Monthly Archives: February 2015

I have no general brief to make for Marianne Williamson, but she’s come under fire from skeptics for remarks she made during a panel discussion about vaccines on Real Time with Bill Maher, and I think this criticism completely misses the point. I see what she was trying to do on Maher She IS pro-vax. She’s speaking to a very specific audience, trying to move non-vaxers to get their kids the MMR to slow the epidemic. She’s using a textbook persuasion strategy for this, exactly the way we teach it in Public Speaking class (which is why I’m so sure of her actual position). However it winds up being ineffective, in part because it’s a weak method for use in a panel discussion, and in this case more so because she’s not assertive or emphatic enough to get over the noise level, emotional loading, and general stupidity of Maher and guest Amy Holmes from the Glen Beck TV network The Blaze. (Oy! They were SO obnoxious!)

From the perspective of rhetorical criticism, you can’t evaluate an argument without knowing who the speaker is, and who they’re trying to address. Williamson is an ‘odd duck’ occupying a unique niche in the domain of “spiritual teachers” in that she combines “The New Spirituality” with an explicit democratic-socialist politics. If this seems out of the mainstream, it is. A lot of “spiritual” types will balk at the politics, and a lot of D-Soc types will balk at the spirituality. But enough people can fit those pieces together that she has a following, and those are the folks she’s trying to reach.

Though she makes delivery mistakes, the rhetorical plan of her opening statement is actually a minor masterpiece of how you set up an argument for an audience you suspect will not welcome your thesis. There are 3 goals for such a set-up:
1) Establish credibility on the listener’s terms (you can trust me!)
2) Establish points of identification and sympathy (look at the beliefs and values we share; we’re more friends than you might think!)
3) Set up terms of discussion — language and logic frames — that will favor your thesis when you get to it. (Well, you’ve already agreed to the basic principles…)

So here’s her opening, annotated:
Maher whines about the media telling the ‘vaccine skeptics’ to STFU, likens it to the “don’t ask questions” approach to the Iraq War, and asks if that bothered anyone else. Wlliamson answers:

“It bothered me because the implication was if you had any skepticism whatsoever, you were anti-science. (ANTI-SCIENCE IS INDEED BAD). And I think there’s a difference between having skepticism about science and having skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry. (YOU CAN BE SKEPTICAL ABOUT CORPORATE CAPITALISM, BUT YOU SHOULDN’T BE SKEPTICAL OF SCIENCE, AND THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING) I think that even though my child was vaccinated I think there’s public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here. (MY KID IS SAFE, BUT WE NEED TO PROTECT EVERYONE’S KID.) Even though I don’t want the government as a rule telling me what I can do and can’t do with my body for medical purposes, (I’M NOT STUPID ENOUGH TO TRUST JOHN BOEHNER WITH MY HEALTH) at the same time… I think the government has earned our distrust (IRAQ), the pharmaceuticals have (VIOXX)… This is the problem when institutions lose their moral authority. (VACCINATION IS A MORAL ISSUE) We know that the government has suppressed information and withheld information, we know that the medical establishment has suppressed information and withheld information, (this she phrases poorly; she’s not talking about vaccines, or about any kind of medical science really, but that’s not clear enough) where so at this point, even when they say something we should listen to, (See the judo? YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM ON THIS, AND VAX YOUR KIDS!) people have a skepticism and that’s the real problem. (BUT IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT YOU HAVEN’T GOTTEN THE MESSAGE YET) This is what happens when we don’t believe our government enough and we don’t believe our medical establishment enough. (IT’S NATURAL THAT DISTRUST OF CORRUPT POWER IS BLINDING YOU TO SCIENCE) The answer is not to tell we’re kooks, but for them to get their act together so that they are more trustworthy again. (AND I’LL TELL YOU HOW THEY CAN GET THAT TRUST BACK, IF I HAVE THE TIME.)”

No, YOU may not have interpreted it this way, but then she’s probably not talking to you. She’s talking to people who might attend this upcoming event she’s organized featuring Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Lisa Bloom, and Cenk Uygar.

Hint: Watch this clip from the end of the ‘Overtime’ of the Maher show that appeared on his blog, but not on the air.

