It's barely a week since Barack Obama was elected in the historical 2008 Presidential election, and there has been some rumors going around about which people he would pick for his administration. One of the names that has been mentioned, was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (RFK) as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
RFK has a solid record on defending the environment, and some progressives where quite happy about this possibility. There was one group of people who were vehemently against this choice, however, the science bloggers (who are largely progressive). This might surprise people, but with a little background knowledge, it makes perfect sense.
Scientists, and science in general, have been among those most negatively affected by the Bush administrations, which were actively anti-science and anti-scientist. It would take too long to go into all of the ways this happened, but for more on this subject I recommend Chris Mooney's
excellent book The Republican War on Science
While not all scientists and science bloggers where overwhelmed by Obama, there was a clear sense that if Obama won, this would change. Politics would stop interfering in sound science, and scientists would not face political pressure to confirm with political stances. In other words, an Obama administration, would result in a, if not pro-science, then at least neutral attitude towards science from the politicians.
This is why the suggestion of RFK as head of the EPA dismayed many scientists and science bloggers. RFK as it happens, is not the sort of person that gives confidence of an pro-science atmosphere. As a matter of fact, RFK is considered not only ignorant of science, but actively against sound science by many of us.
Why do we feel this way? It all goes back to June 2005, where RFK wrote an article that appeared in both Rolling Stones
. The article was titled "Deadly immunity" and was the shocking tale about how the scientific and medical community were covering up on how vaccinations causes autism. Or rather, how the component thimerosal, which degrades to ethylmercury, were the culprit of the rising number of autistic children.
This was indeed a shocking article, but not for the reasons RFK claimed. The shocking part of the article was the fact that anyone would publish it. Anyone spending more than five minutes on fact checking it, would have found numerous problems with it. The primary one being that there is absolutely no evidence of there being any kind of connection between vaccinations and autism
. And it's not like there hadn't been any research into it at the time where RFK wrote the article. There had been large epistemological studies in several countries, including my own native country, Denmark, that couldn't find any causation between vaccinations and autism. While scientists and people in medicine, are cautionary in nature, there were an overwhelming consensus of rejecting any autism-vaccination link.
Another major problem with the article, is that RFK demonstrated rather impressively the difference between how scientists and lawyers debate. In science, it is regarded as a cardinal sin to leave out contrary evidence, to quote out of context (often referred to as "quote-mining"), and to pick just the data that suits your (called "cherry picking"). Among lawyers, this is not only acceptable, but actually good practice - they are trying to win a case after all. One of the things RFK did in the article, was to quote parts of the transcript from the Simpsonwood conference, where a possible autism-vaccination link was debated. The quotes RFK presented gave a clear indication of a conspiracy to hush up a autism-vaccination link, demonstrating to the readers that the scientists had something to hide. The problem was of course, that the quotes were taken out of context, as a skeptic blogger, Skeptico, demonstrated by finding the quotes in the transcript, and including the context (Robert F. Kennedy Junior’s completely dishonest thimerosal article
). So, not only were the transcript of the conspiracy easily available on the internet, but a quick browse through it, would demonstrate that there were actually no conspiracy at all.
Still, RFK's articles did their job, making the readers believe that there were something dangerous about giving their kids vaccinations, thus increasing the number of people who didn't give their kids any.
It's without any type of hyperbole that I would claim that vaccinations are among the most important contributors to the increased standard of living in the last 100 years. It's practically impossible to overstate the impact the availability of cheap, easily obtainable vaccinations have had on our societies today.
20 years ago, when I had English in my primary school, I had a teacher who could not use one of her arms, due to the polio she had as a child. Polio used to cripple, and even kill, children every year until the vaccinations made by Stalk in 1952 and Sabin in 1962 made it possible to vaccinate against it. Now polio is extremely rare in the Western World.
Smallpox used to be a major thread all over the world. According to the WHO fact sheet on smallpox
: "As late as the 18th century, smallpox killed every 10th child born in Sweden and France. During the same century, every 7th child born in Russia died from smallpox." Now Smallpox is considered eradicated, due to a worldwide vaccination campaign.
Less serious diseases like Rubella, Mumps and Measles, are covered by the MMR vaccinations given in childhood. Rubella can cause brain damage to the child, if caught by a pregnant woman. Rubella and Mumps can cause hospitalization, but are rarely fatal. Measles, on the other hand, causes deaths. According to the WHO fact sheet on Measles
# Measles remains a leading cause of death among young children, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine for the past 40 years.
# In 2006, it was estimated that there were 242 000 measles deaths globally: this translates to about 663 deaths every day or 27 deaths every hour.
In other words, Measles are not just a minor issue, and people who allow their children to get effected with Measles, are risking their lives. Even if the child survives, there is a real risk of brain damage from complications due to Measles.
And then there is the problem of herd immunity.
Some people who are vaccinated, are not actually immunized. This means that if there is an outbreak of the disease, they are at risk catching it. Others are not able to get the vaccination for medical reasons (problems with their immune system could be one reason). Again they are at risk during an outbreak. These people are dependent on "herd immunity", where enough people are immunized to keep the diseases from spreading. Due to the increased number of children not getting vaccinated, these people are at increased risk of getting the diseases. So, it's not just the health of their children the parents are risking, it's also the health of other peoples' children.
As it stands right now, it doesn't look like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is going to be appointed as head of the EPA, but the dark legacy of his fear mongering lives on. He has never retracted any of his statements in the article, and he is actively supporting the "Green Our Vaccines" campaign lead by Jenny McCarthy - another campaign aimed at getting people scared of vaccines. The war against science lives on, in another legacy. Let's hope it never gets officially sanctioned by the Obama administration.
Labels: Barack Obama, medicine, science, US politics, vaccinations