Maintenance Phase

RFK Jr. and The Mainstreaming Of The Anti-Vaxx Movement

August 01, 2023
RFK Jr. and The Mainstreaming Of The Anti-Vaxx Movement
Maintenance Phase
Show Notes Transcript

[Maintenance Phase theme]

Aubrey: Hi, everybody, and welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that only has 46 pages of notes today. 

Michael: Oh, you're doxing me. You're calling me out. 

Aubrey: I'm outing you. 

Michael: I was like, "I'm sorry, we've recorded for three and a half hours last time try to keep it shorter."


Michael: I only have 46 pages, which is pretty good for me. 

Aubrey: That is pretty good for you. [crosstalk] We were talking about our different notes thresholds.

Michael: Mine is 40 pages. So, I'm already exceeding it. And we're doing a third part of this fucking episode.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: So, I don't know, if my restraint can really be admired at this point. 

Aubrey: Restraint is for tourists. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. 

Michael: I'm Michael Hobbes. 

Aubrey: If you would like to support the show, you can do that at You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts subscriptions. It's the same audio content. And today, Michael,-

Michael: Mm Aubrey.

Aubrey: -we are continuing our journey-

Michael: Continuing.

Aubrey: -with RFK Jr., know?

Michael: Yes. We didn't put Part 1 in the title of the last episode because nobody downloads them if they say Part 1, but that was a Part 1.

Aubrey: We're manipulating boundaries.

Michael: We're clickbaiting you into downloading a Part 1 of a, now three-part episode, God damn it. 

Aubrey: I think your idea of clickbait and the rest of the internet's idea of clickbait are different, because you're like, "We clickbaited you into the Brian Wansink story." And I'm, like, "One of the best, most interesting stories we've told."

Michael: So, Aubrey, why don't you recap us? What did we learn about RFK Jr., and anti-vaxxers last time? 

Aubrey: We learned about the rise of the anti-vax movement starting pretty much as soon as there were vaccines. We learned that those arguments have not substantively changed. We learned that RFK Jr., started out working on really consequential stuff, like, climate change and doing really good work, and then just gradually slid into weird anti-vax world.

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: We learned about the source code for a lot of contemporary American anti-vax stuff, which is a paper written by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield that is one of the shoddiest pieces of research we have discussed on this show.

Michael: Which is really huge for us to reach new depths of bad methodologies. 

Aubrey: The show that talked to you about celery juice and the future ghost [Michael laughs] is like, "No, this one's really bad."

Michael: Yeah, we're like, "That's 0.5 of a Wakefield." We're now measuring this in Wakefields.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: Yes. This is where we're basically starting this episode. It is 1998. The paper by Wakefield making the link between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and autism has been released to great fanfare, and a lot of consternation, and we get this whole fucking machine going into overdrive, where the media it's like, "There're questions. There's a tricky debate about vaccines." In 2002, we get a BBC special called MMR - Every Parent's Choice.

Aubrey: That's clickbait. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: There's your clickbait. 

Michael: You're already defending us from [laughs] charges of clickbait. Like, "No, we're doing the okay kind of clickbait." 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: "We're tricking you into learning about anti-vaxxers."

Aubrey: No, I just mean that is actually pretty deceptive coverage of like,-

Michael: Oh, yeah.

Aubrey: -"there's a debate happening and there's da, da, da," without situating that in, like, this is a very small number of people making a very fringe argument on very flimsy data. 

Michael: So, alongside all of this question begging news coverage, there's, of course, one side of the debate becoming increasingly radicalized and increasingly drifting further and further from reality. As this is happening in the culture at large, it is also happening to RFK Jr. So, as we discussed last episode, in 1994, his son, Conor is born and has very severe allergies. He says that he has 29 ER visits in his first three years of life. So, this was obviously causing a huge amount of anxiety. RFK Jr., in 1998, found this food allergy initiative thing, which is basically trying to make the link between childhood vaccines and allergies. He also has an episode that I think also contributes to his radicalization. We actually talked about this last episode, but we cut it out for space. So, pretend that I'm telling you this for the first time. 

Aubrey: Pretend that this is new? [laughs] 

Michael: Just say, "Mike, that's new information every time I [crosstalk] wow--

Aubrey: "Oh, Michael, I've never heard anything like this before."

Michael: -new stuff." So, the reason we cut this out is because we talked for 45 minutes, because this is such fucking typical NGO drama. So, as we mentioned last episode, he gets pulled into this water cleanup NGO that sues governments over following EPA regulations in the 1980s, he eventually moves his way up the ranks. And in 2000, he forces out the guy who brought him into the organization in the first place. He has this weird idea to sell branded bottled water from this Riverkeeper organization, like, NGO-approved water. 

Aubrey: What are we doing? 

Michael: You can just say, that's new information. 

Aubrey: [laughs] That's new information I've never heard anything like it before. 

Michael: Thank you. Incredible stuff. So, this causes a lot of consternation among the board and the people who actually work at the NGO like, "I don't know if we want to become a private company selling bottles of water." 

Aubrey: You said it's typical. It's so damn typical. The number of organizations where an executive director will get an idea into their head, where they're like, "We'll make T-shirts and then we'll sell the T-shirts."

Michael: Oh, my God.

Aubrey: And you're like, "I don't know, man."

Michael: At one of the NGOs, I used to work at, our high up director guy got obsessed with the idea of J. K. Rowling writing the introduction to our annual report. 

Aubrey: Boy, that's an idea that did not age well. 

Michael: Did not age well. This was before her whole thing, but it's like, "Sure, I'll spend weeks trying to get this massive billionaire author to write the introduction to our unbelievably boring PDF that four people are going to read." Sure.

Aubrey: Beyonce definitely will play at our gala. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 

Aubrey: My God.

Michael: This eventually culminates in him taking over the organization. He also hires some guy who had been arrested for selling rare birds. 

Aubrey: [laughs] What a weird, specific kind of shady criminal. 

Michael: So, basically, in the most NGO drama way possible, everyone agrees that he's wrong on the merits, but they keep him around because his last name is Kennedy and he's really good at fundraising. 

Aubrey: I think a lot of successful fundraising from large dollar donors is just knowing how to be around rich people. 

Michael: Oh, yeah. 

Aubrey: There is just a great deal of like, "It's fine."

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: "It's fine. Keep them." 

Michael: So, there's a New York Times article about the drama in 2000 where employees of the NGO are quoted. One guy talking about RFK Jr., says, "I think he separates himself from good science at times in order to aggressively pursue an issue and win."

Aubrey: Boy, this is really Chekhov's Times quote. 

Michael: I think that was my joke last time. I think you just [crosstalk] joke last time.

Aubrey: Was it. God damn it. 

Michael: No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. 

Aubrey: Oh, God. 

Michael: And then the other quote is, "He had a nasty tendency to deride or insult anybody he thought was not on his side." 

Aubrey: Ooh.

Michael: So, we're already seeing this black and white thinking and this weird crusader mentality where he just becomes completely immune to facts. It seems this is also when he starts falling down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Shortly after the 2004 election, he becomes convinced that it was rigged in favor of George W. Bush. Do you remember this? 

Aubrey: Yeah, like, people still grouse about that today. 

Michael: It appears he got the idea from Larry David. 

Aubrey: What? 

Michael: Just a very weird cameo. So, he and Larry David, the guy who is the co-creator of Seinfeld and the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm invited him to Aspen or something. This is also where he met his current wife, Cheryl Hines. 

Aubrey: So, this was my question is like, is this pre or post Cheryl Hines? 

