Saturday, June 15, 2013

Lone Nut Theory: Robert Kennedy Jr.'s Politics and Advocacy

If there's a living embodiment that Life Is Not Fair, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has to be Exhibit A. Born into an illustrious political family, he blew up any chance at elected office through criminality and drug addiction that persisted well into adulthood. Now an environmentalist and progressive activist, Kennedy seems perpetually in the public eye, at least that part of the eye trained on the innumerable cable news shows on which he appears. But, watching him is a painful experience. His "impassioned" advocacy quickly veers into hair-flipping rants, especially when challenged from his political right. Most people in his position are either in an early grave, in prision, or living in tiny hovels filled with yellowing "Nader For President" flyers. We all know what has saved RFKJ from such a fate: his name and his $$, but in America that's more than enough. He is the ultimate "Fortunate Son."

(not only that, he - like many progressives - is adept at using the tax code and trust law to set up non-profit foundations to hide his assets and pay himself and his family comfortable salaries. Not that the IRS has ever shown any interest in that).

Folks on the right have had his number since he first dropped out of Harvard, but for Democrats and progressives, RFKJ is still an admired figure. But, his anti-vaccination crusading has apparently freaked out the good libs at Slate:
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likes to talk. When he calls you to discuss vaccines, he talks a lot, uninterruptably. He called Keith Kloor after Kloor wrote a story for Discover about RFK Jr.’skeynote address to a convention of people who think vaccines cause autism. You can read about their conversation at Kloor's blog. Phil Plait wrote a story about RFK Jr. forSlate last week, pointing out that the idea that vaccines cause autism is a crackpot theory that has been thoroughly debunked, that it is dangerous, and that RFK Jr. is one of its most effective proponents. 
RFK Jr. was displeased. His managing director emailed me (I’m the health and science editor) to say that the story was full of inaccuracies, and I offered to correct any errors right away. He said Kennedy wanted to speak to Plait or me; I requested comments or corrections in writing; we went back and forth. Eventually Kennedy got me on the phone and he talked and I listened. 
Slate doesn’t give equal time tocreationists, and given the overwhelming evidence, we would never publish a story claiming that vaccines cause autism. But it’s fascinating, in a horrified head-shaking sort of way, to hear how anti-vaxxers think. I requested a transcript or video of Kennedy’s speech to the 2013 AutismOne/Generation Rescue Conference, but neither the conference hosts nor Kennedy’s office provided them. I can tell you what he said to me instead. 
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. 
For a guy whose family has such a distinguished record of public service, Kennedy says some pretty awful things about government employees: “The lies that you are hearing and printing from the CDC are things that should be investigated.” 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.
And so on. It's probably too much to expect Slate's "Science and Health Editor" to wonder, hey, if the haphazardly educated RFKJ is wrong about vaccines, he might not be right about the other scientific matters on which he so passionately rants. 

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