RFK Jr.'s comments have sparked outrage, and calls for a debate.
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- Special counsel John Durham testified before Congress yesterday, answering questions about his investigation into the 2016 FBI probe of Donald Trump and Russia's election interference. (The testimony)
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- A Russian court rejected an appeal by Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, extending his prison sentence until late August. (The ruling)
The RFK Jr.-Joe Rogan interview. On June 15, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appeared on Joe Rogan's podcast to describe his outlook on vaccine safety and promote his 2024 presidential campaign.
For the first hour of the three-hour interview, Kennedy spoke largely uninterrupted about the theory that the ethylmercury and aluminum present in many vaccines cause autism, auto-immune disease, neurological disease, and other chronic diseases. For the remaining two hours, Kennedy spoke about aluminum adjuvants in vaccines causing allergies, Wifi or cell phone radiation causing tumors, the effectiveness of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as alternative treatments for COVID, the prevalence and danger of pesticide use, and the military-industrial complex, among other topics.
Editor’s Note: Since the inclusion of autism spectrum disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in the 1980s, autism has been diagnosed in children at increasingly higher rates. However, despite the persistence of the theory that vaccines cause autism, there has never been a causal link found between higher rates of vaccination and higher rates of autism.
The interview was part of a media blitz for Kennedy, who in the last two weeks has done interviews with NBC News, Fox News, The Free Press, and Jordan Peterson, among others. Kennedy continues to pull support from roughly one in five Democratic primary voters. However, his sit down with Rogan generated a significant amount of backlash, with many accusing Rogan of platforming vaccine misinformation and pseudoscience. One of the interview’s staunchest detractors was vaccine scientist and former Joe Rogan podcast guest Dr. Peter Hotez, whose work on the Covid-19 vaccines Kennedy and Rogan both criticized.
Hotez called the show "nonsense," and retweeted a VICE article about vaccine misinformation on Rogan’s podcast. Rogan responded by offering Hotez to come back to the show to debate Kennedy, saying in a tweet "Peter, if you claim what RFKjr is saying is 'misinformation' I am offering you $100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you're willing to debate him on my show with no time limit."
A groundswell of support for the idea grew online, with Elon Musk tweeting that Hotez was "afraid of a public debate." Vaccine skeptics, Musk followers, and RFK Jr. supporters have rallied to the cause, eventually leading to a YouTuber confronting Hotez at his home on Sunday.
In an appearance on MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan show, Hotez turned down the idea of going onto Rogan's show to debate RFK Jr. on vaccines, comparing the idea of Rogan moderating a debate with Kennedy to going on the Jerry Springer Show.
Every stage of the exchange has been controversial: The original claims Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made on Joe Rogan's podcast, the criticism from Dr. Hotez about the claims, the challenge from Rogan, Hotez's refusal, and the criticism of Hotez's refusal.
This is not the first time Kennedy's views on vaccines and other scientific issues have caused a stir. Members of his family have spoken out against him, and Kennedy says he has lost speaking gigs and jobs because of his beliefs. This week, YouTube removed an interview Kennedy did with Jordan Peterson, citing vaccine misinformation.
Along with appearing on Rogan's podcast, the most popular in the world, Kennedy is also getting a boost from Wall Street and other powerful tech players. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey endorsed him, while current Twitter CEO and Tesla founder Elon Musk hosted a Twitter space with him. Wealthy venture capitalists like David Sacks, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Omeed Malik are hosting fundraising events for him.
Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right to RFK's latest interview, and the ensuing debate around it. Then my take.
What the left is saying.
- Many on the left object to Kennedy's candidacy, though they are divided about how to engage him.
- Some argue that scientists should debate him on his vaccine views, while others say it would be futile.
- Others suggest we should be more skeptical of the places where Kennedy is drawing high-profile support.
In The Daily Beast, Ben Burgis argued that legitimate scientists should debate RFK Jr.
"I’m not a fan of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to put it mildly," Burgis said. "And I’m in agreement with Hotez and Hasan on the value of vaccines in general and COVID vaccination in particular. I’m triple-vaxxed and if the CDC ever recommends that people in my age group get a fourth, fifth, or six shot, I’ll get those too. But I think what we can call the Hasan Rule—experts shouldn’t debate cranks—is profoundly misguided." It matters what the public thinks, and "it's important that policy debates be undergirded by a correct understanding of the underlying facts."
"If a large chunk of the public is in the grip of mistaken ideas about these issues, part of the job of experts is to wade in and correct those ideas," Burgis added. Of course, "not every scientist is going to be a gifted scientific communicator," but that "makes it more important that people like Hotez, who combine scientific expertise with a flair for communicating to the public, not shun debates with influential anti-vaxxers." The point isn't to convince Kennedy, it's to "convince the convincible portion of the audience," and "it's not that hard to explain" the way meta-analysis of these studies disproves Kennedy.
