Facing a long plane ride recently, I was thumbing through the airport bookstore and came across a new book by Susan Jacoby titled “The Age of American Unreason.” Now there was a title to catch my attention, because I do think that the general level of education and discourse and shared values in this country is in decline, and not unrelated to the mess we find ourselves in concerning autism, the practice of medicine, the damaging mediocrity of the mainstream media, and so on. I looked forward to spending the next four hours agreeing with Jacoby.

The book jacket was promising: “Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon – one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science.” All right! And it gets better: “With mordant wit, she surveys an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of ‘junk thought.’ Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.”

As I typically do, I scanned the index first, and since I’m ultra-left-handed and start from the back, I quickly came to the V’s. Uh-oh. “vaccinations, controversy over, 219-222.”

You know there’s trouble ahead when the chapter title is Junk Thought. “Had anyone told me … that an anti-vaccination movement – embodying both junk science and junk thought – would emerge in the 1990s and be treated by the news media with respectful attention, I would have considered the prediction sheer lunacy,” Jacobs wrote.

And what’s a sure sign of junk thought? “… an inability to distinguish between coincidence and causation – a basic requirement for scientific literacy.”

Hey, you scientifically illiterate parents out there who saw your kids get vaccines, get sick, regress – you know, the whole “junk thought” thing – snap out of it! You’re an embarrassment to your cultural betters.

“Rigorous scientific research also has no effect on the purveyors of junk thought,” Jacoby went on. “The most convincing study on the subject was released in 2002 in Denmark.” Oh good heavens. And it gets worse – there’s no epidemic, only those plagued by innumeracy believe that. And on and on.

“Junk science plays on the fears of parents who understand little about risk benefit equations or about the history of terrible diseases prevented by immunizations. …  It in no way minimizes the seriousness of autism … to say the sudden discovery of a much-higher incidence of a well-known disease must always be considered suspect. [Actually, it very much minimizes the seriousness of autism.] … Furthermore, the anti-vaccine warriors know that their children will, in effect, get a free ride as long as the vast majority of their peers are immunized. …”

Do you suppose she even bothered to read that goofball Denmark study and the utterly damning critiques that followed, including the one by the respected scientist who headed a committee mandated by Congress to look at the quality of a key CDC study on vaccines and concluded that, as bad as it was, Denmark’s was even worse?

“The two studies in Denmark both … had serious weaknesses in their designs that limit what we can learn from them,” said this scientist, politely calling them junk. And Jacoby is staking her claim to “rigorous scientific research” vs. junk science by citing one of these? Talk about an embarrassment!

Just to play this game of reason-v-unreason for a second, if vaccines cause autism it’s irrelevant whether immunizations are a great public health boon – what’s relevant is how to fix the vaccine schedule so we save kids from autism. The sad anecdotes about mortal illnesses are a red herring or, to use Jacoby’s language, an example of unreason. So is the idea that coincidence and causation can be confused. Yes, so? The question is whether they ARE being confused. In this case, they are NOT being confused. So applying a broad nostrum to a concrete situation about which Jacoby has no first-hand experience is illogical as hell.

What about the thousands of heart attacks and strokes that followed Vioxx because they were CAUSED by Vioxx? What about the fact the FDA is in tatters? What about the CDC’s conflicts and confusion? What about reasoning by analogy before throwing your intellectual reputation in with this crowd?

You have to wonder how it feels to have just published a book which showcases a literally merciless attack on the idiocy of the vaccine-autism argument and those junk scientists who purvey it and illiterate parents who buy it – and then to choke on your Cheerios reading about the government’s concession in the Poling case that, er, well, vaccines can cause autism in susceptible kids. And then to read that the susceptibility in question is mighty high. And to get the sinking feeling that there’s something going on here and you don’t know what it is.

No doubt you scan eagerly for the reassuring responses from the “credible” scientists, the CDC and AAP and IOM and Denmark types -- thank god they’re sticking to their guns, sort of. Because if they’re wrong, so are you. And that would make your book a case study of what you’re so worked up about – credulous, lazy, pseudo-intellectual junk.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism



I do love my children, that is why I feel so angry about the wrecklessness of vaccine safety!

Jenny Allan

Wow! You are a troll in the real sense of the word, 'trolling' through the AoA archives to put in your tuppence worth!! Anyway, thanks very much for bringing up this four year old article by Dan Olmstead, which I hadn't read before. Attitudes towards autism have changed quite a lot since then, but entrenched establishment views on vaccines haven't.

Those mad Madsen et al Danish vaccine studies, which purported to show that injected mercury is good for children, and 'debunked' any MMR vaccine links with autism, are still being trotted out on official governments' vaccine information leaflets.

Poul Thorsen, (part of the et al) has been indicted in the US for apparently appropriating more than $1million of the money allocated to Aarhus University to fund this research. (The Autism Speaks charity has redacted all references to the $1million dollars of research funding Thorsen allegedly stole from them). No sign of any extradition of Thorsen from Denmark yet to face the charges, but the Danes are attempting to get the unpaid tax on this cash out of Thorsen first! Madson has just been given an award for his research in Denmark!

