Say it ain’t so, Barack! Say you ain’t seriously considering Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to run the EPA!

One of the aspects of the Barack Obama candidacy that raised my hopes and those of so many of my fellow ScienceBloggers, as well as scientists tired of the crass politicization of science under the Bush administration, was the prospect of an Administration in which science and reason were valued and in which cranks were not allowed to impose their agenda on agencies whose policies should be driven by the science. That’s one reason why I was very disturbed when I read a post on Election Day suggesting that antivaccinationist crank and activist extraordinaire, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was being seriously considered for the position of Secretary of the Interior. Yes, in the comments a lot of you told me it was “almost certainly bullshit” or that Interior wouldn’t be a bad place for him because he really “cares” about the environment. Never mind that he’s a booster of pseudoscience, a hothead prone to comparing political enemies to Hitler and Mussolini, and a lawyer whose science background appears to be primarily torturing science to fit his agenda more than anything else. I started to rest easy for a while, convinced that the report was nothing more than idle speculation or a trial balloon. I really hoped that Obama would not jeopardize his promise to take science seriously and depoliticize it by appointing someone who would trample on science just as much as the worst ideologues in the Bush Administration, the only difference being that he’d stomp on it with his left foot instead of his right foot, if you know what I mean.

Now I’m not resting so easy anymore. There are now several reports that RFK, Jr is being considered for an even worse position, a position where he could do incalculable mischief and at the same time provide credible ammunition to Republicans that the complaints of Democratics that science was politicized under the Bush Administration were hypocritical, given that Kennedy has been politicizing science with gusto and pushing pseudoscience ever since I can remember. I’m talking about numerous reports that RFK, Jr. is being considered to be tapped to as the run the Environmental Protection Agency. He has even been quoted on that repository of all things antivaccine, The Huffington Post, as saying “if asked, I will serve.” Meanwhile, antivaccinationists like Generation Rescue founder J. B. Handley are salivating at the prospect, and, betraying liberal claims to be part of the “reality-based” community, the denizens of Democratic Underground are (mostly) orgasmic at the prospect of an RFK, Jr.-led EPA.

Say it ain’t so, Barack! Please don’t do it. It would be a huge mistake so early in your administration. By appointing such a strident and die-hard advocate of pseudoscience, in one fell swoop, you would seriously damage your credibility as a pro-science President and leave yourself open to charges that you’re just as willing to politicize science as the Bush Administration was.

I understand that politics is a dirty business. I also understand that to win frequently idealism has to be checked at the door. I even understand that some measure of political payback is often necessary, or that Obama might think he needs to do something to mollify certain wings of his Party. As Politico put it:

The selection of Kennedy would be a shrewd early move for the new presidential team. Obama advisers said the nomination would please both Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

It also would raise the profile of the EPA, which would help endear Obama to liberals who may be disappointed on other issues important to the Democratic left because of budget restrictions.

Even so, I have a hard time imagining a quicker way for Obama to put the lie to his dedication to science-based policy than to appoint such a vocal and energetic booster of the pseudoscience that mercury in vaccines cause autism into such an influential post. It would be a horrific self-inflicted wound.

Let’s consider why.

RFK, Jr. first came to my attention when he published a screed simultaneously on Salon.com and Rolling Stone, entitled Deadly Immunity, which ranted that mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines that was so dishonest and full of misinformation and distortions that at the time I labeled it the “biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd I’ve ever seen it [Salon.com] publish.” I wasn’t alone. Skeptico famously labeled RFK, Jr.’s Deadly Immunity his “completely dishonest thimerosal article” and “lies, damned lies, and quote-mining.” Even liberal blogger Majikthise concluded that the actual transcript of the Simpsonwood Conference, described in such conspiratorial detail as a conference in which the CDC decided to cover up “smoking gun” data showing that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism didn’t come close to vindicating Kennedy’s grandiose claims and that “nothing said at Simpsonwood suggests an attempt to whitewash or cover up anything.” That didn’t stop RFK, Jr. from spewing one conspiracy theory after another about how the CDC and big pharma supposedly “covered up” a link between mercury in vaccines and autism, all the while misrepresenting the science. For example, here he is on TV around the time of Deadly Immunity:

