Last week, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., emerged from the golden Twitter egg that is Trump Tower and told reporters that the President-elect had asked him to chair a committee on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Somewhere, a measles virus cackled with glee.
If you polled every actual vaccination expert on who they might put at the absolute end of the list of people to run such a commission, RFK Jr. would likely lose out only by a hair to Andrew Wakefield himself (the ex-doctor largely responsible for the ongoing vaccines/autism argument, which, to recap, vaccines do not cause autism). He is not just under-qualified, or a less-than-ideal choice—he is the opposite of an expert on this topic.
President-elect Trump has made a habit of this already. He seems hell-bent on ushering in an era where expertise is not just ignored, but actively disdained. This has manifested itself all over his still-short list of appointees, but the nominees related to science and health seem particularly egregious. These are Trump’s “unspecialists”—anti-experts, candidates that would be laughed off as absurdities if we weren’t living in the middle of a Philip K. Dick dystopia.
The vaccine commission could very well be the most damaging idea Trump has put forth yet (outside of, you know, World War III). One Yale vaccine expert said RFK Jr. “could create a crisis in public confidence that would place the health of America’s children in serious danger.” The measles immunization rate in the US has hovered right around 92 percent (with some communities faring much worse) in recent years, toward the low end of where herd immunity is maintained; any drop could be devastating. If the chairman of a presidential commission on vaccine safety believes, as RFK Jr. does, that vaccine-related injury constitutes “a holocaust,” parents who were on the fence might feel they have been given permission to avoid immunizations, and we could be seeing that drop in the very near future.
Vaccines may be the starkest version of this, but the unspecialists abound. Take Rick Perry. Tapped to run the Department of Energy, the former Texas governor and occasional presidential candidate famously wanted to abolish the DOE entirely, except when he forgot that it existed. And on Wednesday, the New York Times published a remarkable report suggesting that Perry had no idea what the Secretary of Energy’s job actually is—the Times alleged Perry thought he would be “a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry,” which is not even remotely a thing. (Several hours later, former Trump transition team official Michael McKenna told the Daily Caller the Times got it wrong, and that Perry “of course” understood the role of the DOE when he was offered the job.)
Regardless of whether Perry completely misread the job offer or had an inkling that it would entail maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal, why even look in the direction of someone with an utter absence of qualification, when so many other people out there might theoretically be fit to run the department? Perry’s very lack of expertise seemed to draw Trump’s gaze, as if Sauron could only see Frodo when he didn’t put on the ring.
The tenuous argument in Perry’s favor involves Texas’s formidable wind power capacity, though the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard was passed before he took office and is, along with some other mostly federal policies, likely more responsible for the wind explosion. But even that doesn’t really matter—roughly two thirds of the DOE’s budget goes toward the nuclear program, something Perry has no experience in.
There’s also the matter of Perry’s climate denial: the DOE runs the National Labs and ARPA-E, both of which have contributed enormously to progress on clean energy. The 2017 DOE budget request includes $5.9 billion in discretionary funds for clean energy R&D. Will the man who wrote in 2010 (!) that the Earth was “experiencing a cooling trend,” or whose underlings removed all mentions of climate change from official reports while in office, keep supporting the research that will help guide the country away from fossil fuels?
Or what about one of the frontrunners for the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Balaji Srinivasan? This is a man so fundamentally opposed to government regulation that he recently deleted his entire Twitter history to avoid any embarrassing anti-FDA questions if he is indeed tapped for the post. The entire point of the FDA is regulation! Without the FDA regulating the foods on our grocery store shelves and the drugs in our medicine cabinets, we’d be back to snake oil and radium inhalations. But, its potential new director thinks we can all just innovate those tumors away.
This isn’t a matter of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s putting the bulldozer in charge of the henhouse.
Other bulldozers may include: Ted McKinney for Secretary of Agriculture, a man who served as an executive with Dow AgroSciences, among other jobs; Rex Tillerson, who as Secretary of State would have international climate agreements under his purview but since 1975 worked at a company hell-bent on destroying said climate (and which actively and repeatedly pressed the State Department to help ExxonMobil drill out every drop of oil it could); and Scott Pruitt, a man so opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s very existence that he sued it at least 14 times and shut down his own state’s Environmental Protection Unit. Most people probably don’t remember the Cuyahoga River fires; environmental regulation is why they don’t remember.
There is a limit, of course to what the heads of these agencies or commissions can do. Funding is appropriated by Congress, and much of what the EPA, FDA, and other agencies do is actually quite popular, even if people don’t connect the dots all that easily. But appointing people so clearly opposed to the stated missions of their jobs will hinder research, endanger health and the livability of the climate, and set back the country’s overall relationship to science. Many relevant positions remain unfilled at this point. We don’t yet know, for example, who Trump will tap to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy and serve as his science advisor, but don’t be surprised if—just spitballing here—we end up with someone like Ken Ham.
It is obvious by now just how little the President-elect understands about scientific issues. His insistence on unspecialists betrays a deep-seated distrust of people with actual credentials. If one were inclined toward armchair psychoanalysis, one might suggest this could be because, on some level of his psyche not entirely contaminated with KFC and misogynist rally chants, he understands his own intense, burning, black hole-sized lack of qualification. Appointing a cadre of people who don’t have a clue could shift some of the blame for the inevitable disasters away from the unspecialist-in-chief.
Dave Levitan is a journalist, and author of the book Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science. Find him on Twitter and at his website.