I remember when I first heard on Twitter yesterday afternoon that our President-Elect, Donald Trump, was going to meet with longtime antivaccine crank Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Remembering how Trump had met with antivaccine “hero” Andrew Wakefield before the election and how after the election antivaccine activists were practically salivating over the thought of what Trump might do with respect to the CDC and vaccines, I was reminded of just how much I fear for medical science policy under the Trump administration. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. For a moment, I actually thought that Trump might be appointing RFK, Jr. to run the CDC. It was the measure of just how bizarre Trump’s appointments have been that I even thought such a thing possible. I also marveled at the coincidence. After all, I had just written two posts about The Cleveland Clinic’s embrace of quackery and an antivaccine rant by one of its leading doctors, and here was a story that tied into that. Remember, Dr. Mark Hyman co-authored an antivaccine book of the thimerosal fear mongering variety with RFK, Jr. right around the time he was being recruited to The Cleveland Clinic to set up a new Center for Functional Medicine.
Coincidence aside, fortunately, I was wrong. Trump did not offer the position of CDC director to RFK, Jr. (It had to be because RFK, Jr. is such a dedicated environmentalist and the CDC does a lot of studies regarding environmental determinants of health.) Unfortunately, news reports soon flowed about what had really happened, specifically how Trump had tapped RFK, Jr. to chair some sort of Presidential committee on vaccination:
After meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told reporters that Trump has asked him to “chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity” and that he has accepted.
Both Trump and Kennedy have spread fringe theories linking vaccines to autism in children, an idea that medical experts overwhelmingly reject and have warned is endangering public health by discouraging parents from immunizing their kids.
I do like how NBC described RFK, Jr. as favoring “fringe theories” over established science, which is true, although the pedant in me can’t resist pointing out that “theory” is the wrong word to use to describe antivaccine beliefs. One of the things that really irritated me about seeing the flood of stories over the afternoon as I sat in my office taking advantage of a canceled case to work on a paper was how often RFK, Jr. was described as a “vaccine skeptic.” (I’m talking to you, Business Insider, but not just to you.) He is not. He is an antivaccine crank, a vaccine science denialist of the highest—or should I say lowest?—order. He is no different at his core than anthropogenic global climate change denialists, creationists (a.k.a., evolution denialists), or any number of ideology-driven science-denying cranks, and I’ll do a brief trip down memory lane at the end of this post to give you an idea of just how bad RFK, Jr. is with respect to vaccines.
Be that as it may, the social media reaction was immediate and brutal, as you might imagine. However, as you can see from the report above and the NBC News report, aired late afternoon, the Trump team issued a “clarification” saying that Trump was “exploring the possibility of forming a committee on Autism” but that “no decision has been made at this time.” Of course, if you’re going to form a “committee on autism,” why would you even be talking to someone like RFK, Jr. if you weren’t planning on making the committee’s mission about antivaccine pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism? After all, RFK, Jr. has zero, nada, zilch in the way of relevant scientific or clinical expertise in autism to run such a panel. He’s known primarily as an environmentalist and an antivaccine crank who was largely responsible for popularizing the failed hypothesis turned crank idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism nearly 12 years ago. (We’ll get to how antivaccine he is in a moment, along with his long history of antivaccine activism.) In other words, he has zero qualifications to chair a panel on autism that would be in any way valid or scientific.
You can tell exactly what RFK, Jr. plans from his answers in a Q&A with Science:
Did the President-elect request the meeting or did you?
He called me a week ago to request it.
He wants to make sure that we have the best vaccine science and the safest vaccine supply that we can have.
Did the President-elect indicate that he doesn’t believe that to be the case at the moment?
He is troubled by questions of the links between certain vaccines and the epidemic of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism. And he has a number – he told me five – friends, he talked about each one of them, who has the same story of a child, a perfectly healthy child who went into a wellness visit around age 2, got a battery of vaccines, spiked a fever and then developed a suite of deficits in the 3 months following the vaccine.
He said that he understood that anecdote was not science, but said that if there’s enough anecdotal evidence… that we’d be arrogant to dismiss it. Those were his words.
