A few years ago, I hosted an on-stage discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr., at an environmental conference.
Earlier in the day, we met to discuss the contents of the speech he would be giving, which was focused on clean energy. Our chat eventually drifted off into other areas, including the much-derided conviction, which he holds, that standard vaccines cause autism.
"People need to read the science," he told me. "People need to educate themselves, that's the big problem. People are ignorant about this issue."
I was taken back to that conversation this week with the news that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump had asked Mr. Kennedy to chair a commission on "vaccine safety and scientific integrity." Those were the words of Mr. Kennedy, who was the one to announce his appointment after a meeting with Mr. Trump – someone he once called "a dangerous … deceptive … demagogue."
Conspiracy theorists make strange bedfellows, it turns out.
It didn't take five minutes for the news to send shudders of horror throughout the U.S. This prompted representatives of Mr. Trump to quickly put the brakes on the story; yes, the president-elect was exploring the type of commission of which Mr. Kennedy spoke but no final decisions had been made around its mandate and composition.
Most believe the response was pure damage control. Few think Mr. Kennedy was lying about what he was asked to do, and fewer yet believe the matter has been laid to rest. The scion of the famed Kennedy clan could well end up heading such a body and that should scare the daylights out of American parents everywhere.
The fact is, people have read the science around vaccines and their purported link to autism and it is clear: there isn't one. But that has not stopped the likes of Mr. Kennedy (and Hollywood types such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy) from using their celebrity to push the discredited bunk.
Mr. Kennedy's views on this subject first caught the public's attention in 2005, in pieces published in Rolling Stone magazine and the online journal Salon, which was forced to publish five significant corrections connected with the article before taking it down entirely.
That did not discourage Mr. Kennedy from continuing to peddle his bizarre beliefs and denounce those who didn't share them. In 2014, he spoke at an autism conference in Chicago where he compared a respected vaccine advocate to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Later, he suggested drug companies could put anything they wanted in vaccines with no accountability. He said children get a shot, see their temperature rise to 103 F, go to sleep "and three months later their brain is gone … this is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country."
Mr. Trump's overture to Mr. Kennedy has to be considered one of the more frightening appointments he is considering – although it shouldn't come as a great surprise.
Mr. Trump is also a faithful proponent of the notion that combined vaccinations, instead of being celebrated for the millions of lives they have saved over the years, should be restricted because they cause brain disorders.
In the final weeks of the campaign, the president-elect even went so far as to meet with the infamous British physician Andrew Wakefield. It was Dr. Wakefield, who, in 1998, persuaded the respected medical journal The Lancet to first publish his hypothesis that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had provable links to autism. The paper was later debunked and retracted and Dr. Wakefield had his medical licence revoked because of ethical violations.
And yet this is someone Mr. Trump sought out. And now he appears poised to anoint one of the doomsday cultists who make up the anti-vaxxer brigade the head of a commission that would undoubtedly explore and give voice anew to Mr. Wakefield's much-condemned suppositions.
If the reaction to the purported appointment is any indication, however, this will not be an easy process for the new president. Many people, including leading members of the U.S. medical community, have loudly registered their objections.
Anti-vaxxers are not only delusional but dangerous. And they should not be anywhere near health policy decision making.