Science, pseudoscience, misinformation, and disinformation about COVID-19 have been dominating the topics of this blog for such a long time that it’s seeming like an increasingly long time since I’ve written much about the topics that used to be the main drivers of this blog; e.g., antivaccine misinformation, cancer quackery, science denial, and just plain science. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in so much pseudoscience, misinformation, and disinformation that is even more direct a threat to public health than the antivaccine movement that I’ve largely been concentrating on it since March, with relatively few posts that are “purely” about other topics. Examples include conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was created in a lab, that 5G networks and/or influenza vaccines increase susceptibility to COVID-19, that masks don’t work to slow the spread of COVID-19 (they do), that COVID-19 is far less deadly than health authorities have estimated, that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for coronavirus, and the like have dominated this blog for nearly five months. Also, to the big surprise of many but unsurprising to those of us who’ve been paying attention to the antivaccine movement for years, a confluence between the antivaccine movement and the antimask/COVID-19 denialist movement and the antivaccine movement, which brings us to Alec Baldwin and antivaccine activist and leader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.:
In a public health development that one can safely characterize as “not great,” actor Alec Baldwin appeared on Instagram Live on Thursday with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a formerly respected environmentalist who’s been best known in recent years for promoting severe vaccine misinformation. As Baldwin listened obligingly, Kennedy promoted a variety of wildly false claims about vaccine safety, and speculative concerns about the quarantine measures being taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Baldwin’s Instagram account has 1.8 million followers, and the video, in less than two hours, garnered more than 43,000 views. This is not precisely what we need right now.
At the outset of their talk, Baldwin told Kennedy that he’s been watching Kennedy’s videos on vaccines for “years,” which is also, on its face, not great. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the son of assassinated U.S. senator Bobby Kennedy, spent years doing important work advocating for issues like water safety with the Waterkeeper Alliance and with the organization Riverkeeper. He and Baldwin have previously discussed fracking on WNYC.
Beginning in 2005, however, with the publication of a now-infamous story called “Deadly Immunity,” Kennedy began promoting “egregious” misinformation about vaccines, as science writer Seth Mnookin put it in one story outlining his long history of misleading claims.
Great. So Alec Baldwin appears to be the latest antivaccine (or at least antivaccine-sympathetic or antivaccine-credulous) celebrity to have outed himself. Also, just as an aside, my deconstruction of Deadly Immunity was the very first post I ever wrote that went viral. Basically, RFK Jr.’s article, published simultaneously by Rolling Stone and Salon.com (to their eternal shame) is a huge conspiracy theory about how “they” (the CDC) “knew” that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal used until 2002 in several childhood vaccines caused autism but covered up the evidence. Since then, RFK Jr. has been a full-on antivaccine conspiracy theorist who spreads misinformation and disinformation (and outright lies) about vaccines, his claims to be “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding. He’s even spread anti-MMR lies to places suffering from horrific measles outbreaks. Unfortunately, he’s often given mainstream, platforms by either antivaccine celebrities like Alec Baldwin or by hack journalists looking for “both sides” stories.
I wandered over to his Instagram feed and found this:
Depressingly, right next to it, I found this:
Kurt Andersen has written one of the essential books that you should read. It was his last book, not the one he’s promoting now (which might be great too, but I haven’t read it yet). I’m referring to Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, a book that goes back 500 years to show how nothing we’re experiencing now is new and how the “fake news” moment we’re all living through is actually the ultimate expression of our national character, amplified by social media and our current grifter-in-chief President. As Andersen pointed out, America was founded by wishful dreamers, magical thinkers, and true believers, by hucksters and their suckers, and fantasy is embedded in our nation’s DNA. So Baldwin will be going from interviewing the ultimate huckster and antivaccine grifter, basically the sort of person that Fantasyland is about, to interviewing Andersen.
Here’s the Instagram Live link:
And here’s a YouTube link:
I watched much of the video, but not the whole thing, as it was quite painful to watch. Amusingly, the first couple of minutes of the video are taken up with Baldwin and his wife trying to figure out how to get RFK Jr. to show up on the video feed. When RFK Jr. finally does show up, he’s sitting in what appears to be a library or his office, with lots of books, very likely included to give the impression to Baldwin and his viewers that he is a Very Serious Person and Not At All A Crank. I mean, look at all the books in his office! Countering that impression is the way that RFK Jr.’s camera isn’t straight, leaving the whole room appearing a bit askew. There’s a metaphor in there about Baldwin and RFK Jr. somewhere.
