Nov 07 2008

Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test

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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.

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Addendum:

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.

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