It's Stupid Season. Have You Been Vaccinated?

How the press turned a local issue into the first controversy of the 2016 presidential campaign.


It's never too early to be reminded how willfully awful the political press can be during presidential campaign season.

In early February, some 11 months before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, a four-day foofaraw over vaccines provided a template for the tendency of the Fourth Estate and the partisans who game it to direct coverage away from government policy and toward a falsely Manichean separation between Team Science and Team Stupid.

It all started innocuously enough, with President Barack Obama going on the Today show February 2 and being asked by Savannah Guthrie whether, in the wake of increasing measles outbreaks near Disneyland and elsewhere, "there should be a requirement that parents get their kids vaccinated." The president then said three things that just about everyone on allegedly opposing sides of the resulting debate would also stress over the coming week: that "measles are preventable," that "you should get your kids vaccinated," and-through his spokesman Josh Earnest the following day-that "it shouldn't require a [federal] law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing."

Given the volume and tenor of the ensuing brouhaha, you'd be forgiven for thinking that vaccine policy is largely determined by Washington. "The measles vaccine," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, in a sentiment shared widely among the political press, "has become the first important controversy of the 2016 Republican presidential primary."

Yet when my second daughter was born in late January, it wasn't the White House or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that dictated which shots would be given and recommended at the hospital, it was the city and state of New York. In January of this year, for example, New York City took the unusually aggressive step of mandating not just a measles or whooping cough vaccination but a flu shot for any child entering a city-licensed preschool or day care facility. (Parents can apply for medical or religious exemptions.) This despite reports from the CDC that this year's flu shot has an anemic effectiveness rate of 23 percent.

But journalists were not very interested in the areas of vaccine policy that are actually debatable. They just wanted to find fools and laugh at them. "The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives," wrote The New York Times in its news pages. Lefty commentators were more direct: "Republican Party Comes Out Against Basic Hygiene, For Freedom," went one headline in Wonkette.

Observers with memories longer than one week may recall that the anti-vaccination movement arose largely (though certainly not exclusively) from the progressive left, through celebrities such as Robert Kennedy Jr. and Jenny McCarthy and in publications such as Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post. The current measles outbreak is centered in the Democratic-dominated state of California, where local anti-vaccination rates correspond well with progressive concentration. There is some heavy-breathing skepticism from the fringes of libertarianism (sample 2014 headline from "The CDC's Cover-Up On Autism and the MMR Vaccine"), but as a matter of overall policy and politics the American mainstream continues to be heavily pro-vaccine, and the anti- side is distributed pretty evenly across the political spectrum.

So why were Republicans in the crosshairs over immunization? Because presidential hopefuls Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) expressed their fundamental policy agreement with the president while using language that raised alarm bells among political reporters.

Christie, while traveling in London, was asked whether Americans should vaccinate their kids. He replied: "All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That's the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It's much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that's what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that's the balance that the government has to decide. But I can just tell people from our perspective, Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think it's an important part of making sure we protect their health and the public health."

To make this statement controversial, you have to assume that Christie is referring only to comparatively no-brainer vaccinations, like those against measles, rather than more questionable interventions, such as mandatory flu shots and infant immunizations against the comparatively less communicable Hepatitis B. Indeed, the governor clarified the next day that the measles mandate makes perfect sense. It also helps to be ignorant of the fact that 48 of the 50 states already allow parents at least "some measure of choice," in the form of opt-outs for religious and broader philosophical reasons.

Christie also pre-contributed to the controversy through his statement in 2009 that he will "stand with" parents of autistic kids in "their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates," thus seeming to lend credibility to a linkage that by then had already been discredited, and would soon thereafter be retracted by its source. (Though that didn't stop Hillary Clinton and John McCain from making similar statements the year before, for which their careers did not suffer.) In a world of politicized science, do-something journalism, and the structural incentives for the continuous expansion of recommended shots, worrying about the prevalence of vaccine mandates in an outlier state is healthy, not crazy. But linking it to autism is profoundly unhelpful.

That's what partly ensnared Rand Paul, when the journalism swarm moved his direction. In the course of agreeing with President Obama and Gov. Christie that vaccines are "one of the biggest medical breakthroughs that we've had" but should not be forcibly mandated, the senator said, "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." This is literally true-autism typically manifests at some point after the vast majority of infants receive vaccinations. But the implied linkage and resulting outrage was enough to prompt a quick clarification from Paul that he "did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related-I did not allege causation."

