Vaccine Denialism Finds a Home on Left and Right

April 21st, 2011 at 3:40 pm David Frum | 30 Comments |

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The story of Andrew Wakefield administers a sharp reminder of how inadequate our ideological map can be.

Wakefield (profiled this weekend in the New York Times magazine) is the British medical researcher who has charged that autism can be traced to childhood vaccinations. His research has since been debunked as not merely fallacious, but fraudulent. His own medical license has been removed because he violated UK ethics rules by failing to disclose that his research was financed by plaintiff lawyers who wished to sue drug makers.

Wakefield’s bad science had tragic real world consequences: a noticeable decline in measles immunization.

About the ethical and scientific story here, there is a great deal to say.

But there’s also a political angle. Anti-vaccination thinking flourishes on the far right and the far left ends of the political spectrum.

Chris Mooney has an interesting blogpost here on left-wing vaccine denialism.

I want to further explain my assertion that vaccine denial “largely occupies” the political left. It arises, basically, from my long familiarity with this issue, having read numerous books about it, etc.

First, it is certainly true that environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities have been the loudest proponents of anti-vaccine views. To me, that is evidence, although not necessarily definitive. So is the fact that we see dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in places like Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which are very leftwing cities.

What’s tricky is, there’s not a standard left-right political ideology underlying this. Rather, it seems more associated with a Whole Foods and au natural lifestyle that, while certainly more prominent on the bicoastal left, isn’t the same as being outraged by inequality or abuses of the free market.

Yet it’s also true that anti-vaccination views show up on the political right, among politicians like Rep. Dan Burton and popular commentators like Melissa Clouthier.

You see as much enthusiasm for homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal remedies and other forms of folk medicine on the far right as on the far left, and for the same fundamental reason: distrust of expertise, of the scientific method, and of the good intentions of the authorities. The American political landscape is shaped in much weirder ways than Beltway debates over taxes and spending usually allow.

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30 Comments so far ↓

  • valkayec

    Yep. There’s a lot of mistrust out there. The link below provides a chart showing the U.S. well down on a list quantifying trust amongst primarily OECD countries. Strangely enough, those countries with high trust factors/ratings also proved to have better economies.

  • Carney

    Very true.

    Look at ads in printed periodicals. The further from the center/mainstream one gets in either direction, the more quack medicine and related pseudo-science advertisements you see, and the more prominent they get, even if the actual articles never “go there”. And it’s not just politics – I see the same in religious publications too (it’s not just faith healing but all kinds of “secular” miracle cures that get peddled). I’m sure the same is true on the web as well; I just don’t have as much experience.

    I think part of that has to be that such disreputable advertisers are not needed by more respectable publications, who can attract big brand advertisers, but part of it also has to be a reflection on both the readers and the publishers.

    Belief in quackery and pseudo-science, in my opinion and experience, is also closely correlated with acceptance of conspiracy theories, revisionist history, protectionism, and, perhaps inevitably, hostility to Israel and on to outright anti-Semitism.

    And I say this as a guy who in many ways is quite far indeed from your “safe” bland Chamber of Commerce type; it’s more in sorrow than in glee.

    A great place to spot-check this stuff is

    Oh, did I mention outright scams? Multi level marketing, work from home, and similar frauds?

    There are also the “male enhancement” ads – I hear them on Mark Levin’s radio show sometimes. Really, Mark? That’s the best you can do in recruiting advertisers?

    Not a coincidence, I think, that Michael Savage was once a professional “natural” and “herbal” quack and has never renounced that quackery.

    • Primrose

      Exactly right Carney. I’m not opposed to herbal medicine but some degree of evidence and rational please. I once had a co-worker who said, “it’s natural it can’t be bad for you.” To which I, a gardener thought, uh? Deadly nightshade anyone?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    For the par excellence of this drooling nonsense, look no farther than Boulder, CO. The vaccination rate is so substandard there that viruses mutate and hence even kids who get their vaccinations end up getting sick.

