Respectful Insolence

Yesterday, I wrote about a very disturbing development (disturbing, at least, to the science-based community) in the transition to an Obama Administration. That disturbing development is the multiple reports that antivaccine crank Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is being seriously considered to head the Environmental Protection Agency or even the Department of the Interior. Given RFK, Jr.’s conspiracy-mongering over vaccines, his utter failure to change his belief that mercury in vaccines causes autism in the face of overwhelming evidence that it does not. My argument was that appointing someone who is so anti-science about the issue of vaccines, who is such an utter crank, would be a terrible self-inflicted wound and seriously damage Barack Obama’s cred as a pro-science President.

Since then, I’ve gotten a number of questions about what we can do to prevent this from coming to pass. Some readers have pointed me to this contact page for the Obama transition team and this Of the People page. I suggest that everyone who opposes the politicization of science use it to respectfully lodge their protest. You know that antivaccinationists who worship RFK, Jr. will be doing it.

My RFK, Jr./Department of the Interior/EPA posts:

  1. Why did someone have to kill my election buzz?
  2. Say it ain’t so, Barack! Say you ain’t seriously considering Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to run the EPA!
  3. Contact the Obama transition team to tell them why Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a truly bad choice for any science-based government post
  4. My last word on RFK, Jr…for now

Comments

  1. #1 Russell Bynum
    November 7, 2008

    Here’s what I sent in:

    If change if what this new administration is all about, part of that change should be focused on the promotion and furthering of proper (empirical) science. In this, I must point out that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cannot properly head the Environmental Protection Agency (and thus represent America’s stance therein). Kennedy’s record, while admirable in certain areas, is very much lacking regarding science-based issues. This is a fundamental trait of the previous administration and should not be carried over.

    For example: his record regarding mercury in vaccines and its supposed connection to autism is a prime illustration of his failure to grasp the basic concepts that modern empirical science is founded upon. If he can fail to grasp how vaccines are created and how their contents/ingredient interact with each other, it is likely other areas of logical deduction are hampered in similar manners. Kennedy may still prove beneficial to this new administration in other ways, but for any position that requires a firm understanding of science, he should not be considered.

    The environment and America’s role as a world leader therein must stand strong on solid empirical scientific methods and methodologies. Kennedy would degrade from all this and taint the goals and legacy of this historic administration.

    Thank you for your time.

    Oddly enough, once submitted, I got this:

    “Thanks for signing up.
    rnrn”

    Hopefully I sent this under the correct category…

  2. #2 Ali
    November 7, 2008

    letter sent. thanks for the heads-up. (fyi, i also received the ‘thanks for signing up’ message.)

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 7, 2008

    I started a “Cause” at FaceBook to help spread the word on the link. Twenty or thirty people commenting on Kennedy’s competence on science might not have an effect, but hundreds of respected scientists and fans of science might garner some attention. If you are a member of FaceBook, join “cause.” Respect for Science in the EPA.

  4. #4 JLowe
    November 7, 2008

    This is an excellent idea, and thanks for providing the link to the transition team’s web site. One suggestion for a letter: it may not be the best approach to solely emphasize his antivaccinationist credentials. The key points are that science at the EPA was politicized enough under the Bush Administration, and RFK Jr’s previous statements with regard to autism and vaccines bring into question his abilities to effectively deploy science and technology for solving environmental problems. EPA needs to be led by a seasoned environmental professional who can establish credibility with the professional staff, restore morale in the agency, set meaningful priorities and restore excellence in using science for policy-making. It is questionable that RFK Jr would bring any of these capabilities to the job as EPA Administrator.

    There, I just wrote my letter. Now to post it to the web site.

  5. #5 Luna_the_cat
    November 7, 2008

    I submitted a letter at the same site and got the same “thanks for signing up” message. It may just be the standard “this sounds kind of generic” response for any type of submission.

  6. #6 bobh
    November 7, 2008

    Better yet, try to find scientists who advise the Obama team. I know of 2 and I have sent emails to them calling this to their attention. Unfortunately choice of cabinet positions are inherently political decisions so I don’t know how much effect we can have. Worth the try though.

  7. #7 SLC
    November 7, 2008

    I would also suggest contacting the appropriate Senators who will have to approve such appointments. However, we need to have the scientific establishments weigh in on this issue as their opposition will carry far more weight then individuals posting comments on a web site.

  8. #8 Don Ogden
    November 7, 2008

    I think you folks are still spooked by the past 8 years of laboring under the anti-science mentality of the Bush regime. If anything, Kennedy might err on being too much the opposite! Certainly he would surround himself, and be surrounded by competent scientists. As you know, there’s more to heading the EPA than being a scientist and Kennedy has that leadership ability and commitment to protecting the planet and its’ inhabitants (that’s what you’re committed to as well, right?)

