Jun 23 2023

RFK Jr., Joe Rogan, and Vaccines

RFK Jr., who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is anti-vaccine. He will vehemently deny this, but I don’t buy it for a second. He is simply playing the, “I’m not anti-vaccine, I am pro-safe vaccine” gambit, which is disingenuous and always has been. We have been covering this topic for years, and David Gorski did a recent excellent review of this at SBM. You can’t claim not to be anti-vaccine, and then defend a long list of anti-vaccine tropes.

RFK has apparently been avoiding his views on vaccines on the campaign trail, but it always seems to come up. On the Joe Rogan podcast RFK found what he must have thought was a friendly environment, and felt free to repeat is claim that vaccine cause autism. This is a topic I have been covering for two decades – vaccines do not cause autism. But let’s do a quick review of this harmful claim.

This first appeared in the 1990, when the anti-vaccine movement hit upon the increase in autism diagnoses as a new tactic. They start with the assumption that all bad things that happen to children are caused by vaccines, so obviously they must also be causing the rise in autism. When Andrew Wakefield came out with his fraudulent and now retracted study claiming an association between the MMR vaccine and autism, he became an instant celebrity of the anti-vaccine movement. Trouble is – the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Wakefield, it turns out, had a patent on an alternative vaccine and was trying to torpedo the competition. But the anti-vaccine movement does not let science, evidence, or basic logic get in their way. So they simply moved over to a vaccine ingredient, thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative.

Years of research followed showing that thimerosal is completely safe in the doses any child would get through vaccines, and is absolutely not linked to autism. However, “out of an abundance of caution” thimerosal was removed from the routine vaccine program in 2001. Even if you think that pediatrician offices were hording older vaccines, they were certainly gone from the supply chain by 2002. The anti-vaccine movement predicted that autism rates would plummet, back to their pre-thimerosal levels. They didn’t. They continued to rise, because the increase in diagnoses had nothing to do with vaccines. In fact, the rises was probably all an artifact of an expanded diagnosis, diagnostic substitution, and increased surveillance. I and other scientists who follow the issue predicted that autism rates would not be affected by the removal of thimerosal. Guess who was right.

So anti-vaxxers scrambled. For years they argued that there was still thimerosal in the pipeline, that the effects of removing it would be delayed, and that the predicted plummet was coming. It never came. Anti-vaxxer David Kirby even lofted the idea that mercury from crematoria in Asia was wafted over to the US, exactly masking the effect of removing thimerosal. Here we are, 22 years later, and the predicted plummet never came – not a blip. This natural experiment was replicated in other countries as well. It’s as close to definitive evidence as you can get.

Anti-vaxxers were undeterred. They simply shifted their claim over to “other toxins” in vaccines. What other toxins? At first they put forward a couple candidates, like aluminum, but those claims rapidly collapsed. So they learned their lesson – don’t point to a specific ingredient, leave it vague, just say “toxins”, that will get the job done without risking being on the wrong side of actual scientific evidence. Except, for course, that the evidence shows that vaccines themselves, with all their ingredients, are not linked to autism. At the same time, the evidence has increasingly showed that autism is largely a genetic entity, and that it begins in the womb, before any child gets a single vaccine. Well, then, perhaps it’s the vaccines the mother received. No matter what, it’s always about the vaccines.

And there was RFK Jr,, from the early 2000s, supporting the anti-vaccine trope that vaccines are linked to autism. Throughout two decades of negative evidence he stuck to his anti-vaccine guns (although the whole time protesting that he is not anti-vaccine). Now he repeats the claim on the Joe Rogan podcast, clearly demonstrating that he has learned nothing, and that he is thoroughly anti-vaccine. RFK Jr. is, in fact, a full-featured conspiracy theorist.

After appearing on Joe Rogan’s show, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted that the interview was “awful”. Rogan and RFK Jr responded by challenging Hotez to a debate on the Rogan show, an offer Hotez has so far declined. RFK tweeted:

“Let’s finally have the respectful, congenial, informative debate that the American people deserve.”

Sorry, but that would be impossible. You can’t have an informative debate with a conspiracy crank.  It’s a lose-lose situation for the American people. It is, however, what every crank is desperate for. Just by having a “respectful” debate with an actual expert, they elevate their conspiracy nonsense to an equal level with science. They win right out of the gate. Also, live debates are tricky. They favor the pseudoscientists, who can easily just do a “Gish gallop” – throw out a steady stream on nonsense that the scientist cannot possibly address. It takes about 10 times as long to correct misinformation than it does to make the claim, so this inherently favors the crank. I would only do it (and I have) if the venue is truly neutral and if it is a controlled environment, limiting the Gish gallop and giving time to present sufficient evidence. (So, not the Joe Rogan show.)

What the American people deserve is better from their perspective elected officials. Even though, to some extent, voters get exactly what they deserve. What I really mean is that we need to demand better from our elected officials. But this means we need to put partisan allegiance behind quality control. When a crank, charlatan, huckster, crook, or generally unethical con-man is running for your side, soundly reject them. Don’t make excuses, don’t give them a protest vote, don’t play “both-sidesism”. Just say – nope, you do not deserve to hold any reigns of power in our democracy. This, of course, is also all true of Donald Trump. He is unfit for power, and has demonstrated so in multiple ways. Only blind partisanship would claim otherwise. RFK Jr. is the Democrat’s Trump. They need to soundly and thoroughly reject him, or our democracy will march one giant step closer to oblivion.


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