Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Still an antivaccine crank after all these years

RFK

Only really long time readers will remember this, but back in the day (June 2005, to be exact), I discovered Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his antivaccine nuttery when he published his epically bad piece of antivaccine conspiracy mongering, Deadly Immunity, both in Salon.com and Rolling Stone (the latter of which doubled down on it a few years later by reposting it). My deconstruction of the logical fallacies, errors of science and fact, and just general silliness of Kennedy’s article was one of the first times I was ever really “noticed” in the blogosphere. Since then, every so often, or so it seems, I’m drawn back to RFK, Jr., just because he can’t seem to stop the conspiracy mongering over the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines and his obsession with its link to autism. It’s a link that’s long been disproven by clinical trials, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to use various cases to “prove” a link between vaccines and autism, insinuate that the CDC is covering up a thimerosal-autism link, out-crank another vaccine-autism crank Sharyl Attkisson, use the case of Poul Thorsen to distract from inconvenient science, and link his environmental activism to his antivaccine activism, thus tarnishing the environmentalist movement as long as the Kennedy name.

When last we visited him, RFK Jr. had been threatening to…write a book! And write a book he had done, a book entitled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health. With the book’s imminent release in early August, media attention has been less than stellar, but the attention of the antivaccine crankosphere has been a bit more intense. Indeed, I had considered letting this cup pass because, well, I’m sick and tired of RFK, Jr., and I’m not sure that there’s much that I want to say about him right now. Still, as I say, there are some topics that inevitably drag me in, even as I resist and procrastinate for a couple of days, and RFK Jr.’s antivaccine quackery appears to be such a topic. Also, there has been a bit of mainstream media attention in the form of an article by Keith Kloor in The Washington Post a few days ago entitled Robert Kennedy Jr.’s belief in autism-vaccine connection, and its political peril. There are a few juicy tidbits that I learned in the article, although the article seems a bit more sympathetic to RFK, Jr. than I would like. The article also says little about RFK Jr.’s partner in this endeavor, Dr. Mark Hyman, who has been an intermittent topic on this blog and has been known to mangle autism science and medicine rather spectacularly.

The good things I learned is that, increasingly, RFK, Jr. is being viewed by mainstream politicians and media as the crank that he is. (And, make no mistake, on the subject of thimerosal in vaccines, RFK, Jr. is a crank par excellence.) Remember Senator Barbara Mikulski, for example? She co-sponsored a resolution that declared one week during last October to be Naturopathic Medicine Week, or, as I called it, Quackery Week. She also co-chaired a meeting with the creator of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), where Harkin complained that NCCAM had “fallen short” because it hadn’t “validated” enough CAM, completely misunderstanding how science works and supported an amendment to the Affordable Care Act to have it cover CAM practitioners. It goes on and on; she appeared at the anniversary of the integrative medicine center at the University of Maryland and has even appeared on Dr. Oz’s radio show to promote “integrative medicine.” She is among the most woo-friendly legislators out there.

And even she didn’t take RFK, Jr. seriously:

Sen. Barbara Mikulski listened impassively as Robert Kennedy Jr. made his case. He had to talk over the din in the marbled hallway just outside the Senate chambers, where he was huddled with Mikulski, two of her aides and three allies of his who had come to Washington for this April meeting.

Kennedy, a longtime environmental activist and an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, had thought Mikulski would be receptive to an issue that has consumed him for a decade, even as friends and associates have told him repeatedly that it’s a lost cause. But she grew visibly impatient the longer he talked.

[…]

The Maryland Democrat turned from Kennedy without a word. “I want to hear what you have to say,” Mikulski said, looking up at the lean man standing next to her. Mark Hyman, a physician and best-selling author, is Kennedy’s chief collaborator on a then-unpublished book titled “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,” which is scheduled to come out next week. The book argues that ethylmercury — a component of thimerosal — is harmful to human health. (Not so in trace amounts, scientific authorities have concluded.)

According to Kloor, Mikulski’s reaction was less than enthusiastic. Basically, she just referred RFK, Jr. to Sen. Bernie Sanders, because he “cares about brain health” and oversees a related subcommittee. Sanders’ reaction was at best noncommittal, perhaps because RFK, Jr. basically made threats if he doesn’t get what he want. His threat? To publish his book! However, his threat was highly disingenuous, coupled as it was with the usual claim from antivaccinationists that they’re really and truly “not anti-vaccine”:

The normally voluble, white-haired senator was convivial, then, as Kennedy got going, fell silent. “We don’t want to publish this book,” Kennedy told him, holding up a copy of his manuscript. “We are very pro-vaccine.” He motioned to Hyman across the table. “Vaccines save lives. We don’t want to alarm the public by showing them the science. We have a publisher lined up, ready to publish it. But we said no.”

