Senator Rand Paul, facing a backlash over his comments that cast doubt on whether he believes vaccines can pose a health risk to children, asserted on Tuesday that he believes vaccinations are indeed safe and that all parents should have their children inoculated.

To prove his point, Mr. Paul invited a reporter with him to watch him get his booster vaccination for Hepatitis A…

“There’s 400 headlines now that say ‘Paul says vaccines cause mental disorders,’” he added. “That’s not what I said. I said I’ve heard of people who’ve had vaccines and they see a temporal association and they believe that.”…

Mr. Paul clarified on Tuesday that he believed the science was definitive on the matter and that vaccines are not harmful. As a physician himself (he is an ophthalmologist), he said he was irked to see his views characterized otherwise. “I think the science is clear that if you compare the risks of taking a vaccine to the ill effects of taking a vaccine, it’s overwhelming.”

Back in 2009, when Rand Paul was pursuing his long-shot bid to win Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary, he spoke to a small physicians’ association that has publicized discredited medical theories, including possible links between vaccines and autism and between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer.

At the time, Mr. Paul, an ophthalmologist, was no stranger to the group, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. He boasted at its annual meeting that he had been a member for more than two decades and that he relied on its research, statistics and views about the role of government in medicine…

Dr. Jane Orient, the executive director of AAPS, which is based in Tucson, said that she believed that the science behind vaccination risks was far from settled and that hundreds of parents had reported that their children had had severe deficits after an inoculation.

“We have a lot of observations that are not otherwise explainable,” said Dr. Orient, an internist. “I don’t think we can dismiss it out of hand.”

Where did Paul say he’d “heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccine?” Well, he was campaigning for Senate when the Tea Party was in full flower. The AAPS was a big presence at rallies against the Affordable Care Act, and at the time reporters asked why so many Republicans were associating with it. It was a controversy when Nevada’s Sharron Angle appeared at an AAPS event, and when Paul did the same, the Courier-Journal’s Joseph Gerth dove deep into its archives. Among the greatest hits:

The AAPS’s website ran a story asking whether Barack Obama’s charisma could be explained by hypnotic power, positing that his campaign logo “might just be the letter ‘O,’ but it also resembles a crystal ball, a favorite of hypnotists.”…

The trove was overflowing. The AAPS had even published research on the autism-vaccine “link” from David and Mark Geier, a father-son medical team that had come to argue for the use of Lupron, a hormone-suppressing drug typically used for chemical castration…

Paul has not remained so close to the AAPS. “I don’t believe he is a member anymore,” said spokesman Brian Darling.

As a matter of history, Paul is flat-out wrong. The first flu vaccines were developed in the late 1930s. And various statements he has made (including the recent CNBC quote) implying that vaccines cause “many tragic cases” of kids developing “mental disorders” flies in the face of the leading science on the issue. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey noted yesterday, the supposed link between vaccines and autism has been definitively rebuked. If Paul is nodding to that, he’s wrong. And as Bailey notes, in the CNBC show, Paul called vaccines “one of the biggest medical breakthroughs we’ve had.”…

There are at least two issues under consideration when we talk about vaccines: What does the science say and whether they should be mandatory (and which ones and under what circumstances). Those are separate questions and it sounds as if both Christie and Paul understand that in a way the media doesn’t.

I say this as someone who has gotten my own kids vaccinated against all the childhood diseases and a variety of less-likely maladies as well. And someone who is far more interested in what presidential candidates of any party or ideology think about issues such as spending and debt, civil liberties and NSA surveillance, the drug war, and foreign policy and military intervention (Paul’s non-interventionist bent is the true wellspring of the Washington Free Beacon’s interest in the candidate).

None of this means that Paul—and Christie—should be playing fast and loose with the best knowledge on this or any other topic. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to up their games not just in terms of presentation but in terms of depth of thought.

When Mr Paul says “the state doesn’t own your children”, he seems to be saying that the state has no standing to override or undermine the authority of parents by telling them what to do with their kids. The language of ownership is unfortunate. We don’t own our children. Even if we did, however, it wouldn’t follow that ownership implies that the state can’t justifiably tell us what to do with our property. I literally own my dog. He is chattel. (Sorry, Winston!) I can have him euthanised pretty well whenever I like. (Don’t worry, Winston!) Nevertheless, I am required by law to have him vaccinated for rabies, and rightly so. This does not imply that the state owns my dog. Property in the real world always comes attached with all sort of liabilities that smooth the tensions between private control and public welfare…

When Mr Paul says that “parents own their children”, he is suggesting that children exist in the bubble of their parents’ rights to self-determination, beyond the reach of the state’s coercion. And that pretty well settles the matter. But what if people, in the glory of their liberty, choose not to contribute to necessary public goods? Here we see Mr Paul making the standard libertarian move of denying that compulsion is really necessary. “For most of our history [immunisation] has been voluntary,” he said. “So I don’t think I’m arguing for anything out of the ordinary. We’re arguing for what most of our history has had”. After suggesting that raising awareness of the benefits of vaccines might be a good job for the new Surgeon General, Mr Paul said, “I don’t think there’s anything extraordinary about resorting to freedom”…

One can always say that because home-schooling is in principle an option, that parents are not required to send their children to school, and thus are not required to vaccinate their children. So freedom reigns. But then one can also say that, strictly speaking, the income tax is voluntary, since it’s up to us whether or not we bring in any income. One wonders if Mr Paul would agree. In any event, I would suggest that the vaccination rate that has, until recently, sufficed to keep the measles at bay, is not well described as the the result of “resorting to freedom”. It is the result of a series of nudges which, depending on the state, are more or less coercive. Moreover, it is clear that the states in which group immunity is breaking down are those that are closest to “resorting to freedom”; the least voluntary regimes have most effectively secured this vital public good.

