Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Some recent statements by Chris Christie and Rand Paul[^1] have raised the prospect that vaccination, or, more precisely, policies that impose costs on parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, may become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the anti-vax (or, if you prefer, pro-freedom) side and Democrats pushing a pro-vaccine, pro-science line. Christie and Paul took a lot of flak from other Republicans and even Fox News, and tried to walk their statements back, so it seems as if it won’t happen just yet.

But there are some obvious reasons to think that such a divide might emerge in the future, and that Christie and Paul just jumped the gun. The outline of the debate can be seen in the ferocious response to Reason magazine’s endorsement of mandatory vaccination. And, while Reason was on the right side this time, they’ve continually cherrypicked the evidence on climate change and other issues to try to bring reality in line with libertarian wishes.

The logic of the issue is pretty much identical to that of climate change, gun control, and other policies disliked by the Republican/schmibertarian base. People want to be free to do as they please, even when there’s an obvious risk to others and don’t want to hear experts pointing out those risks.[^2] So, they find bogus experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or announce that they are “skeptics” who will make up their own minds. An obvious illustration of the parallels is this anti-vax piece in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Solomon, rightwing author of The Deniers, a supportive account of climate denial[^3].

As long as libertarians and Republicans continue to embrace conspiracy theories on issues like climate science, taking a pro-science viewpoint on vaccination just makes them “cafeteria crazy”. The consistent anti-science position of people like Solomon is, at least intellectually, more attractive.

Note Another issue that fits the same frame is speeding. Anti-science ibertarians in Australia and the UK are strongly pro-speeding, but I get the impression that this isn’t such a partisan issue in the US, the reverse of the usual pattern where tribalist patterns are strongest in the US.

[^1]: Christie was just pandering clumsily, but Paul’s statement reflects the dominance of anti-vax views among his base and that of his father (take a look at
[^2]: Of course, the situation is totally different in cases like Ebola and (non-rightwing) terrorism, where it’s the “others” who pose the risk.
[^3]: The Huffington Post used to be full of leftish anti-vaxers. But the criticisms of Seth Mnookin and others produced a big shift – Solomon’s was the only recent example I could find. Similarly, having given equivocal statements back in 2008, Obama and Clinton are now firmly on the pro-vaccine side.

130 thoughts on “Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. @Jim Birch
    You seem to have confirmed my analysis by presenting hopeful arguments and irrelevant factoids.

    I’m not arguing that VAD is increasing. I’m not arguing that diarrhea, other forms of malnutrition, or whatever, are not problems. I’m not even arguing that Golden Rice must be the solution, will 100% solve the problem, or whatever. I’m not saying that the problem can never be solved by other means. What I am saying is that it is an available option that, for a variety of reasons, looks likely to help and is certainly worth trying. OTOH, the reasons for avoiding it are irrational and unscientific. I am not demanding that some poor farmers somewhere must use Golden Rice. I’m happy to them to choose based on their production and the the health of their families. You are not.

    You say GM products may be more expensive. This sounds like wishful thinking but in any case the obvious implication of this statement is that it may not. Why not find out? Guess what: if the first adopters don’t like it, they will switch back and the whole thing will be over.

    GM has technology been used for decades without new types of disasters or significant problems. Biological analysis suggest that GM products are likely at least or more safe than other forms of breeding. Major scientific organisations have OKed it. (Are they part of some kind of weird conspiracy like is claimed of climate scientists by some climate denialists?) Why does this need repeating?

    Imagine what we would hear if anti-GM campaigners actually had a real GM-attributable disaster to point to. Instead they rely on shaky long-winded “what-if” arguments, irrelevant factoids, misrepresentations, outright lies, and top it off with some spooky stuff that belongs in a Harry Potter films. Like Creationism, it is a emotional fixed belief in a search of supporting evidence, not the result of a free enquiry. Religion rather than science. You have not demonstrated otherwise.

  2. Funny Jim. I present evidence for my statements: links to the world experts on assessing disease burden, links to a scientific network devoted to researching the environmental impact of GMOs for the benefit of farmers, quotes from their research, and links to papers assessing the risk factors for VAD as well as cost-effectiveness analyses of potential GMO interventions. You dismiss these as “hopeful arguments” and “irrelevant factoids”, and in their place you offer – nothing. No scientifically supported information of any kind.

