Gawker Book Club: Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus

Illustration for article titled Gawker Book Club: Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus

Our latest iteration of the Gawker Book Club features The Panic Virus, a forensic and infuriating account of the genesis and spread of the vaccines-cause-autism meme by Vanity Fair contributor and Gawker pal Seth Mnookin.

The Panic Virus is an autopsy of a vicious idea: The false contention that the rise in autism rates over the last three decades is attributable to childhood vaccinations. That myth, which has no credible science behind it, has metastasized across the media and, with the implicit and explicit help of mainstream figures like Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey, overcome the medical establishment's often inadequate efforts to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary for public health. The result has been a decline in vaccination rates and a concomitant rise in rates of deadly diseases that had previously been thought conquered. And the rise in autism rates continues unabated.

Below is an excerpt from The Panic Virus tracing Jenny McCarthy's role in peddling the fraudulent vaccine theory with an assist from Winfrey.


Give it a read and come back here at 1 p.m., when Mnookin will be taking questions from me and any other interested readers in the comments.

On September 18, 2007, one day after her book Louder Than Words: A Mother's Story in Healing Autism was released, Jenny McCarthy appeared as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. That afternoon, McCarthy told Winfrey about a morning in 2004, when McCarthy awoke with a terrifying premonition that something was wrong. Shortly thereafter, her son Evan, who was around two years old at the time, had the first in a series of what McCarthy described as life-threatening seizures. For months, McCarthy said, her requests for help for her child were dismissed by every doctor she approached. (At times, McCarthy said, this condescension would mutate into rage: She claimed that one pediatrician had become so incensed by her insistent questioning that he shouted at her to "leave the hospital-now!") It wasn't until Evan suffered a near-fatal heart attack that he was properly diagnosed as autistic-and even then, McCarthy said, she wasn't offered any help or support. "I got the, 'Sorry, your son has autism' [speech]," she told Winfrey. "I didn't get the the-here's-what-to-do-next pamphlet."

Winfrey, who praised Louder Than Words as "beautiful" and "riveting," didn't ask McCarthy why she hadn't mentioned the seizures or the screaming doctors or the heart attack during her efforts to promote a New Age e-commerce site the year before, when she'd claimed that treating Evan for a behavioral disorder would be akin to "taking away all the beautiful characteristics he came into this world with." Instead, Winfrey praised McCarthy's unwillingness to bow to authority, her faith in herself, and her use of the Internet as a tool for bypassing society's traditional gatekeepers:

McCarthy: First thing I did-Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: I'm telling you.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: The University of Google is where I got my degree from.... And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life that led me on this road to recovery, which said autism-it was in the corner of the screen-is reversible and treatable. And I said, What?! That has to be an ad for a hocus pocus thing, because if autism is reversible and treatable, well, then it would be on Oprah.


The ad McCarthy saw was for a wheat- and dairy-free diet. Within weeks of putting Evan on this new regimen, McCarthy said, he'd doubled his language, his eye contact improved, he began smiling more, and he became more affectionate. "Once you detox them," McCarthy said, "your kids are going to get better. You're cleaning up their gut. You're cleaning up their brain. There is a connection."

Illustration for article titled Gawker Book Club: Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus

Winfrey nodded in agreement-but how, she asked, did McCarthy know to try this specific diet as opposed to the "fifty other things" that showed up online?

McCarthy: Mommy instinct.
Winfrey: Mommy instinct.
McCarthy: Mommy instinct.... I went, okay-I know my kid.... I know what's going on in his body, so this is what makes sense to me....
Winfrey: Okay-so this is what Jenny says really worked for her. It doesn't mean it will work for all children.... It worked for her. This is her book. She wrote the book. So she knows what she's talking about.


As it turned out, Mommy instinct had done more than just show McCarthy which of the many alternative "biomedical" treatments she should pursue-it had also given her insight into what had made Evan sick in the first place. Winfrey prompted McCarthy to share that information with the audience:

Winfrey: So what do you think triggered the autism? I know you have a theory.
McCarthy: I do have a theory.
Winfrey: Mom instinct.
McCarthy: Mommy instinct. You know, everyone knows the stats, which being one in one hundred and fifty children have autism.
Winfrey: It used to be one in ten thousand.
McCarthy: And, you know, what I have to say is this: What number does it have to be? What number will it take for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have autism have been saying for years? Which is that we vaccinated our baby and something happened.... Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn't it? And he said, 'No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother's desperate attempt to blame something on autism.' And he swore at me.... And not soon thereafter, I noticed that change in the pictures: Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.


At that point, Winfrey picked up an index card. "Of course," she said, "we talked to the Centers for Disease Control and asked them whether or not there is a link between autism and childhood vaccinations. And here's what they said." As she started to read, the screen filled with text.

We simply don't know what causes most cases of autism, but we're doing everything we can to find out. The vast majority of science to date does not support an association between thimerosal in vaccines and autism.... It is important to remember, vaccines protect and save lives.


When Winfrey appeared back on screen, she turned to McCarthy, who was ready with a response: "My science is named Evan, and he's at home. That's my science." There was little question that Winfrey's sympathies lay with the "mother warrior" who'd written a "beautiful new book" about how she'd cured her son of a supposedly incurable disease as opposed to the faceless bureaucracy that couldn't provide any answers.

Before the end of the show, Winfrey told viewers that McCarthy would be available to answer questions to anyone who logged on to a "special [online] message board just for this show so you can share your stories." One fan asked McCarthy what she would do if she could do it all over again. "The universe didn't mean for me to do anything else besides what I did," McCarthy answered, "but if I had another child, I would not vaccinate." A mother wrote in to say that she had decided not to give her child the MMR vaccine "due to the autism link." McCarthy was delighted. "I'm so proud you followed your mommy instinct," she wrote.


Within a week of her appearance on Oprah, McCarthy had repeated her story on Larry King Live and Good Morning America. On those three shows alone, she reached between fifteen- and twenty-million viewers-and that wasn't including people who watched repeats or saw the clips online. Print publications grabbed ahold of her story as well: People, which is one of the largest general interest magazines in the country, ran an excerpt from Louder Than Words under the headline, "My Autistic Son: A Story of Hope." The media blitz's effects were felt immediately.

McCarthy's sudden ubiquity did more than give families affected by autism hope for a miracle cure-it also further legitimized the vaccines-cause-autism movement, which still had not completely shed its reputation as being on the scientific fringe. Dan Olmsted, a former UPI reporter who is one of the editors of a blog called Age of Autism, gives McCarthy credit for singlehandedly pushing vaccine skeptics out of the "looney fringes" and into the mainstream: "To anybody who comes to this issue from the environmental and recovery side of this debate-the idea that something happened to these kids, and it's probably a toxic exposure-Jenny McCarthy is the biggest thing to happen since the word autism was coined."


[Excerpt from The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin. Republished with permission. Photo of Jenny McCarthy via Getty Images]

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It's not that McCarthy and her fellow anti-vaxers aren't intelligent, but they all fall into a cognitive trap that's alarmingly common among even the most educated people in this country. Called casuistry, it's essentially the preference for drawing inferences from individual, relatable case histories than from the kind of abstract statistical analysis that scientists and policy makers prefer. As Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin has compellingly argued, casuistry is all too common in the field of nutrition science as well, leading to all sorts of wildly popular diets (Atkins, etc) that have no basis in real science. More on Shapin here: []