The Irrationality Vaccine – Seth Mnookin

January 14, 2011

Recently the British Medical Journal dealt yet another blow to 1998 scientific study that first terrified the public about the possibility that vaccines might cause autism. The paper, the Journal alleged, was nothing less than “fraudulent.”

Amazingly, however, no one expects anti-vaccine advocates to retract, change their minds, or cease their activities. Which raises the question: How did they grow so strongly and doggedly convinced to begin with?

That’s where Seth Mnookin’s new book The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear comes in. It tells the page turning story behind the thoroughly refuted-but still devoutly believed—claim of a link between vaccines and autism. The book explores not only the science, but also the parents involved, the autism advocacy and support community, and the crucial role of the media, the Internet, and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy in spreading misinformation about vaccines.

Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and was previously a senior writer at Newsweek. He’s the author of two previous books: Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media and the bestselling Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, about the Boston Red Sox. The Panic Virus is his third book.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 14th, 2011. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney Puttnam Inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Seth Mnookin, author of the new book The Panic Virus A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear. It tells the page turning story behind the thoroughly refuted but still devoutly believed claim that there’s a link between vaccines and autism. Munchkins work couldn’t be more timely right now. The British Medical Journal has just dealt yet another blow to the 1998 scientific study that started the whole vaccine autism scare. And you probably heard about this in the media. But the question still remains. Why do people believe this stuff? That’s where reading Manu Guinn’s book was so helpful to me. And I think we’ll be to our listeners. Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and was previously a senior writer at Newsweek. He’s the author of two prior books, Hard News The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media and the bestselling Feeding the Monster How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, which was about the Boston Red Sox. 

Seth Mnookin, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks, Chris. It’s great to great to be here. 

Glad to have you. And I have to say, I don’t know anyone whose first three books are more diverse in topic than yours. Your first was about scandals at The New York Times. Your second was about the Boston Red Sox, both extremely worthy topics, but not really science topics. And then your third is about vaccines. What drew you in that direction? 

Well, in some ways, this book is more on par with or lines up better with what my background is. 

At least from college. I studied the history of science and first my media reporting started out almost by accident. And then the book on the Red Sox definitely started out by accident. I was initially just trying to get an assignment so I could get tickets to the to the playoffs, and that turned into two a year and a half project. And what initially drew me to this is I’ve always read science journals as as a hobby, which I guess out me as a major geek. But. And I started noticing a couple of years ago that this was coming up a lot, both in journals, not so much in studies or more commentaries, because a lot of the studies had already been done. And in the popular press, particularly in regards to Jenny McCarthy and among my friends, a lot of whom were either new parents or about to be parents. And what struck me was that here was this topic about which there was such an incredibly stark difference of opinion. And it seemed to me that there had to be the evidence had to really be on one side or another because that the two sides didn’t have any real points of overlap. So that’s what initially drew me to it. And at the time, I did not have any real sense of what a controversial and emotional issue it actually is. 

Well, reading science journals for fun doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the extremism of the vaccine autism debate, but you go on to tell the story of those who wrongly believe the vaccines cause autism. But this is not the first time vaccines have been targeted and distrusted for some reason or another. It happened long before we had such an intense focus on autism in our society as we do now. History repeats itself and you tell some of the history. Can you run us through that? 

Well, really, there it’s been a cyclical thing almost since the 18th century when Edward Jenner first or at least gets credit for. For coming up with a smallpox vaccine. And what you see again and again is when there’s a disease that that is endemic in a population, you don’t have a lot of people questioning vaccines because you either have people dying or people getting very ill. And it’s obvious that there are very clear benefits to vaccination. Then the more effective a given vaccine is and the more a disease starts to recede into the background, you start to get this backlash and it’s oftentimes tied up with different social trends or social pressures that are going on at the time. So in the mid 19th century, you had a backlash against vaccines, particularly in the UK, that was focused on these poor laws that mandated vaccination for people and was particularly felt particularly injurious to two to a lot of the work in an underclass. And in fact, that’s in large part why in the UK today, there are not mandatory school age vaccination laws like there are in the U.S. in the 20th century. It has tended to be more tied or or at least more kind of sparked by some sort of media flare up. You get a lot of media attention for one reason or another, and that taps into people’s fears and concerns about a number of other issues. And you’ve. Had that especially over the last 30 years, you had that first with it with a TV special that aired initially in Washington, D.C. and then more nationally about that, the supposed dangers of the DPD vaccine, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccine that really, more than anything else, sparked the modern day anti vaccine movement. And then at the beginning and in 1998 and ’99 and 2000, you had the media jumping on reports that either the MMR vaccine or this preservative called the Mirasol was causing developmental disorders, even though there was really no evidence to support that. And once it appeared in the press, it kind of took on a life of its own. 