Note one particularly outrageous example of confusing correlation with causation as RFK, Jr. points out that thimerosal first started to be used in vaccines in the 1930s and “almost immediately” the syndrome of autism was noticed. Of course, autism was first described as a syndrome in 1943 by Leo Kanner; before that there was no condition generally recognized as autism; so this observation is completely spurious, especially since there is copious evidence that behavioral syndromes that were almost certainly autism have been with us for centuries. They were just called something different.

Since that “splash” in 2005, RFK, Jr. has unrelentingly kept up his antivaccination crankery. He has not retreated even one inch, even though numerous lines of evidence, including several very large epidemiological studies, have failed to find a link between mercury and autism or vaccines and autism. For example, he misrepresented a letter to the CDC by Smith-Kline-Beecham as being evidence of some dark conspiracy by the CDC to “discourage” the removal of mercury from vaccines when it was nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, he has been launching despicable attacks against anyone who dares to call him for his antivaccine winguttery, accusing them of “hating mothers,” all the while cherry-picking studies, conspiracy-mongering, and ignoring the great mass of evidence that does not support his viewpoint. As Mark Hoofnagle put it:

The conspiracy has landed! And it’s a doozy. The CDC, the IOM, the American Association of Pediatrics, and the Pharmaceutical companies are all in cohoots! And don’t forget those bureaucrats (said through clenched teeth), you know how they’re always on the side of evil. And the Pediatricians! If kids didn’t get sick, they’d be out of a job! Clearly they want autism to be pervasive.

Because to RFK, Jr., it’s always a conspiracy, and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t continue his paranoid nonsense if he were put in charge of a government agency. Most recently, he gave a speech at the infamous “Green Our Vaccines” antivaccination rally, led by ex-Playmate, game show hostess, and gross-out comedienne Jenny McCarthy turned “mother warrior” against vaccines because she thinks her Google University degree trumps the science that fails to find a link between vaccines and autism:

See Kennedy praising mercury militia crank reporter Dan Olmsted, while claiming that he got “dragged into this issue” because “the truth became undeniable to me.” Never mind that three years after his mendacious article, the evidence that there is no correlation between mercury in vaccines and autism has only grown stronger, each study failing to find a correlation between mercury-containing vaccines and autism building upon the next. Indeed, the very fact that autism rates have not declined by now, seven years after the removal thimerosal from nearly every childhood vaccine is about as powerful an epidemiological experiment to test the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism as there could be. The hypothesis has clearly failed this test, as well as many others. On this issue, RFK, Jr. is, quite frankly, a crank, a crackpot, a nut, a booster of pseudoscience, as he proclaims that he agrees with mothers who think that vaccines are are “destroying the health” of their children and making the “sickest generation of American children in the history of our country.” His speech, as expected, is thick with conspiracy theories and in the third part he attacks Dr. Paul Offit, whom he famously called a “biostitute.”

I wonder if the Obama transition team has seen this talk. It’s an amazingly concentrated piece of pure crankery, and he gave it in June.

So what? You say. The Head of the EPA doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines. True enough. But RFK, Jr. has demonstrated himself on this issue not only to be prone to dubious science, but to have become a true believer in one of the most outrageous and dangerous forms of pseudoscience out there: antivaccinationism, or vaccine rejectionism. If you’re trying to build an administration ostensibly devoted to using the best science as the basis for public policy, and the EPA is one agency where that is incredibly important, you do not want someone who is so prone to pseudoscience and promoting misinformation running that agency. Moreover, RFK, Jr’s tendency to play fast and loose with science goes beyond mercury in vaccines and into the very area where he claims expertise, the environment, where he blames Katrina on global warming, for instance (not even Al Gore does that). Indeed, his assaults on fact and science are legendary, right up to describing the small Cuyahoga River fire (which lasted only 30 minutes and was never caught on film) as “exploding in colossal infernos.” Apparently, any “science” is good to him, as long as it appears to support his agenda. Add to that his “not in my backyard” hypocrisy in opposing a proposal to build wind power turbines off of Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s hard for me to comprehend how Obama could consider him for a post even for a moment.

