Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bachmann, Perry, and What Counts as Evidence

Recently, in addition to attacking Texas governor Rick Perry for the crime of protecting Texas girls from a severe - often fatal illness, Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann has included the claim that the vaccination is dangerous.

The morning after the debate, she reported on the case if a mother who came up to her after the debate, crying, claiming that the HPV vaccination caused her child's mental retardation.

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate and tell me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said.

See: Washington Post Bachmann questions safety of HPV vaccine for girls

This raises the question for Michelle Bachmann: "What counts as evidence?"

If she wants to make national policy as President, how is she going to decide what to do? What is her ability to distinguish good data from bad data? In case if a potential natural disaster, or a potent rial pandemic, or rumors of a potential terrorist attack, or the effects of some chemical being put into the air or water, what is she going to count as evidence?

It would have taken no effort - in fact, it should have been considered obligatory - for her to have some staff member do a little bit of checking on the side effects of the HPV immunization. That researcher would have learned that the potential side effects include pain and redness at the injection site or flu-like symptoms (headache, fever, nausea).

But what counts as evidence in Michelle Bachmann's book is not the findings is not stacks of data gathered by the Centers fir Disease Control as a result of nearly 40 million immunizations, but a politically convenient fiction told to her after the debate. Instantly, she accepted what this mother told her was true. As for the findings of the CDC - they were not even consulted.


Because Bachmann was using her prejudice to filter the evidence. She knew what she wanted the facts to be. If the HPV vaccine is dangerous, then she has a politically potent case against Perry. Wanting the HPV vaccine to be dangerous, the claims of this mother became evidence that she took with her. Potential sources of information that might contradict those prejudices must be presumed to be flawed in some way, or simply not worth checking.

Besides the dangers of having somebody who thinks (to use the term loosely) this way as President, Bachmann is already doing harm and costing lives. Because of her statements, somebody is going to refuse to immunize their child. That child will get cervical cancer, and that child will die a horrible death. A child will die, because Bachmann is too full of herself to check anything other than her own opinion and political convenience in deciding what to tell people about matters that affect their health, their lives, and the lives of their children.

Ironically, every criticism that can and has been made against Bachmann concerning HPV immunizations can be applied to Perry concerning climate change. Here, it is Perry who has formed an opinion, looks only at the evidence that confirms his bias while dismissing contrary evidence as unreliable or - worse - lies and deception for the purpose of making money.

Perry's disdain for evidence tells us that his opinion on HPV infections almost certainly did not come from an examination of or understanding of the evidence. If he did not want to accept the conclusion, he would have simply asserted that the science was unsettled, that a mysterious "growing number of scientists" were questioning these findings, and that the conclusions were engineered by whatever special interest group would profit by misleading us - in this case, the pharmaceutical company, Merck.

Here, it is particularly interesting to note that while Perry can be suspicious of climate scientists worldwide being involved in a conspiracy to doctor data so they can get government funding, he raises no suspicions when the data comes to him through an employee of a company that will directly benefit to the tune of millions of dollars.

However, in the case of Merck, the evidence came to him through a trusted friend and advisor - Mike Toomey, who was a lobbyist for Merck.

The ties between Perry and Merck run deeper still, according to the report. Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff, was working as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck at the time Perry bypassed the Texas state legislature and issued his executive order. Today, Toomey is one of the founders of the pro-Perry PAC Make Us Great Again, which can accept unlimited donations and plans to raise upwards of $55 million dollars to help Perry win the GOP nomination.

(See Skate Perry has closer ties to Merck than he admitted)

Perry's proven inability to discern fact from fiction and to conveniently dismiss evidence he does not like suggests that he would have likely believed Toomey said regardless of the evidence. If somebody like Toomey were to suggest that the science that the vaccines were dangerous was not to be trusted, then Perry's pattern of behavior suggests that he would have believed that and questioned the research and the scientists conducting that research.

The hypothesis that Perry was convinced by the evidence simply flies in the face of the fact that Perry has blindly dismissed evidence he does not like on other issues. He had to have been convinced by something other than the evidence - accepted something other than evidence as proof. In Perry's case, it was the word of a friend who happened to work for a company that profited by engineering Perry's beliefs in its favor.

With respect to both Bachmann and Perry, the question is: What counts as evidence? A crying mother with a politically useful story that flies in the face of years of known research? A friend working for a company that stands to profit by engineering one's beliefs? A consultation with genuine experts in the field who have spent their lives scientifically studying the issue - using all of the tools of science including those that correct for individual bias and personal preference?

In the case of Bachmann and Perry, it is certainly not the latter.

1 comment:

mojo.rhythm said...

*EXASPERATION* What the hell is wrong with the Republican party?