In The New Republic, Alex Shephard said "don't debate" RFK Jr.
"Hotez has offered to appear on Rogan’s podcast but has rightfully refused to debate Kennedy on the issue. Given the popularity and influence of Rogan’s show, there are persuasive arguments for appearing, if only to correct the wild statements that are frequently shared about not just the Covid-19 vaccine but all vaccines. But appearing with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would likely only legitimize those views," Shephard said. "Kennedy has spent more than a decade spouting conspiracy theories with no basis in fact about vaccines."
The goal of the debate "is not to hash out the truth or to finally decide if vaccines are safe and effective or not," Shephard said. "Vaccines are safe and effective: This is settled science. The goal is to sow doubt and confusion over both settled science and the value of expertise, both in medicine and in the wider world. Hotez is right to avoid it. But he is already paying a price: He says he was ‘stalked’ on Sunday by anti-vax protesters who were waiting for him outside his Houston home."
In Slate, Jacob Silverman wrote about what the powerful people boosting Kennedy really want.
"It’s time to start paying attention to Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., according to some of the wealthiest, most reactionary tech and business leaders in the country," Silverman quipped. Some of them might "genuinely" share his beliefs, "particularly around the futility of the war in Ukraine and fears of tech censorship. But that doesn’t suffice to explain why they would line up behind a figure who’s been known up until this point largely for his anti-vaccine activism." These moguls may instead see RFK Jr. as "a useful instrument for complicating" Biden's re-election run.
"American elites and governing institutions have failed the public, when not contributing to its outright exploitation," Silverman said. "But RFK’s most powerful backers are among the main beneficiaries of that unequal status quo, and their motives deserve scrutiny. We should ask how they have become so wealthy and powerful as to be able to help prop up two presidential campaigns as we near 2024. After all, it shouldn’t be long until [David] Sacks hosts another fundraiser for DeSantis, the candidate he’s long pushed. Which one does he really want to be president?"
What the right is saying.
- Many on the right argue that the mainstream media is trying to silence Kennedy.
- Some suggest that "experts" actually should engage him, given how much they've damaged the public's trust in institutions.
- Others suggest Kennedy represents the liberal yearning for a populist candidate.
In The New York Post, Ashley Rindsberg said mainstream news outlets are trying to "end" RFK Jr.'s primary challenge.
"The strategy is to disqualify Kennedy by labeling him a font of misinformation, out to serve America’s monied technocrats. In other words: a Republican in Kennedy clothes," she wrote. The New York Times published a piece "brimming with accusations and innuendo," accusing Kennedy of pushing right wing ideas and misinformation. The Times even claims "Kennedy advanced a conspiracy theory by questioning the outcome of the 2004 Bush-Kerry election. Guess who else questioned the validity of that election?" Rindsberg asked. "The New York Times in a lengthy November 2004 editorial."
The Washington Post, MSNBC, Vanity Fair, Politico, Slate, The Guardian, and Washington Monthly all got in on it. "Outside of the media, however, serious people are beginning to take Kennedy seriously," Rindsberg wrote. "Much of Kennedy’s appeal lies in his forthright approach to major issues, like his visit to the southern border this month, where he spoke directly with immigrants in Arizona." He "strongly opposes American involvement" in Ukraine, believes "transgender athletes should not participate in female sports," and is "harshly critical of America's intelligence community... The media onslaught is not only an attempt to derail Kennedy, but an easy way to deflect attention from the Dems’ real campaign crises: Biden’s age, unfavorability and chaos-plagued son."
In his newsletter (not linkable), Ben Shapiro wrote about why "the science" needs to debate RFK Jr.
"I understand why Hotez said he didn’t want to debate RFK Jr., and it’s not because all the facts are on RFK Jr.’s side," Shapiro wrote. "It’s because, very often, when you are debating somebody like RFK Jr., he might start moving the goalposts or he might just start moving from study to study. The reason this has become a hot topic is because Hotez is falling back on the same mask of authority the entire scientific establishment has used about a myriad of issues over the course of the last three years, and they’ve been wrong every time. But the reality is that somebody has to have this debate. If not Hotez, then he should name the person."
There is no link between autism and vaccines, Shapiro says, but Hotez and his supporters think that because he is a doctor and "the science is settled," this means "they no longer have to debate the issue. But that's just not true. That is not the way that human minds are changed... The underlying pervasive problem is that the same exact people who are claiming the science is settled on vaccines are also claiming the science is settled on global warming, gender-affirming care, and universal-masking for the COVID virus — and the science is not settled on any of those matters. This has reopened the door as to the need to debate all of these claims."
