McCain's McCarthyism. McMaybe.

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2008 8:40 am

My head is spinning after researching this blog post. See if you can follow along here. You may want to sit down, and have a bucket of water handy.

A while back, Presidential candidate John McCain said that there was evidence that vaccines cause autism. This did not endear him to me.

Then, actress Jenny McCarthy became an outspoken advocate of this non-existing link.

Now, in an interview with Access Hollywood (link goes to video, skip to about 2:00 minutes in), McCarthy says she has tried to contact McCain, hoping to convince him to be a champion of her antiscience inquisition.

Still with me?

OK, this gets harder to follow. The interview with Access Hollywood has been picked up by various online sites. Both ContactMusic and IMDB have reprinted the same article (evidently from a news service), and they both say McCain turned her down! Why? According to the news article, it’s because McCain denied her requests "after learning there’s no hard medical evidence linking vaccines and autism."

Hey, good on him. That’s very cool that he’s taking the side of science and —

[insert comical record scratching sound effect here]

Wait! Hold the onions! According to McCarthy in the actual interview with Access Hollywood, that’s not the case:

I literally flew to go see McCain … His team agreed to [the meeting], I was prepped and then all of a sudden his campaign manager had said, ‘We’re ahead in the polls and this is a very, very touchy subject. Let’s not give this interview right now.'”

So which is it? McCain found science, or it’s another political maneuver? Or is Ms. McCarthy somehow garbling up what happened? Or did the news service? The part about McCain seeing no evidence for a link is in the online written articles, but not the video interview of McCarthy.

Whatever. But I’d love to hear the McCain campaign come out and say there is no medical link between vaccines and autism. That would be very cool indeed.

And lest you think this is over, of course it isn’t. Don’t be silly! Turns out McCarthy’s team has been trying to contact Obama now, hoping he’ll be the one to deny all the medical evidence, the science, the studies, and reality, and back her side:

We are trying (to contact him)… We have sent numerous, numerous (requests). Y’know, it’s a very scary thing for a politician.

I imagine being hunted down by an antiscience advocate would indeed be scary. Oh– she must mean taking on a controversial issue is scary. Well, yeah, it can be scary, but there’s right and there’s wrong. And putting kids and whole populations at risk, well, I’m here to tell you that’s wrong.

And shame on Access Hollywood for giving her a soap box from which to preach. It’s not like I expect journalistic aptitude from a Hollywood gossip program, but it didn’t occur to anyone there that when they interview an actress trying to take on the entire medical profession, that maybe, just maybe, they could have talked to an actual, y’know, doctor?

Which leads me to:

The stupid, it burns

I knew that drawing would be useful. And I told you to have a bucket of water handy.

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to John, who got this started with a comment in my last post about Ms. McCarthy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Humor, Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (51)

  1. Steve Horton

    are you getting money for your political campaign or something?

    for a non-american, your blog reads pretty strange, lately. I thought this was a astronomy and skepticism blog.

  2. madge

    Mccarthy is a dangerous, wrongminded scaremonger. Any politician (anyone at all in fact) should be VERY wary of being seen to give credence to her ideas.

  3. Maura

    Re: Steve Horton’s comment

    The skepticism aspect of this blog is necessarily wrapped up in American politics. The candidates are aspiring to very powreful positions in which their decisions will affect people around the world. Their stances on matters of science are an essential part of what this blog is all about. What Bush has done to science as it informs policy (or, in his case DOESN’T inform policy) has been demonstrably harmful to this world. I’m really glad Phil is covering this stuff.

    Anyway, there’s only a month to go!

  4. Well, since skeptics regularly tackle the ignorance of anti-science, it’s an appropriate blog entry. As I said before, anti-science has such a strong foothold because it’s easy. All you need is to drum up the masses with pretty pictures and words. No proof or evidence. That’s too hard. Part of the “instant gratification” society perhaps.