I, for one, do not for a moment believe that Donald Trump understands that anecdotes are not science, that correlation does not necessarily (and frequently doesn’t) equal causation in medicine. After all, Trump has a long and sordid history of spewing antivaccine misinformation dating back at least nine years, when I first noted him believing the claims of the vaccine-autism movement with respect to blaming autistic regression on vaccines. Later, he claimed a “monster shot” causes autism. Over the years, he would take to Twitter and post things like:
Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2014
I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014
Or the dumbest one of all:
No more massive injections. Tiny children are not horses—one vaccine at a time, over time.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014
I mean, seriously. How much fluid does Donald Trump think is in vaccines? If RFK, Jr. is to be believed, he also subscribes to various antivaccine tropes, such as the “toxins” gambit or “too many too soon.”
You can see from the interview that RFK, Jr. is chomping at the bit to go after the CDC:
Did the President-elect mention the CDC?
We talked a lot about CDC and ways to increase the independence from financial conflicts at CDC in the vaccine division.
You said that the commission is to delve into “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” What is that second piece about?
To make sure that we’re getting good science out of CDC.
It’s all about CDC? It’s not about “scientific integrity” in chemistry or physics or basic biology or anywhere else?
Exactly. [CDC] is the locus of most of the most serious problems with the vaccine program, the two divisions at CDC: the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Immunization Safety Office which is where the scientists are.
There you have it. Assuming RFK, Jr. isn’t lying or exaggerating (always a possibility), Donald Trump buys into a world view that matches up nearly perfectly with his and that of many antivaccine cranks. He thinks the CDC is corrupt, which it is not. He somehow thinks the ACIP is hobbled with conflicts of interest. This merely shows his ignorance. As I explained before, the ACIP has very rigorous rules to prevent conflicts of interest. We know that Andrew Wakefield gave Trump a copy of VAXXED, an antivaccine propaganda film so over-the-top that it would make Leni Reifenstahl blush. We don’t know if Trump ever watched it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did and that he believed all the lies in it, particularly the “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy. This sounds just like the sort of nonsense we’ve been hearing from the antivaccine movement for years. Clearly, RFK, Jr. believes in the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that the “truth is out there” but the CDC is covering it up.
Not surprisingly, when asked whom he wanted on the committee, RFK, Jr. got a bit more—shall we say?—vague:
How many people will be on the commission?
A dozen people — a mix between science people and prominent Americans.
Who will you ask to serve?
I couldn’t tell you. I just finished meeting with the President-elect an hour ago.
When you say “science people,” do you mean experts from the scientific establishment?
Do you mean prominent vaccinologists who believe in the safety and efficacy of today’s vaccines?
We are going to look for people who have expertise in toxicology, epidemiology and in public health.
Notice how RFK, Jr. ducked and weaved over the question of what sort of “science people” he would appoint. The meaning is clear. If this committee ever comes to be, RFK, Jr. will appoint antivaccine crank scientists like Andrew Wakefield, Brian Hooker, Mark Geier, Christopher Shaw, and the like.
The most hilarious part of the interview was the end. First:
Do you have scientific training?
No. My background is I’m an environmental lawyer. I’m not a scientist. But I have an expertise, I would say in reading science and spotting junk science because that’s what I do with most of my time.
I laughed out loud here. I really did. This is Dunning-Kruger, the arrogance of ignorance incarnate. RFK, Jr. doesn’t have any relevant training in the sciences of immunology or vaccines, the clinical management and science of autism, or any other relevant science; yet he’s supremely confident that he can “spot junk science.” No, he can’t. He falls for junk science time and time and time again and has been falling for it ever since I first encountered him nearly 12 years ago. He cites the research of Mark and David Geier! Seriously, if you can’t recognize their research for the total crap that it is, your claim to be able to recognize junk science is risible in the extreme! RFK, Jr. has also cited Boyd Haley, a disgraced chemist who came to believe that mercury in vaccines causes autism and who believes that mercury dental amalgams are the root of nearly all disease. The guy Chair of the Advisory Committee for Toxic Teeth, for cryin’ out loud. Kennedy likes Brian Hooker’s work, and Brian Hooker is the most incompetent epidemiologist and statistician I have ever encountered, mainly because he’s a biochemical engineer who fancies himself an epidemiologist. This is a guy who actually said that in statistics simplicity is elegance.
No, it’s not, and, no, RFK, Jr. wouldn’t recognize junk science if it bit him on the proverbial posterior.
Of course, RFK, Jr. can’t resist finishing with the old “I’m not antivaccine, I’m pro-vaccine safety” gambit:
I am for vaccines. I have been tracking mercury in fish for 30 years and nobody has called me anti-fish. I am pro-vaccine. I had all my kids vaccinated. I think vaccines save lives. But we are also seeing an explosion in neurodevelopmental disorders and we ought to be able to do a cost benefit analysis and see what’s causing them. We ought to have robust, transparent science and an independent regulatory agency. Nobody is trying to get rid of vaccines here. I just want safe vaccines.
