My recent Washington Post magazine piece on Robert Kennedy Jr. has prompted numerous reactions in media outlets, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. Generally speaking, readers have found the story both compelling and maddening. What folks seem to be divided on is how Kennedy comes off in the story.
Laura Helmuth at Slate says I was “remarkably generous” to Kennedy, “presenting him as dogged and genuine.” I disagree, in part. I don’t believe my story can be read as “remarkably generous” to him, but yes, he is portrayed as relentless and sincere.
Phil Plait, also at Slate, similarly felt that I should have been tougher on Kennedy:
Now, I don’t mean that Kloor treats RFK Jr. with kid gloves; the article actually shows his claims to be dead wrong and portrays him as an outcast from the mainstream. That’s all fine. I just don’t think Kloor really showed RFK Jr.’s true nature; something we here at Slate have seen for ourselves.
This perplexes me, since I thought where the piece most succeeds is in showing Kennedy’s true nature. Some science journalists appear to have picked up on that.
— George Johnson (@byGeorgeJohnson) July 20, 2014
Nonetheless, I think both Helmuth and Plait offer valuable perspectives and I appreciate them engaging respectfully with my story.
Writing in Forbes, Steven Salzberg confirms, based on his own experience, what I discovered:
What was shocking to me, the first time I heard Kennedy talk about thimerosal in vaccines, was how absolutely certain he is that he is right. Today’s Washington Post article describes a man who remains utterly convinced, despite the mountain of evidence against him.
Last September, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Mark Hyman received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It pertained to a “report” that Kennedy, an environmental attorney and Hyman, a medical doctor, had sent to federal health officials on the dangers of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once commonly used in pediatric vaccines in the United States, until the early 2000s. The ingredient is still used in some flu vaccines, which Kennedy and Hyman said was inadvisable. The Kennedy/Hyman report on thimerosal was a draft of the book they are publishing next week.
The letter (PDF) from HHS was signed by Bruce Gellin, the Director of the National Vaccine Program Office (NVPO). He explained why U.S. federal agencies would disregard Kennedy and Hyman’s advice:
The many federal partners involved in immunizations have closely followed and evaluated the scientific discussion on thimerosal and are well aware of the significant amount of information that has been generated in addressing this question. We have read your report and NVPO and the other agencies are intimately familiar with the complexity of the results and the science that frames your arguments. In addition to a thorough review of the evidence we sought the input of the independent Institute of Medicine on this issue. The conclusion of the scientific community is clear that thimerosal-containing vaccines are safe and effective and do not represent a public health risk.
Kennedy and Hyman don’t accept this conclusion. My cover story in today’s Washington Post magazine is a chronicle of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s relentless efforts to persuade the world at large that the scientific community is wrong on the thimerosal issue.
He’s pretty much failed. In the process, he’s hurt his reputation in the public advocacy world. As I was reporting this story, I learned some surprising things. One is that Kennedy doesn’t seem to care that he’s hurt his reputation. Oh sure, it bothers him, but not enough to abandon his crusade. When I met with him last year in his home, he was frank about how he’s exasperated his closest allies and associates. At one juncture in the interview, he shared his own frustration over their icy response to his then unpublished book:
Nobody wants to read this. Their advice is, ‘don’t wreck my career, don’t destroy my credibility, this is hurting me. My business partner said, ‘don’t do this, you’re going to destroy yourself financially. You’re making yourself radioactive.’
To which I asked Kennedy: “What do you tell your business partners and everybody else who tells you to give up?
I tell them, ‘if I die poor, then I go down fighting for what’s right.’
I don’t envision him or anyone in the Kennedy clan dying poor, but the sentiment struck me. He then mentioned this: “The team of researchers who worked with me on this [book] were top researchers. People who were cautious, like Mark [Hyman].”
That led to the second surprising thing I learned (later on), which was that two of these researchers were bona fide, mainstream science journalists. In fact, they had played a substantive, behind the scenes role in the book. (Due to the emotionally and politically charged politics of anything to do with vaccines, they requested anonymity.) Not that this confers an automatic seal of approval on the book’s content (which should be judged on its merits alone), but it did make me go, Huh.
As for the book, I have now read it several times. The third and final surprising thing is that I wasn’t able to dismiss everything between the book’s covers as hogwash. No, I don’t think thimerosal is a contributing factor to autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders, as the book argues. Nor do I believe that thimerosal has been proven to be an unsafe vaccine preservative in trace amounts–even with repeated exposures–which is another argument in the book.
That said, there is a larger body of science on thimerosal/ethylmercury–such as toxicological and animal studies–that I was not aware of. This is laid out in the book. Do these studies add up enough to indict thimerosal as a dangerous vaccine ingredient for a potentially vulnerable subset of the population? That is a loaded question.
