Rep.-Elect Mark Green: A new antivaccine crank goes to Congress

So the blogging’s been slow because I’ve been spending a couple of hours or more a night hanging out with the puppies we’re fostering. Sadly (for us, anyway) the puppies will be going back to the rescue on Sunday to be adopted, but that means they’ll be going up for adoption, and I suspect that these puppies won’t have long to wait for great forever homes. It’ll also mean that, beginning next week, blogging should get back to normal again, at least for a week or so. After all, soon it will be Christmas, and I’ll probably take a few days off between Christmas and New Year, both because I traditionally do that and because readership usually plummets that week anyway, given that people tend to have better things to do than to read my brain droppings, be the Insolent or not-so-Insolent. In the meantime, there was a story a couple of days ago that, as those of you who also saw it might have guessed, I just can’t resist. I’m referring to Representative-elect Mark Green of Tennessee.

Remember how I’ve been saying that, even though antivaccine views exist with roughly the same prevalence on the left and the right, the Republican party has become the antivaccine party? Let’s just say that Mark Green isn’t going to change that impression, as a story from Wednesday demonstrates:

A soon-to-be congressman from Tennessee told constituents Tuesday he believed vaccines may be causing autism, questioning data from the Centers for Disease Control and other institutions disproving such a theory.

Not only did Republican Mark Green, a Congressman-elect from Clarksville who is also a medical doctor, express hesitation about the CDC’s stance on vaccines, he also said he believed the federal health agency has “fraudulently managed” the data.

His remarks came in response to an audience question at a town hall meeting in Franklin from a woman identifying herself as the parent of a young adult with autism. The woman was concerned about possible cuts to Medicaid funding.

Me being me, I can’t help but call out the reporter for how this is written. It is not a “theory” that vaccines cause autism. Seeing the word “theory” used that way always provokes an extreme negative reaction, as when creationists dismiss evolution as “just a theory.” One more time, the word “theory” in science is used to denote a set of statements very well supported by evidence and with a high degree of useful, predictive power. It doesn’t mean a “half-assed guess,” which is what the claim that vaccines cause autism is at best, even giving antivaxers every benefit of the doubt. Hell, the idea that vaccines cause autism isn’t even worthy of the term “hypothesis” any more—unless, of course, you add the word “disproven,” “failed,” or “rejected” in front of it.

Of course, if you want to identify an antivaxer, here’s a great way to do it. An antivaxer is someone who takes a question about cuts in Medicaid funding from a woman of a child with autism concerned about what that might mean for her child and magically makes it about vaccines. More than that, he not only makes it about vaccines but goes full conspiracy theory about the CDC. It doesn’t get much more antivaccine than that, other than the fringe of the fringe of the antivaccine movement whose members proudly declare themselves to be antivaccine rather than denying it, as most antivaxers do.

I had never heard of Dr. Mark Green before, and, no, this Dr. Mark Green is no Dr. Mark Greene, if you know what I mean, even though they are both emergency medicine doctors. (Yes, Representative-elect Mark Green is an ER doc, a fact whose relevance will become clear in a moment.) In this case, the fictional Mark Greene far surpasses the actual Mark Green in being science-based, even though the fictional Mark Greene died of a brain tumor. Before we get to the relevance (or lack thereof) of his being an ER doc, though, let’s take a look at more of what Rep.-Elect Mark Green said:

Quoth Green:

“Let me say this about autism,” Green said. “I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County, to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines.

“As a physician, I can make that argument and I can look at it academically and make the argument against the CDC, if they really want to engage me on it,” Green said.

At the town hall, Green emphasized that he would make it a priority to “stand against” what he believes may be the CDC withholding information on vaccine research.

“But it appears some of that data has been, honestly, maybe fraudulently managed,” Green said. “So we’ve got to go up there and stand against that and make sure we get that fixed, that issue addressed.”

At this point, I wasn’t sure which conspiracy theory Green was invoking. Was it the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory at the heart of failed physician and scientific fraud Andrew Wakefield’s propaganda film disguised as a “documentary,” VAXXED, in which CDC scientist William Thompson claimed that the CDC had data showing an significantly increased risk of autism in African-American males associated with the MMR vaccine and that it had destroyed data? Or was it the generic conspiracy theory that the CDC “knew” that vaccines cause autism but has “covered up” data showing that, what I like to refer to as the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement?

Particularly amusing is Green’s invocation of his being a “physician” as qualification to “look at it academically” (presumably the evidence showing how safe and effective vaccines are). Here’s a hint. Although medical students and residents do learn how to evaluate the medical literature, Green is 54 years old. It’s been decades since he’s been in medical school or residency. Has he been evaluating scientific literature since then much? Evaluating the scientific literature is a skill like many others in that if you don’t use it you lose it. Looking at Green’s career, after he finished residency he served for a number of years as a flight surgeon. However, it’s clear to me that in recent years he’s been far more about running his hospital emergency department management staffing company and his foundation, which operates free clinics and sends medical teams to underserved countries. It’s not clear to me how much actual patient care he’s been doing in recent years, as he seems to be more of a business executive these days than a physician. In any event, even if he does still see patients, he’s an emergency medicine physician. He has little or nothing to do with the daily discussions pediatricians and family practice doctors have with parents regarding routine childhood vaccinations. The most he probably dealt with was suggesting the flu vaccine in the future for patients coming in with flu-like illnesses or for patients with dirty wounds to get a tetanus booster.