Let it be resolved that putting the words autism and vaccines in a sentence without the connective tissue of is not caused by is inadvisable at best. Now then: Should public schools refuse to admit children not inoculated against Hep B, a disease correlated strongly with high-risk behavior such as unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, and typically transmitted not through casual contact but via blood? Because that's the law in most of the land. Should state governments require annual flu shots for school kids? They do in New Jersey and Connecticut.

When commentators weren't busy congratulating themselves in February for being on the right side of science, they were writing agonized think-pieces about, in the words of Kelly Wallace at, "How to persuade the anti-vaxxers to vaccinate." One suggestion that did not, to my knowledge, come up: Make damned sure every vaccine mandate makes scientific and philosophical sense, so as not to breed distrust over the ones that are more necessary.

You don't have to be paranoid to observe that the federal government has lied for decades about the medical properties of marijuana while changing its mind constantly about the food pyramid and the cost/benefit of salt. If you want less skepticism, stop earning it. And you don't have to be a crazed libertarian (or progressive!) to be creeped out by the government telling you what to inject into your child. The real debate isn't science vs. Jenny McCarthy, it's the scope and terms of the available exemptions at the state and local level, far away from presidential politics. That's a much harder question, one that the political press is uniquely ill-equipped to handle.

NEXT: Brickbat: Professional Courtesy

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  1. Congratulations Matt, but why didn’t you auction off naming rights?

    Also, when will Reason sell a t-shirt that says “If you want less skepticism, stop earning it.”?

    1. I would like one of these shirts.

    2. Also, when will Reason sell a t-shirt that says “If you want less skepticism, stop earning it.”?

      Certainly t-shirt worthy and I would want one, but I want my “Fuck you, cut spending.” shirt first.

  2. Vaccination has actually spurred its own political party:


    I didn’t know you had a new spawn, Matt. Can we see adorable pics? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

    1. He wants to know if I have been vaccinated but he can’t be bothered to tell us about his new child?

      The nerve of this guy.

  4. Anyone have a collection of politicos and their quotes on vaccination, showing their fundamental agreement in their statements? Matt mentions such statements but does not link to any of them. Only Team Red will be slagged for them, of course, but it would be fun to put together a graphic showing Hilary, John McCain, etc., all saying “un-sciency” things about vaccines and then have a comment about standing with the party of science if only one could find it.

  5. It all started innocuously enough

    Well done

  6. foofaraw

    The word defines itself!

    1. I prefer “kerfuffle”

      1. “Kerfuffle” is good. I’ve always had a soft spot for the term “shit storm.” Just has a nice ring to it. But, that’s just me. 🙂

  7. I mean, I wouldn’t send my kid to a school where other kids weren’t getting measles vaccines (and the rest of the big ones, polio, etc.), but I also would advocate against using force or tax coercion or the like to make other parents vaccinate their kids. Similarly, I don’t smoke crack, wouldn’t advise it, and won’t hang out with people who are smoking crack, but I don’t think I or anyone else should be able to force someone to not smoke crack. When did this become a radical position? How is one or the other “anti-science”? Just because I believe that something is right for me and my family doesn’t mean I’ve been magically endowed with the power to make that choice for other people, even if the government (that famous bastion of scientific credibility and good sense) agrees with me.

    1. Your metaphor would be correct if crack were contagious. And I know that you’d still chalk it up to a win for liberty if your unvaccinated newborn became a crack addict simply because you took him/her to the doctors office where another crack addicted baby was being treated.

      1. But….if you’re vaccinated why would you care if others weren’t? I’m assuming you do trust the vaccination, otherwise why take it right? Just curious here.

        1. Because it’s a palatable excuse to coerce other people and violate their rights under the guise of property rights. Even some supposed libertarians relish the opportunity to satisfy their base desire to dominate others with the help of some mental gymnastics.

        2. Because many vaccines, such as MMR, cannot be given until a certain age. In the latest episode babies were being exposed because they were being treated at the same hospital that an anti-vaxxer’s measles struck kid was at. Also, some kids have preexisting conditions that prevent them from being able to take the vaccine.

          1. Or you can add to the intellectual vigor of the debate by beating the shit out of the Straw man that Free Society has constructed.

    2. I mean, I wouldn’t send my kid to a school where other kids weren’t getting measles vaccines (and the rest of the big ones, polio, etc.)

      Is there a school in this country where the majority of kids are vaccinated for polio? Frequently, measles outbreaks start from un(der)vaccinated immigration; adults coming in who’ve never been vaccinated or adults leaving (and coming back) who haven’t had their boosters.

      Get your stupid vaccine first.

      1. Appears that I need a typo booster;

        Is there a school in this country where the majority of kids aren’t vaccinated for polio?

        I was under the impression that the vaccines being shirked were nearly always for ‘nuisance’ diseases.

