Vaccine Denial and the Left

By Chris Mooney | April 20, 2011 8:53 am

Kevin Drum has blogged my MoJo piece, and while he likes it, he adds this:

…be prepared to be annoyed when Chris wrenches his spine out of shape bending over backward to find an example of liberals denying science as much as conservatives. It might be true that you can find vaccine deniers in the aisles of Whole Foods, but if there’s any rigorous evidence that belief in the vaccine-autism link is especially pronounced or widespread among liberals, I haven’t seen it. Surely there’s a better, more substantive example than that floating around somewhere?

So I want to further explain my assertion that vaccine denial “largely occupies” the political left. It arises, basically, from my long familiarity with this issue, having read numerous books about it, etc.

First, it is certainly true that environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities have been the loudest proponents of anti-vaccine views. To me, that is evidence, although not necessarily definitive. So is the fact that we see dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in places like Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which are very leftwing cities.

What’s tricky is, there’s not a standard left-right political ideology underlying this. Rather, it seems more associated with a Whole Foods and au natural lifestyle that, while certainly more prominent on the bicoastal left, isn’t the same as being outraged by inequality or abuses of the free market.

It’s also the case that there are some elected Republicans (Dan Burton) who have supported anti-vax views, and few elected Democrats who support them. This makes the issue complicated.

Finally, there’s the question of polling data, which is what Drum asked for. As far as I can tell, there’s very little and hardly definitive. That may be the subject of a future post.


Comments (35)

  1. Somite

    We’ve talked about this before. The book “The democratic party war on science” would be a couple of pages long. “The Republican war on science” could be now be extended to a second tome with the recent witch hunt by Inhofe and the GOPs own scientists testifying against them.

  2. TTT

    Anti-vaxism is not a “liberal” disorder. I assume you are familiar with the hundreds upon hundreds of documented cases of the children of Biblical-literalist evangelicals dying because their parents didn’t believe in modern medicine and instead preferred prayer and the laying-on of hands. Do you seriously suppose that that demographic vaccinates their children properly? Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions, and pointlessly die for want of them. What’s their vaccination rate like? Log on to any Armageddonist evangelical website like Rapture Ready and look into the topics there about healthcare and vaccination. The Religious Right rejects all science, the medical sciences included.

    In the same vein, the paleoconservative / Paulite / militia wing of conservatism is strongly enmeshed in 9/11Trutherism, to such an extent that the topic had to come up repeatedly during the 2008 Republican debates. But you’d never know it by how quickly the media–including otherwise perceptive people like Jon Stewart and Matt Taibbi–rushed to tie Trutherism only to the left.

    Kevin Drum is right: the right-wing rejects more of empirically documented reality and thus has to fill in more of the empty spaces with conspiracies and supernaturalisms.

    The only predominantly “liberal” denialisms I can think of are the opposition to gene-modified foods, and the denial of the notion that there could ever possibly be a biological basis for intra-specific categories of humans.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Folks…it is important to be very careful about our “own house” so to speak and its tendencies. I still put vaccine denial on the left, for the most part, but I recognize it is complicated and am willing to be convinced that I should not do so.

  4. TTT

    I’m not saying liberals AREN’T antivaxers. I’m saying it’s a bipartisan belief, because it is. Though it’s true that the most publicly prominent antivaxers are liberals, probably because something about it is very “dumb celebrity”-friendly, the rank-and-file are across the board.

  5. Don

    Vegans, homeopaths, and anti-pesticide evangelists join the other small covens of anti-science with lefty leanings. Each has a messiah, a few high priests, and a handful of followers faithful to websites and magazines. However, there are more right leaning fringe groups with similar organizational structure and ideological zeal. Consider those who actively —or with creatively passive cleverness— deny the science on HIV and AIDS, human caused extinction, tobacco and cancer, motor cycle helmet safety, and even abstinence-pregnancy linkage. All isolate themselves from objective, rational inquiry and information about their passion. The behavior of this process of isolation is what Chris has written about. Nice job Chris!

  6. HFB

    How about belief in homeopathy? The only people I know who believe in it consider themselves liberals.

  7. Gaythia

    This is a side show. The serious problems with health care in this country, including vaccination rates, are related to access.

