For New GOP: Ignorance Trumps Science
December 1, 2016
Can Witch Burning be far behind?
As president-elect Donald Trump carries on with his transition to the White House, our country waits to see which parts of his campaign rhetoric were the swirly-twirly ideas of a callow populist, and which parts were substantial and considered enough to evolve into actual policy.
Among the big ideas many of us hope remain in the first category is Trump’s position on vaccinations. The president-elect has a long history of vaccine misinformation; he first began to express his beliefs that there might be a relationship between vaccines and autism nearly a decade ago—years after this association was scientifically discredited. He’s repeated these ideas over the years, and he never found it necessary to correct or refine his position during the election. As such, he’s left the door open for vaccine skeptics and more extreme anti-vaxxers to see his victory as one of their own.
This sort of excitement for Trump’s win appeared in a recent Facebook post by Jennifer Larson, CEO of the autism-focused Holland Center, in which she explained that she and other vaccination skeptics discussed their concerns with Trump at a donor event in August. According to her account, Trump assured them that he’s on their side.
Now that Trump won, we can all feel safe in sharing that Mr. Trump met with autism advocates in August. He gave us 45 minutes and was extremely educated on our issues. Mark stated ‘You can’t make America great with all these sick children and more coming’. Trump shook his head and agreed. He heard my son’s vaccine injury story. Andy told him about Thompson and gave him Vaxxed. Dr Gary ended the meeting by saying ‘Donald, you are the only one who can fix this’. He said ‘I will’. We left hopeful. Lots of work left to do.
Larson’s post was republished on the site Age of Autism. (While the link on the Age of Autism story doesn’t connect to an original source, Larson confirmed in an email that she posted this message on Facebook.)
The meeting Larson described was a donor event in Florida. Also in attendance was anti-vaxx advocate Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor whose discredited research incorrectly suggested vaccines cause autism. As is common with such events, attendees were given a time to speak and the vaccination skeptics used it an opportunity to draw Trump’s attention to the documentary Vaxxed and allegations that the CDC has discovered, and denied, a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, according to both Larson and Mark Blaxill, editor-at-large of the Age of Autism website. The interaction was first reported on by Zack Kopplin for Science magazine.
So why did Tom Price catch my attention more than other Trump cabinet picks? Yes, he detests Obamacare and is likely to be fully enthusiastic about gutting it, but pretty much anyone Trump picked would have been expected to hold that view. It’s pretty much par for the course for the Republican Party these days. I would have been more surprised if Trump had picked someone who was was relatively neutral on the Affordable Care Act. No, what caught my eye was that I learned that Tom Price is a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), and that told me a lot about him, none of it good. For instance, in 2015 Charles Pierce referred to Price as “one of Georgia’s wingnut sawbones” (Price is an orthopedic surgeon), and noted an article by Stephanie Mencimer, The Tea Party’s Favorite Doctors, which included this description of the AAPS:
Yet despite the lab coats and the official-sounding name, the docs of the AAPS are hardly part of mainstream medical society. Think Glenn Beck with an MD. The group (which did not return calls for comment for this story) has been around since 1943. Some of its former leaders were John Birchers, and its political philosophy comes straight out of Ayn Rand. Its general counsel is Andrew Schlafly, son of the legendary conservative activist Phyllis. The AAPS statement of principles declares that it is “evil” and “immoral” for physicians to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, and its journal is a repository for quackery. Its website features claims that tobacco taxes harm public health and electronic medical records are a form of “data control” like that employed by the East German secret police. An article on the AAPS website speculated that Barack Obama may have won the presidency by hypnotizing voters, especially cohorts known to be susceptible to “neurolinguistic programming”—that is, according to the writer, young people, educated people, and possibly Jews.
I realize that just because Tom Price is a member of the AAPS doesn’t necessarily mean that he subscribes to all its views—or even most of them. Maybe he’s like the Trump voters who were attracted by other things about him or hated Hillary Clinton more than they were disturbed by his racism, embrace of the alt right white supremacist movement, misogyny, and conspiracy mongering. Maybe Price was attracted by the AAPS world view that rejects nearly all restrictions on physicians’ practice of medicine, purportedly for the good of the patient; its support of private practice and dislike of government involvement in medicine, either financially or regulatory; and its embrace of an Ayn Rand-style view of doctors as supermen and women whose unfettered judgment results in what’s best for patients and medicine. Perhaps he was so attracted to the AAPS vision of doctors as special and “outside of the herd” to the point that he ignored its simultaneous promotion of dangerous medical quackery, such as antivaccine pseudoscience blaming vaccines for autism, including a view that is extreme even among antivaccine activists, namely that the “shaken baby syndrome” is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury; its HIV/AIDS denialism; its blaming immigrants for crime and disease; its promotion of the pseudoscience claiming that abortion causes breast cancer using some of the most execrable “science” ever; its rejection of evidence-based guidelines as an unacceptable affront on the godlike autonomy of physicians; or the way the AAPS rejects even the concept of a scientific consensus about anything. Let’s just put it this way. The AAPS has featured publications by antivaccine mercury militia “scientists” Mark and David Geier. Even so, the very fact that Price was attracted enough to this organization and liked it enough to actually join it should raise a number of red flags. It certainly did with me, because I know the AAPS all too well.
As soon as the election result became clear — Donald Trump would be America’s next president — ecologist Kelly Ramirez began reaching out to friends and female colleagues. Over email, the scientists anxiously discussed what the election would mean for scientific research and for the diverse group of people who conduct it.
“The hateful [campaign] rhetoric towards minorities, women, LBGTQIA, immigrants, and people with disabilities, coupled with the barrage of anti-science and anti-knowledge sentiment was difficult to take,” Ramirez wrote in a blog post for Scientific American. “Especially alone.”
By the weekend, the email group had grown to 100 women. Then 200. They drafted an open letter in defense of inclusivity and the scientific process — including the need to fight climate change — and posted it online nine days after the election. As of Tuesday night, more than 10,500 people have signed it.