Michael: I think this is Cheryl Hines. Like, this is mid Cheryl Hines. That's how he met her. There's a New York Times article where they describe Larry David urging RFK Jr., to read some crank book on how the election was stolen in 2004. There's a pretty good follow-up New York Times story now that RFK Jr., is much more out as like an anti-vax crank, where they look into the question of like, "What does Larry David actually think about this stuff?" And so, they talk about how RFK Jr., basically says like, "Oh, yeah, he supports me. All my friends support me in my endeavors." 

Then they reach out to Larry David. And the article says, "This might lead you to believe that Larry David is backing Kennedy's candidacy, but the Curb creator would like to disabuse people of that notion. In a text to The New York times he wrote, 'Yes, love and support, but I'm not "supporting" him." [Aubrey laughs]

Aubrey: This is the relationship that I imagine exists between Laura Dern and Marianne Williamson at this point. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: It's also making me very grateful that none of my former roommates are running for president. 

Michael: This is like, when we hang out, how we avoid talking about Tar, [Aubrey laughs] our greatest disagreement, the greatest issue of tension between us. 

Aubrey: Yeah. Listen, I take my Blanchette very seriously. You know this about me. 

Michael: I do know this about you. 


Michael: So, last episode, we talked about the things that conspiracy theorists do, right? They lie, they remove context. Today, we are going to talk about how the anti-vax movement came to America and how RFK Jr., himself helped to spread it, like, added a ton of fuel to the fire. He is in this episode a lot more than the last RFK Jr., episode we did. But the tendency of conspiracy theorists that all of this demonstrates and I really want to tediously hammer home in this episode is how conspiracy theorists constantly move the goalposts. 

So, in this moment in 1998, post Wakefield, right? If you look at the history of everything the anti-vax movement has been through so far. In the 1980s, we had this documentary about the pertussis vaccine, where they were saying, "Ah, the pertussis vaccine causes basically everything." It was like, kids with seizures. They showed footage of kids with Down syndrome. It was just all over the place, but it was all linked to the pertussis vaccine. In the early 1990s, they then move over to food allergies. Vaccines cause food allergies. Sure. Then in 1998, they shift to the measles vaccine causes stomach problems and the stomach problems cause autism. 

So, in 2005, RFK Jr.'s conspiracy mindset thing culminates with the publication of an article called Deadly Immunity. It's like a major feature story. He describes it as a cover story in Salon, but Salon was a website. So, I don't know how it could be a cover story. [Aubrey laughs] But it's published on Salon and in the print edition of Rolling Stone. This article marks the mainstreaming of the anti-vax movement. So, I am going to send you a JPEG of what this looks like on

Aubrey: Wow. I forgot how hideous websites in this era were. 

Michael: It looks like Craigslist. 

Aubrey: You know what? It looks like it should have those blinky GIFs of text or [Michael laughs] the dancing hamster's GIFs.

Michael: This is the layout of a website. Now, if a restaurant has it, you know the food is good. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: This is ugly enough people are not going there for the aesthetics.

Aubrey: So, this is listed in the news and politics section as a Salon/Rolling Stone joint investigation. There is a picture of a kid facing a window with their hands behind their back, and the title is Deadly Immunity. 

Michael: Deadly Immunity. 

Aubrey: When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government rushed to conceal the data and to prevent parents from suing drug companies for their role in the epidemic. 

Michael: Note the moving of the goalposts again. Right now, we're on to mercury. 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 

Michael: But then okay, so, I am going to send you a very long excerpt. This is the first six paragraphs of the story. We are going to read this, and then we are going to circle back to it once we learn a little bit more about the background in context. 

Aubrey: Uh-oh. Are we doing a close text debunking? 

Michael: Yeah, we're going to read this seven times. We're just going to keep going over and over again. We're going to do it sentence by sentence eventually. 

Aubrey: Okay.

Michael: But for now,-

Aubrey: Okay. I love it. 

Michael: -we're going to learn about the evil dastardly deeds of the CDC. 

Aubrey: Okay. "In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated Simpsonwood Conference Center in Norcross, Georgia. Convened by the CDC, the meeting was held at this Methodist's Retreat Center to ensure complete secrecy." 

Michael: So, we've got a secret meeting by the CDC. 

Aubrey: "Federal officials and the industry representatives had assembled to discuss a disturbing new study that raised alarming questions about the safety of a host of common childhood vaccines administered to infants and young children. A CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten had analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical records of 100,000 children. He found that a mercury-based preservative in the vaccines, thimerosal, appeared to be responsible for a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children."

This is commentary time. Hello, commentary. It is a real red flag if someone is saying, "Hey, we took an existing giant dataset and looked at it, and we found an association and we've decided that that means it's a causal relationship."

Michael: Oh, Aubrey, you're going to love the debunking of this so much. 

Aubrey: You're going to be like, "There was no dataset." 

Michael: No spoilees, but we're going to add some context.

Aubrey: But pretty much. Yeah.

Michael: I'm going to add a little bit of extra context to this. 

Aubrey: Okay. "I was actually stunned by what I saw, Verstraeten told those assembled at Simpsonwood citing the staggering number of earlier studies that indicate a link between thimerosal and speech delays, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and autism. But instead of taking immediate steps to alert the public and rid the vaccine supply of thimerosal, the officials and executives at Simpsonwood spent most of the next two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data."

Michael: How to cover it up. 

Aubrey: According to transcripts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, many at the meeting were concerned about how the damaging revelations about thimerosal would affect the vaccine industry's bottom line. 

Michael: Big Pharma. 

Aubrey: Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study, "Should not have been done at all," and warned that the results "Will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled."

Michael: Worrying stuff [crosstalk] worrying stuff. 

Aubrey: He's framing this in a way to make it sound sinister that's like, "We won't have complete control anymore." But a more neutral way of saying that thing in different framing is essentially like, "Look, a bunch of people without any training are going to get a hold of these numbers and are going to take that as proof positive that they shouldn't vaccinate their kids." And that's exactly what happened. 

Michael: I should have known that you would immediately spoil the rest of this episode. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: I wanted you to read this and be like, "Damn, Mike, there was a secret meeting of the CDC [Aubrey laughs] and they were going to cover things up?" And I was [crosstalk] well, actually, Aubrey, we're going to rewind.

Aubrey: I'm sorry that I have listened to our show. 

Michael: This is what's so savvy about what he's doing here. He says like, "Ooh, there's a transcript and we had to do a FOIA request to get this secret transcript of this secret meeting." But then the actual quote from this guy at the World Health Organization, he's saying, "The results will be taken by others and used in ways beyond the control of this group." That's just fucking true.

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Sometimes, you publish things and bad faith actors are going to do fucked up shit with them. We should talk about that before we publish them. 

Aubrey: It's also like a real misunderstanding of FOIA requests. The implication here is that, if you have to FOIA something that it must be part of a cover up.

Michael: Yeah. [chuckles] 

Aubrey: But people all day long in state and municipal and federal government get all of their emails FOIAed on a particular topic or whatever. That's not the same as someone is facing charges. We've built the case and we know. 

Michael: Also, what's wild about FOIAing the transcript of this is that, if it's so fucking secret, why did the CDC keep a transcript? Why did they invite a transcriber? 

Aubrey: Number one rule in a cover up, create a paper trail. 

Michael: So, it's like, he's doing something that we see in conspiratorial media a lot, where it's like, "I found these secret documents." But it's like, well, were they really meaningfully secret? Was anyone really trying to cover this up or was it just a hassle for you to get this? There's actually a huge difference between those two things. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: So, the thing is, we're joking around because both of our brains are completely fucking broken by hosting the show. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh.

