Anti-vax ideology isn't a harmless quirk or a side issue. It reflects a worldview unmoored from empirical reality, and that's an extremely bad sign for a candidate's ability to make the right choices in a crisis.

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. won’t be the Democratic nominee in 2024. Nor should he be.

Kennedy announced his presidential campaign last month, and one poll found that 19% of Biden voters say they’d support him. While that still makes him a long shot, it’s surprisingly strong for a challenger.

On the other hand, there are reasons not to put too much weight on this number. Polls are largely meaningless this far out from an election. They reflect name recognition more than anything else, and RFK bears one of the most famous last names in American politics. When push comes to shove, it’s unheard of for a party not to renominate an incumbent president.

But beyond this horse race analysis, there’s good reason why RFK doesn’t deserve to be the Democratic nominee: he’s staked his career on anti-vaccine activism. For any progressive who cares about science, that should be an absolute disqualifier.

Facts and values

When I’m deciding who to vote for, I evaluate a politician on two dimensions. One is their set of values: Does this candidate share my views on right and wrong? Do they value freedom, dignity and self-determination? Or do they care more about purity, hierarchy and obedience to authority?

The other is their grasp of the facts: Does this candidate know how to tell the difference between truth and falsehood? Do they understand how to think critically and how to weigh evidence? Or are they susceptible to faddish beliefs, magical thinking and conspiracy theories?

Both of these matter. I wouldn’t vote for a candidate who had a solid grasp of the facts, but values I strongly disagreed with—like, say, a libertarian who thinks less government is the answer to every problem. I also wouldn’t support a candidate whose values I agreed with but who was dangerously ignorant or misinformed.

If you have a grossly mistaken view of the world, the best values imaginable won’t keep you from blundering into disaster.

As an example, I wouldn’t vote for a candidate—no matter their other opinions—who advocated 9/11 conspiracy theories, or who believes the Moon landing was a hoax, or who thinks the Earth is flat. Even if those views don’t bear directly on any current geopolitical conflict, it speaks of a deep disconnect from reality. That’s a bad sign for their leadership skills. It increases the odds that, in another crisis, they’d go horribly astray.

To make good decisions, you have to know what the facts are and be able to face them without flinching. If you have a grossly mistaken view of the world, the best values imaginable won’t keep you from blundering into disaster.

The tankies and the anti-vaxxers

An example is the left-wing faction called the “tankies“. They’re against war and imperialism, and so am I. But they have a catastrophically mistaken stance. They believe that America is the only imperialist power in the world, and because imperialism should be opposed, whichever side the U.S. backs in a conflict is the wrong one.

Therefore, because America is supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, tankies take Russia’s side. They argue that the U.S. is the aggressor and Russia is blameless and acting to protect itself.

This belief forces them into the role of apologists for war crimes. In the name of being anti-war, tankies deny or rationalize horrific Russian evils—the unprovoked invasion, the civilian massacres, the kidnapping of children, the indiscriminate bombardment, the cultural erasure, the attempted genocide—as Western hoaxes or justified self-defense. In the name of leftism, they somehow end up siding with Vladimir Putin—an anti-democratic, white supremacist, anti-gay Christian theocrat strongman who dreams of recreating the Russian Empire through bloody conquest.

The tankies are a vivid example of how a bad factual belief, even if your other principles are good, can back you into a morally reprehensible corner. That’s the situation with RFK.

Crank magnetism

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. started out as an environmental lawyer who fought polluting businesses in court. But since 2005, anti-vaccine activism has been his defining trait.

He started down this path with the publication of “Deadly Immunity”, a 2005 article endorsing Andrew Wakefield’s false claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. That article was later retracted for containing numerous factual errors. (Here’s a comprehensive debunking, and for more in-depth analysis, this very funny documentary from HBomberGuy shows how Wakefield’s claims weren’t just flawed but transparently fraudulent.)

The retraction didn’t slow him down. RFK and his group, Children’s Health Defense, were a major source of anti-vax Facebook ads up to 2019, when Facebook finally banned them for violating its misinformation policies. When Donald Trump invited him in 2017 to join a White House committee reviewing “evidence” on vaccine safety, he jumped at the chance.

RFK is a living example of crank magnetism. He started with one bad belief and then, like a snowball rolling downhill, picked up more and more.

But the COVID pandemic sent RFK way off the deep end. He embraced pseudoscience like ivermectin as a treatment. He compared anti-vaxxers to Anne Frank being persecuted by Nazis.

No anti-COVID conspiracy theory seems too bizarre for him to embrace. He claimed that COVID vaccines have secret Bill Gates microchips to control people. He’s also said wireless signals and 5G damage DNA and are part of a sinister plot that was rolled out using the pandemic as a distraction. He even claimed that Anthony Fauci was leading “a historic coup d’etat against Western democracy“.

RFK is a living example of crank magnetism. He started with one bad belief and then, like a snowball rolling downhill, picked up more and more. There’s no way to tell what other conspiracy theories might win him over. (For example, he’s also against fluoridated water.)

What might he do with executive power, if he ever had it? There’s literally no way to tell, because evidence isn’t guiding his decision-making any more, if it ever was.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

There are good reasons for skepticism of Big Pharma. To name a few: its predatory pricing, its promotion of expensive lifestyle drugs, its neglect of diseases in the developing world because they’re not profitable to treat. But none of this justifies rejecting the very concept of vaccination, which is one of the best and most worthwhile ideas it’s ever given us.

Vaccines have saved untold millions of lives throughout history. The COVID vaccines alone have saved around twenty million people. And it would have been more if not for anti-vaccine propaganda.

READ: Covidfreude

Tens of thousands of Americans died—unnecessarily, slowly, agonizingly—because they refused a free vaccine thanks to the poisonous propaganda spread by RFK. The guilt for those deaths is on his hands.

And now, thanks to anti-vaxxers like him, long-vanquished diseases like measles, polio, and whooping cough are creeping back. He’s done lasting damage, not just to public health, but to the public’s trust in science. He’s left us that much less ready to fight the next pandemic that arises. Neither him, nor any other anti-vaxxer or other proponent of deadly pseudoscience, should ever be granted the privilege of serving in office.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...