  • nuser

    I still remember her after all these years. Her name was Inge Lise sparkling bright blue eyes ,blond curly hair, and a smile that put the rising sun to shame. It was vaccination day and we all lined up for the shot (polio) . The following day Inge Lise did not show up. Eventually the Principal entered the class and told us Inge Lise had died in her sleep. She had an aversion or allergic reaction to the shot.
    Such a reaction is rare of course , but it does leave one a little fearful of vaccines. My granddaughter
    became very feverish after receiving her shots and now has no protection whatsoever, due to discontinuation of vaccines. We are worried!


    “Not a coincidence, I think, that Michael Savage was once a professional “natural” and “herbal” quack and has never renounced that quackery.”

    He does more than not renounce it. He sneaks in occasional comments that make it very clear how he feels about these issues, and his contempt for allopathic medicine in general.

  • balconesfault

    We have a far right that believes that Big Government is just some kind of communist/socialist plot to destroy free enterprise and take all power away from Big Business.

    And we have a far left that believes that Big Government is some kind of corporatist plot to destroy democracy and hand all power over to Big Business.

    Not a surprise that the underlying theme – a fundamental conviction that Big Government will never represent the interests of the people who elect its leaders – produces similar actions at times.

  • disillusioned

    This is an interesting thread. First off this is highly generalized. I am a pediatrician and deal with vaccines everyday and vaccine deniers. The largest concentration of vaccine deniers I dealt with were from a southern state, upper middle to upper class, highly educated, prior career women who decided to have kids later in life.

  • balconesfault

    The largest concentration of vaccine deniers I dealt with were from a southern state, upper middle to upper class, highly educated, prior career women who decided to have kids later in life.

    a) Southern State? Are they religious? Home schoolers?

    b) I’ve noticed a trend among upper class career women who have kids later in life (usually one) to be VERY VERY protective of their offspring. Kind of “I’m going to insulate them from all risks whatsoever” protective.

    I have no doubt that the one in a million risk posed by some vaccinations is too high a risk … compared to their belief that if they keep Seth/Jessica away from all risk vectors and rush him/her to the physician at the smallest sniffle, they can personally provide more defense from infection than any vaccination could.

    • disillusioned

      No they are not overly religious or homeschoolers although there is that group and also the earthy, vegan type on the other side but those in my experience are outliers. Most vaccine deniers deny not based on a political belief or leaning but I think based out of fear. Autism news and fears are prevalent in the news and the media. And yet even though medicine has disproven wakefields false claims the media has done a piss poor job in relaying that to the public. For instance there will be a news story about vaccines and autism and they will relate all the false information and then a little claim at the end regarding how the cdc does not link vaccines and autism. Based on the attention span of americans all they hear is vaccines and autism. Along with the fact that you have “Expert Jenny McCarthy.” I guess she went to the playboy medical school. In reality though the problem I think with vaccines is that people don’t realize how deadly these diseases are because of the effectiveness of vaccines. People don’t see measles, haemophilis meningitis, tetanus, polio, mumps. As a physician I am lucky to say that I have never treated a child with measles, of hib meningitis, or polio heck I hardly see chicken pox and I hope to god that I never have to. That is credit to the vaccines.

    • Primrose

      I’ve noticed a trend among upper class career women who have kids later in life (usually one) to be VERY VERY protective of their offspring. Kind of “I’m going to insulate them from all risks whatsoever” protective.

      OK, here I have to speak up for my kind. (I am a very well, educated older mother ) This is a common stereotype but not a true one based on the need to disapprove of women like myself.

      There are women who are over-protective, no doubt, but they don’t actually cluster among older mothers or well-educated ones. In my neighborhood, there are mother’s with multiple masters like myself and many more who maybe have college but have husbands who earn a decent living.

      I find that there is more protection among the mid-level group than either us older, educated moms or those who are much younger, and less wealthy. Of the mom’s I know who want to stagger vaccines, they tend to fall into this mid-level group (Plus one out and out libertarian). I think that is more about the culture of solid middle class, suburban life which is much, much more structured, in general.