  9. #9 Maya
    November 7, 2008

    Dear Obama transition team,

    I cannot tell you how excited I am that we have an inspiring, intellectually competent LEADER in office after eight years of mediocrity. Obama is an inspiration to me. I salute all of you, who I know have and are working long and hard to make this incredible story of hope one of success.

    However, as a young scientist (Research Associate, Plant Genomics Group in Environmental Sciences Division) working at the DOE lab Oak Ridge National Laboratories, I am concerned that Obama is considering Robert F. Kennedy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am sure RFK has many great qualities as a politician that lead Obama to consider him, but RFK’s intellectually unsupported position against vaccinations is of deep concern to anyone interested in public health and scientific integrity.

    Vaccination are a hot issue for many and mandatory vaccination programs introduce morally ambiguous arguments on both sides. But that is not the issue here. The problem is RFK’s unwillingness to accept evidence that disproved the proposed link between autism and vaccination ingredients. This evidence was faithfully collected and reported by scientists of stature around the world.

    I have severe reservations about the integrity of a politician who continues to support an insupportable cause, one that has no scientific basis or verification. I believe intellectual honesty is deeply important for effective leadership in all offices, but particularly in one that relates so much to the natural sciences. Please, please, let President Elect Barack Obama know that there is cause for concern in this choice for a new leader of such an important agency in our new government of hope. Hope leads us, but we advance only when we have truth and reality at our backs. Thank you and best of luck in these difficult times.

  10. #10 bumblebrain
    November 7, 2008

    I sent my comments in as well. Thanks for pointing this out, Orac. I wonder if they have software to process these comments.

  11. #11 Orac
    November 7, 2008

    I think you folks are still spooked by the past 8 years of laboring under the anti-science mentality of the Bush regime. If anything, Kennedy might err on being too much the opposite! Certainly he would surround himself, and be surrounded by competent scientists. As you know, there’s more to heading the EPA than being a scientist and Kennedy has that leadership ability and commitment to protecting the planet and its’ inhabitants (that’s what you’re committed to as well, right?)

    If “err on being too much the opposite” you mean that he would go “too far in the other direction,” I might agree with you. The problem is, he’s already demonstrated his unwillingness to change his position in response to science through his clinging to the scientifically discredited hypothesis that mercury causes autism in the face of overwhelming evidence that fails to find a detectable correlation between exposure to mercury in vaccines and autism. Ideology trumps science for him, just like the Bush Administration but in the opposite direction ideologically.

    It’s more than just vaccines, too. He plays fast and loose with science with regards to the environment, as I documented with multiple links in my post. Finally, his temperament is all wrong. He’s always seeing dark conspiracies and is prone to comparing political opponents to Hitler and Mussolini, as he did in his book. His invective at times makes Ann Coulter look like the voice of civility. Finally, there’s his incredibly hypocritical NIMBY-ism when it comes to wind turbines that might muck up the view of the Atlantic from the Kennedy Compound. Apparently he’s fine with imposing inconveniences and hardships for the sake of the environment, as long as those hardships don’t affect him.

    The EPA needs an environmental advocate whose advocacy is science-based and who is willing to change course when science dictates. It also needs a savvy manager who can rebuild the morale of the personnel under him, restructure the agency to carry out its mandate, and run a sprawling bureaucracy. It does not need a conspiracy-mongering booster of dangerous pseudoscience (even if that pseudoscience is not directly related to his mandate) prone to fits of invective against his political enemies. In brief, the EPA does not need a pseudoscientific hack like RFK, Jr.

  12. #12 RAJ
    November 7, 2008

    RFK jr would be a terrific choice to head the EPA. He may be, and is probably wrong on vaccines, but vaccine safety comes under the control of the CDC not the EPA. There has been no mre effective advocate for the environment than RFK jr. Enforcing EPA standards screams out for an effective advocate.

  13. #13 Orac
    November 7, 2008

    He may be, and is probably wrong on vaccines,

    There is no “may be” or “probably” about it. He is definitely wrong about vaccines, and it is his very wrongness about vaccines that reveals him to be willing to jettison science for ideology. Indeed, the same sort of evidence that exonerates vaccines as a cause of autism is the sort of evidence that is used for environmental issues to determine what regulation are and are not advisable. If he can’t evaluate the very clear evidence with regard to vaccines, he almost certainly can’t properly evaluate scientific evidence with regard to environmental threats.

  14. #14 JMG3Y
    November 7, 2008

    Another need is to alert the legislative or political action committees of your professional organizations about this potential appointment. They likely have personal contacts among the members of the transition team. As he is unlikely to limit his agenda to the EPA brief, such an appointment would likely have adverse effects on public health as well.

