Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has always had a famous name — yet until recently, his association with the anti-vaccine movement and fringe theories about the dangers of Wi-Fi has relegated him to the sidelines of America’s national discourse. Why are the presidential candidate’s paranoid views suddenly appealing to a wider audience?
It’s partly a product of our era. Public health authorities have fumbled Americans’ trust. And we live in a time when hyperbole goes viral and reason gets drowned out. Risk communication consultant Peter Sandman has long contended that public perception of risk is determined only partly by the size of the health hazard. The rest is outrage. This is why, for example, people tend to get more worked up about chemicals carelessly dumped in drinking water than more-dangerous chemicals that end up there by accident.
Outrage is Kennedy’s main weapon and rhetorical tool. Social media algorithms favor outrage over reason — and the mainstream media tends to follow whatever’s trending. So does the popular Joe Rogan show, where Kennedy spent more than three hours stirring outrage over censorship, polluters and vaccines.
Kennedy is no science-phobe. He cites study after study to back up his points. He knows the scientific lingo and he’s quick on his feet. He contends that almost every product of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is toxic and carcinogenic. Because some chemicals and pharmaceuticals are harmful, he’s guaranteed to be right at least some of the time.
The problem with this blanket paranoia is there’s no sense of proportion — tenuous risks are lumped in with problems backed by reams of data. And there’s no balance of risks and benefits.
In his conversation with Rogan, Kennedy’s discussion of the damage caused by mercury in the environment — where lead and mercury contamination is truly harmful — evolved into a discussion of childhood vaccines, which used to contain a mercury compound called thimerosal. As an environmental lawyer, he fought for mothers who worried that their kids had developed autism because of their childhood vaccines.
Those mothers deserved to be heard, but there’s now been enough scientific investigation to conclude that vaccines are an astronomically unlikely cause. As University of California, Los Angeles statistician Sander Greenland has reminded me, studies can’t prove something is perfectly safe — but scientific data can put some bounds on the risk and help people know whether it’s worth the benefit. Kennedy skates past these nuances when he criticizes pharmaceutical and chemical companies.
But if Kennedy lacks nuance, so do too many people on the other side. That’s part of what allows characters like him to flourish. It’s probably not an accident that his views are getting more traction post-pandemic. Policymakers imposed too many rules that defied rational explanation, such as masking outdoors when jogging alone and mandating boosters for college students, a low-risk population. Social media companies did their part by labeling minority viewpoints as “misinformation,” even when scientists were still parsing the data. One result is that today, many people just don’t trust public health and medical authorities.
Kennedy’s paranoia often intersects with real environmental trouble, such as environmental contamination with PFAS — or “forever chemicals” — and hormone-disrupting chemicals. Consider Kennedy’s treatment of an herbicide called Atrazine, which has been known for years to cause birth defects in frogs — abnormal gonads, feminization of males, abnormal sperm and other problems associated with the chemical’s ability to disrupt estrogen and testosterone.
There’s research suggesting people exposed to high levels of Atrazine suffer higher rates of certain cancers and low sperm counts. University of California, Berkeley researcher Tyrone Hayes faced the wrath of the chemical business in pointing out that this chemical is affecting farmworkers, who are mostly people of color.
But Kennedy turned what had been an uncontroversial health concern into something divisive and politicized when he speculated that Atrazine and other pollutants cause gender dysphoria and are making men more feminine. Outraged responses have wrongly cast doubt on the legitimate concern with the chemical’s impact on birth defects, infertility and cancer.
Kennedy has also raised fears about covert bioweapons programs — and in one now-infamous discussion, he warned that new viruses could be engineered to target certain ethnic groups, and that COVID-19 is ethnically targeted and Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews were “most immune.”
He backtracked, sort of, saying he doesn’t necessarily know if this virus was designed or targeted but that data show some ethnic groups are disproportionately affected. Whether his statements were a deliberate attempt to stir up racist conspiracy theories or just an appalling gaffe remains the focus of yet more outrage-filled debate.
Kennedy has long trafficked in outrage, and now his brand of fearmongering with cherry-picked science has finally found its perfect breeding ground in post-COVID, social media-saturated America. High levels of outrage and low levels of public trust are fertile soil for conspiracy theories and the rise of paranoid thinking. That’s good news for the purveyors of outrageous theories, apps that monetize our darkest emotions, and politicians who thrive on dividing people. But it’s bad news for everyone else.
F.D. Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She is host of the “Follow the Science” podcast.
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