A Tale of Two Men: Dr. Peter Hotez & Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
What my conversations with Dr. Peter Hotez and Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. reveal about their character and goals.
On Saturday September 23rd, I attended the Texas Tribune’s annual Tribune Fest in Austin, Texas to report on the various panels and interview participants. In the span of one afternoon I interviewed Dr. Peter Hotez and Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., two men who are simultaneously loved and maligned by millions of people. My brief conversations with both men highlight how each handle criticism and how they approach scientific debates.
Tribfest is an annual event which brings together journalists, political leaders, executives of major corporations, and other players in Texas and national politics. Tribfest is hosted by the Texas Tribune, a non-profit organization which describes itself as a “nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans… about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues”. The Tribune was founded in 2009 with funding from venture capitalist John Thornton.
I was personally interested in several panels at Tribfest, including a one on one with CNN’s Jake Tapper; a discussion called “Fighting the Fringe” featuring disgraced former CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin; and a session titled “Fox in the Doghouse” with former CNN propagandist Brian Stelter.
However, the main reason I attended TribFest was for the opportunity to interview Dr. Peter Hotez, who was participating in a live recording of the “Fast Politics” podcast with Molly Jong-Fast. The podcast was presented as a conversation on science, anti-science, and post-pandemic public health.
Talking With Dr. Peter Hotez
Dr. Peter Hotez is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. He is also Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. He was one of the most vocal advocates for COVID-19 injections, lockdowns, mask mandates, and shaming of individuals who question the safety and efficacy of the injections.
Dr. Hotez is also an author of the new book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist’s Warning, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. For the last two weeks Hotez has been experiencing a revival of his regular appearances in the media as he promotes his book on podcasts, interviews on mainstream media, and events like TribFest.
I have written previously about Hotez’s claims of “anti-science” being on the rise. In my September 2020 article, Has an ‘Anti-Science’ Sentiment Overtaken the United States?, The point I made in that piece was that there are documented examples where the “official” science is incorrect and actually causing harm to people. One such example I mention is the fight over water fluoridation. (If you’re initial, knee-jerk reaction is to label that topic a “conspiracy theory” you definitely need to read that article and follow the sources.)
As I note in that piece, Hotez has stated that his definition of “antiscience movement” is an “organized and funded rejection of science and scientific principles and methods in favor of alternative views, often linked to the targeting or harassment of individual scientists”. Hotez’s definition describes a very specific group that he says is organized and funded that rejects the scientific method and principles. This group, apparently, also likes to harass scientists.
Wikipedia defines anti-science as “a philosophy or way of understanding the world that rejects science and the scientific method.” Further, wiki says science deniers “do not accept science as an objective method that can generate universal knowledge.”
So, according to Dr. Peter Hotez’s new book and Wikipedia (sourced from media reports and research), to be considered anti-science one would need to reject the scientific method and principles, and science altogether. Also, rejecting objective knowledge and harassing scientists is a must.
In my experience as an independent journalist with a skeptical, critically thinking mind, I have spoken with many so-called “anti-vaxxers” and other groups who would likely be labeled “anti-science” by Dr. Hotez. The vaccine skeptics, water fluoridation opponents, and COVID-19 truthers (for lack of a better term) I have met are generally pushing for more science, not less.
In fact, when it comes to topics like COVID-19 lockdowns, masks, shots etc, the biggest critics are scientists themselves. These individuals work at universities, write for medical and scientific journals, and respect the scientific method. Surely, they cannot be dismissed as anti-science yahoos. Of course, we all know that’s exactly what has happened the last 3 and a half years.
It is with all this in mind that I took a 3-hour bus ride to Austin with the hopes of asking Dr. Hotez about these nuances and complexities. This is exactly what happened once I arrived.
Dr. Hotez and I stood outside of the OMNI hotel underneath the Texas sun as we discussed his book, revelations regarding the Nature paper “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2“, and his thoughts on reports of post-vaccine injuries, including what Science magazine has referred to as “Long Vax”. Due to Hotez’s well known disdain for debating “anti-vaxxers” I wasn’t expecting him to react well when I posed what I consider reasonable, if not controversial, questions.
