Not content with just pandering to the creationists at the Discovery Institute, GOP nominee John McCain doubled down on Friday and made a push for the anti-vaccinationist vote. According to Jake Tapper at ABC News, McCain still gives credence to the now-discredited "vaccines cause autism" hypothesis:
McCain was responding to a question from the mother of a boy with autism, who asked about a recent story that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program had issued a judgment in favor of an unnamed child whose family claimed regressive encephalopathy and symptoms of autism were caused by thimerosal.
"We’ve been waiting for years for kind of a responsible answer to this question, and are hoping that you can help us out there," the woman said.
McCain said, per ABC News' Bret Hovell, that "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."
McCain said there’s "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."
Let me be absolutely clear here: McCain is dead wrong, there is no scientific debate on this issue. The case is closed and vaccines are definitively NOT the cause of autism. Tapper links to relevant statements by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Institute of Medicine, all dismissing any causation based on the evidence available. Many, many studies have been done testing both the mecury/autism and vaccine/austism connections, and none has found any causative link, including the most recent ones published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Archives of General Psychiatry. There is as much "debate" in the scientific community on this issue as there is on the existence of global warming or evolution: none, save for a few cranks acting in bad faith.
Additionally, the case conceded by the government that McCain's questioner refers to isn't as damning as she thinks it is. Dr. Steven Novella has covered this much more thoroughly than I ever could, but just to briefly summarize his post, I'll note that this case had nothing to do with thimerosal or autism. The plaintiff had a mitochondrial disorder, not autism, and while the government ceded the vaccine injury claim, legal plausibility is not the same as scientific plausibility. If Scalia et al. ruled tomorrow that gravity is only 5 m/s, you wouldn't be able to jump any higher as a result. The legal threshold of evidence is much lower than a scientific study, it's no shock that the government might settle a few cases among the 5000+ in the Autism Omnibus proceedings.
Finally, I'd like to address McCain's motivation for making such a ludicrously ignorant statement. The most charitable explanation is that he was put on the spot, and he simply didn't want to argue with the mother of an autistic child who, no matter how misguided she was, had suffered enough. If this is true, it certainly speaks well to McCain's compassion, but not for his "straight talk" persona. Isn't the whole point of Straight Talk™ to tell hard truths and not mince words? Has McCain become yet another pandering politician?
More likely, though still speculative, is that McCain was trying to nail down the endorsement of disc jockey Don Imus. Imus and his wife, Deidre, are big advocates of the mercury militia's cause, through his radio show and her blog at the Huffington Post. One would think Imus would readily back long time guest McCain, but lately he's had a lot of nice things to say about Barack Obama, perhaps as public penance for his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Imus has never hesitated from pushing the vaccine/autism myth, perhaps McCain saw this as a way to lock up the shock jock's support?
Whatever the reason, McCain acted irresponsibly. Vaccination is one of the greatest public health successes of all human civilization. Because of immunization, some diseases have disappeared while others have ceased to be a threat. To endanger all that with fearmongering and junk science is unbecoming of a potential president of the United States. This just goes to show you that Republicans are still the party of anti-science, it will take a Democratic president to safeguard science and health from the ideologues.