Trump, Carson and the vaccine debate

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

One of the most interesting moments in Wednesday’s l-o-o-ng Republican presidential debate came when two candidates sort of stopped debating.

Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, was asked about comments Donald Trump had made espousing a link between vaccines and autism. Carson responded that numerous studies have shown no link between the two. The only study that did show a link has been thoroughly discredited. However, he said children are vaccinated for many diseases and that parents should have some discretion for those not deadly or crippling.

Trump responded with a personal story about an employee whose child had developed autism shortly after being vaccinated. He said he favors vaccinations but would like to see smaller dosages stretched over a longer period of time. Carson again disagreed that vaccinations cause autism but suggested cutting down on the “number and proximity” of shots, not mentioning dosages.

Logic is a tough thing for human beings to achieve, which is one reason democracy is so hard. We have a difficult time separating correlation – things happening at the same time – with causation. We place too high a value on emotional personal anecdotes and not a high enough value on data. That’s why we need research.

On the other hand, researchers are human, too. For years, we’ve been told that silly old Mom was wrong and there’s no link between cold weather and people catching colds, other than the fact that we’re more likely to spread the disease while stuck indoors in the winter. The data was unequivocal, even though Mom’s personal experiences said otherwise. Now research indicates that cold temperatures in the nasal cavity might slow the body’s immune response to rhinoviruses after all.

The scientific process has resulted in an explosion of knowledge and a vast improvement in our living standards. But it is an imperfect way of arriving at truth. Instead of a straight line, it zigzags. It gets some things right and some wrong and then corrects itself.

It especially runs into trouble when generalizing about humans, which are extremely complex and similar but not identical. It’s very likely true that vaccines do not cause autism across the broad spectrum of humanity. But it is not necessarily true that vaccines do not ever cause autism – or some other adverse reaction – in a particular person. These many parents who say their child changed immediately after being vaccinated – are they all foolishly failing to see that it was just a coincidence? Every last one of them?

If you are a health professional, you might have responded to the Carson-Trump exchange (and that last paragraph) with horror. While studies show there’s no link between vaccines and autism, there’s clearly a link between a lack of vaccines and increased cases of childhood diseases.

But many parents are opting out of vaccines now, so maybe it’s time for the medical establishment to rethink its approach. An atmosphere of distrust is being created, which happens when people’s concerns about their children are summarily dismissed. Maybe it’s time to stop arguing with parents and start working with them. Certainly, medical professionals and not presidential candidates should determine dosages. But would alternative vaccination schedules really be completely unacceptable?

Carson and Trump are both Republicans, but they’re about as different as two candidates in the same party are going to be in this day and age. They addressed this issue from very different perspectives. Within three minutes, it was apparent that their positions actually were at least in the same ballpark.

The truth is that Americans are divided on a lot of issues, but on many of them, it’s a difference of degree or approach. Almost all Democrats enjoy making more money and do not enjoy paying more taxes. Very few Republicans favor completely dismantling the social safety net. Nobody wants Iran to develop a nuclear bomb.

None of us will get everything we want – even if we are completely right. The trick in a complex society is to find an acceptable common ground. Does one exist in the great vaccine debate? Isn’t it worth trying to find out?

In the most adversarial of circumstances, Trump and Carson, the two frontrunners standing next to each other, ended up not so far apart on an issue where they seemed at first to be totally at odds. If that can happen in a presidential debate regarding vaccines, maybe it can happen on other issues after the election, too.

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