Jill Stein and left wing antivaccine dog whistles

During the political battle last year over the recently implemented California law SB 277, which eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates and then later during the campaign for the Republican nomination for President, I used a term regarding antivaccine views. That term was “antivaccine dog whistle.” In politics, as you probably now, a “dog whistle” is a term for coded messages that sound like advocating principles with broad acceptance but to a certain subgroup are recognized as code for something else. The analogy is obvious. Just as humans can’t hear much of a dog whistle while the intended recipient (dogs) can, political dog whistles come through loud and clear to their intended audience while those not familiar with the issues hear nothing or something unobjectionable. Thus “states’ rights” became a euphemism for continued discrimination and resistance to federal civil rights mandates. In the case of vaccines, there are “dog whistles” too. For example, whenever you hear a politician discussing in the context of vaccines parental rights health freedom, or fascism (likening school vaccine mandates to an assault on freedom), there’s a good chance that it’s an antivaccine dog whistle. Pediatricians do it too. (I’m talking to you, Dr. Bob Sears!) The purpose of dog whistles in politics is to tell a group with an odious set of beliefs, “I’m with you” without explicitly saying so while couching the message in ideas that many people would consider admirable or at least unobjectionable.

Last year, contrary to the usual stereotype of crunchy lefties being antivaccine, it was mostly conservatives blowing the antivaccine dog whistle. Indeed, Republicans as varied as Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and, of course, Donald Trump blew really hard on that dog whistle. Over the weekend, though, I learned that Republicans aren’t the only ones good at blowing antivaccine dog whistles. On Friday, Green Party nominee for President, Dr. Jill Stein, found herself in a spot of political bother due to her remarks on vaccines, which represented such a massive dog whistle that antivaccinationists across the land heard it loud and clear.

Dr. Stein’s problems began when she participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session in May. Actually, they intensified when that AMA was resurrected late last week and reporters started asking questions. In the AMA, though, Stein was asked, “What is your campaign’s official stance on vaccines and homeopathic medicine?” In response, she laid down a screeching series of antivaccine dog whistles:

I don’t know if we have an “official” stance, but I can tell you my personal stance at this point. According to the most recent review of vaccination policies across the globe, mandatory vaccination that doesn’t allow for medical exemptions is practically unheard of. In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical? I think dropping vaccinations rates that can and must be fixed in order to get at the vaccination issue: the widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial complex.

Vaccines in general have made a huge contribution to public health. Reducing or eliminating devastating diseases like small pox and polio. In Canada, where I happen to have some numbers, hundreds of annual death from measles and whooping cough were eliminated after vaccines were introduced. Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, its no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice. A Monsanto lobbyists and CEO like Michael Taylor, former high-ranking DEA official, should not decide what food is safe for you to eat. Same goes for vaccines and pharmaceuticals. We need to take the corporate influence out of government so people will trust our health authorities, and the rest of the government for that matter. End the revolving door. Appoint qualified professionals without a financial interest in the product being regulated. Create public funding of elections to stop the buying of elections by corporations and the super-rich.

Regular readers will recognize this as the gambit I like to call, “I’m not ‘antivaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine and don’t trust the FDA and big pharma.” I will grant that Dr. Stein was a little more—shall we say?—emphatic in her concession that vaccines do good than the average antivaccinationist making these arguments. One almost has to wonder if the lady doth protest too much. However, the rest of her word salad above could be cribbed from any number of antivaccine websites. Hell, even Andrew Wakefield concedes that vaccines do good and claims not to be “antivaccine.” Then he routinely launches into the same sort of rant that Dr. Stein engaged in above. An even better example is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who’s been spewing antivaccine pseudoscience since at least 2005 and yet has the temerity to repeatedly characterize himself as “fiercely pro-vaccine.” In other words, denying being antivaccine counts for nothing if you’re repeating antivaccine tropes. It’s standard practice among antivaccine activists.