  15. #15 Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT, OM
    November 7, 2008

    I’m no wordsmith but here was my shot.

    President Elect Obama’s Transition Team,

    Congratulation on a historic win. I am proud to say I cast my vote for the President Elect. We have a tough row to hoe and there will be many challenges ahead. One of those challenges is appointing a team that is filled with the best possible people for the positions considered. If we learned anything over the past 8 years it is that the Bush administration did not hold science in high regard. The outgoing administration was anti-science or at least only used science when it furthered their agenda. They did their best to stifle reports that did not jibe with their ideology or economic desire and they appointed people who deliberately tried to keep scientific progress beholden to the whims of religion. The damage done was significant. Appointing RFK Jr. to any position in the administration that has to deal with science issues would be continuing this trend. Mr. Kennedy has shown that he is easily swayed by pseudo-science, in particular the anti-vaccination movement and the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This link has been so thoroughly disproven by every serious study that anyone who clings to the proclamations of the anti-vaccination crowd as truth must be examined carefully. RFK Jr. is one of those people. Once one understands this, they have to be skeptical of his ability to judge scientific evidence clearly. The person at the head of the EPA needs to be able to understand where the scientific consensus is and also be able to disseminate this information to the president and the country. The scientific consensus is that vaccinations do not cause autism yet Mr. Kennedy for some reason can not grasp that point. This does not bode well for his critical thinking and comprehension skills when it comes to other evidence based science and scientific issues. I do not doubt that he is a good man and with the connections he so obviously has would be a useful person to have on the side of the administration as a political contact. He is however the wrong man for the job as the head of the EPA.

    Thank you for considering this very important issue.

  16. #16 Mojo
    November 7, 2008

    “He is definitely wrong about vaccines, and it is his very wrongness about vaccines that reveals him to be willing to jettison science for ideology.”

    Not so much his wrongness per se as his maintenance of his wrongness in the face of overwhelming evidence.

  17. #17 Orac
    November 7, 2008

    Point taken. It’s his stubborn clinging to pseudoscience in the face of overwhelming evidence refutintg his position that makes him unsuitable for a high ranking position having anything to do with policy based on science.

  18. #18 Scott
    November 7, 2008

    Fundamentally, the reason to reject RFK is exactly the same as one of the reasons to reject Palin – demonstrated lack of critical thinking skills and active hostility to science.

  19. #19 mezzobuff
    November 7, 2008

    It may not be a bad idea to contact some of the science writers for the major news agencies: Alan Boyle of cosmilog at MSNBC just wrote a piece called Science in the Obama Era

  20. #20 Joseph
    November 7, 2008

    Not so much his wrongness per se as his maintenance of his wrongness in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    What I find more disturbing than that is his use of quote mining to concoct conspiracy theories. Hopefully his Salon article was written by someone else and his name just slapped on it.

  21. #21 chezjake
    November 7, 2008

    A hopeful note: The AP has out a list of potential nominees for many of the cabinet posts and other top appointments. RFK, Jr’s name is nowhere to be seen.
    http://www.boston.com/news/politics/2008/articles/2008/11/06/names_surface_for_top_obama_administration_jobs/

  22. #22 flygrrl
    November 7, 2008

    Thanks so much for this. I submitted my letter, joined the facebook group, and as my husband is a science professor and many of our friends and colleagues are researchers, science educators, and scientists who take these issues very seriously, I have forwarded all of this information to those in my network.

  23. #23 Dilaceratus
    November 7, 2008

    Dear Transition Team,

    After eight disastrous years of an administration whose signal characteristic was in never allowing evidence to trump ideology, my hopes for America are with an Obama presidency that will not allow their agenda to get ahead of their facts. To regain its economic strength, avoid future catastrophes, and remain at the forefront of science and innovation, America’s new administration will require advisors with not only a passion for its agenda, and a desire to do good works, but with genuine competence in their fields. This competence must include not only a deep and wide-ranging expertise, but the intellectual rigor and honesty to acknowledge when an idea has the strength of evidence behind it, and when it has not.

    That reports suggest Robert F. Kennedy, Jr might be under consideration for a prominent post in this new administration requires me to point out his past lack of competence in erroneously linking Thimerosal with autism. Not only did Mr Kennedy step far beyond his training and expertise in making this alarmist claim, he incompetently bolstered this claim with false and dubious reporting, used his name recognition to advocate his scare-mongering position in the media to the disservice of the health of others, and– most tellingly– despite not only a lack of evidence for his claims, but strong counter-evidence disproving his claims, has refused to concede his complete and dismal failure in proving his case.