In The New York Times, the conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote about why he's "cheering a candidate whose politics I detest and whose grip on reality I question."
"Kennedy is a crank. His long-held anti-vaccine views sit poorly with most Democrats. He has said the C.I.A. killed his uncle and possibly his father, that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election, and that Covid vaccines are a Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci self-enrichment scheme. He repeats Kremlin propaganda points, like the notion that the war in Ukraine is actually 'a U.S. war against Russia,'" Stephens wrote. But "Biden is a weak candidate against almost any Republican, including Trump, and he’s probably even weaker with Kamala Harris as his running mate." But there is a "more powerful message implicit in Kennedy’s candidacy: a profound undercurrent of discontent with a party that is losing touch with its once-powerful, even dominant, populist roots," Stephens said.
"This is the party whose base has substantially shifted from the high school- to the college-educated; from factory floors and service jobs to breakout rooms on Zoom; from champions of free speech to promoters of speech codes and trigger warnings; from questioning authority (including scientific authority) to offering — and demanding — unblinking fidelity to it." America's "spirit of rebellion" now rests mainly on the Republican side with Trump, but "there’s an unfulfilled hunger for a liberal leader who can capture Kennedy’s spirit without his folly."
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- It's actually not that hard to dispute some of Kennedy's more outlandish claims; I'll show you.
- If someone like me can explain or understand it, most people can too.
- That is all the more reason for experts to engage and debate him on his ideas.
Listening to RFK Jr.'s interview on Rogan, I very much get his appeal. He is a modern day populist fit for the progressive ideology or politically homeless people who loathe the establishment left and think the right has gone off the deep end. He can speak eloquently about regulatory capture (government agencies owned by private industry), open-mindedness (the need for debate and curiosity), rebuilding the middle class (focusing our resources domestically), free speech absolutism (a loathing of censorship in all forms) and distrusting the establishment (follow the money, be skeptical of the powerful).
Frankly, those talking points resonate with me.
I also think it makes sense that Kennedy is who he is. Imagine: His father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at a moment when it appeared he would become the next president. His uncle, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated while president. Kennedy, like most Americans, believes Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone in the JFK assassination (he believes the CIA was behind it).
His life has been a series of traumas since: He fought addiction as an adult, eventually getting busted for heroin possession while working as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. His second wife killed herself while going through their divorce proceedings. His work as a lawyer has focused on fighting seemingly unwinnable (but sometimes victorious) battles against corporate behemoths polluting natural resources, or representing clients whose lives have been ruined by some big, immovable, societal issue. In the interview with Rogan, he described one of his books on vaccines as so depressing that he advised his wife not to read it. All the while, he has been attacked by popular politicians, media figures, and his own family basically anytime he’s opened his mouth.
Is it any wonder someone like him is skeptical or — to be pejorative — even conspiratorial? Is it a mystery as to why he distrusts authority to the degree he does? Would you not share that sentiment if you were in his shoes?
As others have pointed out, Kennedy is a lawyer, not a scientist. His framework for these discussions is to win the argument and represent his side, which he is very good at. Take his most controversial and commonly cited argument: When you listen to him describe exploding rates of autism coming at a time when vaccine schedules were being mandated, with a side of Big Pharma greed and government mistrust, it's easy to believe the story he’s telling. It’s also emotionally satisfying to have a villain — especially when he references secretly recorded meetings of pharma executives admitting some vaccines are dangerous, or the way toxic mercury used in vaccines can damage someone's brain.
What he doesn't do is confront the less nefarious, more commonly accepted explanations for what he's observing. I reached out to a half dozen vaccine experts from across the world, with various political and university associations, to ask them to respond to Kennedy's assertions. Dr. Brian Ward, who researches vaccine development at McGill University, neatly summed up his position with this sentence: "One of the ONLY potential factors that has been well-studied and ruled out as a contributor to the (possible) rise in autism rates is vaccines," he said.
As Ward noted to me, a huge number of other things have also changed since the time period Kennedy points to — whether it's our use of leaded gasoline or adoption of baby formula or corn flakes consumption — anyone could point to a variety of possible correlations. But the correlative increases don’t confer causal relationships. Other experts I reached out cited a number of factors at play. One theory involves the increasing age of fatherhood. Some believe air pollution, low birth weight, or stress are contributing factors. As Ben Shapiro noted in his newsletter, we also know there is a genetic component.
The most commonly accepted explanation for the majority of the increase simply involves the tests and frameworks we use to confirm a diagnosis. My cousin, a doctor in Seattle who has been recognized for his treatment of neurological conditions, pointed out to me that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) didn't even have autism as its own diagnosis until 1980. Before that, autism was explained by poor parenting skills or childhood schizophrenia, so naturally you'd expect rates to go up when actual diagnoses are defined.