Then there’s the issue of knowledge. Even if you do know how to evaluate the medical and scientific literature, if you are not highly knowledgeable about a particular area you will struggle to make sense of the literature. There’s nothing in Green’s background to make me think that he has even the slightest expertise in immunology, vaccines, or neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Probably he hasn’t even considered the basic science since medical school and the clinical aspects since residency—and then only those aspects that might be relevant to the emergency department care of patients with those issues. Basically, here Dr. Green is “playing the doctor card,” as though being a physician makes you magically able to pontificate with authority about anything in medicine and biomedical science. It doesn’t, but unfortunately the general public seems to think that it does, which is why we have so many idiot doctors spouting nonsense in the media. In reality, there are many systems in place to monitor vaccine safety, and none of them have detected an association with autism.

Hilariously, it didn’t take long for Green to realize that perhaps he’d let his antivaccine freak flag fly a bit too high, as later that day there was a story in The Washington Post, Rep.-elect Mark Green walks back claim that vaccines cause autism, except, of course, that he didn’t. Not really:

“Recent comments I made at a town hall regarding vaccines has been misconstrued. I want to reiterate my wife and I vaccinated our children, and we believe, and advise others they should have their children vaccinated,” Green said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday.

So far…OK. But Green just couldn’t resist. He just couldn’t:

But, in separate comments Wednesday to The Tennessean, Green appeared to reiterate his previous comments, but adding that vaccines are “essential to good population health.”

“There appears to be some evidence that as vaccine numbers increase, rates of autism increase,” Green told The Tennessean. “We need better research, and we need it fast. We also need complete transparency of any data. Vaccines are essential to good population health. But that does not mean we should not look closely at the correlation for any causation.”

And as Internet usage has increased, so, too, has autism prevalence. As cell phone use has increased, so, too, has autism prevalence. As organic food sales have increased, so, too, has autism prevalence. Heck, as the number of Starbucks franchises has increased, so, too, has autism prevalence. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. It certainly can, but usually it doesn’t.

I also note that Dr. Green is playing the “I vaccinated my children” card that antivaxers like to play a lot. First of all, I note that one of the most famous and rabid antivaxers of all, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. vaccinated all of his children and yet still risibly proclaims himself “fiercely pro-vaccine.” Of course, RFK Jr. didn’t become antivaccine until his children were all older; indeed, whenever you see someone defend himself against the charge of being antivaccine by saying he vaccinated all of his children, it’ll almost always be someone who’s middle aged or older and whose children are teenagers or adults. The appropriate question to such people is: If you were to have another child, would you vaccinate the child according to the CDC schedule?

Of course, Green did say that he would advise others to have their children vaccinated; so there’s that. However, such statements don’t necessarily absolve him of the charge of being antivaccine. He could well be what I like to call “antivaccine lite,” the sort of parent who doesn’t think vaccines are not useful but who is very prone to a Robert Sears-like suggestion to “spread out the vaccines.”

I used to have a shtick that I did from time to time in which I’d blog about a doctor promoting pseudoscience and, in the course of the discussion, make jokes about wearing a paper bag over my head, covering my face with a Doctor Doom mask, or hanging my head in shame at my profession. Spouting antivaccine dog whistles is enough for me to have thought about invoking that old routine over Dr. Green, but then I learned something else. Surprise! Surprise! Dr. Green is a creationist, too. No, really:

Green rejects the conclusions of scientists in his lecture. In his 2015 speech to a church to Cincinnati titled ‘Isn’t Evolution A Solution?, Green dedicated nearly an hour to explaining why his work as a medical doctor taught him to reject the theory.

Green claims that the theory of evolution violates physical law, using the example of a lawn mower left out in a backyard.

“The evolutionists have their bad argument, too,” Green said. They say, ‘Well, I can’t explain how it went from this to incredibly complex, so it must have been billions of years.’ That’s kind of where they put their faith. The truth of the matter is is the second law of thermo fluid dynamics says that the world progresses from order to disorder not disorder to order.

“If you put a lawn mower out in your yard and a hundred years come back, it’s rusted and falling apart. You can’t put parts out there and a hundred years later it’s gonna come back together. That is a violation of a law of thermodynamics. A physical law that exists in the universe.”

The stupid, it burns. That’s a creationist trope so old that I remember it appearing on Usenet back in the day. (Look it up, kids.) It used to be known as the “747” or “junkyard tornado” trope, sometimes called Hoyle’s fallacy, after the creationist who thought it up. It’s complete and utter nonsense based on a massive misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics. Let’s just say that Dr. Green’s understanding of vaccine science is likely no better than his understanding of basic biology or the second law of thermodynamics.

Unfortunately, the US House of Representatives has had a fairly long line of antivaccine cranks. I first remember Rep. Dan Burton (now retired), and more recently Rep. Bill Posey. It looks as though Congress is about to get another crank.