For decades, he was a superstar environmental lawyer who demanded that Americans should accept and act on the scientific consensus that climate change is real. He specialized in cases in which corporations had hidden the environmental or health costs of their products. His legal work against corporations that dump toxic chemicals in water, waste dumps, and food saved thousands of people from disabling diseases or death. He embraced the science that revealed this and attacked the superficially exculpatory science used by the companies to defend themselves. “That’s what I do for a living,” he told an interviewer. “I litigate scientific issues.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was not always a crank. He was not always a notorious promoter of pseudoscience and of conspiracy theories. But for years now, he has been the country’s most prominent anti-vaccine activist. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, he campaigned against the new vaccine, opposed masks, and promoted discredited cures such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. More than 300,000 of the 1.1 million American deaths from COVID might have been prevented by the vaccine he relentlessly crusaded against.
A well-known optical illusion shows a drawing that can be seen as a beautiful woman, perhaps a model for an angel, or as an ugly old woman, a caricature of a witch. The drawing is either or both. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., too, is either pro-science or anti-science, an environmental angel or a conspiratorial monster. Or both.
The way Kennedy himself would tell the story, there is no conflict in his beliefs. “Science, at its best, is a search for existential truth,” he has said. The problem only arises when “greedy corporations and captive government regulators,” his go-to villains, “twist, distort, falsify, and corrupt science, hide information, and censor open debate to protect personal power and corporate profits.”
In March 2023, Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, forcing a wider public to grapple with both sides of his character. After a pandemic in which “follow the science” became a battle cry, we have to try to understand how someone can embrace science yet aggressively reject the science that most actual scientists believe in. How can someone be both a steel-witted lawyer and a crackpot? The story of a man with a famous name and startling strength in early polls shows why we ignore that question at our peril. [Continue reading…]