      No, our children don’t get to play outside the way we did, a constant topic of wistful conversation but the problem is that nobody’s child is out there and therefore the situation becomes unsafe. (When kids were everywhere (each other’s eyes and ears), playing outside was one thing, a lone kid wandering an empty neighborhood is another.)

      Yes, older mothers tend to put a lot more thinking into mothering. This is not a bad thing. Contrary, to common perception, child rearing is not something you can do by rote. New problems always arise since each child is different, even within a family.

      I’m also a bit tired of hearing so dismissively the phrase “protective” mothers whichever group gets it. Mother’s always were. The man who wrote the “The Good Enough Mother” says (with some research) all children need is love, food, shelter, stability, boundaries —and an alert mother. Being alert is not the same as being over-protective. People who do not have a mother’s responsibility often misunderstand this fact.

      They see a someone with a mother’s responsibility (particularly if that person is a woman) yell at a kid jumping off the top of a swing set and think that adult is holding back adventure, unnecessarily. No, they are trying to prevent a cracked skull, which can and does happen. Even if the kids don’t always listen, they will be more wary overall, and wariness is a good thing for any individual that wishes to live.

      Getting back to the subject of vaccines, the problem is not over-protective parents but a lost ability to evaluate risk. We are besieged by presentation of risk without any ordering. For example, more parents are concerned about the stranger kidnap than drowning but drowning is by far a more common way for kids to die. We need to return to assessing risks logically, but it’s making too many people, too much money to change.


    Part of the behavior with the vaccination fearful is classic tragedy of the commons. If you’re even the least bit concerned about the safety of a vaccination, it’s relatively easy to refuse to allow your kids to take part, knowing that they will be protected indirectly simply by the fact that most of their peers will be vaccinated. I’ve had anti-vaccine types flatly tell me that they operated using this reasoning. Of course if everyone does it…

  • Frumplestiltskin

    I do wish the World Health Organization would help set up a regime that every country follows as to vaccination schedules. My kids were born in China and had vaccines there, they are in a very different order and time table compared to that in America and when I brought the kids to America had to have everything translated. Granted, this is an issue separate from the braindead fools who don’t want to vaccinate their children, one trip abroad at any time could be the death of them. What can I say about them? However my kids did not have a US standard MMR vaccine, they got separate ones.

    Are there any comparative studies vis a vis different vaccine schedules for different OECD nations and why they are in their each respective order?

  • HighCountry

    I have never in my life thought of vaccinations as a political issue…sounds pretty absurd to me.

    • WillyP

      my thoughts exactly.

      it only becomes a political issue when people try to force it one way or the other. and nobody has even recommended this as far as i know, not even the bizarro skeptics’ groups.

  • nuser

    When is the first recorded vaccination , when is autism first recorded?

  • longde

    Interesting. Do these people never travel? I don’t see how they feel they can control factors that could be introduced from outside of their circle. It’s not like they live in a bottle.

  • npopowitz

    As far as I’m concerned, failure to vaccinate your kids is child abuse. There is no connection between vaccinations and autism and the only medical professional who made the claim is a fraud. The problem is as mentioned by “disillusioned.” People don’t understand risk assessment and, thanks to vaccines, we have no collective memory of the threat these diseases are to an urbanized community. Perhaps a few outbreaks will remind people of what it was like in the past. Finally, to WaStateUrbanGOPer, viruses are constantly mutating regardless of whether a community is properly vaccinated. It is the circle of life.

  • Houndentenor

    My generation is too young to remember polio, measles, scarlet fever, small pox and all those other horrible diseases that used to kill so many people and now are virtually nonexistent in the industrialized world. Vaccinations are not without small risks (although I find the “link” to autism unconvincing), but those risks are miniscule compared to going back to the time before vaccinations.

    Yes, I’m a liberal and I find these holistic types as annoying as my conservative friends and relatives do. Medical claims should be proven, not asserted based on anecdotal evidence. But it’s no surprise that this comes mostly from the left. Remember that liberals were distrustful of government long before the right jumped on that bandwagon.