I can’t help but contrast this reaction to the sorts of reactions he got nine years ago after he had published Deadly Immunity, which were, except for the science blogosphere, largely laudatory. It’s also interesting to many who follow the antivaccine movement, the better to counter it, to see that Mark Hyman has let his antivaccine freak flag fly more than I expected him to. As you might recall, Hyman is a leading proponent of a form of “integrative” medicine quackery known as “functional medicine.” It’s a medical philosophy that is maddeningly vague in its definition, encompassing a grab bag of various forms of woo that involve environmental inputs, inflammation, hormones, gut & digestive health, detoxification, energy/mitochondria/oxidative stress, and, of course, “mind-body,” whatever that means. No woo would be complete without mind-body, you know. (Actually, no self-respecting woo would leave out “detoxification,” either.) Despite having looked at it for several years, I still haven’t been able to figure out to my satisfaction what, exactly, distinguishes functional medicine from quackery, as functional medicine recommends treatments full of supplements, dietary manipulations, and “detoxification.” It’s the sort of treatment that practitioners of “autism biomed” quackery, chiropractors, and naturopaths love, in which “imbalances” must be measured through a battery of lab tests and corrected with whatever woo functional medicine practitioners can dream up. Most recently, he has been in the news because apparently he’s become the health guru for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

So it’s not surprising that Hyman is antivaccine and would sign on to the thimerosal-vaccine fear mongering that RFK, Jr. has been promoting for a decade now. I’m just happy that Sens. Mikulski, even as woo-friendly as she is, and Sanders both basically listened to RFK, Jr. politely, probably feeling like a trapped animal desperate enough to chew his leg of to escape, then patted RFK, Jr. on the head, and sent him on his way. What’s depressing, though, is that RFK, Jr. would not command personal audiences with various powerful senators to promote his crank views were it not for his lineage, his family name. He would not be able to command audiences with high ranking CDC officials and scientists from the FDA and National Institutes of Health. It’s unlikely that anyone in authority would give this crank the time of day were he not a Kennedy, because he doesn’t deserve it.

Another juicy tidbit from Kloor’s article that RFK, Jr. had shown a copy of his and Hyman’s manuscript to experts, with dismissive results:

Most of those who did respond were dismissive. Philip Landrigan, a leading public health advocate and physician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, offered a reply that stung. “We were buddies,” Kennedy said. “I got a curt note back from him, saying, ‘This isn’t worthwhile, and this is an effort you should immediately abandon.’ ”

Kennedy remained defiant. “The only way I can stop this is if someone shows me I’m wrong on the science.”

That is exactly what science bloggers have been doing since at least 2005, showing that RFK, Jr. is wrong on the science and even the facts, such as the elaborate conspiracy theory about the Simpsonwood conference he embellished in Deadly Immunity, a turd that he’s been polishing ever since. It’s like shooting fish in a proverbial barrel. But, RFK, Jr., being the crank that he is, doesn’t listen. Unfortunately, as described in Kloor’s article, certain misguided scientists, such as Irva Hertz-Picciotto (whose bad science we’ve discussed recently) and Martha Herbert (whose lack of compelling publications we’ve also discussed) give him just enough encouragement to be able to say that “some” scientists support him.

Perhaps the most hilarious development, not covered in Kloor’s article, is the reaction of a certain familiar antivaccine activist to this passage:

Some of the most controversial sections — the chapters connecting autism to thimerosal — Kennedy took out at the last minute, though there are still references to a link to autism. Hyman convinced him that such claims were too combustible and would distract from the book’s core argument, that “the evidence suggesting a link between thimerosal and a large percentage of neurodevelopment disorders … mandates action.”

Or maybe, at some level, even Hyman realizes the “science” cited by Kennedy is bogus. It’s actually as bogus as the “science” linking thimerosal in vaccines to neurodevelopmental disorders, but I guess he’s not bothered by that. Our old buddy, Young Master Jake Crosby, though, clearly is bothered. He’s bothered very much, so much so that he has accused RFK, Jr. of “joining the thimerosal cover-up”:

Except that autism is the most serious of those neurodevelopmental disorders caused by thimerosal. The person who convinced Kennedy – his coauthor Dr. Mark Hyman – is a profiteer of alternative “therapies” for autism. He has even discussed treating a child with autism for elevated mercury levels and has an obvious stake in attracting more patients like that to his practice.

Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. betrayed the very people he spoke about his book to at last year’s AutismOne conference. He kept them waiting for his book to come out while deliberately delaying publication for one year, only to remove the chapters on autism “last minute.” In doing so, he has in-effect joined the very CDC cover-up of thimerosal’s harms that he previously denounced by censoring incriminating evidence on the premise of it being “too combustible.” Thankfully, the unpublished, unedited manuscript of Kennedy’s book is also available.

Yes, apparently somehow Jake got his hands on a copy of the original manuscript. It wouldn’t surprise me if RFK, Jr. himself sent him a copy, as Kloor’s article reports that RFK, Jr. was sending the manuscript to political allies, university health experts and CDC officials. I can’t help but wonder what RFK, Jr. and his publisher will do about his hosting a copy of RFK, Jr.’s manuscript on his blog. No doubt if they protect their copyright and go after him, Jake will paint it as just part of the conspiracy.

Two antivaccine cranks fighting it out in court, now that would be a delicious twist to a not-so-delicious story of antivaccine crankery.