    The fact that these anti-science movements get such popularity, and then insert themselves into politics and policy is what is truly frightening. Dr Plait is doing a service to those Americans who still have their brains rooted in reality.

  5. David D.

    So, the news reports that McCain accepts there is no hard evidence connecting vaccines and autism.

    Obama apparently still believes that “the science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it,” as he is quoted from an April political rally.

    Yet this post mentions nothing about Obama’s anti-science stance.

    Hey–it’s BA’s blog.

  6. kuhnigget

    @ Madge

    I think you nailed it in terms of explaining the behavior from the McCain camp. Despite the usual lies to the contrary, Washington folks on both sides of the aisle aren’t exactly hip to Hollywood celebs, who they are and what they’re about. I suspect McCain’s people thought at first this would be a great photo op to make some inroads into the Left Coast types. They probably set up the interview and then had the brains to look into just who this person is. Once they got a whiff of controversy, they had to scramble to unschedule the whole thing.

    Pure politics, plain and simple, and no more indicative of McCain’s real position on the issue (if he’s even got one) than the brand of cereal he eats vis a vis his stand on farm subsidies.

  7. Brian Hodges

    After that whole Paris Hilton thing, I imagine McCain is going to be very careful about being linked to any quasi-“celebrity”.

  8. Pointybirds

    @Steve Horton: What’s wrong with being political, in the truer senses of the word? Americans in particular ought to be encouraged to take an interest in the direction in which their superpower moves. From what I’ve seen of Phil’s site recently, he’s distributed purple stars and could-do-better stickers to both candidates, but always from a science point of view. Let’s not discourage the mere mention of a polly’s name for fear it might be seen as campaigning; particularly when so much major campaign funding comes in under the radar.

    Egads, I hope we don’t end up with bloggers having to stay “on message” …

  9. Neurotrumpet

    It does so burn.

  10. I thought this was a astronomy and skepticism blog.

    Ugh… again with this? Phil usually has to submit this link in reply every time (and it’s often) someone makes that same comment. I’ll save him the trouble. Steve Horton, just click my name and read Phil’s post… it should answer your question. For like the millionth time.

  11. Brian

    I thought this was a astronomy and skepticism blog.

    Phil has never pretended that his personal blog was anything less than that: a personal blog. You’re a bit put off by all the American politics, other people dislike all the skepticism talk cluttering up their astronomy news, still others whine about all the Dr. Who news.

    (That said, I rather suspect that the US 2008 election is of more than passing interest to a number of non-Americans as well.)

  12. Calli Arcale

    So which is it? McCain found science, or it’s another political maneuver? Or is Ms. McCarthy somehow garbling up what happened? Or did the news service? The part about McCain seeing no evidence for a link is in the online written articles, but not the video interview of McCarthy.

    Given how McCarthy, like others in the Mercury Militia, tend to twist what they hear for maximum conspiracy, I suspect it’s the second possibility. If McCain really did decline because of there being no evidence linking vaccines to autism, she would not in a million years have wanted to repeat that. She probably wouldn’t have even wanted to hear it, and may have concluded that he was just trying to satisfy the right political people by repeating The Big Lie of the Evil Pharm Lobbyists.

    It wouldn’t be the first time that McCarthy apparently heard something other than what was said on this particular subject. She’s drunk the Kool-Aid.

  13. Cheyenne

    Looks like David is right – “The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it”- Obama in April at a campaign stop in Penn.

    I think McCain’s comments were worse. But Obama doesn’t get a pass on this one.

  14. mk

    It does appear that Obama is slowly doing his homework: “I am not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio.”


  15. Bigfoot

    Lost in all of the science-vs-anecdote data on this issue is one thing that no one ever seems to talk about:

    Children with autism who were MMR-vaccinated are far less likely to become infected with Measles, Mumps, or Rubella than children with autism who were not vaccinated.

  16. mk

    Why is my comment on Obama and vaccines “awaiting moderation”?

