There has been a surge of interest recently in science denial, particularly revolving around the issue of vaccines. Last year saw the release of Michael Specter’s Denialism; in the last few months, three others have been released: Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus, Robert Goldberg’s Tabloid Medicine, and Paul Offit’s “Deadly Choices.” More about each of them after the jump.
“The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin focuses on the general topic of media-fueled science denial, using vaccines as the case study. Like Offit’s recent “Autism’s False Prophets, Mnookin details a bit of the history of the anti-vaccine movement, from the beginnings of inoculation/vaccination to present-day anti-vax crusaders.
Roger Goldberg’s Tabloid Medicine is the second book on the internet/science/denial that’s been recently released. Goldberg is more of a policy wonk, and his book reflects that background, focusing more on FDA regulation and the intersection of the drug companies and academia. Goldberg focuses on the emergence of “instant experts” in subject areas (think Jenny McCarthy et al) who have been able to grow in prominence via the Internet and other media sources. While vaccines are covered, Goldberg’s book is more broad-ranging, and spends much of its time on drug approval (not surprising, given Goldberg’s “day job” at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest).
Finally, Paul Offit’s new book, “Deadly Choices,” rounds out the trifecta. Offit is a scientist and physician, and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He’s also the author of another recent book on vaccines and autism, Autism’s False Prophets. While that book focused largely on Wakefield and other researchers who have fueled the bogus autism/vaccine controversy, “Deadly Choices” is the book among these three that spends the most time looking at the media connection to vaccine panic. While both Mnookin and Offit discuss Jenny McCarthy (as does Goldman), Offit goes further in discussing other current anti-vax notables including Dr. Oz and Bill Maher, as well as other anti-vax movement leaders dating back well over a century.
Of the three, I was pretty evenly divided over Mnookin’s “Panic Virus” and Offit’s “Deadly Choices.” Both are good picks, especially for someone who is new to this area (as Mnookin himself was prior to writing his book). Both are highly critical of the anti-vaccine groups, but take them on without seeming too “elitist” or “know-it-all.” I know for me personally, it’s difficult to write about some of these people without letting a bit of scorn and derision creep in, which you can sometimes sense in Goldberg’s book. (Understandably so, in my opinion, but still–I can see how it may be off-putting to individuals who are not versed in these areas. I was actually pretty impressed that Offit’s book managed to avoid this, even more so given the hardships he puts up with at the hands of the anti-vax community).
Both Mnookin and Offit also bring in stories of children who caught–and died from–vaccine-preventable illnesses, but it doesn’t seem tawdry or manipulative. And Mnookin notes that, as a new parent himself, he still wrestles with issues of vaccination fear and a million other anxieties, but that he’s more concerned that his son “might be one off those children for whom a given vaccine isn’t effective, or that he’ll come into contact with someone infected with Hib or measles or whooping cough before he’s old enough to have gotten all his shots.” These are sensible and, unfortunately, justifiable concerns, given the current anti-vaccine climate.
However, I felt that Goldberg’s book is quite appropriate for those of us in the trenches over the anti-science debates. While I don’t deal a lot with drug use/approval issues here, Goldberg finishes his book with his ideas about how personalized medicine can help hasten the downfall of some of these “instant experts,” by better identifying who may be at risk for more extreme side effects from certain drugs (and conversely, who will benefit from their use). He also urges scientists and medical professionals to become more involved in using the internet to our advantage, and therefore be more active in taking it back from the “instant experts.” I tend to agree.