Michael: But what this article is alleging, and I think quite effectively, if you zoom out, is basically that there's mercury in the vaccines, which is really freaky to people. We're literally injecting kids with mercury. And the CDC knew about it. There're all these studies showing that mercury is really toxic to kids. Like, of course it is. Everybody like, "That's the one thing we all know about mercury is that it's fucking poisonous," right? 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: The CDC has a secret fucking meeting to be like, "Make sure we don't tell anybody about this. Let's massage this a little bit." For people at the time that did not host health and wellness podcasts, a lot of people looked at this and were like, "Jesus fucking Christ, this is really worrying."

Aubrey: Well, and the tacit endorsement of publishing this in Salon and Rolling Stone.

Michael: Totally.

Aubrey: Man, Rolling Stone has some stuff to answer for. 

Michael: Dude, I know.

Aubrey: This and [unintelligible [00:18:59] 

Michael: I know. I think they also gave Led Zeppelin 4, like a negative review. 

Aubrey: Wow. 

Michael: I'm mostly mad about their lists.

Aubrey: Canceled. 

Michael: So, we are now going to rewind and we're going to learn a little bit more context, and later we will read the same excerpt and we will understand more about it with more layers. The first thing that we need to talk about is, is there mercury in the vaccine? 

Aubrey: So, that's another thing that bumped me about this little passage was the opening says, "Mercury in childhood vaccines." And then down a little way into the piece, he says something about, "Oh, mercury-based preservative." And I was like, "Does that mean that it has mercury in it? Does that mean that mercury is used in the processing of it. What's happening?"

Michael: I'm about to tell you what's happening. 

Aubrey: Tell me what's happening, Michael. 

Michael: I'm going to tell you everything what's happening? 

Aubrey: I'm confused. Tell me what's happening. 

Michael: So, this just as a thing to start out with, I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that mercury is in literally everything, because mercury is in the Earth's crust. When water bubbles up to the surface of the Earth and we drink it, it has a couple of particles of mercury in it. It has a couple particles of everything. They can test water and find micrograms, which are one millionth of a gram of all kinds of shit. This is not because DuPont is pouring chemicals in the water or Industrial Revolution, whatever. You can take a teaspoon of the freshest, cleanest spring water from the Swiss fucking Alps, and you will find trace elements of-- I found a list of various publications that I read. It will have lead, iron, arsenic, radium, radon, lithium, chromium, uranium, zinc, copper, silicone, phosphorus, and mercury. We live on Earth. This is the Earth. 

Aubrey: But listen, as you were talking about that, I was thinking about how much that sounds like I was anxious kid. If you made a dessert like bananas foster or something, something with alcohol in it, like a brandy fruitcake or something, I would get worried about getting drunk- 

Michael: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, same.

Aubrey: -of the alcohol in the dessert. I feel this is a like, "Am I going to get drunk off the alcohol in the dessert" level of analysis here.

Michael: This is something that we've said on the show before, but we should probably say at the top of every show and at the beginning of every conversation with every human being for all time is that, the dose makes the poison.

Aubrey: Yes. 

Michael: There are very few substances that are poisonous, regardless of how much of it or in what form of it you are ingesting. The obvious one is water. If you don't drink enough water, you die. But then also if you drink too much water, you die. You can drown from the inside out. There're all kinds of other compounds that are totally fine in a couple of millionths of a gram a day.

Aubrey: There's all of this ambient freak out about like, chemicals in the water. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: I would say a couple of things. One, water is chemical. You know what I mean? Like, inherently already chemical. Sorry. 

Michael: Tell them.

Aubrey: Tell them.

Michael: Tell them. Not Aubrey telling you about chemicals.

Aubrey: But also, a partner of one of my good friends used to work for a water treatment here in Portland, and she would always just be like, "People are always talking about like, we don't want chemicals in the water." And she was like, "I guess you don't want us purifying water?" Because I don't know what you think that process is. If you've got an open-air reservoir, that means at some point an animal is going to poop in that reservoir and you're going to have to do something chemical to counteract the poop or get the poop out of there or whatever. Just because you're adding "chemicals," adding baking soda to your cake that creates a chemical reaction. That doesn't mean that it's sinister. It's really weird to me.

Michael: It's also a very weird argument to make about mercury specifically, because not only is mercury in all of the water, but mercury is also in the air because mercury comes out of volcanoes. So, the air that we breathe will also contain a few micrograms of mercury. So, the average baby ingests around 360 millionths of a gram of mercury in the first six months of its life. So, the average vaccine dose does, in fact, contain about 25 mcg of mercury. So, 25 millionths of a gram. However, not only is that a really, really, really small dose of mercury, but it's not mercury as we think of mercury. When ordinary people talk about mercury, what they actually mean is methylmercury, which is the naturally occurring kind of mercury. There's elemental mercury and then it interacts with bacteria and then it becomes like the metal liquid T-1000 thing that we're all used to. 

Aubrey: You're right. I do love this debunking. 

Michael: Isn't it fun? 

Aubrey: It's so fun. T-1000, let's go. 

Michael: So, mercury is not like iron. There's no minimum recommended amount of mercury that you're supposed to get. Methylmercury is really nasty stuff. But one of the principles of mercury is that it's actually a very good antiseptic. So, before we knew how poisonous it was, there was a thing that you would put on your wounds called mercurochrome, which would prevent them from getting infected, like, this bright orange thing. So, it's actually a very good antiseptic. It's just not worth it, because it's also really poisonous. 

Aubrey: I love this idea of thinking about potentially harmful substances as like, "Is it worth it?"

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: Like, "I love the bitter almond flavor that comes with arsenic, but the side effects are a real pare."

Michael: So, in the 1920s, the Eli Lilly Company comes up with something called ethylmercury, which is different from methylmercury. It's a substance that has the same antiseptic properties as the bad kind of mercury, but it clears your body much quicker. 

Aubrey: Okay.

Michael: So, the problem with mercury-mercury, like, the type in tuna and shit is that it builds up in your system. You don't clear it. It stays inside of you. So, you have this little ball of metal that is just accumulating for years inside of your body, which is really bad for you. But ethylmercury doesn't do that. It only has a half-life of three to seven days and you clear it quite quickly.

Aubrey: Okay. 

Michael: So, things can be chemically very similar and have very different properties. 

Aubrey: Interesting. 

Michael: And so, in the 1920s, the Eli Lilly Company, after they invent this inorganic form of mercury, they mix it with something called thiosalicylate and that becomes thimerosal, which is what is up for debate here. This is the thing that RFK Jr., is talking about. There's thimerosal in the vaccines, right? 

Aubrey: Yup. 

Michael: So, the way that they ship out vaccines still now, but much more then is they would ship vaccines in 10 dose vials. So, on TV, when see that thing of, like, a nurse holds up a vial and she puts in a syringe and sucks a little bit out--

Aubrey: She does that 10 times. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. With different needles, but yes.

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: That's typically the way that they do this to make it easier, because shipping a bunch of glass vials for every single dose is just wildly expensive and it's much easier to do this with 10 doses. But in the 19 teens and 1920s, there're a couple of cases where the vaccines get bacteria in them. Like, somehow a needle got put in twice. It only takes a little bit of bacteria to get in that bottle because it often sits on the shelf for a long time, the vaccines can get infected. So, there's a case where they basically inject a bunch of kids with the Staphylococcus bacteria and kids fucking die. It's awful. So, this is a real danger. You have to have some sort of preservative in the vaccine, something that will kill bacteria in case a couple of little tiny particles of-- Bacteria get into the vaccines because it will grow and spread, and you won't know that it's in there until it's too late. 

Aubrey: Got you. 

Michael: So, in the 1920s, they realized that this thimerosal thing is a very effective antiseptic. You put a tiny little bit into one of these 10 dose vials, and no matter what, it can't get infected. Another thing that RFK Jr., doesn't like to admit is that there was actually a lot of safety testing of thimerosal before they started putting it into the vaccines. 

