Book Review: Autism’s False Prophets

September 28, 2008

I just received a free copy of Dr. Paul Offit’s new book Autism’s False Prophets.  The book came as a reward for being one of the first 50 people to sign up for ScienceBlog’s new monthly book club discussion taking place here.  The folks at ScienceBlogs have put together a brilliant panel to talk about Offit’s book about the autism hysteria.

Dr. Offit will kick off the discussion, and he’ll be joined by four panelists: Kristina Chew of Autism Vox, Kev Leitch of Autism Blog, Bob Park, a University of Maryland Physics professor and the author of What’s New by Bob Park, and Orac of Respectful Insolence.

I blazed through Dr. Offit’s book.  I wish I had paid for it because all of the profits go to autism research.  To make up for my guilt at getting a free book, I’m sending it to my mother, who works with children with autism daily in her job as an early interventionist.  If she can use the information in False Prophets to counter just one of the misinformed parents she is likely to encounter in the years to come, I will have paid my debt.  I actually hope that my mother lends it out to these parents.  I hope her entire staff reads this book and memorizes it.

I recently found out that a sibling of my sister-in-law (lets call her Linda) has fallen prey to the “big pharma” conspiracy garbage spread by antivaccinationists on the internet.  She is planning on delaying her impending baby’s vaccines until age two (or perhaps not vaccinating at all).  I wrote to Linda on facebook to let her know that I’m an advocate for vaccines and that I would love to change her mind.  She responded that she would read any well-balanced book that I recommended, except for those connected to pharmaceutical companies.  Blast!

There’s no way she would read False Prophets because antivaccinationists have dismissed Paul Offit as a tool of “big pharma” (he owns a Rotavirus patent).  So, instead of reading a book by a peer-reviewed expert on vaccines who cites all his facts in a lengthy bibliography, she will probably choose a book by a wise-cracking actress who graduated from the University of Google.

Linda’s making the mistake of starting with the premise that pharmaceutical companies are inherently evil.  I think we can all agree that the safe use of pharmaceutical drugs has saved billions of lives.  That isn’t to say that these companies don’t want to make a profit, nor am I saying that they are beyond reproach.  But is it profitable to create a vaccine that causes autism or SIDS?  How much money would they lose in litigation?  The answer is that they would go out of business.  Plus, pharmaceutical lobbyists have a personal reason to have safe vaccines; they have families and children who are forced to vaccinate.  Even if there wasn’t profit and personal motive keeping “big pharma” in check, there is the Center for Disease Control, a government agency designed to keep them in check.  Each vaccine takes years to be tested, and once it is on the market, it must continue to show that it’s safe beyond the typical side effects.

Autism’s False Prophets starts with some of the more dubious autism cures that have since been debunked.  Then, Offit takes on the scientists such as Wakefield and the Geiers, who did sloppy science under the funding of lawyers and private parties eager to make themselves millionaires from future litigation against “big pharma”.  Finally, Offit points out the multiple high quality scientific studies that strip the integrity and validity of antivaccinationists.  He does an excellent job of objectively analyzing the history of this whole mess, why it started, how people became so passionate, and how the media hyped the story.

I learned a lot and added some info to my vaccine page.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the whole story from the smartest characater in the story.  Dr. Paul Offit packs a punch and gives those antivaccine fanatics a dose of truth that even they can’t combat with their usual spin.  He neuters their arguments, dismantles their heroes, and leaves them looking like fools.  And though he gets death threats and is labeled the “Dark Lord” of “big pharma”, he comes across as a caring man dragged into a messy entaglement with a passionate subculture of parents who want answers.  Here are their answers.  Time will tell whether these parents will listen and believe them.


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