TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Social Media, Rhetoric, and Science – Antivaxxers

February 24th, 2017

In a recent news conference, Donald Trump (née Drumpf) proclaimed that that he had won the presidency by the largest electoral college margin since Ronald Reagan. When an earnest (but obviously “dishonest”) reporter challenged him and pointed out that William Jefferson Clinton and Barack Obama had larger majorities in the electoral college, Trump, the fabulist-in-chief, did not lose a beat. Like the old Grinch, Trump was “so smart and so slick, he thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!”

From his whopper, Trump retreated to the assertion that he was talking only about Republican presidents. But the earnest young reporter was relentless and pressed the challenge. And when pressed, Trump lamely offered1:

I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.”

Oh my. As John Adams, observed, before he became President:2

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

For a President who regularly embraces alternative facts, who has such a tenuous relationship with reality, and who says whatever was last whispered in his ear, we would expect science to be challenging. Some observers might note that Trump’s behavior mirrors how some lawyers treat scientific evidence and issues in litigation. Rhetoric has its place in science, but scientific disputes cannot be advanced simply because someone gave you “some information.” And yet, people try all the time.

If you search out the The World Mercury Project, you will be treated to a video of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who had made a career for the lawsuit industry of pursuing dubious scientific claims.3

The video, also available on YouTube, is vintage Kennedy, self-aggrandizing, and holding forth with accusations against pharmaceutical companies and vaccine manufacturers of “child abuse,” and “even worse.” The epistemic arrogance continues with assertions that Kennedy knows how to fight them, the greedy, murderous bullies.

The Trump presidency, with its alternative facts and its bullying, has emboldened conspiracy theorists of all stripes.

Last week, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., along with Robert De Niro, convened a news conference on Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce their latest stunt, a $100,000 cash reward to the first person who comes forward with a “peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that the mercury in vaccines is safe.” National Press Club Conference (Feb. 15, 2017) [Expurgated Version].

A stunt, of course, because no one study would “demonstrate” safety, although the mass of epidemiologic evidence does. Furthermore, even in face of the overwhelming evidence that thimerosal in vaccines is not associated with autism, we could always hypothesize that there is one child who has some unique susceptibility.

The anti-vaxxers are quick to jump on the individual susceptibility argument. At their (fake) news conference, Kennedy and De Nira exhumed Bernadine Healy, who died in 2011, for a replay of a 2008 interview, in which Healy speculated that the then available science had not ruled out the existence of susceptible subgroups of children, who might be at risk from some one or multiple vaccines. Healy is best known as the first woman physician to serve as Director of the National Institutes of Health, from 1991 to 1993. For her acknowledgement that there might be vulnerable subgroups, and that this issue of idiosyncratic reaction should be studied, Healy was named 2008 “Person of the Year” by the anti-vaccine group, the Age of Autism.

Not surprisingly, anti-vaxxers Kennedy and De Niro, and their followers, missed the obvious. Healy’s suggestion that there might be a vulnerable subgroup of children is not evidence that thimerosal or any vaccine or vaccine regimen is unsafe.

Also not surprisingly, President Trump, with his affection for alternative facts and speculative conspiracy theories, is in the same epistemic muddle as Kennedy and De Niro. While still a candidate, Trump met with Andrew Wakefield and other dubious characters from the anti-vaxxer movement. With his propensity to repeat whatever was last said to him, Trump tweets about “doctor-inflicted autism,” and other claims.

And to make matters worse, toady American Republican party cannot seem to distance themselves from whatever nonsense Alt-President Trump dishes out. Pratik Chougule, an executive editor at The American Conservative recently wrote a disturbingly uncritical essay in support of Trump’s twittering approach to scientific policy. Pratik Chougule, “Why the Kennedy-De Niro Vaccine Challenge MattersA presidential commission led by Robert Kennedy Jr. could raise uncomfortable questions about the incentives driving vaccination recommendations,The American Conservative (Feb. 15, 2017) (noting that Trump has said that he couldn’t care less’ about the shills of conventional medical wisdom, the pharmaceutical companies, and their ‘fudged up reports’. In typical fashion, he declares that ‘the doctors lied’ and that he is ‘being proven right about massive vaccinations’.”)

Sad. Fake news. Fake science. Where is Daubert when you need it?


Quackers & Cheese – Trump Picks Kennedy to Study Vaccine Safety

January 11th, 2017

Science necessarily involves a willingness to follow evidence to whatever conclusions are warranted, if conclusions properly can be had. When it comes to vaccination conspiracies, Democrats have it in their political DNA to distrust pharmaceutical companies that research, develop, and manufacture vaccines. The current Republican party, which has been commandeered by theocrats and populists, see vaccination as federal government aggrandizement, and resist vaccination policy as contrary to God’s will. Science is often the loser in the cross-fire.

And so we now have the public spectacle of watching the left and the right join in similar scientific apostasies. Consider how both McCain and Obama both suggested that vaccines and autism were related in the 2008 election. (Although both candidates were to some extent slippery in their suggestions, which might have been appropriate given how little they knew about the controversies.) And consider Michelle Bachmann was converted to a similar view about the HPV vaccine on the basis of a woman’s anecdote about her child. And then on the far left, you have the uplifting story of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and his brief on how thimerosal supposedly causes autism.

So it should be no surprise that Donald Trump, a Birther, a Mirther, a mid-night Twitterer, should embrace the anti-vaccination movement. Trump has made it clear that he rejects evidence-based policy, and so no one should expect him to embrace a scientific policy that is driven by high-quality scientific evidence. According to Kennedy, Trump wants Kennedy to head up a “commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman & Pam Belluckjan, “Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2017); Domenico Montanaro, “Despite The Facts, Trump Once Again Embraces Vaccine Skeptics,” National Public Radio (Jan. 10, 2017).

Who needs the National Academy of Medicine when you can put a yutzball lawyer in charge of a “commission”?

Some of the media refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a vaccine skeptic, but their terminology is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Kennedy is a vaccine denier; he has engaged in a vitriolic campaign against the safety and efficacy of vaccines. He has aligned himself with the most extreme deniers of science, medicine, and public safety, including the likes of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Kennedy has not merely engaged hyperbolic rhetoric against vaccines, he has used his radio show on the lawsuit industry’s Ring of Fire, to advance his campaign against public health as well as to shill for the lawsuit industry on other issues. SeeRFK, Jr.: Science Shows That Autism — Mercury Link Exists – PT. ½,” Ring of Fire (Mar 8, 2011).

Kennedy should not be characterized as a skeptic, when he is a shrill ideologue, for whom science has no method that he is bound to respect. Back in July 2005, Kennedy published an article, “Deadly Immunity,” in both Rolling Stone and on Slate’s website. The article was a hateful screed against Big Pharma and government health agencies for an alleged conspiracy to hide the autism risks of thimerosal preservatives in vaccines. Several years later, on January 16, 2011, Salon retracted the article. Seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadly_Immunity” entry in Wikipedia. See also Phil Plait, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Anti-Vaxxer,” Slate (June 5 2013) (describing Kennedy as a full-blown anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist); Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., “Inside the vaccine-and-autism scare: A pediatrician traces the rise of the anti-vaccine movement that falsely linked thimerosal with autism and turned parents away from the most lifesaving medicine in history,” Salon (Sept. 22, 2008); Keith Kloor,Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Anti-Science?” Discover Magazine (June 1, 2013); Steven Novella, “RFK Jr.s Autism Conspiracy Theory,” (Jun 20 2007).

Back in 2008, President Obama apparently considered Robert Kennedy for a cabinet-level position, but on sober reflection, thought better of it. See Steven Novella, “Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test,” (Nov. 07 2008). The Wall Street Journal, joined by many others, are now urging Trump to think harder and better about the issue, perhaps with some evidence as well. See Alex Berezow & Hank Campbell, “Ignore Anti-Vaccine Hysteria, Mr. Trump: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theories have no place in the White House,” Wall Street J. (Jan. 10, 2017).

Credible Incredulity

May 19th, 2016

Has skepticism become a victim of political correctness and adversarial zeal?

In the last century, philosopher Bertrand Russell advanced intelligent skepticism against myriad enthusiams and mindless beliefs, political, religious, and pseudo-scientific. Russell saw unwarranted certainty as a serious intellectual offense:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933), Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell’s American Essays, 1931-1935 , at 28 (1998).  When many American intellectuals were still in their love swoon over Stalin, Russell chastised the Soviet dictator for his betrayal of ideals and his enslavement of Eastern European. Stalinism’s certainty about politics and science was not a virtue, but a grave sin.  Or, in Russell’s words:

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Bertrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World at 4-5 (1951).

