Robert Kennedy's Anti-Vaccine Craziness

Robert Kennedy is obsessed with the notion that vaccines cause autism. He’s particularly obsessed with the discredited idea that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, causes autism. Now Kennedy is about to publish a new book on this topic, and he’s promoting it both in the press and, as described in today’s Washington Post, in the halls of Congress. He’s recently had personal meetings with U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders to try to convince them to take action based on his claims. Why is it that a scientifically unqualified anti-vaccine advocate can get a private audience with a U.S. Senator? Because he’s famous, that’s why.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is part of the most famous family in America. He’s the nephew of a former president and the son of a former senator and Attorney General, both tragically assassinated in the 1960s. Another uncle, Edward Kennedy, was a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts for decades. He gives hundreds of speeches a year, mostly on environmental issues, and he’s been an influential figure in the environmental movement.

But on the thimerosal issue, Kennedy has gone completely off the rails. He authored a and Rolling Stone article (jointly published) nearly ten years ago that claimed not only that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism, but that “the government” knew about it and had been covering it up. Kennedy wrote then that
The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed.”
Alarming-sounding stuff. The article is full of dramatic claims like this one. The only problem is, it’s all false.

I’ve been writing and speaking about the anti-vaccine movement for years, including articles in 2009 and 2010 on three landmark vaccine court rulings. As I explained back then:
Why was thimerosal introduced into vaccines? Well, early vaccines were administered from multi-dose bottles, in which bacteria could grow. In one particularly disastrous incident in 1928, 12 children in Australia died from staph infections after getting the diptheria vaccine from the same multi-dose bottle. After the introduction of thimerosal, bacterial infections caused by vaccination virtually disappeared.”
In the late 2000's, a special vaccine court conducted three lengthy hearings in which the anti-vax advocates were asked to present their best cases. One of the cases focused specifically on the question of whether thimerosal in vaccines cause autism. In that case, the judge concluded:
“The numerous medical studies concerning the issue of whether thimerosal causes autism, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I find that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to the causation of autism.”
As a lawyer, Kennedy should be able to understand this. The science, which Kennedy apparently does not understand, leads to the same conclusion: in study after study, scientists have found no link between thimerosal and autism, or any other kind of neurological disorder. And as RFK Jr knows, thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in the U.S. over a decade ago, and the rate of autism diagnosis continued to rise. This fact alone contradicts his major claim. 

What was shocking to me, the first time I heard Kennedy talk about thimerosal in vaccines, was how absolutely certain he is that he is right. Today's Washington Post article describes a man who remains utterly convinced, despite the mountain of evidence against him.

After Kennedy's article appeared, scientists responded quickly and convincingly, pointing out its numerous flaws and distortions. tried to fix the problem, issuing five corrections before throwing up their hands and removing the article entirely from their website. Rolling Stone also took down the article. Salon’s editor-in-chief wrote an apology, saying 
I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link. But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do .”
Kennedy has steadfastly refused to admit any errors, ever. As of today, his own website still displays the original article, without even the small corrections that had made. He’s been embraced by the anti-vaccine movement: he gave a keynote talk at their annual conference, Autism One (prompting this response from one well-known science blogger), and he even spoke at one of Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” demonstrations.

As Keith Kloor wrote today in his online column at Discover, Kennedy has not only failed to convince the world that he’s right (and the entire scientific community is wrong), but he doesn’t really care. He told Kloor that “if I die poor, then I go down fighting for what’s right.” (This despite the ridiculousness of the notion that the wealthy Kennedy family will ever be poor.)

By ignoring the scientific evidence that shows that thimerosal and vaccines have no link to autism, Robert Kennedy has placed himself firmly in the camp of conspiracy theorists and cranks. He’s also demonstrated breathtaking arrogance. He believes that despite his lack of scientific training, he knows the truth that every scientist who’s studied this issue has missed. 

Even worse, Kennedy is using his fame to spread anti-vaccine misinformation, which has contributed to an alarming rise in the number of infectious disease outbreaks here in the U.S., including major outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. Though I doubt he will listen to me (he’s ignored everyone else), Kennedy needs to take a hard look at the harm he’s causing to defenseless children, the elderly, and cancer patients, and anyone else with a weak or compromised immune system. His advocacy of bad science will cost lives, if it hasn’t already.

When I've heard Kennedy talk about environmental topics, where I agree with him almost completely, I’ve been impressed by his passion and his seeming command of the issues. But having heard him speak about thimerosal and vaccines, I now realize that he’s a dangerous idealogue, willing to distort the truth so thoroughly I can’t believe a word he says. The only solace I can take from today’s Washington Post article is that Senators Mikulski and Sanders don’t believe him either. Both of them brushed him off. Next time, they shouldn’t bother giving him an audience.

Stop teaching calculus in high school

Math education needs a reboot. Kids today are growing up into a world awash in data, and they need new skills to make sense of it all. 

The list of high school math courses in the U.S. hasn’t changed for decades. My daughters are taking the same courses I took long ago: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These are all fine subjects, but they don’t serve the needs of the 21st century. 

What math courses do young people really need? Two subjects are head-smackingly obvious: computer science and statistics. Most high schools don’t offer either one. In the few schools that do, they are usually electives that only a few students take. And besides, the math curriculum is already so full that some educators have argued for scaling back. Some have even argued for getting rid of algebra, as Andrew Hacker argued in the NY Times not long ago.