That’s her answer to the government and the healthcare system getting their act together so they’re more trustworthy again.

On 2/10/15, Respectful Insolence  commenter Jen Phillips wrote:
“I really don’t get the distinction between ‘skepticism about science v. skepticism about the industry’. If you think the science behind vaccination is sound, but opt out of the vaccine due to distrust of the industries who did the studies, aren’t you expressing skepticism about the validity of their science after all? ”
No, not at all. First, Williamson isn’t necessarily addressing folks who have opted out by getting an exemption. She’s smart enough to know that’s a really steep hill. She’s aiming more at fence sitters — people doing delayed schedules, who haven’t taken the kid in because they’re still waffling, folks with kids on the way trying to sort out stuff they’re just beginning to ay attention to. And, again, her peeps are basically socialists — which, pretty much by definition good things will come from bad companies. They love their iPhones, but hate the way Apple has them manufactured in the 3rd world. Basically, ALL corporations are bad because they extract surplus value from wage slavery, and engage in questionable marketing/promotion strategies. Marxists love scientific progress. They also don’t go in for conspiracy theories. The trouble with pharmaceutical companies isn’t that there’s some ‘Big Pharma’ cabal doing evil with malicious intent. It’s a structural feature of the economic system that can only be addressed by systemic reform (e.g. single-payer full-coverage universal health care… and maybe nationalize the pharmaceutical companies while we’re at it.

Anyway, back on Maher, the loud-mouths blab away, and it’s four minutes before Williamson gets to speak again. She begins with a bit of ‘people have had concerns about vaccines for decades, which I understand’ (hailing the non-vaxers, but defusing the autism scare), then gets to her point:

MW: “It’s an upside of the American mind that we don’t buy everything we’re told, necessarily. It’s a downside when we think nothing we’re told could possibly be true. So I think there’s a skepticism which is actually healthy on this issue of vaccinations.”
[Maher tries to interrupt, but this time she cuts him off and plows ahead.]
MW: “But on this one the facts are in about measles. We had eradicated it. We need to get our kids back safe.”

Except the end of that sentence is cut off by Maher, literally drowning out the word “safe”. He realizes Williamson has just stabbed his his anti-vax schtick in the heart, and will keep twisting the knife if he lets her keep talking, so he starts off on a long rant about ‘long-term reduced immunity’ bollocks, then hands off to Blaze-ing Amy for some nonsense about the over-protection of children, and it’s blah, blah, blah for the rest of the segment Williamson doesn’t get to talk about vaccines again. At the very end, she applauds when Maher cracks on Monsanto, and makes sure she gets 30 seconds to extoll the healing power of spirituality:
MW “People who have been diagnosed with life challenging illnesses who attend spiritual support groups live on average twice as long after diagnoses, and that has been established by the most prestigious academ….” [Fade to black before she can finish.]
Yeah, you can find a number of those studies on PubMed, and IDK what the journal reviewers are smoking to miss the lack of proper controls. So it goes.

As I noted above, I wouldn’t say Williamson ‘scored’ here – even her intended audience might not have really ‘heard’ her above the noise, or put the pieces the pieces of the stream of thought together amidst the fragmentation of the ‘debate’, errr dogfight rigged to Maher’s advantage. More importantly, she really only got far enough to state the thesis. That’s not enough. The strategy requires proper supporting material, and a strong restatement of the thesis at the end – so it appears fully rational and properly justified. Basically, the idea is you get the audience to ‘nod their heads’ as you provide the supporting case, which is also giving them time to let the whole thing sink in. Then, at the end, you need to reinforce it, and it’s connection to the ‘on your side themes’ you offered at the beginning… There was no chance for Williamson to do any of that, and of course, I don’t know if she would have. Perhaps she will more to say about the subject at the event with Sanders, Kucinich, Bloom, and Uygar. (?)

But I’m not here to lionize Marainne Williamson. I’m in the group of folks who dig the left-wing politics, but can’t stomach the ‘spiritual teaching’ or ‘age of miracles’ stuff. And the poster cards with the saccharine affirmation statements just make me want to puke. But in the war against a potentially deadly measles outbreak, I’ll take any ally I can get, especially one with a tactic that might work on folks ‘the usual suspects’ aren’t able to reach.