    Irresponsibly spreading a dangerous and unproven story about something as important and proven as childhood vaccination is the very opposite of strong and competent leadership, and Mr Kennedy ought not to be allowed further chances to degrade the public trust in good science, and good government.

    Sincerely,
    [DSH]

  24. #24 ouini
    November 7, 2008

    Thanks, Maya for the fantastic base from which to scalpel away.

    Dear Obama transition team,

    I love that we’re back to an President who is science and reality-based. I thank you all for your work.

    As a skeptic and believer in policy solidly grounded in science, I’m worried that I hear Obama may be thinking of hiring Robert F. Kennedy as head of the EPA. I’m worried because of RFK’s belief — supported neither by scientific studies nor population statistics – that vaccinations can somehow be more harmful than helpful.

    Please, let President Elect Barack Obama know there are valid concerns about appointing such an EPA head. Nobody wants a leader who doesn’t listen to a strong scientific concensus created from dutifully collected and analyzed data. Good policy is based on reality.

    Thank you for offering us a means for voicing concerns in this wonderful, hopeful transition.

  25. #25 Blake Stacey
    November 7, 2008

    My inclination is to write a letter saying, “Yo, dudes, we voted for Obama over Palin. Don’t make us find out we got both.” Too snarky?

  26. #26 workaday joe
    November 7, 2008

    I just skimmed over his Salon.com piece. He seems to be raising legitimate concerns over the safety of putting thimerosol in vaccines and not saying that vaccines are a bad idea in general. To me, this is like advocating for child car seats and then having someone say “what, you want to go back to the days of horse-and-buggy?!”. Besides, the CDC was not the least bit up front about the use of thimerosol in vaccines and pretty much disregarded any suggestion that this load of mercury on infants may be harmful in some way. And since then some hospitals have switched over to thimerosol-free infant vaccines.

    Public health is fundamentally a dance between science and mysticism. The actual risk from any individual substance is quite small (BPA anyone?), but that’s probably not the most effective way to view it. You need advocacy and the willingness to question the status quo.

  27. #27 bob
    November 7, 2008

    Workaday joe, you are ignorant. “And since then some hospitals have switched over to thimerosol-free infant vaccines.” Wrong. Read up on what actually happened, rather than parroting the misinformation and lies of anti-vaccination cranks.

    Here’s my letter:

    ~~~~~

    To whom it may concern,

    A variety of science blogs are reporting that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is being considered for a position in the Obama administration, often as head of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of the Interior. I think this would be an extremely inappropriate appointment, due to Mr. Kennedy’s anti- and pseudo-scientific opinions.

    Mr. Kennedy is an anti-vaccinationist; that is, he believes vaccinations are dangerous and problematic in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. He either ignores this evidence or explains it away by appealing to vague conspiracy theories. This is a problem unto itself, of course, but more importantly it casts serious doubts upon his ability to approach critical issues logically and honestly.

    Science is extraordinarily important to the future of this nation, and the politicization of science during the previous administration was damaging in way too numerous to list. In my opinion, appointing Mr. Kennedy to a position in the Obama administration would be a continuation of this dangerous politicization trend. Science must maintain its objectivity, and should not be changed via political whims.

    Mr. Kennedy arrived at his opinions unscientifically, and has defended them unscientifically. I fear what his politics might do to science in the Obama administration, if he is granted a Cabinet-level (or indeed any) position of power.

    Thank you for your time.

    Sincerely,

    ~~~~~

  28. #28 Blake Stacey
    November 7, 2008

    workaday joe:

    Whether a person seems to be raising legitimate concerns is a different question than whether they are. Creationists make careers out of seeming to raise legitimate concerns about evolutionary biology, and after decades of trying, they’ve yet to say anything sensible.

    The following are the names mentioned as possible EPA heads in the aforelinked AP story:

    Lisa P. Jackson, commissioner of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

    Mary Nichols, head of California Air Resources Board.

    Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

    What do we know about these people? Are any of them good enough that we could mention them as plausible upstanding alternatives to RFK in the letters we write?

  29. #29 Orac
    November 7, 2008

    He’s doing nothing of the sort. Read the links about his Deadly Immunity story, which refute all of his major claims and reveal RFK, Jr. to be nothing more than a quote-mining conspiracy theorist who confueses correlation with causation and delves full bore into pseudoscience.

  30. #30 BB
    November 7, 2008

    My message:
    Congratulations on a job well-done! Now that your are assembling lists of people to perform essential tasks in the new administration, I’d like to point out that critical thinking skills, excellent ones, should be a sine qua non. In this regard, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is mentioned as a possible candidate for head of EPA, is someone who lacks critical thinking skills. I cite as evidence his campaign against mercury preservatives in vaccines as the cause of autism, even though such preservatives were removed from vaccines several years yet autism rates remain the same or still rise. Such a disregard for evidence-based science in an EPA head will not serve the people of the USA. We’re are just now coming out from under the shadow of 8 long years of gutting science and the scientific method. Don’t let it be said that President Obama continued any sort of pseudoscience.
    Thank you.

