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Who Decides Which Facts are True? Perhaps not “Dr. Bob”

27 Mar

Dr. Robert Sears (Dr. Bob) is one of the more well-known Defeat Autism Now (DAN) doctors. This is a group of alternative medical practitioners who “treat” autism with a number of untested (and, thus, unproven) methods such as supplements, chelation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and others.

As a DAN practitioner, it won’t surprise most readers here that Dr. Bob takes a different view of vaccines than the mainstream. Dr. Bob Sears has a book out on alternatives to the standard vaccine schedule, The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. This approach has not been without criticism (for example, The Problem With Dr Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule).

Dr. Bob has been associated with an outbreak of measles in San Diego, California a few years back. In specific, that the “index patient”, the child who was infected abroad during a family trip, was a patient of his practice. Note that people did not say that the child spread the infection in his office. Instead, According to the radio show “This American Life” and a short article in his hometown newspaper, the Orange County Register and, later, Seth Mnookin‘s book, The Panic Virus, note that the child who imported measles into San Diego from Switzerland was a patient of Dr. Sears.

Dr. Sears has recently (as in the past few days) contested this idea that the “index patient” for the San Diego outbreak was seen in his clinic. Which, as I noted above, is not what was discussed in, for example, The Panic Virus. In a comment on the Huffington Post blogs, Dr. Sears wrote:

“I will set the record straight. I was NOT the pediatrician who saw the measles patient and let him sit in my office. As far as I know, that occured in a San Diego pediatrician’s office. I don’t know whose. I was not involved in that at all. I haven’t read Seth Minooken’s book, NOR have I ever even spoken with Seth. So I’ve no idea what he’s said about me in his book. I actually had no idea that any of you were even wondering about this. No one’s brought it to my attention before this. I heard something about some journalist writing a book about vaccines, but hadn’t bothered to read it”

This brings up the question posed by Seth Mnookin in his book, The Panic Virus: “Who Decides Which Facts are True”.

Well, Mr. Mnookin is providing us with information to decide for ourselves. Mr. Mnookin provided the links to “This American Life” and the Orange County Register. In addition, Mr. Mnookin has provided us with a brief discussion of the exchanges between Dr. Sears and himself. All this in his article, Bob Sears: Bald-faced liar, devious dissembler, or both?

As to whether Dr. Bob Sears has ever spoken with Seth (emphasized with an all caps “NOR” in Dr. Bob Sears’ comment on Huffpo), Mr. Mnookin provides readers with a link to audio from one of his interviews with Dr. Sears. Mr. Mnookin wrote:

Now, there are a number of odd things about Sears’s comment. First, he denies something that I’ve never accused him of—not in my book, not in an interview, not in a speech: letting a patient infected with measles sit in his office. Then, he misspells my name, which is either an illustration of how little he cares about getting things right or of his deviousness (or both)—because while I assume it’s true he’s never spoken to Seth Minooken, he most definitely has spoken to Seth Mnookin. You don’t need to take my word for it; as you can hear here, I actually taped the interview. That interview was just one part of a long series of back and forths I had with Sears and various staff members in his office. I think they’re revealing—and, in light of Sears’s claim that he’s never spoken to me (or someone whose name sounds an awful lot like mine), they’re worth discussing.

Readers can read what Mr. Mnookin felt was “worth discussing” in his article: Bob Sears: Bald-faced liar, devious dissembler, or both?

The Panic Virus: now in paperback

9 Feb

The Panic Virus came out just over a year ago. We discussed it on Left Brain/Right Brain (here and here). As one who has spent a great deal of time reading and writing about the autism/vaccine discussion, I found the book to be extremely well researched and very well written.

The author, Seth Mnookin, now teaches science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and writes for the PLoS blogs.

Here is a blurb on the book:


In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures,” and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.

In The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.

The Panic Virus is a riveting and sometimes heart-breaking medical detective story that explores the limits of rational thought. It is the ultimate cautionary tale for our time.

If you were waiting for paperback to save some money, here’s the link. Other booksellers will have it too.

The Autism Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism

7 Jan

The Huffington Post has a new section on science. One of the first articles discusses the “Autism Vaccine Controversy”. In The Autism Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism, Seth Mnookin starts out:

Earlier this week, The Panic Virus, my book on the controversy over vaccines and autism, was released in paperback. While there haven’t been many scientific advances in this particular issue since the hardcover edition was published — the evidence supporting vaccines’ paramount place in public health efforts and the total lack of corroboration supporting a causal connection between vaccines and autism remain as strong today as they were a year ago — there have been new developments in the story. Their coverage highlights an enduring passion of mine: The need for reliable, responsible science journalism.