Aubrey: Oh.

Michael: There're these animal studies where they inject 2,000 mcg into rabbits. 

Aubrey: Whoa. 

Michael: They do this. There's no effect of it. There's a meningitis outbreak in the late 1920s. There's a time when they think thimerosal could be like antibiotic. This is before the invention of penicillin. They're like, "Oh, my God, maybe this will help cure meningitis." So, there's a whole hospital ward of people with meningitis. They inject them with 2 million mcg of thimerosal hoping that it will cure the meningitis. It does not cure the meningitis, but they find out that it doesn't have any safety effects. They don't puke, they don't pass out, they don't have any health effects of the actual vaccine itself. So, people are like, "Okay, well, this doesn't cure diseases on its own, but it's also not dangerous to give people." 

Aubrey: So, I feel like what I'm hearing from you is that there are different forms that mercury can take, and only some of those forms will cause harmful health effects in a big way, and others will just pass through you. They're like vaccine olestra- 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: -just pass right through. 

Michael: So, in the 1930s, they start adding it to vaccines. This is completely noncontroversial, boring, like nobody notices this stuff until the late 1990s. So, in 1997, there's an ongoing thing where people are concerned about mercury in fish. Mercury is just getting more of a profile as something that we should be worried about. And so, in the 1997 FDA Modernization Act, a senator includes a little amendment to just be like, "Hey, let's make sure we're being transparent about where Americans are being exposed to mercury." This is like the bad mercury. 

Aubrey: It's a study bill, yeah?

Michael: Yeah. They're just like, "Give us a baseline."

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: So, as a result of this transparency bill, people at the FDA look around and they're like, "Well, there is ethylmercury in the vaccines. So, we should publish that. We should tell people that there's ethylmercury in the vaccines." So, they look at the whole vaccine schedule, the amounts of ethylmercury and all the different vaccine doses, and they show that there are 187 mcg of ethyl mercury for children in their first, I believe it's one year of life, which is very small. Keep in mind, just being alive, you get 360 mcg. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: The next chapter of the story is extremely bizarre. This comes from Paul Offit's book Autism's False Prophets, which is extremely good. There's basically one guy named Neal Halsey who's a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins, and he's on the committees, like the vaccine committees. Paul Offit describes him as a vaccine insider. And so, in 1999, Neal Halsey sees the reports that kids are getting 187 mcg of ethylmercury and he starts to get concerned. He was one of the people who wanted to expand the vaccine schedule for kids. He's somebody who's always been pushing for like, "Kids should get all the vaccines that are available to them." 

I do think that because there's so much fucking bad faith question asking around this issue, it is important to say that he's not an anti-vaxxer. He's not doing this in bad faith. This is a guy who's genuinely concerned about children and genuinely supportive of vaccine safety, but he feels misled. He's like, "We've been expanding the vaccine schedule for years now, and I'm only just finding out that there're 187 mcg of ethylmercury in all of the vaccines that kids are getting." 

He starts looking around. He's like, "Well, what are the limits? What's the daily maximum for ethylmercury?" And he goes to all of the different agencies and no one really has one. Like, the EPA has one, but that's like living near water kind of prolonged exposure. The FDA has a limit for mercury, but that's in food, like food that you're eating regularly. 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 

Michael: Nothing is set up for these very deliberate injections of vaccines. And there's really no data on ethyl mercury. All of the limits are about methylmercury, which is like the bad kind. So, this basically becomes a crusade for this one guy to be like, "Hey, we should actually do way more studies on this and we might want to take thimerosal out of the vaccines." 

Aubrey: There's like an optics part of this as well, which is like, "People are going to freak out about this and I would like to be able to tell them with certainty that their kid is completely safe and they have nothing to worry about, and we know this for a fact."

Michael: There's also something really interesting here too about the weird circularity of, once the anti-vax movement is as empowered as it is in the late 1990s, people keep trying to come up with ways of placating the anti-vax movement. So, part of the argument for making such a big deal about mercury in the vaccines, it's like, "Well, these anti-vaxxers are going to yell at us if they find out about this," and they're inevitably going to find out about this. So, this becomes the debate behind the scenes. 

This is very weird. So, it all happens in two weeks. This one guy, Neal Halsey, starts pushing, "We got to do something about this. We got to do something about this." It's like summer, a lot of people are on vacation, but there's the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics coming up, and he's like, "Before this meeting, we need to know what the deal is with mercury. We can't have this meeting without having a clear statement on this and knowing what our policy is going forward." So, he starts holding all these teleconferences with all the various agencies. There're all these safety committees of vaccines. Basically, this one guy just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing.

Apparently, everyone else in the entire vaccine safety sector is like, "Neal, there's no reason to be worried. There's literally no evidence that this is dangerous. We're talking about 187 mcg, which is way fucking less than the environmental exposure to mercury." You get mercury in apples and bananas and shit. Yes, this is an issue. Yes, we should study it further, but I really don't understand the urgency to move on this. This has been in the vaccines for 60 years. According to Paul Offit's book, Neal Halsey sees other people stonewalling and he threatens to go to the press.

Aubrey: Wow.

Michael: He's like, "If you guys don't do something on this, I am going to release a press statement saying, 'I'm concerned about the amount of ethylmercury in the vaccine.'" And so, again, everything gets so much fucking harder when there're these conspiracy movements around. Because everyone's like, "Imagine what the anti-vaxxers would do with this." Someone within the vaccine safety system is like, "I'm worried about this trace element in the vaccines." So, basically, as a way of appeasing him and trying to get to the least bad option, they agree to put out a statement saying that thimerosal will be removed from the vaccines. 

Aubrey: Okay.

Michael: So on July 9th, 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service issue a statement saying, "From now on, we're going to be removing the thimerosal from all of the vaccines. It's going to take a year or two to work its way out because a lot of the vaccines have already been produced. But from now on, we're not going to have it in the vaccines anymore. There's no evidence that it's unsafe. There's really nothing to worry about. This shouldn't affect your decision to vaccinate your kids at all. But out of an abundance, an absurd abundance of caution, we're going to do this to go from 99.999% safe to 100% safe."

This is a fucking huge mistake, a historical blunder, because of course, when this statement comes out, every single person in America is like, "Holy fuck, there's mercury in the vaccines? I'm going to vaccinate my fucking kid? What? I didn't know there was mercury in the vaccines."

Aubrey: This is Streisand sand effect times a hundred.

Michael: Yeah. It's this totally fascinating thing to me, because of course, RFK Jr., has made this mercury in the vaccines thing his mission for the next 20 years after this announcement. But this announcement comes from the scientific establishment being like too overzealous in protecting children. Everything that he says in this article, everything that he says throughout all of his public statements is like, "Oh, the scientific establishment, they don't care that this is harming kids." But actually, this is the entire system being too hardcore about ensuring that vaccines are safe.

Aubrey: We used to do polling around this stuff and you'd ask people like, "Hey, do you support an increase in taxes?" And people would be like, "No." And they'll be like, "Change the question to, do you support an increase in education funding, senior services, and healthcare?" And the ratios flip, right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: Based on how you ask the question really, really matters. This seems like a core case of folks asking the question in a way that raised people's hackles more than it calmed them down. 

Michael: So, what's wild is, this announcement that safe vaccines are about to become even safer ends up emboldening another wave of anti-vax organizing. This is really the arrival of the anti-vax movement to the United States. The Wakefield stuff was centered in the UK, but this then sparks a wave of media coverage around like, "Oh, there's a debate about the safety of vaccine. Did you hear about this mercury thing?"

