This week hasn’t been a particularly good week for science. It started out on Monday with news of the social media storm from over the weekend over a blatantly antivaccine screed published the Friday before by the director of The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Clinic. Then, towards the middle of the week, we learned that our President-Elect, Donald Trump, had met with an antivaccine loon of the worst variety, someone whose misinformation I’ve been dealing with since 2005, in order to discuss some sort of commission on vaccine safety—or autism (it’s not clear which). Whatever it was, there’s no way a President-Elect should have met with such a crank, much less seriously considered the possibility of having him chair a committee on vaccines or autism. It’s even a worse than that. I haven’t told you this yet, but—surprise! surprise!—apparently RFK Jr. has been discussing this commission or committee with Trump for over a month, although I take that with a grain of salt given that the only source is an e-mail from RFK Jr. to members of the Waterkeepers Alliance, which Kennedy leads, announcing that he would leave the environmental group if the commission actually comes to be:
Kennedy said Trump had “reached out to me through intermediaries” on Dec. 4, leading to detailed discussions with the transition team on the role and composition of the commission. After his meeting with Trump and staff, he agreed to chair the commission for a year, Kennedy said. However, he said he’s still waiting “to see the transition team’s detailed proposal before making my commitment final.”
Yes, there appears to have been more to this whole vaccine-autism commission than Trump’s team’s attempt to walk it back after RFK Jr. went public.
Finally, yesterday, we learned that the governor of Massachusetts signed a bill into law licensing naturopathic quackery.
As I said, it wasn’t a good week for science. So I figure I might as well finish it with a post about a pet peeve of mine that I noticed this week that drove me absolutely nuts by the time I had seen it. I’m referring to how so many of the news and commentary articles in the mainstream press referred to RFK Jr. as a “vaccine skeptic.” On more than one occasion, at least on Twitter, I had to point out that RFK Jr. is not a “vaccine skeptic.” He is antivaccine. He is a vaccine science denialist.
Just for yucks I Googled “vaccine skeptic” and “Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.” to see what I found. Here are some headlines:
- Vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. says Trump asked him to lead commission on ‘vaccine safety’ (Washington Post)
- Trump team denies skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was asked to head vaccine commission (CNN)
- Vaccine-skeptic RFK Jr. claims Trump tapped him to lead safety commission (New York Post)
- What’s Known Vaccine Skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, Doing in the Trump Tower? (Men’s Journal)
- Vaccine skeptic RFK Jr. says he’ll chair vaccine commission for Trump (Politico)
- Vaccine Skeptic RFK Jr. Says Trump Asked Him To Lead Panel On ‘Vaccine Safety’
- Trump asks Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vaccine skeptic, to chair vaccine safety panel (Boston Globe)
- Donald Trump said to give vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. chair of new panel that will probe vaccine safety (CNBC)
- Ignore Anti-Vaccine Hysteria, Mr. Trump (Wall Street Journal; although “antivaccine” is in the title, RFK Jr. is called a “vaccine skeptic” in the first sentence)
You get the idea.
Let me repeat myself before I explain why this trope irritates me so much. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is not a “vaccine skeptic.” He is antivaccine. He is a vaccine science denialist. He is a crank. And so is Donald Trump, as I have documented so copiously over the years.
This is a problem that is not unique to the science of vaccines. For a great many science and history denialist movements, the mainstream press incorrectly labels them as “skeptics.” It’s something the press would never, ever consider doing for Holocaust deniers (although at times they fall for the Holocaust denial spin of referring to Holocaust denial as “Holocaust revisionism”), but they routinely do it for all manner of science. For instance, it was (and in some cases still is) a problem with climate science, where those who deny the overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth is warming, causing potentially ruinous climate change, because of human activity were called “climate skeptics” or “global warming skeptics.” It still is, to some extent, but noticeably less so than in the past. Unfortunately, the AP style recommendation is not to refer to anthropogenic climate change denialists as “skeptics” or “deniers,” but rather to “doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science.” I much prefer the latter to the former, the clunkiness of the construct notwithstanding, but both are misleading regarding describing what climate change denialists actually do. Deniers are not skeptics.
The same is true for vaccine deniers. We have the same problem with antivaccine activists like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The mainstream press, in its all-encompassing fetish for “balance” and refusal to do anything that resembles making a judgment on anything, refers to RFK Jr. as a “vaccine skeptic.”
Let’s take a look at his “vaccine skepticism.” RFK Jr. is so “skeptical” of vaccines that he has compared “vaccine-induced autism” to the Holocaust on at least two occasions that I’m aware. He has referred to children with autism has having their brains be gone or having their brains be “imprisoned” like prisoners in Nazi death camps. Let’s unpack that (again) for a moment. Prisoners in Nazi death camps did not survive long. Death camps were referred to as death camps (as opposed to work camps or concentration camps) because most prisoners were there only a brief period of time before the Nazis killed them, usually by gas chamber. RFK Jr. thinks this is an appropriate metaphor for autism and vaccines. And if autism is like being imprisoned in a death camp, who are the people who imprisoned them? To RFK Jr., it’s pediatricians, big pharma, and the CDC.
