Okay, no. I’m not actually proposing a direct causative link between those two things; I’m not the Daily Mail. The evidence that proximity to Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann causes life-threatening illness is, at best, hazy and inconclusive.
What has happened is that she has strongly opposed a certain vaccine, which is known to prevent cervical cancer in women, and which fellow White House wannabe Rick Perry attempted to mandate for all girls of a certain age in the state where he was Governor.
The safety of the vaccine is well understood, by a number of scientific bodies which have explored the matter in some depth. Michelle Bachmann, however, reminded us that there’s another side to the story:
I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects… This is a very real concern.
An HPV vaccine causing “mental retardation” is entirely implausible and unsupported. If anyone can produce the medical case file from this woman’s daughter which would demonstrate otherwise, there’s a $10,000 prize up for grabs:
The host of the above video suggests that, in fact, Bachmann concocted the entire story for the sake of a talking point. The malice of that speaks for itself, but let’s be charitable and assume she really did have an encounter, much as she described. She may be fudging the details or remembering things in a somewhat more convenient way than they really occurred, but let’s be generous.
What do her subsequent actions tell us about the way Michelle Bachmann sees the world?
There are three possible conclusions which I think we can draw:
- Michelle Bachmann thinks she’s doing science. That is, she really believes that – to borrow Stephen Colbert’s phrase – citing a study in The New England Journal of Some Lady I Just Met is a legitimate way to reach valid scientific conclusions. One person told her that this thing happened; ergo, there is a “very real concern”.
Now, I’m willing to credit Michelle Bachmann with a great deal of ignorance about how science works, but this still seems unlikely. Imagine she’d been approached, instead, by a different stranger, with a similarly compelling but equally false story. Let’s say it was someone whose daughter ate some Gouda cheese, and immediately and as a direct result developed a crippling phobia of her own elbows. Would Bachmann have brought up the “very real” concern caused by this particular dairy product, for the sake of protecting the nation’s children?
I’m going to suggest that she wouldn’t. I think that, in most cases, Michelle Bachmann would not accept the truth of just any anecdote from a complete stranger, as well as the broad conclusions drawn from it. There must be some other reason why she trumpeted this particular one so vehemently.
- Michelle Bachmann thinks the science is on her side. Maybe she understands that this one random woman she met doesn’t prove anything, but believes her case to exemplify a more general truth. It’s just an anecdote, but it’s representative of what’s going on elsewhere. She knows that there is scientific data to back her up, but a personal story is something that people can relate to more easily.
This also would require a substantial and worrying ignorance about the current scientific understanding of how the world works, but I find it more plausible that Bachmann actually is that disconnected from reality.
- Michelle Bachmann doesn’t care about science. She’s trying to score some points against a political opponent, and knows that using the right kind of scary rhetoric, talking about “innocent little 12-year-old girls [being] forced to have a government injection”, will turn her into the morally courageous candidate in the eyes of many Americans who aren’t inclined to think about this in a lot more detail. The science behind the alleged vaccine dangers doesn’t matter to her nearly as much as people’s perceptions of it.
This is perhaps the most cynical option, but a politician caring less about reality than about their public perception is hardly unprecedented.
My guess is that it’s mostly 3, which may also be powering the delusion of 2. What do you think?