  31. #31 workaday joe
    November 7, 2008

    bob-
    just read over /Deadly Immunity/. Thanks for the link.

    I’ll agree that it seems pretty conspiracy-theorist, but I still didn’t see anywhere in the story that he said he was not in favor of vaccination.

    You are correct that I am not particularly well-versed in this controversy. Do you have any links that show a succinct timeline or list of events that include the CDC’s side of this? Do you have any that specifically refute his claims?

    Thanks.

  32. #32 DSimon
    November 7, 2008

    Here’s what I wrote:

    Mr. President-Elect, I voted for you hoping that you would put the United States government back into a role where it can help science, rather than impede it. Lately, however, I was dismayed to hear rumors that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is under consideration for a position in your administration. This person is clearly unsuitable for any role requiring scientific literacy.

    RFK Jr.’s articles and opinion pieces have shown a remarkable lack of understanding of both the issues of the day and the basic tenets of honesty and respect. He advanced (and continues to advance) the anti-vaccination movement, which lost what scientific credibility it had years ago after numerous disconfirming studies.

    Furthermore, he has shown a tendency to smear and lie about his opponents mercilessly, accusing scientists of “hating mothers”, and once labeling a biologist who disagreed with his opinions a “biostitute”. To him, it appears, there is no honest disagreement; anyone who does not side with his views must be evil.

    RFK Jr.’s unscientific conspiracy-mongering and abrasive demeanor do not belong in a science-friendly administration. Please, live up to the expectations of my vote: choose competent, scientifically literate people to work in the new administration.

  33. #33 joan
    November 7, 2008

    This is tangential, but if you haven’t seen it yet, I figured you’d want to. Yay for the press not fear-mongering: http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/family/11/05/par.vaccine.kids/index.html?iref=newssearch

  34. #34 bob
    November 7, 2008

    Workaday joe,

    I would be much more willing to buy your aw-shucks just-askin-questions gambit if there wasn’t an elaborate, uber-hyperlinked entry *on this very blog* detailing why RFK Jr is a crank. It’s a whopping three entries below this entry, which you have now commented on multiple times yet have not taken the time to even casually peruse the related meaty posts.

    That entry, and the sites it links to, would be a fine place to verse yourself in this controversy. Assuming you’re honestly just looking for information, and not just a conspiracy theorist pulling a Joe-Rogan-esque “I’m just a guy asking questions, but isn’t it funny that [bulls--t conspiracy-mongering] and [outright falsehoods].”

  35. #35 CP
    November 7, 2008

    Just sent in my letter. Forgot to copy it before closing the window, unfortunately, so unless they send me a copy I can’t re-post it here.

    I also joined the Facebook cause mentioned above.

  36. #36 rj5
    November 7, 2008

    Message sent. One word of advice: Keep it short and to the point, they don’t have time to read essays.

  37. #37 grasshopper
    November 7, 2008

    RFK is a denialist in the best tradition of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the former South African health minister in the Mbeki government.
    Manto Tshabalala-Msimang called AIDS antiretroviral drugs “poison”, advocated the use of certain herbs and fruits for a cure, and probably thought a cup of tea and a good lie down would cure it too.

  38. #38 Rogue Epidemiologist
    November 7, 2008

    meanwhile, the crazies at sMothering are all cheering.

    (click name for link if above a href tag fails to work)

  39. #39 George
    November 7, 2008

    Done!

  40. #40 Dan
    November 7, 2008

    what I sent:

    President-Elect Obama,

    I was not your biggest supporter during the campaign. However, your election gives me hope that we will have an administration that takes science seriously and does not expose it to excess politics.

    In this regard, please do not select Robert F Kennedy to have a policy position in any science-related department, particularly the EPA. There are many fine people who have the management, scientific, and environmental credentials for this job instead.

    Thank you for your time, and good luck with your administration. I know it’s going to be a tough job.

  41. #41 Steven Salzberg
    November 7, 2008

    I posted a letter similar to many above. RFK Jr. would be a disaster in *any* post that involved science, and the EPA is such a post. I hope Obama will listen.

    For those who live in the D.C. area, I’m giving a public lecture tomorrow (1:30pm, Nov 8, Sat.) at the National Capital Area Skeptics society on the subject of vaccines and autism. The lecture is announced at ncas.org, and it will be at the NSF offices in Arlington.

  42. #42 Tyler DiPietro
    November 7, 2008

    This may sound grandiose but I’ll throw it out there anyway: Would it be a good idea to try and get any scientific and medical organizations on board in opposing the potential appointment, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics? This is certainly an issue that is of interest to them.

