master’s degrees, PhDs and, yes, even many MDs that are saying no to shots for their kids complete idiots?

Highly doubtful!

No-vax parents aren’t the real “science deniers”. In fact, they the ones most interested in the science because they are digging into the research and demanding unbiased, objective data to support vaccination, not the slanted version presented by the CDC and conventional pediatricians like Dr. Offit who makes millions supporting the very industry that handsomely maintains his lifestyle.

Uh, no.

No matter how much Ms. Pope wants to claim the mantle of science through the University of Google, she and her fellow antivaccine activists are just as antiscience as anthropogenic global climate change denialists and creationists (a.k.a., evolution denialists). They also share another important trait with people holding those antiscience beliefs. They’re just really, really good at motivated reasoning, and one reason they’re so good at motivated reasoning is because they are educated and smart, which is why vaccine denialists and other science denialists are sometimes referred to as “smart idiots.” It’s a very apt term. I do, however thank The Daily Show for making me aware of Ms. Pope. Her blog looks like—shall we say?—a highly “target-rich” environment for potential future blog posts.

As for the political angle, which is where Samantha Bee and The Daily Show went wrong, I’ve frequently said in the past that antivaccine views are the pseudoscience and quackery that span all political persuasions. It’s true that areas with a lot of affluent people on the coasts where the politics tends to lean heavily liberal, have been focuses of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses. However, there is also a very strong strain of antivaccine views on the right as well, including General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who distrust the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules.

Indeed, many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I monitor tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury recently teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party has also recently been sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing in 2012 was a bust.

Let’s look at the most prominent politicians making antivaccine statements or backing antivaccine causes. Although he’s retired now (fortunately), Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) was for many years the foremost promoter of the idea that vaccines cause autism. His activities in support of antivaccine views as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform were legion while he was in Congress. For instance, Burton held showboating, Kangaroo court-style hearings about thimerosal and autism back in 2002 that remind me, more than anything else, of the hearings about Stanislaw Burzynski by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) back in the 1990s. Burton also was known for harassing FDA officials over thimerosal in vaccines, and at one point tried to insert himself into the Autism Omnibus hearings by writing a letter to the Special Masters asking them to consider crappy scientific papers (such as the paper by Hitlan, which was pure crap) allegedly supporting a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. Burton wasn’t the only one. As I mentioned, his successor as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Darrell Issa, is flirting with the antivaccine Canary Party, although it’s not clear whether he’s a true believer or just opportunistically taking Larson’s money and then throwing her a hearing or two to make it look as though she got something for her money.

Also on the right-wing antivaccine political crew is Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who’s introduced dubious legislation demanding the Holy Grail for antivaccinationists, a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study. True, Posey co-sponsored the bill with Carol Maloney (D-NY), who is also apparently antivaccine, but she’s the only Democrat I’ve ever been able to find willing to go on record supporting a piece of legislation giving the antivaccine movement something it desperately wants. Meanwhile, prominent Republican and occasional candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, Donald Trump, is a rabid antivaccinationist, while Michelle Bachman has been known to drop the occasional antivaccine bon mot as well. Meanwhile, the Texas Republican Party famously included a “vaccine choice” plank in its 2012 party platform.

It’s not just right wing politicians, either. FOX News, for instance, isn’t above pushing anti-vaccine nonsense. For example, of late the FOX and Friends crew has been doing sympathetic pieces on Andrew Wakefield, interviews with Dr. Bob Sears, SafeMinds’ anti-vaccine PSA campaign, Louise Kuo Habakus (who is virulently anti-vaccine herself and politically active in New Jersey pushing for transparent “philosophical exemption” laws), while FOX News fell for the story of a young woman claiming dystonia from a vaccine. (FOX News has also been known to promote blatant cancer quackery.)

Unfortunately, there aren’t actually a lot of good data examining whether there is a correlation between political affiliation and anti-vaccine views. I blogged about this very issue a three years ago, discussing an article by Chris Mooney looking at polling data and doing the best he could to characterize the politics of vaccine denialism. It’s worth doing a brief recap of that discussion here. Reanalyzing a poll from 2009 asking about Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine views, specifically how many people were aware of them and how many were more or less likely to agree with them, Brendan Nyhan and Chris Mooney found:

So here are the results: Liberals (41% not aware, 38 % aware but not more likely, 21 % aware and more likely); Moderates (48% not aware, 28% aware but not more likely, 24% aware and more likely); Conservatives (49% not aware, 28 % aware but not more likely, 23% aware and more likely).

