Andy Serwer: Giving RFK, Jr. an unopposed platform to spread antivaccine propaganda on Yahoo! Finance

As I contemplated what to write today, my first thought was to follow up on yesterday’s post, in which I examined the latest video by the ever-intrepid antivaccine propagandist for whom no distortion is too distorted, no antivax trope is too much, and no pseudoscience is too over-the-top. As expected, it was very much a Del Bigtree joint, with cherry picked quotes from the World Health Organization’s Global Vaccine Safety Summit in December made to look as though major WHO players were “questioning vaccine safety.” (Spoilers: They weren’t.) The reason was a little dustup on Twitter, where Del claimed denied cherry picking the quotes from WHO officials and other scientists involved in vaccine safety and claimed that there was a lot more where that came from. Instead, late yesterday, a clueless PR flack sent me an email advertising an interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. by Andy Serwer on Yahoo! Finance Influencers. In it, Serwer starts out discussing climate science and politics with RFK, Jr., but a little past halfway in (at just past the 18 minute mark), things go south as Serwer asks RFK, Jr. about his antivaccine activism.

Here’s the video, complete with transcript, so that you can check it out as I discuss it. It’s a truly awful interview. Indeed, it’s worse than false balance about vaccines, a problem to which many a journalist fell prey back when I first started blogging. It’s no balance. It’s letting RFK, Jr. spew easily refuted antivaccine tropes, disinformation, and pseudoscience on behalf of his antivaccine nonprofit Children’s Health Defense. It might as well have been a commercial for RFK, Jr.’s activities. Oh, sure, Serwer does occasionally try to “challenge” RFK, Jr. on his antivaccine views, but he’s clearly no match for RFK, Jr.’s Gish gallop game.

Andrew Serwer screwed up inviting this antivaxxer on his show.

You can tell things won’t go well right from Serwer’s introduction:

Robert Kennedy, Jr., son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, has spent his life fighting for causes he holds dear, including controversial ones. For over three decades, Kennedy, Jr. served as an attorney for top environmental groups, going toe-to-toe in lawsuits against corporate giants. More recently, he’s questioned the safety of vaccines, eliciting rebukes from a consensus of mainstream scientists, and even from family members.

He’s here to talk about the 2020 presidential race, the future of the planet, argue with me about vaccines, and speak to the legacy of his family in the age of Trump.

Notice the false equivalence in which Serwer equates RFK, Jr.’s environmental advocacy, which of course sometimes caused controversy, to his antivaccine advocacy, both being portrayed as brave, as “fighting for causes he holds dear.” From my perspective, there’s a huge difference between being on the right side of controversial causes and being on the wrong side of science. I also can’t help but note the contrast. RFK, Jr. is on the right side of climate science, and I bet he would rightly reject the sorts of arguments he makes against vaccines if the same techniques were used to attack climate science and the scientific consensus that human activity is the dominant cause of rapid climate change. In fact, I know that he does reject the disinformation, tropes, distortions, and pseudoscience of climate science denialists—and rightly so.

Yet when the topic is vaccines, no pseudoscience is too bizarre, no logical fallacy too fallacious, no bad science too awful, no trope to ridiculous, for him not only to accept but to repeat and amplify. Heck, he even produces plenty of crappy science, pseudoscience, and deceptive arguments against vaccines himself (or at least his organization does). He issues bogus “challenges” of the sort that only the crankiest of cranks do.

Here’s where Serwer finally gets around to asking RFK, Jr. about vaccines:

ANDY SERWER: Let me switch and ask you about vaccines. I’m curious, how did you come to the position that vaccines were a problem?

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: First of all, you started out by introducing me as anti-vaccine, which I’m not. People say I’m anti-vaccine because they don’t want to have the argument with me about how to improve vaccines. And I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m– I believe we should have safe vaccines, and I believe we should have robust science, and I believe that we should have independent regulators who are not financially tied to the companies that make our vaccines.

No, first of all, Serwer did not actually introduce RFK, Jr. as “antivaccine.” He didn’t use the word in his change of topic above, and he didn’t use it in his initial introduction to the interview. Note again what he said in his introduction, “More recently, he’s questioned the safety of vaccines, eliciting rebukes from a consensus of mainstream scientists, and even from family members.” No use of the word “antivaccine” there. As for his claim that people call him antivaccine because they “don’t want to have the argument with me about how to improve vaccines,” I laughed out loud; that is, before I scoffed. No, we call RFK, Jr. antivaccine because he is antivaccine—antivaccine as hell! If Serwer had been on the ball, he would have asked RFK, Jr. exactly what he thinks would “improve vaccines.”

