When you look at some of Kennedy’s statements, and then check their veracity — you may get a surprise.
Listen To This Story
My last two columns, addressing the presidential bid of Bobby Kennedy Jr. in light of his vaccine-related views and activism, are still generating a lot of heat.
Previously, I expressed respect for his outspoken positions on the military-intelligence complex, extremely rare among presidential candidates of any stripe. But I also stated that his leading role in the anti-vaccine movement, for me, disqualifies him as someone I’d consider voting for.
I heard from all kinds of people, including his son, asking me to take a closer look at what exactly he is saying.
And so I have. Below are my first observations based on a review of his writings and statements. I’m grateful for help in this from a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy, Milicent Cranor, who understands medical science better than I.
First off, let me restate that all powerful institutions, including the medical and pharmaceutical establishments, require continuous scrutiny and deserve a great deal of criticism.
However, despite a general consensus that big pharma often exhibits odious behavior in its pursuit of profits, I also believe that — if only for their own sake — they strive to create superior products, including the best vaccines possible.
One can be very critical of pharma’s policies and priorities without denying its benefits, especially when they are life-saving.
That industry, like others, makes its share of errors, but I don’t think we should be discussing or debating in public its products without getting feedback from a broad array of trustworthy experts.
By “trustworthy” I mean as unbiased as is humanly possible. Journalists typically don’t just speak with activists and advocates — they seek out impartial people with impeccable credentials and track records who don’t go out of their way to solicit media coverage or to incite the public.
That excludes Bobby Kennedy and the few previously unknown figures now passing — for a particular constituency — as “the experts to trust” on vaccines and on COVID-19.
Of course, we must always be interested in hearing what outliers and apostates have to say — but there’s a heavy burden on anyone who says the sky is falling to make their case meticulously, with facts, not conjecture.
If these self-appointed experts pad their cases, or are misleading or evasive in any way, we cannot trust them and must go back to relying on the consensus of a wide array of unrelated, credible figures and institutions.
Leader of the Pack
Bobby Kennedy is not a scientist. But he has gone from being a somewhat obscure activist — despite his famous name and heritage — to a headline-grabbing one, pretty much on the wings of this one issue. People trust the Kennedy name and charisma and so when he began expressing concerns about vaccines and suggesting they may cause autism and other diseases, it got a lot of attention.
When a sizable minority of Americans began refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and an array of mostly unfamiliar names suddenly appeared all over social media, warning of doom from vaccines, it was Kennedy who eventually came to the front of the pack.
Kennedy, it should be noted, isn’t just against establishment vaccines, he’s against social distancing, lockdowns, and masking. (Go here to see my story on a protest rally where Kennedy spoke.)
As a leader of a movement that has people resisting the broad consensus of the scientific establishment, Kennedy should be providing rock-solid evidence for his claims. But does he?
Below, we begin our study of Kennedy by looking only into those issues that are easiest to check out. What we have already found surprised us.
He Said What?
In his book The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, Kennedy makes many astonishing assertions, and he appears to back them up with links to sources that are often respectable. But, as I reported last week — and it bears repeating — if you go to the trouble to read what his sources actually say, you may come to a different conclusion.
On Page 28 of the Kindle version of his book, Kennedy makes this claim:
Dr. Fauci’s acolyte — CNN’s television doctor, Peter Hotez — published an article in a scientific journal calling for legislation to “expand federal hate crime protections” to make criticism of Dr. Fauci a felony. (14)
Read the article referenced by Footnote 14. Hotez was not talking about mere “criticism.”
He was talking about how scientists were being targeted by far-right extremists (some of whom are known to favor violence) — with various forms of intimidation, including stalking scientists all the way to their homes. And he wanted “expanded protection mechanisms,” possibly extending “federal hate-crime protection” for these scientists.
So Kennedy was clearly being misleading. But there’s more. He goes on to claim, in passing, that Hotez said:
vaccine skeptics should be snuffed out (15)
But here’s what the man actually said — only you wouldn’t know it unless you checked the article referenced by Footnote 15:
An American anti-vaccine movement is building and we need to take steps now to snuff it out.
Meaning snuff out the movement, not people. And if “snuffing out” a movement sounds nefarious, remember that most of us support snuffing out movements that we believe are antithetical to the broad public interest, whether it be the white supremacists, election deniers, or QAnon followers.
More Word Games
Look further into Kennedy’s rhetoric, and you will discover his clever way of creating a grossly false impression, one that could make a distinguished doctor look either incompetent or dishonest or both.
One such target is Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Kennedy found a way to make him appear to say something false and even dangerous. To appreciate this trick, you just need to know two technical terms: ETHYL, a safe form of mercury, and METHYL, its evil twin, the very harmful kind.
On Page 319 of his book, Kennedy combines two statements, both of which are true but, in combination, create a false impression.
The first true statement:
Offit says that mercury in vaccines is harmless and is quickly excreted from the body. (footnote 92)
True — but Kennedy does not specify what kind of mercury Offit said is harmless. That, alone, might not be too misleading were it not followed by the next true statement:
(Published science demonstrates decisively that mercury is a cataclysmically harmful and persistent toxin, and it is well known that both ethyl and methylmercury bioaccumulate.)