Three, actually:

1) In the center of calling out to her anti-capitalist audience, Williamson said, “I think there’s public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here.”
BOOM. Find me another public figure who has stated the issue to clearly and unequivocally. That’s what we need more people to say, and it’s not going to help anything to slam anyone who says that. (Even if they’re just doing it to sell seminar tickets and books.)

2) Williamson has just demonstrated how you craft an effective appeal to left-leaning fence-sitters. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anyone in the SBM/skeptic circle to come out with the kind of anti-capitalist language she used. But the ‘objective scientist’ can still say ‘I understand why you don’t trust big corporations’ and use the strategy of separating that generic distrust of the profit motive from the specific products produced by capitalism. The problem is not the thing, or the science behind the thing, or (especially) the employees who make the thing (labor); the problem is the system under which the thing is made and the way some things are sold. Establish that common ground (you are not a kook for raising an eyebrow at how Merck does business), and the thesis becomes a much easier sell:
There’s a public health issue that over-rides individual liberty here. The facts are in about measles. We had eradicated it, but socially irresponsible behavior has brought it back. We have a collective moral responsibility to get ALL our kids back to safety.

3) If you have an argument that can flip even 10% of an audience leaning the other way over to your side – or move any significant chunk of the audience from passive agreement to action – you don’t worry AT ALL about feeding the conformation bias of your opponents. Because they’re already against you, 90-10 is a lot better than 100-0, and you can only go one step at a time. (In any real political campaign a 10% flip on leaners is absolutely huge.)

P.S. Just posted to Willimason’s FB page from a self-labelled “long-time follower”:

I was appalled and surprised at Marianne’s endorsement of mandatory measles vaccines on Bill Maher’s Real Time last week.”

But ‘long-time follower’ turns out to be a troll for a far-right-wing “health freedom” group of anti-vax quacks. Maybe Williamson scored some points after all.


This post is a response to the thread: “Chris Christie and Rand Paul’s pandering to antivaccinationists: Is the Republican Party becoming the antivaccine party?” on Respectful Insolence, dated 2/3/205.

Regarding recent comments on vaccination as a matter of ‘individual choice’ and freedom by Christie and Pau, respectively, RI host Orac wrote:
I don’t think that Gov. Christie is antivaccine (although I’m not so sure about Rand Paul). What I do know is that the conflation of “choice” with vaccination has led to a powerful incentive for politicians, particularly Republican politicians, to pander to antivaccine views.

In the comments under the OP, Mike #36 objected to the idea that ‘vaccine freedom’ was the same thing as ‘anti-vax’.

    There are really 2 different issues with 4 different policy positions. Pro or anti-vaccine; Pro or anti- government mandated vaccines. I consider myself pro-vaccine. I have all my vaccinations up to date, I always get the quaternary flu vaccine, my kids are up to date on their vaccines and we even enrolled our children in a phase III trial for a new vaccine. I also consider myself anti-government mandated vaccination. I can understand government vaccine mandates for places like public schools where kids will be crammed together as long as public schooling is not compulsory. I think that Orac is lumping these two different issues together under 1 topic. I don’t think that is fair or accurate.

I don’t know if the blinking box is lumping. The point may just be that Christie and Paul’s positions are ideologically consistent with anti-vaxers from Jay Gordon to Age of Autism to Jack Wolfson, and their statements appear as comfort and support to the loonies and opportunists at a time of distress, helping thm keep going. I’m sure that’s true.

But Mike has a point: anti-vaxers may be Libertarians, but that doesn’t mean Libertarians are anti-vaxers. They share a certain philosophy, but have different conclusions about the medical science. Sbm advocates may even find the Libertarian politics more disturbing than the anti-vax politics. At least the anti-vaxers want their PBEs because they truly believe vaccines hurt their children. The Libertarians don’t think that. They mostly know vaccines are safe and prevent the spread of dangerous infectious diseases that pose a serious public health menace that could kill hundreds of people a year. But they want to let the anti-vaxers have their PBEs anyway.

With vaccines taking the national political stage today, I want to look at the politics of Christie’s and Paul’s in the context of the broader pre-campaign for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, and consider why they may have said these things, and what effects their remarks may have on their political ambitions.

