Oh Noes! RFK Jr thinks our fish have dangerous levels of Buzz-words

I was going to write about the death of one of my intellectual heroes, Howard Zinn, until I opened my inbox to find two emails telling me of an appearance by Robert F Kennedy Jr. on Canada AM that can’t go unchallenged by this Canadian skeptic blog.

First off, CTV News does not allow for embedding videos. I know Phil Plait has raged about this before and I’ll echo it. Attention News outlets: Allow for embedding! It increases your traffic, helps get your content everywhere, and increases ad revenue. Figure it out, and stop with the possessiveness already.

Now that that is off my chest, click here to see the video.
Wow. Does anyone else get frustrated that someone is allowed to make an argument that makes a huge number of demonstrably false claims, and skeptics have to spend their time tearing it apart piece by agonizing piece? RFK Jr’s interview was laden with equal parts bad science, conspiracy theory-mongering, and conceit. I won’t get into the science here because a) I’m not qualified to discuss the science, and b) Skeptic North has already had an expert with qualifications who did address the science. I encourage you all to take a few moments to read Erik Davis’ guest post from last month regarding how much mercury is in our fish.
While I won’t argue the science, experts have researched this ad nauseum and I can address some of RFK Jr’s claims linking mercury to Autism. Hint: there is no link. Not only are mercury levels similar in both autistic and non-autistic children, but the claim itself is a moved goalpost from the days when people feared that a mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, caused autism (it doesn’t). Kennedy seems to have joined the ranks of not only the anti-vaccination crowd (to whom we owe countless outbreaks of pertussis, measles, mumps, and rubella), but also the mercury militia (an appropriately pejorative term for those with influence that arrogantly try to scare people from everything even remotely related to mercury). Kennedy, who has no science education (his degrees are in literature and law), has been preaching pseudo-scientific claims for a while now. I find his particular involvement in this community to be concerning because of the supposed status he brings.
Jenny McCarthy’s empty claim to authority is that she has an autistic son and she was the hot blond woman on MTV who ate her boogers. Jim Carrey’s claim to authority is that he’s dating McCarthy. He also wore a green mask. But RFK Jr has a decided advantage here: he fell out of one of the most valuable wombs of American royalty and he is one of the holders of what is, for some reason, a prestigious and respectable last name. In addition to his name, Kennedy’s environmental and political activism over the years have gained him not only powerful friends, but an air of legitimacy in the eyes of the mainstream media. He gives dinner talks all over the world for $500/plate, and when Kennedy comes to town, the media wants in. Heck, he’s even in a documentary about whitewater rafting! It’s easy to paint McCarthy and Carrey as celebrity loons who don’t deserve their non-acting airtime, but in the eyes of many, RFK Jr has earned the right to speak because: a) he’s a Kennedy and b) he’s an active Kennedy. That makes him powerful and influential. In honour of the late, great Howard Zinn I feel the need to speak some truth to power.
Conspiracy-Thinking, or naked ignorance?
Host Beverly Thomson pointed out that Health Canada has a differing opinion regarding mercury in Canadian fish stocks: that mercury levels are closely monitored and there are no significant health concerns with eating most fish caught in Canada. Kennedy responded:
Here’s what I would say to Health Canada: “If you want mercury in your fish, any mercury, even a molecule of mercury, you should add it yourself at home. But don’t put it in fish that the public has to eat, and don’t allow polluters to put it into the fish that the public has to eat.
This statement tells me a few things about what Kennedy thinks: 1) That the scientists and health experts that work at Heath Canada actually like mercury and want more of it, 2) That Health Canada is intentionally putting mercury into fish stocks, and 3) That Health Canada decides how much pollution companies are allowed to dump into the biosphere. Seriously, does Kennedy think that people are heaping spoonfuls of mercury onto their morning cereal? Kennedy further claimed that “Mercury is a deadly neurotoxin, it’s a brain killing poison, even a molecule of mercury could destroy brain cells and cause deformities in children”. Even a single molecule could cause this much damage? Yikes! I sure am terrified of fish now! At least I would be, if I didn’t have some science to assuage my fear. Guess I’ll have that Tuna Helper tonight after all.
Conceit
At the risk of editorializing here, I….well, I’ll editorialize. Feel free to ignore this next bit, as they are my own opinions, and not necessarily of Skeptic North.
I generally have mixed emotions about the Kennedy family. Without getting too much into the politics of their brand name (and it is a brand), they’ve always struck me as tantamount to American royalty, the very thing that stood against what the founding fathers were trying to achieve: several generations of the same family with incalculable political, economic, cultural, and financial influence borne out of ill-gotten funds, and maintained through perpetuating the image of family-as-empire. Thankfully, there are hilarious caricatures of the Kennedys already out there:
“I, er-umm, want to tell you about yoa fish dere in Canada, er-umm! Mercury and buzz-words!”
Aside from the arrogance (and danger) of a non-scientist actively using their media connections to push a pseudo-scientific agenda with a track record tied to a body count, I find it rather presumptuous (if typical) of Mr. Kennedy coming to the Canadian media to try and influence domestic policy. Whether or not his arguments stand up to scientific rigor (they don’t), RFK Jr could show a little more discretion, and maybe try to work with the authorities to forward his specious agenda. Instead, the process goes like this: “I am RFK Jr! Science tells me that my claims are wrong! But look who funds science! Therefore, I will go on television and make my false claims so that other people get worked up to a fevered pitch! Because….I….am…A KENNEDY!….er-ummm The Blood of the 35th King runs through my veins! er-ummm Kneel before er-ummm Zod!”
Mr. Kennedy, your science fu is weak. Please refrain from making up nonsense which would have a definite impact on our economy. Normally, I couldn’t care less about the economy if the science was unambiguously pointing out public health risks. But in our case, as huge swaths of Canada’s economy are still stuck in primary resources production, and fishing is one of the centres of that economic base, I’d advise an extra layer of caution. Not only do many regions of Canada have an active and involved fishing economy, but a fishing culture as well. It helped tie together the voyageur culture! Just check out the fishing section of just about any department or sporting good store and you’ll get an idea as to just how much of a fisher-folk are we. For Mr. Kennedy to get paid to come up to Canada and go on national television to warn that “90% of Alberta’s fish are inedible”, I think it betrays both arrogance and hubris.
As for Canada AM, while it’s great that Beverly Thomson pointed out that Health Canada disagrees with Kennedy, she could/should have pressed the point a little more. Maybe she did, and it was cut out of what went to air, I don’t know. But I have a friendly message for Canada AM: you still have a chance to put some real experts on the show to talk about the science. I would encourage you to not bother with any marketing or commercial interest groups, and go straight to the science. I’m sure we could help you find someone willing to right the Kennedy Wrong (no, not that one).
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Thanks to Lindsay F and Jennifer H who both sent this one in.

And apologies to Mel for taking this one from her awesome Skeptic Media Wins and Fails section….This had to be addressed a.s.a.p.! (but people should still send her stuff to skepticnorthlinks [at] gmail [dot] com)

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.