Right. And so in some ways, the fact that you’ve done media criticism before adequately equips you to tackle something like this, even though it is a scientific topic, because it does seem cyclical, not only that people distrust vaccines, but that the media in the modern period seems to spark this distrust. So then you as a writer, it seems to me you approach this story, kind of visit a sort of opinionated storyteller. Why was that the angle you took? 

Well, initially, when I when I set out when I initially started, one of my goals was almost all of the books that I saw out there really were written from one perspective or another. You know, you had books like Jenny McCarthy’s that were very clearly anti vaccine. And then you had books like written by Paul Offit, who’s a who’s a brilliant bacteriologists and a pediatrician. And I think because he comes from an obvious perspective, people who are coming into the issue really not knowing what to think. And without sort of the time to research this, would look at this and say, well, you know, the media is not giving me any insight. There are these two sides. What do I do? So my initial goal was to sort of tackle it as here I am. I’m someone who actually can spend two years looking into this. And, you know, I’m not a pediatrician. No one in my family works for a drug company. 

No one close to me is directly affected by autism. So my goal is to kind of write a book that people could look at and say, okay, well, I can trust this because I understand where it’s coming from. The more I got into it, obviously, the more I really felt very strongly that the evidence wholly supported vaccine safety. The fact that vaccines do not cause these developmental disorders and because right now they’re very obviously severe implications and repercussions. You have whooping cough making a resurgence. There’ve been HIB outbreaks in some parts of the country. It was a subject I became sort of increasingly passionate about as I was going through the writing. 

And I want to remind our listeners that Seth Mnookin is new book. The Panic Virus is available through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. One of the most frustrating things for people who care about science. 

Reading this story, reading these stories about vaccine resistance is it feels like you just can’t win. It feels like there’s a pattern and science always loses. The anti vaccine activists and a few sympathetic scientists, they always have a few. They raise concerns that are not really plausible, particularly plausible, but they draw this thing uncritical media attention. And so then the medical and public health communities respond with a lot of studies that refute the concerns. But that takes much longer to accomplish. And they get much less attention for doing so. 

Well, I think another big problem really is a kind of fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to do science. You know, what you hear in relation to vaccines a lot is, well, you can’t prove to me that vaccines will always be safe or that vaccines never do X or Y or Z. And the reason you can’t do that is because it’s impossible to do that in any situation. You can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove that tomorrow I won’t wake up and be able to fly. All you can do is say throughout history, we haven’t seen an example of a human being suddenly being able to jump off a roof and fly. So we’re reasonably confident that that will continue to be the case. You know, when you get a two minute face off on TV or, you know, a 400 word story in the newspaper, you have one side, the the anti vaccine side who is stating with absolute certainty that vaccines are dangerous and that they they cause these different disorders. And then you have scientists who are trained not to ever make statements like that. So for the public, I think. A lot of times they hear that. And it certainly does not reassure them at all. Again, I think that’s partially the problem of or the fault of the media, because they have the media. We have a responsibility and those type of situations to actually make sure that the reader, the viewer, the listener understands the reality of the situation and kind of throwing up your hands and saying on the one hand, on the other hand, really, it does not it doesn’t fulfill the press’s obligations. And I think you see that throughout discourse today. You know, you see that in the coverage of whether or not Obama was born and the United States. That’s not up for debate. He was born in the United States. There’s a birth certificate. And yet you have you had TV shows. You had Lou Dobbs. You had Fox News presenting that as if it was you know, on the one hand, Obama says he was born in the United States. On the other hand, X, Y and Z. People say that he wasn’t. And I think it’s very painful to frame it like that. That’s not a two-handed situation. 

