Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Dishonest Use of Sources

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The most recent politician to declare their candidacy for president in 2024 is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., one of America’s best-known anti-vaccine activists. Earlier in his career Kennedy established a reputation for himself as a prominent and respected environmentalist. When he shifted his focus in 2005 from toxicity in the environment to the alleged toxicity of childhood vaccines, however, he caught the attention of parents who distrusted vaccinations and believed that they were linked to autism in children or other medical problems. This case is an intriguing example of how Kennedy’s notoriety persuaded parents to accept his claims and refuse the substantial body of research that proved vaccines are safe.

Rolling Stone published his article “Deadly Immunity” in 2005 where Kennedy warned that children were being harmed by the preservative thimerosal in childhood vaccines. The truth was that by 2001, thimerosal had been removed from all childhood vaccines. Kennedy went beyond using fraudulent data to misrepresent his sources. An article published in Scientific American, which analyzed his misuse of sources, details how he took quotations from authorities out of context to misrepresent what those authorities said and ignored basic rules for documenting research. Even Kennedy’s family eventually went public in an attempt to distance themselves from his faulty scholarship and extreme views. Their open letter is reprinted in the most recent edition of Elements of Argument. His niece and two of his siblings state, “We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong. . . . He is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases. He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

Kennedy’s famous name seems to lend him authority and therefore, people who distrust vaccines rely on him to defend their beliefs. Those who are not familiar with his earlier writing about childhood vaccines may remember his recent opposition to the COVID-19 vaccines. An AP article in the Chicago Sun-Times summed up his extremism: “Kennedy has repeatedly invoked Nazis and the Holocaust when talking about measures aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, such as mask requirements and vaccine mandates. He has apologized for some of those comments, including when he suggested that people in 2022 were worse off than Anne Frank, the teenager who died in a Nazi concentration camp after hiding with her family in a secret annex in an Amsterdam house for two years.” Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, also stated in an article by the New York Times: “His conduct ‘undercuts 50 years of public health vaccine practice, and he’s done it in a way I’ve never see anyone else do it. He is among the most dangerous because of the credibility of who he is and what his family name has brought to this issue.’”

Will the fact that Kennedy continues to spread misinformation about vaccines in the face of indisputable scientific facts affect his presidential bid? Only time will tell, but in order to move past the violent division that the country has experienced over the past few years, America needs a president that leads with integrity.

"39 RFK Jr"  by Felton Davis is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.