Experts Respond to Dr. Jill Stein’s Vaccine Conspiracy Theories (and Snopes’ Dismissal of Them) August 1, 2016

Experts Respond to Dr. Jill Stein’s Vaccine Conspiracy Theories (and Snopes’ Dismissal of Them)

Following the Washington Post’s questioning of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, M.D. about her controversial statements on vaccines, criticism from experts in the medical community as well as scientific analyses of her pseudoscientific claims continue to mount.

This follows examinations of additional non-progressive views held by Stein, which I’ve written about here and here.

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I spoke today with vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician who heads both the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

BO GARDINER: Are you familiar with recent statements by Dr. Jill Stein on vaccines, including last week’s Washington Post interview?

DR. PAUL OFFIT: Yes, and they’re illogical. On the one hand, she says vaccines are an important health initiative that saves lives.  But on the other hand, she says that vaccine regulators are unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.

Then she throws Monsanto in there, who has nothing to do with vaccines. If you’re going to claim a vaccine conspiracy, give an example, otherwise you’re just a conspiracy theorist.

GARDINER: How is Dr. Stein’s rhetoric similar or dissimilar to the most well-known physicians who are notorious for public positions in sympathy with prominent anti-vaccination groups?

OFFIT: Similar. Bob Sears, Jay Gordon, Lawrence Palevsky, and Joseph Mercola say the same things. [Note: Those individuals are all well known for sowing vaccine distrust.]

GARDINER: I received dozens of comments from Dr. Stein’s supporters cheering what they took to be a strong anti-vaccination message: they said her statements were, for them, proof of a government conspiracy covering up harm from vaccines, that we should stop vaccinating our children, or vaccinate for fewer diseases, or ignore vaccine schedules. So the concern that she’s sowing vaccine distrust isn’t hypothetical or exaggerated, it’s very real and already happening.

OFFIT: Yes, there really aren’t that many left who oppose vaccines outright; they’re very passionate and nothing will change their minds; it’s about 2% of Americans. The ones I really worry about are the 10-20% of Americans who use reduce or delayed schedules out of fears. That can cost lives.

It’s disturbing that three of the four candidates for President are using anti-vaccination language.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s been raging. 

David Gorski, M.D., surgical oncologist and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, and Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, scholar of the philosophy of science, and former co-host of the Rationally Speaking podcast, tweeted that Stein’s statements are anti-vaccine dog whistles and pandering. More on that in a moment.

Evolutionary biologist PZ Myers, Ph.D., describes Stein’s rhetoric as “making vague anti-vaccination noises” and points out that “vaccines aren’t the big money cash crop for the pharmaceutical companies that the anti-vaxxers think.”

As Stein doubled down and previous defenders including Patheos blogger Dan Arel, who had previously endorsed Stein for president, gave up on her in disgust, she was without a credible champion. That is, until a very strange source threw her a lifeline: the venerable Internet rumor-debunking website Snopes, normally a bastion of good skepticism based on quality research.

Snopes’ political writer Kim LaCapria wrote a response to the “rumor” that “Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein opposes vaccines,” concluding:

Dr. Jill Stein’s popularity surge during the Democratic National Convention led to rumors that she opposes vaccines, but that isn’t the case… Jill 2016 Press Director Meleiza Figueroa confirmed the rumor was false.

No. No, no, no, no, no. Snopes, really? The tsunami of criticism Stein is receiving for her vaccine statements does not claim she “opposes vaccines.” I’ve written from the start that I accept her statements that she supports vaccines in general. My criticism, and that of every other writer I’ve seen, is of the numerous ways she uses rhetoric beloved by anti-vaccination advocates to cast doubt on vaccine safety, thereby discouraging vaccination. Whether it’s out of genuine distrust or pandering for anti-vaxxer votes, we can’t say, but either way, the life-threatening damage is real and already happening.

LaCapria simply swept all that aside with a uselessly narrow question that addressed only some random social media comments that received little traction, about a label for which there’s no clear definition. Her research failed to include the smokiest of smoking guns, the Washington Post interview. Stranger still, she let Stein’s press director “confirm” the question as false.  Rather than, you know, researching the issue by asking experts. 

