Robert F Kennedy Jr, famously one of Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, Sr ‘s 11 children, has made press many times over the last ten years with his staunch anti-vaccination views. In 2005, he wrote an article for Salon.com proclaiming that a government conspiracy was responsible for covering up a link between the vaccine preservative thimerosal and childhood autism. So bad was the article, with considerable factual errors and in the end, scientific fraud on part of the original study, it was retracted completely in 2011.
Despite this, Kennedy has continued to spread his anti-vaccination views, and last week Phil Plait at Slate.com wrote an article demonstrating that even some of the richest, well educated, intelligent and powerful people in the world are not immune from the world of conspiracy ideation.
Since this article has been published last week, the author’s editor received a call from Kennedy himself, which involved an hour long rant highlighting his dismissal of evidence that contradicts him, his cherry-picking of clearly wrong evidence, and the imagination of a vast conspiracy involving the “criminals of the CDC [United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]”
What we can see here is that, although we hypothesise that conspiracy theories tend to be more popular with those who have felt a loss of control or power over their lives (and thus both assume that some shadowy group is in control, and attempt to regain that control by exposing them), even some of the richest most powerful people in the world can also become easily influenced by the conspiratorial mindset. We also see evidence of some of the classic cognitive biases at work in the quotation above. In particular, confirmation bias, the idea that we ignore or dismiss evidence contrary to our belief, and we selectively gather evidence to further support this bias.
The article gives us an insight into some of the more vocal proponents behind these types of conspiracy theory, and the dangers of allowing conspiracies such as these to go unchallenged. Kennedy has a unique, instantly recognisable family name, and unfortunately has chosen to instead use his fame and influence to propagate dangerous theories and misinformation. We have often quoted on this blog the dangers in particular of anti-vaccination conspiracies, where parents will withdraw their children from essential vaccination problems based on ‘what they read on the internet’. Although parents have a right to protect their child, we need to be able to give them the tools to reach informed, scientific, and valid answers to their fears and questions, and not allow dangerous, life threatening, otherwise preventable diseases from returning.