Aubrey: Right. This is like, if you got a notification, if there was a big announcement from NASA that was like, "Hey, everybody, not to worry. There's a 99% chance that we're not about to be destroyed by an asteroid."

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 

Aubrey: Yeah. [crosstalk] 

Michael: This is also the period when the anti-vax moms find RFK Jr. He has been working on mercury that's getting dumped from coal plants as part of his cleaning up waterways work. These moms start showing up at his talks and they're like, "Well, if you're really concerned about mercury, wait till you hear about the vaccines." 

Aubrey: Anti-vax moms going around politicizing Kennedy's in a destructive direction [Michael laughs] is like, bizarro world PFLAG. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: What if PFLAG was evil? 

Michael: What if I was an ally but for misinformation? 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: What if it was ally for lying, an ally for weirdos? 

Aubrey: I love my disinformation son. 

Michael: Okay. So, this finally brings us to the secret CDC meeting. So, just after this happens, in early 2000, this is really funny, the head of the CDC's immunization program was on vacation when all this stuff was going on. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Uh-oh.

Michael: This was before Zoom and shit. So, I guess, he just comes back from vacation and he's like, "Wait, we announced what?"

Aubrey: He's got the flipflop tan line.

Michael: Yeah.


Michael: He's got his bag of macadamia nuts. 

Aubrey: He's like, "Hey, man, I'm still on island time." [laughs] 

Michael: Yeah. He comes back and he's like, "What the Mars roving fuck did we just do? We just made this pretty big decision and put out this big statement, but we still don't actually have any information. There is no evidence that thimerosal is bad. And all evidence indicates that it's not and that it has nothing to do with any of these things that people are linking it to." So, we have to actually understand this. So, he assigns Tom Verstraeten, who's a researcher at the CDC, to look through their database. They have a database of children's health records, couple hundred thousand kids. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh. 

Michael: Separate the kids into vaccinated kids, unvaccinated kids, and just try to figure out like, is there anything to this? Is there any condition that is linked to thimerosal in the vaccines? 

Aubrey: Okay. 

Michael: So, Tom Verstraeten looks through the database and he finds that children who received vaccines are more likely to have attention deficit disorder, more likely to have speech and language delays, and more likely to have tics, these sort of twitches that are sometimes a symptom of autism, sometimes not. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh.

Michael: Importantly, he does not find an association with autism. So, this head of the immunology of the CDC, the guy crunching on macadamia nuts, does something that you and me are constantly saying that we wish scientific institutions would do, and which basically felt fucking Lancet should have done in 1998. They're like, "Look, we have this really incendiary finding. Before we publish this into what we know is the social and political environment around this issue, let's stress test it a little bit. Let's talk about it. Let's make sure that it's correct before we put it into the public bloodstream."

Aubrey: This is classic Big, If True territory. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Aubrey: It's your job to make sure that it's true. 

Michael: So, they gather together. It's roughly 50 people. It's people from different fields of epidemiology, it's people from various departments of the CDC, it's different agencies. I think there's FDA people there. It's like, "Let's get everybody together and just talk about this." So, they do, in fact, rent space at this Methodist Retreat Center thing outside of Atlanta. They all meet. You can read the transcript. Tom Verstraeten presents the data to everybody. He's like, "Here's what we did. Here's the methodology. Here's what we found." After he presents his data, people point out the massive flaws in the data. So, the first is the thing that you pointed out earlier that this is all completely correlational. 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 

Michael: The problem with this vaccinated versus unvaccinated grouping is that, vaccinated kids and unvaccinated kids are not identical in other ways. There're numerous vaccines that you have to get in the first two years of life. If you're getting all those vaccines, what that basically means that you're going to the fucking doctor a lot. You're going to the doctor 15, 20 times, which means you're way more likely to get diagnosed with things like speech and learning delays, with things like tics, with all kinds of other things that when you're at the doctor, the doctor is like, "Oh, is there anything else?" "Oh, my son, he's not talking as much as other kids his age." 

Aubrey: Yeah. And in the US, that's also going to be correlated with access to care period. 

Michael: Exactly. 

Aubrey: So, it pulls in social factors. It pulls in all other influences that are really complex and that you would need to account for in some way in doing this research. Yeah.

Michael: The other thing that people point out is that a huge amount of their data is just garbage. So, a lot of what they think of as like, "This kid was diagnosed with this," or like, "This kid has speech and learning delays." A lot of that is just stuff that people might mention in a doctor's visit and gets written down on their chart, but isn't like a formal diagnosis. So, oftentimes, parents will come in and they'll be like, "Oh, yeah, his language is a little bit delayed. It's not where we think it should be." But then he comes in a month later and they're like, "Oh, yeah, it's totally fine. He caught up." 

Aubrey: Yeah. Listen, this is one of the core lessons of early childhood brain development is like, kids move at different rates. 

Michael: They're just all over the place. 

Aubrey: Yeah. This is like, of course, he would flag these little things along the way. Those are snapshots of moments. They're not necessarily like a holistic sort of like, we've evaluated this whole situation and here's what we think is going on. 

Michael: Well, this is why I think this kind of process is so important, and ultimately why-- This meeting is really good that it happened. We found this data. There're some incendiary findings. Let's talk about it with people who are experts in other fields and people who have more familiarity with this data. This, to me, is science working as intended. And so, people at this meeting are like, "Ah, you might want to actually go back. I know it's boring, but you have to actually cross check the kids' medical charts with formal diagnoses and figure out whether that's their actual condition because the data is just noisy like that." 

RFK Jr., describes this as some secret meeting where like, scientists put pharma profits over the health of children. Actually, what really happened is just like a bunch of scientists sat in a room. I've also read the fucking transcripts of this meeting. They're unbelievably boring. It's really technical, methodological stuff. 

Aubrey: Think about how boring your meetings are if you go to meetings regularly and- 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] No shit. 

Aubrey: -then imagine reading transcripts of someone else's two-day meeting.

Michael: Again, it's so funny that he casts this in Rolling Stone. It's so nefarious. What actually happens is after this meeting, Tom Verstraeten is like, "These are really useful comments." He goes back, they rerun the numbers and they find ways of controlling for health access, so they can actually compare vaccinated and unvaccinated kids. They eventually, in 2003, publish the data. And so, there are some differences in health conditions between vaccinated and unvaccinated kids, but autism is not on there. The magnitudes are so small. It says in the conclusion of the paper, they're like, "We don't really think this means anything like tics, for example. These twitches were actually more common among vaccinated kids and unvaccinated kids." But it doesn't make sense that a symptom of autism would be more common, but autism itself is not more common. We think this is probably just like some weird coincidence, random thing. So, he alleges this huge cover up, but the data was published. You can go read the paper. 

Aubrey: Two full years before this article came out, know? 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. So, this paper had been published for two years by the time he writes his Rolling Stone article. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Speaking of which, we are now going to reread the section of the Rolling Stone article that we read earlier. 

Aubrey: We're returning to the scene of the article.

Michael: Of the nonsense bullshit? Yes. 

Aubrey: "In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated Simpsonwood Conference Center in Norcross, Georgia. Convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting was held at this Methodist Retreat Center to ensure complete secrecy."

Michael: It's very funny that he keeps mentioning the secrecy of this. The reason it was held at this Methodist Retreat Center is because it was June, and they were planning the meeting at short notice, because they didn't know this was going to happen. It's fucking Atlanta in the summer, and all the hotels are booked, so it's not like, "We need to be out in the woods you, guys." [laughs] 

Aubrey: Like, "God damn it, this is so silly."

Michael: Oh, it's also funny to me because you can have secret meetings in Atlanta. He's like, "Ooh, it has to be at the Methodist Retreat Center." It's like, "You just go to the Marriott and have a secret meeting." 