And that’s why I think your book is really important, is because it doesn’t end up being just about the autism story, because we have this whole problem with the truth in general. And I want to get to that more. But, you know, I think we agree completely. The media dropped the ball. What’s interesting, though, is that there are other responsible sectors of our society that pay more attention to science. And I hear him thinking about the courts. And in that way, the story is all about vaccines is kind of similar to the story of evolution, where eventually you get all this misinformation. Eventually a judge steps in and says, all right, we’re going to actually look at this in a deliberative fashion. And then the science actually wins. And that’s what happened with the vaccine story as well. 


I mean, it really was you know, the vaccine court ruled there was a series of rulings in 2009 and then another series in 2010 on these omnibus cases brought by thousands of families with children with autism, with the claim that they had to at least partially been caused by vaccines. And you had these federal judges who just went through a mind boggling amount of research and testimony. I eventually read all of the trial transcripts and all of the rulings, which was close to 10000 pages. And I did not read all of the different exhibits that were entered into evidence. And I really found their explanation and their logic and their reasoning so powerful and so persuasive because they went through every single piece of evidence, discussed why they found it more or less trustworthy, and then ended up saying this is not a close case. This is not a situation in which there is some dispute. This is an absolute knockout. Unfortunately, even in the coverage of that and in some cases, you had people and reporters, newspapers saying, well, here are what these judges ruled. However, this parent still believes that vaccines are the cause of their child’s autism. And, you know, the added issue there is it’s it’s very powerful. It’s a very powerful narrative to present a family that’s been affected in that way and that’s dealing with that type of difficulty in their own families. So you get a federal ruling on the one hand and a personal story from a family on the other. And a lot of times the personal story ends up pointing out. I do think that in the last several years, and especially beginning with the omnibus rulings and then with a ruling in the UK against a doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who precipitated the MMR scare in 1998 with those series of verdicts, I think the press has started to report on this issue more accurately and has stopped for the most part, has stopped treating this as a dispute in which no one really knows what what the actual situation is. A lot of the reporters who have done that get an enormous amount of abuse. But you do see that happening more and more. 

Well, vaccine denial is interesting to me for many reasons, because, of course, people will change their minds after this happens. That’s the other problem. Right. And we’ll talk more about it. But one is it’s now become or is cited as sort of the leading instance of an anti science movement in America. That’s not right wing. Rather, it’s apparently located somewhere on the political left. I don’t know if I would call it, quote, liberal. It’s certainly anti corporate and it’s certainly clustered in left leaning coastal cities and university town. I don’t know about Democratic politicians who benefit in some way by supporting you. What do you think? How does this align politically? 

I think that you’re at you’re absolutely correct. Someone once said to me, and it was both sort of witty statement and an accurate statement, that if you want to get a sense of where there’s anti vaccine sentiment in the country and pockets of under vaccinated communities, the best thing to do is take a map, look where there are Whole Foods and draw a circle around those places. It tends to be an issue for more affluent, better educated, more politically liberal people. And I think that it ties into a sort of distrust of government in some regards and natural foods, environmental movement, a lot of different strands sort of come together along with this sense that in some ways thinking something and it being true are really the same thing. And of course, they’re they’re not the same thing. So, you know, you brought out power there. There are a lot of right wing instances of this. And you wrote a book about about that, the Republican War on Science and what’s so you know, one of the things that’s so interesting about this is the very same people who look down their noses and absolutely deride and mock those who choose not to believe in evolution or deny the evidence in support of global warming. A lot of those same people are the people who then turn around and say, I just don’t trust that the scientists and doctors who tell me that that vaccines are safe. So you have a very interesting dynamic. And for me, I definitely you know, I found that very instructive because it made me rethink my assumptions both about myself and my peers and how I view the world and areas in which I may assume that I’m going by by reason and facts. But I actually need to take a little bit of a closer look at things. 