You have to endure a bit of annoying small talk and chit-chat before you get to the antivaccine disinformation. Particularly annoying is RFK Jr.’s claim that he was “dragged kicking and screaming” into his antivaccine activism. (Obviously, he didn’t call it that, but, let’s be honest, that’s what RFK Jr. does, promote antivaccine disinformation and pseudoscience.). It’s well-trod revisionist history that RFK Jr.’s been repeating over and over whenever interviewed and asked about how he first got involved in his activism. Depressingly, once again, it shows how easy it is for an environmentalist who once did good work can apply principles of environmental science incorrectly to other areas where they have no expertise. As a reminder, to hear RFK Jr. tell it to Alec Baldwin, as a result of RFK Jr.’s activism over mercury in the water and the environment (good), women who believed that thimerosal in vaccines had caused their child’s autism started showing up at his speeches and approaching him, and that’s how he got interested in the situation.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is very strong in RFK Jr., too, as he went on from this story to start bragging about how, even though he’s not a scientist, he’s very “comfortable” reading scientific studies and is very good at it. Obviously, that’s not true, given his history. What RFK Jr. has long done is to cherry pick studies, ignore disconfirming studies, and spin studies to say things that they don’t really say (or at last to ignore high levels of uncertainty). In any event, this first segment is a virtual “greatest hits” of antivaccine tropes about mercury, as Anna Merlan notes:
During the conversation with Baldwin, Kennedy repeated several of his greatest hits, including claiming that vaccines historically contained unsafe levels of mercury, and that the flu shot is still full of mercury. (The respected physician and vaccine researcher Paul Offitt is one of dozens of people who have outlined that Kennedy is conflating two kinds of mercury. Ethylmercury is what the body produces when it metabolizes thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, and leaves the body quickly. It is quite, quite different from methylmercury, which can be toxic to human beings at high levels of exposure.) Kennedy rejects the difference between the different kinds of mercury, and told Baldwin, “There’s no good kind of mercury.”
Kennedy rejects a lot of science about vaccines. He also seems oblivious to the fact that mercury was removed from childhood vaccines more than 18 years ago. That’s a natural experiment. If thimerosal really did cause autism, you’d expect that, long before now, autism prevalence would have declined markedly. After all, a child born in 2002, the year the last childhood vaccines containing thimerosal expired, would be turning 18 this year. Basically, the idea that thimerosal in vaccines caused the “autism epidemic” is a long-failed hypothesis. Of course, RFK Jr. has implicitly admitted that by his behavior, removing the word “mercury” from his antivaccine group and renaming it Children’s Health Defense.
Basically, this interview is a Gish Gallop of antivaccine disinformation, with Baldwin serving as the friendly interviewer, with no challenge to any of the pseudoscience, misinformation, and disinformation being spewed by RFK Jr. This is also sometimes known as “firehosing.” It’s a technique that seeks to overwhelm with the volume of misinformation. So many studies (often obscure), claims, and facts are thrown at the viewer/listener that it’s impossible even to focus on one enough to refute it (or at least question it) before the next—and the next and the next and the next—are thrown out. As Steve Novella notes, there are two kinds of firehosers. The first is relatively innocent and is just repeating misinformation and disinformation that he’s heard or read on social media. The second is intentional, and designed to make a response or rebuttal very difficult or impossible. (Guess which category I think that RFK Jr. falls under?) Listen to Steve:
At this end the firehoser knows what they are doing. They are not intellectually lazy, they are intellectually dishonest. They know they are spouting falsehoods, or are indifferent to their truth status. The purpose of their communication is not to persuade, but to confuse and befuddle, even to distract. Go ahead, deal with all these lies. I can pile them on endlessly. While you’re busy doing that, I will make my emotional and ideological appeals. I will build a compelling narrative, and you will lose before you even realize you are playing the wrong game.
