Science: November 2008 Archives

Barack Obama should not appoint Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to head the Environmental Protection Agency, as has been reported that he might do. This is for totally non-partisan reasons. I don't expect Obama to appoint a moderate on the environment. I would hope he doesn't choose someone who regularly presents inaccurate factual information and gives credence to discredited studies that feed panic.

He makes radical statements and then stands by them while under public criticism. For example, he claimed in 2002 that factory farming is more of a threat to American democracy than Osama bin Laden and refused to moderate his comment under pressure from those who called him on it. He has published criticisms of the Bush administration riddled with lies, distortions, and ad hominem attacks. He accepts conspiracy theories about Republicans stealing the 2004 election.

But the most important reason for me is alarmism about autism and vaccines, which is downright anti-scientific. The most that's been shown about autism and vaccines is that the symptoms of autism tend to be noticeable around an age when several vaccines tend to be scheduled. Correlation isn't causation, and in this case there's an obvious explanation for the correlation. The symptoms begin appearing at an age when, for completely independent reasons, certain vaccines are given. So Kennedy does nothing more than feed anti-scientific panic. Parents of autistic kids hear this stuff, accept it without looking into it, and end up treating their kids as having been stolen from them. Instead of accepting their kids for who they are, they spend all their time pretending they don't have any anymore and trying to make other parents feel guilty for causing their children's autism by taking steps to protect them and other kids from dangerous and life-threatening microbes. They seek to divert funds into wild goose chases instead of recognizing that autism has at least a significant genetic component (which is now very well established) and that the only thing that will likely be available to help their kids is to give them intensive help, something very hard to do if you spend all your time chasing windmills in the political blame game. Never mind the fact that they're risking their kids' lives by not vaccinating them, which has already led to a resurgence in diseases that had been nearly eradicated.

Anyone who has any sympathy for the many complaints, more from the left but also from the right, about the Bush Administration's attitude toward science should oppose Kennedy as an appointment for any important government position but especially to head the EPA. [And I note that some prominent anti-ID bloggers are avoiding hypocrisy on this issue by opposing Kennedy.] If he goes forward with this appointment, it's a huge political mistake. It will mean people can call him anti-science in more ways than just on abortion (see #3). But it's even worse as a policy mistake, given how much damage someone like Kennedy could do.

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