  • sparse

    the article presents an interesting perspective, but on a certain level, it really is just begging it’s own question. vaccine denialism is a conspiracy theory. conspiracy theories are the province of the political fringe. usually there is a difference between right wing conspiracy theories and left wing ones (the right is worried about kenyans taking over vs the left worrying about old white male oligarchies), but in this case, everyone loves and is concerned for their kids, so they both bought into it.

    had vaccine denialism been found to be true, it would have worked its way from the fringe to the political center. like climate change theory did.

    an interesting question, though, would be why is the vaccine issue present on both fringes where flouridation remained a right wing concern. or, more broadly, why do the various theories get traction where they do?

  • mc419

    For some time I have been curious when the Obama-is-a-Muslim-Marxist crowd and the Free Mumia crowd would start to mingle and realize how much they have in common, vis-a-vis conspiracy theories, outlying visions, anti-realist, philosophically driven world views… etc.

  • drdredel

    let’s keep in mind that vaccine is not vaccine is not vaccine. Over the years the name has stayed the same but the actual product (and just as importantly methods of delivery) have changed drastically!

    Also, there are still many questions about the unintended consequences of vaccination, for example…
    Up until just 10 years ago no one was getting chicken pox vaccine. Now it’s part of the (fairly extensive) vaccine salad that children get. There are very few vaccine a-la-cartists (like myself). So, chicken pox is administered to almost all kids. Meanwhile those of us (everyone who wasn’t a kid 10 years ago) has had chicken pox as a child and is at risk of getting shingles. The way we chicken-pox survivors have been getting re-immunized was that we were always coming in contact with current chicken-pox carriers, but now there are basically none left, so, there’s a very real chance that shingles will have a huge upswing in the coming decades.
    Or maybe it won’t… but what was so terrible about chicken-pox? At some point, doesn’t it make sense to just let some diseases run their course? (I ask honestly… maybe the answer is ‘no’).
    Anyway… it’s very easy to see this as a “conspiracy” of pharma lobbyists pushing their product into the market place in the name of global health, so, I’m not at all surprised that combined with a ton of hysteria and misunderstanding both sides of the political isle get roped into the (uninformed side of the) conversation.

  • habsfan

    The money spent on quack medicine would…if used properly, probably drive health care costs down. Hey..people believe in the placebo effect and inevitably, mistake that for genuine healing. I move that any waco who promotes these alternative medicines should be held liable if any of their treatment is proven to a. be ineffective b. contribute to decline in health or adversely affect people’s health. US law should also be amended so that “natural products” be held to the same standards as pharmacological agents in terms of purity, efficacy etc. That would be a first step toward closing the door on Homeopathy! Otherwise, we should promote witchcraft and voodoo as acceptable healing methods…

  • Deep South Populist

    I never write off people on the so-called “fringe.” I take it issue by issue.

    The word “fringe” is a smear label that says “don’t bother looking at this group’s evidence or arguments. Don’t bother with trying to determine if what they say is TRUE. Just ignore what the group says, because they are on the “fringe.”

    It’s a way marginalizing dissenting and subversive claims that might be true.

    The only thing that matters, or that should matter, is whether a claim is true or false, not whether a majority of people regard the claim as on the “fringe.”

    The majority can be and is often wrong. Galileo’s position was the “fringe” position of his day, yet his claims ultimately turned out to be true.

    • Carney

      Cranks love to point to Galileo, Semmelweis, etc., but the reality is that it is very rare for outcast extreme views to be correct, and more and more rare as one comes closer and closer to the present day, as scientific knowledge becomes more complete and integrated, as the scientific method is understood, as peer review and the internet spreads information and picks apart flaws.

      • Deep South Populist

        My point is that an outcast view should not be dismissed out of hand solely because a majority of people deem it a “fringe” position. As you just said, there is always the possibility however slight the outcast view might be correct.

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