  17. mk

    Here’s his quote: “I am not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio.”

    I got it from age of autism dot com.

  18. mk

    Oh, I see. Must be that website that’s being screened. In any case, it look as if Obama is slowly being informed about the issue.

  19. mk: It’s because I am part of the eevul Big Pharma conspiracy, and they pay me billion of dollars to suppress anti-Obama posts.

    Or, it’s because my spam filter saw a link or something in your comment that flagged it. I just OKed it to post. :-)

  20. I didn’t know about that Obama quotation. While on its surface is somewhat better than McCain’s, it’s still disturbing. But it does appear he’s capable of learning, and has changed his stance somewhat (much like he did on NASA). Some people might call that a flip-flop, but it isn’t. A flip-flop is changing your mind for political reasons (polls, or pandering to some special interest group), but a smart person changes his/her mind when faced with better data.

  21. mk


    I think this is the case. To be fair the candidates get swamped with issue after issue in a relatively short period of time and frankly cannot possibly have a thoroughly informed opinion of every single thing. I suspect Obama will soon enough be speaking in language not unlike the heroic Ms Peet.

    One can hope anyway!

    By the way, thanks for the clarification.


  22. Ric

    Phil, you are so cute. To think that you believe that a politician may be doing something not solely as a political maneuver… well is just adorable. It’s cute that you still are holding out hope though. Change! Pufft!

  23. Ted H.

    She claims she was turned away because McCain was ahead in the polls? When was McCain ever ahead in the polls? The most I remember seeing is that he got even, right after the convention.

  24. tacitus

    While I think it’s valuable to compare what the two candidates say on a specific scientific issue, you can get bogged down in a endless he said/he said tussle. I think it is a lot more instructive to look back at the last 16 years — 8 under Clinton and 8 under Bush and compare the two records.

    Now, I am sure that either side can pick out individual incidents that make their less favored side look bad, but it is almost impossible to argue that the Republican administration of Bush was no worse the Democratic administration of Clinton. Forgetting the specific anti-science howlers of the Bush admin, one of the key differences has been the politicization of what used to be non-political career posts below cabinet and department head levels. We’ve seen it in spades in the Justice department, disastrously in the post-war administration in Iraq, the FDA, and even NASA was not immune. In all these case, ideology trumped experience and competence. Now, say what you like about Clinton’s personal and political foibles, but there is general agreement that this type of thing did not happen under Clinton and while he may have governed (slightly) to the left of center, he did not impose his ideology on the career civil service positions like Bush.

    Now, you may say that McCain’s not Bush, and he will change all that. Don’t be so sure. If McCain somehow squeaks out an election victory, he will have gained that victory for one reason — the loyal Republican religious-right base who have volunteered in big numbers since he selected Sarah Palin as his VP. He will be beholden to them, and he will have to continue pandering to them if he expects to win a second term. If he can’t buck the base in as vital a pick as his VP, what chance will he have of reversing the ideological tests used by Bush when appointing people to serve in the administration?

    In addition, McCain has surrounded himself with the biggest names in industrial lobbying and has brought Rove-proteges and even a couple of Abramoff associates on to his campaign. Not exactly a clean break from the previous administration either. In contrast, Obama’s appointments have built a team that has by and large been scandal-free and runs like a well-oiled machine. Not only that but several commentators have gone out of their way to say how nice his people are. While that may not be the most important factor, it is a refreshing change to hear something like that.

    So, it all comes down to who do you trust? A candidate with a team with deep ties with many of the same ideologues who have worked in and with the failed Bush administration, or someone who has built a team with few, if any, of those problems. While Obama can be criticized for his associations in his past, none of those people is around today. McCain on the other hand, is surrounded by them, every day of his campaign.

  25. tacitus

    She claims she was turned away because McCain was ahead in the polls? When was McCain ever ahead in the polls? The most I remember seeing is that he got even, right after the convention.