    In these economically difficult times, many families have lost the sorts of jobs that give group insurance coverage. For example, today’s headlines are about the creation of 50,000 new “would you like fries with that ” jobs. With crowds of applicants. It turns out that, according to what I read this morning, 75% of existing jobs like these are less than half time. And now, the average age for these jobs is much higher. They are not going to teenagers anymore.

    Simultaneously, local government agencies are squeezed. This means less of such things as public health programs, school nurses and so forth. This is the very infrastructure that makes vaccination programs possible.

  8. Bobito

    Both sides do have their anti science stances. A primary reason it’s more prevalent on the right is that a large majority of righties meet every Sunday to discuss their views…

  9. Dark Tent

    If one is going to talk (with any credibility) about scientifically related issues, one really needs to back up one’s assertions with actual evidence.

    Unfortunately, the following is a bit below the normal standard, at least for scientific evidence (just a bit)

    it is certainly true that environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities have been the loudest proponents of anti-vaccine views. To me, that is evidence, although not necessarily definitive. So is the fact that we see dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in places like Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which are very leftwing cities.


    The “loudness” of “environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities” and “dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in…very leftwing cities” are evidence?

    Is this “science journalism”?


  10. I sense that Chris is on track. My anecdotal experience leads me to believe that liberals tend toward conspiracy theories, while the conservatives are inclined toward denialism. The 9-11 truthers and anti-vaxers I know regard themselves as liberal/progressive. The creationists and global warming deniers self identify as conservative/libertarian. There are lunatic fringes at both ends of the spectrum; anyone who does not think so may be counted among them.

  11. Eric the Leaf

    Dark Tent. The voice of reason. Oh, wait, that’s motivated reason. Sorry, dude. You’re also probably a left-wing, anti-nuke, anti-science denialist who exaggerates radiation risk because you are committed in your opposition.

  12. One of the reasons I think Chris and others view anti-vax attitudes as coming in great part from the left is its home on Huffington Post. In my experience I’ve also seen some environmental advocates (typically left of center, though not all) embracing the anti-vax agenda along with other causes that invoke dog-whistle words like “toxins.”

    “dark tent” has a point when he talks about evidence, and I’m not sure this goes beyond anecdotes. but I don’t see the harm in having this discussion, as long as no one claims to have the definitive line on it. I don’t see Chris telling us he’s right and others are wrong.

  13. G.D

    I think we have to first examine the basis of the antivax argument when determining whether it is predominantly a liberal movement. From my casual observations, I’ve noticed the movement to have bipartisan support where those of the more liberal persuasion question the science and safety of vaccines and those with more libertarian/conservative leanings focus on the government’s role in vaccine compliance. And then of course you get the really colorful group of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and his followers that make claims that vaccines are engineered by the govt to control our minds and/or kill us all.

  14. Dark Tent

    Isn’t the primary criticism leveled against the “vaccine deniers”* that “they don’t base their claims on scientific evidence but instead on anecdotes”?

    *Though I think I know what is intended by “vaccine deniers” (and “vaccine denial”), it is at least possible that one could actually interpret that as “one who denies that vaccines work”, which I don’t think is the intended meaning (but I could be wrong, having been a couple times before).

    A key element of doing science is properly defining one’s hypothesis. There is no point in attempting to “test” (or even talk about) something that is ill-defined.

    But the importance of proper definition is really not restricted to science. It applies to most discussions.

    What is the operating hypothesis/claim here?

    Is the ‘assertion that vaccine denial “largely occupies” the political left’ a testable hypothesis?

    What does “vaccine denial” mean? (precisely — see * above)
    What does “largely occupies” mean? (precisely)
    Who are the “political left”? (precisely)

    I am curious how one goes about testing such a “hypothesis” as this.

  15. oldtaku

    You’ve just trapped yourself with the left/right thing, as have almost all of the commenters. You’ve got people who are risk-takers (progressive in the classical sense, not modern) and people who risk adverse (conservative in the classical sense, not modern). You’ve got people who are credulous and those who are skeptical. You’ve got spritual/religious and non.

    There’s nothing contradictory about a science denialist, risk adverse Democrat (or ‘liberal’). There are gay Republicans for gods sake. This is the entire reason we make sure there are only two parties – so you have to go with one or the others because you hate the other side more, not because you’re strongly aligned with your own party.

  16. I think Kevin Drum’s exasperation is that you’re conflating the statements “most anti-vaxxers are liberals” with “most liberals are anti-vaxxers”. Whether or not the first is true, the second certainly isn’t.

