Which is good, according to him, because journalists, according to him, are afraid to read science. Even ones with PhDs in science like Phil Plait and Laura Helmuth (health and science editor of Slate).
As RFK Jr. explained, “journalists get their information from government officials who are saying there’s no problem. Not one of them has picked up the multitude of studies that say thimerosal is the most potent brain killer imaginable.” When RFK Jr. challenged the university scientist about a study of the biological activity of thimerosal in vitro, which “everybody accepts because journalists hadn’t read it,” the scientist said, “ ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right about that.’ He backpedaled.” That’s because “now he was dealing with somebody who wasn’t afraid to read science.”
I talked to the scientist, who would prefer I not use his name because he gets death threats from unhinged anti-vaxxers. He said, “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”
RFK Jr is an anti-vaxxer. He called up Slate to harangue Helmuth at great length about a piece Phil Plait wrote for Slate last week
pointing out that the idea that vaccines cause autism is a crackpot theory that has been thoroughly debunked, that it is dangerous, and that RFK Jr. is one of its most effective proponents.
But RFK Jr knows better, because crackpot theories must be right, because they are crackpot. See?
RFK Jr. likens people who believe that vaccines cause autism to scientists whose discoveries were shunned by their small-minded peers. “I watched this happen to Rachel Carson, who I knew, who came to my home. My uncle President Kennedy introduced me to her. … She was condemned in the press by Time, Life, Look, US News & World Report, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. She was totally marginalized as a kook. My uncle, I’m proud to say, John Kennedy, went against his own Agriculture Department and vindicated her.”
Aha, you see? This is what I was saying last week, about the flattering idea that having enemies is a sign that you’re courageously right. No, it isn’t. People who are wrong have enemies too. RFK Jr is just confused here. Having a lot of peers saying your claims are completely wrong is not an infallible sign that you’re right. It could be all those peers who are right and not you. Calling them small-minded doesn’t change that.
William Souder, who wrote the fantastic Carson biography On a Farther Shore and has debunked conspiracy theories about her, says that “generally, Carson and Silent Spring were treated fairly and with respect by the press. The few negative reviews and skeptical articles were far outnumbered by the positive responses.” As with most of what Kennedy said, a kernel of truth is distorted into something malevolent.
The underdog narrative is powerful. So is fear of chemicals. So is the desire for a simple solution to a complicated problem. And conspiracy theories are alluring. For some people, it’s deeply rewarding to believe that you and your fellow conference attendees are the only ones who know the real story behind the moon landing, Area 51, or the obvious example. Like doomsday cultists after the world doesn’t end, they misinterpret every new bit of information to make it fit into their existing worldview.
The underdog narrative is powerful and self-flattering – so be aware of that and be very very cautious. Oh, hell, be cautious of self-flattering narratives no matter what.
There’s a long history of conspiracy theories about vaccines, and it’s sometimes easier to recognize the paranoia from afar. In parts of Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries, people are convinced that a polio eradication campaign is a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children. They know it is: They have it on good authority from leaders with famous names.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s elaborate conspiracy theory is just as delusional and dangerous. Rather than accepting the findings of the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kennedy says the scientists are lying. He says vaccine-makers are intentionally poisoning kids and giving them autism. Only he and his fellow activists know the truth because journalists, although they may report aggressively on the National Security Agency, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency, are cowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Good one. Oh those brutal thugs at the CDC!
Kennedy said that he is “very much pro-vaccine” and that “vaccines have saved millions and millions of lives.” They will save even more lives if he and his colleagues stop spreading fear and misinformation about them. Kennedy is a passionate guy with practically unique name recognition, powerful connections, and the ability to command attention. He could reverse the course of the anti-vaccine movement today if he announced that his concern about vaccines had been well-intentioned,
but that research has shown that vaccines don’t cause autism after all.
All too reminiscent of Prince Charles, isn’t it – another abuser of his fame and name-recognition who pronounces on medical issues despite having no medical training or scientific education. Talk about privilege…