These results basically suggest that there’s little or no political divide in terms of who falls for Jenny McCarthy’s misinformation. Notably, liberals were somewhat more aware of her claims and yet, nevertheless, were least likely to listen to them. But not by a huge margin or anything.

Mooney also noted another poll done by Pew regarding whether vaccines should be mandatory:

What’s interesting here is that Pew also provided a political breakdown of the results, and there was simply no difference between Democrats and Republicans. 71% of members of both parties said childhood vaccinations should be required, while 26% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats said parents should decide. (Independents were slightly worse: 67% said vaccinations should be required, while 30% favored parental choice.)

Bottom line: There’s no evidence here to suggest that vaccine denial (and specifically, believing that childhood vaccines cause autism) is a distinctly left wing or liberal phenomenon. However, I will reiterate that we don’t really have good surveys at this point that are clearly designed to get at this question.

So, yes, the evidence is admittedly weak, but the evidence that we do have suggests that antivaccine views are prevalent across the right and the left, with little or no discernible difference in prevalence between the groups. Although we all know about the unreliability of anecdotal evidence, this concept is in line with my experience, as well. Although I can’t discount the possibility that my impression is influenced by confirmation bias, I’ve noticed a lot of right wing vaccine denialism. Basically, right wing and left wing vaccine denialists tend to justify their antiscience stance using different rationales. From the right, the reasons to reject vaccines tend to be grounded in suspicion of government, support for “health freedom” (or, as I like to call it, the freedom of quacks from pesky government interference with their selling their wares), and rejecting any idea that they have an obligation to contribute to herd immunity. In contrast, left-wing antivaccinationists tend to ground their views in appeals to “nature” and “natural” immunity plus suspicion of pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, alternative medicine use tends not to fall into an easy left-right dichotomy either. My favorite example to illustrate this point is that, even though alternative medicine is viewed as a crunchy, “New Age” phenomenon more prevalent on the left, the Nazi regime actively promoted naturopathy and various other “volkish” alternative medicine modalities. I realize this is an extreme example, but it’s intentionally extreme.

Indeed, I’ve even noticed that (and written a characteristically detailed post about how) antivaccinationists seem particularly home with the libertarian movement. In it, I noted that when Ronald Bailey of Reason.com wrote an article entitled Refusing Vaccination Puts Others At Risk: A pragmatic argument for coercive vaccination, the reaction from his fellow Libertarians was less than receptive. Indeed, at the right-wing Libertarian FreedomFest in 2012, I was privileged to watch a debate between Julian Whitaker and Steve Novella about vaccines. At the debate, vaccine pseudoscience flowed freely from Whitaker in a most embarrassing fashion, and I couldn’t help but note that FreedomFest that year featured two screenings of Leslie Manookian’s antivaccine propaganda piece, The Greater Good. The same conference had featured antivaccine talks in previous years. Ironically, at one point, one of the antivaccine bloggers at the crank blog Age of Autism blamed “progressivism” for failing to “get” autism. (Translation: From his perspective, his fellow progressives don’t accept the vaccine-autism link the way he would like.)

So, although Samantha Bee’s segment is, as usual, very funny, it is unfortunately based on a premise that is a convenient stereotype, not to mention demonstrably almost certainly wrong. Here’s hoping that The Daily Show doesn’t screw up this badly again about such an important issue any time soon. If Bee and Stewart want to consider how badly they went wrong, they have only to look at where the worst outbreak of measles has been this year. It isn’t in California (although there are outbreaks there). It is in Ohio, with Knox county having the most cases as of today. Note that Mitt Romney won Knox County 61% to 37% in 2012. In fact, all of the counties with measles cases reported voted overwhelmingly Republican in the last election, one of them (Holmes County) giving Mitt Romney a margin of 75% to 23%. That’s more than three to one. Barack Obama won none of these counties. Not a single one.

Think about that, Ms. Bee and Mr. Stewart.