Aubrey: This is like big Bohemian Grove energy with this.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 

Aubrey: Where you're are like, "No, no, no, no, no, no."

Michael: Right. Here are the next couple paragraphs. 

Aubrey: Next of it. "The federal officials and industry representatives had assembled to discuss a disturbing new study that raised alarming questions about the safety of a host of common childhood vaccines administered to infants and young children. A CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten had analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical records of 100,000 children. He found that a mercury-based preservative in the vaccines, thimerosal, appeared to be responsible for a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children." 

Michael: Remember, autism wasn't on there. This is a straightforward lie. Even the preliminary data did not show an increase in autism. 

Aubrey: "I was actually stunned by what I saw, Verstraeten told those assembled at Simpsonwood, citing the staggering number of earlier studies that indicate a link between thimerosal and speech delays, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and autism." 

Michael: The other lie here is that there's no staggering number of earlier studies that indicate a link. This was the whole controversy over whether or not to remove thimerosal from the vaccines. There's no fucking evidence that thimerosal has any link to anything.

Aubrey: Except the tens of thousands of studies, Michael.

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: I remember some things from last time. 

Michael: There's also a very conspiratorial thing here too, because he's saying that there's a staggering number of studies showing that thimerosal is poisonous. But then why the fuck are the scientists moving to cover it up? 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: This is what always just doesn't compute in my brain of like, "If it's so fucking obvious that the vaccines are bad for kids, why would hundreds and thousands of scientists not give a shit, man?" [laughs] 

Aubrey: Come on, dude, people are writing it down. I'm getting to the point of exasperation. 

Michael: I know we're only halfway done, Aubrey. Save your ulcer. Get an ulcer [crosstalk] later. 

Aubrey: I love that you're like, "We're not going to record for three and a half hours today."

Michael: I know.

Aubrey: We are one hour and 45 minutes in, which is exactly half of three and a half hours.

Michael: But I'm going to pack as much stress into that again. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: All right, here is the next one. 

Aubrey: "But instead of taking immediate steps to alert the public and rid the vaccine supply of thimerosal, the officials and executives at Simpsonwood spent most of the next two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data. According to transcripts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, many at the meeting were concerned about how the damaging revelations about thimerosal would affect the vaccine industry's bottom line."

Michael: So, what's amazing about this passage is he doesn't mention that thimerosal had actually been removed from the vaccines at this point. These same fucking people decided to remove it.

Aubrey: Also, did anybody say anything about profits for vaccine makers? Did that come up in the transcripts at all? 

Michael: This is a missing context thing, because when you remove thimerosal, which they now have, you have to ship all of the vaccines in single dose vials, which is much more expensive than shipping them 10 doses at a time. So, one way to put that is, "Oh, they're worried about Big Pharma's bottom line." Another way to put that is, "We want to get vaccines to people as cheaply as possible." That's a real conversation to have. That's not some conspiracy thing. It's like, if you're operating in good faith for the safety of kids, you would talk about like, "Well, what's the most cost-effective way of doing this?"

Aubrey: Yeah, and listen, they're a government agency. That means that their budgets are a matter of public record. That means that they're going to have to ask for allocations and have an externally defensible answer. They've got to think about how to move people who may not be in that room. There are mechanics that they need to mind and some of those mechanics are around cost. 

Michael: And also note the phrase here is that, he says they spent two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data. That's not what happened. No one was talking about how to cover it up. Everyone was operating under the assumption that this would be published and it was. They were trying to make sure it's fucking true. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Then here's the last paragraph that we read. 

Aubrey: "Dr. John Clements, vaccine advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study "should not have been done at all and warned that the results will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled."

Michael: So, we've already covered this, but it's like, yeah, he's just straightforwardly, right. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: They do have to be handled. But we are going to read his quote in full from the transcript. This is what he actually said. 

Aubrey: Oh, interesting that they didn't put the entire quote in. 

Michael: Yeah, it's interesting how it goes in and out of quotes and it's like paraphrasing in between.

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: [crosstalk] -just a couple quoting a couple of words at a time. 

Aubrey: "I'm really concerned that we have taken off like a boat going down one arm of the mangrove swamp at high speed, when in fact there was not enough discussion really early on about which way the boat should go at all. I really don't want to risk offending everyone in the room by saying that perhaps, this study should not have been done at all because the outcome of it could have to some extent been predicted. We have all reached this point now where we are left hanging. Even though, I hear the majority of the consultants say to the board, they are not convinced there is a direct link between thimerosal and neurological outcomes." Jesus, that's a different quote. 

Michael: So, yeah, this is part of a much longer monologue that he gives about this. But when he's saying this shouldn't have been done, he's not saying like, the truth cannot reach the American people. That's not what he's saying at all. What he's saying is something that we say on this show all the fucking time. It's like, "If you comb through data looking for associations, hundreds of associations, this Tom Verstraeten guy was looking through this data, looking for anything that was biologically plausible that could be linked to vaccines, you're going to find something." This is the way these big correlational cohorts work. You're going to find something. When you publish it, the anti-vaxxers are going to latch onto it with their little talons and they're never going to let it go. He's not saying the data should be suppressed because it's true. He's saying it's probably not true. It's probably just random chance. 

Aubrey: Not only does he think it's not true, but he's saying, "I hear the majority of the consultants say to the board that they are not convinced that there is a direct link." 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: Like, "Not only do I not think this is true, most people here don't seem to think this is true."

Michael: Yeah. This is another thing that I cannot believe. This was not mentioned in his entire 5,000-word article in Rolling Stone. Thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Sweden, Canada, and Denmark in 1992, eight years before. It had no effect on autism rates or ADHD or tics or anything else. If it was causing autism, we should see a huge reduction in autism in Canada, Sweden, and Denmark since 1992. We don't see that. We still see the same rises that we do here. The trajectory of autism in these other conditions is still happening perfectly in parallel, regardless of whether they have thimerosal in the vaccines or not. So, there's no biologically plausible mechanism by which ethylmercury would be causing these disorders because there're now millions of children who didn't get thimerosal. 

Aubrey: There's ten years of real-world data being like, "No, it's fine." It would be like if five years ago or so, you tried to trot out the old argument that was used in mostly Massachusetts around same gender marriage. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: If you tried to make that claim today, there would be many many, many, many, many, many parts of the country that you could point to and be like, "Hey,-

Michael: Yeah, we have it. 

Aubrey: -look what didn't happen." 

Michael: Although the funny thing is, they did actually make those arguments in the 1990s, even though the Netherlands and Denmark had already had gay marriage for two decades, by that point. 

Aubrey: God, damn it.

Michael: But it doesn't matter, because other countries are not real. Other countries are not real. 

Aubrey: Yeah, again, not talking about facts and information. Talking about feelings. 

Michael: We could go through the whole fucking article. It's like, "You can't go a paragraph through this article without losing your fucking mind." 

Aubrey: I'm sure.

Michael: It's like, the entire article, the most egregious one is he's talking about the dangers of thimerosal and he's like, "People in the 1920s, this ward full of people with meningitis were given injections of thimerosal and they all died." It's like, right, because they had terminal meningitis. They died of meningitis. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Right.

Michael: They didn't die of the fucking shot. What the fuck are you talking about? You just said that they're terminal, man. 

Aubrey: This is the brain rot of like, cancer doesn't really exist. It's the chemo that's doing it. 

Michael: Yeah,-

Aubrey: And you're, like, "Okay." 

Michael: -completely the whole fucking thing. So, this whole episode, the fact that this article was published at all is so embarrassing. It's not totally clear to me how this article even got published, but you and I have both been through formal fact checking processes. 