Yes, Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, is writing for the Huffington Post, a site which has contributed greatly to misinformation about vaccines and autism. The Huffington Post has been home to David Kirby (who was a major promoter of the mercury/autism concept) as well as welcoming input from Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, to name but a few of the poor choices for writers the Post engaged.

On PLoS blogs, Mr. Mnookin announced this new gig with Has the Huffington Post embraced science & closed the door on anti-vaccine quackery? We can hope. I wouldn’t place any bets on it though.

People can’t change?

22 Apr

Today, JB Handley, founder of Generation Rescue became the latest person at Age of Autism to abuse a man with a psychiatric disorder.

Shouldn’t we celebrate that Mr. Mnookin claims to be sober? Sure we should. Beating a heroin addiction is a laudable outcome. That being said, I sure wouldn’t hire Mr. Mnookin in one of my companies, let him watch my kids, or go to him for parenting advice. He was a garden-variety junkie who stole money from friends and family, sorry.

Give with one hand, take with the other.

I don;t ever seem to recall such vitriol for another former heroin addict. In fact, for _this_ former heroin addict, JB Handley said:

I wept when I read RFK Jr’s piece yesterday on the Huffington Post…

As far as I can tell, the only difference between Mnookin and Kennedy is that Mnookin is man enough to discuss his addiction up front and personal.

JB Handley and his ilk idolise Kennedy because he’s on their side. If Seth Mnookin had written a very different book, you can bet that his former addiction wouldn’t count for a damn thing. I wonder if JB would hire Kennedy, let him watch his kids or go to him for parenting advice? Because according to JB’s standards, Kennedy is just another garden variety junkie.

I believe both Mnookin and Kennedy deserve credit for fighting a fight that JB Handley can neither envisage nor learn from. What neither of these two men deserve is to be judged on their past. I look forward to reading an AoA article on Seth that describes what is wrong with his writings rather than what he used to do as a young man.

Jake Crosby abuses man with psychiatric disorder

21 Mar

Today at Age of Autism Jake Crosby – man who has a psychiatric disorder himself – took it upon himself to disparage a man who also has a psychiatric disorder and encourage the Age of Autism readers to do the same:

Seth Mnookin – a former drug dealer and burglar who bit a police officer…

Geez oh Peet! Offit picks the lousiest spokespeople, doesn’t he? First Amanda “don’t listen to me” Peet and now this former heroin addict.

Starting on Page 191, the DSM IV diagnoses Substance-Related Disorders:

The Substance-Related Disorders include disorders related to the taking of a drug of abuse (including alcohol), to the side effects of a medication, and to toxin exposure. In this manual, the term substance can refer to a drug of abuse, a medication, or a toxin. The substances discussed in this section are grouped into 11 classes: alcohol; amphetamine or similarly acting sympathomimetics; caffeine; cannabis; cocaine; hallucinogens; inhalants; nicotine; opioids; p hencyclidine (PCP) or similarly acting arylcyclohexylamines; and sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics. Although these 11 classes appear in alphabetical order, the follow ing classes share similar features: alcohol shares features with the sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics; and cocaine shares features with amphetamines or similarly acting sympathomimetics. Also included in this section are Polysubstance Dependence and Other or Unknown Substance-Related Disorders (which include most disorders related to medications or toxins).

What Crosby has done is no different than someone coming up to him and abusing him based on his autism. Its shameful and deeply offensive. This is the 21st Century and Crosby has taken it upon himself to ridicule and abuse a man who has the strength of character to overcome his personal demons and carve out a successful career for himself as an exemplary investigative journalist. If Age of Autism need proof of the calibre of his work they should take a look at the reviews The Panic Virus garnered and compare them to the calibre of the 5 reviews Dan Olmsted could round up for Age of Autism – The Book.

Age of Autism has revealed its truly nasty and shallow depths by abusing a man with a psychiatric disorder. Maybe they should think twice before attacking someone based solely or partly on their disorders in order to whip up negativity in their cult members and start to realise the consequences of their actions. I would wish shame on them but they’ve proven time and time again that shame and self-reflection is an alien emotion to them.