Had Paul and Christie, like the White House, restricted their respective comments to parental choice, a case could then be made for the media treating the Republicans unfairly. Unfortunately, both men took it a step further into the dangerous territory of offering credibility to those who question the safety of childhood vaccines…

Long story short: giving any cover to the anti-vaxx crowd not only ignores facts and history, it risks dropping immunization rates into this red zone. High-profile politicians and likely presidential candidates have a special responsibility to ensure they do the opposite of fueling this madness…

It’s no secret I’m no Chris Christie fan but I have nothing but admiration for Rand Paul. Regardless, I don’t think either is anti-science or anti-vaccine. What they said, though was unattractive pandering, and worse, irresponsible and dangerous to public health.

Republican voters should also question the political judgment of anyone who walks into this kind of media trap.

Vaccine opposition also finds roots in a dislike of government micromanaging our lives. Government tells us what light bulbs we can have, it forces us to buy health insurance, it requires permits and inspections before we can erect a Rubbermaid tool shed, it makes our showers and toilets weaker, and it bans large soft drinks (except at 7-Eleven).

When government weighs in on these matters, where it has no legitimate role and little or no scientific basis, it fosters a skepticism and opposition to government interventions. That skepticism persists even when the science and the moral authority are present.

The elites — through overreach, cronyism and incompetence — have lost the public trust. One casualty might be public health.

Being pro-government has nothing to do with favoring big government. It is simply about supporting government in its core functions — what appears in the preamble of the Constitution, and in the laws and constitutions of the other English-speaking countries under the affectionate rubric of “POGG”: “peace, order, and good government.”…

Ever since the 1960s, the predominant elites have had an underlying, or overarching, countercultural tone: organic, anti-science, anti-corporate, and anti-government. PBS TV outlets plug hours of infomercials selling holistic healing and alternative lifestyles and churning out conspiracy theories against traditional Western science and medicine. Often their gurus have been exposed as quacks; often they have cult-like audiences; always they instruct people on multiple psychological levels as to what they must say and believe to get social approval in the group. The devil in their scenario is always the same: the world of traditional governments and markets and Western lifestyles and doctors. PBS outlets peddle this, despite facing criticism for it, because it is what is loved by their audience subculture — elites, elitists, and would-be holders-on to the elite. It is a solid measure of who is really who in this matter. It tells us clearly what is the “base” for the anti-vaccine movement.

Exemptions from vaccines show statistically the same ideological base. Only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, allow no exemptions from mandatory vaccination; both are red states, culturally deep red. California, the source of the current outbreak, has icon status for its countercultural blueness. Most red states do allow exemptions for religious beliefs. But it is mostly blue states that allow exemptions also for personal beliefs, i.e. any views at all — and they in fact on average exempt a considerably higher percentage of children from MMR vaccination, despite being richer and more urban.

We may be grateful for the media’s self-protective PR instincts in turning pro-vaccine in this instance. They have for the moment begun doing a little to protect the public, belatedly, from the consequences of their own ideological foibles. They have met the enemy, and it is them, even if they cannot face this fact.

The prestige of the old elites was undermined by their excesses, and the prestige of the new elites — scientists, “experts,” politicians — has been undermined by their adventuring. One of the illuminating things about Twitter is its almost unique power to illustrate that people who are geniuses in their own fields — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joyce Carol Oates — are ordinary imbeciles like the rest of us when they venture very far beyond them. The politicization of science has been particularly destructive. Recall Stephen Schneider’s essay in Discover in which he argued that scientists have a moral duty to lie about climate change, because the truth is so complicated as to prevent the emergence of the political consensus he believes is necessary to address the issue: “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Economists, physicians, and social scientists of all descriptions have been seduced by the same line of thought. And of course the scientists and economists have been spectacularly wrong about any number of things that they believed — and assured the public — were absolutely certain. It does not take too much familiarity with Vox to detect that expert consensus is very often a veneer covering other motives.

And scientists and other scholars are at the high end of the credibility curve. On the other end we have — what? Celebrity culture? The familiar faces in Washington? Chris Hayes partly considered this in his disappointing Twilight of the Elites, but he is so ideologically blinkered by the (non)issue of economic inequality that he fails to appreciate the darker and more terrifying truth: Social authority is indeed in decline — and it deserves to be.

Anti-elitist rhetoric is very much in vogue on the right at the moment, because our elites are perceived — not without good reason — as being unreliable, destructive, self-serving, prone to daft and voguish enthusiasms, and ungrounded in any meaningful moral tradition. But we haven’t found a good replacement for them yet, either. Resistance to vaccination is a small part of that, albeit a small part with potentially large and destructive consequences.

In the battle between the vaxxers and the Vox-ers, the only winner is chaos.