Nov 07 2008

Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test

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Comments: 21

I only write about politics when it intersects science. The major political theme I have discussed over the last two years on this blog is that science needs to be transparent and free from ideological meddling. Our society is best served when politics and government are informed by objective science, and great harm is done when political ideology dictates science.

We see this in numerous issues – global warming, biofuels, stem-cell research, vaccine policy, prevention of HIV and unwanted pregnancy (basically every environmental issue and public health issue), not to mention the teaching of evolution.

There is broad-based criticism of the Bush administration and conservatives in general over the last eight years that they significantly shifted the balance – subverting science to political ideology. This resulted in an appropriate push back, coming mostly from the left but also from the scientific community in general. It seemed that regardless of who won the recent election the situation would improve, as both candidates promised (see their responses to questions from Science Debate 2008) to restore the proper role of science in government.

Barack Obama, having won, now has the task of assembling his administration. His picks for cabinet positions and as heads of major federal agencies (like the FDA, EPA, and numerous other agencies) will be the earliest indication of what an Obama administration’s position toward science will be.

That is why it is extremely disturbing that Obama appears to be considering Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for either Secretary of the Interior or as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  This would be an unmitigated disaster for science in government, and I don’t think I am overstating the case. It would mean that abuse of science for ideological reasons is not a defect only of the extreme right but one easily embraced by the left as well.

Yes – there is already evidence for such abuse from across the political spectrum. Abuse of science was never the sole purview of conservatives. But the Bush Administsration raised science-abuse to a new level, and now the eyes of the scientific community are on President-Elect Obama to see how much he is going to correct what Bush did. Appointing RFK Jr. would send a terrible signal.

The reason for concern is that RFK Jr. is an antivaccinationist crank.  He has defended the belief, against all evidence, that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. He has attacked scientists who are just doing research and reporting on the evidence as being part of a dark government conspiracy, and as “attacking moms.’ His is a particularly vile form of antivaccinationist crankery.

Orac has done his usual thorough job of detailing the entire story, so I won’t bother to duplicate it.  Read his entry for more details on RFK Jr., and on how the antivaccine community is ecstatic about his possible appointment.

I know there are other considerations in such a pick – RFK Jr. would bring his celebrity status to the EPA, and he would be a payback to the Kennedy family for their crucial early endorsement of Obama. But from the point of view of the specific issue of whether or not Obama wants to signal a new era, and a stark change from the Bush administration, in terms of science and the federal government – RFK Jr. would be a disaster. It comes down to priority, and that is precisely why this will be a good barometer of what priority science integrity will have in an Obama administration.

It is also possible that Obama will focus on RFK Jr.’s history of environmental advocacy and his antivaccine crankery will be below the radar. But that seems unlikely – even a casual vetting process should reveal the firestorm of science bloggers and scientists against RFK Jr.’s conspiracy mongering and crank science.

The bottom line is that environmental advocacy is all about the science, and the Democrats have been whining for eight years that the Republicans have been distorting environmental science for their ideological purposes.  This position requires someone who understands science and the proper role of science as a tool of effective regulation and specifically environmental advocacy. Putting a known antiscientific crank in this position is inexcusable, and would strongly signal that perhaps we cannot look forward to the change we were hoping for.

Let’s hope saner heads prevail.



The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, has chimed in on this issue.  The article and the comments seem to indicate that science bloggers are being heard. It is generally negative toward RFK Jr. on the grounds that his anti-science stance on vaccine disqualifies him for a position. Let’s hope that is a positive sign.

21 responses so far

21 thoughts on “Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test”

  1. Fizzizist says:

    I agree, having anyone high up in government that is an antivaccinationist, or any antiscience crank, will be a disaster for everyone.

  2. John Conway says:

    Write to the transition team and tell them!

    I did. It would be terrible if Obama started out with this. We need to nip it in the bud.

  3. maliath says:

    Are there more ways we can get to Obama and the transition team besides the site? There are also rumors that he might give Oprah an ambassadorship. We need to be active on many fronts and prevent this from occurring.

  4. lizditz says:

    Reason Magazine: Even more reasons to reject RFKjr

    Michael C. Moynihan

    Kennedy is a well-know 2004 election conspiracy theorist who is under the impression that we are all being held hostage in fascist America. Ho-hum. So would you be surprised to learn that RFK II is also a Chavista? Of course not!

    Check out the video below to watch the Kook of Camelot argue in favor of the nationalization of oil companies and argue that Chavez is the “kind of leader my father and President Kennedy were looking for” in Latin America.

  5. Traveler says:

    “There are also rumors that he might give Oprah an ambassadorship. We need to be active on many fronts and prevent this from occurring.”

    Work to prevent it? How can I make sure that it does happen? Get her off of my TV, and send her off to Turkmenistan.

  6. suszennn says:

    if Oprah does get an ambassadorship…she earned it through much… and awareness….even if it is in a form that you do not agree with…

  7. Febo says:

    Oprah getting an ambassadorship doesn’t bother me. Ambassadors are supposed to suck up to people, I imagine Oprah would be good at that — but a pseudo-scientific hack being put in a position where he can use bad science to affect policy would be absolutely abominable!

  8. OpenMindedNotCredulous says:

    I have logged my concerns at earlier today before I read this blog (I learned about the issue from We definitely cannot affort to have an Obama administration making the same anti-science appointments epitomized by the Bush administration.

    Regarding the point made by lizditz: What exactly is your point? I subscribe to Reason magazine but I don’t mistake them for a source of objective information. Phrases such as “Chavista” and “Kook of Camelot” should be all that is required to dismiss the author’s opinions as being unworthy of serious consideration. Just because RFK II is an anti-vaccine crank doesn’t automatically invalidate his other opinions.

  9. KeithJM says:

    I’d be OK with RFK Jr as head of the EPA, just not the FDA. As you say, he has an admirable history of environmental activism. It is not possible to fill a government with people who agree with us 100% on all issues — It’s good enough for me if they agree with me on the area in their responsibility.

    For instance, I used to have a co-worker who was a young-earth creationist. I wouldn’t want him teaching science to my children, but I trusted him 100% to do his job (which was writing computer code), and was really happy to work with him.

  10. Arthur says:

    I completely disagree. Being pro vs. anti science is not a binary choice. I could certainly argue that anyone who believes in magic invisible friends that control their destiny, can hear their requests, and grant them wishes (i.e. most religious people) are anti-scientific cranks and completely lack critical thinking skills. Such people should never be put in a position of public responsibility.

    But people are multi-dimensional. People can hold irrational beliefs in some domains and be quite rational in similar domains.

    I believe RFK Jr. is such a person. On the autism issue, he is a crank, uses junk science, and rejects legitimate science. But his record as an environmentalist is excellent. He has been out front on critical issues such as global warming long before it was fashionable. He frequently embraces and cites legitimate science on such issues.

    He is a lawyer, not a scientist. I’d be thrilled if every cabinet member was required to have scientific training, but I don’t see that happening. While I might have reservations about making RFK Jr. head of the FDA (where his “religious” beliefs would conflict with his job performance), I think he would be a superb head of EPA.

  11. daedalus2u says:

    RFK Jr has shown that he has poor scientific judgment by his adoption of crank ideas which have no factual basis. He should not be in a leadership position that requires scientific judgment because he has shown that he does not have the judgment to evaluate scientific ideas.

    The EPA is especially important because the scientific issues involved are complex and in some ways counterintuitive. For example the use of wood as a building material is not completely benign. When a forest is cut down, about 2/3 of the standing carbon goes up as CO2 immediately as the bark, twigs, leaves and roots decay. It can take a century for that CO2 to be recaptured as the forest regrows. The wood used as a building material eventually decays to CO2 when the wood products reach the end of their life. If the lifetime of those wood products is only 100 years, using wood is a net source of CO2 into the atmosphere. In other words the CO2 released when the forest is cut down is never fully captured.

    People with good scientific judgment have difficulties with many of these issues.

  12. Fifi says:

    I wouldn’t take issue with Kennedy as head of the EPA based on his record in environmental protection. However, the fact that a Kennedy is spinning the “secret evil government meme” is hilarious and strange enough that I do have to wonder whether he’s simply that ignorant about science and been conned by quackery or a conscious propagandist who engages in anti-vax fear mongering for some other purpose. I mean, he IS the elite he’s claiming is secretively evil! He’s a Kennedy, it’s about as close to royalty as one gets in the US and I can certainly see the political benefits for Obama in having a Kennedy in his cabinet and why, politically speaking, it’s a good choice.

  13. pec says:

    How can you be so certain that mercury in vaccines isn’t harmful? No one has conclusive evidence on this, so everyone draws their conclusions based on their preferred ideology.

    You cannot completely ignore ideology in science, or in journalism, or any other supposedly objective field. Human beings are not objective unless the evidence is conclusive. “Skeptics” are biased in favor of the ideology of philosophical materialism, constantly drawing definite conclusions in the absence of clear evidence.

  14. Militant Agnostic says:

    For thoise who think Kennedy is good choice for the EPA.
    Orac his pointed out that Kenney is a complete hypocrit on envinronmental issues with his objection to a wind power project that would have spoiled his ocean view. I heard him interviewd on the CBC Radio One program The Current – he is a big admirer of Hugo Chavez. He was also going on about how OPEC is an illegal cartel – I should think as a lawyer he should realize the US law does not apply to the rest of the world. Given that Global Warming is the greatest enviromental threat that world faces, his advocacy of cheap oil is idiotic.

    We also need to consider the phenomenon of crank magnetism. His susceptability to pseudoscience and his arrogance of ingnorance are easily transferrable to any issue. He will probably try to direct the efforts of the EPA to some minor issue that fits his obsessions and away from more important issues such as Global Warming. He will also be a sitting duck for critics of the EPA.

    Kennedy is like Prince Charles and George W Bush – another arrogant twit who was born on second base and thinks he hit a double. Appointing him as head of the EPA would strengthen the antivaccination movement immensly by increasing his prestige and it would be as much of an insult to the scientists as G W Bushes various appointments of fundamentalist nitwits to postions in NASA etc.

  15. pec says:

    And your reason for denying that mercury in vaccines could be harmful to infants is mostly that you don’t want it to be true. I am not saying it is true, just that we do not know for certain. Common sense suggests that an infant’s nervous system would not tolerate mercury very well.

  16. Militant Agnostic says:

    Common sense suggest the does is too small to have an effect and the evidence confirms it.

  17. Militant Agnostic says:

    does should have been dose and I should not feed the troll.

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