Robert De Niro is no stranger to the wild, exciting, and supremely unscientific world of the anti-vaccination movement. Last year, De Niro—whose son has autism—stumped for the anti-vaccination movie Vaxxed to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, saying he wanted to provide “the opportunity for a conversation around the issue” to occur. (The film was eventually pulled from the festival’s schedule.) Now, De Niro is offering the scientific community an offer it probably will refuse, teaming up with the stridently anti-vaccination Robert Kennedy Jr. for a $100,000 dare to the scientific world.
Speaking at a press conference for his World Mercury Project yesterday, Kennedy offered the money to any scientist who could provide him a peer-reviewed study proving that thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative now used in an extremely small number of pediatric vaccinations, is “safe” in the amounts being given to women and children in America. Kennedy said his goal is to start a “debate” about the effects of the compound, even though debate is not how science works. (Otherwise, we’d have been arguing that humans can fly by flapping their arms while the sun rotates around the Earth for centuries, now.) For his part, De Niro said that he and Kennedy were in complete agreement on this matter.
But lest all you lazy scientists think you can just score some of RKJ and Bobby De Niro’s cash with a simple Google search, Kennedy has already said he doesn’t buy the seven studies being offered up by the FDA to show that thimerosal—a frequent boogeyman for those who’ve bought into the debunked claim that vaccines lead to neurological disorders in children—is safe. Admittedly, few of those studies were done with kids, because most of the mercury toxicity research has been done on methylmercury, not the relatively less toxic ethylmercury that thimerosal breaks down into. (There are a few studies that show ethylmercury eliminates from infant bodies faster than methyl, for what it’s worth.) The tricky part is that it’s hard to do research on thimerosal’s effects on kids, because we almost never give it to them anymore; the vast majority of childhood vaccinations, including the MMR, polio, and DTaP, contain none of the substance to begin with, because the FDA decided, nearly 20 years ago, that it wasn’t a good idea to give mercury in that amount to kids.
So, given that we’re not actually giving it to kids anymore, that suggests that the amount we’re handing out in America—very nearly zero—is, by definition, safe. Which we guess means we retroactively won the “debate?” We think? Can we have our $100,000 now?