I’ve been promising to dive into the weeds on all this, but I want to be extra careful with how I discuss the book’s evidence and arguments. I know that there are many people who would prefer that Kennedy and his book be ignored. But that is not possible if he continues to stoke the controversial thimerosal fires.
So check back in a few days for a comprehensive review of the book.
This weekend I have a profile on Robert Kennedy Jr. in the Washington Post magazine. During our numerous conversations over the phone and in person, I found him to be candid, self-deprecating, and unshakably confident in his belief that thimerosal was a dangerous ingredient that should not be in vaccines. (It was phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s, but it remains in some flu vaccines.) Today, no leading public health advocate shares Kennedy’s view. So why has he maintained his position when scientific authorities, including the CDC, the FDA, World Health Organization, Institute of Medicine, have concluded that thimerosal is safe in trace amounts?
“Because I looked at the science,” he said to me. The evidence that convinced him is compiled in a soon-to-be published book called, “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak.” I promised Kennedy I would read the book and tell him where he got it wrong, if I came to that conclusion. Before I attempt to do that (in part 2 of this post), let me back up a bit.
Last year, I characterized Kennedy as anti-science. I regret this and apologize for using such language. I have since come to believe that labeling people as “anti-science” is lazy and unfair–no matter what the issue. If we were to apply the label in a consistent manner, then there would be a large anti-science tent, as I have said before. I think Kennedy is misguided in his relentless thimerosal campaign–especially in the way he has gone about it–which is outlined in my Washington Post story. That said, I think Kennedy is well-meaning and sincere in his beliefs. He is what I would consider a flawed messenger, someone who inflames passions with irresponsible, over-heated rhetoric, which undermines whatever legitimate points he might have.
Kennedy knows that his combative, prosecutorial style is unhelpful to his cause. (He is a lawyer, after all.) So in recent years he recruited several medical professionals to his campaign. One of them is Mark Hyman, a physician, best-selling author, and doctor to the Clintons. Hyman is likable and diplomatic. He is also untainted by the vaccine wars, in the way Kennedy is.
Hyman became a major collaborator on Kennedy’s book, smoothing out its sharp language and shaping it into what he and Kennedy believe is a sober, scientific discussion of thimerosal.
In his preface, Hyman attempts to pre-empt the anticipated criticism: Read More
Some stories I pursue, others I let unwind a bit to make sure they are for real. The cover story I wrote on Robert Kennedy Jr. for this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine falls into the latter category.
You couldn’t find a more unlikely author of this story than me. Last summer, I wrote two critical posts about Kennedy. The first was in response to a keynote talk he gave at an annual autism advocacy conference that is notorious for bringing half-baked diagnostic theories, anti-vaccine fervor, and alternative therapy boosterism under one tent.
The second post discussed a phone call between myself and Kennedy, in which I learned he was hellbent on proving that increasing autism rates and an array of developmental disorders could be linked to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some flu vaccines and phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s.
Kennedy said he amassed the proof in a new book and challenged me to read it. I said I would.
He sent me the manuscript later in the summer. Shortly after that, we talked some more. He told me of several upcoming meetings in Washington D.C. that he had been able to arrange, relating to his book. One was with a senator and another with government health officials.
This piqued my interest. Read More
This week the New York Times published a profile of longtime climate skeptic John Christy. I found the piece perplexing because it contained no obvious hook or peg, as we say in journalism.
There were no newsy events in Christy’s life that might have prompted a story about him in a prestige media outlet: No new studies published by him being debated (or debunked) by the climate science community, no new book making a splash, no new controversial statements by him lighting up social media, no academic recriminations at his university, no close personal friendships suddenly and irrevocably breached because of his outlier stance.
The NYT profile could have been published last year or five years ago.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to journalists writing about high profile contrarians that have scientific standing. I applauded the 2009 New York Times magazine profile on Freeman Dyson, which climate partisans attacked. Dyson is a supernova intellect with huge stature in the science world, so his outspoken and widely publicized contrarian views were a legitimate peg for a magazine-style profile of him.
The same goes for Michael Lemonick’s 2010 profile of Judith Curry in Scientific American. At the time, Curry was undergoing a professional metamorphosis, from respected member of the mainstream climate science community to pointed critic of her peers and renunciation of her own previously held views on consensus positions. Naturally, the same climate partisans vehemently objected to Lemonick’s fair and evenhanded profile. (He explained here why he thought Curry’s turnabout merited a profile.)
So it doesn’t surprise me that a profile of Christy would trigger similar disapproval from those most passionately concerned about climate change and who are always on the lookout for media coverage that gives any voice to outlier positions. I’m not a fan of false balance myself, and I certainly don’t approve of shoddy journalism about any science topics of enormous public interest, be it climate change, GMOs, or evolution. But sometimes, as in the cases of Dyson and Curry, there is legitimate news value when well known, highly credentialed individuals promote views that are at odds with the majority of their peers in the scientific community. To ignore such individuals entirely would be a journalistic dereliction of duty.