Come to think of it, his claim that he’s “not antivaccine” but rather a vaccine safety advocate is an old antivaccine diversion that goes back at least to Jenny McCarthy, if not further back. He’s also very antivaccine. Indeed, he’s so antivaccine that he’s likened the vaccine program to the Holocaust on at least two occasions that I’m aware of. He’s so antivaccine that during the recent measles outbreak that was in the process of killing dozens of children in Samoa and sickening thousands, he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Samoa trying to argue that it was the MMR vaccine that had started the outbreak, not shockingly low MMR vaccine uptake. He’s so antivaccine that (to be fair Serwer did mention this) his family called him out on it last year. No, RFK Jr. is antivaccine AF. No, really. He is not a “vaccine skeptic.” He’s antivaccine.

Next up, RFK Jr. explains how he became a vaccine safety activist antivaccine:

ANDY SERWER: Well, how did you, wait, so how did you pick this issue though, that’s my question, of all the other issues out there?

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: The reason I picked the issue– it kind of picked me– is that I, first of all, I was suing a bunch of coal burning power plants and cement kilns in 2004 for discharging mercury, poisoning all the fish in America. And people started coming up to me at that time, mainly women with children who had intellectual disabilities who were vaccine-injured. And they’d come up to me and say, if you’re really concerned about mercury exposures to children, you need to look at vaccines. And I didn’t want to do it. You know, my family’s been involved in the issues of intellectual disabilities for generations.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: It’s something I grew up with, I care deeply about, but I wanted to spend my time protecting water. One of these women came to me on Cape Cod at the end of 2004. She had a big pile of scientific studies, and she put them on my front stoop. And she was a psychologist from Minnesota. Her name was Dr. Sarah Bridges. Her son had been a perfectly healthy boy [? got ?] autism from a vaccine, the vaccine court had acknowledged that that was true and given them a $20 million settlement. And she put this pile on my front step and she said, I’m not leaving here until you read those. And I’m very accustomed to reading science. It’s part of my job. I’ve brought hundreds of lawsuits, they all involve scientific controversy. I started reading that science and I was immediately struck by the huge delta between what the actual science was saying and what the public health agencies were claiming.

You might remember that RFK, Jr. made his first big splash in the antivaccine movement in June 2005, when, to their eternal shame, Rolling Stone and Salon.com both published his antivaccine conspiracyfest of an article, Deadly Immunity. It was basically a variant of the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that “they” (the CDC) “know” that vaccines cause autism but are covering up the science that shows it. In the case of his article, his claim was that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative then used in several childhood vaccines was the cause of the “autism epidemic.” (We now know that the claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism has been well falsified.) Before that, he hadn’t shown any signs of being antivaccine, at least not publicly anyway. As for Sarah Bridges, no, the court didn’t quite rule that vaccines caused her son’s autism. Basically, her son Porter had a seizure when he was an infant after receiving the DPT vaccine and the family was compensated for encephalopathy. Porter was reportedly eventually diagnosed with mental retardation and autism spectrum disorder. Given that more recent data have shown no link between DPT vaccination and encephalopathy, it is actually unlikely that DPT caused Porter’s brain injury, although at the time doctors thought it did.

Once more, we confront the RFK, Jr.’s arrogance of ignorance. He thinks he can evaluate the science on a large, complex subject like vaccine adverse events and the epidemiology used to study vaccine safety by reading a pile of what were almost certainly cherry picked scientific studies used by Bridges to “prove” that vaccines cause autism. Once again, as he still does, he mistakes quantity of publications for quality of science. In fact, he does it again when Serwer falls into a rather obvious trap:

ANDY SERWER: But there is, Robert, a huge body of science that doesn’t support your position.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show it to me.

ANDY SERWER: OK. Well–

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show it to me.

ANDY SERWER: I can, but I’m not going to do that right here.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Show me one study.

ANDY SERWER: I’ll show you a lot of studies, but right now–

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: –says that vaccinated children are healthier than unvaccinated children, then I will put that study on my website and I will quit my job.