    But *I’m* the one who has the religious thinking and “spooky stuff that belongs in a Harry Potter film”. You’ve given literally no evidence of any kind here, just blather, and yet you think you’re scientific.

    Just like the DDT crowd. What a waste of time.

  3. I agree that we should use 70, since a lot of the dead are children and infants. So where does that leave the body count? 20,000?

    No professional organization involved with agriculture uses “natural breeding” anymore, it’s too slow and inefficient. There is nothing “natural” about any method on that list I provided.

    “Doing no harm” sounds fine in theory, but the end result of the plan to “bringing regimes and regulations for other genetic techniques up to standard“ would be to surrender complete control of our food supply to the Monsantos of the world. The main reason why the majority of commercialized rDNA crops have come from Monsanto (and the rest of the ag-bio corporations) is because they have the deep pockets required to overcome the expense of deregulation. There are many, many rDNA agricultural products – products that have direct benefit to consumers and/or the environment – languishing in the basements of public universities around the world because of the expense and time required for deregulation. And now you want to make all methods that expensive, even those methods that we have been using since the start of the Green Revolution in the 1950s.

    At the end of the day all these crop breeding methods are nothing but tools used in the construction of a product. The tool gives you little-to-no information about the safety of the product or its effect on the environment. For that you need to review the product on a case-by-case basis based on the function of the product, not the tool used to assemble it. When you do that, it makes sense that low-risk, humanitarian uses of a particular tool should have little-to-no regulation or else you end up doing harm.

    If you want to educate yourself on GM issues I’d suggest talking to Prof Jim Dale at QUT (his group is working on Golden Bananas), Prof Pamela Ronald (UC Davis), Prof Margaret Smith (Cornell), Prof Kevin Folta (University of Florida) or the folks at Biology Fortified.

  4. Neil, please engage with the science. I have given you evidence. You are responding with assertions and normative statements (“it makes sense to…”, for example).

    The introduction of roundup ready in the USA has been directly linked – by agricultural scientists, not “the anti-capitalist left” – with the spread of herbicide resistant weeds. This is a harm. It’s a fact, that was predicted by environmentalists before roundup ready was introduced. The harm is manageable but it now affects farmers not using roundup ready (see the scientific material i linked to). Glyphosate resistance is now widespread in American farms. GMOs have real and sometimes unexpected consequencs for the environment that need to be monitored. Even if Golden Rice was free of regulatory barriers, as are some other products being tested in e.g. Zambia, it would still need to go through effectiveness and cost-effectiveness trials. As it stands, there is no evidence that it would work or be cost-effective, and strong evidence that an existing intervention has nearly eliminated the problem you are so concerned about. Until you engage directly with this science, you need to accept that Golden Rice is a distraction.

    GMOs are not the solution to world hunger. They are a boutique product to enhance agribusiness profits. While these businesses may have a case for regulatory reform, couching it in terms of solving world hunger is misleading and cynical.

  5. @Ikonoclast
    If we have to wait for your ideal political economy to exist before action on real human problems can take place we are crazy. The fact that you still want to tie GMO to ME wars is a clear indication of fluffy thinking. It is extraneous. Corporations are going to be around, and continuing doing something like what they do now, for some time. The US government will continue to do seriously crazy things. We might as well take a piecemeal approach and solve some real problems while waiting for the golden age.

    The green movement (in general) has and continues to conduct a campaign against GM that is unscientific and unreasonable from a risk management perspective. (VAD induced blindness is a risk too.) Whether Green propaganda is the “primary” cause – or a secondary cause – for the non-implementation of GR is a rhetorical issue. In either case it doesn’t justify their actions. The fact is that it is a significant factor and it is shoddy.

    No one claims that GR is a magic bullet, I don’t know you keep saying this. The contrary claim, that has been made here, that it is useless, is equally ludicrous.

    Likewise I don’t claim that there are no risks with GM products. The question is whether they are better or worse than alternatives. All introduced species alter ecosystems. Farming, especially row farming trashes the pre-existing “natural” environment. Plants in general are loaded with natural insecticides that impact ecosystems. If this stuff is allowed with attendant costs, benefits and risks is it reasonable to stop GM plants on the basis of relatively tiny absolute risks where significant upsides are present? Applying the risk aversion standards you want to set for GM would lock in current crops and farming techniques indefinitely.

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