The change we need is competent political appointees

I still get a little chill down my spine when the news announcers say "President-elect Obama," but already I am being reminded that we can't just sit back and wait for him to save the world. We still need to do our part, and one of the things we need to do right now is be vigilant to make sure that the most competent people are running the bureaucratic machinery of the country.

So I was very pleased when a list-serv to which I belong circulated an email from a major research organization saying that they were being contacted by the Obama transition team and asked for nominations of people to fill the relevant scientific appointments (Cabinet level, associate directors, National Science Board, etc.) Makes perfect sense to me that the scientific community would have a good sense of who is qualified and capable of leading the executive branch offices that regulate, conduct, and fund science research. Score one for Obama.

But other news is not so good. Apparently, Robert F Kennedy, Junior, a prominent lawyer, environmental activist, and anti-vaccinationist is in the running for Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And my favorite mysoginist and yours, good old Larry Summers is a top contender for Treasury Secretary. Yes, Larry "women just aren't as smart at science as men" Summers could be put back in charge of fixing our economy and leading the charge in the 21st century.

Details below the fold, including links to relevant critiques and how you can contact Obama's transition team and register your criticism. Also, consider the comment thread open for suggestions of who you'd like to see in the critical science-related political appointments.

First up. Larry Summers. Remember the remarks about the innate aptitude of women with regards to science? At a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, he suggested that a reason for the small number of women in STEM fields could be a genetic difference in ability, that when you went several deviations above the mean IQ, there just might not be as many smart women as men. Yea, that didn't go over so well. Early reporting here. Resignation letter here. Scientific studies supporting his notion? Not linked because they either don't exist or are overwhelmed by studies that show that the minority status of women is a result of bias, barriers, and socialization.

He's certainly qualified to be Treasury Secretary, after all he had the job in the Clinton years. But do you really want someone who suspects that 1/2 the population isn't very smart planning the economic policy of the country? Even if he's a repentant sinner, his women-in-science remarks are just one example of his choosing to be provocative and impetuous rather than using better informed, reasoned judgement. Again, not a quality I'd want in a Cabinet secretary.

And in choosing Summers, the message Obama would be sending women, women in science, and scientists is that despite all his talk about being pro-women and pro-science, he's not going to hold his administration to those standards. That'd be a pretty damn disappointing first message to get from him.

Then, RFK Jr. Orac's got the definitive piece, chock full of links and references. Here's a sampling.

RFK, Jr. first came to my attention when he published a screed simultaneously on and Rolling Stone, entitled Deadly Immunity, which ranted that mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines that was so dishonest and full of misinformation and distortions that at the time I labeled it the "biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd I've ever seen it [] publish." I wasn't alone. Skeptico famously labeled RFK, Jr.'s Deadly Immunity his "completely dishonest thimerosal article" and "lies, damned lies, and quote-mining." [see original for extensive linkage]

Since that "splash" in 2005, RFK, Jr. has unrelentingly kept up his antivaccination crankery. He has not retreated even one inch, even though numerous lines of evidence, including several very large epidemiological studies, have failed to find a link between mercury and autism or vaccines and autism.

So what? You say. The Head of the EPA doesn't have anything to do with vaccines. True enough. But RFK, Jr. has demonstrated himself on this issue not only to be prone to dubious science, but to have become a true believer in one of the most outrageous and dangerous forms of pseudoscience out there: antivaccinationism, or vaccine rejectionism. If you're trying to build an administration ostensibly devoted to using the best science as the basis for public policy, and the EPA is one agency where that is incredibly important, you do not want someone who is so prone to pseudoscience and promoting misinformation running that agency.

In case, Orac's piece doesn't convince you, revered Revere and Coturnix are also giving RFK Jr. the thumbs down.

Feeling a little bit queasy all of a sudden? I am. Then "be the change we want to see" or "the change we can believe in" (whichever you choose) and head on over to to register your objections and make your suggestions for rational, competent science advisors, administrators, secretaries, etc. Let's keep this ball rolling in the right direction.

Here's what I submitted. Feel free to use or modify. Let's make our voices heard.

Congratulations on your election. I am very glad to see a well-reasoned, pro-science, pro-women occupant of the White House. I look forward to eight years of your administration.

