Naturally there's a lot of buzz about possible appointees to important positions in the new administration, and naturally most of it is probably either manufactured by people who are campaigning for jobs, or just hot air. But one rumor is so disturbing that I feel the need to address it. I don't like giving it credence even by condemning the idea, but I have to speak out. (Or write out, I should say.)
The rumor is that Robert Kennedy Jr. is being considered for Administrator of the EPA. One of the most important pledges Barack Obama has made is that he will restore respect for science. The world is on the brink of disaster in part because the Republican Party generally, and the Bush administration in particular, have substituted ideology and political interests for scientific truth -- denying anthropogenic global warming, the health effects of mercury pollution and other environmental contamination, and even supporting the notion that children should be indoctrinated with long-discredited ancient fables in science classes.
Robert Kennedy Jr. is equally an opponent of science and a champion of faith against reason. I have written extensively about his mendacious and absurd campaign on behalf of the preposterous, thoroughly refuted claim that a preservative used in childhood vaccines, called thimerosal is a cause - in fact, he seems to claim that is the cause, of autism. You are encouraged to read what I have written on the subject, which is in four installments, here, here, here, and here. I conclude:
Here's why this matters. A lawyer, who is famous for being the son of a murdered politician, has gained a very prominent public platform -- including a lengthy article in a high-circulation magazine, op-eds in the nation's leading newspapers, and appearances on many of the big-time TV yackfests -- to claim that "they" -- the secretive, corrupt, unaccountable cabal of public health scientists -- are all conspiring to conceal from the world the horrifying truth that the entire medical institution -- drug companies, the FDA, the CDC, physicians the world over, medical journal editors, academic researchers -- have collectively inflicted a devastating disease on millions of children the world over; and what is more, they are continuing to do it in poor countries where thimerosal is still used. What is most remarkable about this conspiracy is the absolute unity and the inviolability of the oath of silence taken by all those hundreds, or probably thousands, of co-conspirators.
Maybe you've been home sick some time, or channel surfing between innings of the big game, and seen those informercials with the guy selling a book about the miracle cures "they" don't want you to know about. It turns out there's a simple, natural cure for cancer; heart disease; arthritis; you name it. The reason people have these diseases is because they are caused by prescription drugs. Statins are the cause of heart disease. But just send this guy money, and he'll tell you the cures "they" are keeping secret.
What Kennedy is doing is utterly reprehensible. Apart from the exploitation and abuse of families coping with the heartbreak of having an autistic child, he is attempting to cause severe damage to the culture. (Fortunately, despite the podium he has been given by irresponsible corporate media, he hasn't gotten much traction.) As I have said a thousand times, the democratization of science is critical to the future of democracy, indeed the future of humanity. That means we need to expose corruption and self-dealing in scientific enterprise, to be sure. But it also means that we must have respect for the cause of science, the quest for truth using human senses and reason, and the norms of honesty, openness, and intellectual integrity which the large majority of scientists and physicians try to honor.
Science is conducted by flawed human beings, working in flawed institutions. But it is not a conspiracy against the public. Kennedy deserves no respect, and no hearing, from anyone, ever again.
Now here's why it really, truly matters. According to the CDC, the incidence of measles in the United States so far this year is the highest since 1996. "Low vaccination rates among children whose parents are religiously or philosophically opposed to vaccination are responsible for the increase in measles cases that occurred between January and July 2008." Many parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children because of the lies spewed by Mr. Kennedy. Measles can cause permanent brain damage, deafness, and even death. None of the children in the U.S. died, but several were hospitalized. I don't know how many of these parents were influenced in their choice not to have their children vaccinated by Kennedy's crusade, but if it was even one, he is morally responsible for that child's illness.
President Obama, you are certain to make mistakes. We all do. But here's one you don't have to make.