If there’s one thing about the reporting of the 2016 election that irritated me, it was the massive underreporting of certain antiscience views held by the man who is now our President-Elect. Sure, there was coverage about his denial of anthropogenic climate change from time to time. Much less reported was his long history of antivaccine views, a history I’ve been documenting since 2007. I started documenting it again in September 2015, just before the first Republican Presidential Debate. Then, the vaccine issue came up during that debate, and the mainstream media took notice—briefly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just Donald Trump spouting antivaccine pseudoscience there. It was also Rand Paul and Ben Carson, which diluted the effect. Then a mysterious thing happened. There was little to no coverage of Donald Trump’s antivaccine views in the mainstream media for the next 14 months.
I was reminded of my irritation by a recent article in MedPage Today, Trump’s Meeting With Wakefield Rattles Vaccine Supporters, published on December 2. I note that that was one month after antivaccine blogger Levi Quackenboss couldn’t keep her mouth shut about the meeting, which occurred in August in Florida and after I and other skeptical bloggers tried to sound the alarm. It was also one week before the election. Then it was three weeks after Quackenboss bragged about what antivaccine activists want from a Trump administration. Now, four weeks after the election, Medpage notices Trump’s flirtation with the antivaccine movement.
I know, I know. It’s almost certainly wishful thinking that the revelation of such information before the would have made the least bit of difference in the ultimate outcome of the election, but, still, it irritates the hell out of me to see public health officials only now starting to wring their hands about Donald Trump and mainstream medical outlets notice that he met with Andrew Wakefield.
It also irritates me when I see someone make a point by misunderstanding what is and isn’t “antivaccine” I’m referring to an article I saw in Slate.com by Brian Palmer, Trump Isn’t an Anti-Vaxxer. He’s a Slow Vaxxer. Basically, Palmer fundamentally misunderstands antivaxers and uses that misunderstanding to explain Trump’s appeal. He gets things partially right, but lays down a howler like this right in the beginning:
Anti-vaxxers think they finally have a friend in the White House. Donald Trump has voiced concerns about vaccines for at least a decade, and, in August, he reportedly attended a fundraiser with disgraced and delicensed doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited research helped launch the anti-vaccination panic.
But Trump isn’t quite an anti-vaxxer. If he were, he wouldn’t have vaccinated his own children. In fact, Trump is a slow vaxxer, which means he accepts the idea of vaccination, but he thinks kids get too many vaccines, too early in life. In practice, this means parents pick their own vaccine schedule, scientific standards be damned.
If you are struggling to understand the appeal of Donald Trump—as I have been for months—his vaccine position offers a window. Trump occupies a middle ground between fact and fiction. For people who can’t distinguish between the two, this compromise is irresistible.
Palmer has a point, but not in the way he thinks. Antivaccine activists have been using this very tactic for a very long time. They claim, “I’m not antivaccine.” They proclaim themselves as being “vaccine safety activists.” It’s a lie. It’s nonsense. But it’s nonsense that convinces a lot of people who haven’t paid attention to the antivaccine movement. Indeed, I have a whole series of posts that I call, in my inimitable fashion, Annals of “I’m not antivaccine” in which I document such “not antivaccine” sentiments from “vaccine safety activists,” such as likening vaccines to human trafficking, rape, and other evil as varied as the Oklahoma City bombing and the sinking of the Titanic. That’s leaving aside all the references to Nazis and fascism. This series has been going on for six years now and is up to installment #22, with no sign of running out of material. I could go on and on if I wanted to, but I’ll spare you. The evidence is there in the links I just provided, if you want to see it.
Of course, the real point is that the claim that “I’m not antivaccine, I’m a vaccine safety activist” does have traction, as does the “too many too soon” trope frequently repeated by antivaccine activists. Palmer fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the antivaccine movement. Clearly, Palmer doesn’t understand that “Too many too soon” is a rallying cry of the antivaccine movement. He realizes at some level that it’s based on pure pseudoscience, but he doesn’t connect the dots to understand how it is used to undermine the legitimacy of the current vaccine schedule, which leads him to write things like:
Imagine that you don’t understand medical research. You’re torn between the medical establishment and the scary claims of anti-vaxxers. In that context, slow vaxxing seems like the ideal third way. Here’s Trump, talking about his son Baron in 2007.