I have a Ph.D. in -ology and am on the faculty at Mystery U, and I am disappointed by two of the names being floated for prominent positions in your administration.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is not a suitable choice for director of the EPA because of his support of unscientific anti-vaccination propaganda. It is absolutely critical that the EPA make decisions based on the best available science, and Kennedy's continued and prominent support of a link between mercury in vaccines and autism, when numerous scientific studies have shown no link between the two. Placing a pseudo-science supporter in such an important position would cast a pall of doubt over the whole agency.

Second, Larry Summers, while eminently qualified to serve as Treasury Secretary, has repeatedly chosen to ignore scientific evidence and his better judgement in favor of being "provocative" and impetuous. His remarks about the innate ability of women to do science are simply the most prominent example of that character flaw. A rash, impetuous person does not seem like the best choice to lead our country out of economic crisis, and appointing him to your Cabinet would be a slap in the face of women, like me, who work tirelessly to do good science and encourage the next generation of women scientists and engineers. We're going to need all of the brilliant scientific and technical minds we can get to solve the problems confronting our nation and world, and we can't afford to alienate 50% of them by putting someone with such well-documented anti-woman attitudes in the Cabinet.

Update: An excellent first comment from Chez Jake:

It might also be a good idea for others submitting comments to the site to make reference to the fact that an appointment of Summers would run contrary to Obama-Biden's stated goal of promoting women in STEM occupations. See specifically the third item from the bottom on this page:

More like this

An excellent post. Thank you.

It might also be a good idea for others submitting comments to the site to make reference to the fact that an appointment of Summers would run contrary to Obama-Biden's stated goal of promoting women in STEM occupations. See specifically the third item from the bottom on this page:

Ooh, ChezJake, great idea. I'm going to promote your point up into the post itself in case it gets missed in the comment thread.

I sooooo emailed Obama - I modified your paragraphs. I've been stressing over Larry Summers all day. Not hanging up the black curtains yet, but this. ain't. good. I hate the fact that Summers is making headlines. again. UGH.

Well, apparently, the former head of the National Institute of Health agrees with Kennedy that the health officials avoid studying side affects of vaccines and that they are seriously understudied:

'[Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institutes of Health] goes on to say public health officials have intentionally avoided researching
whether subsets of children are "susceptible" to vaccine side effects - afraid the answer will scare the public. "You're saying that public health officials have turned their back on a viable area of research largely because they're afraid of what might be found?" Attkisson asked. Healy said: "There is a completely expressed concern that they don't want to pursue a hypothesis because that hypothesis could be damaging to the public health community at large by scaring people."'…

From the horses mouth. And don't think that the pharmaceuticals are going to tell us the true side affects, not while they're being investigated for manslaughter:

'French authorities have opened a formal investigation into two managers from drugs groups GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur over a vaccination campaign in the 1990s, a judicial source said late on Thursday. Judge Marie-Odile Bertella-Geffroy also opened an investigation for manslaughter against Sanofi Pasteur MSD, a joint venture between Sanofi Aventis, the same source said. The investigations follow allegations that the companies failed to fully disclose side effects from an anti-hepatitis B drug used in a vaccination campaign between 1994 and 1998.'

I just wrote to him about the issues you mentioned above. Thanks for posting this.

The most recent thimerosal study, "Weight of Evidence Against Thimerosal Causing Neuropsychological Deficits" was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Below is some information on the studie's authors. Is this what you mean by independent studies?

* Dr. Thompson - the lead investigator - is a former employee of Merck.

* Dr. Marcy has received consulting fees from Merck, Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, and MedImmune.

* Dr. Jackson received grant money from Wyeth, Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, and Novartis. He received lecture fees from Sanofi Pasteur and consulting fees from Wyeth and Abbott. Currently, he is a consultant to the FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

* Dr. Lieu is a consultant to the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunication Practices.

* Dr. Black receives consulting fees from MedImmune, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Merck, and grant support from MedImmune, GlaxoSmithKline, Aventis, Merck, and Novartis.

* Dr. Davis receives consulting fees from Merck and grant support from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.

The article then states, "No other potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported." One must wonder if it might have been easier to identify researchers who don't have a conflict of interest! The study goes on to report that any child with a preexisting neurological condition, like autism, was eliminated from the study. However, is it not possible - in fact, probable - that these children are the most at risk from exposure to thimerosal? Any child who developed certain neurological conditions was excluded. These conditions included encephalitis and meningitis. The possibility that thimerosal might cause these conditions was eliminated from consideration. Children were eliminated for many reasons from the study. One group excluded was children whose birth weight was under 2,500 grams, about 5.5 pounds. How many babies were eliminated for being underweight is not stated. Babies of this weight are hardly rare and they are not excluded from vaccinations. What legitimate reason could be given for this exclusion? This is just one of the independent statistical studies carried out by the accused. I could pick apart everyone of the studies in similar fashion. They take a page right out of the tobacco industrie's playbook. The facts are simple, multi-dose vaccine vials contain 50,000 ug/l Hg, a level 250 times higher than what the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. The type of mercury in vaccines, ethylmercury, deposits more toxic Hg++ mercury in the brain than equal amounts of methylmercury. We can all agree that infants are more susceptable to mercury damage than adults. Injected Hg goes right into the bloodstream making it much more toxic than ingested Hg.

Borrowed, modified, and submitted. Thanks for the suggestion - I had been wondering how to effectively express my disappointment at the suggestions of RFK Jr. and Summers.

By fizzchick (not verified) on 07 Nov 2008 #permalink

As a 54-year old female electrical engineer, I found Summers comments infuriating, after receiving very little encouragement from my public school education to pursue engineering. No one suggested that I consider engineering (or even any advanced science or math classes) until I talked to my first college advisor, because I had maxed math on the ACT and ranked in the 98th percentile in science. My first Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics classes were taken in college, and I've never taken a Trigonometry class to this day. I never had to memorize trig identities, but could derive them.

With respect to any claim that Summers was directed to be provocative, well, in my experience, blacks were more rare than women in engineering. Would he have considered it ok to make the same remarks about blacks that he did about women?

And what the heck makes an economist an expert anyway?

With respect to Robert Kennedy, Jr., I admit to some bias, on at least two counts. ;)

First of all, I'm allergic to thiomerosal, a fact I discovered when unable to adapt to contact lenses (severe eye irritation, to the point my eyes were so red, they looked like they were bleeding). Apparently, it's such a common reaction that you will rarely, if at all, find it used as preservative in contact lens solutions today. To inject babies with it seems just flat out dumb, regardless if it causes autism, if there are any reasonable alternatives.

Second, I work for a state agency that regulates air pollution. My coworkers are ecstatic that Kennedy is being considered for appointment, which is in no doubt due to Bush administration's "policy-relevant science" philosophy, which has virtually gutted the intent behind the Clean Air Act. Any "scientific finding" from the EPA under the Bush administration should be suspect. I doubt if the FDA escaped unfettered from "policy-relevant science". See for example and search the term "policy-relevant science".

One of the most appalling Bush-era EPA actions was to determine that the Clinton-era finding that mercury from coal-fired power plants was hazardous was incorrect. See for example and , which determined that breathing mercury from coal-fired power plants isn't harmful. It's only harmful if you eat fish.

Which is probably technically correct. But that doesn't make it right, ya know?

I do think Obama would be better off choosing a Republican who is a believer in global warming to head the EPA in order to help stem resistance to regulating carbon, as long as the EPA scientists are no longer beholden to honor "policy-relevant science" of any sort.

It is a fallacy to say that "numerous scientific studies have shown no link between the two." A scientific study cannot show that there is no link; they can only fail to find a link. Even in a perfect study, that failure can be due to many reasons -- sampling size can be too small, or more likely in this case, another effect (such as the growing ability to diagnose autism) can eclipse the effect size of the variable you are measuring.

At best, we can say that there is no scientific reason to believe that vaccinations contribute to autism. This is notably different from saying that there is a scientific reason to believe that vaccinations do not contribute to autism. As a scientist, this is a fallacy you would probably recognize and avoid in your own work.

By philosopher-king (not verified) on 08 Nov 2008 #permalink

The study most frequently cited is from Denmark. Denmark banned thimerosal in 1992 after their health authorities realized how much mercury kids were being exposed to. For starters, kids from Denmark received only a third of the number of thimerosal containing vaccines as kids in the U.S. In the years prior to the banning of thimerosal the researchers only counted autistic inpatients. In 1995 the researchers started counting autistic outpatients in addition to inpatients. Since autistic outpatients outnumber inpatients by a factor of 13:1 in Denmark, one would expect a minimum increase in cases of autism of at least 13 fold. This was not the case. Rates of autism in Denmark appear to be about 1:10 of the rates in the USA.