  43. #43 Azkyroth
    November 7, 2008

    Mine:

    Dear President-Elect Obama,

    As a citizen concerned about America falling behind in scientific and medical progress, both in terms of research and in terms of applied outcomes – and as the parent of an autistic child – I have been eagerly awaiting fulfillment of the Obama campaign’s promises to provide an administration which promotes and practices sound science and scientific integrity, and which works to ensure that all Americans can get the healthcare treatment they need. Unfortunately, the suggestion of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., as a possible pick for head of the EPA is not at all reassuring.

    Mr. Kennedy, whatever his merits or qualifications in other areas, is a man who has convinced me and any others that he is either appallingly ignorant of, or recklessly dismissive of, both the actual state of scientific discovery and the process by which science operates, and very possible recklessly dismissive of human welfare in his desire to score political points as well. In 2005, he released a book and a news article which argued, against the entire weight of actual research, for the discredited hypothesis that thimerosol in vaccines is a cause of autism, and claimed that a conspiracy between the CDC and the major pharmaceutical companies was endeavoring to suppress evidence of this. The rhetorical methods and use of quoted sources in this article can be described as disingenuous at best. Since then, he has continued to promote this discredited hypothesis, long past the point where his behavior could possibly be considered an “honest mistake,” and lent his rhetorical skills and perceived credibility to a movement which has: aggressively promoted unlicensed human medical experimentation in the form of quack “cures” for autism, quack cures that have claimed at least one child’s life and likely damaged the health of many more; caused needless anguish and heartbreak both by blaming parents’ choices for their children’s autism – which all available evidence shows is a primarily genetic condition – and by promising false hope; endangered thousands to millions of children by discouraging parents from vaccinating them against diseases that are many orders of magnitude more likely to disable or even kill a child than vaccines; and, perhaps worst, worked to divert parental and researcher attention, and funding from various sources, away from treatments such as ABA that have actually been shown to help autistic children (my daughter, for instance, has made amazing progress) by teaching them the skills they need to survive in the world in a way that their differently-wired (not “damaged”) brains can absorb and utilize.

    While I realize that, as head of the EPA or Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Kennedy would not be dealing directly with matters of public health policy or healthcare, his anti-scientific viewpoint and willingness to politicize science would almost certainly taint both his work, and the entire administration. Appointing this – I will not mix words – anti-vaccination crank to any post would both lend him completely undeserved credibility and publicity, and irreparably damage the administration’s promises to promote sound science and resist the politicization of science and proliferation of pseudoscience. Like many other Americans concerned with scientific progress, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider considering him for this position or any other in your administration.

    Sincerely,

    Alex Weaver

  44. #44 Harrison
    November 8, 2008

    I’ve sent a message as well. Let’s keep hoping…yes, we can help keep anti-science cranks out of the government! :)

  45. #45 Phoenix Woman
    November 8, 2008

    By the way, Tristero over at Digby’s shop is joining hands with Orac on this:

    http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/no-no-rfk-jr.html

  46. #46 Skeptyk
    November 8, 2008

    What I sent:

    I understand there is talk of RFK, Jr as head of the EPA. This would be a bad move. Not only has he written broadly anti-scientific articles that have directly contributed to a hole in the herd immunity as he promotes nonsense about our vaccination program, but he continues with this behavior even after he has been notified of the facts, even after those who published his famous “Deadly Immunity” article (Rolling Stone and Salon) had to follow with numerous corrections.

    We need a scientist at head of the EPA. A scientist who is also a lawyer, and/or an economist, and/or a poet, would be great, but a scientist, first and foremost, and one for whom scientific truth is ascendant value. RFK, Jr does not fit the bill.

    RFK, Jr has, in the arrogance of his willful ignorance of vaccine science, dealt a serious and continuing blows to our national health, especially that of our children.

    My son is on dialysis. I think of him, both pre- and post-transplant, and the mortal danger that common childhood diseases pose to him. I think of our elders, people with AIDS, folks with chronic illness, and all our acquaintances on the dialysis unit, where we spend 20 hours a week. The drop in vaccination, for which RFK, Jr must take significant moral responsibility, has put all of these people in danger. And, it has put Barack Obama’s daughters in danger, as well as all of our children, because herd immunity is as important to the the success of our public health programs as is individual vaccine response. This is a matter of basic science and grade school math.

    RFK, Jr has exhibited continued contempt for facts in the area of vaccines, as well as other areas which you will no doubt hear from others about. It would be an oxymoron to appoint this man to the EPA. Environmental protection is closely linked to public health, and RFK, Jr has shown abysmal judgment and lack of critical thinking when it comes to perhaps our most successful, cost-effective public health measure, vaccination.

