Politics Skepticism/critical thinking

RFK Jr. is at it again, just not about autism this time

I’m probably going to regret posting this article, as I normally don’t venture much into these areas. Chalk it up to its being 6/6/06 and say that the Devil made me do it, but I plan on diving in. Besides, I feel the need for a brief change of pace.

Regular readers of this blog know my low opinion of RFK Jr. It began nearly a year ago when he published a deceptive conspiracy-mongering article about the alleged link between thimerosal and autism in Rolling Stone and last year, in which he completely misrepresented a conference held about vaccines as a massive conspiratorial coverup based on quote mining of the Simpsonwood Conference and misrepresentation of the Institute of Medicine report on vaccines. My opinion of him sank even lower when he dropped yet another big stinky turd on the blogosphere in which he tried on the flimsiest of evidence to postulate a grand conspiracy at the CDC to keep thimerosal in vaccines. To me, RFK Jr’s credibility is about as low as it could be without falling into negative numbers.

Now, it would appear, he’s at it again, this time about the 2004 election, which, according to RFK Jr, was “stolen.”

First, let’s get one thing straight. I don’t doubt that there were problems and probably some downright chicanery in Ohio last election, and, as regular readers of this blog know, although I tend to lean somewhat conservative, I’m no fan of President Bush. He’s done something that I thought no Republican could do: Drive me away from being a pretty reliable Republican voter in national elections. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Bush campaign engaged in dubious tactics. The question (which RFK Jr. answers emphatically in the affirmative) is whether the Republicans “stole” the election. How Kennedy comes by this answer seems to me to be typical of his previous M.O. when covering the alleged link between thimerosal and autism: cherry picking and misrepresentation of sources, coupled with quote mining.

Ironically, such a bastion of far right wing propaganda as (the very same online opinion magazine that trumpeted RFK, Jr.’s allegations regarding vaccines, has published a detailed rebuttal that picked up on things that I had wondered about regarding RFK Jr.’s use of sources and a few that I had not. Before I saw any rebuttals of RFK, Jr. by anyone else, one thing that I noticed right away was that RFK Jr.’s argument seems to hinge very heavily on the claims of a single statistician (and his group) who asserts that exit polls are almost never as incorrect as they were in the 2004 election, when exit polls showed Kerry ahead and then later Bush managed to win the election. It is argued that, statistically, the chances of a discrepancy between the exit poll numbers and the final election result being so large is infitessimally small, meaning that massive voter fraud must have taken place to produce such a result. If exit polls can be incorrect far more frequently than the statistician RFK Jr. quotes claims, then one major pillar of his argument falls. As Farhad Manjoo put it in

Kennedy relies on a band of researchers whose research on election fraud has long been called into question by experts. Especially in his section on Ohio’s exit poll, Kennedy reports his sources’ theories uncritically, even though many have been debunked, or have at least been the subject of tremendous debate among experts. Reading Kennedy’s article, you’d never guess that some of his star sources’ claims have fared quite badly when put to people in the field.

Sound familiar? Think Kennedy’s quoting of Mark and David Geier uncritically about the role of mercury in vaccines in causing autism, and you get the idea. I wondered how reliable RFK, Jr’s and his source’s claim of reliability for exit polls really was; something about it didn’t pass the “smell” test to me, but I didn’t have sufficient background to judge if my suspicions were correct. It turns out that polling experts have characterized RFK Jr.’s source’s faith in the accuracy of exit polls as misplaced:

U.S. exit polls have been wrong before. In fact, according to the Edison-Mitofsky report, they have shown a consistent discrepancy favoring the Democrats in every presidential election since 1988. And while the 2004 discrepancy was the highest ever, they were almost as far off in 1992. More specifically, the “within precinct error” (WPE) reported by Edison-Mitofsky showed differences favoring the Democrat of 2.2 points on the margin in 1988, 5.0 in 1992, 2.2 in 1996, 1.8 in 2000 and 6.5 in 2004 (see p. 34).

Go back and watch the classic political documentary, The War Room — or easier, go back and read my post from January 2005 — and you will see that that leaked exit polls on Election Day 1992 provided as distorted a view as those leaked in 2004. The difference was that the leaked exit polls in 1992 were known mostly to insiders and served to exaggerate the size of Bill Clinton’s eventual victory. Clinton won by less than those early exit polls suggested, but he still won the election, so there was little lingering outrage.

But that’s not all. Similarly, as he as done so many times in the past with regard to thimerosal and autism, Kennedy selectively quotes from a report but ignores important parts of it, such as its overall conclusion:

It’s worth noting, too, that a team of political scientists hired by the Democratic Party to investigate what happened in Ohio also used statistical analysis to search for any pattern of obvious shifts from Bush to Gore in the vote count. That group saw no evidence of fraud (PDF). “The tendency to vote for Kerry in 2004 was the same as the tendency to vote for the Democratic candidate for governor in 2002,” their report noted. “That the pattern of voting for Kerry is so similar to the pattern of voting for the Democratic candidate for governor in 2002 is, in the opinion of the team’s political science experts, strong evidence against the claim that widespread fraud systematically misallocated votes from Kerry to Bush.”

