Why won’t you call me, RFK, Jr.? Let’s talk about vaccines!

What’s Keith Kloor got that I haven’t got?

What’s Laura Helmuth got that I haven’t got?

Why won’t Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. call me to complain about all the not-so-Respectful Insolence I’ve directed his way over the years. I mean, seriously. I spend nearly eight years criticizing his antivaccine crank views, and these two get personal attention from The Man after just one post! I don’t even get an e-mail, even though it’s right there: orac@scienceblogs.com.

I’m sorry. I’m just feeling a little envious (do Plexiglass boxes of blinking colored lights feel envy?) because both Kloor and Helmuth have been contacted by one of my favorite targets for not-so-Respectful Insolence, an antivaccine political activists who arguably helped launch my blogging career way back in 2005. Yes, I’m talking about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose now infamous article, published simultaneously to Salon.com and Rolling Stone and consisting of nothing but antivaccine pseudoscience and misinformation liberally sprinkled with conspiracy mongering, Deadly Immunity, “inspired” the first bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence that was noticed by a larger audience. Of course, ultimately, Salon.com retracted the article, but Rolling Stone did not, and it’s still there on the Rolling Stone website, along with RFK, Jr.’s website. So, in a way, I suppose I have to thank RFK, Jr. for having helped to launch the longstanding blogging phenomenon that is this blog. Remember, back then, I had been at this for only around six months.

So what happened? First, RFK, Jr. gave a keynote address at the antivaccine quackfest (which, by the way, was just as quacky as ever in 2013) known as Autism One back in May. In that speech, he really let his antivaccine freak flag fly. Indeed, Dan Olmsted, the editor of one of the crankiest antivaccine crank blogs out there, Age of Autism, published a glowing report on RFK, Jr.’s speech entitled RFK Jr., Nazi Death Camps and the Battle For Our Future. I, naturally, could not resist such a big, juicy target, any more than a starving pit bull could resist a big, juicy steak; so I let Olmsted and Kennedy have it, asking antivaccinationists if we could please knock it off with the autism-Holocaust analogies, already. Amusingly, sometime over the last two weeks, Olmsted’s article disappeared from AoA. Fortunately, parts of it are still quoted in my post, and the entire thing is still available as a Google cache, so that I can easily remind you how much Olmsted praised some of RFK, Jr.’s vile analogies:

Each of us will have our highlights from last weekend’s extraordinary Autism One gathering in Chicago, but for me it was Bobby Kennedy Jr. saying, “To my mind this is like the Nazi death camps.”

“This” is the imprisonment of so many of our children in the grip of autism. Talk about cutting through the neurodiverse claptrap! When Bobby Kennedy says something, it gives “cover,” in a sense, for others to use the same kind of language and frame the debate in the same kind of way. (Language that reminds me of David Kirby’s phrase, “the shuttered hell” of autism, in Evidence of Harm.)

Those who can advocate for themselves should do so. Move right along, please. Those who cannot have advocates like their parents and RFK Jr. who are sick of mincing words.

And, apparently, mincing words is something RFK, Jr. didn’t do. According to Olmsted’s report, he ranted (actually, that’s my interpretation of Olmsted’s account) about how Paul Offit should be thrown in jail, even going so far as to compare him to Nazi war criminals. At the time I was raining down a bit of my Insolence on Olmsted and Kennedy’s heads, I noted how much I would love to see a video of the keynote address, to get the full impression of what sorts of antivaccine rhetoric RFK, Jr. laid down. After all, one wonders if RFK, Jr. surpassed, for example, Hilary Butler in the egregiousness of gratuitous argumentum ad Nazi-um. Perhaps my favorite part of Olmsted’s account was that if the government didn’t remove even trace amounts of thimerosal from vaccines in one year, RFK, Jr. was going to…publish a book!

Seriously. What’s next? The comfy chair? Oh, no! Anything but that!

But back to Keith Kloor and Laura Helmuth. Keith Kloor blogs for DISCOVER and weighed in with an article entitled Is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. antiscience? (Hint: The answer is yes, yes, yes, much as another answer 40 years ago was “Guilty, guilty, guilty!“) Over at Slate.com, Phil Plait, taking note of RFK, Jr.’s appearance at the premier antivaccine quackfest of the year, wrote a post pointing out what skeptics had known about RFK, Jr. at least since 2004, namely that he is antivaccine to the core. As a result of Kloor’s criticism, RFK, Jr. contacted him. As a result of Phil Plait’s post, he also contacted Laura Helmuth, who just so happens to be science and health editor for Slate.com.