I would say there are six different constituencies listening to Christie and Paul, listed below in my estimate of ascending order of size:

A) ‘Anti-vaxers’ who I’ll define as activists in the Jenny McCarthy vein who just KNOW the MMR causes autism, other vaccines have their own evils, and will never, ever listen to reason and change their minds.

B) ‘Non-vaxers’ or ‘fence-sitters’. These are parents who have either just not vaxed their kids yet, delayed the vax schedule, or are wondering about vaxing for kids they don’t yet have. I’ll define the dominant trait of this group as passivity. They don’t post on blogs, or make other public statements. For the most part they don’t seek PBEs. They just haven’t taken the kids in for the recommended immunizations because they’re “not sure”. There are a lot more of these non-vaxers than there are genuine anti-vaxers, and it’s the non-vaxers that are undermining the herd immunity. A study by Lieu in Pediatrics reported the ‘under-vaccinated’ rate in Marin County at 18.1% (including kids who got no shots at all), but the ‘vaccine refusal’ rate in Marin is just 6.6%.

C) ‘Conservatrolls’ These are the ultra-partisan disciples of Karl Rove and Andrew Breitbart, who will opportunistically take any position that can be used to whip up the base and bash Democrats, whether they believe it or not, or whether their candidates were on the other side of the issue last year. This group is well represented in the audience for Fox and Limbaugh, though the fan base of such media figures no doubt has a healthy number of true believers of the groups below as well.

D) ‘Rights-Firsters’ Mike’s in this group. These folks mostly all vaccinated their own kids on schedule, or don’t have target age kids to worry about. Medical concerns of any kind — either autism or VPDs — are very low on their agenda, if they even make the list of issue concerns at all. As fiscal conservatives, they’re mostly resolutely anti-big-government and hate Obamacare with a passion. They are, for the most part, sincere in these beliefs.

E) ‘Christian Right’ Huckabee and Santorum voters. Unless sincere religious exemptions are threatened, they could care less.

F) ‘Mainliners’ Old-school Republicans: Romney, H.W. fans. Probably concerned about VPD outbreaks, and favor sensible vax policy, but would rather not talk about it.

Now, a) how any of these groups react to what Paul and Christie are saying is one thing, b) why the pols are saying what they say is another, and c) how that will affect their campaigns is a third other thing. Trying to gauge b) or c) for Christie or Paul must be done in the context of the workings of the GOP nomination process. The sorting and winnowing begins with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January, followed by New York, the Carolinas, Minnesota, Utah, and Nevada in the first part of February. A number of early hopefuls will be knocked out by then, and after a short breather, the survivors will head into a big cluster with Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Vermont all decided by March 1. After that, the game will most likely be over, or down to two at most. With the exception of NY, MA, VT each GOP result will be dominated by voters from the hard-core conservative base.

Both Christie and Paul already have very-well-funded shadow campaign organizations doing all sorts of polling and focus-groups to help the candidates tailor their messages to the early states. Here’s the non-medical exemption rates, vax rates, and my guess of the dominant and secondary (if there is one) primary/caucus bloc in each of the those states:
Iowa ……………………1.2…….90.5….E: D
New Hampshire…….2.3…….ND….D
New York……………..0.6…….96.6….F: D
Minnesota…………….1.6…….96.3….E: D
Utah…………………….3.7…….96.3….D: E
South Carolina………ND…….90.9….E: D
North Carolina……….0.7…….97.3….D: E
Michigan……………….5.3…….94.4….E: D
Texas……………………1.2…….97.5….D: E
Tennessee…………….1.1…….94.5….E: F

By these numbers, the only states with even a possibly significant anti-vax or non-vax voting bloc are MI and SC, both of which are likely to be decided by other issues by a long shot.

So, if we assume that Christie’s and Paul’s staffs are competent, they’ve had enough time since Disneyland broke to study the scene and counsel the candidates on message, the first conclusion I draw is that the vax statements have nothing to do with vax per se, and are dog whistles to the Rights-Firsters. This is Paul’s base, of course. But we might imagine Chris Christie is aiming to get enough cred with this group of voters to stay afloat during the early delegate contests.