Is this Snopes’ new modus operandi? Should we expect a post like from Snopes in the near future?

RUMOR: Donald Trump is Racist.

VERDICT: False. We contacted Mr. Trump’s press office, who informs us that, no, he is not racist. Case closed.

We know Dr. Stein’s press office was, in fact, the basis for Snopes’ verdict because Snopes said so. When asked by Twitter user Brian111979 what her judgment was based on, he was told that the source was Stein’s campaign’s response.

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I sent an to Snopes on July 29 about this matter but have not heard back as of this writing.

Massimo Pigliucci also criticized Snopes on Twitter and LaCapria responded, leading to this exchange:

PIGLIUCCI: The problem is her pandering and obfuscation.

LACAPRIA: We’ve updated the page with direct quote from @DrJillStein provided by her campaign. Motive assigning is not typically involved… The rumor was not “is she signaling anyone about vaccines” but “is she anti-vaccine”; she clearly is not.

PIGLIUCCI: sorry but no, the issue was whether she was pandering by way of vagueness. She was.

LACAPRIA: We base our pages on the questions readers ask. Readers asked: “Is @DrJillStein anti-vaccine?”

David Gorski joined the fray:

GORSKI: Sadly, @snopes blew this one. They clearly don’t recognize antivax dodges. Too bad.

LACAPRIA: Not quite, we just don’t get into editorializing at that level. It’s black and white for us.

GORSKI: I love @snopes, but it’s not editorializing to point out how much her rhetoric resembles antivax.

LACAPRIA: We adopt science-based perspective but it was not a page about vaccines/rhetoric, it was about her view.

GORSKI: Actually, @snopes made it black and white by labeling legitimate concerns about @DrJillStein’s views as false.

Today Dr. Gorski posted a detailed analysis of Dr. Stein’s rhetoric:

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.

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… 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…

… the linking of “Monsanto lobbyists” to vaccine regulatory approval is yet another page straight out of the antivaccine playbook.

… 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…

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…  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.…

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.

Gorski corrects some of the anti-science fallacies she uses, such as repeated accusations of undue corporate influence:

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.

On Stein’s statement about mercury supposedly being rampant and toxic in vaccines in the past:

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… 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… Just because Dr. Stein is too clueless to realize this doesn’t make these “concerns” scientifically valid.

Gorski answers criticism from Stein supporters that Clinton and Obama have said similar things, noting that was 2008 and science awareness has come a long way:

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. They figured out their mistakes and didn’t make them again.

So thank heavens Stein finally issued the first definitive statement yesterday in rejecting an anti-vax talking point:

“There’s no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.  Let’s do more to support autistic people & their families.”

Except hours later, she or her campaign actually deleted the tweet. Such a mild, science-based, common-sense statement that saves lives doesn’t fit in the Green Party, apparently. 

It was replaced with a new tweet, in which the first sentence was changed to “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.” A very different message indeed. If you don’t see just how the message is different, please note, I’m not aware of any evidence that Hemant Mehta roasts babies at atheist picnics. [Editor’s note: I will allow it. — HM]

For the last two days, Stein has been attacking physicians and scientists motivated by concerns about child health with her own vaccine conspiracy theory, using the Snopes link as her ammo. She retweeted this:

It’s horrifying to see scientists using their platforms to participate in a coordinated smear campaign against @JillStein

She added to that tweet:

Sadly even many scientists will lie to preserve their status in the corporate power structure. Glad that some won’t.

Another Stein tweet:

Those who say I’m “anti-vaxx” are anti-facts. They’re lying to distract you from our revolt against 2-party failure.

The anti-government rhetoric may be explained in part by this new Stein tweet that reaches out to Libertarians:

If we want the presidential @debates to focus on issues, not just on whom is the biggest liar, we need Libertarians and Greens included.

Seriously, if you add these to other 2016 Green Party strategies that are environmentally damaging and anti-science, I as an environmentalist must question whether the party I once supported can still be considered progressive at all.


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