At least, RFK, Jr. is not referring to himself as “fiercely pro-vaccine” any more. That was just pathetic, as though he were trying too hard or, as I like to put it, the lady doth protest too much. Let’s just put it this way, RFK, Jr. is so “fiercely pro-vaccine” that he routinely says things like:
They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.
True, he did apologize, but his “apology” sounded as sincere as Dr. Neides’ apology for his antivaccine screed did over the weekend. Let’s recall RFK, Jr.’s “apology” for using the word “Holocaust”:
I want to apologize to all whom I offended by my use of the word to describe the autism epidemic. I employed the term during an impromptu speech as I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.
He was just sorry that he got a little…carried away by the horrors of autism. Even if what Trump has in mind is a committee on autism and not so much on vaccines, if you had a family member with autism, be it mild or severe, would you want someone who thinks autism is so horrible that it’s akin to a “Holocaust” or who thinks that autistic children’s brains are gone? He’d also have been more convincing if that had been the first time he’d used Holocaust analogies to describe autism. The antivaccine crank blog quoted him doing the same thing in 2013, although they took down the post and it is now only available in snippets quoted on other blogs during the brief time the AoA post was live, for example right here on this very blog:
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.
Again, RFK, Jr. isn’t “antivaccine.” Oh, no. Perish the thought. He just likes to use an offensively over-the-top metaphor in which vaccines have produced a “Holocaust” of autism or a metaphor in which “vaccine-induced” autism imprisons children in a state that he likens to Nazi death camps How on earth could you think that’s antivaccine? How dare you? Of course, RFK, Jr. knows what he’s doing. Notice how in the 2013 incident he made his death camp analogy while speaking to the faithful at Autism One. When unexpectedly one of the AoA bloggers wrote about his remarks, they mysteriously disappeared from the blog within a day or so. One wonders if RFK, Jr. had a little chat with Dan Olmsted, who did the write-up, one does.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to close out this post. I first encountered RFK, Jr.’s antivaccine stylings in 2005 when he published Deadly Immunity, which was jointly published in both Salon.com and Rolling Stone. Salon.com ultimately retracted it, but, to its shame, Rolling Stone never did. Back then, this blog was only six months old and had much, much lower traffic than it does now. I wrote an epic and incredibly snarky deconstruction of the misinformation, conspiracy theories, and utter nonsense in RFK, Jr.’s article, and it became the the first post of mine that ever “went viral” (or whatever passed for going viral in 2005). To give you a taste of the snark and to show that I actually hav mellowed over the years, I’ll just say that Deadly Immunity 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 it his “completely dishonest thimerosal article” and “lies, damned lies, and quote-mining.” Another 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.
Out of curiosity, I searched the blog for more past mentions of RFK, Jr., and, not surprisingly, found many. For instance, there was the time when he basically characterized those who don’t buy into vaccine-autism pseudoscience as hating mothers. Then there was the time 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. Then there was the time when he defended Katie Wright for subjecting her son to the quackery of chelation therapy to remove mercury from vaccines from his body.
RFK, Jr.’s more recent activity includes, of course, hectoring legislators about vaccines and journalists who call him antivaccine (while refusing to provide a transcript or video of his infamous “vaccine Nazis” speech at Autism One in 2013) and legislators; his aforementioned book with co-author Mark Hyman, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health; and, of course, cozying up with the Nation of Islam to have them help him convince African-American parents that the CDC is covering up data showing that vaccines increase the risk of autism in African-American boys by roughly four-fold while appearing at protests with them at the CDC. Oh, and he’s appearing in an interview in a recently released chiropractor-produced online documentary series that is clearly antivaccine.
No wonder Donald Trump thought first of RFK, Jr. when he thought about paying back all his antivaccine supporters with a “vaccine safety” committee (or autism committee, or whatever it ends up being, if anything). It’s a two-fer. He can have the crankiest of antivaccine cranks running the committee and appear bipartisan, given RFK, Jr.’s liberal politics.
Just don’t let them tell you that Trump and RFK, Jr. aren’t antivaccine. They are. And I know antivaccine when I see it, and so do real antivaccine ideologues. Even if this committee never comes to be, it is more than bad enough that Donald Trump even met with RFK, Jr. about vaccine safety. Pro-science advocates will have to be extra vigilant.