So here's a simple fix: get rid of high school calculus to make way for computer programming and statistics.

Computers are an absolute mystery to most non-geeks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A basic computer programming class requires little more than a familiarity with algebra. With computers controlling so much of their lives, from their phones to their cars to the online existence, we ought to teach our kids what’s going on under the hood. And programming will teach them a form of logical reasoning that is missing from the standard math curriculum.

With data science emerging as one of the hottest new scientific areas, a basic understanding of statistics will provide the foundation for a wide range of 21st century career paths. Not to mention that a grasp of statistics is essential for navigating the often-dubious claims of health benefits offered by various "alternative" medicine providers. 

(While we're at it, we should require more statistics in the pre-med curriculum. Doctors are faced with new medical science every day, and statistical evidence is the most common form of proof that a new treatment is effective. With so much bad science out there (just browse through my archive for many examples), doctors need better statistical knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff.) 

Convincing schools to give up calculus won’t be easy. I imagine that most math educators will scream in protest at the mere suggestion, in fact. In their never-ending competition to look good on a blizzard of standardized tests, schools push students to accelerate in math starting in elementary school, and they offer calculus as early as the tenth grade. This doesn’t serve students well: the vast majority will never use calculus again. And those who do need it - future engineers, physicists, and the like - can take it in college. 

Colleges need to adjust their standards too. They can start by announcing that high school programming and statistics courses will be just as important as calculus in admissions decisions. If just a few top universities would take the lead, our high schools would sit up and take notice.

We can leave calculus for college. Colleges teach calculus well, and 18-year-old freshmen are ready for it. Every major university in the country has multiple freshman calculus courses, and they usually have separate courses designed for science-bound and humanities students. Many students who take high school calculus have to re-take it in college anyway, because the high school courses don’t cover quite the same material. 

Let’s get rid of high school calculus and start teaching young students the math skills they really need.

Can a cosmetic lotion turn back time? Not yet.

A few years ago, L’Oréal introduced two new product lines that used “gene science” to "crack the code" and make your skin young again. The new products were supposed to boost the production of “youth proteins” in your skin, making it look years younger. According to L’Oreal’s ad campaign, the benefits were clinically proven.

Except they weren’t. Last week, the FTC announced that L’Oréal had settled charges that the advertising for these products, Youth Code™ and Lancôme Génifique, was deceptive and misleading.

In a statement, L’Oréal responded that these claims "have not been used for some time now" and "the safety, quality, and effectiveness of the company's products were never in question."

What did L’Oréal claim? Here are some quotes from an ad for Lancôme Génifique:
"At the very origin of your skin's youth: your genes. Genes produce specific proteins. With age, their presence diminishes. Now, boost genes' activity and stimulate the production of youth proteins."
This sounds pretty amazing - and expensive, as much as $132 per bottle for Lancôme Génifique. L’Oréal Youth Code™ makes similar claims: on of its ads asks "Imagine: what if you could grow young?" and then goes on to promise "Even though you can't grow young, we now have the knowledge to help you begin cracking the code to younger acting skin."

The FTC apparently disagrees with L’Oréal's statement that the effectiveness of these cosmetics was not in question. Here is just one claim from a L’Oréal's ad that was highlighted by the FTC:
Génifique Youth Activating Concentrate is clinically proven to produce perfectly luminous skin in 85% of women, astonishingly even skin in 82% of women, and cushiony soft skin in 91% of women, in seven days.
This claim appears in a very scientific-looking bar graph in ad for Lancôme Génifique. It must be science - it's a graph! Alas for L’Oréal, the FTC states that science doesn't support this claims and that it is "false and misleading."

When I asked what studies supported the claim that these products could activate genes, a L’Oréal spokesman pointed me to two published studies, here and here. These are indeed peer-reviewed studies in high-quality journals. However, they don't support the claims made for these skincare products. Instead, they examine which genes are activated when the outer layer of skin is stressed by tape stripping, UV radiation, and washing with detergent. Neither study provides any evidence for a lotion that could activate the same genes, nor do they show that activating those genes could restore skin to its youthful state.

Can skin cream possibly make your skin young again? Well, it's plausible. A baby's skin does behave differently from an adult's skin, and much of that difference may be due to genes being turned on or off. But today, even if we knew the identity of these "youth proteins", we don't have the technology to turn them on.

To their credit, L’Oréal does invest significantly in research, so maybe they will find a youth-restoring cream one day. But not yet.

It's easy to find dramatic claims for products that restore youthful skin. Procter and Gamble's Olay® has many webpages devoted to anti-aging products, and you can be pretty certain that none of them will make you young again either. Like L’Oréal, P&G makes claims about genes:
"That discovery [the human genome] led P&G Beauty Scientists to explore how skin-related genes respond to aging and environmental stress at the molecular level."
As a geneticist myself, I can't help liking the idea that we might somehow convince skin cells to turn on a set of genes to restore their youthful state. Perhaps one of these companies will someday develop a lotion to do this - I hope they will. But they haven't done it yet. So for now, save your money: expensive skin creams are no better than inexpensive ones.