In the 21st century, ideologues of various stripes have tried to silence healthy skepticism and doubt by claiming that their critics have “manufactured doubt.”[1] This aggression against skepticism and doubt, joined with a biased conception of conflicts of interest, have become part of a concerted campaign to privilege tendentious scientific claims from critical scrutiny.

Philosopher Susan Haack, who has aligned herself on occasion with these politicized acolytes of certainty,[2] recently has pushed back, with a reminder that credulity for unwarranted claims, in all walks of life, is unethical.[3]  Haack’s essay is a delightful effort to clarify what credulity is, and to explore why credulity is an epistemologic vice and a social hazard, as well as the implications for citizens and scientists of living in an evidence-based, not a faith-based world.

Drawing inspiration from the the English mathematician and philosopher, William Kingdon Clifford, Haack has adopted one of Clifford’s bon mots as her motto:

“The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.”[4]

Indeed! And credulous judges and juries are the parents to specious claims and shyster lawyers.

Clifford’s essay should be required reading for politicians, judges, regulators, and legislators who evaluate the claims of scientist advocates.  Spurning ethical relativism, Clifford identified the key intellectual “sin” in an evidence-based world:

 “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

William K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 29 Contemporary Rev. 289, 295 (1877).

Professor Haack should be commended for her fulsome irony for publishing in a journal of one of the world’s more credulous institutions, and for reminding us that credulity is an intellectual vice.


[1] See, e.g., David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (2008); Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010).

[2] See, e.g.,Bendectin, Diclegis & The Philosophy of Science” (Oct. 26, 2013).

[3] Susan Haack, “Credulity and Circumspection: Epistemological Character and the Ethics of Belief,” 88 Proc. Am. Catholic Philosophical Assn 27 (2015).

[4] citing and quoting William K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief ” (1877), in Leslie Stephen and Sir Frederick Pollock, eds., The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays 70, 77 (London 1947).

The IARC Process is Broken

May 4th, 2016

Last spring, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) convened a working group that voted to classify the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The vote was followed by IARC’s Press Release, a summary in The Lancet,[1] and the publication of a “monograph,” volume 112 in the IARC series.

IARC classifications of a chemical as “probably” carcinogenic to humans are actually fairly meaningless exercises in semantics, not science. A close reading of the IARC Preamble definition of probable reveals that probable does not mean greater than 50%:

“The terms probably carcinogenic and possibly carcinogenic have no quantitative significance and are used simply as descriptors of different levels of evidence of human carcinogenicity, with probably carcinogenic signifying a higher level of evidence than possibly carcinogenic.”

Despite the vacuity of the IARC’s “probability” determinations, IARC decisions have serious real-world consequences in the realm of regulation and litigation. Monsanto, the manufacturer of glyphosate herbicide, reacted strongly, expressing “outrage” and claiming that the IARC had cherry picked data to reach its conclusion. Jack Kaskey, “Monsanto ‘Outraged’ by Assessment That Roundup Probably Causes Cancer,” 43 Product Safety & Liability Reporter 416 (Mar. 30, 2015).

In the wake of the IARC classification, in the fall of 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed the evidence for, and against, glysophate’s carcinogenicity. The EPA found that the IARC had deliberately failed to consider studies that did not find associations, and that the complete scientific record did not support a conclusion of human carcinogenicity. EPA Report of the Cancer Assessment Review Committee on Glyphosate (Oct. 1, 2015).

For undisclosed reasons, however, the EPA’s report was never made public until a couple of weeks ago, when it showed up briefly on the agency’s website, only to be pulled down after a day or so. See David Schultz, “EPA Panel Finds Glyphosate Not Likely to Cause Cancer,” Product Safety & Liability Reporter (May 03, 2016). No doubt the present Administration viewed a conflict between EPA and IARC, and disparaging comments about the IARC’s “process” to be national security issues.  At the very least, the Administration would not want to undermine the litigation industry’s reliance upon the IARC cherry-picked report.

All joking aside, the incident highlights the problematic nature of the IARC decision process, and the reliance of regulatory agencies on the apparent authority of IARC determinations. The IARC process is toxic and should be remediated.


[1] Kathryn Z Guyton, Dana Loomis, Yann Grosse, Fatiha El Ghissassi, Lamia Benbrahim-Tallaa, Neela Guha, Chiara Scoccianti, Heidi Mattock, Kurt Straif, on behalf of the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group, IARC, Lyon, France, “Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate,” 16 The Lancet Oncology 490 (2015).