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Just following the herd                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Sep/24/2015 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: People, Politics & Gov,

Politicians have a long and enduring history of making themselves appear foolish. Some of this is the result of poor coaching and some from inflated egos encouraging a nasty illness sometimes called “diarrhea of the mouth”. The September 2015 Republican Presidential Debate held in Simi Valley California was another of those special situations. 23 million viewers had their evening enriched with misguided information under the glow of campaign rhetoric and urban legend treated as fact.

In truth, it would be difficult to call this recent spectacle a debate in the classic sense. The debate was more reminiscent of a staged and televised wrestling free for all’s with 11 hulks inside a cage. The only thing missing from this event was folding chairs being used as weapons and over developed young ladies in skimpy outfits. Obviously, a few beer commercials would have lightened the mood.

It would be easy to blame the moderators and their host network for intentionally creating this roman spectacle just for its entertainment value and to amplify candidate flaws. Ignoring the historically unbiased model of Ed Murrow or Walter Cronkite the moderators clearly baited the debater, but all this may not have been a bad thing. With an excessively large herd of candidates it can be difficult for observers to make any reasonable assessment or direct comparison since debates are supposed to inspire intelligent choice. Gladiatorial events have a way of rapidly culling the field, which is desperately needed with so many contestants vying for the Republican nomination. In this spirit, Roman games masquerading as a serious political debate may not have been a bad thing.

Late in a political campaign, presidential candidates have generally hired a collection of coaches and consultants. Through this team they learn about the domestic limitations of what can, and cannot be done in conjunction with congress. They also get coached up on historical trade agreements. Some of the consultants will specialize in educating the candidates on the players, concerns and drama of a specific geographical regions that they specialize in helping them form a cohesive policy or agenda and all the related talking points.

Early in a presidential race none of the aforementioned coaching has been initiated and we get to hear the candidates in “their own voice.” More important, we get to hear what they actually know and believe before being coached for audience appeal. Some of these gaffs become legendary in their impact on public perception of a candidate.

One of the most famous of these misguided insights took place in August of 2012. U.S. Representative Todd Akin, who won Missouri’s Republican primary and was facing incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill for her Senate seat sat for a television interview. During the interview, Rep. Akin was asked if he thought abortion should be legal in the case of rape. Akin explained his opposition by citing unnamed bodily responses he said prevented pregnancy. “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said of rape-induced pregnancy in an interview with KTVI. Akin continued, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” referring to the possibility of getting pregnant. Akin never did provide a definition for “legitimate rape” or the supposed doctors who shared this insight and he rapidly faded from political relevance to a Wikipedia footnote. While voters can be disappointing, they are seldom as naïve as some politicians would like to believe.

Debates are an opportunity for one candidate to distinguish themselves from the other. Still, debates are tricky. For the unskilled, a debate can become more an exercise in follow-the-leader. When this behavior happens, the herd is merely reinforcing the leadership position of the frontrunner regardless of the quality of their content.

In the most recent debate, Donald Trump did not mention the wall he was going to build between the U.S. and Mexico; that was likely a smart move since his notion that he would get Mexico to pay for it is more the stuff of dreams than reality. Unfortunately, a number of the candidates came down to Trump’s level by not denouncing his bogus and egregiously irresponsible assertion that vaccines cause autism.

This is a good opportunity to share the results of legitimate study and science. Vaccines do not cause autism. There is no basis in science at all to refute the value of vaccines. The journal piece that began this nonsense years ago was retracted and the authoring doctor lost his medical license. All similar studies have been thoroughly discredited without significant effort as they lacked any semblance of legitimate and unbiased study methodology and science. The following medical groups all have studied and agree that there is no link between vaccines and autism: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine. Whether alone or grouped together such as Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR), vaccines don't cause autism. The medical community is clear.

Nevertheless, very near the end of the debate Trump got away with his egregious statement that is clearly a backward notion founded on urban rumor. Jake Tapper, the CNN debate moderator, noted that Trump has repeatedly linked vaccines to autism. Trump's response was that grouping them together (MMR for example) is a cause of autism. Donald Trump went on as his proof with a testimonial. Trump said "we've had so many instances, people that work for me." He then talked about a child who recently was vaccinated, then got sick, and is now autistic. Trump claimed that if vaccines were spread out, a little at a time, "I think you're going to see a big impact on autism."

Rumor based assertions such as this are not only without merit, but potentially very harmful to public health. When non-medical professionals perpetuate the notion that grouping vaccines together may be a "problem", this leads to a general mistrust of vaccinations and good science. It's dangerous misinformation. Even if the only result of this misinformation is waiting longer to vaccinate, that too is dangerous. These infectious diseases cause pneumonia, brain damage, deafness, infertility and even death. There is good science behind the notion not to wait on vaccinating children.

In response, Ben Carson – another candidate and a pediatric surgeon -- hedged. Even though he said there is proof that autism is not associated with vaccinations, he concluded "we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time," and he even flailed on the terrors of big government. Then Rand Paul -- a physician -- joined in lock step with Carson, saying, "Even if the science doesn't say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines out a little bit at the very least."

It is a disgrace for doctors to be so worried about following the lead of the political frontrunner that they set aside all their education in favor of the misinformation being shared by someone without their medical degrees or professional background. Worse still, they did this in front of an audience of millions.

From a political perspective, this would have been a great opportunity for a candidate back in the pack to distinguish themselves by refuting these bogus notions promoted by Donald Trump. Maybe even referencing that good science and study has already taken place and ... Instead, Trump shared bad science -- and in this he was aided by his ten enablers.

There are a number of studies that show people will laugh at things while in a group that they would never laugh at sitting by themselves. Clearly there is a need to be part of the group that overshadows our need to show respect or adhere to the truth. Much like lemmings going over a cliff, even the most educated of the candidates in this most recent debate chose to follow the leader rather than stand for logic and proven science.

Everyone's a loser when Trump does battle. Trump looks no more presidential, but neither do his opponents. This is the real peril of debating him.

Candidates, sometimes you have to make a stand for truth and logic. This was one of those times.

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Samuel Smiles
Men who are resolved to find a way for themselves will always find opportunities enough; and if they do not find them, they will make them.
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