A rookie mistake. Never say something like a “huge body of science” to an antivaxxer on the air unless you can actually list some of it off the top of your head and tell the antivaxxer why his interpretation of it is wrong. In any event, RFK, Jr. is truly clueless on science, but in a way that can fool most people because most people don’t understand how scientific consensuses are arrived at. In any event, Serwer brings up RFK, Jr.’s family’s rebuke of him:

I’ve already said to them what I’ve going to say to them, which I’ve written and is published on our website. What I say is people say there’s this huge body of science. What the science consists of is a handful, a tiny handful of epidemiological studies that were written by industry and by the CDC, which is part of the industry. And none of those studies do– all of them are fatally flawed, and I can go through each one with you. And none of those studies do what you would want a study, that you wanted to exculpate vaccines, actually do, which is to compare a vaccinated population to an unvaccinated population and look at the health outcomes.

The Institute of Medicine, which is the National Academy of Science, which is the ultimate arbiter of vaccine safety science, has repeatedly said to the CDC, you are claiming that you have studied this issue, particularly the issue between autism and vaccines; you have not. Oh, it’s not Robert Kennedy. It’s the Institute of Medicine, which is the highest authority, scientific authority in our government, has repeatedly said to the CDC, you have not done the studies necessary to make these claims that you are making.

No, what there is to support the antivaccine narrative is a moderate number of crappy studies with huge methodological flaws, some of which are fraudulent, several of which have been retracted, to which antivaxxers routinely point to support their false claims and pseudoscience. Moreover, the IOM didn’t say that, much less repeatedly. In actuality, it has repeatedly affirmed that vaccines do not cause autism and that they are safe. On the provaccine side, there are a number of very large, very well-designed studies that failed to find a link between vaccination and autism or any of the other conditions and diseases that antivaxxers blame on vaccines. RFK, Jr. wouldn’t recognized a fatal flaw in a study if it bit him on the posterior. How do I know that? He used to tout studies by the father-son team of antivaccine pseudoscientists, Mark and David Geier, whose studies were notable primarily for how execrably bad they were and how dishonest they were about the results. He cites terrible studies as though they were definitive. No, RFK, Jr. is not a good judge of vaccine science or epidemiological studies.

So let’s hear what RFK, Jr. considers to be a “safe” vaccine:

ANDY SERWER: Well, you’re partly anti-vaccine.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: No, I’m not. I’m against vaccine– I’m for vaccines, but I’m for safe vaccines.

ANDY SERWER: What’s a safe vaccine?

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: A safe vaccine is a vaccine that has been tested against a placebo or against, or against a unvaccinated group, and that where that vaccine, where we can see from science, that vaccine is averting more harm than it’s causing. And that’s all we want. And if you show me that study, Andy, I will quit my job at the CHD, I will post that study on our website, and I will leave. Right now, not one of the 72 vaccines that is now mandated for our children has ever been safety tested.

OK, let me get this straight. RFK, Jr. claims to be “not antivaccine,” but he also thinks that no vaccine is safe because none has ever been safety tested. In other words, he thinks all current vaccines are either unsafe or not proven safe, which is unbelievably clueless. We’re talking black hole level dense clueless, such that every clue that he ever might have had is trapped behind its event horizon. Also, believing that there are no safe vaccines is the very definition of being antivaccine!

RFK, Jr. then elaborates:

ANDY SERWER: But how is that possible? Do you really believe, Robert, that out of all the 72 vaccines that you say are out there, that they’re all unsafe? Is that really– it doesn’t seem logical.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I don’t think anybody can say that they’re safe because they’ve never been, they’ve never been safety tested. And the reason they’re not safety tested and the reason they have an exemption– every other medicine is tested against a placebo, usually for five years in double blind tests, which means you give a blue pill to 10,000 people, an identical blue pill to 10,000 similarly situated people, and then you look at health outcomes.

Every other medicine, every other medical device has to go through that test. The only one that is permanently exempt from that is vaccines. And the reason that, it’s an artifact of the CDC’s legacy is the Public Health Service, which was a quasi-military agency, which is why people at CDC have military ranks. The vaccine program which was initially implemented as a national security defense against biological attacks on our country.

So they– people who were running it wanted to be able to get a vaccine to market very quickly to deploy it to 100 million Americans without regulatory impediments. So they said, we’re not going to call it medicine, because then we’d have to test it. We’re going to call it biologics, and we’re exempted from testing. And that’s why no vaccine has ever been safety tested.

You can tell how woefully unprepared Andy Serwer was by his not even gently challenging RFK, Jr. on his claim that there are 72 vaccines. In fact, he didn’t even notice anything wrong! Elsewhere, he also accepted the claim that the CDC said that 39% of the cases of measles in the Disneyland outbreak were vaccine-strain. They were not. Nor are today’s generation of children the “sickest generation,” as RFK, Jr. likes to claim. Serwer shouldn’t have interviewed RFK, Jr. in the first place, but if he didn’t know these basic facts he should probably refrained from asking him about his antivaccine activism and stuck to climate change and politics.

