Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, would like you to know that she believes vaccines are beneficial, unless they’re not. In addition, she believes that she has not seen any evidence for a link between vaccinations and autism—which isn’t to say that the link does not exist, per se, just that she hasn’t personally witnessed it.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Stein’s immunization equivocation started last week, when the Washington Post asked whether she thinks vaccines cause autism. Instead of saying “no,” Stein, a Harvard-trained physician, offered a two-minute-long disquisition on lobbying and its influence on regulatory agencies. Citing her medical experience, Stein added that
there was a time when I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved. There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines—there were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them, at least, have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.
Over the weekend, Stein’s campaign tried to clarify the issue. Instead, they made things worse. On Sunday, the campaign tweeted that “there’s no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.”
Five minutes later, they deleted the tweet and amended it to a more modest, relativized claim:
I'm not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines. Let's do more to support autistic people & their families. https://t.co/eISgfxQ5vm
— Dr. Jill Stein (@DrJillStein) July 31, 2016
Armed with screenshots, some savvy Twitter users documented the hasty edit.
Why backtrack? In an email to RD, Stein’s Press Director, Meleiza Figueroa, explained that “there had been a miscommunication among staffers and an earlier draft of the tweet was published online, which was then corrected within a few minutes when the mistake was noticed.” When I asked Figueroa how the original tweet was mistaken, and what specifically had caused the campaign to change it, she declined to comment further.
The difference between these two tweets is subtle. But it’s also significant. And it illustrates the delicate game that Stein is trying to play as she navigates the world of anti-authority politics.
The thing is, the debate over vaccinations isn’t exactly a debate over scientific facts. When it comes to vaccines, the scientific facts are unequivocal: the benefits of vaccination overwhelmingly outweigh the side-effects. And Stein’s campaign said it nicely before deleting it: there really is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism.
Anti-vaxxers are persuasive because they frame the issue not as a contest over graphs and charts, but as a contest over authority. Who gets to determine scientific fact? Can we really trust the people in power? Are the coronated Determiners of Truth—namely, academic researchers and government scientists—really reliable and legitimate?
Stein gets this. That’s why, when the Washington Post asked her about vaccines, she said that they were “an invaluable medication”—and then immediately pivoted to talk about the untrustworthiness of the FDA, the CDC, and other federal regulatory agencies that oversee public health. She cited the corrupting influence of corporations, and then went on to invoke a favorite demon: “Monsanto lobbyists run the day in those agencies and are in charge of approving what food is or isn’t safe,” Stein said.
The implication was that, while vaccines are probably safe, the people telling us they’re safe aren’t trustworthy.
In this sense, the campaign’s original tweet really was off-message. To say that “there’s no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines” is to make an authoritative statement that parrots scientific orthodoxy. The slightly edited version—“I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines”—places the candidate at a critical remove. Instead of repeating the scientific consensus, now she’s just aware of it.
There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about corporate influence on science and government. But it’s disingenuous to conflate “all of science” with “the FDA and the CDC,” or to imply that the entire scientific establishment has been corrupted by a handful of companies.
Since Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Stein has worked hard to win over Bernie Sanders supporters and other progressives who are more suspicious of the political process than they are of Donald Trump. Stein’s target audience is going to be skeptical of standing authorities and institutions, and it’s easy to see why the anti-vaxxer crowd would form a natural constituency for her (although skepticism about vaccinations is by no means limited to the political left).
The question, though, is how far the politics of skepticism can go. Do they represent strategic dissent against specific, corrupt authorities? Or do they represent a wholesale dissent from authority of any kind?
Also on The Cubit: The cultural roots of the anti-vaxxer movement
Follow The Cubit, RD’s religion-and-science portal, @TheCubit.