All of the Ways Last Night's GOP Debate Was Dangerously Wrong About Science


For every elected official who carefully educates themselves on the facts and research prior to making an informed decision, there are a dozen more who have no problem shooting their mouths off on talking points they do not understand. As we learned last night in the second Republican presidential primary debate, many of the frontrunners for the Republican Presidential candidate belong firmly in the latter group. Let’s review.

On abortion

Last night, candidates focused on attacking Planned Parenthood, an organization that offers life-saving cancer screening, STD and HIV testing, contraception, and, yes, abortion, to millions of Americans each year.

Carly Fiorina managed to slip in her personal perspective on abortion, looking at the camera with mournful eyes and imploring viewers, “As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

This was the point in the evening when I started muttering to my empty living room. “Is that really what she thinks happens during an abortion? Because that is not what happens during an abortion,” I informed my coffee table. The coffee table was unmoved. So, apparently, were CNN’s debate moderators.

Fiorina took a huge leap of faith here that no one has actually watched the video she described. In reality, the (heavily edited) recording consists of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the voluntary and completely legal donation of fetal parts. There is no kicking, crying fetus on the table. There is no mad scientist cackling and demanding we keep it alive for brain harvesting purposes. Dr. Frankenstein is a fictional character and The Walking Dead’s zombies are characters in a graphic novel. Neither works for Planned Parenthood.

Donated fetal tissue is responsible for many critical advancements in medicine, including vaccines and treatment for degenerative diseases. In fact, the current rules for legal donation of fetal tissue for research were developed in part by the Fetal Tissue Transplantation Panel, established by the much beloved Ronald Reagan. No fetus is “kept alive” for this donation post-delivery. No fetus is terminated for the express purposes of being donated. No brains are harvested from living babies.

For the record, the CDC estimates that 92% of abortions in the United States are performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with 65.9% occurring in the first eight weeks. Abortions at this stage are either medical (induced with a combination of oral or vaginal medications) or surgical. The earliest age of viability (when a fetus can survive outside of the mother, in this case with an incredible amount of medical intervention and a high risk of later complications) is 22 weeks. Living, viable, kicking, crying babies are not birthed and then cruelly murdered for the purpose of dastardly scientific experiments.

Carly Fiorina is either a deliberately manipulative liar or an uninformed bonehead. In either case, she has no place in the discussion of reproductive health or abortion rights, possession of a uterus notwithstanding.

On Vaccines

Ben Carson was given the easiest question of the night, hands down: “A backlash against vaccines was blamed for a measles outbreak here in California. Dr. Carson, Donald Trump has publicly and repeatedly linked vaccines, childhood vaccines, to autism, which, as you know, the medical community adamantly disputes. You’re a pediatric neurosurgeon. Should Mr. Trump stop saying this?”

The answer is “yes, because Donald Trump is wrong.” Or, any one of a number of variations on the theme of “yes, people should stop saying that because it is shoddy science that was disproved almost two decades ago and children are literally dying because you are continuing to propagate this misinformation.”

Multiple studies have thoroughly debunked the idea that vaccines cause autism. Vaccines do not cause autism, they are not associated with increased rates of autism, they do not have anything to do with autism. The apparent increase in rates of autism in the United States is a result of the change in diagnoses of the disorder and increased awareness. Not vaccines (which have remained fairly constant while the rates of autism increase, the argument debunking itself).

Instead of doing the responsible thing and correcting Trump’s dangerously wrong views, Dr. Ben Carson briefly mentioned that there is no proven correlation before parlaying it into a talking point on big government. When pressured by moderator Jake Tapper to answer the question, Carson said “(Trump) can read about it if he wants to.” A health care professional given a platform in front of millions of people to comment on the dangerous myth that vaccines cause autism said “He can read about it if he wants to.” Then he ceded the science stage to Trump.

After leading with the fact that he thinks vaccines are important, Trump added, to emphasize how moderate and reasonable he is, that we should be spacing vaccines further out. Dr Carson backed him up, adding in his soothing, NPR-worthy tone that “…it is true that we’re giving way too many in too short a period of time. And a lot of pediatricians now recognize that, and they’re cutting down on the number and the proximity.”

That right there? That is Ben Carson betraying his training and the health of the American people on the off chance that the relatively small but vocal group of anti-vaxxers in this country will elect him president.

The current immunization schedule was developed to protect children when they are most at risk of infectious disease, with doses and timing to best develop a child’s immune system. The schedule is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other respected medical organizations, and is backed by several medical studies verifying that the current spacing of vaccines is safe.

Then Rand Paul, also a doctor, added his two cents to this trumped-up (pun intended) “bunched up vaccines” fear and wraps it up with the admittedly excellent line: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee attempted to steer the conversation elsewhere, opining: “sure there’s a controversy about vaccines but let’s turn our attention to something else entirely, the cost of other medical issues.” Perhaps he didn’t realize the irony of his segue; the 2011 measles outbreak in California, started by an unvaccinated child and affecting 107 children, cost taxpayers up to $5.3 million dollars.

On Climate Change

On a stage featuring someone who doesn’t believe in evolution, another holding steadfast to a 17-year-old debunked study on vaccines, and another who believes that abortion is something done by mad scientists for funsies, I expected a strong showing here.

Surprisingly, Rubio, Christie, and Walker all essentially conceded that climate change exists. They just don’t want us to do anything about it. And at this point, I’m not actually sure what’s worse—denying the evidence or just flat out saying that the economy is more important than, say, the survival of our planet.

Tapper robbed us of hearing Rand Paul’s thoughts on the matter, cutting him off after “If you want a skeptic — if you want a skeptic, Jake, I will happily jump into that briar patch…

It’s OK though; I’m sure we will learn of what I assume will be his “Jesus take the wheel” approach to rising sea levels soon enough.

(quotes are from the Washington Post transcript of the debate)

Caroline Weinberg has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, the Washington Post, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on twitter @ckw583.

Image via AP/ Illustration by Bobby Finger.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin