Seth Mnookin is a stickler for accuracy. In his new book “The Panic Virus – A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear,” Mnookin discusses Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “the eldest son and namesake of the former attorney general and New York senator.” Kennedy is an environmental lawyer and a fierce critic of the use of mercury in vaccines, and Mnookin notes that a press release for the Green Our Vaccines rally “appeared to confuse Kennedy with his uncle, Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy: ‘Having Senator Kennedy as part of the supporters for the Green Our Vaccines Rally is an honor.’”
What possible purpose does this snarky observation serve? It serves to suggest that these fringe vaccine-autism types are hopelessly “confused” at the most basic level – that they can’t get anything right, even the title of the speaker at their own goofy rally, let alone the cause of autism. But wait a second – literally -- before laughing off the whole thing based on Mnookin's exposure of the Teddy-Bobby flub. Mnookin has his own Kennedy problem: Bobby Kennedy Jr. is not, as Mnookin writes, the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy. That would be Joseph P. Kennedy II. Oops.
It's an easy mistake to make -- if you don't know history (hometown history, in Mnookin's case), didn’t live through it, and never bothered to check – you'd naturally assume Bobby Jr. is the eldest son of Bobby Sr. How could he not be? The only problem is that he’s just plain not.
Now, having co-written a book myself, I’m sympathetic to the idea that some errors are going to slither in somewhere when you put more than 100,000 words on paper. You’d think, however, that if you were going to mock people for making mistakes, and use that to try to eviscerate their credibility, you’d be a little more careful out there. Especially after the voluminous corrections to Mnookin’s last book, on the Boston Red Sox, ( HERE) you’d think Mnookin or at least his editors would have fact-checked this one to death. But that would be a Bill Buckner-size error.
Just the other day a blogger in San Diego wrote about a real howler – in the book, Mnookin pegged the cost of containing a California measles outbreak at $10 million, when the real cost was $176,000.
Mnookin rushed in to fix that mistake before the blogger did, explaining in the burgeoning corrections section of his own blog (Bettelheim was not a medical doctor, Freud was not a behaviorist …) that he had multiplied the cost of each case by the number of people exposed, 839, rather than the number who actually got measles, 11. In the book, he doesn't footnote his official-sounding $10 million figure, so the reader has no way of knowing it was just Mnookin Math.
Mnookin seems to take pride in acknowledging his errors, as if doing so is kind of a red badge of intellectual courage, like Washington admitting to chopping down the cherry tree (one cherry tree, not a forest). On his blog, he writes like a detached press critic about his $10 million mistake -- headlined "Dept. of corrections: The phantom $1o million measles outbreak " -- HERE explaining, “This is a significant enough error that I wanted to draw more attention to it to make sure word got out.” Happy to help!
Speaking of significant errors (compiled by myself and others), on page 12 Mnookin says that after coming to the issue with an open mind, he concluded “there was no evidence supporting a link between childhood inoculations and developmental disorders.” What about the encephalopathy that the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act covers? Encephalopathy, or brain damage, often results in mental retardation, also known as a developmental disorder. Mnookin never points out that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has paid out over $2 billion to over 2,500 claimants for vaccine injury, including over 1,300 for brain injury.
Then there’s his feeble hold on autism’s history and his obliviousness to its implications. The 1943 paper by Leo Kanner, titled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” was a case series of eight boys and three girls. Mnookin writes, wrongly, that it was 11 boys. He says the paper was “the first to use the term ‘autism’” to describe such children; in fact, the paper never uses the term “autism.” He says Kanner’s report appeared in a publication called “Pathology.” In fact, it appeared in a journal called “The Nervous Child.” Pathology was the section heading. (That’s what you get for spending too much time on the University of Google and too little on PubMed or at the library copying the original – see photo.)
In the next footnote, Mnookin cites a Kanner paper as “Problems of Nosology and Psychodynamics in Early Childhood Autism.” In fact, the phrase was Early Infantile Autism.
Why care? Because autism is defined by its onset in infancy, the first three years of life, and because reading and retaining what Leo Kanner wrote is kind of basic if you want to mock people who disagree with you about the disorder he identified.
Mnookin asserts that vaccine “court had addressed claims for more than a dozen different purported injuries. Autism was not one of them.” Several early cases from the VICP, including the 1990 case Sorensen v. HHS, note that the claimants suffered from autism as well as other developmental delay and mental retardation.
Mnookin on the same page asserts that there were no claims of vaccine-induced autism on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System by 1999. This too is false; in fact, there were several such reports, easily searchable in the VAERS database.
Mnookin says thimerosal “was formally approved for use back in the 1940s.” That vague reference is unaccompanied by a footnote, and I’m eager to learn what formal approval he’s talking about. Citation, please.
If Mnookin weren’t so insufferably smug and derisive – insisting there “weren’t two sides” to the autism-vaccine issue and those who disagree with him should be banished from the discussion – it would be easier to let these things pass unremarked on. But reading that Bobby Kennedy Jr. is part of a “conspiracy of dunces” and that David Kirby is “spreading misinformation” and that people like us are morally and scientifically bankrupt is a bit wearing, considering the source.
In a Scientific American post mentioning Kirby, Mnookin combines all this in one tidy package, trying to make Kirby look bogus and unreliable but boomeranging himself rather badly:
“Kirby has been employing similar sleights-of-hand for years. On May 23, 2009, I heard him speak at a conference sponsored by AutismOne. … This conference was described by The New York Times as 'an anti-vaccine conference,' he said.
“Kirby's opening confused me: I'd been monitoring the Times for coverage of the conference and hadn't seen any. When he repeated his claim in a Huffington Post story, ‘Notes From the Big “Anti-Vaccine” Conference,’ I decided to dig into the archives to figure out what I had missed. To my surprise, the Times had never mentioned the organization or its conferences by name in any context. Kirby's reference, it seemed, was to a sentence that appeared in the 36th paragraph of a 41-paragraph March 17, 2009 story about the offer by one activist to pay for some Somali immigrants living in Minnesota ‘to attend an anti-vaccine conference.’”
Hey, Seth, there’s no sleight of hand here. The Times referred, though not by name, to a conference the Somalis were attending as "anti-vaccine." That conference was Autism One. I know, because the Somalis shared the stage with us that year. Thus, the Times described Autism One as "anti-vaccine."
This is pure Mnookin – hunting down some imagined “sleight-of-hand” that has no bearing on anything, counting paragraphs in a New York Times story to make his critique seem erudite and scientifically precise, muttering “Gotcha!” under his breath when he’s actually got nothing, and making David Kirby and his ilk out to be a bunch of morally and scientifically bankrupt sleight-of-handers who have no standing to talk about something as serious as autism.
You know, the kind of people who can't keep their Kennedys straight.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism