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August 27, 2011

The Panic Virus

A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear
Seth Mnookin - ISBN - 9781439158647

A perfect introduction to this missive would be Chris Mooney's observation that "Expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts."

It is an exceptionally well researched and plainly written book. He deals with vaccinology, law and precedent, psychology and fraud, as well as the politics and marketing of ideas and products, as he delves into the hysteria created by under-informed people who depend upon anecdotal information certified to be true by other under-informed people as they swarm about the internet; as well, the disastrous consequences of failing to educate the public regards risks and realities of infectious disease control. This fosters a too frequent, willing blindness to conflicts of interest of the profiteers in our midst, most of whom have specific agendas, and many are grotesque frauds.

Politicians and glitterati are easily convinced that there exists an institutional arrogance and power within the drug and vaccine industry. (Ted Kennedy was a poster boy for these kinds of conclusions, with Oprah, Morning Joe, Imus and others in the cheering section.) Winfrey, he opines, claims to be a neutral disseminator of information, "which dodge is offered so frequently as to easily overlook how absurd it really is."

Both reason and science are under siege today by groups of (not always) well intentioned folks, many of whose backgrounds have not prepared them to interpret relevant data. Mnookin, an accomplished investigative journalist, undertakes herein to look objectively at both sides of myriad concerns, including vaccine and/or mercury poisoning as linked to autism, and the recrudescence of dangerous, often lethal infectious diseases, controlled for years by vaccines, which modern parents lamentably prevent their children from receiving. Diseases formerly all but obliterated are now experiencing new life because parents do not have their children vaccinated--against the universal recommendations by experts. Rather, they depend on their ignorance, and the reassuring fact that "most other children will be vaccinated" so why expose their children to the remote risks of said vaccinations?

One can relate to the parental agony, and be put off by the wanton solicitations of "hope" (and litigation) of those who experience real complications of meaningful therapies and prevention; and by extension the agony of illnesses not otherwise explained, but one must not be caught up in the "straight lines" implied by those willfully offering hope and just restitution thru litigation, which fiascos are simultaneously humorous, farcical and sobering. Driven parents, assisted by self-interested lawyers and complicit "experts," such litigation is expensive and expansive. One can see--if not condone, or even understand--that many of those litigants actually believe in all of this, yet the ridiculousness of pseudo-sciences and public confusion of similar sounding situations is appalling. Hundreds of millions of kids have been vaccinated, and few have complications. Still, complications do occur, which is why there is reason for committees of experts to award legitimate claimants appropriate remuneration for their individual difficulties. In this context he reviews in detail the many, if rare, complications documented and carefully studied, and the incidences thereof.

A ponderous discussion surrounds the diagnosis of Autism. He explains the facts and the dangers of the diagnosis as follows: "clinicians are more likely to give a child a diagnosis which [is thought] to help the child receive the best services or school placement [rather than some other problem which] will not facilitate the best form of intervention." This contributes mightily to the fact that autism, once considered uncommon if not rare, is suddenly said to afflict 1/109 children. The situation is similar for ADHD, which is not to say that neither exists, but to state that neither is anywhere near as common as is implied by current statistics.

What he refers to as the hyper-democratization of data has unmoored information from the context required to understand it. Many people making comments are too ignorant of the subjects to hold reasoned opinions, as they insist their representations are factual. Feelings, personal experiences and intuition are far more important to these folks, and seriously impact the interpretation of information they find littering the information highway. A considerable number of these people are well educated, successful, and some occupy positions of power. When they opine, more than a few people listen. Their "pervasive manner of thinking [runs] counter to the principles of deductive reasoning that have been the foundation of rational society since the Enlightenment."

Why, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, do these people remain adamant in their beliefs? Only irrationality can explain it, and it is dangerous. Their trenchant if mistaken analyses tend to gain more comment from the press--bolstered by politicians and celebrities--than the reasoned approach of scientists. Contrary to some representations, not all perspectives are equal; nor are they all legitimate. Only by offering the correct information--which he herein tries to do--can these situations be improved; a situation in which academia, medical science and government ought to be more intelligently and rationally involved.

The book is a major contribution to righting the wrongs of the present conundrum, and well worth a read.

Posted by Curmudgeon at August 27, 2011 1:49 PM