Panic Virus author Seth Mnookin blatantly lied about me on his blog this week. He said I chastised him “for ignoring the evidence that vaccines cause autism and repeatedly cited Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 …study in The Lancet as proof.” I never cited that paper as proof that vaccines cause autism. He confused his industry talking points with reality.
I met Seth Mnookin at the World Science Festival on June 2nd in New York City. My conversation with the vaccine industry’s trendy new spokesman occurred after watching him engage in a moderated panel discussion with four other journalists, in a theater full of science writers avidly taking notes. There was no opportunity to ask questions.
After the session ended, I walked up to Mnookin and the first thing I heard was him admitting to another person that he’s “sloppy” and that he even has to keep a whole corrections page on his website – as if, as our editor Dan Olmsted said, it’s a “badge of honor.”
I stood by patiently waiting for the right moment to introduce myself and hopefully engage him in conversation. My plans quickly shifted when I overheard him say Dr. Andrew Wakefield “faked his data.” At that point I knew I had to speak up:
“He did not fake his data.”
“What?” he replied, as if he was talking to a disembodied voice even though I was standing next to him.
“He did not fake his data,” I repeated.
“Yes, he did,” he responded.
“No, he didn’t,” I said back.
“I’m not gonna argue this with you!” he shouted. He seemed to be on the verge of losing it. For a person who had jumped into a controversy as heated as this and claimed to be a proponent of open-dialogue, he sure did not like being challenged.
I tried to explain to him the process by which diagnoses of bowel disease are made at the Royal Free that Dr. Wakefield described in his Brandeis lecture:
A routine pathologist, not necessarily an expert on bowel disease, checks the samples, and – not being an expert – notes whether or not he sees any peculiarities. His reports are then followed up by an expert team, which reviews the findings. After that the expert pathologist gives the biopsies a further look and then makes the final evaluation on a scale of severity.
Just when I was about to explain how Brian Deer was the one to commit fraud by claiming that the routine pathologist’s report was altered by Dr. Wakefield rather than replaced by that of the expert pathologist, Mnookin interrupted me with another zinger.
“Parents said Dr. Wakefield faked his data.”
I told him this wasn’t true. He told me that it was written that it was true. I told him the only person who had written this was Brian Deer.
At that point, a woman he was with cut me off to ask, “Who are you affiliated with?”
I replied that I was a contributing editor to Age of Autism, and continued with what I was saying.
At that point, he asked, “You’re Jake, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Seth,” he said back, as if I didn’t know who he was.
I apologized for not introducing myself and continued. I said Brian Deer created the story he later reported - first complaining to the GMC and then writing about the GMC case against Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues. I pointed out that Deer insisted he did not complain to the GMC even though a UK High Court Judge said he had.
What did Seth Mnookin say to all this?
“I respect that.”
Throughout our discussion, that was pretty much his default line whenever he was confronted with a point he couldn’t refute.
He then changed the subject, bantering about how it was not just Brian Deer against Dr. Wakefield, but the whole medical and scientific consensus.
I made the point to him that a researcher the “consensus” was heavily dependent on, Dr. Poul Thorsen, now stands indicted on fraud. I added that the IOM Report of 2004 – the so-called scientific “consensus” – relies on the pretense of Thorsen’s reports as the main support for its preconceived findings.
Mnookin then tried to play down Thorsen’s role, saying that if a researcher is not the first or lead author, or last or senior author, then his role is not significant. I responded by quoting Thorsen’s answer to a question about his role on the research he was working on, in which he responded, “I was, and still am, principal investigator on CDC projects at that time.”
Mnookin simply repeated that the order in which Thorsen’s name was listed on the papers meant he did not play a significant role. I then cited an email sent among CDC officials in 2000 that clearly spelled out that the Danish vaccine-autism project was Thorsen’s brainchild.
I further stated that Thorsen’s 2002 NEJM study actually showed a 45% increased risk for autism with MMR vaccination, and that spurious adjustment for age eliminated the risk. Since vaccination determined not only if someone develops autism, but when, eliminating age of onset eliminates the appearance of causality which is exactly what Thorsen’s paper did.
His big response?
“Well, you and I have a different take on the statistics.”
His response suggested he had not even read the study or even knew it existed. His response to my next comment showed his ignorance all the more when I then added that the one study he cited that looked at “millions of children” was a Merck-funded Finnish study that restricted its analysis to hospitalizations even though nearly all children with autism are diagnosed outside of hospital settings.
He said it was not just that study, it was “dozens.”
“Like, which ones?”
“Dozens and DOZENS of studies.”
It was interesting how throughout our talk, I specifically cited two of the “dozens and dozens” of studies he was presumably relying on, yet he had cited none himself.