[W]e’ve taken him on a very slow process. He gets one shot at a time then we wait a few months and give him another shot, the old-fashioned way. But today they pump the children with so much at a very young age. We do it on a very, very conservative level.
What could be more reasonable? Slow. Old-fashioned. Not just conservative—very, very conservative.
It’s not as though skeptics, including a “friend of the blog,” haven’t addressed this issue many times. The quote that Palmer cites dates back to 2007. What it shows is that in 2007 Trump was already parroting the antivaccine pseudoscience that at that time I had been deconstructing for seven years and blogging about for nearly three. It was a performance—and, let’s face it, everything Trump does in public is performance art, if you can call it that—that was brilliantly parodied at Autism News Beat as The art of the schlemiel. What Palmer fails to quote is what Trump also said:
“When a little baby that weighs 20 pounds and 30 pounds gets pumped with 10 and 20 shots at one time, with one injection that’s a giant injection, I personally think that has something to do with it. Now there’s a group that agrees with that and there’s a group that doesn’t agree with that.”
In any case, as I’ve said multiple times before I’m hard pressed to come up with any time when a baby gets 10 or 20 shots at a time, and that’s even assuming that Trump was ignorantly conflating the number of diseases vaccinated against in combination vaccines with “shots.” For example, the DTaP vaccinates against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, or three “shots,” to use Trump’s apparent parlance, and MMR vaccinates against measles, mumps, and rubella, or three more “shots.” That’s six vaccines, six sets of antigens so far, but in only two real injections. You get the idea. Trump seems to think that each vaccine in combo vaccines is a single shot, or at least he talks as though that’s what he believes. This 2007 interview was just the first example of which I’m aware in which he did that. In 2012, Trump posted statements on Twitter about a “monster shot” that causes autism. I noted at the time, Trump seemed to be getting his misinformation from Bob and Suzanne Wright, the founders of Autism Speaks. Although Autism Speaks has backed away from the antivaccine pseudoscience somewhat in recent years, back then they had drunk deeply of the antivaccine Kool-Aid, so much so that the continued embrace of antivaccine nonsense by Autism Speaks in the face of overwhelming evidence that vaccines are not linked with autism was a large part of the reason why Alison Singer left that group. Trump had even done fundraisers for them.
Palmer isn’t totally wrong. It’s just that he misunderstands the nature of the antivaxers and how the “too many too soon” trope does not imply a belief in vaccines. In other words, contrary to what Palmer appears to believe, being a “slow vaxer” does not mean that one is not antivaccine. It can, I suppose, but in the vast majority of cases the reason a “slow vaxer” is a slow vaxer is because she believes in antivaccine nonsense and is scared enough of vaccines to think that they need to be spaced out Indeed, the vast majority of the time, being a “slow vaxer” is part and parcel of buying into antivaccine pseudoscience. That’s why, when I read Palmer’s argument that “slow” vaxing doesn’t necessarily imply antivaccine beliefs, I laughed at his naïveté. Clearly, this is not someone who has had much experience dealing with the antivaccine movement, or, if he has, he failed to see how the “too many too soon” trope is one of the central dogmas of the antivaccine movement. Touchingly, he seems to actually buy the antivaccine line that “too many too soon” is not antivaccine. He even seems to believe that Dr. Bob Sears, arguably the foremost purveyor of the “too many too soon” trope, is not antivaccine. Never mind those Nazi references by him and his fellow travelers.
I don’t mean to be too hard on Palmer. I really don’t. His heart is in the right place. He even gives a good explanation why “too many too soon” is a bogus reason not to vaccinated. Besides, if his heart weren’t in the right place, he wouldn’t write things like this:
For one thing, slow vaxxing is not actually old-fashioned. The old-fashioned way to vaccinate was quite the opposite: We used to wallop a child with an enormous dose of antigens all at once. The smallpox vaccine that Trump likely received as an infant required his immune system to respond to 200 different proteins. Today the entire compliment of child vaccines contains just 160 proteins. Children do receive 10 times more shots today than they did a century ago, but the number of needle sticks is irrelevant—it’s the size of the immune challenge that matters. Of course, you need some scientific literacy to understand this difference.
All of this is correct. Unfortunately, it’s also irrelevant to the question of whether Donald Trump is antivaccine or not. He clearly is. Worse, he is the President-Elect. Even worse, given that Donald Trump is the President-Elect, too many are, like Brian Palmer, are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when he doesn’t deserve it. `