What’s more, we have far from settled on best practices for identifying autism, which comes out when we see huge disparities between states. Why would autism impact 1 in 93 children in Colorado, but 1 in 41 in New Jersey? (No, it's not their vaccination rates, which are nearly identical). That's to say nothing of the fact that in 1991, an autism diagnosis became a way for children to get special education services, which created a strong incentive for parents to diagnose their kids. All of these things are likely to be huge factors in the "autism epidemic" Kennedy describes, yet he doesn't address any of them.
He’s performing the kind of argument by omission that I plan to discuss in tomorrow’s piece on the anatomy of bad arguments (subscribers only).
And all of this, as Sturgis notes (under "What the left is saying"), isn't that hard to explain. I don't have a science degree, and I'm open to believing all sorts of outlandish, fringe things (longtime readers know I am a lover of UFO conspiracy theories, especially the most recent ones). I listened to Kennedy's entire podcast with Rogan and had quite a few, "Huh, that is interesting!" moments. And then I heard from some experts, looked up some of the claims online, read about the counter-arguments, and thought, "Huh, that stuff is a lot less interesting now!"
Which is precisely why I also think people like Hotez should debate Kennedy. Hotez isn't just the perfect debate candidate because he is a respected vaccine scientist who has already been on Rogan's show. He is also the father of a daughter with autism, and the author of a book titled Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad. Who better to actually challenge Kennedy on his views?
I can't say why he won't — he said a Rogan-moderated debate with RFK Jr. would be like going on "Jerry Springer," even though every Rogan podcast I've ever listened to (including the ones he’s appeared on) has been respectful and curious. But I can say he should. Sure, Kennedy might firehose nonsense and Rogan might moderate such a conversation with favoritism. But guess what? You don’t need to convince Joe Rogan, you need to convince the people his show is reaching. Saying the "science is settled" over and over, censoring YouTube content, smearing people as quacks, and refusing to have the discussion doesn't actually change anyone's mind.
It does the opposite.
It makes normal people wonder what are they hiding? And it makes the roughly one in five Americans who are already deeply skeptical of many vaccinations even more gung-ho. That could explain why Kennedy's interview with Jordan Peterson that was removed from YouTube now has over 4.2 million views on Twitter, more than eight times the viewership of the most popular video Peterson has done in the last month.
Kennedy’s mistrust of the establishment makes him right a lot of the time. He’s right about regulatory capture. He's right about Big Pharma concealing negative impacts of drugs to chase profit. He's right that unbridled capitalism can worsen the lives of average citizens and destroy the environment. He’s right that Americans are uniquely, chronically unhealthy. He's even right that vaccines can sometimes harm people, that our vaccine injury reporting system is lackluster, and that Big Pharma is largely shielded from downstream liability.
But that same mistrust makes him wrong about a lot, too. All the sneering fact-checks, dismissive op-eds, and pejorative labels in the world won't expose this unless we're willing to concede why his popularity is growing, talk about what he gets right, and then explain why he’s wrong about so much else. Hiding, dismissing, censoring, or ignoring him will only make his “you and me against the establishment” appeal more alluring, and his misleading views seem more credible.
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- 21%. The percentage of American adults who have said no to the Covid-19 vaccines altogether, according to Pew.
- 82%. In 2017, the percentage of American adults who said healthy children should be required to be vaccinated to attend public schools because of the potential risk for others.
- 70%. In 2023, the percentage of American adults who said healthy children should be required to be vaccinated to attend public schools because of the potential risk for others.
- 74%. The percentage of U.S. adults who did not get a Covid-19 vaccine, but who see the overall benefits of childhood vaccines for MMR.
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In Vietnam, a woman who was left on a doorstep as a child has devoted her life to the care and support of orphans. Huynh Tieu Huong, whom national media has dubbed the “Mother Theresa of Vietnam,” runs the Mother Huong Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the adoption, support, and free offering of loving kindness to foundlings, orphans, and homeless children. Huong, who doesn’t know her parents or when she was born, was cared for as a child by an old homeless woman who dedicated what was left of her life’s energies toward trying to help her find a home. But when she did, Huong's adoptees turned out to be sexual predators. Huong fled, becoming a vagabond — until, at the age of 19, she found a baby girl left on her own doorstep. She adopted the baby girl, and devoted her life to caring for the less fortunate. Now, thanks to support given by donors and volunteers, her foundation cares for 346 children, who are all able to receive education, safe places to sleep and play, and the proper medical care to ensure they reach adulthood healthy. Good News Network has the story.
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