    Consider the following statement:

    Most Republicans claim that global warming is a liberal hoax.

    That statment appears to be true based on the polling you’ve cited in other posts. And it’s certainly true of our national elected leaders, many of whom have said so publicly.

    Okay, how about this:

    Most Democrats claim that vaccines cause autism.

    This is almost certainly false. The overwhelming majority of liberal parents vaccinate their children and I have yet to see Democratic Congressmen demanding we shut down the pharmaceutical industry.

    During the 2008 campaign it was John McCain who declared his belief that thimerosol causes autism. Barack Obama stated “I am not for selective vaccination”. Still, you tell me this is a liberal issue because so many in Hollywood champion it, and of course, there are no conservatives in Hollywood.

  17. ron

    same old comparing apples to oranges and the same old tired false equivalency that the lazy and pathetic are in love with. where are the voting blocs of democrats in congress and local state houses and school boards pushing anti-vax/anti-science legislation? where are the democrats with actual power pushing anti-vax propaganda like republicans and conservatives do with their anti-science propaganda?

    THATS whats important. not some dumb mom that lives in suburbia and votes for democrats.

  18. I really hate it when people try to pin anti-vaccine views as being mainly “on the left.” True, left-leaning crunchy types are the primary face of anti-vaccine views, but there is an entire underground on the right that is virulently anti-vaccine. These include General Bert Stubblebine III and his Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who want to protect heir “purity of essence.” In addition, FOX News isn’t above pushing anti-vaccine nonsense. For example, of late the FOX and Friends crew has been doing sympathetic pieces on Andrew Wakefield, Louise Kuo Habakus (who is virulently anti-vaccine herself and politically active in New Jersey pushing for transparent “philosophical exemption” laws.

    Politically, some of the most rabid antivaxers in government are conservative, for instance Representative Dan Burton. Moreover, conservative fundamentalist religion is not uncommonly a motivation for anti-vaccine views.

    That’s why I frequently say that antivax is the crankery that knows no political boundaries. Whether it’s more common on the right or the left, I have a hard time telling, and, quite frankly, I’ve been paying attention far longer than you have. It’s probably somewhat more common on the left, but I think it’s definitely going too far to say that it’s “primarily” a left wing phenomenon. Left-leaning antivaxers tend to base their views on crunchy, New Agey-views about nature and the superiority of “natural” remedies coupled with a heaping helping of distrust of big pharma. Right-leaning anti-vaxers tend to base their views more on distrust of government and a dislike of being told they have to vaccinate plus some of the views of “natural” cures that, although less prevalent on the right, are still there. (For example, naturopathy, a dubious philosophy and discipline that underlies a lot of antivax in the U.S., has right-wing roots.)

  19. Chris Mooney

    What I take from all of these comments–and thank you for them–is that it probably does lean left, but maybe not in a stark way, and that we need a lot more examination of this issue. It is too bad there isn’t more survey data.

  20. Chris

    I find that there is often smearing of political leanings in the anti-vaccine. The only difference is often the angle of the argument. From my experience long ago on Usenet there were sometimes three different types of arguments:

    1) libertarian: the government is dictating what parents can do (common with Roger Schlafly)

    2) crunchy: vaccines are against nature, breast feeding is nature’s vaccine (a common Todd Gastaldo comment)

    3) crazy: vaccines are a mind control plot (common with John Scudamore of

  21. Gaythia

    Today the Loveland Times Call ran a story about Sierra Krizman and a race that her parents are sponsoring to raise money for meningitis vaccinations (which caused their daughter’s death).

    See: Page 5

    At the time, in 2007, the local health department issued the following statement:

    “But even though there have been two deaths from the disease in Fort Collins and two others remain hospitalized, the situation isn’t so dire that everyone should rush out to get vaccinated, said Adrienne LeBailly, director of the Larimer County Department of Public Health and Environment.

    “Individuals don’t need to do anything immediately for the most part,” she said. “We’ve already treated close contacts (of the affected hockey players) with antibiotics. People need to think at some point whether it’s worth the approximately $125 to be vaccinated versus the extremely low risk that they’ll ever get it.” ”

    I think that it is high time that you stop framing your reporting of vaccination science as an overly simplified and higly polarizing one. This is not really an issue in which the forces of science battle anti-vaxxers .

