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The Panic Virus

Posted Jan 12 2011 8:06pm

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.

  1. brian:
    I just finished the section on Morgellons syndrome, in which Mnookin describes how people who were convinced that fibers were growing out of their eyeballs -- which is, as Mnookin notes, "a condition that doctors and scientists overwhelmingly agree doesn't exist" -- were aided and abetted by credulous journalists in their successful effort to convince the government to fund a multi-million dollar research effort to investigate the imaginary condition. Yes, that is in the context of an attempt to understand why people believe such things as that (as Wakefield wrote in September, 2000) “the widespread use of MMR immunization is a major determinant of the apparent (now substantiated) increase in rates of autism.” [Pediatrics 2001;107;e84] The next chapter: "Enter Andrew Wakefield."
  2. Alison Singer:
    Love this book. Just wish instead of calling the chapter on the Geiers "Geier Geier, Witness for Hire" he had called it "Geier Geier Pants on Fire".
  3. Kev:
    I'm doing on interview with the author as we speak which I hope to have up on LBRB soon :)
  4. Sullivan:
    Dang--I had plans for that...but I never put my questions into an email.
  5. Kev:
    Oops sorry Sully :s I guess we really should talk to each other about these things lol

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