And we we can all have blind spots. And this is interesting because I think it is the case that scientists in general are probably more politically liberal, but they definitely will not follow whatever, you know, left impulse. It is down the road that leads to vaccine skepticism, says a big rift there. I mean, I think that people who are really part of the scientific community are consistent on these topics. 

I would definitely agree with that. It’s not the scientific community that that Ali said that I found or noticed. It’s much more a community that if you asked them, would I debt would self-identified themselves as being pro science and would self identify themselves as being pro reason and pro rationality. And yet about this subject. There’s this sort of blind spot. And I think, you know, one of the things that makes that perspective so irresponsible in this instance is that vaccines are something that has a ripple effect. If you choose not to vaccinate and you then contribute to a decline in herd immunity, you’re putting other people at risk. And I contrast that to an instance in which my own personal behavior does not necessarily align with where the evidence finds up. And that’s an acupuncture. I’ve gone to see acupuncturist. I’m sure I will again in the future. There’s lots of evidence, or at least there is not a lot of evidence in favor of acupuncture been definitively effective or helpful in any regard. But I sort of view that as if I’m willing to waste 50 bucks every now and then on that. That’s my decision. And that’s fine. It’s a little bit different. If somehow my decision to occasionally get acupuncture meant that other people were were then being put at risk, it’s actually kind of more vaccine. 

The Nile is more like smoking, where not only do you deny the science, but you take a couple of puffs and then you blow them in a baby’s face or something like that. 


And I think over the past five years, there’ve been a number of really tragic instances in which we’ve seen how that analogy is not all that far off. I mean, there is a girl in Minnesota a couple of years ago named Juliana Metcalf, who was fully vaccinated. And as it turned out, she, for whatever reason, Hib vaccine was not effective in her. She got Hib was in intensive care for an enormous amount of time and still gets constant cognitive and physical therapy and likely will for the rest of her life. There are in this year alone or. Now, last year alone in 2010, 10 infants in California died of whooping cough. Nine of them were too young to have gotten a first dose of the protests vaccine. So this is really, you know, it it’s not the type of thing where you can say, well, this is just my personal choice and I should be able to do whatever I want. At the very least, they think people need to be honest with themselves about what the consequences of their actions are. 

Owner remind our listeners again that Seth Mnookin is new book. The Panic Virus is available through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. You tell in the book a lot of stories about parents on both sides of the issue. In the end, this is a story about people and you have two aggrieved sets of characters. Parents on both sides, both in a way, are damaged. Let’s let’s talk about the ones who believe this wrong and potentially this dangerous thing that their kids were poisoned by a vaccine. You try to paint them pretty sympathetically in some ways. You talk about how isolated you feel as the parent of an autistic child. 

Yes, I mean, absolutely. I think that there is one of the huge issues and not just related to autism, but related to developmental disabilities and health care generally, is that there is a real institutional lack of support on a number of different levels. And there’s a lack of sort of preparation for parents as to what to expect, where they might be able to get some help or some support. 

So for a number of different reasons in this instance, you’ve had the community that sort of support community coalesce around anti vaccine sentiment. From my perspective, that was almost incidental. I mean, it could have been any number of other things. But at the moment, that’s where it ended up happening. And so, you know, and this is this is something that people have certainly criticized me for. And I’ve been accused of not being understanding in this regard. But I really think that a lot of parents are being taken advantage of by people who have a product to sell or their own personal motivations or for promoting this anti vaccine sort of theories. So, yeah, I mean, I’m incredibly sympathetic to parents who are personally affected by this and have various beliefs. And I’m not you know, I don’t claim to be able to predict what my reaction would be if my child was dealing with something like this. I think that, you know, asking someone to act entirely rationally when it comes to their child is is is is a tall order and sort of goes against how wired in many regards. So I don’t have a child that is in this type of situation. So I felt like I could look at it hopefully more dispassionately. But, you know, I would never say that if I was in that situation, I can predict how how I would react. 

Well, you’re I think you are. You do come off as pretty sympathetic to what they’re dealing with. But at the same time, you go into a fair amount of detail about sort of the intellectual pathologies that are exhibited by vaccine deniers. And it’s not like other kinds of deniers don’t exhibit the same ones. It’s pretty textbook. What are the ones that you think are the most important? 

