Then came the backlash. Critics charged Kennedy with quoting material out of context. Rolling Stone had to make corrections. Enough doubts were raised that Salon eventually retracted the story. Unbowed, Kennedy stands by the piece and admits to only a few inconsequential errors.
As the applause turned to denunciation, Kennedy simply doubled down.
The more Kennedy talked
on the subject, the
more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.
Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”
Last summer I reported
on these inflammatory comments for the Discover magazine Web site, where I have a blog. (I write often about contentious issues in science.) I concluded that Kennedy “has done as much as anyone to spread unwarranted fear and crazy conspiracy theories about vaccines.”
A few days later, Kennedy called. “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma,” he said straight away. He then talked without pause, reprising the claims made in his Rolling Stone article, which I learned he had expanded into a book manuscript.
After talking nonstop for nearly an hour, Kennedy asked if I would be willing to look at the manuscript. I said yes. But I told him that I was extremely dubious. I wasn’t the only skeptical one. When he sent his manuscript to friends and colleagues, asking in a cover letter “for your advice and support,” the silence was crushing.
Most of those who did respond were dismissive. Philip Landrigan, a leading public health advocate and physician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, offered a reply that stung. “We were buddies,” Kennedy said. “I got a curt note back from him, saying, ‘This isn’t worthwhile, and this is an effort you should immediately abandon.’ ”
Kennedy remained defiant. “The only way I can stop this is if someone shows me I’m wrong on the science.”
He kept me apprised of his efforts. In September he got a “terse” letter from the National Vaccine Program Office, acknowledging that this is a complex issue but that there was no evidence that thimerosal in vaccines is harmful.
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of California’s Mind Institute in Davis, was one of the few scientists willing to read Kennedy’s manuscript. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said to me over the phone. She believed that Kennedy had stacked the book with too many problematic studies that he cites as evidence of thimerosal’s contribution to neurodevelopmental disorders. “But it is not true that there is a body of scientific evidence that has put this question to rest, as the CDC asserts.” In fact, on a possible connection between autism and thimerosal, she said, “I think the question still remains to be answered.”