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Seth Mnookin blatantly lied about me again, this time at a public conference run by an organization that is chaired by a Merck vaccines executive. In short, I asked Mnookin a question during the Q/A period; he stopped me, accused me of disrupting the event, and falsely stated I had disrupted past events of his, whereupon security escorted me out.
It all happened on December 2, 2011 – my 23rd birthday – when I attended the “Research Ethics Book Group Lunch and Book Signing,” at the annual “Advancing Ethical Research Conference,” held by “Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research” (PRIMR).
The book being discussed was “Panic Virus,” by Seth Mnookin, who fielded questions from the audience. He was originally scheduled to be physically present, but his daughter was born three weeks early the day before, so he held the discussion via Skype. The conference was listed under the “current speaking schedule” on his personal website.
When signing up in advance online, I was told the event was already full, so my name was placed on the waitlist. Nonetheless, enough people who successfully registered for the event did not show up, and I was allowed in without a registration badge after giving my name, saying that I was on the waitlist and also saying I was covering the event for a major autism news website. I was even told I could sit down at one of the tables and help myself to lunch.
In the lead up to the question and answer session, a sheet labeled “Questions for discussion” was handed out to all audience members, filled with some of the most loaded questions I’ve ever seen, one of which read:
According to Mnookin, Andrew Wakefield and the other players in the movement to link vaccines and autism succeeded in convincing so many people, despite overwhelming scientific evidence against such a link, because they played to the desperation and frustration of parents of autistic children. How, according to Mnookin, did the desperation and frustration of parents also allow Wakefield and other clinicians who “treated” autistic children – with multiple endoscopies and the like – to shield themselves from charges that they were engaged in bad science and unethical behavior?
Surprisingly, the conversations by some of the folks at my table seemed to run counter to the overarching message of the event. I overheard one person saying he always rejects flu shots. Another person remarked that if Seth Mnookin is so sure vaccines do not cause autism; he must have some alternate reason for the skyrocketing rate of the disorder. Except that he doesn’t.
Eventually, the screen at the conference turned on and up came Seth Mnookin’s face. He couldn’t see us; he could only hear us, but we could see and hear him. As soon as questions rolled around, I raised my hand, was called upon and got up to the microphone to ask the first question.
“Hi - Jake Crosby - congratulations,” I said, regarding his newborn daughter. I then proceeded to ask my question:
“With regard to Dr. Andrew Wakefield, given the new advancements within the past month, with Dr. David Lewis…”
Then – all of a sudden – the screen went black. The moderator said that we lost connection. Audience members then told me to switch microphones in case the one I was using didn’t work either.
Eventually, the audio returned. The moderator asked, “Seth, are you there?”
“Yes,” he said, “The last words I picked up were ‘given these new advancements…’” Then his face reappeared.
I later realized he probably disappeared from view in order to make a phone call. I then proceeded to ask how he can continue to accuse Dr. Wakefield of unethical research and bad science given the ongoing investigation by Dr. David Lewis – professional scientist with the National Whistleblower Center – who exonerated Wakefield of the pathology fraud allegations made by BMJ earlier this year, and stated the pathology results were consistent with what was in the Lancet paper, and also given that the expert pathologist – Dr. Amar Dhillon – defended the results in a letter to the BMJ. But as I was finishing up, he cut me off.
“Okay, Jake, I’m going to stop you right there.”
“I just want to know how you can continue to accuse Dr. Wakefield of this.”
“We’ve talked before at my other events you’ve been to, and you’ve been into interrupting and disrupting.”
“I haven’t been disrupting; I was just asking a question.” (At the only event of Mnookin’s that I attended before this one, I conversed with him afterwards. He even shook my hand – hardly a “disruption” of his “events.” But then again, accuracy is not Mnookin’s strong suit as he readily admits.)
“I never mentioned Andrew Wakefield in my plenary address,” he claimed, even though Dr. Andrew Wakefield was mentioned several times in the questions for discussion given out at the event.
During this exchange, I overheard some snickers from a few audience members. Then a woman came up to me, grabbed the microphone, aimed it down at the floor so I couldn’t speak into it and asked, “Can I see your badge, please?”
“You’re going to have to leave!”
I repeated what I told her, but it was no use. Apparently, you can’t ask Seth Mnookin a challenging question without a badge.
While she was escorting me out, Seth Mnookin proceeded to answer my question that he had just labeled disruptive of his event. I could make out bits and pieces of what he was saying:
“…he [presumably Dr. Lewis] is not an expert on bowel pathology…the BMJ evaluated the data and found there was nothing there…it doesn’t even matter if Wakefield acted unethically, he’s still wrong…”
I detoured past the microphone I used earlier – which sure enough worked – to respond, “That’s not true.” But the same woman then grabbed that microphone and aimed it down at the floor so that I couldn’t use it either. Meanwhile, Mnookin continued his long, rambling response to my “disruptive” question.
I was then followed out of the room by a security guard in a dark grey suit, who continued to follow me until I was out of the resort. During my perp walk through the hotel, he radioed back my every move, at one point saying as I got on an escalator:
“He just got on the escalator! He is going to the first floor!”
As he got on after me, I called back, “You don’t have to follow me! I’m leaving the building!”
And he replied, “You broke the rules! You were being disruptive!”
“I asked a question as I was allowed!”
“You weren’t supposed to do that!”
Eventually I walked out of the lobby – off the hotel premises – and that’s when he finally stopped trailing me.
In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. On the PRIMR’s board of directors, sits chairman Dr. Walter Straus. The PRIMR website says of him:
Dr. Walter L. Straus is the Global Director for Scientific Affairs - Vaccines at Merck Research Laboratories, Merck & Co, Inc.
Several attendees of the conference tweeted my exit, accusing me of being a “heckler” for asking my question.
One attendee named Dr. Judy Stone tweeted:
Another person named Chris Witwer even caught a twitpic of me as I was being escorted out. Below his picture, he wrote:
Heckler at @sethmnookin luncheon has been removed. Thx, Gaylord hotel.
Afterwards, Seth Mnookin tweeted about me, lying once more:
I would have preferred responding (& tried to), altho the person wanted to grandstand not talk at #PRIMR_AER11
No, all I wanted to do was ask a challenging question. And he was apparently planning on answering it unchallenged given that the screen he was on went black immediately after I gave my name.
When Dr. Andrew Wakefield was asked challenging questions at Brandeis University (allow to load and go to 1:19:12 and 1:21:39), the challengers were allowed to finish their questions and even ask follow-up questions. They were not cut-off, shut up, or escorted off the premises. That’s because Dr. Wakefield welcomes challenging questions.
Seth Mnookin obviously does not.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is studying for an MPH in epidemiology.