“The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

— Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Pennsylvania rally, April 21, 2008

Good Fact Checker columns never really disappear; they reemerge from time to time as readers become interested in a topic once again. So it was little surprise when one of the most widely read columns this week was from 2008, written by our former colleague Michael Dobbs, who first started The Fact Checker. The article critically examined statements made by then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain concerning alleged — and discredited — links between autism and vaccines.

The column was later updated — with a prominent notice — because it initially had a truncated quote from Obama that suggested he personally believed there might be a link. But it turned out he was pointing to a person in the crowd. However, in recent days some news organizations have published articles that failed to include the full context of Obama’s remarks.

In the meantime, the full question-and-answer has never been posted as a single clip; most news organizations have just used a one-minute snippet from a 3 1/2 minute conversation. So as a reader service, Post TV has culled that section of the rally so readers can judge for themselves. (The video is above; a partial transcript is below.)

You will see that Obama made his remarks after an audience member mentioned the rising autism rate and then asked about the problems of educating children with special needs. A lot of Obama’s answer concerned funding for special education, before he went on a tangent about autism during a discussion about investing in basic research and science.

In recent days, another question emerged from the videotape. What did Obama mean when he said that “the science is inconclusive?” Some have argued that Obama was referring back to the initial discussion concerning “a skyrocketing autism rate” and so “the science” in this case was about autism, not about any possible link between autism and vaccines.

Here is that section of the video clip, which you can see is a bit rambling.

“The final issue, you mentioned autism, that’s an example where our investment in basic research and science has to drastically increase. I was mentioning earlier investments in infrastructure, one of the things I left out was an investment in basic science and technology….
“The same is true in biotech, the genome sciences. Huge opportunities for us to figure out what are the sources of diseases, how can we prevent them or at least intervene more quickly. Autism is a prime candidate where we have seen a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines, but — this person included [pointing to person in the crowd] — the science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it’s very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio. And so we can’t afford to junk our vaccine system. We’ve got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we’re seeing we’re never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that’s going to be necessary.”

Obama was speaking off the cuff, and so his language is a bit confusing. He certainly seems very careful to try not to offend anyone in the crowd. We hesitated about making a judgment, but then White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Feb. 3 confirmed that the president was referring to the link between autism and vaccines.

REPORTER: Because vaccines came up, it was 2008 that the president said that the science was inconclusive.  So the difference now — does he believe something has changed in the research that would make that not the case?
EARNEST:  Well, we do know that at the time that the president was speaking, there was a study that has since been debunked that indicated that there might be some connection between autism — or increasing rates of autism and vaccines. But, like I said, since that time — I believe this was in 2010  — that study was retracted because it was completely undermined based on additional scientific data that had been presented. So, in the mind of the president, this is an issue that science has settled and that it is clearly the responsibility of parents all across the country to get their kids vaccinated for the measles.

Although Earnest suggests Obama’s change of heart was triggered by the 2010 retraction of a paper that had been published in the Lancet, a British science journal, Dobbs had documented in 2008 that virtually all scientists at the time had concluded that research was discredited; he noted that at least five major studies had already debunked the link. That’s why he awarded Obama Two Pinocchios at the time; in light of Earnest’s remarks, we reaffirm those Pinocchios again.

Other Politicians’ Statements on Vaccines

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)

“All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It’s much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide. But I can just tell people from our perspective, Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think it’s an important part of making sure we protect their health and the public health.”

— New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), speaking to reporters while traveling in England, Feb. 2

Christie’s remarks caused a furor, especially because only a day earlier Obama had made this statement in a pre-Super Bowl interview:

“I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not…. You should get your kids vaccinated. It’s good for them, but we should be able to get back to the point where measles effectively is not existing in this country.”

Obama’s message is fairly strong and unambiguous. Oddly, however, Christie’s remarks were somewhat similar to what Earnest had said to reporters on Jan. 30, making the case that these “are decisions that should be made by parents.”