    Please start looking at the issues involved in all of their complexity, which also involve the funding issues I raised in #7 and which, in previous threads, Dr Isis has called out on her blog as involving issues of race and privilege.

  22. Gaythia

    The post by Dr. Isis is here:

    “We all know what that means, don’t we, friends? It means that refusing vaccines is a decision made from privilege. Those crazy bloggers can argue all day long about whether to build bridges or to scream at Jenny McCarthy, but what they are ignoring is that rich, educated, white people are hurting our public health because they can. Poorer, darker parents would be happy to take those pesky vaccines off their hands. And while vaccine refusniks sit discuss vaccines over $4 lattes, Latino babies are the ones dying.

    So Chris, Pal, Orac, Evil…you guys can argue forever about discourse, but there’s something you’re missing here.”

  23. Tomasz R

    I think those who get themselves and their children injected with vaccines are not people who know, but people who believe. Their belief is just like a cult – there is an authority figure, in this case a doctor, who tells them that vaccines are “good” while not getting vaccines is “evil”, and those who don’t get them are heretics that should be punished. There’s also a herd mentality – “everybody gets vaccines so do I”. There are no questions about “science” asked at all. Very few vaccination believers are interested in science. If someone asks such question he usually gets a MARKETING answer, that shows only benefits while not informing about, or simply downplaying bad effects. This is because doctors are also sellers of vaccines.

    Vaccine advertisers on the other hand are not very keen to show good science. One of the interesting fact is that they avoid reseach that compares vaccinated children to unvaccinated children, but rather compare new type of vaccine to older vaccines. They also don’t mention that newborns have no fully developed immune systems, and vaccines are supposed to work with immune system… And after all what are they thinking when vaccinating newborns for Heptitis B which is transferred by sexual contacts and multiple use of needles by drug addicts?

    Also it needs to be mentioned, that in their way of thinking vaccine makers care more about statistics, than about individuals. That is they are willing to sacrifice a number of customers to adverse effects in order to achieve desired statistical goals. This is opposite to what people want, preferring not having any danger to themselves first.

    Adult people who get themselves vaccinated believe in vaccine religon so much that they don’t do analysis of benefits and adverse effects of getting vaccinated. If they had the rate of vaccination would be much lower, as the adverse effects are real and catastrophic (eg. people having brain damage like Guillain–Barré) while stated benefits are just speculations about the future, that unfortunately can’t be trusted because of huge corruption in whole medical system, and frequently don’t even matter much as the dieseases are not that dangerous (eg. panic fear of flu is irrational).

    They dont even get the basic math – how many viral dieseases are there vs. those few that vaccinations are supposed to protect from. Had they done it it would be clear that the best way to protect yourself from diesease is in the form of increasing GENERAL HEALTH. This is exactly what natural health advocates are promoting – to get your ogranism working as intedned, to have your immune system fully functional, to minimize inflammation, to eliminate defficiencies in vitamins and minerals (Vitamin D, C, selenium, zinc allow good diesease figthing).

  24. Sarah

    Chris, I think you are discounting the very strong anti-government/distrust of public-health as nanny state that is what has given anti vaccine rhetoric its potency. Liberals often distrust FDA because of a belief that it is too cozy with industry. But the far right doesn’t want an FDA or a CDC to exist. There is also a basic distrust in science. Combine that with the universal desire to have doctors listen to patients and understand patient experience (ie my child started to regress right after an MMR shot) et voila, a movement takes off.

  25. Gaythia

    There is a middle ground. This is not just about libertarian, crunchy or crazy!

    Denying that middle ground is what feeds into the distrust described by Sarah above and spawns supporters for those with more extreme viewpoints such as that of Tomasz R.