The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away

11 Feb

Who said it was? Backstory: “The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away” is a recent blog post by David Kirby at the Huffington Post. Yes, he’s come back to talk about autism and vaccines.

I say again: who says the debate is going away? The scientific debate on the main issues: thimerosal and the MMR is over. That scientific debate has been over for some time. The rising autism “rate” wasn’t caused by mercury. It wasn’t caused by MMR. Autism isn’t a “novel” form of mercury poisoning. These facts don’t stop activist groups and online discussions, or the debate elsewhere for that matter.

The debate isn’t going away, but is is morphing. From the piece by David Kirby:

There is clearly no single cause of autism, and we are not going to find answers looking only at genes, or for that matter, only at thimerosal or MMR.

David Kirby’s main contribution to the discussion was his book: Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. Mr. Kirby has been a major proponent of the mercury hypothesis since he started on that book, fed by research garnered by SafeMinds founder Lyn Redwood. The book wasn’t about “vaccines” and the autism epidemic, or “environmental causes of an autism epidemic”, it was about “mercury in vaccines and the autism epidemic”.

The debate isn’t going away, but it is getting weaker. And it’s just moving a few goalposts: Let’s play down mercury. Let’s play down MMR. It’s the “Autism-vaccine” debate, not “Mercury in vaccines and the autism epidemic”.

Mr. Kirby does in this blog post what he has done so well for the past few years. He puts the current talking points out there, nicely packaged. Here’s a good example, where he even manages to include a plug for the latest pseudo-research. It’s amazing, really:

That’s because evidence of a vaccine-autism link did not come to them via a 12-year-old study published in a British medical journal, nor from Hollywood celebrities: Not very many had heard of Wakefield until recently.

Some of these parents actually keep up with the science, including a new review of autism studies in the Journal of Immunotoxicology which concludes: “Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis following vaccination.”

Simply amazing. People haven’t heard of Wakefield, but they know about a paper that just came out yesterday in a relatively obscure medical journal? It’s product placement. Very slick. Mr. Kirby plugs this paper as though it is as natural as all the judges on “American Idol” drinking from great big red Coca Cola cups.

He also gets in the “the discussion isn’t all about Wakefield” theme that is in the current responses to the disclosure of fraud in Mr. Wakefield’s research. “Not many people had heard of Wakefield until recently.” As a side note, the obscure Mr. Wakefield appears on 30 pages of Mr. Kirby’s book, Evidence of Harm.

Let’s check whether people have heard about Mr. Wakefield. According to a recent Harris poll (one that Mr. Kirby cites, by the way):

In the new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll, 69 percent of respondents said they had heard about the autism-vaccination theory — but only half (47 percent) knew that the original Lancet study had been retracted, and that some of that research is now alleged to be fraudulent.

The question “Are you aware that the medical journal that published the paper linking vaccines to autism has now withdrawn the paper, and a published account describes the research as fraudulent?” 47% of people asked said yes.

That’s a pretty big number of people who not only (a) knew about Mr. Wakefield’s paper but also (b) knew it had been retracted and described as fraudulent. What other research paper would the public know about in such great numbers, 12 years after publication?

To state the obvious, yes, Mr. Wakefield and his research was known. Well known. It has been a big piece of the vaccines-cause-autism debate.

Here’s the table from that Harris poll question, showing that 47% of people had heard about the retraction and fraud. Even more important, take note of the fact that people who are informed about the retraction and the fraud are much less likely to believe that vaccines cause autism (click image to make big):

Yep, 65% of people who have heard about the retraction and fraud say that the vaccines-cause-autism idea is “not true”. Mr. Wakefield’s work was known and important to the vaccines-cause-autism cause.

Mr. Kirby then goes into the standard talking points of the day: only two vaccines (MMR) and one ingredient (thimerosal) have been explored for relationship to autism, followed closely by a denial that any of those studies were of any value because they are performed by people who have a “vested interest”.

Of course, “vested interests” in those promoting the vaccine hypothesis, both professional and financial (of which Andrew Wakefield is only the most prominent example) are ignored. As we quickly see as Mr. Kirby warns us that the expected SafeMinds response is on the way to the recent paper showing no link between thimerosal exposure and autism.

Mr. Kirby finishes with “The CDC estimates that there are about 760,000 Americans under 21 with an ASD. Even if just 1 percent of those cases was linked to vaccines (though I believe it is higher), that would mean 7,600 young Americans with a vaccine-associated ASD. ”

Yes, Mr. Kirby is adapting. Adapting in much the way that I have said the vaccine-causation community needs to adapt in order to stay alive. They need to abandon the “epidemic” rhetoric. Claim that if there are people with vaccine-induced autism, the number is very small, too small to be picked up by epidemiology.

Rather than really adapt, Mr. Kirby wants to play both sides of this. He wants to say, “what if the number is really small” and say that the data available show that the rise in autism prevalence is correlated with vaccines.

At the risk of being accused of “product placement” myself, I can’t help but bring up an incident discussed in the book “The Panic Virus“. I don’t have the book handy, so I apologize if I get this not 100% accurate. Seth Mnookin tells of talking to Dr. Jon Poling, father of Hannah Poling, during an AutismOne conference. While Dr. Poling is telling Mr. Mnookin that, yes, the concession in the vaccine court isn’t about causation, David Kirby is giving his talk saying exactly the opposite.

One question I know I will face soon is: why do I bring up David Kirby again? Why not move on from the vaccine debate. In the end it is because of statements like this:

In my opinion, many children with autism are toxic.

After over five years as a self-described member of the autism community, David Kirby still uses damaging language. Children are not “toxic”. Even children who have demonstrated heavy metal poisoning (which autism is not) are not “toxic”. If you touch them, you don’t get poisoned. They are “intoxicated”. But, that doesn’t read well, does it? I’ll say it again, autism is not a form of mercury poisoning. I really don’t need my kid labeled “toxic”.

I don’t know if David Kirby is “anti vaccine” or not. If you notice, I rarely use the term. I don’t care if David Kirby is anti vaccine. It isn’t the label “anti-vaccine” that matters. David Kirby is intellectually dishonest and his actions are irresponsible. On a more personal note, he puts forth an image of autism that is damaging to my kid.

Vaccines and Autism: A Story of Medicine, Science and Fear

2 Feb

Tomorrow on National Public Radio (US) The Diane Rehm Show will host a discussion of autism and vaccines: Vaccines and Autism: A Story of Medicine, Science and Fear

In 1998 a research paper was published that linked the childhood measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the onset of autism, a life long developmental disorder. Follow up studies could not replicate the findings casting doubt on its conclusions, and earlier this year it was proven that this original study was, in fact, fraudulent. But the damage was done. Childhood vaccination rates dropped resulting in outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. Funds that would have gone to new research into the causes of autism were diverted, and surveys indicate that about one in five Americans continues to believe that a childhood vaccine can trigger autism. A story of fraudulent medical research and its consequences.

Guests will be:

Seth Mnookin: Author of “Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top” and “Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media.” He is a contributing editor at “Vanity Fair” and a former senior writer for “Newsweek.”

Dr. Roberta DeBiasi: pediatric infectious diseases physician at Children’s National Medical Center

Alison Tepper Singer: Founder and President of the Autism Science Foundation, formerly Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, served on the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC.)

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.

The Panic Virus

13 Jan

Seth Mnookin’s book, the Panic Virus, debuted this week. Mr. Mnookin took a look at the vaccine scares and started a two year project of in-depth research resulting in this book. Not too surprisingly, much of his work relates to the autism-parent groups who promote the ideas of an autism epidemic caused by vaccines. Andrew Wakefield and the MMR scare also play a role.

The book is very well written. I believe I have spent more time than most on the subject and I still found a lot of new and interesting information in this book. Mr. Mnookin had great access. He interviewed David Kirby and Lyn Redwood, including a discussion of how the book Evidence of Harm came into being. He spoke repeatedly with Andrew Wakefield. He attended AutismOne. This is not a “Google Ph.D.” research effort. He got down into the trenches and he brings new information to light.

In many ways, the book is a discussion of how people come to believe and promote ideas that are false. Unfortunately for us, vaccine-rejectionists and parts of the autism communities present the best example of this behavior in modern history.

Mr. Mnookin brings an outsider’s eye to the story and comes down clear and decisive that there really is no debate on these issues, no real controversy. The science is in and it is clear.

He also takes journalists to task for being uncritical of the stories presented to them. There is likely no better example of this than how the press treated Andrew Wakefield and his studies, starting with the 1998 Lancet article. Even now we still see a lot of “he said/she said” type reporting on Mr. Wakefield which gives a false impression that the evidence and support for both sides is somewhat equal. Unfortunately, things are getting worse rather than better with time as media outlets downsize and science writers are let go.

This is from the press release:

Seth Mnookin—the New York Times-bestselling author of Feeding the Monster and Hard News (a Washington Post Book World “Best of 2004” selection)—delivers a real-life detective story that exposes what may well be the biggest health scare hoax of all time in THE PANIC VIRUS: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear (Simon & Schuster; January 11, 2011; $26.99). Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with a Harvard degree in the history of science, looks at the bogus vaccine panics—which started with a single, now totally discredited paper linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism—that have cost tens of millions of dollars and resulted in the deaths of an untold number of infants and children around the world.

Mnookin explains how dishonest researchers and snake-oil salesmen have taken advantage of desperate parents by perpetrating a fraud, and how the media—by ignoring facts and pretending that all points of view are equally valid—has through its irresponsible coverage fueled a controversy that never should have arisen in the first place. He explores how cultural relativism and insular online communities have blurred the distinction between facts and feelings to the point that the traditional American ethos of individualism has been transformed into one in which individualized notions of reality, no matter how bizarre or irrational, are repeatedly validated. In addition, he gives readers fresh and fascinating insights into the scientific process, the nature of knowledge, and the subconscious forces that drive much of our daily lives.

Why are we so willing to believe things that are false?

Mnookin’s interest in the anti-vaccine movement began in 2008, as a newly married man looking forward to having children, after a series of conversations with parents of young children regarding their anxiety about vaccines and autism. Much to his surprise, a significant number of this group of well educated professionals in New York City had decided to deviate from the recommended vaccination schedule for their children, despite the fact that there is overwhelming scientific consensus supporting vaccination on one side and quack doctors, New Age healers, and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy on the other. The subject took on even greater significance for Mnookin with the birth of his son in 2009.

After he began researching the issue and arrived at the conclusion that there was no evidence supporting a link between childhood inoculations and developmental disorders, Mnookin realized that this pseudo-controversy raised a series of broader questions that go to the heart of social dynamics and human cognition: Why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, do so many people remain adamant in their belief that vaccines are responsible for harming hundreds of thousands of otherwise healthy children? Why is the media so inclined to air their views? Why are so many others so readily convinced? Why are we so willing to believe things that are, according to all available evidence, false?

In an effort to answer those questions, Mnookin interviewed scientists and doctors, healers and mystics, government appointees and elected officials. He also spoke with dozens of parents who watched helplessly as their children withdrew behind a wall of autism. “The suffering of parents who feel unable to protect their children is almost impossible to describe – and helplessness only begins to cover the range of emotions they endured,” Mnookin writes. There was also guilt, resentment, bitterness, isolation, and anger: Surely someone or something was to blame for the ways in which their lives had been upended.

Every year, some two thousand parents of autistic children travel to Chicago for the annual conference of AutismOne, which claims to be the single largest producer of information about the disease in the world. What is paramount for these parents, as Mnookin discovered when he attended, is the sense of support and fellowship they receive. Nevertheless, the organization is relentlessly and virulently antivaccine, with one presenter claiming that vaccines are a “de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice” and calling doctors who administer vaccines the moral equivalent of “the doctors tried at Nuremberg.”

Mnookin writes: “If you assume, as I had, that human beings are fundamentally logical creatures, this obsessive preoccupation with a theory that has for all intents and purposes been disproved is hard to fathom. But when it comes to decisions around emotionally charged topics, logic often takes a back seat to what are called cognitive biases – essentially a set of unconscious mechanisms that convince us that it is our feelings about a situation and not the facts that represent the truth.” These same mechanisms – and the same rejection of the scientific method and the principles of deductive reasoning that have been the foundation of rational society and medical progress since the Enlightenment – are dangerously at work in the so-called debates about evolution and climate change, he suggests.

Brimming with vivid personalities, engaging anecdotes, authoritative science, historical sweep, and plain-English explanations, THE PANIC VIRUS is one of those rare books that entertains at the same time that it illuminates the mysteries of medicine and addresses a subject of vitally important concern to millions of parents, with life-and-death repercussions for everyone else on the planet.

Seth Mnookin on CNN “American Morning”

11 Jan

The Panic Virus, a book by Seth Mnookin came out today. Mr. Mnooking was interviewed for CNN’s “American Morning”. I agree with much of what he has to say: the “debate” is not balanced. It’s a few people vs. a ton of data and many more people. It is good that the vaccine-autism hypothesis was tested, but it is time to move on.