Chatting with Seth Mnookin

18 Jan

I don’t want to call what follows an interview as:

a) I’m not that grand
b) It was more friendly than that

So what follows was a meandering email chat Seth and I had about the release of The Panic Virus (Amazon UK, US and CA) and the content in it.

KL: You mention in the book that one reason for writing it was that as a new dad you were keen to explore the issue of vaccination in relation to autism. Do you feel that you’ve come away from the writing process with a greater personal (as a dad) idea(s) of what the vax/anti-vax opposing beliefs are?

SM: Actually, I started the book before I was a father…and before my wife was pregnant. I think it was one of the reasons I was so curious about the topic: I hadn’t experienced the debate on a personal level and so I found it hard to understand how different people I respected could disagree so strongly about the facts.

I’m not sure whether this is a result of the writing/research process or of my becoming a dad, but I feel like I have an understanding of where both sides are coming from–and why they get so frustrated. I can’t pretend to know what my reaction would be if I believed that vaccines had harmed my child.

KL: Do you feel you share the sense of frustration that ‘pro-vaccine’ people have now the book is completed?

SM: That’s a hard question to answer. Overall the situation is extremely frustrating. I feel frustration that the issue has been so poorly covered by the media, and I think our handling of the story has as much as (or more than) anything else to do with where we’ve ended up. I’m also frustrated by the handful of self-anointed experts, like Bob Sears, who give the impression that heeding their (or parents’/patients’) instincts are the proper way to go about dealing with medical decisions.

But I think one of the things that makes this such an intractable issue is that there are not a lot of opportunities for people on opposing sides to sit down and have an actual, human-to-human conversation — at this point emotions are so pitched and the stakes are so high (or feel so high) that a sort of bunker mentality has set in. I was lucky: I cam to this without a horse in the race, as it were, so I was able to have what I think were open and honest conversations with people that I know disagree strenuously with the conclusions I ultimately arrived at.

KL: Thats an interesting thought. At what point in writing the book did you think ‘I know I’ve reached my own conclusions’?

SM: I don’t think there was one point at which I felt like I’d made up my mind about the issues that came up because it didn’t feel to me that there was any one single issue. It’s part of what I found interesting and bewildering about this whole thing. I went to an AutismOne conference in Chicago, and after watching a presentation by Mark and David Geier, I knew I had some real concerns about their approach to treatment. There were some other presentations I saw that I knew from the outset were just factually incorrect, and there were claims about government conspiracies to poison children that I found to be…well, I guess unconvincing is a good word to use.

But I certainly didn’t feel like I knew enough at that point to say whether some of the other treatments that came up had validity, and I didn’t feel like I could say with any confidence whether some of the theories regarding causality had any grounding in fact. There’s a lot of very complicated science involved, so when David Kirby stood in front of an auditorium and talked about mitochondrial disease and genetic susceptibility, I hadn’t done enough research at that time to know whether what he was saying made sense or not.

I did find the all-or-nothing quality to the debate to be disturbing. At AutismOne, it was made very clear to me that I’d be judged in absolutes: If I expressed skepticism about the Geiers, the assumption was that I didn’t think anything else that was being discussed at the conference had any type of validity.

I was open about this when I spoke with people. If I was interviewing someone and the Geiers came up — and I don’t mean to pick on them, but they’re a good example of this because they’re such prominent figures — I’d say that I found their approach to science unconvincing.

I think that there is, among some people at least, a feeling that it’d be better for everyone involved if that with-me-or-against-me attitude wasn’t quite so prevalent. I spoke with Jane Johnson about Andrew Wakefield’s departure from Thoughtful House after the GMC decision was released early last year. I really like Jane — she’s smart and thoughtful and very generous with her time and every time I spoke with her she made me think about things in new ways. And when I asked her why Wakefield had left she didn’t say that it had anything to do with the contents of the GMC ruling, which I really respected: There was not really any new information in the report. Instead, she said that he had become too much of a lightening rod and that Thoughtful House wanted to do more work with Texas medical authorities. I don’t want to misquote her, and these aren’t her words, but she essentially went on to say, This doesn’t all need to be about vaccines. There’s lots of other work to be done here that has nothing to do with vaccines. That’s an attitude I wish more people had.

KL: I know you didn’t set out to write a book about *autism* as such but it seems to attract authors – do you think you’ll always maintain a passing interest in the autism/vaccine issue now?

SM: I think I’ll maintain more than a passing interest in the issue. It’s hard to learn about it – and certainly hard to write about it – without become passionately involved in it, so it’s hard to imagine my not continuing to have some connection to a lot of these issues moving forward.

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2 Responses to “Chatting with Seth Mnookin”

  1. Matt January 18, 2011 at 23:20 #

    I just finished reading The Panic Virus–it’s excellent. Looking forward to hearing Seth speak at Wisconsin next week!

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