Getting back to substance, there are not 72 vaccines on the childhood schedule. There are not even 72 doses of vaccine on the entire childhood vaccine schedule, but the claim that children receive 72 doses of vaccines (or even more doses) is a standard antivaccine trope. It’s also an inflated number. Look at the CDC schedule. Even if you take the combination vaccines and separate them, there are not even close to 72 vaccines. There are 13, 15 if you count vaccines not given to every child. Let Vincent Ianelli explain how antivaxxers get to 72. After noting that children get around 54 doses of vaccines by age 18, of which one third are from the recommended yearly flu vaccines. Then:

How do you get a number like 72?

You can boost your count to make it look scarier by counting the DTaP, MMR, and Tdap vaccines as three separate vaccines each, even though they aren’t available as individual vaccines anymore.

To boost the Vaccine Doses for Children a bit more, they add pregnancy doses too. They leave out all of the doses kids got in the 1960s to make it look scarier too… This trick of anti-vaccine math quickly turns these 8 shots into “24 doses.”

The number might be a little different today, as Dr. Ianelli did his calculation in 2018, but the principle is the same.

Am I being unfair? No! Remember, RFK, Jr. didn’t say 72 vaccine doses. He said 72 vaccines, which makes his misinformation even more egregiously wrong. This is an example of how the antivaccine narrative slips into this interview in even the the smallest ways. By not knowing that “72 vaccines” is an antivaccine trope, Serwer was unprepared to say: Wait a minute, that’s an inflated number, and here’s why. One key component of antivaccine propaganda is that children receive way too many vaccines (“too many too soon” and “vaccines overtax the immune system”), and by not knowing that Serwer just let RFK Jr. slip a little antivaccine messaging in there. The same was true when elsewhere Serwer also accepted the claim that the CDC admitted that 39% of the cases of measles in the Disneyland outbreak were from vaccine-strain measles virus. They were not. There were no cases due to vaccine strain measles. Nor are today’s generation of children the “sickest generation,” as RFK, Jr. likes to claim (and did repeat in this interview without using the specific term).

As you can see above, RFK, Jr. even trotted out the “no saline placebo” controls in clinical trials lie. That’s an antivaccine trope that’s risibly easy to shoot down. Moreover, depending upon the vaccine and trial, a saline placebo isn’t always the most appropriate control, which RFK, Jr. clearly doesn’t know. It’s also a myth that no studies compare health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Guess what? The studies that exist don’t show what RFK, Jr. and antivaxxers think such studies would show. If anything, they show that vaccinated children are healthier, although the conservative interpretation is that they definitely don’t show that vaccinated children are less healthy than unvaccinated children. Of course, taking into account incidence of vaccine-preventable disease, vaccinated children definitely are healthier because they get fewer infectious diseases.

I wonder if RFK, Jr. will publish any of the studies listed in this link on the Children’s Health Defense website and resign from CHD. Somehow, I doubt it.

The bottom line is that Andy Serwer and Yahoo! Finance screwed up—big time. The blame clearly goes on Serwer and whatever producer decided that it would be a good idea to interview RFK, Jr. Serwer shouldn’t have given RFK, Jr. a platform in the first place, but, once the decision was made to do so, he really should have familiarized himself with the antivaccine misinformation that RFK, Jr. routinely lays down. He clearly did not or chose not to push back very much against RFK, Jr.’s antivaccine propaganda. Even when he did try (weakly) to push back, he got his posterior handed to him by RFK, Jr. because he was clearly not familiar with the techniques of denialism or why the claims made by RFK, Jr., which could easily be predicted with a little research, are false. He failed his audience. No, actually, he just failed miserably and gave RFK, Jr. a platform for his antivaccine disinformation.

What’s really frustrating about RFK, Jr. is that he’s very good on climate science. He’s also a great example of how humans can compartmentalize. What’s even more frustrating is that, because of his antivaccine activism, RFK, Jr. is a perfect tool for climate science deniers to use to deny the climate science that says that human activity is causing catastrophic warming of the earth’s climate. They can point to his antivaccine nonsense and ask how one can believe him on climate science if he’s so wrong about the science of vaccines. He showed why on Yahoo! Finance, and Andy Serwer let him do it. Serwer should never have invited RFK, Jr. on his show.