BUT: there’s a better explanation than candidates jockeying for the early delegate count. And that would be that they’re jockeying for the early money.

Eric Lund #57 notes the Wall St. money doesn’t like Rand Paul, and eight years ago that would have indeed doomed his chances as a serious candidate. But we’re in the post-Citizens-United world now, and a single eccentric multi-billionare like Sheldon Adelson can keep a candidate floating into Super Tuesday. So my best guess is that what we’re seeing this week from the GOP hopefuls are auditions for Charles and David Koch — who are Rights-Firsters more than anything, and have a posse of like-minded lesser billionaire buddies associated with their Heartland Institute that will follow their lead on donations. They’ll be spreading their bets around through New Hampshire at least, not going all-in on one horse. But various contenders are angling for a bigger piece of that pie, while others are positioning themselves to get bigger pay-days from other big donors who don’t run with the Kochs.

The conservatroll pundits seem to be split on the ‘vax is a personal right tactic’, and we might take their messages to be addressed only partly to the candidtes, and even more to the big donors: don’t back the wrong horse! Breitbart.Com seems worried about what Brian Deer suggested in #1: that even having uttering the word “vaccine” could let the Dems tar a candidate with the anti-vax, disease-spreading brush. The Breitbarters are probably imagining Hilary’s attack ads spreading Jack Wolfson all over the U.S. as the 2016 version of Willie Horton. (HRC’s 2008-vintage autism dog-whistle is now deeply buried, and she’s Captain Vaccination! Tweeting last night, “”The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest”.) Limbaugh is probably calculating that pushing the Rights-Firster button will be long forgotten by next November.

Today, in addition to the note on Scott Walker in the NYT Orac mentioned, CBS News noted GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio made pro-vax statements, though (of course) they said nothing about Rand Paul. Rubio may have actually been speaking from the heart as he noted his grandfather had been disabled by polio as a child, and his position was ‘medical exemptions only’! Cruz went the Conservatroll and ChristianRight route by standing by religious exemptions, and using the occasion to bash ‘the liberal media’.

    Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday that the vaccination issue “is largely silliness stirred up by the media. Nobody reasonably thinks Chris Christie is opposed to vaccinating kids other than a bunch of reporters who want to write headlines.”

CBS hinted this may pose problems for Cruz with the RightsFirsters, and Paul was already on top of that with this charming take:

    He reminded listeners on Ingraham’s show that another potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had for a time issued an executive order mandating one vaccine for girls. “I don’t know if you remember when Gov. Perry made it mandatory to get, for a sexually transmitted disease, to have everybody have to take it,” Paul said. “While I think it’s a good idea to take the vaccine, I think that’s a personal decision for individuals to take and when they take it.” While Perry was running for president in 2012, he came under heavy criticism for the executive order, and later called it “a mistake.” Perry has not said anything recently on the topic.

In conclusion, imho this is all very early jockeying for position – mainly for money – and where any of these pols are over the next few months on vax and VPDs will probably depend entirely on how far the measles outbreak spreads and how long it stays in the news. (Do any of the doctors in the house know anything about projections? Does the CDC think they’ll be able to cut this off at some point? Don’t know? Not telling?) If the measles cases continue to increase, even Rand Paul isn’t going to touch vaccines with a 10-foot pole.

Eric may be right about Paul not wanting to risk his Senate Seat in 2016, and he’s young enough he might be positioning himself for 2020. But he’s obviously got a monster ego, so who knows? MOB wrote: “Paul is (hopefully) not considered a serious presidential candidate except by a small vocal group.” Well, Chris Matthews thinks Paul will win the nomination and have a good shot in the general. Being an Old (61), I recall an election year from my youth where a GOP candidate we all thought to be a looney-tunes extremist was getting the level of support Paul has now. We were pulling for this guy to get the nomination, as we were sure 3 or 4 guys in the field would be much stronger candidates in the general. The longer he stayed alive in the primaries, the more we rubbed our hands in glee. Just wait, we said, this guy has such nutty ideas the press will just tear him to shreds, and if he gets the nomination, he’ll be lucky to carry a single state outside the South. The guys name, of course, was Ronald Reagan.

Chris Christie? Fuhgedaboutit