Put together, Kennedy makes it look as though Offit was lying when he said mercury in vaccines is harmless.
What Kennedy doesn’t tell you:
- Offit was talking about the harmless kind of mercury — ethyl.
- Only methyl mercury is “cataclysmically harmful.”
- Both kinds do accumulate in the body (bioaccumulate) — but ethyl is excreted 10 times faster than its evil twin.
So — without telling a single lie — Kennedy makes it look like Offit was promoting a highly toxic substance, and lying about it. Yet if you go to the source referenced by Footnote 92, you can hear a short recording of what Offit actually said. Here is a summary:
Offit explained that mercury is released into the air by volcanoes, rock erosion, etc. And in this inorganic form, ethylmercury, it is relatively harmless. This is the kind used in multi-dose vaccines. And it is excreted from the body 10 times more quickly than methylmercury.
But when it’s absorbed by soil, or the sea, it is taken up by bacteria. At this point, it goes from inorganic to organic, that is, it becomes “methylated.” Once methylated, it becomes dangerous — it can cross cell membranes into the body, where it accumulates and does all kinds of harm.
As Offit explains, we are all regularly exposed to much more of the harmful kind of mercury than the amount used in vaccines.
Kennedy’s corner-cutting may as well be the product of intellectual laziness as of malice. But seemingly minor omissions and distortions quickly add up, sometimes birthing world views and movements, especially when presented as gospel truth by an A-list influencer. And of course such corner-cutting is just what critics like Kennedy accuse established institutions of doing. So there is a heavy glass-houses irony in such a book as this.
Kennedy Explains His Lost Credibility
Outsiders throwing bricks at the institutional temple often cast themselves as victims of censorship and persecution — even those whose messages reach millions and who enjoy not just the full complement of freedoms but a lucrative brick-throwing career. After describing his long career as a writer and speaker, Kennedy tells the story of how it all changed.
From Page 327 of his book:
I earned a substantial income from those appearances. All that changed in 2005, after I published an article, “Deadly Immunity,” about corruption in CDC’s vaccine branch, simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon.
Newspapers thereafter generally refused to publish my articles on vaccine safety and ultimately banned me from publishing on any issues. In 2008, without consulting me or citing a specific reason, Salon retracted and removed my 2005 article. Salon’s founder, David Talbot, faulted Salon for caving in to Pharma.
Rolling Stone finally removed the article without explanation in February 2021 [sic], and HuffPost purged all half-dozen of my vaccine articles. The editors of those online journals had thoroughly fact-checked my pieces prior to publication. They removed them without notice to me, and without ever explaining their decisions. It was the beginning of the mass censorship of any vaccine information that departs from official narratives.
Not that it matters, but Kennedy’s dates appear to be off. Both Salon and Rolling Stone retracted his story in 2011. CBS explained Rolling Stone’s retraction, but that explanation was far from complete:
Kennedy’s Rolling Stone article originally said that “… the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.” But since The Lancet retracted the original piece of research that made that link, and since the British Medical Journal then revealed that the study wasn’t merely a mistake but an outright fraud, the entire notion that vaccination and autism are somehow linked has been thoroughly debunked.
But there were bigger reasons the two journals retracted the article: It was the revelation of fraud — perpetrated by Kennedy himself — as detailed in a book that came out in 2010 by Seth Mnookin, a science writer at M.I.T. In January 2011 Salon put out this statement, explaining why correcting erroneous statements in Kennedy’s article wasn’t enough:
But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book The Panic Virus further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.
Here are a few excerpts from Mnookin’s chapter on Kennedy, “A Conspiracy of Dunces”:
Kennedy made his name in the anti-vaccine movement in 2005, when he published a story alleging a massive conspiracy regarding thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been removed from all childhood vaccines except for some variations of the flu vaccine in 2001. In his piece, Kennedy completely ignored an Institute of Medicine immunization safety review on thimerosal published the previous year; he’s also ignored the nine studies funded or conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have taken place since 2003.
Just four days after a correction confirmed that his story had misstated the levels of ethylmercury infants had received… Kennedy told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “We are injecting our children with 400 times the amount of mercury that FDA or EPA considers safe.” [Emphasis added.] Kennedy also said on-air that children were being given 24 vaccines and that each one of them had “this thimerosal, this mercury in them.”
Those statements were not even remotely true: In 2005, the CDC recommended that children under 12 years old receive a total of eight vaccines that protected against a dozen different diseases. Only three of those vaccines had ever used thimerosal as a preservative, and all had been thimerosal-free since 2001. [Emphasis added.]
I’m hoping to engage Kennedy in a conversation about all this and will welcome his responses to questions. I’m sure he will have things to say, as he always does.
In any case, one thing can and should be clear to all: After the chaotic, dishonest Trump years, America is still trying to distinguish between facts, informed opinions, unsupported conjecture, and outright propaganda and disinformation. Now is not the time to blindly distrust and recklessly attack established institutions that, while imperfect, are not the enemy.