They added: “Kerry’s support across precincts also increased with the support for Eric Fingerhut, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, and decreased with the support for Issue 1 (ballot initiative opposing same-sex marriage) and increased with the proportion of African American votes. Again this is the pattern that would be expected and is not consistent with claims of widespread fraud that misallocated votes from Kerry to Bush.”

Kennedy cites parts of their report several times, but he does not mention this conclusion.

Does this sound familiar as well? It should. It’s the same sort of thing that Kennedy did when he quote mined the transcript of the Simpsonwood meeting to make it sound as though a massive coverup by the CDC to cover up a supposed link between mercury in vaccines and autism and then gave the Institute of Medicine report the same treatment to “prove” that the CDC supposedly paid off the IOM to bury this alleged link between mercury and autism.

Kennedy also engages in his time-honored ploy of misrepresenting something as ominous that is not really ominous if you know the context. For example, Kennedy claims that Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s right wing Secretary of State, engineered a “purge” of 300,000 voters in Ohio’s major cities, most of which are Democratic strongholds:

Claim: Blackwell engineered a “purge” of 300,000 voters in Ohio’s major cities.

Kennedy writes that “Blackwell permitted election officials in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo to conduct a massive purge of their voter rolls, summarily expunging the names of more than 300,000 voters who had failed to cast ballots in the previous two national elections. In Cleveland, which went five-to-one for Kerry, nearly one in four voters were wiped from the rolls between 2000 and 2004.”

He concedes that there were “legitimate reasons to clean up voting lists: Many of the names undoubtedly belonged to people who had moved or died. But thousands more were duly registered voters who were deprived of their constitutional right to vote — often without any notification — simply because they had decided not to go to the polls in prior elections.” Kennedy estimates that 10 percent of these 300,000 voters represented actual voters who were disenfranchised. He concludes that Blackwell’s actions put 30,000 votes in the missing column.

Reality: Scrubbing the voting rolls of people who hadn’t voted in prior elections isn’t an arbitrary move. It’s the law. Here’s the relevant section of the Ohio code, 3503.19, which states that a person who “fails to vote in any election during the period of two federal elections” shall have his registration “canceled.” To be sure, people who intended to vote and weren’t aware of this rule could have been cut from the rolls, and you might say that’s unfair. But that’s an argument for a better election law, and not proof that the purges were part of a Republican election-theft plot.

This sounds familiar, too. Indeed, it resembles how Kennedy took a simple letter from a pharmaceutical company trying to gain a lock on an exclusive contract for thimerosal-free vaccines and the CDC’s rejection of that company’s offer as “evidence” that the CDC was trying to keep thimerosal in vaccines, rather than the CDC’s true reason for refusing the offer, which was to safeguard U.S. vaccine supply (see handout) by not tying itself to a single supplier amid concerns that this company could not deliver on its promises. Blackwell may have done other questionable things with respect to the 2004 election in Ohio, but “purging” these voters from the rolls was not one of them.

The other problems with Kennedy’s report are numerous and have been covered well elsewhere (see below). My purpose in mentioning the specific examples above is to show that RFK, Jr’s techniques of “argument” regarding the “stealing” of the 2004 election are very similar the sorts of fallacious arguments that he has used before in arguing that the mercury in thimerosal causes autism and that there has been a massive coverup by the CDC and big pharma regarding this alleged link. In other words, he’s at it again, only this time over a different topic.

My conclusion? Like Michael Moore, RFK, Jr. is primarily an activist and propagandist, not an objective journalist. He latches on to a point of view and then presents only data that supports that point of view. He did it most outrageously when he wrote his infamous piece blaming vaccines for autism, and he appears to be doing it again almost as blatantly regarding the “stealing” of the 2004 election. Recall that RFK Jr.’s claims regarding the mercury in thimerosal as being the cause of autism on the surface sounded very persuasive because he ignored all the evidence that goes against his thesis. It’s when you dig deeper that you discover the flaws. Sadly, in his zeal to “prove” that the 2004 election was “stolen,” he distracts from the discussion of valid flaws in our system of voting, most of which are arguments for reform of our election laws, not convincing arguments that the 2004 election was “stolen.” Unfortunately, through his conspiracy-mongering, quote mining, and highly selective quoting of data, RFK, Jr. overstates his case to the point of destroying it.

For more rebuttals, some from decidedly non-conservative sources, see:

Election fraud? Or just bad math? (From one of our newest ScienceBloggers)
Here we go again
Was the 2004 election stolen? No.
Salon looks at Kennedy voter fraud article
Kennedy: Republicans Stole the Election
Is RFK Jr. right about exit polls?
Recounting Ohio (A Mother Jones article addressing many of the same points RFK Jr. used in his arguments)
Back to Ohio: The Rolling Stone Piece
Nice Try

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

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