My beef with the Christy profile is not that it was written, but that it had no discernible relevant news hook or theme (which it would have had, were it done as a magazine-style profile). It seemed pointless. It didn’t explore why or how Christy arrived at his contrarian position. (Might political persuasion, ideology, or religion played a role?) It didn’t put his situation into any larger context by bringing into the picture someone like Richard Lindzen, perhaps the most controversial and influential climate skeptic. If I were to pitch a profile of Christy to an editor, I would only do so if he had recently made news (he has appeared before Congress numerous times) or if there was something notable he recently did or something newly revealing about him I could explore. I don’t see the NTY profile meeting any of that criteria.
As a stand-alone piece in the news section, it amounts to little more than a story about one man’s battle against a science establishment that scorns and rejects him. That’s a legitimate story, in of itself. I just wish it was more probing and contextualized. But as with anything climate related, the story’s importance has been breathlessly elevated by some. Salon asserts that the NYT profile “sets back science.”
This from an outlet that ran a piece earlier in the year that shouted:
Your cellphone is killing you: What people don’t want you to know about electromagnetic fields
Salon, when you publish laughable, scare-mongering crap like that (which is not supported by evidence), you are in no position to be telling others what sets back science.
In 2013, Jeff Goodell wrote a long piece in Rolling Stone explaining how rising seas would eventually drown the city of Miami, Florida. The money quote:
“Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.
Later in the story, Goodell is with Wanless in Miami Beach when the skies open up. They watch flood waters stall a Toyota driver on a main road:
“This is what global warming looks like,” he [Wanless] explained. “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”
Call me crazy, but this sounds a tad hyperbolic.
In May, Coral Davenport in the New York Times wrote a much less shouty story on South Florida’s climate change-challenged future. But like the Rolling Stone piece, her story emphasized the seeming inevitability of Miami’s demise and the culpability of Florida’s leading Republicans.
This weekend, a long feature by Robin McKie in the UK’s Observer, a sunday paper that shares a website with the Guardian, covered much the same territory.* It even features some of the same characters in both the Rolling Stone and NYT pieces. Here is McKie quoting Wanless: Read More
Some stories peddled on Twitter are beyond ridiculous.
Man’s tumor shrinks when he alters environment, shuns cancer treatments in favor of acts of kindness: http://t.co/79ua1XrLTP
— HealthRanger (@HealthRanger) July 11, 2014
This particular one, published at the website run by Mike Adams, the self-described consumer health advocate (who I have written about here and here), is also dangerous. There are people with cancer who are susceptible to charismatic quackery and claims of miracle cures.
Many are particularly drawn to mind over body stories. For example, you might remember or have heard of Norman Cousins, who wrote a best-selling book in 1979 (later made into a TV movie) about how laugher helped him beat a disease. Today, there is a “laughing cure” movement and even a laughing guru.
Birds lead hazardous lives. They are preyed on by cats. They fly into tall buildings, glass windows, airplanes, cell towers, and wind turbines. All of this happens mostly out of our sight. In New York City, where I live, people go about their business while pigeons flutter all around us, sometimes annoyingly, but largely ignored.
One of the great urban mysteries is how all these pigeons dodge cars at the last second. Except when they break the pact.
Last night, while playing with my 7 year-old son in our local school yard, the pigeons seemed unusually active. It was around 7pm. I watched several chase after each other. Maybe they were playing, too.
I went back to pitching the soccer ball to my son, who wanted to practice his kick ball game. He kicked a line drive to my left that I almost snared. I broke the ball’s momentum and it dribbled a few feet from me. I casually strolled over to snag it. As I bent down, a baseball ripped into the back of my right calf. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I looked around the only other kids in the school yard were way over on the other side, playing soccer, oblivious to my pain.
I could barely stand up. I looked all around for the perp who I was sure whizzed a rock in my direction. Again, nobody in sight. Read More
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has vibrated the internet with a whacky speech he recently gave to an audience of climate skeptics. Here’s the bit that many are picking up on:
“I don’t know whether or not fluoridating the water helps people’s teeth become better or not,” said Rohrabacher, invoking his childhood memories. “I don’t know that,” he continued, “But I do know that in this country, we should be the ones who should be deciding what we put into our bodies one way or the other, not the federal government or the local government putting fluoride into our water!”
The water fluoridation screed elicited support from the crowd.
But back to the GOP congressman and his problem with fluoridated water. Wonkette asks:
What is it with Republicans and really fucked up ideas about drinking water, anyway?
How you can hate on the GOP for being creationist climate science deniers and then go on about how vaccines and fluoridation are poison?
— colin meloy (@colinmeloy) January 30, 2013