Trump's comments were nutty and dangerous, but Ben Carson's response was, in some ways, worse. Carson had the chance to set the record straight, and because of his medical credentials, he could have been effective. He failed.
Trump has been an anti-vaxxer for years, so his comments were not surprising. Science blogger Orac posted a 2007 Trump quote that almost exactly mirrors what he said in the debate.
What was much more surprising, and deeply disappointing, was the response of candidate Ben Carson, who until last year was a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Note that although I too work at Hopkins Medicine, I've never met Dr. Carson.) Carson did point out vaccines don't cause autism, but then he made a series of false claims that come right out of the anti-vax playbook.
When the moderator asked Carson to respond to Trump's anti-vaccine rant, Carson had a golden opportunity to do some real good: he could have corrected the record and pointed out the real harm that comes from anti-vaccination misinformation. Instead, he said things like this:
“Vaccines are very important, certain ones, the ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, a multitude of vaccines that don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases.”Forbes bogger Tara Haelle has already explained the grievous error here: all our vaccines prevent death. Carson's claim is simply false, and it's shocking that a highly trained physician would make this statement, on a national stage, without knowing the facts. What Carson should have said–but didn't–was this, from the Every Child By Two organization:
"Each and every vaccine added to the list of recommended immunizations will save the lives and/or reduce the number of disabilities of children in the United States. With the introduction of every new vaccine, rates of both disease and deaths have fallen across the country."Carson then dug himself even deeper into the anti-vaccine camp with this claim:
"But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time."This claim is right out of the anti-vaccine playbook: it was the basis of the "too many, too soon" campaign launched by Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue, the country's leading anti-vaccine activist group. In fact, the vaccine schedule is very safe, and misinformation like this trope leads to parents withholding vaccines from their children, which in turn can cause sickness, disability, and death.
Let me show you what Carson could have done. Six years ago, Bill Maher–one of the most left-wing talk show hosts in the media, and an anti-vaxxer himself–was interviewing former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is also an M.D. Here's what happened:
The moderator also asked Rand Paul, the other M.D. among the candidates, to respond to Trump's anti-vax claims. He too repeated the anti-vaccine trope that he "ought to have the right to spread my vaccines out a little bit." This is nonsense as well: Paul does have that right, and no one has ever proposed taking it away. It's bad medicine, though, and as doctor, Paul should know better. He failed as well.
It's far more harmful to the public when a high-profile doctor makes anti-vaccine statements than when a blowhard like Trump makes them. Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Rand Paul should both know better.