    He was in the lead for a couple of weeks, even if it was mostly within the margin of error. And I suspect the McCain team’s internal poll are probably a little more skewed in his direction (at least that’s what they are claiming now the public polls are so bad for him).

    It would seem a bit of a stretch for McCarthy to claim she flew out to see McCain if it didn’t really happen, but as I said above, these little issues probably don’t amount to much considering the bigger problems when it comes to trusting McCain to run a reality-based administration.

  26. tacitus

    Phil, a comment about the tone of your post. I have no problem with you posting the information, but this post does come over as a bit condescending. The thread of the post is easy to follow so when you inject phrases like “See if you can follow along here” and then “Still with me?” after just a couple of straightforward paragraphs, it rankles a little.

    You probably added them to keep then tone of the post light-hearted, but to me it came across as mildly insulting. While you have a wide variety of readers, I think others will agree that by-and-large we’re an intelligent bunch :), so there’s no need for this type of comment into your posts (unless you start talking about something like quantum mechanics of course!).

  27. For everyone who’s interested in this topic, the ScienceBlogs Book Club just started with their collaborational reading of Paul Offit’s freshly released Autism’s False Prophets. Find the kick-off entry here. They’ll be discussing the book and the topic from Oct 1 through Oct 10, via leading entries that are in turn discussed in the comments section.

    Quite interesting, so far.


  28. Shoeshine Boy

    While I believe that a campaign manager might decide whether or not to do an interview based upon poll standings, I do not believe for a moment that he/she would EVER tell that to a person they are declining to interview with.

    More likely, she is making that part up, but could actually believe it.
    “People hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest”….especially the woo woos.

  29. billsmithaz


    I didn’t read comments like “See if you can follow along here” as being condescending toward the readers at all. I read it more as an appropriately snarky jab at the twists and turns in the account of the story between the ‘official’ story from McCain’s people and McCarthy’s version.

  30. Dyson

    tacitus, your concern has been noted.

  31. Pw-5

    Just wanted to chime in with a fact: McCarthy has never stated that she is anti-vaccine, merely that the FDA needs to take steps to “green our vaccines”. She is opposed to additives such as thimerosal (mercury, which is known to cause mental, physical, and neurological harm) and aluminum (known to cause myriad medical and mental deteriorations including alzheimer’s). As for McCain, why should anything change? He has always been one to speak before thinking, then retract. When he decides to retract that is. It’s more surprising that he decided not to comment, since his tack of late has been to repeat the same lies thinking that the more he says it the truer it gets.

  32. Just wanted to chime in with a fact: McCarthy has never stated that she is anti-vaccine, merely that the FDA needs to take steps to “green our vaccines”. She is opposed to additives such as thimerosal (mercury, which is known to cause mental, physical, and neurological harm) and aluminum (known to cause myriad medical and mental deteriorations including alzheimer’s).

    First off, aluminum is not linked to Alzheimer’s. Steve Novella did a very good explanation why a while back; I’ll try to find the link. Second off, mercury in vaccines has never been linked to autism or other neurodevelopmental problems. It just hasn’t.

    No, Jenny McCarthy’s claim to be “not antivaccine” is a disingenuous and Orwellian statement designed to hide her antivaccinationism. If she is not “antivaccine,” why did she say that if she ever had another child she would never vaccinate–ever? Why if she is not antivaccine does she not say what it would take to “green” vaccines enough that she would agree to vaccinate her child. She just blathers on and on about vague “toxins” and how there is “antifreeze” in vaccines (there is not) and formaldehyde in vaccines (a trivial amount that is less than your body makes as part of its normal metabolism and certainly less than you’re exposed to sitting in a traffic jam or living in a house with finished hardwood floors and a lot of plastic items). She says there’s ether in vaccines. There is not; she confused ethyl ether (commonly known as just “ether”) with trace amounts of polyethylene glycol pisooctylphenyl ether, a mild detergent found in many consumer goods. The woman is a total scientific ignoramus on a monumental scale and full of hubris in that she thinks she actually understands anything about science.

