Reactions to the Kennedy Profile

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 22, 2014 9:28 PM


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My recent Washington Post magazine piece on Robert Kennedy Jr. has prompted numerous reactions in media outlets, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. Generally speaking, readers have found the story both compelling and maddening. What folks seem to be divided on is how Kennedy comes off in the story. Laura Helmuth at Slatesays I was "remarkably generous" to Kennedy, "presenting him as dogged and genuine." I disagree, in part. I don't believe my story can be read as "remarkably generous" to him, but yes, he is portrayed as relentless and sincere. Phil Plait, also at Slate, similarly felt that I should have been tougher on Kennedy:

Now, I don’t mean that Kloor treats RFK Jr. with kid gloves; the article actually shows his claims to be dead wrong and portrays him as an outcast from the mainstream. That’s all fine. I just don’t think Kloor really showed RFK Jr.’s true nature; something we here at Slate have seen for ourselves.

This perplexes me, since I thought where the piece most succeeds is in showing Kennedy's true nature. Some science journalists appear to have picked up on that.

A very revealing profile: @keithkloor on Robert Kennedy Jr. and his thimerosal crusade: http://t.co/TDJMFZ2xhR — George Johnson (@byGeorgeJohnson) July 20, 2014

Nonetheless, I think both Helmuth and Plait offer valuable perspectives and I appreciate them engaging respectfully with my story. Writing in Forbes, Steven Salzberg confirms, based on his own experience, what I discovered:

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.

For some commentators on the piece, it doesn't matter that Kennedy is sincere. That's beside the point. As Jeffrey Kluger puts it at Time magazine:

Kennedy may deeply believe the rubbish he’s peddling—but science doesn’t care about your sincerity; it cares about the facts.

True, but I still think it's worthwhile drilling down into what's motivating Kennedy. I'm glad that Paul Raeburn at MIT's Knight Science Tracker noted the tricky terrain I was on:

Kloor did a nice story, explaining Kennedy's views at some length without seeming to endorse them. It's a good example of how stories about questionable science, or even pseudoscience, should be done. (For more on Kloor's thoughts about the story, see his Discover blog post.)

Not everyone is so charitably inclined to the story. Newsbusters, a conservative media outlet, says my piece revives anti-vaccine hysteria. Hmm. On the contrary, I thought I did a decent job illuminating Kennedy's mindset while also leaving no question that his position was widely rejected by the medical and scientific establishment. Some recognized this delicate balancing act:

@keithkloor Fair overview that explored his motivations. You were clear where the science stands. His advocacy on this leaves me flummoxed. — Aaron Huertas (@aaronhuertas) July 21, 2014

Additional reactions from Ronald Bailey at Reason and at Scienceblogs from Orac. If there are more responses to the story, I'll post the links. UPDATE: Russell Saunders, a medical doctor writing in the Daily Beast, laments Kennedy's access to the corridors of power. Saunders writes that Kennedy "is doing harm to public health, even if he doesn’t sway policy." UPDATE: Paul Raeburn has a really interesting post on the responses from Slate and Time. At the end he asks:

When does writing about a nonsensical and dangerous message do more harm than good--spreading the nonsense even while trying to demolish it?

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