A number of writers, myself included, have accused Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein of pandering to vaccine skeptics, who likely make up some chunk of her far-left political base. This weekend, she tried to assuage those concerns on Twitter but instead may have deepened them by watering down her own statement rejecting a link between childhood immunizations and autism.
It all started, oddly, thanks to a tweet from Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy.
Stein graciously responded.
This was not a perfect response. The “I am not aware” seemed like a questionable bit of hedging. I mean, just imagine it in other contexts. “I am not aware of any evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was the second gunman in the JFK assassination.” Or: “I am not aware of any evidence that your mother works nights dancing at a gentleman’s club in order fund a cocaine habit.” Those sentences sound absurd! But still, the tweet signaled progress. She was personally rejecting the the vaccines-autism link. I even praised her for it.
Turns out, there was more to the story. A couple of eagle-eyed Twitter users noticed that Stein had originally tweeted out, then deleted, a stronger version of her statement that simply read: “There’s no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.”
Why did Stein feel compelled to dilute her language? Well, it’s possible she experienced a sudden jolt of epistemological modesty, then thought to herself, “Jill, have you really done a comprehensive review of the recent medical literature on vaccines? Shouldn’t you maybe leave a little wiggle room to save face in case someone digs up a paper you hadn’t heard about? That would be responsible.” Or, maybe she got worried her first tweet would go down poorly with hardcore anti-vaxxers and decided to soften the language a tiny bit. I can only speculate, since her campaign won’t respond to my emails asking for comment.
And so Stein’s awkward dance over vaccine safety continues. Again, nobody is claiming that she personally believes vaccines are ineffective or dangerous. Instead, the concern is that the Harvard-trained physician is catering to vaccine skeptics by engaging in a bit of double-speak. Stein acknowledges that vaccines have done enormous good for public health and says she supports them. But she simultaneously suggests that there may be unresolved “questions” about their safety and makes broad claims that the American drug-approval process has been tainted by corporate influence. In some ways, this subtly mirrors the rhetoric from famous vaccine skeptics like Jenny McCarthy, who claims, “We’re not an anti-vaccine movement. We’re pro-safe-vaccine schedule.” Stein’s latest vacillations on Twitter haven’t helped the impression that she’s trying to avoid alienating anti-vaxxers without outright bear-hugging them.
As Dominican University professor David M. Perry notes, however, the angry response that even her revised statement received from some anti-vaxxers shows how hard it is to thread that needle.
Stein really isn’t going to please everybody on this. Maybe she’d just be better off keeping things simple and saying the words: “Vaccines are safe.”