In fairness, you could argue that true believers aren’t lying and that maybe RFK Jr. isn’t lying. Maybe he believes the BS that he’s spewing in such copious quantities, such as the claim that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe”:
Kennedy went on to claim that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe,” a common canard in the anti-vax movement. (The law professor and vaccine policy expert Dorit Reiss has written about how vaccine skeptics frequently misconstrue what that term means; “Unavoidably unsafe” products are products that are so valuable—that have so many benefits—that the risk associated with their use is justified.”) He also claimed that vaccines “are the only medical product that aren’t safety tested,” which is an outrageous lie. Vaccines are among the most tested medical products on the planet, and are tested in thousands of volunteers before being licensed.
I’ve written about this as well.
Baldwin also nods and basically agrees with RFK Jr. when he lies about the Vaccine Court, repeating common antivaccine
talking points lies about the court.
Of course, RFK Jr.’s antivaccine lies are bad enough, but what’s really dangerous in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are RFK Jr.’s lies about the pandemic.
Finally, and most worryingly, Baldwin and Kennedy turned to COVID-19, which Kennedy used as an opportunity to promote dubious claims about quarantine measures and even mask-wearing. “One thing I think we’re not thinking about is what is the death toll from the quarantine,” Kennedy said. He claimed that previous studies from the 1980s have shown that unemployment leads to suicide and “additional admissions to mental institutions.”
“The death toll from quarantine could far exceed the death toll from COVID,” Kennedy proclaimed. (The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 700,000 people worldwide and quarantine measures have been used in virtually every country that’s gotten the pandemic under control.)
In one particularly egregious bit of disinformation, RFK Jr. dismisses the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine as a way out of the pandemic. This is the sort of disinformation that’s effective because it has a germ of truth in it. There are legitimate scientists (e.g., Peter Hotez) cautioning that a coronavirus vaccine is not a panacea and that, even if developed, it will take many months to manufacture and distribute. But to dismiss even the possibility of a vaccine as a way to mitigate the pandemic is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst, particularly given how RFK Jr. pivoted next. Can you guess?
Yes, RFK Jr. thinks hydroxychloroquine is a promising treatment for COVID-19, even though evidence is increasingly showing that it is not. As I just wrote last week, hydroxychloroquine is the Black Knight of COVID-19 treatments. No matter how many times science chops a limb off, Sir Hydroxychloroquine says, “It’s just a scratch” or challenges science to keep fighting. Basically, RFK Jr. frames his support of the drug to Baldwin as “I don’t know if it works or not, but it wasn’t given a chance,” after having cited the same observational studies (and ignored the negative randomized controlled trials) and bringing up the SurgiSphere study, whose discrediting actually does not in the least affect the conclusion that hydroxychloroquine is almost certainly ineffective against COVID-19.
RFK Jr. also says that he’s taking vitamin C and vitamin D to “boost his immune system” and prevent COVID-19, even though there’s no evidence that either vitamin can do that. He’s also taking interferon, which has been studied as a potential immune therapy for COVID-19. Given that interferon is given by injection, one wonders where RFK Jr. gets it.
By the time I was through with the video, I was left with nothing but disgust for Alec Baldwin. Basically, he gave an hour of his Instagram Live time to a prominent antivaccine conspiracy theorist and let him firehose misinformation to his heart’s content. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Alec Baldwin is antivaccine. (There’s no way you do this credulous and fawning an interview with someone like RFK Jr. if you are not antivaccine.) Apparently, besides his anger management issues, he’s into conspiracy theories, for example JFK assassination conspiracy theories, and antivaccine beliefs are, if nothing else, rooted in conspiracy theories. Indeed, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement is that “they” (the CDC, the government, doctors, etc.) “know” that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous but “cover up” the evidence showing it.
I was also disappointed to learn that Kurt Andersen in that he co-authored a book with Alec Baldwin entitled You Can’t Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump (A So-Called Parody). It made me wonder if Andersen knew that Baldwin was antivaccine when he co-wrote the book. Perhaps Andersen should consider withdrawing from his Instagram Live interview with Baldwin next Thursday. Either that, or he should contemplate long and hard how Baldwin is exactly the sort of conspiracy theorist and fabulist spreading dangerous misinformation and disinformation that he had written about in Fantasyland.
In the meantime, add Alec Baldwin to the depressingly long list of celebrity antivaxxers.