That’s not all, though. RFK Jr. has written conspiracy mongering articles about how the CDC supposedly “covered” up evidence that vaccines cause autism. Why? Why do you think? To protect the pharmaceutical industry, of course! RFK Jr. is so “skeptical” of vaccines that he routinely cites horrible, horrible science by the likes of Mark Geier, Boyd Haley, and the like. He is so “skeptical” of vaccines that he published what is nothing more than a conspiracy theory that the CDC had a secret meeting in 2005 to cover up evidence that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that was in several childhood vaccines until 2002 caused autism. RFK Jr. is so “skeptical” of vaccines that he has harassed lawmakers on Capitol Hill, only to be ignored because he is obviously such a crank. As Laura Helmuth put it:
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.
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.”
As I (and Steve Novella) have noted before, it’s 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, as RFK Jr. claims, one of them would have come forward over the last 15 or 20 years since the initial concern about mercury in vaccines.
RFK Jr. also thinks that Paul Offit and all the “enablers” of the vaccine-autism “Holocaust” should be in jail:
The enablers may not belong in Nuremburg, but they do belong in jail, Bobby said. “I would do a lot to see Paul Offit and all these good people behind bars,” he said, after listing Offit’s litany of lies and profit. Just to make sure people got the point, he returned to it in his speech. “Is it hyperbole to say they should be in jail? They should be in jail and the key should be thrown away.”
And here he is, ranting away at Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” rally in 2008:
This basically confirms Helmuth’s description. It’s all a conspiracy! The CDC held its meeting at Simpsonwood to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests. (No, as I recall, a larger conference center was needed than what was at the CDC main campus.) “Someone” made a transcript anyway. (Yeah, that “someone” was the CDC itself, which ultimately published the transcript within a month of the meeting.) The paranoia goes on. Today, Episode #3 of Vaccines Revealed, a painfully long series of ten 1-2 hour episodes that is chock full of every chuck of antivaccine pseudoscience, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, all “revealed” through interviews with luminaries of the antivaccine movement conducted by a chiropractor named Patrick Gentempo. I signed up for short-term free access to the series, thinking I might blog about it, but I don’t know if I can manage. The first episode featured nearly an hour of Andrew Wakefield without interruption. The third episode, the link to which was just released early morning and will expire within 24 hours, features over 65 minutes of RFK, Jr. repeating “the long version” of his antivaccine conspiracy theories. I’m tough and dedicated, but even I had a hard time sitting through such concentrated crankery when I tried to watch the video very early this morning. I saved it for later, but I don’t know if I can do this. There are some things that are too much even for me, and watching over an hour of Wakefield and over an hour of RFK Jr. might be it.
The same sorts of considerations apply to RFK Jr.’s new best bud forever, Donald Trump. I’ve documented the long, sordid history of antivaccine pseudoscience emanating from our President-Elect. There is no doubt that Donald Trump buys fully into antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Indeed, I often contrast how Trump has changed his positions on multiple occasions on issues like abortion to his seemingly unalterable belief that vaccines cause autism, a belief that he has held and articulated in public at least since 2007. As much as it pains me to have to do so and confront our President-Elects’ antivaccine views, I not infrequently point out that, compared to the flip-flops Trump has pulled off regarding beliefs in a variety of areas, Trump’s views on vaccines and autism have been remarkably consistent. He believes that vaccines cause autism and has repeatedly stated that he believes that vaccines cause autism since 2007 without doubt, equivocation, or change.
I realize that, as a blogger, I can write whatever I want, use whatever words I want to describe someone like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—and, yes, Donald Trump. I don’t know if it’s part of the AP Style Manual or not to call such people “vaccine skeptics,” the way it used to be part of the AP Style Manual to refer to anthropogenic climate change denialists as climate science skeptics, but something needs to change. I don’t expect journalists to refer to RFK Jr., as I often do, as a “raving antivaccine crank, but he is not a “vaccine skeptic.” Skepticism implies questioning the data, yes, but it also involves ultimately accepting the science when the data support it, as is the case to an overwhelming degree when it comes to the idea that vaccines cause autism.
I once listed eight traits that define an antivaccine ideologue, suggesting that if someone has more than three or four of them he’s definitely antivaccine, his denials that he’s “pro-vaccine safety” (or, in the case of RFK Jr, even more risibly, “fiercely pro-vaccine”) notwithstanding:
- Claiming to be “pro-safe vaccine” while being unrelentingly critical about vaccines
- The “vaccines don’t work” gambit
- The “vaccines are dangerous” gambit
- Preferring anecdotes over science and epidemiology
- Cherry picking and misrepresenting the evidence
- The copious use of logical fallacies in arguing
- Conspiracy mongering
- Trying to silence criticism, rather than responding to it
RFK Jr ticks off at least seven of these eight traits. (To my knowledge, he doesn’t claim that vaccines don’t work, but I could be wrong about this one too.) In particular, he claims to be “pro-vaccine” but never says anything positive about vaccines other than occasionally conceding, almost as an afterthought, that they work in preventing disease. Donald Trump ticks off at least five or six of these traits. They are antivaccine, not “vaccine skeptics.” The press needs to start calling them that. I’d even settle for the awkward AP Style Manual construct ““those who reject mainstream vaccine science.” Almost anything would be better than giving antivaccine cranks undue status as anything more than cranks by calling them “skeptics.”
They are not. And science advocates and real skeptics are going to be in for a long four years.