Sure enough, the moment we moved past the prerequisite softball questions and promotion of his book, and into the Proximal Origin paper, Hotez said he would have to go soon because of the Sun. Granted, it’s Texas in September and it’s still hot and humid, but I don’t think the Sun was the only reason Hotez was in a hurry.
Nonetheless, I barreled forward with my question about the fact that dozens of scientists have called for Nature to retract the Proximal Origin paper after recently released emails and slack chats show scientists clearly stating that a lab leak was possible. Further, the scientists are clearly seen mapping out a public response to incoming media questions about the potential for a lab leak from Wuhan.
Hotez stuck with his talking points, and his conclusion that there is “zero evidence”, as far as he is concerned, that COVID-19 leaked from a lab. (I didn’t have a chance to even get into the lack of isolation with him, but we can surmise he would have dismissed it). Hotez says the Republicans hosting hearings on the Proximal Origin were just trying to “sell popcorn” for political theater.
When I mentioned U.S. government funding and contracts from groups like Ecohealth, Hotez stated that,
“it was not true gain-of-function research”.
“I worry that all this discussion on lab leak, gain-of-function is going to tie one arm behind the back of virologists and make it harder….”, Hotez stated. Interestingly, his position is that we should be “enabling our virologists” by allowing them to do this research that Hotez swears isn’t “true gain-of-function”, and if we question or challenge it then we may be “tying one arm behind their back”.
His argument is essentially that the public should not question what the scientists are working on because although one day we could see an accidental lab leak related to this very research, it’s too important to question or challenge. This circular logic is typical for Dr. Peter Hotez.
The final point I brought up with Dr. Hotez was the question of adverse reactions after the COVID-19 injections, what Science mag and others have labeled “Long Vaxx”. In our final exchange, Dr. Hotez claimed that individuals who have injuries from the shots are not being ignored because the U.S. government maintains the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) for reporting of vaccine side effects.
When I noted that there are an unusually high amount of VAERS reports of long term injuries, and even death, post-COVID-19, Hotez pivoted, stating that, “Well, remember VAERS is just a top-level, it doesn’t find cause and effect. It’s support of hypothesis generating, and so far I have not seen evidence of strong links of vaccines and any of those things. It does work, it has generated some very rare side effects.”
Once I pushed further asking Hotez whether it was now okay to acknowledge that individuals are suffering with side effects from the COVID-19 injections, Hotez again stated he needed to get out of the Sun and began walking inside. I quickly grabbed my camera and continued the conversation as I followed him into the shade. I expressed my concern that his talk of “anti-science aggression” is discouraging the public from listening to individuals who have side effects and/or concerns of side effects by labeling them “anti-vaxxers”.
Ultimately, I was able to get Hotez to state that individuals dealing with injuries from the COVID-19 shots should report it to VAERS and speak to their physician. This is likely the closest we will ever get to Dr. Peter Hotez acknowledging the many, many people who have dealt with post-injection injuries, side effects, and, yes, even death from myocarditis and other injection-related outcomes.
Interestingly, despite my questions coming right out of the headlines of the day, after our brief interview Hotez went around to several people asking who I was because I asked “anti-vaxx questions”. This is how Peter Hotez perceives any opposition or challenging to his narratives that injections are 100% safe: it’s only anti-science boneheads who are being well-funded (according to him) to spread lies that ask these questions. So, obviously, I must be an “anti-vaxxer”.
Speaking With Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
After my conversation with Hotez, I decided to stick around to hear what he said during his podcast recording. I wasn’t expecting much different than what I already heard from Hotez on the numerous podcast appearances I listened to in preparation for my interview. He carried on with his usual refrain that he and other scientists are under attack by crazy “anti-science” people who have made Texas their home.
He shared his version of events regarding the much publicized debate challenge from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Joe Rogan. Hotez has spent the summer of 2023 telling anyone who will listen why RFK Jr. is not worthy of a debate and how much of a danger he poses to public health.