Aubrey: Yes. 

Michael: I have no direct evidence of this, but it is very obvious to me that this did not go through a formal fact checking process. 

Aubrey: A good fact checking process, like a really thorough one, makes you so mad at the fact check. 

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Aubrey: It's an insufferable process, and it is essential, right?

Michael: You're googling like, how to murder someone through Zoom. [Aubrey laughs] Like, you're so fucking mad. 

Aubrey: Not because they're calling you out on stuff you don't want to be called out on. Not because they're telling you're wrong, but because they're like, you go, "Oh, this new toy sells for $19.99." And they'll be like, "Source."

Michael: Oh, my fuck-- I was just about to say that. You're like, "Oh, the sky is blue." They're like, "How do you know?"

Aubrey: Can we prove?

Michael: How do you know? 

Aubrey: Can we prove it? 

Michael: Yeah. The thing I kept thinking of throughout this article, we only covered the first, whatever, 6% of it or something, but the staggering number of studies finding a link between thimerosal and autism, there's no fucking way that would have gone through a formal fact checking process. None. 

Aubrey: Zero is a staggering number. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. 


Michael: Define staggering, Robert. 

Aubrey: Whoa. Not one?

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Not even one? 

Michael: So, I do not know how this article got published. I do know that RFK Jr., and Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, are close personal friends and go hunting together. 

Aubrey: They go hang out with Larry David. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. Like in Aspen and shit. And so, what I think happened is like, Jann Wenner and RFK Jr., were chatting at Davos or some shit, and he's like, "Hey, you should write about this for us." And then he wrote about it and Jann Wenner pushed it through the fact checking process. And so, in the same way the Lancet really did not cover themselves in glory with the Wakefield stuff, both Salon and Rolling Stone did not retract this article until 2011. 

Aubrey: Wow. 

Michael: So, it took six years. They appended a couple of corrections, but the corrections are all like dumb corrections. It's like, "Oh, this guy's job title was wrong." And you're like, "Sorry, the basic factual error, they didn't find a link with autism, you're not going to fucking add that?" 

Aubrey: Part of what I find so frustrating about this is this is what many editors have thought that I was trying to do. 

Michael: Oh.

Aubrey: I feel like I get the fact checking that JFK Jr., should be getting. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: I absolutely remember an extended conversation with a fact checker at one point, where I had written at one point that there were no fewer fat children after X, Y, and Z policy interventions. And the fact checker wrote back and was like, "Well, the rates did plateau for a little bit, so it didn't increase." [Michael laughs] And I was like, "Yeah, there are no fewer facts." I don't think that's an inaccurate thing to say. But like, "Boy, I'm getting the rates plateaued a little bit," and they're like, "Yeah, secret meeting, total government cover up? Seems fine."

Michael: Yeah. So, one thing I didn't know until I started researching this episode was how this article and RFK Jr., in general kicked off a real glory day period for the anti-vax movement. Immediately after this article comes out, he's on The Daily Show. He is on Oprah in 2007. She doesn't actually ask him about the vaccine stuff, which is interesting and I feel like they probably just cut it out of the broadcast. But she's still adding to the idea that this is a prominent figure worth listening to. She does this very softball interview with him. He goes on Don Imus a bunch. Don Imus has an autistic kid and really went for it. 

Aubrey: Boy.

Michael: It's actually really bleak. The guest list on Don Imus, he had Joe Lieberman, Chris Dodd, and John Kerry, all on to talk about vaccines causing autism. 

Aubrey: Oh, ah.

Michael: It's really bad. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Joe Lieberman is from a cursed-

Michael: I know.

Aubrey: -nonpartisan underworld or something. 

Michael: These are people who I've been trying to forget and this book made me remember them. I'm really mad about it. 

Aubrey: These are all the names of people who are referenced in 30 Rock episodes. 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: The reason your kids don't get 30 Rock

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Too many Scooter Libby jokes. 

Michael: Then by 2010, one in four parents thought that vaccines cause autism. 

Aubrey: One in four?

Michael: It's bad. This period was not a time of huge pushback. 

Aubrey: That is bleak as hell.

Michael: It's dark. Since 2010, the pendulum has swung back a little bit. So, I got very interested in this, because I think the sort of we must ask questions about vaccines wave has ebbed, thank God. It's much more like stigmatized to be anti-vaxxer now. I think the establishment institutions are much more comfortable just being like, "Fuck off with this stuff now." The beginning of it was there were a bunch of measles outbreaks starting in 2008. And then in 2010, we get Andrew Wakefield losing his medical license. And then, fascinatingly, in 2010 or between 2009 and 2011, we get a bunch of court cases where parents tried to get compensation from this vaccine injury compensation board for their kids having autism. 

So, we talked last time about how there's this vaccine injury process where if you believe that your kids were harmed by a vaccine, you can take their case to this board and you can get compensation. We also talked about how the standards of evidence are way lower. You don't have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. All you have to prove is that it's more likely than not that a vaccine caused the injury, which is actually a really low standard when you think about it. Even under this lower standard, people cannot prove that vaccines cause autism.

All of these court decisions are public. It was so cathartic to read the decisions, Aubrey, because it's like, the court cases force the anti-vaxxers to sit down and present evidence and respond to criticisms. They can't change the subject. They can't do the conspiracy Gish gallop, just flood you with bullshit thing. In a court process, it's like, "Okay, evidence piece one, evidence piece two." And then the other side can actually challenge that evidence. In 2010, there's a trial where the parents of a girl named Michelle Cedillo try to get compensation for their daughter having autism. You can see how much the goalposts have moved over the decades, where they have this bizarre theory, where mercury in the vaccines harmed her immune system, which gave her measles, and then measles gave her tummy stuff, and then the tummy stuff gave her autism. 

Basically, the other side in this trial dismantle every single step along the way. There's no evidence that mercury affects immune systems. Mercury has many very bad effects, but it doesn't actually weaken your immune system. There's no evidence that this girl has measles or had measles, and there's no evidence that measles causes stomach stuff, and there's no evidence that stomach stuff causes autism. This whole thing is just complete nonsense. And RFK Jr., still references these trials. Now, he's like, "We presented 700 studies showing how bad the mercury is in the vaccines." That is true that they presented a ton of evidence, but all of the evidence was just about how bad mercury is. So, it's like, "There was this mercury spill and then a bunch of kids had these horrible symptoms." And it's like, "Yeah." 

Aubrey: Yes, correct, agree. A different substance is harmful. 

Michael: Exactly. And in very, very high doses. At one point, they talk about a situation where kids were exposed to 500,000 mcg of methylmercury, and the judge is like, "Ah, we're talking about children being exposed to 2 mcg of ethylmercury," so that just isn't relevant to this case. 

Aubrey: This all feels like the same kind of class of health misinformation and misleading health information that is like, "This supplement includes heavy metals and you find out that they're just talking about iron." 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: And you're like, "No, but we need that. That's an important one."

Michael: But then the other thing that these court processes do is they reveal to what extent there's just no biologically plausible mechanism for this anymore." So, one of the things that comes up in the Cedillo trial quite a bit is that, mercury poisoning is a real thing, and mercury poisoning has real measurable effects. Kids typically lose their hearing. They have growth impairments. They oftentimes have a small head compared to their body. It results in uneven growth. One of the things that the anti-vaxxers are doing is they're just shouting like, mercury and vaccines. But people who actually know this stuff are like, "No, we can measure mercury in kids. We can take their blood and measure how much mercury they have. And we can measure their hair and their urine to see how much mercury they're excreting." 

