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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
If you’ve been holding your breath for a sound, sensible pick for a science position in the Trump administration, don’t let the air out now.
On Tuesday, President-elect Trump picked Robert Kennedy Jr. to chair a panel on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.
Kennedy, who is not a scientist, belongs to the fringe group of medical conspiracy theorists who push the dangerous and harmful claim that – despite all evidence to the contrary – vaccinations against deadly diseases like the measles, mumps, and rubella lead to autism.
He’s sold a book on the subject, but has none of the qualifications one would expect from someone offering medical advice. The biggest bullet on his resume is a famous name – Kennedy Jr. is the son of the late Senator and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and former President John Kennedy’s nephew. Beyond that, he’s worked as an environmental lawyer and activist.
But Kennedy’s most important trait is that he is wildly, dangerously wrong on vaccines.
The claim that vaccines cause autism stems from a single, debunked study from 1998. As The New York Times reports, the author of that study, in addition to publishing scientifically falsified information, failed to disclose important financial and scientific conflicts of interest relevant to his research. Most notably, he had patented a measles vaccine that might have succeeded if the standard MMR vaccine were taken off the market. He also subjected children to invasive tests like lumbar punctures and colonoscopies without ethical approval.
Kennedy advances that idea further, arguing without evidence that there exists a cabal of scientists out to deliberately poison children for profit with mind-altering vaccines.
All of which is to say that Kennedy’s claim that vaccines lead to autism – his sole apparent qualification to serve on the panel – is bunk science from an irresponsible scientist. And it’s evidence that Kennedy is not a good judge of reality.
Real harm has resulted from this nonsense. There’s evidence that anti-vaxxer propaganda of the sort Kennedy sells has led to a measurable spike in measles outbreaks in the US.
Measles maims and kills children. So does pertussis, and a host of other ailments that vaccines protect against.
It’s not surprising, exactly, that Trump would pick a person like Kennedy for this position. Trump has toyed with anti-vaxxer ideology in the past, saying that he vaccinated his youngest child, Barron, “on a very slow process” and suggesting incorrectly that modern methods are dangerous.
More broadly, Trump has embraced an administration comprised of those with anti-scientific ideologies. Trump’s EPA head, Scott Pruitt, rejects the science of climate change. Members of his team have threatened to dismantle NASA’s lifesaving Earth science wing.
But Kennedy’s pick is even more alarming than all those moves.
Anti-vaxxer ideology, at best, involves the belief that one’s own fear and guesswork should supersede the good research and judgment of scientists about something precious: the life of a child.
When people in power spread that ideology, they threaten to convince well-intentioned, worried parents without access to good information that life-saving vaccines will harm their children. They put those parents in the position of making a choice that could maim or kill their child.
Trump’s appointment ignores science and empowers an ideology with cruel repercussions. The president-elect should reconsider allowing it to infect his administration.