    In any case, I’d love to ask Jenny point-blank what, specifically, it would take to “green our vaccines” enough to make them “safe enough” for her. She can’t do it because she is antivaccine. It’s the vaccine itself that scares her, and no matter how many components are removed she’d find a reason to say they still aren’t “green enough.”

  33. mk


    I gotta say… dude… you rock!

    Thanks for the thorough, clear-eyed, reasoned response to PW5.

    I mean, really… thanks!


    April 22, 2008
    David Kirby has a piece running over at Huffington Post today titled, “Obama Climbs on the Vaccine Bandwagon” in which he writes: No matter who wins in Pennsylvania today, the next President of the United States will support research into the growing evidence of some link between vaccines and autism.

    Here’s Senator Obama’s quote:

    “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

    –Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.

  35. Peter Vesuwalla

    Incidentally, does anyone know of an e-mail address at which one can send Amanda Peet a message of adoration and encouragement?

  36. tacitus

    I would be surprised, and disappointed if Obama goes through with that promise to “research it”. The first thing he will be told by his scientific advisors is “we already have, to the nth degree.” I would lay a very large bet that that will be the end of it.

  37. Naomi

    “She is opposed to additives such as thimerosal (mercury, which is known to cause mental, physical, and neurological harm)”

    Yeah – slight problem there, thiomersal hasn’t been in the MMR shot since 2001. And yet, there are still kids – born in the last seven years – who are getting diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders. Second, thiomersal is also used in other stuff which has NEVER been accused of causing ASDs. It’s a preservative in tattoo inks! But you don’t hear the antivaxxers getting in to hysterics about how tattoos turned their teenagers and adult offspring autistic (which, if it truly attacked the neurological system, would do so regardless of age), do you? Or the myriad other products that thiomersal is in, like immunoglobulin products, skin test antigens, antivenins, eye drops, and nasal sprays. But those never get accused, because not every autistic person has used those.

    No, vaccines become the scapegoat because nearly every autistic child in America has had that shot (completely ignoring other countries, like Sweden, which had abolutely no rise in ASD diagnoses after the 1982 introduction of the MMR shot, or Japan, which had the multishot introduced in1989 but stopped it in 1993 for single shot vaccines – with absolutely no change in the rise of autistic diagnoses), ignoring the fact that that’s only because nearly EVERY CHILD in America gets the same shot. And for every autistic kid, there’s two hundred-odd who get the same shots and never show the slightest hint of ever being on the autistic spectrum.

    Sorry, antivaxxers, find a new scapegoat – one that won’t risk public health – or the health of their kids.

  38. “I would be surprised, and disappointed if Obama goes through with that promise to “research it”. The first thing he will be told by his scientific advisors is “we already have, to the nth degree.” I would lay a very large bet that that will be the end of it.”

    What a bunch of suckers. Obama is being thanked by the anti-vax crowd for promising to support autism/vaccination research. And now you folks think he’s supporting your side. The guys makes ambiguous statements that can be interpreted multiple ways. Of course, if McCain does the same thing he gets slammed but with Obama all is forgiven. His wonderful advisers will set him straight and all will be well. Is that your critical thinking operating there?

  39. tacitus

    What a bunch of suckers.

    We shall see, won’t we? This is not a debated issue amongst the scientists. Obama would have to reject all the advice of all his scientific advisers to go ahead with this. Unlike what happened under Bush with global warming (a far more contentious issue anyway) and abstinence-only sex ed. (a purely ideological decision) I do believe that Obama will listen to his staff on this one.

    Obama was wrong to issue that statement, and I will be the first to criticize him if he does take action in line with it. But I believe that Obama is willing to listen and accept what the reality community will tell him. Imagine Sarah Palin doing the same thing? I think not.

