JAN. 12, 2017 — Not one to skirt controversy, President-elect Donald Trump has reinserted himself into a marginal but revealing controversy: vaccines.
Drawing fire from across the political spectrum — but also some cheers — Trump asked Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known opponent of standard practices, to head up a new commission on vaccinations. Kennedy agreed.
Trump has claimed he simply wants to ensure vaccines are as safe as they can be, but Kennedy has used extreme, alarmist language about the supposed risk. He had to apologize, for instance, for using the word “holocaust.” Rather than making things better, the commission could make them worse.
In a political moment defined by the gulf between elite judgments and populist passions, few issues are more polarizing than vaccinations. Fueled by fears of hardship, heartache and an unaccountable health care system, a vocal “anti-vax” movement emerged from the relative fringe to become a surprising election-year constituency.
But although autism diagnoses have increased over the years, and the pace of vaccination for newborns and young children has accelerated over decades, there is no clear evidence that anything in commonly used vaccines causes autism. In fact, after a series of scares in anti-vax parts of California where almost unheard-of childhood diseases began to return, many policymakers have urged greater support for the strong scientific consensus against refusing to vaccinate.
Unfortunately, scientists and officials on the right side of the facts have been caught up in a wave of justified dismay with the self-entitlement and pushy agenda of social engineers — including so-called “technocrats” whose degree of expertise does not always align as well with their ambitions to change public behavior as they believe.
At a time when almost any bureaucratic or partisan hobbyhorse can be framed as a matter of “public health,” the politicization of medicine was inevitable, as was the focus on vaccines — where parents are asked to surrender a maximum of control to allow the most invasive of procedures. Add in the rise of fake or filtered news, shared within tight-knit identity groups, and the result has been a recipe for fury, near-panic and ideological warfare.
On one hand, the misbegotten vaccine debate shows just how badly elites have damaged their credibility. But on the other, it also shows how badly misinformation, fear-fueled fantasy and superstition have risen to fill the gap. It’s a picture of America’s institutional breakdown in microcosm. And like the broader malaise, it won’t be cured anytime soon by more controversy, more fear-mongering, or more phony impartiality.
Qualified experts still do exist across the country. Many legitimately hold influential positions, and many are worthy of respectful deference. Putting a vaccine commission in the hands of a movement diehard like Kennedy sets the kind of tone that is unlikely to produce a practical, authoritative way forward.
In large measure, across a range of industries, elites have brought their crisis of authority upon themselves. Their fringe critics, however, have little to offer in their stead. Politicians, including those in the White House, should help fix this problem, not exacerbate it.