Control All Delete, Part 3: How a Critical Review of a Book on How Great Vaccination Is Got Pulled By a Publication That Brags How "Independent" It Is
Few books published last year won the raves that welcomed On Immunity – An Inoculation by Eula Biss. Its spare 163 pages of text offered a “beautiful shot of insight,” The Los Angeles Times wrote -- a shot that includes our collective duty to vaccinate. “We owe each other our bodies,” Biss concludes.
To which I say, I don’t think so. But it’s a free country and people can agree or disagree, right?
Most agreed with Biss, lauding her “elegant, intelligent and very beautiful book, which occupies a space between research and reflection, investigating our attitudes toward immunity and inoculation through a personal and cultural lens,” according to the Times. Along the way Biss, “a vigorous advocate for inoculation … reveals the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement for the sophistry it is.”
Entertainment Weekly gave it an A and put it at Number 2 on its best nonfiction books of the year; it was in the New York Times Top 10; and Mark Zuckerberg recently picked it for his Facebook book club, thereby fighting “fears of vaccination” and showing his “talent for surfing the zeitgeist by selecting On Immunity,” according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
I’ve read it, and lovely as it may be, it is, in my view, to which, as I’ve already said, I’m entitled, dead wrong. It takes its place in the pantheon of work by people who haven’t gone deeply enough into the subject to master it – Biss thinks adolescents get a chickenpox booster, which they don’t, and that seizures after vaccination only happen to kids who would have had them anyway -- but presumes to lecture the rest of us on the roots of our scientific illiteracy and susceptibility to primal but unfounded fears of vaccination and autism. Heck, we don't even understand metaphors right. Here is my favorite bit:
“When I learned of the resulting conference on immuno-semiotics, I was excited by the possibility that it was devoted to the discussion of metaphor, a semiotic device,” Biss writes. I must say I have never heard the parent of an autistic child excited about an upcoming conference on immuno-semiotics (immune deficiencies, yes). I think it’s the kind of book that people think they like because it makes them feel smart, sort of A Brief History of Time for the vaccine debate.
One of the few equivocal responses to the book was a review by Jennifer Margulis that ran last October in the Washington Independent Review of Books (remember the word “independent,” which will soon go belly up). Headlined “This heartfelt ode to inoculations dismisses concerns about vaccines,” it begins:
“On Immunity is an extended nonfiction essay — an impressionistic, metaphor-laden, first-person account of author Eula Biss' fears for her infant son's safety and the questions and concerns she has as she educates herself about vaccines. This slim book combines real-life vignettes with literary criticism, information about the history of vaccines in the United States, informal interviews with scientists, and chats Biss has had with friends and relatives.”
Margulis, a widely published author who wrote The Business of Baby, also notes, correctly: “Biss is not interested in stories of vaccine injury, which she dismisses as exaggerated. Nor is she interested in the devastating fact that one in every 42 boys in America today has autism, or that we are seeing a rise in many other diseases among American children, including Type-1 diabetes and other autoimmune disorders. …
“Yet, ironically, Biss' own son may have been vaccine injured. She explains that he suffers from debilitating allergies that sometimes leave him unable to breathe.
“’My son has unusually severe allergies, which he developed at an unusually young age,’ Biss writes. ‘His pediatrician calls him her 'outlier' because he is a statistical anomaly. By the time he turned three, his allergies had led to swelling in his nasal cavity, and this swelling had led to painful sinus infections, which we had cured with antibiotics several times, but which inevitably returned.’”
In her review, Margulis notes studies that suggest a connection between vaccinations and allergies, provides links, and concludes: “Biss' metaphorical musing on vaccinations and how to protect our children from harm ultimately reads like an extended attempt to justify her choice to fully vaccinate her son on the CDC's current vaccine schedule.”
Fair enough, to my mind. But on November 21, the article disappeared from the Washington Independent Review. Poof. Gone. Search there for “on immunity” now and you get: “Sorry, your query did not return any results. Check your spelling or try a different search term.”
So what happened? Margulis explains what happened in a post on greenmedinfo.com, which also prints the original review: Margulis describes how she was mentioned by Biss in an earlier article (as well as briefly in the book itself), a fact that Margulis brought up with the editor prior to accepting the assignment. This was duly noted it in the original review: "Editor’s Note: We assigned this review to Jennifer Margulis because she has spent over 10 years researching and writing about childhood vaccination. Before accepting the assignment, Margulis informed us that, although she does not know Eula Biss personally, she and Biss have had cordial email correspondence, and that Biss mentions Margulis by name in both a Harper's magazine article and in On Immunity."