After that, as they say, hilarity ensued.

Kloor, for instance, points out that Kennedy views his threat to publish a book as no idle threat. Not only does he stand behind his misinformation-laden claim that thimerosal in vaccines is responsible for an “epidemic” of autism, but he thinks he’ll be vindicated. One can picture him cackling wildly, rubbing his hands together, and saying, “They thought me mad—mad, I tell you!—but I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” He even apparently believes he’s pro-vaccine and reassured Kloor multiple times during the interview that he was. (And I bet he said he was “pro-safe vaccine,” too.) Despite all these disclaimers, though, RFK, Jr. stuck to the antivaccine line, and, according to him, there are lots of scientists out there who agree with him, too:

After I pointed out a second time that scientists haven’t found any causal link between autism and thimerosal in vaccines, he responded:

That’s true that regulatory scientists are saying that. But not the research scientists. I can show you paper after paper in the most respected peer review journals, and all them are gasping, “why is this stuff still available’?

He told me that the book he commissioned has a chapter “we were going to leave out, because it’s so controversial, but the evidence is so strong that thimerosal causes autism,” that he’s keeping it in.

Yet in the next breath he said he wasn’t going to publish the book (even though it has a publisher and is going through edits right now) because it is so explosive that he doesn’t want it to prompt a mass panic: “I don’t want parents to stop vaccinating their kids.” (“I’m pro-vaccine,” he insisted several times during the call.) I tell Kennedy that if he feels he’s marshaled compelling evidence showing a link between thimerosal and autism, then he has a responsibility to show it and not merely expect people to take his word for it. I certainly am not. I also suspect that Kennedy is as objective and open-minded on this issue as Marc Morano is on climate change.

One wonders if these “research scientists” to whom Kennedy refers happen to be Christopher Shaw. Or maybe he means Shaw’s partner in woo, Lucija Tomljenovic. Or perhaps he means Stephanie Seneff, who’s followed Mark and David Geier’s well-trodden path of dumpster-diving in the VAERS database. Or maybe he meant Boyd Haley, a former chemistry professor turned antivaccine crank who even developed a “supplement” that was in reality an industrial chelator, all to treat “mercury overload” from vaccines? Or maybe he means Helen Ratajczak, who wrote a hilariously off-base “review” article that was basically a regurgitation of every major antivaccine pseudoscientific talking point—but I repeat myself—that there is. Yes, I bet RFK, Jr. could find some “research scientists” to support antivaccine views. The problem is that they’re all either cranks doing bad science on vaccines, scientists with no background in vaccines or immunology, or both. I’m sure I’ll have a good time reading that chapter when the book comes out. I wonder if RFK, Jr. will send me a review copy if I ask really nice.

Helmuth’s conversation with RFK, Jr. was a bit lengthier, but I really have to give her props for how she started her article:

There are two sides to almost every story, and sometimes we publish both of them. That’s true even for science. When the new edition of psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual came out, Slate ran stories criticizing it and praising it. We’ve made the case that coal still rules and that it is doomed. But three areas of science are beyond scientific debate even though they are still debated by a lot of people. Evolution and climate change are two. (It makes sense to debate what to do about climate change, but the fact of it has been thoroughly established.) The other is vaccines.

I also like how Helmuth asked for a transcript or video of Kennedy’s infamous vaccine Nazis speech at Autism One this year and noted that neither Kennedy’s office nor the conference organizers provided her with one.

Now, I do have to quibble a little (it is, after all, me here). I know what she’s trying to say here, but neither evolution, climate change, nor vaccines are “beyond scientific debate.” The issue is that the evidence for evolution and anthropogenic global warming is so vast and strong and comes from multiple different sources that converge on the same theory that there is no need to routinely quote people from the “other side” when writing about these topics. Unless some powerful evidence is produced, evidence sufficiently potent to call standard science into doubt and/or sufficiently extensive that it is in the same order of magnitude of the evidence supporting these theories, there really is no reason to take the “other side” seriously from a strictly scientific standpoint. The same is true for the idea that vaccines cause autism. The hypothesis has been tested multiple times and has failed every time. Multiple large epidemiological studies have failed to find a link between either thimerosal and autism or vaccines in general and autism. It can quite correctly be said that, at present, there is not a whisper of a whiff of a hint of a correlation between vaccines and autism. In stories about vaccines, it is not necessary for “balance” to quote antivaccinationists. After all, do we routinely quote flat earthers for stories about geology or astronomy?