REPORTER:  And obviously it has revived the debate over vaccines. Does the president, does the White House have a message about that and who will be getting vaccinated?
EARNEST:  Well, the president certainly believes that these kinds of decisions are decisions that should be made by parents, because ultimately when we’re talking about vaccinations, we’re typically talking about vaccinations that are given to children. But the science on this, as our public health professionals I’m sure would be happy to tell you, the science on this is really clear.

The political problem, however, was that Christie framed it also as a “choice” that required “balance” with governmental decisions. Christie’s office quickly put out a clarifying statement:

“To be clear: The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”

It is hard to assign a Pinocchio rating to Christie’s statement. It was certainly clumsy and poorly stated, but at the same time his office almost immediately took it back. However, it later emerged that Christie in 2009 expressed sympathy for the notion that there is a link between autism and vaccines and supported parental choice on vaccines. New Jersey does not currently allow parents to refuse vaccinations on philosophical grounds — only for religious reasons.

“Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates,” he wrote in a letter released by an anti-vaccine activist. “I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

However, Christie does not appear to have specifically said that there was a link between autism and vaccines.

 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

“I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”

— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), speaking on CNBC, Feb. 2

Paul’s statement appeared to suggest that he knew of cases in which children ended up with “mental disorders” after getting vaccinated — a link for which there is no evidence. (Our colleagues at FactCheck.org have a good survey of the research.) On balance, we would say this is worthy of at least Three Pinocchios.

Paul also rushed out a statement saying he had been misunderstood: “I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related — I did not allege causation. I support vaccines, I receive them myself and I had all of my children vaccinated. In fact, today I received the booster shot for the vaccines I got when I went to Guatemala last year.” (He also wrote an opinion article for USA Today saying his remarks had been misunderstood.)

Paul spokesman Brian Darling expanded on the statement in an e-mail:

Sen. Paul never said that he believed the cases were directly related to vaccines. The senator said temporally and the word temporally is defined as a certain order with regards to time. The senator never used the term causally related in that interview nor the subsequent statements.
I am sure you would agree that parents who have a belief, correct or incorrect scientifically, that their children’s illness and affliction were caused by a vaccine or a combination of vaccines is tragic. Any child being ill is tragic and the emotional pain experienced by a parent is tragic.  You are reading way too much into his comments.
If you take his words at face value and don’t read motives or make inferences from his statement, his statement was reasonable and not controversial. People have told him of what they believe to be cases where the administration of a vaccine had a negative outcome. Don’t infer causation because he communicated what others have communicated to him.

We understand that Paul did balance his statement with comments that vaccines “are a good thing” and that he also issued a statement saying he been misunderstood. But it is wrong to simply communicate what non-experts have said on a public health issue, because you run the risk of misleading people. That’s what got former congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in trouble. She earned Four Pinocchios, in part because she denied she had done anything wrong — and she made the statement repeatedly. Here’s a Fact Checker video on the controversy at the time.

Paul tried to clarify his statement but the damage was done. An ordinary person would think he knew of specific cases involving a link between mental illness and vaccinations. He earns Three Pinocchios.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R)

“Indiana law requires all children be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases like the measles by getting vaccinated. Vaccines protect all our children from illnesses, and our administration strongly urges Hoosier families to have their children vaccinated.”

— Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), statement issued Feb. 3

In this instance, Pence goes in the opposite direction, perhaps reacting to the frenzied climate. He asserted that Indiana law required every child to get a vaccination, but the reality is that only two states — Mississippi and West Virginia — do not permit any religious or philosophical exemptions.

Amy Reel, spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, confirmed that Indiana does allow for religious and health exemptions, such as pregnancy for a college-age student, though she noted “we have less than a 2 percent exemption rate for medical and religious purposes combined.” Indiana, unlike nearly 20 states, does not allow for a philosophical objection to vaccinations.

Pence earns a Pinocchio for his over-enthusiasm.

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