    As a health care worker, as a resident of rural Vermont, as a parent, I think EPA is a critical agency, and think that the administrator of EPA should be full member of the president’s cabinet. This is why I urge you to drop RFK, Jr from consideration for the post.

    I hope you all had your flu shots.

  47. #47 Good News on EPA/RFK Jr.
    November 8, 2008

    AP’s list doesn’t mention RFK Jr.:

    THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | November 7, 2008 06:23 PM EST |

    EPA ADMINISTRATOR

    “Lisa P. Jackson, commissioner of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

    Mary Nichols, head of California Air Resources Board.

    Kathleeen McGinty, former secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/07/ap-lists-names-mentioned_n_142290.html

  48. #48 yogi-one
    November 8, 2008

    Also throw in there names of people you’d like to see hold the post. He’d do well to consider some Nobel Prize winners or laureates in the sciences – I’d say Hawking, but I am afraid the advanced progression of his ALS is too limiting a factor. But that would be the ideal – someone the public (not just the scientific community) recognizes as a leader, who also has a proven track record with an illustrious scientific career.

    Maybe Michio Kaku – love, hate him, but people see him out there, and he would advocate for good science and more of it, at least.

    I just *hope* (couldn’t avoid using that word) he has the common sense to consult with scientists, not just other politicians, in making this selection.

  49. #49 holly
    November 8, 2008

    Thanks for the info, I sent in my note expressing these sorts of concerns, also mentioning that I was a donor and worked for the campaign on election day.

    Came online b/c I saw RFK Jr. being mentioned as a possibility for EPA in the crawl on Fox News (yeah, I don’t know why I was watching) and was absolutely horrified. I checked Pharyngula first, but should have known you’d be on top of it!

  50. #50 Bob G
    November 8, 2008

    Thanks to this blog for championing this subject. I too was concerned when I saw the original rumor. My comments to the transition team follow; anyone may feel free to excerpt or copy any part as you see fit:

    As a devoted supporter of Barak Obama and a volunteer in the campaign, I am writing to express my concern over the rumored nomination of Robert Kennedy Jr to a position in the EPA or the Department of the Interior. As a working biological scientist, I am aware of the faux controversy over childhood vaccination, and point out that Mr Kennedy’s published writings and public statements go well beyond the bounds of scientific rationalism. In short, Mr Kennedy has championed a viewpoint that is best categorized as crank or cult. The evidence in support of vaccination (with or without thimerosal) is overwhelming, and the lack of evidence for an association with vaccine mercury and autism is increasingly overwhelming.

    As with most of my friends and colleagues, I am hugely excited about this change in direction for our country, and would like to offer the caution that an appointment of RFK Jr. to a federal agency that must, of necessity, deal with scientific questions would be to get off on the wrong foot.

  51. #51 Rachel Robson
    November 8, 2008

    My missive to the Obama Transition Team:

    Dear President-Elect Obama,

    At a forum sponsored by the Woodbury Country Democratic Party’s Truman Club in Sioux City, Iowa in July 2007, I asked you a question about how an Obama administration would avoid cherry-picking data to support preferred ideological conclusions. The answer you gave me was thoughtful and clear. You talked at length about scientific consensus and dialogue, and conveyed a clear appreciation for empiricism. It was based on your answer to that question that I became an early and enthusiastic supporter of your presidential campaign. I served as an Obama Precinct Captain both for the Iowa Caucuses and for the General Election. I recruited volunteers and raised money for your campaign throughout this election season. In the past few weeks, I knocked on hundreds of doors. I dedicated this time and effort to your campaign because of what I perceived as your dedication to fact-based policy making.

    In light of this history, I am dismayed by recent reports that you may be seriously considering Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Kennedy’s history as an antivaccine activist is directly at odds with the response you gave me to my query on data-based policy you gave me at that forum over a year ago. Mr. Kennedy has shown a cavalier disregard for data that do not support his predetermined conclusions, and has dismissed the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism as proof of an elaborate conspiracy between pediatricians, pharmaceutical companies, and the CDC. Mr. Kennedy is notorious among infectious disease specialists for his cherry-picking of data in the articles he’s written for popular publications, and for taking the words of scientists and physicians ridiculously out of context to score political points.

    I have enthusiastically supported your campaign for the presidency from its earliest days in Iowa because I believe that you are truly dedicated to the notion that good data make good policy. I believe you are truly committed to the promotion of civil discourse, which treats the arguments of our adversaries in good faith.

    Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. represents neither of those ideals. He is clearly not interested in following the data wherever it may lead, which would make him a terrible choice to lead any science-based agency such as the EPA. Further, through his belief in conspiracy theories and his willingness to ascribe malicious motives to scientists who produce data which disagree with his ideas, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has shown himself to be unwilling to promote civil discourse.

    For these reasons, I think that appointing Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to head the EPA would be a serious mistake for a nascent administration already burdened with having to undo the effects of eight years of placing ideology ahead of data.

    Thank you very much for your careful consideration of this issue.

    Sincerely,
    Rachel L. Robson, Ph.D.
    Microbiologist; specialty in infectious diseases
    Woodbury Country (IA) Precinct 10 Captain, Obama Presidential Campaign

  52. #52 Rachel Robson
    November 8, 2008

    Oops…Sorry about the double post.

  53. #53 Mad Hussein LOLScientist, FCD
    November 9, 2008

    Done.

  54. #54 Angela Flynn
    November 10, 2008

    I have not followed this issue closely , but there are studies that show a strong correlation between thimerosal exposure and autism. Isn’t it possible that autism is a genetic condition that has environmental triggers?

    http://www.nationalautismassociation.org/thimerosal.php

    A growing number of scientists and researchers believe that a relationship between the increase in neurodevelopmental disorders of autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and speech or language delay, and the increased use of thimerosal in vaccines is plausible and deserves more scrutiny. In 2001, the Institute of Medicine determined that such a relationship is biologically plausible, but that not enough evidence exists to support or reject this hypothesis. Recent studies have confirmed the association between the use of thimerosal and autism has moved from “biologically plausible” to a “biological certainty” (Boyd Haley). Recent work by Dr. Mark Geier and David Geier in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons and Experimental Biology and Medicine have shown strong epidemiological evidence for a causal relationship between thimerosal and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

  55. #55 Angela Flynn
    November 10, 2008

    I have not followed this issue closely , but there are studies that show a strong correlation between thimerosal exposure and autism. Isn’t it possible that autism is a genetic condition that has environmental triggers? Or that some cases are genetic and others environmental? As it is, a quick search does not result in any conclusive evidence that a genetic cause for autism is widely accepted. Can someone please refer me to this evidence?

    Just FYI I am copying this below.

    http://www.nationalautismassociation.org/thimerosal.php

    A growing number of scientists and researchers believe that a relationship between the increase in neurodevelopmental disorders of autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and speech or language delay, and the increased use of thimerosal in vaccines is plausible and deserves more scrutiny. In 2001, the Institute of Medicine determined that such a relationship is biologically plausible, but that not enough evidence exists to support or reject this hypothesis. Recent studies have confirmed the association between the use of thimerosal and autism has moved from “biologically plausible” to a “biological certainty” (Boyd Haley). Recent work by Dr. Mark Geier and David Geier in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons and Experimental Biology and Medicine have shown strong epidemiological evidence for a causal relationship between thimerosal and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

  56. #56 Chris H.
    November 10, 2008

    Angela Flynn said “I have not followed this issue closely ,”

    Then go to the Scienceblog’s Book Club site, and read the most recent book. Get it from your local library. Then you will not look like (as my kids tell me) a n00b.

  57. #57 Prometheus
    November 10, 2008

    Angela Flynn stated:

    “I have not followed this issue closely…”

    This was the last correct statement in her comment.

    She should have stopped while she was ahead.

    Even the groups that formerly claimed that “all autism is a misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” have backed away (well, run away is more like it) from that claim.

    The “science” of the Geiers and Boyd Haley has been publicly disgraced and discredited in court – on numerous occasions.

    Studies looking at autism prevalence before and after thimerosal was removed (or drastically reduced, if you’re one of the “trace” people) from childhood vaccines have shown that there was no effect.

    Clearly, Angela Flynn has “…not followed this issue closely…”. Perhaps not since 1998.

    Prometheus

  58. #58 Mac
    November 11, 2008

    Thank you, Orac, for the comment form link. I submitted a comment against RFK Jr, but it looks like I missed the boat on it anyway. Fortunately it looks like someone else will be proposed. I’m grateful to have these issues brought to public attention.

    Mac

  59. #59 Herb Worthington
    November 11, 2008

    Dear Mr President, many people overextended themselves to buy expensive houses because they believed it was an investment. We chose to make a 25% down payment and live in an affordable house. We invested in the stock market instead. The value of our stock is down 30%. If it is fair to rescue underwater homeowners, should we be rescued as well?

  60. #60 Steve Hula
    December 24, 2008

    Seems when ever we put a “Celebrity” in office, simply for names sake, we end up paying for it. Ex: Gov Swhartenager and the $42 Billion CA. deficit. We need to qualify our politicians based on merit, past experience and performance. If Mrs. Kennedy qualifies, put her name in the hat with the other applicants.