So, if there was a problem with mercury exposure for these kids through vaccines, we would find it. They've done tests where they've taken kids blood the day after they get vaccinated. And like, is there a shitload of mercury in their blood? No. And so, it's just like, no, if there was large scale mercury poisoning of the population, that would have specific effects. It wouldn't just be like, "Oh, there're more kids with ADHD now and a bunch of other random shit." So, the final chapter of this story is about where the anti-vax movement is now. And to talk about that, we are going to watch a clip of RFK Jr., on a morning show. 

Interviewer: He's got a new book. It's called Thimerosal: Let the science Speak. Rosanna, keep going. There's a mouthful here. 

Rosanna: I think this is big, big title. Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury―a Known Neurotoxin―from Vaccines. Robert Kennedy Jr, nice to have you here on Good Day New York. So, obviously, the book is out now and you know that the critics are gunning for you this morning, right?

RFK Jr.: Yes.

Rosanna: They've really had a lot of terrible things to say about the book and some of your research. 

RFK Jr.: Well, nobody who's had anything to say about the book has actually read the book. 

Rosanna: How do you know that?

RFK Jr.: Well, because there were 12 reviews of the book that came out before the book was published. They attacked me for what they thought what was going to be in the book, which was basically a discussion of autism, which is not part of this book. 

Interviewer: Well, tell us, do us a favor, set it up for us. Thimerosal, a lot of our viewers are not familiar with it. What is it? 

RFK Jr.: Okay, thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative that is still in some vaccines. It was removed by order of the FDA from all topical medicines after doing a lot of studies that demonstrated its toxicity. CDC, at the same time, was recommending higher and higher doses of vaccines and there was thimerosal in those vaccines. We started to see a giant rise in neurological disorders among our children. 

Rosanna: Like autism?

RFK Jr.: Well, ADD-- We don't discuss autism, because it's such a radioactive issue. So, we just looked at the other neurological disorders. ADD, ADHD, speech delay, language delay, tics, misery index, things that we didn't know as a kid. But this generation, it's part of who they are. 

Interviewer: I got to go run this by from TIME magazine, the editor at large here. The problem is Kennedy, he's wrong, utterly wrong, so wrong, it's hard to even know what the biggest piece of that wrongness is. He says, "As the levels of thimerosal have decreased, we've seen this autism increase. So, the cause and effect are not there. Thimerosal is going away."

RFK Jr.: Again, he's wrong on all of his science. First of all, the levels of thimerosal are essentially equal to what they were before they removed it from pediatric vaccines. And here's why. It was removed from pediatric vaccines in 2003. But that same year, CDC recommended the flu vaccine for all Americans, and the flu vaccine contained very, very high levels of thimerosal. 

Aubrey: I absolutely love when he's yammering on. The anchor going, "Okay." 


Michael: All righty.

Aubrey: All right. I appreciate the anchors of Good Day New York for holding his feet to the fire in a way that other media does not appear to do. I hear him about reviews before books. 

Michael: [laughs] You're on his side? 

Aubrey: No, this is like a legit thing. There's been some press coverage recently about like, when my first book was released, it had an average of 1.1 stars-

Michael: Oh, yeah. Nice. 

Aubrey: -on Goodreads. 

Michael: Nice.

Aubrey: I agree with him that people should not review a book before they have read a book. But boy, oh boy, oh boy, that doesn't make him right. 

Michael: The theme of this entire episode is the way that conspiracy theorists move the goalposts, right? So, we went from the pertussis vaccine to the measles vaccine to mercury in the vaccines. We went from every developmental issue to food allergies to autism. And then what does he say in this clip twice? He's like, "Oh, we don't do autism anymore. We're back to it causes everything." And you'll also notice they mention, it's so fast that you can't really latch onto it, but they're like, "In Time Magazine, this guy says that thimerosal was removed from the vaccines in 2001. So, if it causes autism, autism should be falling." And he's like, "No, no, no, no, no, it's in the flu vaccines." Wait, what? Wait a minute. No, it is, but most kids or roughly 45% of kids do not get flu vaccines. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: Only around somewhere between 10% to 30% of the flu vaccines have thimerosal because they're multidose bottles. Most of them are single-dose bottles which don't have thimerosal anymore. The fucking balls of this man to write a book in 2015 saying, "We demand the immediate removal of thimerosal" when it was removed in fucking 2001? 

Aubrey: His approach is like, there's an old Mr. Show sketch, where they're talking about two competing grocery stores, and one of them is a big store that moves in from out of town and keeps running ads that are like, "Unlike some stores, we don't have any rats." 

Michael: Oh, yeah. 

Aubrey: "Unlike this other store, you'll enter with your kid and you'll leave with your kid. Your kid won't get kidnapped in our store." That's the level that he's operating at is this continued assertion level. 

Michael: Well, that's what's so striking to me about this clip and about other interviews that I've seen with him. It's like, if you watch this clip, you can easily walk away from it thinking he won the exchange. He seems very confident. He's like, "Well, they haven't even read the book," which is a pretty good argument. 

Aubrey: Yeah.

Michael: The fundamental flaw in what he's saying isn't ever really pointed out to you with the gravity that it needs to be. This guy is telling us to remove something that hasn't been in the vaccines for 20 years. That's a joke. It's a joke thing to come on TV and fucking say.

Aubrey: That's a premise for a sketch. Yeah.

Michael: But I don't think the hosts know well enough to be like, "Ah, bro, what are you even fucking doing with your career at this point?" People don't have the context or the confidence potentially to just point this out very clearly. But he seems very confident and he has this scoffing like, "Well, everything, every single thing that he says is wrong." It's like, that rich guy legacy admission confidence that I think has carried him so far. 

Aubrey: Yeah. What he needs from a media perspective is he needs like, Jake Tapper on a bad day. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: That guy will sometimes get a dog with a bone and would be like, "No, I ask you this." 

Michael: Yeah.

Aubrey: Someone who has to be willing to make it weird and uncomfortable. 

Michael: Or, Katie Couric being like, "Sorry, what magazines do you read?"

Aubrey: What newspaper? 

Michael: This is the fourth time. 

Aubrey: Name a newspaper. 

Michael: It's so fucking funny to me that that's what did it with Sarah Palin. [laughs] What do you read? [laughs] 

Aubrey: It's hilarious to me. It feels like, it's the Billy on the Street approach to journalism. She just ran up to her and was like, "Name a woman."

Michael: [laughs] 

Aubrey: She's like, "Ah." [laughs] 

Michael: So, this marks the end of our journey into anti-vax bullshit. I did not want to do this, but we're going to do another part of this specifically on COVID stuff, where we're finally going to get to the vitamin D truthers and the weird hydroxychloroquine stuff. 

Aubrey: I am so desperate to know what the fuck that means. 

Michael: Argh. You still can't google, you still can't google. Rules. 

Aubrey: I'm not going to google, but I want-

Michael: Show rules.

Aubrey: -to know. 

Michael: But I want to end with a quote from Jonathan Berman's book where he's talking about the anti-vax movement of the 1800s and this continues to be very useful today. He says, "They started with a complex network of personal reasons for objecting to vaccination and approached the science as a source of prestige that could be borrowed for their arguments. From this viewpoint, no experiment can be well enough designed, no controls adequate, and no evidence convincing." 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: That is where we are with this. They've literally had their day in court. The entire scientific establishment has done everything they want and they refuse to take yes for an answer. 

Aubrey: I don't know, man, this feels like a real-- Mm, I'm trying to think of a-- Sorry.

Michael: You're trying to think of a joke to end with, but you don't have one because I bummed you out too much. 

Aubrey: That's right. I'm just going to type in vitamin D truther.

Michael: [laughs] All right, all right, all right, now you're holding me hostage. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Michael: All right, fine. We'll end, we'll end, we'll end.

Aubrey: [laughs] 


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