    For example, here is an editorial, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, on the risks and benefits of HPV vaccination:

    “The theory behind the vaccine is sound: If HPV infection can be prevented, cancer will not occur. But in practice the issue is more complex. First, there are more than 100 different types of HPV and at least 15 of them are oncogenic. The current vaccines target only 2 oncogenic strains: HPV-16 and HPV-18. Second, the relationship between infection at a young age and development of cancer 20 to 40 years later is not known. HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection, with an estimated 79% infection rate over a lifetime5​,6 The virus does not appear to be very harmful because almost all HPV infections are cleared by the immune system.7​,”

    The editorial concludes:
    ” Whether a risk is worth taking depends not only on the absolute risk, but on the relationship between the potential risk and the potential benefit. If the potential benefits are substantial, most individuals would be willing to accept the risks. But the net benefit of the HPV vaccine to a woman is uncertain. Even if persistently infected with HPV, a woman most likely will not develop cancer if she is regularly screened.15​ So rationally she should be willing to accept only a small risk of harmful effects from the vaccine. When weighing evidence about risks and benefits, it is also appropriate to ask who takes the risk, and who gets the benefit. Patients and the public logically expect that only medical and scientific evidence is put on the balance. If other matters weigh in, such as profit for a company or financial or professional gains for physicians or groups of physicians, the balance is easily skewed. The balance will also tilt if the adverse events are not calculated correctly. “

  26. Area Man

    I don’t think Drum’s point is so much that anti-vax beliefs aren’t more common on the left than on the right. I’d be very surprised if they weren’t. Rather, the point is that they simply aren’t that common on the left — it is not a tenant of mainstream liberal thought that vaccines are dangerous and that Big Pharma has been covering it up. More importantly, the anti-vax position is virtually unheard of among left-leaning elected officials and elite opinion makers, however many members of the public might buy into it. You won’t find Barak Obama or Paul Krugman or Kevin Drum spouting anti-vax nonsense. But you will find their direct counterparts on the right spouting climate change denialism, creationism, or other forms of crankery such as Birtherism.

  27. Gaythia

    Maybe the public doesn’t divide neatly into left vs. right, vax vs antivaxx.

    Maybe this is about health professional / patient communication and mutual trust.

    Brian Zikmund-Fisher of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, has, in my opinion, several intelligent posts on this very subject:

  28. Chris

    Tomasz R:

    . One of the interesting fact is that they avoid reseach that compares vaccinated children to unvaccinated children, but rather compare new type of vaccine to older vaccines.

    The reasons would be called Willowbrook School, and other places where those studies were conducted. You can choose to acquaint yourself with the vaccine research that was done in prisons, institutions where disabled children were warehoused and developing countries…. Or propose a design that would protect the placebo arm of the study from measles, mumps and pertussis (diseases presently circulating in the USA), that abide by the rules of the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki and the Belmont Report.

    And after all what are they thinking when vaccinating newborns for Heptitis B which is transferred by sexual contacts and multiple use of needles by drug addicts?

    Hepatitis B is also transmitted by saliva, blood and other fluids that young children will share. They are also more likely to develop the chronic form of the disease that leads to liver cancer and early death. For more information check out the information at Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases (a group started because of children with hepatitis b).

  29. Gaythia

    @32 Chris (not sure which Chris this is, since this comment has a regular comment number, and Chris is not as unique a name as mine): Here is a quote from the link you provide above, “Vertical transmission from mother to child and exposure to infected friends and family contribute to the prevalence of hepatitis B. ”

    If we are concerned about public health and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases, for Hep B, as with Pertussis, we need to focus on the “cocoon” of adults; parents, relatives and caregivers; who surround a newborn infant in an intimate way. And, parents need to be more aware that exposing a too young to be immunized infant to random adults is not such a great idea.

    For Hepatitis B, we need to go one step back and focus on providing all mothers to be with adequate prenatal care, and follow up services.

    See for example:

    “The Center for Disease Control estimated 800 births born to hepatitis B infected mothers yearly in Santa Clara County; however, only 50% (400) of these infants are identified for preventive treatment. ”

    Focusing so exclusively on “antivaxxers” is a side diversion from creating the sort of comprehensive public health system that our country needs.

  30. Chris

    My main point is to clarify that it is not only a sexually transmitted or drug user transmitted disease (actually those most vulnerable are their subsequent children).

    You can’t vaccinate adults if they already have hepatitis b and do not know it. Or kids at the preschool who have hepatitis b (see some of the family stories at PKIDS, like the HepB positive child who starts to bleed at an indoor play area). It is complicated, especially since it is endemic in many countries, and I happen to live in an area with many immigrants from those countries, so we take it more seriously here (not far from where PKIDS is headquartered).

    For more information:

    You may also wish to read the CDC Pink Book chapter on HepB vaccine strategies and the obstacles to keeping young children (including those past infancy) from getting the disease.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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