The Five Biggest Science Gaffes By Politicians

Todd Akin

Photo: YouTube

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo) is in hot water with the public — and his own political party — for claiming that pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is rare because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

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Akin’s extremely non-scientific beliefs (which he has since recanted) put him in the company of a number of politicians who have made scientific claims that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

Michele Bachmann's vaccine blunder

After a Republican debate in September 2011, then-presidential nominee hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann went on Fox News and NBC with an anecdote warning against Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

'There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate,' Bachmann told Fox's Greta Van Susteren. 'She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine. There are very dangerous consequences.'

Bachmann's comments reflect anti-vaccine notions found on both the political right and left, but they don't appear to reflect reality. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keep a national database of adverse vaccine reactions. For Gardasil, the most common problems are fainting (from the jab), pain and redness at the site of the injection, and dizziness, nausea and headache. There have not been reports of mental retardation caused by the vaccine.

Christine O'Donnell and the mice with human brains

Sometimes, political science-gaffes spring from misremembered news bites. That seems to be the case for Christine O'Donnell, a Tea Party favourite who, during an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor in 2007, made a strange case against cloning and stem-cell research.

'American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains,' O'Donnell said. 'So they're already into this experiment.'

Not quite. It seems the research O'Donnell was referring to was a 2005 study in which fetal mice were injected with human embryonic stem cells. The mice were born with human brain cells in their skulls, but certainly not human brains -- and there was no 'cross-breeding' involved. The mouse brains were more than 99 per cent mouse cells, and the interloping neurons did not change the rodents' behaviour. The ultimate goal of the study was to develop stem-cell treatments for neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Tom Coburn and breast implants

Barack Obama's autism waffling

During the presidential campaign of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama struggled with the science of vaccines and autism. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Obama told the crowd, 'We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines … The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.'

While Obama avoided touting a link between vaccines and autism, his statement on 'inconclusive' research doesn't pass muster. There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, despite multiple studies that attempted to find such a link. In fact, the study that first touted this link was retracted in 2010 by the journal The Lancet, after an independent council concluded that the study was fatally flawed. For example, the 12 children in the study were cherry-picked by the researchers rather than being an arbitrary sample of patients as the paper had claimed.

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