The Island of Doubt

Most of my favorite ScienceBlogs colleagues are up in arms at the very hint that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. could end up as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem is RFK, while justifiably cherished for many years by the environmental movement, also happens to be the best-known member of a group of cranks that opposes childhood vaccination because of its alleged links to autism. Are Orac, MarkH, Mike the Mad Biologist, Mike Dunford and the rest justifiably worried? I think so.

According to Politico, “Obama advisers said the nomination would please both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.),” and even Obama is not immune from such political pressures. More worrisome is the fact that Obama on at least one campaign occasion, pandered to the anti-vaccine crowd by describing the science on the subject as “inconclusive” despite loads of studies that show no link. (For example, autism diagnoses rates continued to climb even after mercury-containing thimerosal was removed from vaccines in the U.S.)

MarkH sums up the danger of appointing even a trusted environmentalist to head up the EPA if that environmentalist has shown he doesn’t respect science:

When people have one type of pseudoscientific belief it tends not to be isolated. Instead it reflects a general incompetence in understanding science, evaluating the quality of evidence, and what constitutes good science.

And the EPA administrator’s job is to evaluate scientific evidence and formulate policy based thereon.

But wait, you might argue: RFK’s history as a lawyer defending clean water during the Gingrich years and his work with Riverkeepers proves he’s on the side of the good guys when it comes to the environment. And climate change and other environmental threats are for more serious than the vaccine-autism nonsense. And given that political compromise is a reality in Washington, can’t we just be happy Obama is considering someone like RFK for the EPA? Couldn’t it be a lot worse?

In theory, yes. But I think there are facts that warrant a different attitude. First, other than that one campaign gaffe mentioned above, Obama has shown a remarkably consistent respect for science and there’s no reason he should hire anyone who has shown he doesn’t share that respect.

Second, and more importantly, there are plenty of even more qualified candidates out there for the job. (And no, I’m not talking about Al Gore, although he might make a good climate czar if Obama is serious about creating that position, and if Al is willing to return to Washington.) Grist produced this list of possibles:

Mary Nichols
As one of the key leaders working to implement California’s groundbreaking and ambitious 2006 climate law, Mary Nichols has eye-catching qualifications for this job. She’s been chair of the California Air Resources Board since July 2007, reprising a role she held from 1978 to 1983 under Gov. Jerry Brown. In the early 1970s, she worked as an environmental lawyer, spending time at the Natural Resources Defense Council, then later going on to serve as secretary for California’s Resources Agency and a senior official in the Clinton EPA. Her extraordinarily deep resume would be hard to match if government experience factors heavily in Obama’s decision.

Kathleen McGinty
Pennsylvania’s top environmental official worked alongside Gov. Rendell in attracting green businesses and regulating coal and manufacturers — no small task in the rust-belt state. As head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Kathleen McGinty battled with Republicans and coal industry officials and succeeded in establishing tough clean-air standards. She was a long-time Al Gore aide who first worked on his Senate staff in 1988. She chaired President Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality, the first (and only) woman to hold that position. She isn’t part of Obama’s inner circle of advisors, but choosing her could signal to environmentalists that he takes their concerns seriously. (Read a Grist interview with McGinty.)

Dan Esty
A top energy advisor for the Obama campaign, Dan Esty would bring both EPA experience and academic policy chops. He served in George H.W. Bush’s EPA, helping to craft the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act and the environmental provisions of NAFTA. He’s now an environmental law professor at Yale, where he’s written recently on sustainable business. In April he helped bring a group of governors to Yale to plot ways to fight climate change. “With his closeness to the Obama campaign and his record with the EPA, I think he would be one of the top contenders,” said University of Florida political scientist Walter Rosenbaum. “He has a reputation as a moderate. But if you want someone who could rally the environmental troops, he could do that.”

So contact the Obama transition team and tell them to take RFK Jr. off the short list.

Comments

  1. #1 Steve
    November 7, 2008

    Thanks. I sent them this note:
    I’m concerned about the possibility of appointing Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as head of the EPA. Despite the science research showing no connection between vaccines and autism he still believes there is a link. A growing number of parents are not getting their children vaccinated because people like him and other well known celebrities are misleading the public. The EPA director should have a strong background in science and should be someone who is not swayed by personal beliefs.

  2. #2 Survival Acres
    November 8, 2008

    Wow! Have you even read up on the vaccine concerns? I sure do hope so, because your making a straw argument (bad enough) about a subject that is not even remotely related to JFK’s alleged candidacy’s for the position.

    His views on vaccinations are certainly not enough to judge him unworthy of the position. To assume so it to assume that something much deeper, that doubt is unhealthy, that inquiring to to the status-quo of science is wrong and that to do so, disqualifies you from any and all credibility or qualifications. This is a VERY dangerous position to take.

    I won’t try to convince you regarding the matter, either you are or will convince yourself on the subject (I already have), but to make such a logical disconnect is startling (for you). You’re brighter then this, I know it.

    Science doesn’t know everything — this is a very dangerous position to take, especially when the application of science (medicine in this case) continues to have effects that are not entirely understood.

    Do not forget, anyone that is “absolutely sure” is usually only expressing their bias and opinion, and close-minded to any further learning.

  3. #3 paulm
    November 9, 2008

    Hurricanes here, hurricanes there, hurricanes everywhere.
    http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1151

    A new record for the hurricane season of 2008
    This year is now the only hurricane season on record in the Atlantic that has featured major hurricanes in five separate months. The only year to feature major hurricanes in four separate months was 2005, and many years have had major hurricanes in three separate months. This year’s record-setting fivesome were Hurricane Bertha in July, Hurricane Gustav in August, Hurricane Ike in September, Hurricane Omar in October, and Hurricane Paloma in November.

    Paloma is now the second strongest November hurricane on record in the Atlantic. Hurricane Lenny of 1999, a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, was the strongest November hurricane on record. Paloma shares second place with Hurricane Michelle of 2001 (Cat 4, 140 mph) and Hurricane Greta of 1956 (Cat 4, 140 mph).

  4. #4 Luna_the_catq
    November 11, 2008

    “Survival Acres”: No, the problem is one of retaining a belief that the issue isn’t settled, long past the point that it is. It is settled that the earth orbits the sun. It is settled that evolution accounts for the appearance of species. It is settled that there is no statistical link between vaccinations and autism. The studies exist, the evidence is clear, science moves on to the real questions of how, where, why, when.

    In order to hold the positions that you mischaracterise as “skepticism” or “open-mindedness”, you have to ignore or deny all the mountains of things that we DO have evidence for, and that we DO know. If you don’t think we have that evidence, that basically means you don’t know enough about the field, or else that you have similar problems accepting conclusions which run contrary to what you _want_ to believe.

    RFK is a poor candidate for any position which requires evaluation of science, because he has demonstrated that he is willing to ignore or deny the real evidence available and the best conclusions science is able to reach, in favour of adhering to an ideology. This is never entirely compartmentalized; people prone to doing that in one arena tend to do that in other arenas.

    Environmentalism is good, but we need to get someone dedicated to understanding the best science possible, even if it runs against their favoured ideology. Otherwise we do not get an effective way of dealing with physical reality.

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