Dr. Stein is also sadly mistaken about a great many things. For example, her rant about “corporate influence” on the vaccine approval process is straight out of the antivaccine playbook and based on incorrect information. As David Weigel pointed out, the most members of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee work at academic or medical institutions, not drug companies. Yes, there are representatives from drug companies there, but they are a minority, and they are nonvoting members. Moreover, VRBPAC business is nearly all conducted in public. There are only very rarely nonpublic working groups, and all meeting materials are posted to the FDA website. Dr. Stein can peruse them herself going back many years if she so desires. In fact, I urge her to do so. Also, VRBPAC has vigorous screening for financial conflicts of interest. If a member has any that member can’t vote. Finally, I can’t help but note that the antivaccine group the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) has occupied the voting consumer representative slot in the past. Barbara Loe Fisher held it in the past, and, more recently, Vickie Diebold. (For example, check out this 2009 VRBPAC roster). Basically, Dr. Stein is utterly clueless how vaccines are approved and has repeatedly slandered the FDA over it.

Similarly, the linking of “Monsanto lobbyists” to vaccine regulatory approval is yet another page straight out of the antivaccine playbook. None of this stopped Dr. Stein from doubling down when she sat with the Washington Post’s Sarah Parnass and Alice Li:

“I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.”

Of course, the CDC doesn’t decide which vaccines are approved. The FDA does. The CDC only chooses vaccines that are already approved to place on its recommended vaccine schedule. As for Dr. Stein’s claim that most countries rely on voluntary vaccination and the trust of their citizens in their government, that’s a very simplistic version of events. In fact, various countries use a variety of means of persuasion, mandates, and, even in some cases compulsion, to assure high vaccination rates. Australia, for instance, offers financial incentives and recently implemented a “no jab no pay” policy that denies welfare payments to children who don’t vaccinate. As for voluntary programs maintaining a high rate of vaccination, well, the UK learned in the wake of Andrew Wakefield’s MMR scare, that doesn’t always work so well.

In addition, Dr. Stein seems not to be up on the latest vaccine data:

As a medical doctor, there was a time where I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved.

There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.

The issue of mercury in vaccines in the form of the preservative thimerosal was resolved nearly 15 years ago. Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. Moreover, there was never any compelling evidence that thimerosal-containing vaccines had anything to do with autism. It’s something I’ve written about tiem and time again, and I know. As for these “real questions that needed to be addressed,” one notes that these issues have been addressed ad nauseam. Over and over and over again. In every case, in the case of every well-designed study looking at the issue, no epidemiological link between vaccines and autism or vaccines and the diseases antivaccinationists attribute to them has been found. I’ve blogged about this very issue more times than I can remember. I’ve blogged more studies than I can remember. This is not controversial. Vaccines are safe and effective. Just because Dr. Stein is too clueless to realize this doesn’t make these “concerns” scientifically valid.

In the face of criticism, Dr. Stein tried to defend herself when asked what she says to people who think she’s antivaccine:

Her response:

What I say to those people is that we need regulatory agencies we can trust. I’m definitely not anti-vax; what I have raised is the issue that we need an FDA that’s working for us, that’s not working for the pharmaceutical industry. I think that makes some people uncomfortable, so they’re trying to smear me as being anti-vaxxer. I’m not anti-vax; I’m just saying we need good, reliable data so that the American people know what we’re doing. I mean, it’s like saying the FDA, that has leadership from Monsanto, should tell us what kind of food is safe? No, you get Monsanto out of there, you get the pharmaceutical companies out of there, and then we can trust…

In other words, she basically just doubled down on the same antivaccine dog whistles. The only difference between her and Rand Paul or Chris Christie is that Republicans couch their antivaccine dog whistles in appeals to freedom and parental rights while Dr. Stein couches hers in distrust of big pharma. Either way, the message is the same to antivaccinationists: “I’m with you,” or, at least, “I sympathize with your views.” As I said in other places, if you keep mentioning big pharma and the FDA and how much you distrust them in the context of a discussion about vaccines, you’re blowing antivaccine dog whistles.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Stein’s admirers leapt to her defense with scientifically ignorant assertions that she’s not antivaccine because she says she’s not antivaccine. For example, Dan Arel tried to argue that, sorry Clinton supporters, but Jill Stein is not the antivaccine presidential candidate, but even he was forced to admit that her statements were “straight anti-vaxx pandering,” adding:

While I still feel okay saying Stein is not “anti-vaccine” I cannot confidently say she is not anti-science and that she does not overly pander to the anti-science and anti-vaccine crowd.