After publication of Margulis's review, “Eula Biss and her publisher contacted them to complain,” Margulis says. Biss sent an e-mail dated November 25 to Margulis denying that she had anything to do with it being removed:
I’d like you to understand why I wrote to the Washington Independent Review about your review. I did not, for the record, ask them to take it down at any point. But I did express my dismay over the fact that you chose to build an argument around my child’s body. And I shared my sense that you had ranged outside the territory of a civil review and violated my child’s privacy when you called him “vaccine injured.” Both your language and your strategy struck me as inappropriate.
Given that I have critiqued your ideas publicly, I also suggested to the WIR that your motivations could be called into question. This is what I said:
“Here's an analogy -- a physician is given multiple gifts from a pharmaceutical company, including pens and paper that bear the name of a certain drug. The physician then prescribes that drug to a patient, who is ill. Even assuming that the illness is correctly diagnosed and that the drug is indeed effective, there are some ethical quandaries here. Did the physician prescribe the drug because it was the best drug for that condition, or because he was grateful for the gifts, or simply because the pens and paper had insinuated the name of the drug into his mind and he was subconsciously swayed in his decision making?
In this case, the illness may be real (meaning there are likely problems with my book) and the medicine might be effective (meaning that those problems deserve critique) but there is sufficient evidence for a person to fairly wonder whether the physician (Margulis) is prescribing that drug for the right reasons.”
I believe, as I told the WIR, that you are entitled to critique my work and my ideas, but I do not believe that you are entitled to wildly speculate about my son’s health. I know that is par for the course in the ugly terrain that is the vaccine debate, but I don’t engage that way and I don’t remain silent when I am engaged that way. Expressing one’s hopes for a more responsible discourse and articulating one’s own understanding of professional ethics is not akin to censorship.
When I wrote to WIR, I didn’t threaten any action, and I do not have the power to force any publication to censor a review that I am not happy with. But I do reserve the right to talk back, particularly when a review is not factually accurate. For instance, the following is untrue:
“She is told by one doctor that her son must never get another flu vaccine because he is allergic to eggs.”
No doctor ever said that to me -– in fact, two doctors encouraged me to vaccinate my son despite his allergy and he has since been vaccinated against the flu every fall. (All this is in my book, though you may not have read that far.)
Beyond factual errors, I think you misrepresent a number of things in which I hold a stake. My mention of you in my book is not “neutral,” for example -- it is civil, but it is also a fairly forceful critique of your position. Our email exchange was not what I would call “brief,” and when I expressed concerns to WIR, I was not engaging in a “battle.”
I was, as I am doing now, simply making an argument for the kind of integrity that I value.
First things first. Margulis says in her review that given the information Biss offered in her book, her son might have suffered adverse events. (She does not say he is “vaccine injured,” which Biss, a stickler for accuracy, must know.) The idea that Margulis improperly built an argument “around my child’s body” is not, to my mind, valid. You can’t write a book centered on your experiences with your own child and vaccination, and expect readers not to connect dots they may happen to observe. Similarly, discussing her child’s intolerance to an ingredient in the flu shot and her discussion with her doctor about whether he should receive it is also completely appropriate.
Biss, like so many who treat parents of vaccine-injured children like, well, children, can certainly dish it out. Speaking of Andy Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet early report, she writes, “Wakefield’s study forwarded a hypothesis that was already in the air, a hypothesis that held particular appeal for women still haunted by the refrigerator mother theory. Those who went on to use Wakefield’s inconclusive work to support the notion that vaccines cause autism are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used – to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.”
What is she saying about mothers who believe vaccines made their children autistic? Stripped of the circumlocutious preciosity that infects so much of her prose, it’s not very nice.
As Margulis points on on greenmedinfo,
"This 'conflict of interest' would, of course, have been happily ignored if I had written a positive review. And, of course, a conflict of interest was avoided by being properly disclosed at the bottom of the review. Censoring this book review is part of a larger battle reasonable journalists face whenever they write issues related to vaccine safety and the very real and devastating problems in our current American vaccine system, which is sadly based more on maximizing profits and promoting special interests than it is about what is in the best interests of our children's health."
Biss’ work, and her thin-skinned response to a reasoned critique, fits with the kind of pseudo-intellectual attack on suffering children and families that really drives me bananas, to use the technical term. The fact that people at an “independent” book review pay any attention to her high-falutin' whining when she gets some pushback is symptomatic of something quite sinister, and un-American.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.