Well, you know, in this instance, one of the things that you see all the time and that’s so frustrating is a sense of a constantly moving target or constantly moving goalposts. So, you know, you have a claim that by Marisol, there’s mercury preservative that that had been in childhood vaccinations at the end of the 20th century have since been removed. You have a claim that that causes autism or developmental disorders. So now that it’s been a decade since then, Marisol has been in vaccines. Now it’s X or Y or Z new thing, or now it’s the number of vaccines that children are given at some point or now it’s a certain subset of unidentifiable children. It’s so small that we can never figure out who they are who are uniquely susceptible to being vaccine damaged. So, you know, there’s it’s clear once you’ve been through this enough that there’s no way that you’re ever going to satisfy people who are utterly convinced of this. You also have and I think you see this a lot with all sorts of conspiracy theories. You have a huge devotion to a number, a small number of researchers who support this. Simultaneous to an absolute denial of the validity of exponentially more researchers on the other side. And you have an almost complete blindness to the shortcomings of the researchers that support your position. There are conflicts of interest. The problems with their evidence. So it becomes very clear when you start to to look at this that it’s not a kind of a winnable argument or unwinnable discussion with the sort of true believers. I think it’s it’s the rest of the population that hopefully there can be a conversation with a sort of more national conversation where there eventually will be a greater understanding of the scientific reality of this issue. And the reason why it’s so important. 

Yeah, and the question is, though, I mean, will there be one? Because that is the biggest question that the book raises. You know, and that’s why I think the book is important for the present moment. I’m just going to quote you. You say, Cognitive relativism or truthiness, as fictional talk show host Stephen Colbert termed it, has become the defining intellectual trend of our time. And then you go on to say that we live in a world with, quote, increasingly porous boundaries between facts and beliefs, a world in which individualized notions of reality, no matter how bizarre and irrational, are repeatedly validated. Are we ever going to change their minds? Are we ever going to get the media to take a stand? 

I think probably the answer to the first question is, you know, are we ever going to change their minds or are the people who have already definitively decided? I think it’s unlikely that the vast majority of them will change their minds. I think there’s some more positive signs in relation to whether the media will will have a different type of conversation, and we’ll cover this in a different way. And I also think that you’re increasingly seen sort of ground level troops, you know, pediatricians, personal doctors, public health officials on a local level who realize that this is a communication problem and are either putting together informational pamphlets. I know a lot of pediatricians offices where I live are holding what they call vaccine education seminars where parents can come in, you know, one evening, ask questions, meet with doctors in a way that they couldn’t during their normal 15 minute regularly scheduled appointment. So I think that, you know, it’s taken a while. But the converse there, there are positive signs, certainly that that the conversation with the vast majority of the public that that isn’t invested in this in one way or another, that that conversation is is starting to happen on a more realistic and rational level. 

Okay. Well, so then I guess if I can ask you one last question. I think what you’re suggesting, if I could just clarify it, it’s it’s not that we can somehow vaccinate ourselves against a delusion for some part of the population. It’s rather that we need performance enhancement for the part of the population that still actually amenable to getting good information. 

Well, I mean, or even to take that analogy one step further. You know, what we need is a large enough percentage of the population to be willing to understand and research the issue and rely on reasoned evidence that you’ve got to kind of herd immunity if there are a very small number of global warming deniers and the vast majority of people accept and understand the evidence, then the net result of that is going to be that as a country, as a society legislatively, you’re going to have actions that address the issue of global warming. I think it’s the same in regards to vaccines. If you have enough people who understand the reality of the situation, their actions are going to cumulatively have an effect that essentially negates the small number of people who don’t believe in where the evidence and where the research lies. 

Well, we need. Yes, we herd immunity to protect our critical thinking faculties against Ray Rice, who was actually who would erode them. So on that note. Thank you, Seth Mnookin, for strengthening the hurt of reason. It’s been a pleasure to have you on point of inquiry. 

Thank you very much. It was great. It was great. Great shock to you. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Seth Mnookin new book, The Panic Virus, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Torg. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney