There are two sides to almost every story, and sometimes we publish both of them. That’s true even for science. When the new edition of psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual came out, Slate ran stories criticizing it and praising it. We’ve made the case that coal still rules and that it is doomed. But three areas of science are beyond scientific debate even though they are still debated by a lot of people. Evolution and climate change are two. (It makes sense to debate what to do about climate change, but the fact of it has been thoroughly established.) The other is vaccines.
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.’s keynote 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. for Slate 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 to creationists, 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.
Like a lot of conspiracy theories, this one started with a mystery: Autism diagnoses were going up, and it wasn’t entirely clear why. It was reasonable to ask whether vaccines were disrupting neural development somehow, and a paper published in a prestigious medical journal claimed to show evidence of a link. So scientists studied the question. They found that the incidence of autism is independent of when and how many vaccines children are given, that taking thimerosal out of vaccines doesn’t reduce the incidence of autism, and that the study by Andrew Wakefield purporting to show a link was entirely made up. Thimerosal is a mercury compound, which sounds scary, but mercury comes in many forms that behave differently in the body, and this isn’t the dangerous kind. And in any case, a decade ago thimerosal was removed from the childhood vaccines that anti-vaxxers claimed were causing autism. The evidence is pretty clear now that the increase in autism rates is mostly a matter of better diagnoses and more parents seeking services.
But RFK Jr. disagrees. A scientist told him about the changes in diagnostic criteria, but “I knew that that was not true, because I spent my life working with people with intellectual disabilities. My family started the Special Olympics. I worked at Camp Shriver from when I was 8 years old. … I saw every kind of mental disability, but I had never seen autistic. I didn’t know what autism was until I saw Rain Man.”