In any case, if you have any doubt that RFK, Jr. is a bona fide raving antivaccine loon, read Laura Helmut’s article. You will learn:

The short version of the vaccine conspiracy theory (if you are stuck on the phone with RFK Jr., you will be subjected to the long version) is that a vaccine preservative called thimerosal causes autism when injected into children. Government epidemiologists and other scientists, conspiring with the vaccine industry, have covered up data and lied about vaccine ingredients to hide this fact. Journalists are dupes of this powerful cabal that is intentionally poisoning children.

You’ll also learn that RFK, Jr. either lies or is deluded:

He spoke to one scientist (he named her but I won’t spread the defamation) who, he said, “was actually very honest. She said it’s not safe. She said we know it destroys their brains.”

I asked the scientist about their conversation. She said there is in fact no evidence that thimerosal destroys children’s brains, and that she never said that it did.

(I rather suspect I know who this scientist is.)

He claims that it’s a huge conspiracy and that scientists are lying:

Kennedy claims that scientists admit to him in private that they are lying about the data. When he challenged one university scientist about the accuracy of studies showing that the presence of thimerosal in vaccines had no effect on autism diagnoses, “He folded like a house of cards. Three weeks later I heard him on the radio and he was saying the same things he said to me, which I knew he knew was lying.”

Funny how this is all in private and no reputable scientist will actually come out and admit that he or she thinks vaccines cause autism. It’s always the same old cranks, like Mark Geier, Christopher Shaw, Boyd Haley, and the like. Surely, if so many of them believed that we were poisoning our children with vaccines, one of them would have come forward over the last 15 or 20 years since the initial concern about mercury in vaccines.

Perhaps the most hilarious part of all has to be the belief expressed by RFK, Jr. that he’s the only one who bothers to read scientific papers. Why? Because everyone else is afraid to:

A cover-up of such proportions might sound like Pulitzer bait, but he says journalists aren’t pursuing the story because we won’t read scientific papers. (Phil Plait and I both have science Ph.D.s.) 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.”

Helmuth points out that both she and Phil Plait, for instance, both have PhDs. I’ll point out that, even though I’m not officially a journalist, I have an MD and a PhD. (Ha! So, there!) Moreover, I read papers. I read a lot of them. Unlike RFK, Jr., I understand them. Even more like RFK, Jr., I can put them into context with existing science. RFK, Jr. cherry picks studies, distorts them, and has no clue about science. He seems particularly enamored of in vitro studies, even though, as I’ve pointed out before, in vitro it’s easy to have toxic effects and it’s very easy to kill cells in a dish. And it’s not just scientific papers, either. I read transcripts. For instance, I read the Simpsonwood transcripts, which RFK, Jr. twisted into a massive conspiracy theory to cover up the “evidence” that thimerosal causes autism. Skeptico had even more of a field day with RFK, Jr.’s misrepresentations of what happened at Simpsonwood. (He’s still having a field day, eight years later.)

Finally, something that’s very important is that RFK, Jr. feeds into the underdog narrative, which is very powerful, as is the fear of “unnatural” chemicals. Combine these two problems with the self-aggrandizing, almost gnostic, belief that RFK, Jr. and his follow antivaccine activists possess secret knowledge that no one else does (and that RFK, Jr. won’t show you, either—you’ll just have to take his word for it!) and you’re dealing with a religious belief, an untouchable, unshakeable belief that is immune to evidence, reason, or argument.

There is one thing that I must respectfully, but strongly, disagree with Helmuth on, and that’s her assertion at the end of her article that, because of his fame and cachet within the environmental movement, RFK, Jr. “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.” I know the antivaccine movement. I’ve been studying it since the turn of the century. I can tell you with some authority that, were RFK, Jr. to renounce antivaccinationism and state unequivocally that neither vaccines nor thimerosal causes autism, it would not change the antivaccine movement one whit. What would happen is that RFK, Jr. would be vilified as a traitor among antivaccinationists and there would be conspiracy theories sprouting up that the government and big pharma had somehow “gotten” to him. It’s the nature of conspiracy theories.

As for RFK, Jr., this latest incident demonstrates that he is just as much a raving antivaccine crank and conspiracy theorist now as he was in 2005, when I first became acquainted with him. Same as it ever was.