A leader needs to stand up against the movement that is killing children, not court their vote.

Unfortunately, a usually trusted source, a source that I’ve admired and cited for years, fell hook, line, and sinker for Dr. Stein’s defense, based on her statements and a statement from Dr. Stein’s campaign denying she is antivaccine and a Tweet:

I expressed my disappointment on Twitter, and Kim LaCapria responded:


I actually agree that it isn’t black and white. Here’s the problem. By declaring the criticisms of Dr. Stein as antivaccine as unequivocally false, Snopes made it black and white. The very best spin one can put on Dr. Stein’s statements is that she is pandering to antivaccine activists. That’s the very best spin. The worst spin is that she is antivaccine. Thus, it’s not editorializing to conclude that the contention that Jill Stein is antivaccine is at least partially true, because that’s what the evidence is most consistent with. She’s parroted antivaccine talking points. There is no denying that.

Then on Twitter there was this:

This one really annoyed me because I wrote about what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said about vaccines and autism, back when they said it in April 2008 during the Democratic primary campaign, and actually what Obama and Clinton said back then wasn’t worse than what Jill Stein said. They basically both did some vacuous politician-speak promising more research into environmental causes of autism. As I said at the time, “calling for more research” is the cop-out that all politicians use whenever there’s an issue that is contentious, but that wasn’t not why the Democratic candidates received a dose of Orac’s loving attention. Rather it was because in answering these questions the way they did, they both fell for the very frame that antivaccinationists wanted them to fall for with respect to vaccines and autism. What they didn’t do is to rant about how the FDA and CDC are in bed with big pharma and cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines the way that Jill Stein did. More importantly, neither of them are physicians, and neither of them ever repeated the same nonsense. Neither of them said demonstrably false things about the FDA in order to demonize it. They figured out their mistakes and didn’t make them again. Indeed, Hillary Clinton made a point of Tweeting:

And in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton also made it a point of stating, “I believe in science.” I could quibble that you don’t need to “believe” in science for it to work and be valid, but it’s refreshing to hear a candidate say that, and, yes, I know that Hillary Clinton’s record isn’t perfect on that score, given her admiration for Mark Hyman and his functional medicine.

So the question remains: Is Jill Stein antivaccine? To be honest, I’m not sure whether she is or not. It almost doesn’t matter. Almost. Certainly, at the very least she is aware that what she is saying sounds antivaccine. It’s like racism. Whenever you hear someone say, “I’m not a racist, but…” you know that whatever follows after the “but…” is almost certainly going to be racist as hell. It’s the same with antivaccine views. If someone feels obligated to say, “I’m not antivaccine, but…” you know that whatever follows is highly likely to be antivaccine as hell. Jill Stein fits that pattern. However, I rather suspect that she probably isn’t really antivaccine. She does, however, clearly feel the need to pander to the antivaccine fringe, which is sad. She’s also dodged the question in so many ways. She’s been asked if vaccines cause autism, and in response she initially said that there wasn’t. But then she changed her mind, deleting her original Tweet and substituting another one. Here’s the one that’s there now:

And here’s what someone noticed:

Changing from “there is no evidence” to “I’m not aware of evidence” that vaccines cause autism? Well done! Now that is a dog whistle. That is pandering to the antivaccine movement! It’s more subtle than her earlier pandering, but it’s pandering nonetheless.

Think of it this way. I’ve written many times about how antivaccine Donald Trump is. Indeed, he’s been spewing antivaccine nonsense since at least 2007, long before ever running for President. In fact, given how much Donald Trump lies and how often he switches positions, what is amazing to me about Trump’s antivaccine beliefs are how long he’s expressed them and how unrelentingly consistent he’s been in expressing them. That vaccines cause autism appears to be one of the few things Donald Trump really believes and hasn’t changed his position on. In a way, that makes Jill Stein arguably worse than Donald Trump in that she probably doesn’t believe the antivaccine BS she’s been laying down, but she lays it down anyway. In other words, she chooses to pander to antivaccine loons with antivaccine dog whistles for left wingers.

And, as Skeptical Raptor tells us, vaccines aren’t the only topic where Jill Stein gets the science wrong.