Indeed, his autism crankery aside, let’s not forget also that RFK, Jr. is utterly unqualified to run a major government agency, his environmentalist activities notwithstanding. The EPA is a sprawling bureaucracy charged with converting environmental law into concrete regulations and then enforcing those regulations. It takes a strong managerial skill set to run such an organization. Is there any evidence that RFK, Jr. has the managerial chops to run a bureaucracy as large and complex as the EPA? None that I can see. Certainly he doesn’t have the temperament for such a task. He’s always seeing dark conspiracies everywhere and is prone to fly off the handle and conflate policy disagreements with evil in the form of Adolf Hitler. (The Hitler Zombie has feasted well and long on RFK, Jr.’s brain!) I wonder if he’ll start seeing dark conspiracies against him whenever things don’t go his way as Head of the EPA or Secretary of the Interior. I think you know the answer to that one. After all, he’s been quoted thusly about reporters who don’t report what he thinks they should report, “They should all drink poison Kool Aid and restore integrity to their profession.” Indeed, the only good thing about RFK, Jr. in the EPA would be the amusement and schadenfreude that his likely hyperbolic attacks on his former allies the first time policy differences lead them to sue the EPA over an environmental issue would provide. That’s the only good thing, though.

Finally, not only would letting RFK, Jr. anywhere near Interior or the EPA allow him to insinuate his pseudoscience into government policy, RFK, Jr. would be a profound embarrassment to the embryonic Obama Administration right from the start. His temperament, his tendency towards conspiracy-mongering and calling his opponents “Nazis” or “traitors,” and his credulity towards pseudoscience that allows him to cast himself as the Great Defender Of The Underdog would provide endless ammunition for Republicans to use against the Obama Administration. Worse, in most cases Obama’s opponents would be right: RFK, Jr. could be expected to politicize science every bit as much as the Bush Administration was accused of doing, just from a different political viewpoint. If the Bush Administration’s politicizing of science was so bad, why should it be any more acceptable from Democrats?

It shouldn’t.

I voted for Obama in part because, after eight years of the Bush Administration, I hoped that Obama would be pro-science where the Republicans politicized beyond recognition science that conflicts with their ideology. I still have that hope, but it’s being shaken by these increasingly plausible reports that RFK, Jr. is indeed being seriously considered for either a Cabinet post or to lead the EPA. While it’s understandable that Democrats might want some push-back after eight years out of the Executive Branch, the way to stop the politicization of science is not to replace Republican ideologues and cranks with Democrat ideologues and cranks. That’s exactly what putting the antivaccine crank RFK, Jr. anywhere near a government position would be. All Obama would succeed in doing is to make antivaccinationists very, very happy, antivaccinationists like Ginger Taylor.

I sincerely hope Obama doesn’t let RFK, Jr. anywhere near the Cabinet or a federal agency. The foul odor of his pseudoscience would taint his administration from day one and mock his promise to run a “pro-science” administration. Even if Obama did everything else right regarding federal science policy, the stench of RFK, Jr.’s crankery would contaminate everything it comes in contact with. Worse, appointing RFK, Jr. to a position involved in science-based policy making would be a profound betrayal of his promise.

Barack Obama can do much, much better than RFK, Jr.–and should, for the nation’s sake. For science’s sake.

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

OTHER COMMENTARY:

  1. You’ve got yourself an unconfirmable nominee
  2. A Kennedy in the Cabinet?
  3. That’s Not Pseudoscience We Can Believe In
  4. Controversial Appointments & Cliffhangers
  5. Robert’s rules? Obama considers RFK Jr. for EPA