Every journalist who has been at it for a while (in my case, four decades or so) has a treasure trove of bone-headed mistakes they can recount.
-- A friend of mine at the paper back in Danville wrote up a short item about a drunk driver being arrested by a state trooper. What could possibly go wrong? Well, you could inadvertently switch the names of the state trooper and the drunk driver. ...
-- Filling in for the county government reporter, I ignored something called the “multiplier” and wrote that taxes were going up when, in fact, they went down for the first time in years. My editor said the subsequent story, which we artfully attributed to “new information,” was the first time the paper ran a (disguised) correction bigger than the original article.
-- OK, one more, told to me by an assistant city editor from Kansas, possibly apocryphal but too good to omit. A paper in his home state had two big front-page stories the same day – a dilapidated barn burned down, and the mayor’s wife died. You may sense where this is going: Under the barn photo the headline read, “Mayor’s Wife Dies at 70.” Under the mayor’s wife? “Old Eyesore Gone at Last.”
So, mistakes happen. It’s funny in retrospect, but not so much at the time. The trick for journalists is to learn how easy it is to get things wrong before we look like complete idiots when it really matters.
By that standard, Steve Silberman, John Donvan and Caren Zucker look like complete idiots to me. They make mistakes in their new books on autism (the former’s NeuroTribes and the latters’ In a Different Key) that suggest they don’t really know what they’re talking about. And they don’t know it in a way that shows the biased a-s-s-umptions they substitute for real reporting.
Several AOA contributors, in particular our indefatigable Anne Dachel, have pointed up the macro-mistake of both these books – the idea that autism has been around forever and basically needs TLC rather than a massive public health response. To my mind, a mistake this big requires getting a lot of little things wrong, little things that add up to a complete lack of mastery. “To compare great things to small,” as Milton put it, here are a few.
NeuroTribes, by Silberman, says that parents first raised concern about mercury in vaccines. No -- it was the government.
“After an outcry from organizations like (Barbara Loe) Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked vaccine manufacturers to remove thimerosal from the their products. …”
No, no, no! The FDA was ordered by Congress to look at medicines that contained mercury, leading to the government announcement in 1999, leading to parents’ outcry.
You make this kind of mistake when you think the idea that mercury might be dangerous in vaccines is so absurd that the crazy anti-vaccine parents must have started it; when you think Fisher is a wild-eyed loon who can help you make whatever point you want.
Ditto In a Different Key. The authors report that in response to 9/11, Congress added the infamous “thimerosal rider” to the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, sparing Eli Lilly from liability.
“The discovery of the rider caused a brief outcry,” they write. “Families were now obliged to pursue their cases through a process known as vaccine court.”
That was some “brief outcry”! Donovan and Zucker appear not to know it was repealed under massive public pressure, and not just from anti-vaccine nut jobs. Thus it had no effect on whether families were obliged to pursue their cases through vaccine court.
In a Different Key mangles the other foundational issue for vaccine safety concerns – Andy Wakefield’s study in 1998. According to Zucker and Donvan, the study reported that, “the measles virus was present in all 12 children.”
No! If you’re going to spend seven years on this, read the damn paper! I sent that to Andy, who commented: “Absolute garbage! The Lancet paper makes no reference to detection of measles virus. A later paper by Kawashima from Japan, on blinded samples of cases and controls, found measles genetic material in some autistic children. He published this result.”
But of course, since Andy is a fraud, he must have said that!
History is built of blocks called facts. Before you try to interpret the edifice they create, you need to make sure the foundation is solid.
One more: Silberman completely mangles a story about Leo Kanner, before he discovered autism. It's not worth untangling the whole thing here, but it totally confuses the way Kanner went about looking for a neurological form of syphilis in Native Americans. Silberman makes a cautionary tale out of his messed-up version, portraying Kanner as a glory hound intent on sniffing out a disorder to stamp his name on -- as he would subsequently do with autism, in Silberman's fevered version of things.
I could go on and perhaps I will in a follow-up because there is much more here – Zucker and Donvan misspell my name, for cryin’ out loud – but let me just say again that, as a journalist, these kind of mistakes are red flags. How much, to compare great things to small, should we rely on the depth of their understanding of the autism-as-epidemic argument? How much should we care about Donvan and Zucker's column in the Washington Post Saturday doling out tips to presidential candidates and calling a vaccine link “scaremongering”?
“The autism world, like the world in general, needs less discord,” they write, spreading the kind of soothing caca that suits their mistaken, mistake-prone view of autism.
No! The autism world needs a loud and persistent revolution with as much unpleasantness as is required until eyesores like that are gone at last.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.