By Dan Olmsted
I’ve written a couple of times about Michael Specter’s book, “Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” One chapter makes short work of people like us, nutcases who simply refuse to bow to established scientific wisdom that all questions about a link between vaccines and autism have been “asked and answered.” You’ll probably recognize that as a Paul-Offitism, both pithy and profoundly wrong, and one of my points about Specter’s book is that – inadvertently, I’m sure – he copied a large text block straight out of Offit’s attack on the Vaccine Court decision in the Poling Case.
Specter made a few other howlers that suggested a serious lack of familiarity with the issue, a failure besetting so many who wade into these waters; in particular, he said parents were behind the decision to phase out thimerosal from childhood vaccines in 1999. Actually, that was the government’s doing, with no parental pressure whatsoever. Yet Specter takes off in high dudgeon after folks like Jenny McCarthy, whom he deplores for using her growing prominence to “preach her message of scientific illiteracy and fear.” I’m afraid it’s not Jenny from Playboy who’s scientifically illiterate on this topic – it’s Michael from the New Yorker. Strange but true.
Many fine minds have been destroyed, and backs and shoulders put into painful positions, by leaning over piles of documents, looking for studies you were certain appeared in the International Journal of Toxicology -- or was it Pediatrics? Just to add to the merriment, my Word for Mac program started putting the footnotes in Roman Numerals. I’ve got to find some button to push somewhere because I can’t decipher dcxxxix.
I also pointed out that Specter’s book, published October 29, did not contain footnotes. Of course, some books don’t need them, but a work like this that turns solely on who’s right and who's quacky – on the truth and nothing but the truth -- needs ‘em bigtime. No argument from Specter there – on the book’s Web site, he posted a link, “View Footnotes,” at the top of the home page. When I clicked there back when I started badgering him, it said “Footnotes coming soon.” (HERE)
Hey, guess what, it still does! Let me tell you, being in the final stages myself of a book on autism co-written with Mark Blaxill, footnotes are a pain. At the moment, our book has 707 of them, and as we’ve gone over it we’ve see the need for a few more, not less. I had to learn all kinds of stuff I’d rather not know – things like “author, article in quotes, journal title in italics, year;number-issue:page numbers.” And is it an Ibid, an Op Cit or an Et Al? And how many authors before you get to Al? And is the period after the et or the al or the op or the cit? Or all? Ad infinitum.
But footnotes are stubborn things, too. They take time, and they make you revisit material you may have last seen months before. They’re sort of a built-in fact-checking mechanism. I can’t believe how many times I dropped or misplaced a word or two in a long quotation, or didn’t get the affiliation right or even mangled things worse than that. Going back over everything, word by word, fact by fact, is a very useful discipline.
So now my back aches in a new place and I’ve gone mad, but readers will have what they need to judge our arguments based on the same evidence we've used to develop them. This, if I follow the idea correctly, is the foundation of scientific literacy.
Looking forward to those footnotes, Michael.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.