Review of ‘Autism’s False Prophets’ by Paul Offit, MD

I only received the book in the mail last week, and thus, unfortunately, missed the chance to participate productively in the Scienceblogs book club about it. But I think that I can still add my own two cents on the matter. I am grateful to Columbia University press for sending me a copy to review.

Having closely followed, and taken part in, the debate about vaccines and autism almost since its inception, I expected this book would would merely be a slightly longer rehash of events I already knew about and have recounted to you here and here. I expected to enjoy the book, if only as a rendition of recent history, but not actually learn anything new.

Boy, was I wrong.

Paul Offit, MD, is the chief of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, and a vaccine researcher who co-invented RotaTeq, a vaccine to protect against rotavirus – a diarrheal disease which causes thousands of babies and toddlers to die of dehydration in the developing world (and also lands many western tots in the hospital each year). In recent years, Offit has been in the public eye, mainly due to several well-written op-eds about vaccines, including some in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. He is also the expert which journalists and radio hosts commonly turn to in order to present pro-vaccine arguments. Both in print and in person, Offit proves himself most capable in explaining complex issues regarding vaccines in a manner both accessible to the general public and very interesting.

It is this characteristic which serves him best in Autism’s False Prophets. Offit relates the history of how MMR and thimerosal-containing vaccines came to be falsely accused of causing autism in a clear and thorough manner, stopping at points to relate the personal history of one dramatis persona or another – Andrew Wakefield, the Geiers, Camille Clark (aka Autism Diva) and Kathleen Seidel, to name a few. Even for someone like me, who’d been following and researching the story for a while now, there were quite a few facts that I hadn’t known – like how Eli Lilly, before using thimerosal as a vaccine preservative in the 1930s, actually did test it for safety by giving large doses to animals and humans (they had hoped to use it as an antibiotic, an effort which unfortunately failed); Or how Indiana congressman Dan Burton (who alleged his grandson had been rendered autistic by vaccines and held a series of kangaroo courts…excuse me, congressional hearings, on the subject of vaccines and autism) was an early advocate for legalizing the bogus cancer treatment, Laetrile.

But the more important parts of the book, in my opinion, go beyond straightforward storytelling. Because Autism’s False Prophets is also a book about how easily fear, desperation and hope can lead people – even educated ones – to find fault where there is none, to ascribe healing powers to substances that cannot heal, and even to cause otherwise decent human beings to make threats against those who dare to tell the truth and burst their bubble (as the author states in the prologue, “I get a lot of hate mail”). It’s also a book which elucidates how only science – specifically, properly done medical research – can ultimately lead us to the truth of what causes autism, and how, if at all, it can be cured.

Offit mentions past brouhahas over causes and cures which fell by the wayside after ultimately being proven false by science, such as silicone breast implants causing autoimmune disease, or secretin curing autism. He then demonstrates, based upon the current scientific evidence, how both MMR and thimerosal in vaccines as a cause of autism will hopefully share a similar fate for the same reason. As Offit points out, though, there is a dearth of scientists who can communicate complex scientific issues to the public (either directly or via the media) effectively; this book, however, does succeed in doing just that. While it probably will not convince the parents already in the clutches of DAN! and their ilk, it might give pause to parents of autistic children who are still searching for a quick fix.

All in all, an excellent and highly recommended read.

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2 Responses

  1. Very nice job on the review, Esther.

    I have to buy a copy of the book. Heck I may have to buy two. One to keep and one to donate to my local library. They’ve had Kirby’s dumb anti-vax hatchet job on the shelves for ages.

  2. Thanks, Stace :-). I was thinking of planting my copy on the doorstep of the ‘mercury mom’ up the street – except a) she’d probaby figure out where it came from, and b) it would end up in the wastebin or, possibly, in their next Lag B’Omer bonfire, unread.

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