Maggy, can you cite sources for the numbers of inpatient vs. outpatient? And here, I obviously mean primary sources.

Unlike most people, I've actually read the study, and while it had flaws, the conclusions were solid. Even if there was a change in what children was included (which was the flaw I talked about), there should have been a downward trend in the number of new autistic children found, as thimerosal was removed from the vaccination - if of course, thimerosal was the cause of autism. There wasn't.

Also, as people here probably realize, the Danish study was just one of many studies. It was one of the earliest ones, and as such got a lot of play, but since then, there have been many other studies. On top of that, it is easily demonstrated that the number of autistic children in the US hasn't dropped, even though thimerosal has been removed.

Even if we didn't have all these epistemological studies, we have a pretty good understanding of the genetic nature of autism, though we still don't realize the exact cause(s).

LL: Revere's got a post up discussing some of the other EPA candidates in the running. From what I know, they all sound better than RFK. From what I remember, Christie Todd Whitman wasn't that bad either, which is why she didn't get to stick around.

I can't claim any expertise on the Treasury Secretary front, but surely there's got to be some qualified men and women out there who *don't* have a history of insulting the intelligence of women, minorities, and choir students.

"Results Of the 537,303 children in the cohort (representing 2,129,864 person-years), 440,655 (82.0 percent) had received the MMR vaccine. We identified 316 children with a diagnosis of autistic disorder and 422 with a diagnosis of other autistic-spectrum disorders."

Compare this rate to the U.S.

"In our cohort, 93.1 percent of the children were treated only as outpatients, and 6.9 percent were at some point treated as inpatients in a psychiatric department."

Divide 93.1/6.9. Now for your other point.The lead author of the study that says rates of autism continue to rise after thimerosal's removal is the "Immunization Director of the State of California". How nice to investigate yourself. What I don't understand Kristjan is that they appear to be speaking out of both side of their mouths. One day they say rates of autism have not gone up at all and then the next day they say thimerosal has been removed from vaccines (which it hasn't) and rates of autism are sky-rocketing. Which one is it?

I think RFK's opposition to the Nantucket Sound wind farm is a far more serious problem as potential EPA administrator than his vaxx nuttiness. America has fuck-all chance of adapting to climate change if the EPA is run by a NIMBY-lover who blocks the necessary infrastructure projects that are needed to clean up our electricity supply. Looking over his record, he seems to be a professional obstructionist. I think that Obama would be far better served with a candidate with a background is solving, rather than grandstanding about, environmental problems. Maybe the head of a major environmental consulting firm, or some similar figure.

Keep RFK out of EPA

The job at the EPA calls for someone with a keen sense of both ethics and science. Kennedy is not that person.

The following letter was written in support of Robert H. Boyle (founder of Riverkeeper and author of "The Hudson River, A natural and unnatural history") and others who resigned from Riverkeeper rather than support R. F. Kennedy, Jr.'s compromise of the principle that ethics must never be separate from science.

This letter was first published in the Putnam County News and Recorder, Cold Spring, New York, on August 30, 2000 and they have carried it on their website ever since for which they have my thanks. (AHS, 2008)


Supports Former Riverkeeper Board Members' Action

The Fishkill Ridge Caretakers, Inc. supports Robert H. Boyle, former president of the Riverkeeper, Inc. and former Riverkeeper, Inc. board members John Fry, treasurer, Nancy Abraham, Kathryn Belous Boyle, Pat Crow, Theresa Hanczor, Robert Hodes, Ann Tonetti and Alexander Zagoreas in the action they have taken in resigning from Riverkeeper in opposition to the hiring of a convicted environmental felon to serve in the position of staff scientist on the staff of Riverkeeper.

In issuing this statement of support, The Fishkill Ridge Caretakers wishes to emphasize that ethics cannot be separated from science and that the environmental movement will prosper best in an atmosphere of demonstrated personal responsibility and earned mutual respect.

We encourage individuals as well as environmental organizations to join us in similar expressions of support for the principled stand taken by Boyle and fellow board members in their defense of the ethical integrity of the environmental movement here in the Hudson River Valley.

