McCain’s semi-endorsement of Autism Alarmism Redux

A listener just sent me a comment about McCain’s statement on autism over a month ago. I answered it, and here’s my response, reproduced so everyone can benefit! (They were probably responding to my comments in Episode 78)

It sounded to me as if McCain was taking
the same position as you, that vaccines
aren't the source of autism.

My response:

McCain didn’t state that he believed vaccines cause autism, but he did clearly state that there was “strong evidence” in favor of the link. He said that there was a debate about the cause, which is problematic because the debate is not a scientific debate but a minor public debate fueled by a few activists.

Here’s what McCain actually said:

“It’s indisputable that [autism] is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

The problem is, there isn’t strong evidence in favor of the vaccine (rather the Thimerosal used in some vaccines)-autism link, and there never was. The main problem with what he said is that he repeated something that he had heard somewhere without checking the facts. He also said there is:

“divided scientific opinion on the matter, with many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

The way he describes it, it almost sounds like the “credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it” are in the minority. Minus two points for 1. Misrepresenting the state of the science, and 2. making the majority sound like the minority.

To my knowledge, he hasn’t issued a full apology for his misstatement, however, he no longer makes the claim in his presentations. (Plus half a point.)

Asked about autism by the parent of two autistic children at a town-hall-style meeting Tuesday afternoon in Houston, Mr. McCain did not repeat his claim.

He probably regrets the error, but to admit that he had bad information and correct the record would do wonders for his credibility with regard to scientific issues. He didn’t really endorse the vaccine-autism link, but his statement could be considered a semi-endorsement. But at the time he made it, he was definitely not disagreeing with the claim. He really should have withheld an opinion on the matter until he could consult his advisors, but I guess he thought he already knew the answer, or wanted to tell the asking mother what she wanted to hear. I wouldn’t put it past politicians to do that.

It is possible that the statement may come up in the general election later this year, so he may still have an opportunity to fix it.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “McCain’s semi-endorsement of Autism Alarmism Redux”

  1. I really wish McCain and the others had agreed to the science debate. I’m not really concerned with what they know, but with the willingness they may have to bs an answer or to parrot the popular media. I don’t think I’m the only person who beleives the selection of “head science advisor” is just as important as Sec. Of State.


  2. I am afraid of what will happen if McCain is elected.

    Come to think of it, I am afraid of what will happen on Inauguration Day, because all the presidential candidates suck .


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