As fate would have it, Kennedy appeared seemingly out of nowhere in downtown Austin right as Hotez was bad mouthing him. RFK Jr. walked up to the tent where Hotez was speaking, poked his head in for a moment and then continued strolling down Congress Avenue. Kennedy was in Central Texas for the weekend hosting a press conference on the U.S. border crisis and hosting two events for supporters.
The moment he showed up whispers began among the crowd as people took notice of the 69 year old Democratic Presidential candidate, who is apparently considering running as an Independent. TribFest attendees and regular Austinites asked for selfies with him and repeatedly thanked him for his efforts. I took the opportunity to score my second interview of the day and ask Mr. Kennedy what he thought about Hotez’s attacks on his character.
Despite being mobbed by a crowd of fans, Mr. Kennedy took the time to answer a few questions from me in the middle of the street on a hot Texas day. When asked his thoughts on Dr. Hotez’s attacks, Kennedy stated that the American people should not trust him or Hotez, but do their own research.
“One of the tragedies today is that you can’t trust public health officials anymore. Doctors can’t, the American people can’t,” Kennedy stated. “Treat every so-called expert pronouncement with skepticism. So many experts have been bought off by the industry and our regular agencies, instead of protecting public health are serving the mercantile interests of the pharmaceutical industry.”
Kennedy also mentioned corporate capture as it relates to the wireless industry, often referred to as Big Wireless. He noted that he and his organization Children’s Health Defense recently won a lawsuit against the FCC regarding the dangers of cellphones.
When it came to the topic of the U.S. border and a massive influx of migrants coming from the southern border, Mr. Kennedy said the border was a “humanitarian crisis” caused by the drug cartels “running America’s border policy”. Kennedy stated that more immigrants are now coming illegally than legally. He also referred to the long delays faced by individuals who are seeking asylum.
“People who think it’s a humanitarian gesture to just open the borders and let anyone in is not really looking at what’s really happening to our country,” Kennedy stated. “We need to have a fast path to citizenship, we need to let more people in legally, and shut down the illegal immigration.”
In his final appeal to potential voters, Mr. Kennedy said those who are sick of the bickering between Democrats and Republicans and want to “start looking at common sense policies that Democrats and Republicans can agree on” should look to his campaign.
While I don’t agree with all of Kennedy’s positions (namely, on Israel) I do appreciate his willingness to spend 5 minutes with me answering questions without hesitation. My hope is that in subsequent interviews I will be able to go deeper with him and challenge him in certain areas.
By the end of my afternoon, with both interviews completed, I prepared to make my way back to Houston. I reflected on the two conversations I had with these diametrically opposed influential men. Each man — Dr. Peter Hotez and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. — have millions of supporters and likely just as many detractors. The differences in their data, their approach, their openness, and desire for dialogue is obvious.
Each man feels confident that he has the correct information and the answers needed by the American people. However, Dr. Hotez is comfortable with calling for censoring, banning, and deplatforming people who ask questions that he deems “anti-science” or “anti-vaccine”. He has also continuously fought to have vaccine skeptics labeled as extremists or even terrorists.
In contrast, Mr. Kennedy appears willing to have an open dialogue with anyone he meets. He has been traveling the United States for six months now, promoting his campaign, and listening to Americans. Whether or not you agree on his positions or conclusions, he remains open to discussion and debate.
One area where Dr. Hotez and Mr. Kennedy appear to agree is that America (and much of the world) is facing an extremely divided political climate. However, they diverge on the solutions to this division. Where Kennedy sees more speech and conversation as the answer, Hotez is content to tell the American people to simply “trust the experts”.
Unfortunately for him, after the last few years of lying, gaslighting, and obfuscation from the so-called experts and technocrats, much of the public is now skeptical and/or completely distrusting of official statements and dogma. Whether this will lead to a revival in critical thinking and reforming of our captured agencies, or a chaotic, violent death of previously trusted institutions, remains to be seen.
For now, it’s important to remember to Question Everything, including presidential candidates and doctors.