Antivaccine nonsense Autism Medicine Politics Pseudoscience Skepticism/critical thinking

My last word on RFK, Jr…for now

Seen on the discussion boards of that other repository of antivaccinationist wingnuttery (other than The Huffington Post),, a commenter by the ‘nym of naupakamama exults over the possible appointment of antivaccine wingnut Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to run the Environmental Protection Agency:

We could have a strong anti-vaccine voice leading the EPA! I am so excited!

If anyone doubts that the antivaccine fringe views RFK, Jr. as one of their own, the rejoicing going on in antivaccine circles should put those doubts to rest. In more reality-based circles, including very liberal ones predisposed to like RFK, Jr.’s environmentalism, the reaction has been much more negative. This is not surprising, because RFK, Jr. has indeed drunk deeply of the Kool Aid of pseudoscience when it comes to mercury in vaccines to the point of giving rousing talks to antivaccine rallies, and he’s been doing this for at least three years.

But why? Why did he take on this cause?

As those of you who’ve chided me that he’s an environmentalist and that the EPA doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines and that it’s possible that RFK, Jr. can be perfectly reasonable on the environment even though he’s a raging loony when it comes to vaccines. Of course, the principle of Crank Magnetism suggests that such compartmentalization is probably far weaker than RFK, Jr. supporters hope (he has shown a tendency to play fast and loose with science even with environmental issues), and there is the consideration of appearance. Even if RFK, Jr. were able to completely compartmentalize his vaccine views and his environmental advocacy, for a President-Elect who promised to be “pro-science” and to end the rampant politicization of science that occurred in the Bush Administration, appointing someone who’s so willing to let his ideology trump science in such a public and dramatic fashion to a post running an agency whose policies must be based on good science would be a serious self-inflicted wound to a self-proclaimed “pro-science President.”

Fortunately, as a number of you also pointed out, the reports of RFK, Jr. very well may have been a publicity campaign orchestrated by his supporters to get President-Elect Obama to consider him to run the EPA or Department of the Interior. Certainly that reports of his being considered for Secretary of the Interior surfaced on Election Day and then reports about his potentially being considered to head the EPA appeared on the day after Barack Obama’s election victory is suspicious. Certainly, I hope that that’s all these reports were and that RFK, Jr.’s wingnut tendencies with regard to vaccines have finally come back to bite him in the ass. People who might have been vaguely aware of RFK, Jr.’s antivaccine advocacy and all the lying and conspiracy-mongering he’s done to promote the scientifically discredited notion that mercury in vaccines cause autism but were not aware just how bad it is have had their noses rubbed into RFK, Jr.’s crankery and many have been justifiably appalled. All one has to do is to watch the YouTube video of his speech to the Jenny McCarthy-led mob of antivaccinationists that descended on Washington, DC in June to spew their pseudoscience at our legislators. If my posting on this issue played any significant role at all in raising the alarm about RFK, Jr.’s pseudoscientific tendencies, I am content.

But back to why RFK, Jr. may have latched on to this particular cause.

The reason, I believe, is probably because RFK, Jr. clearly likes to see himself as an advocate for the downtrodden, people victimized by corporations polluting their land and air, people without the means to fight back. In the mercury militia, he found what he thought to be another such group. If you watch the video of his speech, you’ll see that he makes a point of he mentioning that several mothers who believed that mercury in vaccines cause autism had approached them with their ideas and that they had pointed out how they couldn’t get any traction from the CDC. My speculation (albeit, I think, a reasonable one) is that because RFK, Jr. correctly saw environmental mercury as a bad thing that could result in health problems, not being too savvy with regard to science he was easily seduced by the idea that mercury in vaccines could cause autism. Instead of dispassionately looking at the science to see if there was anything behind it, he looked at it from the point of view of an advocate and, not surprisingly, found the evidence he wanted to support the conclusion he was predisposed to support by his history and prior history of advocacy. Add to that RFK, Jr.’s well-documented tendency to see dark conspiracies everywhere between corporations and the government over the environment, throw in the bogus “conspiracy” over the Simpsonwood Conference, and–voilà!–he was an instant convert to the cult of the mercury militia.

Unfortunately, RFK, Jr. is apparently unable to distinguish between people who are indeed downtrodden and abused by the corporations and government and suffer health problems as a result (who do need a champion) and those who think they are abused by corporations and the government but are not (who need, more than anything else, a serious reality check more than a champion). His seeing himself as a champion of the abused predisposed him to believe the pseudoscience of the mercury militia, and he hasn’t looked back since he first made his splash in 2005. That RFK, Jr. does indeed view himself this way was demonstrated very well in a post he wrote for The Huffington Post last year, in which he defended Katie Wright and the quackery of chelation therapy:

The poisonous public attacks on Katie Wright this week–for revealing that her autistic son Christian (grandson of NBC Chair Bob Wright), has recovered significant function after chelation treatments to remove mercury — surprised many observers unfamiliar with the acrimonious debate over the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal. But the patronizing attacks on the mothers of autistic children who have organized to oppose this brain-killing poison is one of the most persistent tactics employed by those defending Thimerosal against the barrage of scientific evidence linking it to the epidemic of pediatric neurological disorders, including autism. Mothers of autistics are routinely dismissed as irrational, hysterical, or as a newspaper editor told me last week, “desperate to find the reason for their children’s illnesses,” and therefore, overwrought and disconnected.


Many of them [mercury militia mothers] approached the link skeptically and only through dispassionate and diligent investigation became convinced that Thimerosal-laced vaccines destroyed their children’s brains. As a group they have sat through hundreds of meetings and scientific conferences, and studied research papers and medical tests. They have networked with each other at meetings and on the Web. Along the way they have stoically endured the abuse routinely heaped upon them by the vaccine industry and public health authorities and casual dismissal by reporters and editors too lazy to do their jobs.


The CDC and IOM base their defense of Thimerosal on these flimsy studies, their own formidable reputations, and their faith that journalists won’t take the time to critically read the science. The bureaucrats are simultaneously using their influence, energies and clout to derail, defund and suppress any scientific study that may verify the link between Thimerosal and brain disorders…The federal agencies have refused to release the massive public health information accumulated in their Vaccine Safety Database (VSD) apparently to keep independent scientists from reviewing evidence that could prove the link. They are also muzzling or blackballing scientists who want to conduct such studies.

Get out the tinfoil hats, everyone! Not only do those of us who argue for science hate mothers, but we’re either part of a vast conspiracy, too “lazy” to do our research, or “muzzled” by the CDC and big pharma.

I hope that this is the last thing I have to write about RFK, Jr. for a while. The man is so prone to see conspiracies everywhere that I sincerely wonder if any time a mail order company fails to deliver its product on time to him he starts thinking that the government and his enemies conspired to intercept it before it arrived at his house. However, looking at his prior advocacy, I can now see how his love of standing up for “the people” against the powerful could have led him astray when it comes to thimerosal in vaccines. The problem is that not all groups claiming to be downtrodden are, in fact, downtrodden, and not all groups claiming a government conspiracy against them are, in fact, victims of a conspiracy. As hard as it is to believe, there are times when the government and corporations are not conspiring and are actually closer to the side of good science than “the people.” The case of antivaccine activists is just one such time.

My RFK, Jr./Department of the Interior/EPA posts:

  1. Why did someone have to kill my election buzz?
  2. Say it ain’t so, Barack! Say you ain’t seriously considering Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to run the EPA!
  3. Contact the Obama transition team to tell them why Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a truly bad choice for any science-based government post
  4. My last word on RFK, Jr…for now

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.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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