KSJ Tracker July 21, 2014

Vaccine denialists, climate denialists: When should journalists report what they're saying?

John Christy

Keith Kloor's interesting piece in The Washington Post Magazine on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-vaccine crusade includes this interesting fact: "All six of his children--ages 13-29--have been fully vaccinated."

That's a bit of a surprise in the family of man who is probably second only to the sometime actress Jenny McCarthy in the zeal with which he has attacked vaccines. But it doesn't seem to have dampened Kennedy's anti-vaccine efforts. The issue concerns a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal, once used in a lot of childhood vaccines but not used only in some flu vaccines, Kloor reports.

Kennedy and others believe that thimerosal, an antifungal and antiseptic, is associated with a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism. Kloor reports that according to the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine, "no evidence supports a link between thimerosal and any brain disorders, including autism."

 Kloor's story is a case study of a prominent political figure pushing what seems to be a doomed political agenda, as fewer and fewer of his peers, friends, and his family's friends and associates, are willing to listen to him.  "The only way I can stop this is if someone shows me I'm wrong on the science,"  he says, overlooking the many studies that have said he is wrong, even if the study's authors haven't said it to his face.

The story raises an interesting question: Why give Kennedy ink now in the pages of The Washington Post? Why risk attracting more allies to his lone wolf campaign?

In this case, there is a simple answer: Kennedy is publishing a book on the subject next month. And Kloor rightly took that as a peg on which to hang a story updating us on Kennedy's anti-vaccine views.

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.)

* * *

I was sensitive to this issue because of another story that appeared last week in The New York Times. There, Michael Wines reported on another lone wolf touting research that he says proves mainstream scientists wrong. The man is John Christy, and Wines describes him as " an outlier on what the vast majority of his colleagues consider to be a matter of consensus: that global warming is both settled science and a dire threat. He regards it as neither." Further, Wines writes, Christy "argues that predictions of future warming have been greatly overstated and that humans have weathered warmer stretches without perishing. Dr. Christy’s willingness to publicize his views, often strongly, has also hurt his standing among scientists who tend to be suspicious of those with high profiles."

Although Kennedy is an activist and Christy is a scientist, the parallels between the two of them are close. Each is challenging a widespread consensus.

We know why Kloor chose to write about Kennedy; there's a news peg. Why, we might ask, did Wines choose this as an appropriate time to write about Christy and his quixotic campaign?

From what we see in the story, there is no news peg--no reason at all to give Christy all this ink now.

He has already been in the Times; he was the subject of a story by Andrew C. Revkin in 2005, when researchers found errors in research Christy published in Science. The research challenged the consensus on global warming. Christy and a colleague conceded that they had made mistakes, but said "Our view hasn't changed."

The Wines story drew criticism and scorn on Twitter and Facebook. At the website Climate Progress, Joe Romm wrote a long post refuting Christy's work. It ran under the headline, "Quoting John Christy On Climate Change Is Like Quoting Dick Cheney On Iraq."

From what we can see in the Wines story, Christy's views haven't changed much, or at all, since the 2005 Revkin story. Unless he now does something to merit coverage, the Times should let this outlier lie out there. The Times should not be spreading the views of a man whom almost everybody thinks is wrong unless there is a good reason.

-Paul Raeburn


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