  40. Davidlpf

    I wonder if they are going to have question about in tonights VPs debate.

  41. Steve Morrison


    Is this the piece by Steven Novella you meant?

  42. Reed

    Agree with Calli. I would take McCarthy’s explanation with a huge grain of salt. I’ve seen many kooks use the same trick:
    Interviewer: “why did expert X not support your view ?”
    Kook: “Oh, they support me, but they can’t go public because of !”

    I’m not a McCain supporter, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt on this. You can’t expect either candidate to be educated on every issue, and the antivax movement is pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Not that it isn’t important, but I’d bet the majority of Americans only have the vaguest idea of it’s existence, never mind the details.

    It wouldn’t be surprising if either candidate gave an answer based on a vague memory of an old headline, without having followed the issue (that they would do so rather than just saying “I don’t know” is unfortunate, but our political culture demands appears to demand it)

  43. Daver

    What hasn’t been mentioned is that there apparently *is* a correlation between autism and high levels of mercury measured in the bloodstream — at least that’s what was said on a recent show on PBS (Nova I think). Problem is, the amount of mercury being measured in these people is huge, would require many, many vaccinations containing mercury to get to that level, and assumes that *no* mercury is ever removed by the body — which it is, just not very fast.

    But that being said, it’s still just a correlation — which is cause, and which is effect? Does the individual have autism because they were exposed to high levels of mercury, or is the same issue that’s causing the autism also messing up the body chemistry which causes it to retain mercury more than other people?

    McCarthy’s problem is basic, she’s just latched onto one key thing, that of the mercury level, and made a huge assumption that since the kid received a shot with a tiny amount of mercury in it, by golly that must be where the mercury came from.

  44. drksky

    I’ve noticed that the term “Green the Vaccines” has recently become a buzzword used by the people who have a problem with the. It’s just one more thing that people are trying to push by making it “Green”, which is the new all-encompassing adjective that’s being used by celebrity-types trying to look concerned about something.

    I’m all for conserving energy, but if I hear one more company or product “going green”, I’m gonna puke…green.

  45. brad tittle

    Dereks lead in to your blog made me think McCain had done something amazingly stupid in regards to science. All it tells me is that politicians keep trying to appeal to as many people as possible without offending anyone. WOW there is a shock.

    There is a lot of bad science going around these days. Science being put forth by real scientists. Just this week on Naked Scientists they talked about how to increase your life by 14 years by following 4 Good Behaviors. The study didn’t say anything close to this. (It was the EPIC study, Sandy at Junkfoodscience shreds it apart quite well at ).

    I like Naked Scientists, but their credulity when it comes to epidemiology is frightening. If they can’t get it right, how the heck can McCain and Obama get it right.

  46. “We shall see, won’t we?”

    Yes, it’s indeed looking more and more like we will. Sort of reminds me of a song I once heard:

    There’s nothing in the street
    Looks any different to me
    And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
    And the parting on the left
    Is now the parting on the right
    And the beards have all grown longer overnight

    I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
    Take a bow for the new revolution
    Smile and grin at the change all around me
    Pick up my guitar and play
    Just like yesterday
    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
    We don’t get fooled again
    Don’t get fooled again
    No, no!


    Meet the new boss
    Same as the old boss

  47. Gary Ansorge

    So, Tom, how would YOU propose running a $ 13 trillion/annum economy with a population of 300 million contentious, irritating, irascible, obnoxious human beings????

    A representative Republic may not be the best way to do all that but I do think it’s better than most alternatives, like Lassaiz faire capitalism, anarchy or any totalitarian state.

    They’re(the new/old bosses) aren’t really bosses. They’re servants and like many servants, if left unsupervised, they’ll steal you blind. Thus the solution is obvious: WATCH them like hawks and make certain they leave the silver ware behind when they leave,,,

    GAry 7


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