  8. I got a flu shot. I get one every year, as my doctors throw a fit if I don’t. I was one of the unlucky one who caught a strain of the flu that wasn’t covered in this year’s shot.

    The flu sucks. It ruined my after Christmas vacation days, the most wonderful days of the year.

    1. I always refuse a flu shot, because no flu is going to bring down an asskicker! …or something like that.

    2. I’ve never gotten one, and I haven’t had the flu in five years, knock on wood. After my wife had a reaction to hers AND THEN caught the flu anyway, I decided to spend the $25 on beer instead.

      1. Beer is full of anti-bodies and special enzymes that make us invulnerable.

        1. Beer is my cape.

          1. Beer is my lover.

            1. Ooh, a beer-sexual! How stimulating.

              1. Always.

      2. You’re better off taking cod liver oil than getting a flu shot.

        And not shaking hands. Trump is right about some things.

    3. Been there, done that. Last time I got flu it was Boxing Day, so I spent New Year’s Eve sick as a dog, curing humanity and watching Apocalypse Now. Since my employer offers a free shot AND a lollipop, I get one and so far so good

    4. Yea, Christmas vacation is like enjoying a dapper nap nestled deep in a stack of your favorite vaginas surrounded by freshly-washed kittens riding unicorns tossing peppermint rainbows and glittery gifts while a light snow of crescent rolls and bacon drifts effortlessly onto the gentle curves of an eternal ice sculpture formed from beer and breast milk melting into a chocolaty vapor of cinnamon and eggnog…

    5. Yeah, this. I didn’t get the shot till a few years ago. I think I’ve gotten the flu less often recently mostly because I quit smoking 🙂

      And I caught the death flu this year – the worst ever for me. Still coughing sporadically a month and a 1/2 later. Fuck you, flu!

      1. If nothing else respiratory tract infections are certainly easier to bear out since dropping my two pack a day habit.

  9. Establishment rags are havens for the snotty-nosed, teary-eyed, incoherent, chronically self-obsessed, and morbidly spastic… much like the fucking play area in the office of your local pediatrician.

  10. Children occupy a bit of a special place in libertarian philosophy because they’re not able to always grant meaningful consent. Parents don’t ‘own’ their children but rather have a trustee type relationship with them. That may lead to cases where parents should and can be overridden, but the knowledge that there’s a natural incentive for parents to want what’s best for their kids and that government, not having any altruistic personal stake, will rarely have such motivation, should lead to a general and powerful presumption in favor of parental authority and against government authority. That’s all Paul expressed and it’s refreshing, not reprehensible.

    1. Well-stated.

    2. But government always know better than the parent what’s best for the child. Remember the Soviets? er How about the Nazis? um Well, the Europeans certainly have… Crap. Never mind.

  11. It’s Stupid Season. Have You Been Vaccinated?

    There’s a vaccine for Stupid? Why aren’t we using it?

    1. There is no vaccine for Stupid, and the only known cure is death.

      Or more cowbell. I often confuse the two.

  12. I’ve never had and never will have a flu shot. It’s a rather transparent ploy by officials to pacify the masses. One day it won’t be a vaccination in that syringe but something more sinister, and everyone will be conditioned to have it pushed into their bloodstream without question. Also, I heard the current flu shots have a 50% chance of making your dick fall off.

    1. Conditioning isn’t the issue, legal mandates are. And while it makes perfect sense for most people to get vaccinated, it may not make sense at an individual level and that is why we need individual choice

      1. Conditioning isn’t the issue, legal mandates are.

        Why not both? Remember when Obamacare was about preventative medicine?

        In addition to getting free insurance in case of emergencies, people were going to get free gym memberships from their employers and rewards for eating right and losing weight. Employee wellness programs were going to bolster employment packages everywhere. The free market and employers were completely unable to force people to get off their fat asses and solve the impending health crisis on their own.

        The shot has a decent chance of giving you the flu or flu-like symptoms for a day or two. It has a similarly decent chance of not preventing the flu, every year, to say nothing about the bacterial infections and norovirus infections that it does nothing to prevent. Pretty much the only reason you would get it is to definitively protect yourself or your employer/school/organization from a potential legal liability. If that’s not a purity test, IDK what is.

  13. Actually, some vaccines may cause brain disorders on extremely rare occasions, even a according to the CDC. It’s just that the vaccine is still safer than the disease itself.

    On the other hand, the hysteria over measles isn’t justified either. Measles is a largely harmless disease in otherwise healthy kids.

  14. Why do you continue to link Rand Paul’s remarks to autism, when it looks from his wording much more likely that he was referring to the encephalopathies putatively linked to pertussis vaccination?

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