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.”
Kennedy claims that scientists admit to him in private that they are lying about the data. When he challenged one university scientist about the accuracy of studies showing that the presence of thimerosal in vaccines had no effect on autism diagnoses, “He folded like a house of cards. Three weeks later I heard him on the radio and he was saying the same things he said to me, which I knew he knew was lying.”
A cover-up of such proportions might sound like Pulitzer bait, but he says journalists aren’t pursuing the story because we won’t read scientific papers. (Phil Plait and I both have science Ph.D.s.) As RFK Jr. explained, “journalists get their information from government officials who are saying there’s no problem. Not one of them has picked up the multitude of studies that say thimerosal is the most potent brain killer imaginable.” When RFK Jr. challenged the university scientist about a study of the biological activity of thimerosal in vitro, which “everybody accepts because journalists hadn’t read it,” the scientist said, “ ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right about that.’ He backpedaled.” That’s because “now he was dealing with somebody who wasn’t afraid to read science.”
I talked to the scientist, who would prefer I not use his name because he gets death threats from unhinged anti-vaxxers. He said, “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”
Kennedy brought up his own article about autism and vaccines, which Salon published and eventually retracted. It covered a meeting in 2000 at which scientists discussed what additional research should be done on thimerosal. Here’s how RFK Jr. described it: “They panicked. They had a 3.5-hour discussion about how to hide this from the public, which I published in Rolling Stone and Salon. Salon later pulled it, said it was taken out of context. Read those quotes in [Seth] Mnookin’s book [The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy], not even in my article, better yet read the transcripts. If you even read it in Mnookin’s book where he’s trying to disparage me and explode me and say I used them out of context, he proves just the opposite. … The stuff they’re saying is so outrageous and blatant.”
Seth Mnookin knows the vaccine-autism conspiracy theory as well as anyone. I asked him about Kennedy’s claims, and he said, “What he has done is taken concern that there could be a problem as evidence that there was a problem.” Kennedy also said that Mnookin, in his book, “doesn’t talk about the science.” The Panic Virus has 66 pages of source notes and 38 pages of bibliography.
RFK Jr. likens people who believe that vaccines cause autism to scientists whose discoveries were shunned by their small-minded peers. “I watched this happen to Rachel Carson, who I knew, who came to my home. My uncle President Kennedy introduced me to her. … She was condemned in the press by Time, Life, Look, US News & World Report, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. She was totally marginalized as a kook. My uncle, I’m proud to say, John Kennedy, went against his own Agriculture Department and vindicated her.”
William Souder, who wrote the fantastic Carson biography On a Farther Shore and has debunked conspiracy theories about her, says that “generally, Carson and Silent Spring were treated fairly and with respect by the press. The few negative reviews and skeptical articles were far outnumbered by the positive responses.” As with most of what Kennedy said, a kernel of truth is distorted into something malevolent.
The underdog narrative is powerful. So is fear of chemicals. So is the desire for a simple solution to a complicated problem. And conspiracy theories are alluring. For some people, it’s deeply rewarding to believe that you and your fellow conference attendees are the only ones who know the real story behind the moon landing, Area 51, or the obvious example. Like doomsday cultists after the world doesn’t end, they misinterpret every new bit of information to make it fit into their existing worldview.
And vaccines are a special case. You’re allowing your healthy child to be injected with some mysterious substance to prevent a disease that—because vaccines work so well—you have never even seen. There’s a long history of conspiracy theories about vaccines, and it’s sometimes easier to recognize the paranoia from afar. In parts of Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries, people are convinced that a polio eradication campaign is a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children. They know it is: They have it on good authority from leaders with famous names.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s elaborate conspiracy theory is just as delusional and dangerous. Rather than accepting the findings of the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kennedy says the scientists are lying. He says vaccine-makers are intentionally poisoning kids and giving them autism. Only he and his fellow activists know the truth because journalists, although they may report aggressively on the National Security Agency, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency, are cowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kennedy had one substantive objection to Phil Plait’s story that I hope shows he may someday change his mind. We refer to people who say vaccines cause autism with the shorthand “anti-vaxxers” or say that they are part of the “anti-vaccine movement.” Kennedy said that he is “very much pro-vaccine” and that “vaccines have saved millions and millions of lives.” They will save even more lives if he and his colleagues stop spreading fear and misinformation about them. Kennedy is a passionate guy with practically unique name recognition, powerful connections, and the ability to command attention. He could reverse the course of the anti-vaccine movement today if he announced that his concern about vaccines had been well-intentioned, but that research has shown that vaccines don’t cause autism after all. It would be a proud legacy, one worthy of his name.