Robert F Kennedy Jr isn’t afraid to read science

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…


  1. screechymonkey says

    Did you know that his uncle was President Kennedy? He probably should have mentioned that a couple more times.

  2. says

    Most of the families in the church where I grew up were against modern medicine–including my own folks. (Thankfully, they still believed in vaccination…but also in homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology and chiropractic. To this day, my mom believes she can turn breech babies with sugar water and a foot massage.) I was close friends (still am, actually) with a girl who had 16 siblings. Her mom bought into the whole quiverfull package…homeschooled them all, hadn’t had a period in 19 years because she was either pregnant or nursing, natural homebirths and no modern medicine (my friend was twelve before she ever went to a doctor).

    So of course she didn’t vaccinate. And when whooping cough ran through that house, she didn’t take the kids to the doctor. She treated them with homeopathic “medicine”. And when that didn’t work, folk remedies from old books. All of the children lived through it, which is something of a minor miracle, but I came over to help when almost the whole house was down sick. She had newborn twin girls at the time, and needed extra arms because her regular nannies and maids (her older daughters) were sick, too. I don’t know how the twins managed to avoid getting sick, maybe the antibodies they got because she was nursing, maybe luck, I dunno. But I sat with her other kids, the youngest 16 months old, a couple toddlers, and let me tell you–I’ve experienced few things in life as heart-wrenching and horrifying as listening to little kids with whooping cough. Listening to those babies struggle to breath, in so much pain but without enough air to even cry, gasping and terrified and hurting. And it was so pointless, so utterly unnecessary! Fuck, it still makes me furious, and it’s been over 15 years.

    That wasn’t the only reason CPS should have removed the children from that home* but in my opinion, that should have been enough. And now, if I ever saw a parent doing that to her children, I would report her. However, it still wouldn’t be considered child abuse, according to a social worker I talked with. At least in California. If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would changing the laws regarding religious objections to medical treatment for children.

    *For one, my friend (who is by no means unintelligent) didn’t read until she was eleven, because with so many other children, her mom didn’t have time to teach her, and besides, she was needed to help with meals/housework/child care. And her Mom straight up said it was more important to educate the boys, who would need to provide for a family, than to educate the girls, who would be (hopefully) married as soon as possible and spend their lives taking care of the family. Heck, having them cook and clean and watch their siblings was far more important schooling than anything they would get out of a book. Makes me want to SCREAM.

  3. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    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.

    This is the most important point. The danger of self-flattery. It doesn’t get cited explicitly enough–thanks for that.

  4. Funny Diva says

    journalists, although they may report aggressively on the National Security Agency, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency

    Ahahahahaha! Hahahahaha! Oh, stop, my sides are killing me!
    Wait, wut? Which (mainstream) journalists are these reporting aggressively on the NSA, DoD and CIA, exactly?
    Oh, I see, “may”. Yes, they “may”, but most of them DON’T. That or Helmuth (?) is referring to non-mainstream and/or non-USAdian journalists.

    Sorry to go OT, but the idea that those agencies are under some sort of ruthless scrutiny from the Third Estate is ludicrous. It’s up there with “Liberal Media”.

  5. Funny Diva says

    Thanks for posting this, Ophelia.
    The zombie lies trotted out by the anti-vaxxers infuriate me. As do the high-profile, scientifically (and willfully) ignorant anti-vaxxers who keep trotting them out.

    Also, seconding Josh, Official Spokesgay’s points vis a vis self-flattery.

  6. says

    Thanks FD. I replied to your first comment before seeing your second. Yes same here – people who use their celebrity irresponsibly. Infuriates me.

  7. says

    That’s a kind of self-flattery itself, if you think about it. “I’m a celebrity, therefore I must be important and knowledgeable in proportion to my celebrity, so it will be great if I tell people not to get their children vaccinated, because I’m too famous to be wrong about anything.”

  8. machintelligence says

    Hell, you don’t need to even be a real celebrity. Remember the commercials that began with the disclaimer “I’m not a doctor,but I play one on TV.”

  9. Ronixis says

    One thing I’d like to add is that if vaccines did increase the chance of autism, I would still recommend them. The things vaccinations prevent are clearly harmful in ways that autism is not.

  10. Ysanne says

    I think they’re trying to establish some credibility in the psychology area: I’ve recently spotted a Catholic magazine at my in-laws place that was waxing lyrical about how supposedly faith and church stuff and literally god’s help are soooo vital to make actual therapy against mental illness work.

  11. R Johnston says


    Nah. They’re trying to destroy the credibility of psychology and psychiatry within the catholic area, if not within the broader christian and religious areas. The difference matters a whole lot.

  12. says

    Hell, you don’t need to even be a real celebrity. Remember the commercials that began with the disclaimer “I’m not a doctor,but I play one on TV.”

    machintelligence, are you implying that Niel Patrick Harris is not a real celebrity?



    There is definitely a lot of crap science journalism out there. This is because there is a lot of crap journalism out there, period, largely due to how screwed up the news industry is right now.

    Anyway, any idiot can read science. You take a page of writing about science and you look at the words. Whether or not someone *understands* what they’re reading is actually a different question than whether or not someone is merely engaging in the task of reading itself.

  13. Dave Maier says

    Re: “fear of chemicals”: some of you no doubt remember that chemical corporation’s (Dow was it?) TV spot, with a running river in the background (H2O, you see): “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.” Priceless.

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