I agree that 'a lazy and credulous public', to quote from Jacoby's book, tend to 'swallow' any so called 'scientific' information, however derived. In this particular case Jacoby herself seems to have 'swallowed' all the Madson hype 'hook, line and sinker', without apparently looking too closely at the actual statistics. It takes another statistician (I HATE that word 'epidemiologist'),to properly interpret these kinds of so called 'evidence'.

I'm not sure where narcissism comes into this, but Dan Olmstead has a new book coming out shortly. If this was an attempt to discredit him then it failed. It actually amounts to some extra publicity!!


Jacoby is not denying the existence or severity of certain autism spectrum disorders, she is merely pointing out that the massive increase in diagnoses is reason for skepticism and critical thinking. We rely on our western medicine and doctors and believe that their answers to our problems are correct. If you are insulted by Jacoby, it is because you have fallen victim to the narcissism epidemic; stop being so defensive and spend your free time loving your child....


We also just got back from a trip to NC and on the way back our child was having some issues with having to wait while getting off the plane and you can clearly see that people are not ready to accept a child with Autism. To my surprise there are people who dont even know what Autism is. We explained to people that he has Autism and that he cannot help his behaviour. NC TSA's were very kind and understanding of our situation and they were very helpful in making our pass through security tear free. However, Chicago O'hare TSA's need to be trained properly on dealing with Children with disabilities! Especially children with Autism. The world better get used to children with Autism because when they grow up and become adults it will become everyone's problem.

Dan Olmsted

John, That books sounds interesting. I'm going to check it out -- thanks, dan

John Stone

Apocalyptic books about cultural decline have been with us for several millenia. Perhaps a more interesting theory is that elaborated by UK Guardian journalist Nick Davies in his recent book 'Flat Earth News'. Davies barely touches on the vaccine controversy - in fact, he does not deal directly with pharma, bio-tech lobby which have manifestly be pulling the strings at the Guardian since the beginning of the decade. It is, however, a book about how the political agenda has been seized and distorted out of recognition PR companies, and the general thesis fits closely with all our experiences. Worth a look.

Kelli Ann Davis

“Hypervaccination” – Perfect terminology to describe the “vaccinate the hell out of children cuz they can handle it because we said so" crowd.

Touché Gatogorra.

Craig Willoughby

You know, Jacoby sickens me. Let's use some of her quotes, here:

“Junk science plays on the fears of parents who understand little about risk benefit equations or about the history of terrible diseases prevented by immunizations." I see, so my son and daughter are an equation? "It in no way minimizes the seriousness of autism … to say the sudden discovery of a much-higher incidence of a well-known disease must always be considered suspect. Furthermore, the anti-vaccine warriors know that their children will, in effect, get a free ride as long as the vast majority of their peers are immunized.” So its ok for 1 in 150 children to get autism as long as the rest of the children are safe from "communicable" diseases, some of which have been extinct for 25+ years. My guess is that this "culturally elite" woman has never met an autistic child. She has never had to listen to them scream, beat their head against the wall and throw things in fits of anger and frustration simply because they don't know how to communicate their needs. I'll let her spend a few days with my son and see how she feels afterward....


For the past six months, I've been going through a series of books and articles on the history of medicine and psychiatry, which could probably explain my general lack of appetite these days. What's been very interesting is to read the editorials written in the past few hundred years either proposing or in support of a particular "popular" or "cutting edge" medical treatment. Sleep cures, blood-letting, "mercury pills", pre-frontal lobotomy, the "moral" and "medical" prescription to beat one's wife and children, threatening an "hysterical" patient with rape in order to "prove" they could actually get out of bed, the euthanization or sterilization of mental patients, and now hypervaccination. These "treatments" all had their loud, passionate supporters among journalists, editors, scientific pundits and policy-makers. What I found that almost all of these defenses-of-the-indefensible had in common was that the concept of "public good" or "convenience of caregivers" was primary and the "good of the invididual" almost an afterthought. All the defenses were usually in service of some form of inhumane social control or profitable but dubious treatment unleashed on certain individuals or the public in general to bring power to or enrich a select few. AKA-- PR.

It would also be interesting to find out how many of these defenders-of-indefensible ever recanted their positions if overwhelming proof and (more importantly to them) public backlash against the treatments they championed ever arose in their life times. If this ever came close to happening, I think some just "revisionistically" sidled into the approved view without a look back (a familiar gesture these days in response to the Poling verdict and CDC teleconference?) or, like viruses, just morphed the outward appearance of their position while still supporting some horrendous equivalent.

Give or take a little antiquated language; exchange what passes for "mordant wit" used to mock the (in retrospect) sensible opposing position in any given era; edit or update a bit of the lengthy prose and moralistic flogging in support of this or that now laughable and horrific practice-- and the apologias all pretty much sound the same. If you stick words and phrases like "humors", "elixirs", "assault upon morals", "good men of science", etc., into Jacoby's text, what she wrote would be almost indistinguishable from a Victorian defense of, say, prophylactic hysterectomy for "hysteria”.

Teresa Conrick

"credulous, lazy, pseudo-intellectual junk."


You nailed it! I made an analogy of the Offits, Julie G's of the world as being pod people from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"..and it sounds like they put the pod of "credulous, lazy, pseudo-intellectual junk"
under this Susan Jocaby's she's one of them......

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