Connecticut Rep. Josh Elliott: Unintentional false balance about vaccines in a legislative forum

If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about reporting about vaccines in the media, it’s false balance, in which the “other” side (i.e., the antivaccine side) is given undue representation as though it were a scientifically legitimmate point of view. Usually, it’s journalists who thinks that the journalistic practice of “telling both sides” applies to scientific issues in which one side is supported by massive amounts of data and scientific studies and the other side is supported mainly by conspiracy theories and anecdotes. Fortunately, as I’ve observed before, this problem seems to be a lot less common these days since it was revealed that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet case series was fraudulent. I’ve also seen this tactic of false balanced used by antivaxers to try to portray their viewpoint as having some scientific and medical validity. That being said, I must say that I’ve never seen a pro-vaccine legislator fall into this trap, but fall into this trap Connecticut State Representative Josh Elliott (D-Hamden) did. A reader made me aware of this event occurring later this morning at the Connecticut statehouse (see Addenda for updates on the status of this forum):


Not a good look.

Let’s see. We have four panelists who are real scientists and doctors. Dr. Sandra Carbonari, for instance, is an experienced primary care pediatrician, while Drs. Linda Niccolai, Gene Shapiro, and Brett Lindenbach are all Yale faculty in various departments relevant to vaccines, such as Public Health, Pediatrics, Epidemiology, etc. So far, so good.

And then we have Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. There isn’t a facepalm big enough for this, although Godzilla will give it a try.

Godzilla facepalm

Who is Josh Elliott? Not being from that part of Connecticut, I had no idea, but it didn’t take much Googling to discover that he’s very pro-vaccine. Indeed, his Facebook page is full of pro-vaccine posts like this:

And this:

Yes, Rep. Elliott even supports repealing religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates:

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who joined Ritter and Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, at Wednesday’s news conference, said he’s concerned about the uptick in measles cases across the U.S., including an outbreak of about 70 people in the Pacific Northwest. DPH confirmed a second case of measles last month in Connecticut. Both cases involved adults.

“We know that year over year, double-digit growth in non-vaccinated children is growing in our state,” Elliott said. “The issue for us is, do we want to wait until we have deaths and large widespread outbreaks or do we want to solve the problem before it gets to Connecticut.”

And, in a news article about the legislative forum Rep. Elliott is promoting on his Facebook page, we see:

A Connecticut lawmaker who supports eliminating the religious exemption from vaccinations for public school students is holding an informational forum on the science behind vaccines.

Democratic Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden says he’s concerned the “pseudo-science” fueling fear among a “vocal minority” about vaccine safety. He’s organized a forum Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building with experts, including professors from Yale University.

So why on earth would someone like Rep. Elliott invite someone like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to be on this panel? I note that he says that RFK Jr. “will be speaking on the perceived dangers of vaccination.” And who would know the perceived dangers of vaccination better than RFK Jr., his having had a major role over the last 15 years in crafting the perception that vaccines are dangerous? After all, since at least 2005, when I first became aware of him, thanks to his deceptive conspiracy theory about mercury in vaccines, Deadly Immunity, was published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and, I’ve been explaining why his antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy mongering are nonsense. Soon after Deadly Immunity, RFK Jr. quickly provided me with more blogging material, with his risible conspiracy mongering and his despicable attacks on critics of antivaccine pseudoscience as misogynists who hate mothers. During the battle over the passage of SB 277, the California legislation that eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, RFK Jr. even likened vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, saying, “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”

During the transition period after Donald Trump was elected President, RFK, Jr. met with President-Elect Trump to discuss vaccine safety or the “autism epidemic” or…something. It’s not exactly clear what. His claim was that the Trump Administration wanted him to chair a “vaccine safety commission,” but the Trump transition team quickly denied that version of events. None of this stopped RFK, Jr. from sending an e-mail to members of the Waterkeepers Alliance, which Kennedy leads, announcing that he would leave the environmental group if the commission actually comes to be. More recently, RFK, Jr. issued the most spectacularly dumb “vaccine challenge” since Jock Doubleday. Basically, like many antivaccine activists, RFK, Jr. dons the mantle of a “vaccine safety activist,” even though he’s anything but, his risible oft-repeated claim to be “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding.

Finally, earlier this year RFK Jr. again caught my attention because, with the help of antivaccine reporter turned Alex Jones wannabe (Sharyl Attkisson) and a useful idiot, he’s been peddling a conspiracy theory that the CDC covered up knowledge that vaccines cause autism. Let’s just put it this way. RFK Jr. has formed not just one but two antivaccine groups, World Mercury Project and Children’s Health Defense, the latter of which, although not in existence for long, has already published some truly risible defenses of antivaccine “science.”

So what does Rep. Elliott hope to accomplish by inviting RFK Jr.? Does he think that, by including a rabid antivaxer like RFK, Jr. on the forum’s panel, he’ll assuage the fears of the vaccine-hesitant parents and antivaxers? Maybe he thinks that, by having a token “vaccine skeptic” (I hate that term because antivaxers are anything but skeptics, but it’s a term that antivaxers embrace and all too often that the media and pro-vaccine politicians fall for), he’ll conclusively show how out of the mainstream antivaccine views are. If that was the motivation, Rep. Elliott will find out today that he’s sadly mistaken. This is a man who likened vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and only grudgingly backed down due to the horror his analogy provoked.

Maybe Rep. Elliott thinks that this panel of four doctors and scientists, vaccine experts all, will refute RFK Jr. so resoundingly that RFK Jr.’s defeat will win over the antivaccine side. If he thinks that, he’s truly naïve. That’s not how these things work. In fact, likely the opposite will happen. Why? Few doctors or scientists know the minutiae of antivax arguments, because few really pay attention to them and fewer still have actually spent years studying and refuting them, as I and other skeptics have. That’s why this forum could easily turn into a bloodbath, with RFK Jr. doing the bloodletting. Science doesn’t always win in forums like this. Indeed, usually it does not. Whether it has a chance will depends on the moderator, how skilled RFK Jr. is at the Gish gallop, and how much the panelists are familiar with common antivaccine conspiracy theories, crappy studies beloved of antivaccine cranks, and fallacious attacks on large epidemiological studies that have failed to find an association between vaccines and autism. All of this is why the only appropriate answer from scientists asked to appear with someone like RFK Jr. at a forum like this is not just, “No,” but “Oh, hell, no!”

Yes, I know that sometimes we overestimate our opponents. For instance, when I urged Steve Novella not to debate Julian Whitaker at FreedomFest in 2012, how could I have know that Whitaker would be so very bad at the Gish gallop? Of course, Novella is a skeptic who is quite familiar with antivaccine “arguments,” which made it easy for him to mop up the floor with Whitaker, much to my delight. Rarely have I been more pleased to have been wrong in one of my predictions! In any event, I don’t know how familiar the scientists and doctors on this forum panel are with antivaccine misdirection, but I hope it’s a lot more than the average scientist and physician.

Finally, if Rep. Josh Elliott thinks that he’ll gain any respect or credit from antivaxers for being so open-minded and fair, just look at the comments after his FB post announcing the forum, where antivaxers are complaining that the panel is “unbalanced.” Then look at what RFK Jr. plans on doing right after the forum this morning:

Here’s what that wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism, had to say yesterday:

Josh Elliott wants to give CT residents the opportunity to plan their own death. He also seeks to allow the incarcerated to vote to protect their American rights. Admirable. And yet in a twist of irony, he seeks to control medical decisions whilst alive. He wants to remove the religious exemption to vaccination. This means forced vaccination. Disenfranchising Americans based on vaccination choice is acceptable?

Rep. Hennessy is a real antivaxer, as revealed by this article from 2015:

Some opponents also displayed a deep distrust of the medical establishment and the safety of vaccinations. Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, said he was disappointed that Connecticut is joining the pro-vaccine “hysteria” that erupted after the California measles epidemic.

While Hennessy acknowledged that lawmakers were not being asked to assess whether vaccines cause harm, “I would suggest that they do. There’s a witches brew of formula [and] we don’t even have the ability to know what’s in them,” he said. “We are taking the pharmaceutical company’s word that it’s good for you. You’re penetrating the skin barrier, which you’re not supposed to do. You’re supposed to be very careful about what you inject into your body.”

“Hysteria” after the Disneyland measles outbreak? Vaccines are a “witches’ brew of formula” and “we don’t even have the ability to know what’s in them”? That’s not just antivaccine, but that’s brain dead antivaccine nonsense. Of course we know what’s in vaccines. Hennessy also appeared on the Gary Null Show last month, which is about as serious a set of wingnut credentials as you can get, particularly given that I learned from this that he is a reiki master.

As for Rep. Dauphinais, she opposed a bill banning gay conversion therapy and has generally opposed tightening of school vaccine mandates.

So, basically, right after taking part in Rep. Josh Elliott’s vaccine forum, RFK Jr. will head on over to headline a a press conference (with what appears to be a fundraiser to follow) with two antivaccine legislators, one Democrat and one Republican. This basically demonstrates how much good will Rep. Elliott will earn by including a radical antivaxer on his panel—none at all. That’s what he gets for bending over backwards to appear fair!

I know Rep. Elliot’s heart is in the right place, but he really screwed up this time. His false equivalence will convince no one on the antivaccine side, and RFK Jr. will score a huge win just be appearing on the stage with five real physicians and scientists (this includes the moderator), as though his views were anywhere near as scientifically valid as theirs. I wonder if the scientists knew that RFK Jr. was going to be on the panel with them when they agreed to appear. If I were one of them, I would have pulled out as soon as I learned that RFK Jr. was going to be on the panel. Better yet, I would have insisted on knowing who would be on the panel before agreeing to participate.

ADDENDUM 2305h 3/18/2019: Less than an hour before this post was scheduled to go live, I got news that Yale had canceled the event. I couldn’t verify it before I went to bed. If you get a confirming link, let me know. (If this is true, cue the cries of “Censorship!” in three…two…one…) I expect that RFK Jr. will now use his 11 AM press conference and noon lunch fundraiser to whine about Yale’s cancellation of the forum, assuming my source is correct, which I’m pretty sure that it is.

ADDENDUM 0600h 3/19/2019: Here’s the confirmation.

I feel bad for Rep. Elliott, but I hope he’s learned a lesson from this fiasco.

ADDENDUM 1105h 3/19/2019: As expected, antivaxers are planning on capitalizing on this fiasco.

And, of course, RFK Jr. is gloating, declaring victory by making his opponents “run away”:

Of course, all of this was entirely predictable. I really hope that Rep. Elliott has learned his lesson from this hard experience.