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The Bachmann Files: Don’t Let the Facts Stand in the Way of Incendiary Politics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint Rooster Syndrome holds that the bird’s crowing makes the sun edge up over the horizon. Beware post hoc ergo propter hoc, wail the logicians.

People’s brains are hard-wired for error, finding mental connections everywhere that none exist (e.g. “I slipped after I stepped on that crack in the sidewalk”). Sometimes these false beliefs spread like pathogens. Toxoplasmosis, no. Madness of crowds, si. Typically, evolutionary theory bursts forth as explanation: better safe than sorry on the Paleolithic savannahs.

Of course, the best example of contagion is the vaccine and autism scare, a fear repeatedly disproved by the science. This week we saw an example of elevating this meme of erroneous memes—vaccines insert an evil incubus into mind and body—to unparalleled new heights. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann put forth what she said was the case of a woman who had told her that her child had become mentally retarded after being vaccinated for human papillomavirus. “It can have very dangerous side effects,” she said on NBC’s Today. “This is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusions.”

The thing about Gardasil, the most common HPV vaccine in question, is that, as a bioactive molecule, it is remarkably safe. Forget retardation and consider, for a moment, the Grim Reaper. As of mid-June, there had been 32 ascertained deaths among those who received Gardasil. That’s 32 following distribution of 35 million doses of the vaccine. Let’s keep our post hocs straight, though, and consult the CDC: “In the 32 reports confirmed, there was no unusual pattern or clustering to the deaths that would suggest that they were caused by the vaccine and some reports indicated a cause of death unrelated to vaccination.”

The 2012 presidential campaign has started early. We shouldn’t let our error-prone crania prevail. When it’s all over next year, better that science should not turn out as the big loser.

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bigbopper 5:35 pm 09/14/2011

    Politicians are always on the hunt for issues with which they can stir up emotions and build support. Bachmann’s opposition to the HPV vaccine is a classic case of appealing to people’s fears: of government control, of disease, of precocious sexual activity, etc. What’s important is not the facts but whether people will see her as standing up for their “rights”.

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  2. 2. LarryW 6:02 pm 09/14/2011

    The comments tend to attribute politicians’ statements to nefarious motives which I find a bit disingenuous. From what I can tell, after watching politicians from the sidelines with only rare interactions, is they tend to be some of the America’s dimmest of bulbs.

    When you see 10 or 30 second commercials by candidates, or them giving quick canned answers to canned questions by canned journalists, you have witnessed, not a mere simplification of the topic for public consumption, but a virtual brain dump of all that they “know”.

    Bachmann’s comments were not meant to merely stir up emotions and propagate more ignorance to an already ignorant population. She really does believe the stuff she is saying. Is she clueless? Why yes, of course.

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  3. 3. SAJP2000 6:50 pm 09/14/2011

    We need more open analysis of every politician’s motives, reasoning, and agenda, of course.

    OK, but reading this article is like driving your car down a set of railroad tracks. Modest Entertainment Value aside, according to the *Bog Index* a ten year old could have written it more eloquently.

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  4. 4. Dr.MS 11:46 pm 09/14/2011

    I am more amused that those who analyze political candidates rarely examine those who believe them, follow them or support them. Some politicians are so smart, or shrewd, that they say what will appeal to a crowd or placate their positions. In some ways it makes them shrewd snake-oil salemen (and saleswomen) – who know how to manipulate and exploit people’s ignorance, needs, vulnerabilities and beliefs. Would you say “the candidate is the dim bulb”, or just a shrewd interpreter of “needs, neediness, cluelessness and craziness”?Why does a respectable magazine waste so much time with this political candidate…but not others? Macho petty patriarchy…or just not “serious magazine”? My subscription will be over after this.

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  5. 5. SAJP2000 12:49 am 09/15/2011

    Dr. MS–

    I won’t dump my subscription yet, but I agree. With this article and many others like it lately–I believe we are witnessing the ‘dumbing down’ of SciAm.

    Gone, I’m afraid, are the days of Martin Gardner and the credo that ‘facts will have pride of place here, speculation belongs to the funny papers.’

    Next we’ll start seeing more and more John Horgan/Paul Davies columns lauding ‘scientific spirituality’ and ‘faith-based logic’.

    But if this is the prevailing trend–this downward spiral–then I’ll also stop my subscription and take up Mad Magazine instead. Might as well.

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  6. 6. rgcorrgk 1:45 am 09/15/2011

    Gary Stix, no offense, but reading between the lines it would seem Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann makes you nervous. Agreed her over concern regarding being vaccinated for human papillomavirus is not justified by facts, to date; however, her concern about big brothers intrusive and escalating control (and mandates) over nearly all aspects of our existence is a concern to many Americans. Freedom is the issue. For some of us freedom means having a toilet that does the job the first time, or maybe a 100 W Tungsten light bulb! Maybe I don’t like the Mercury in the replacement bulb, maybe I want to do my part to increase “global Warming”(because the way I read the science, on balance warming is good for life), then again it could be I chose Tungsten out of respect for all the effort Edison put in to coming up with it etc. The point is, if we are to retain some element of freedom we need to be able to exercise personal power over our lives (and yes make mistakes). That means not giving all power to big brother.
    Richard Carlson

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  7. 7. notslic 10:48 am 09/15/2011

    I have seen the clip of Bachman telling this story and her body language screams at me that she is lying. She is a deer in the headlights and way out of her league, disappointed that her mojo has been stolen by someone who tells bigger lies than she does.

    The worst lie being told is that lowering personal income taxes for the rich will create jobs. The liars rely on the fact that most Americans don’t know what a bypass trust is. Herman Cain, with his 9-9-9 plan wants to triple my taxes and halve his own. Pure greed.

    The only way to create real jobs is to increase the demand for domestic products and services. The only way to achieve this is to restrict imports.

    Politicians prey on the ignorance of America, just like preachers do. It’s their job.

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