Boyle and 8 of the 22 Riverkeeper board members resigned from Riverkeeper, Inc. in protest of the hiring of William Wegner. For eight years Wegner operated a ring of smugglers who stole bird eggs directly from the nests of protected cockatoo species in Australia. Wegner and his ring then smuggled the eggs by air to the United States. Birds that hatched and survived were then sold for as much as $12,500.00 each. A federal judge accepted Wegner's plea of guilty to charges of conspiracy and tax fraud and sentenced him to five years in prison. The judge also found that Wegner had attempted to obstruct justice by committing perjury at the trial of a co-defendant Wegner paid a $10,000.00 fine.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has stated that everyone deserves a second chance and notes that he himself had been given a second chance in that he had once been convicted of a drug offense.

We note, however, that Kennedy's offense was essentially a victimless crime while Wegner's offense was a crime against the environment, the people of Australia, the people of the United States and against the birds. In order to avoid detection during the flight, smugglers flushed newly hatched chicks down the plane's toilet

Although Wegner has been convicted and served his sentence, nothing he or anyone else can do will correct the damage he has done or make his victims whole again.

Wegner's prison sentence seems to have done little to improve his ethical sense. The resume Wegner submitted to Riverkeeper accounts for his period of incarceration without referring to the fact of the incarceration itself Wegner describes work he performed and omits the significant information that he performed this work while he was serving time as a prison inmate.

Kennedy overstepped his position as attorney for Riverkeeper when, in November of 1999, he hired Wegner. Boyle terminated Wegner after learning of the hiring and upon review of Wegner's resume, court records and media accounts. The matter came to a climax at a board meeting on June 20th when Kennedy insisted that Wegner be rehired over Boyle's objection.

While we hope Riverkeeper continues to work to produce changed human beings who think and act differently in regard to the Hudson River and all that pertains to it, we also recognize the primary mission of Riverkeeper is not the rehabilitation of Wegner or of those like him.


Anthony Henry Smith

(for The Fishkill Ridge Caretakers)
(Fishkill Ridge Community Heritage, a separate organization, has also supported this letter from their beginning.)

By Anthony Henry Smith (not verified) on 11 Nov 2008 #permalink

"Scientific studies supporting his notion? Not linked because they either don't exist or are overwhelmed by studies that show that the minority status of women is a result of bias, barriers, and socialization."

Don't exist?

Start for instance here (Hedges, Nowell 1995)

"Except in tests of reading comprehension, perceptual speed, and associative memory, males typically outnumber females substantially among high-scoring individuals."

Then you can browse through the references in the article. Then you can go to Web of Science and browse trough the 193 citations that the above article gets, for instance:

Brunner, Krauss, Kunter (2008)
"Results from the standard model replicated the typical finding of small gender differences in mathematical ability in favor of boys. However, results from the nested-factor model indicated large to very large gender differences in specific mathematical ability in favor of boys. Implications for research on gender differences in cognitive abilities are discussed."

Ceci, Williams, eds (2007)
"This book brings together 15 experts to discuss the question posed in the title. There is a fair deal of consensus among the contributors on five major points. ... males have greater variability in intelligence and in math ability, resulting in more men among those with high IQs from which top scientists are drawn."

And I could go on and on and on... Less fury and more rationality is what makes a good researcher. For instance, you can start correcting your fatal misrepresentations of Summers. For instance, he has never even claimed anything that could make you claim "But do you really want someone who suspects that 1/2 the population isn't very smart planning the economic policy of the country?".

Speaking as someone who contracted polio at the age of six before the Sauk vaccine was introduced, I have a question. How, after all their pious denunciations of a conservative ?war on science? can Barack Obama and his team be considering this notorious anti-vaccine crank to lead a key agency like the EPA? RFK Jr. is a truly dangerous individual. That Obama has floated his name is nothing short of obscene. I?ll remember this the next time I hear some progressive bloviating about the importance of ?good science.?

On the Summers question:

I have an article on this you might find relevant, "What is the right number of women? Hints and Puzzles from Cognitive Ability Research," published in a recent Econ Journal Watch.

Link is in my name.

Have any of you read the remarks made by Summers? It was at conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering workforce. The organizers of the conference had asked him to be provocative. I'm not saying the remarks aren't offensive but they are being taken out of context and over simplified.

The transcript:
Here is a Boston Globe article on the controversy where it mentions the organizers asking him to be provocative:…

Huh, perhaps I should finish the article before I comment, as both of the links I provided are already in there.