His apparent ignorance only deepened when out of the blue, he told me:
“I wouldn’t cite the Geiers’ study.”
The Geiers’ “study?” All it takes is a quick pubmed search to see that the Geiers produced far more than just one study.
“The Geiers produced dozens of studies,” I told him.
“I wouldn’t cite any of them.”
And yet, he couldn’t cite any of the studies he was relying on, except to say there were dozens and dozens of them as if that makes them right. Yet he dismissed the dozens and dozens of studies the Geiers produced even though he didn’t say what was wrong with any of them.
Since he was clearly losing on the scientific front, he turned to the hypothetical. “What study would convince you that there is no link?”
I replied that that is the wrong question to ask because science is about discovery and finding answers, not convincing people of a particular opinion. I added, “A report that aims for the latter is tobacco science.”
He agreed that science is about discovery and not about convincing people.
I also brought up his statement from the panel discussion that Wakefield patented a rival measles vaccine to compete with MMR. He denied saying that it was a vaccine to compete with MMR. I told him that was what he had said onstage.
I then explained to him that the patent application was for a treatment, and not a vaccine that could potentially replace the MMR or any other vaccine on the childhood vaccination schedule in the UK.
So he asked me, “Well, if evidence emerged that MMR was unsafe, would it bolster sales of the product?”
“Well…no,” I responded, “because…”
And he cut me off, “I know what you mean.”
I also quoted Brian Deer of all people who wrote that Andrew Wakefield was under no professional or legal obligation to disclose that patent.
“Okay, I respect that,” he said.
At several points during our conversation, he tried changing the subject:
“You are very smart. You know more about this issue than 99% of people.”
If I was stating mistruths or misinterpreting data, then how could I be so knowledgeable?
He talked about how we both see common ground in the fact that there aren’t enough services for autistic people, which was quite comical. He certainly wasn’t talking about services during the panel discussion. I told him that it has nothing to do with what he was talking about at the event.
Trying hard to win me over, he even said that the medical establishment has, as a whole, not been good to the autism community, that they do not have our best interests and have been working against us.
I was going to ask him why, given that statement, he regards the medical authorities as being in any way credible on the issue of vaccines and autism, but he cut me off.
He continued about how I’m not going to convince him of my views and he won’t convince me of his, then he put out his hand, which I felt was merely the pinnacle of his suck-up ploy.
“So you aren’t gonna shake my hand, now? C’mon!”
Despite my hesitation, I shook his hand.
I told him that I did not come to the festival to convince him of anything, nor was I expecting to. However, I did tell him that as long as he said things that were incorrect in the public sphere, I will continue to correct him – off-stage if not on.
As we parted ways, I patted him on the shoulder saying:
“Say hi to your Uncle Bob for me.”
He didn’t appreciate the reference to my earlier article. About to exit the room, I worried that my touching him could be interpreted the wrong way in light of Paul Offit’s death threat hysterics. So I ran back up to him and clarified.
“I didn’t mean that as a death threat!”
“I know! I know!” – he assured me.
That night, a documentary ran on TV about the infamous Turkish Airlines Flight 981 – a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that crashed and burned in the forests of northern France, killing all 346 passengers and crew onboard. The cause was a design defect on the airplane allowing the luggage compartment door to fly off in the middle of flight, depressurizing the inside of the plane, causing the floor to collapse and knock out the plane’s internal controls, sending it into a downward descent of doom.
Even though McDonnell Douglas knew of the problem four years in advance, the company did nothing to fix it until this awful tragedy and managed to avoid prior scrutiny by striking a “gentleman’s agreement” with the FAA. History seems to be repeating itself with autism, only much, much worse.
Despite the fact that Seth Mnookin couldn’t defend any of his claims – and even conceded that I was right on a number of points – our conversation did not seem to have changed his stance in any way as he told me it wouldn’t. And yet, my conversation with him was perhaps far more fruitful then calling up the World Science Festival in advance since its chief sponsor was the Simons Foundation.
According to gurufocus.com, the top five financial holdings of Jim Simons – a billionaire hedge fund manager who personally determines the autism research initiatives of the Simons Foundation – includes both Johnson & Johnson(#1) and Eli Lilly(#5). The Simons Foundation website even lauded the work of Poul Thorsen after he was indicted on fraud, claiming his team had used “meticulous records” in showing “that vaccines do not cause autism.”
Meanwhile, Seth Mnookin has fall speaking engagements booked in Pennsylvania, Florida and Oregon. (HERE) We owe him many more visits.
He was, after all, quoted by Scientific American as saying:
"I am frustrated by how little I am able to have productive interactions with people who disagree with me."
Jake Crosby is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy and a contributing editor to Age of Autism. In August, he will attend The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he will study for an MPH in epidemiology.