I haven’t yet read Seth Mnookin’s book “The Panic Virus – A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear,” but I’ve heard great things about it. It was inevitable that the anti-vaxxers would eventually come up with silly ways to poison the well in order to try and discredit Mnookin but I never thought it’d be this dumb.
Dan “I can’t find the autistic Amish because I never looked” Olmsted devoted no fewer than three paragraphs chastising Mnookin for a trivial error regarding the order of the Kennedy children. Olmsted tries to disguise his pettiness with faux-sympathy because he too has made errors in his writing. He claims he’s bringing this error up because in his book, Mnookin criticized what Olmsted feels is an equally trivial error on the part of the writers of an anti-vaccine press release that “appeared to confuse [Robert Kennedy Jr.] with his uncle, Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy: ‘Having Senator Kennedy as part of the supporters for the Green Our Vaccines Rally is an honor.’”
What possible purpose does this snarky observation serve? It serves to suggest that these fringe vaccine-autism types are hopelessly “confused” at the most basic level – that they can’t get anything right, even the title of the speaker at their own goofy rally, let alone the cause of autism.
The two mistakes are not of equal value. Mnookin’s alleged mistake confused a completely irrelevant detail, the order of the children in the Kennedy family. There’s a big difference between that error and one where a press release for an event that suggests a U.S. senator will be in attendance when it’s only that senator’s activist son. And based on the quotation provided by Olmsted, I think he missed the point of Mnookin’s criticism entirely, which seems less about calling his opponents stupid and more about suggesting dishonesty in how the anti-vaccine movement operates. In other words, I think he’s saying it’s the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement who seem to think their followers are stupid, and are not above exploiting some people’s ignorance to further their agenda. For those who noticed the error, the built-in excuse was it was a mistake. Otherwise, they can just let the ignorant believe they’re hearing from a U.S. senator. It’s a win-win.
And now that Mnookin called his movement out on their dishonesty, Olmsted is trying to paint Mnookin as a “stickler for accuracy.” Why Olmsted thinks this is a criticism of Mnookin’s character I have no idea, especially if his movement wants to continue to perpetuate defamatory claims against him being dishonest in his research. A “stickler for accuracy” who, as Olmsted points out, is quick to admit his own errors when they’re detected is exactly the kind of character trait an honest person sincerely interested in truth should find to be a fairly trustworthy source. Not to Olmsted though. Apparently, that just proves he’s not to be trusted…somehow.
Now I would be dishonest to suggest that’s all Olmsted criticized in his blog entry. He eventually gets into spouting old arguments such as the claim that vaccines cause encephalopathy. Olmsted says the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act (NCVICA) covered encephalopathy and the NCVICA has paid out compensations for this condition. For some reason he feels this is sufficient scientific grounds for claiming this is a fact, ignoring the reality that the NCVICA has always used more generous standards than even other types of legal cases, which are themselves much more lenient than the standards of evidence in the court of science. Steven Novella explains this distinction further here.
Then Olmsted chastises Mnookin for allegedly incorrectly reporting that a 1943 paper looked at eleven boys when Olmsted explains that that is so completely wrong and demonstrates Mnookin is the world’s largest idiot because the paper actually looked at eight boys and three girls! Take that, Mr. Know-It-All! And then Olmsted finds another several completely trivial alleged errors in Mnookin’s reporting of that one insignificant 1943 paper!
Dan Olmsted then continues to list another half dozen to a dozen other completely trivial errors Mnookin made either in his book or elsewhere to show once and for all who the real fool is.
And then Olmsted ends his piece before wasting any of his precious time pretending to look for autistic children in the Amish community when all he has to do is contact the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania on trying to refute any actual important facts in Mnookin’s book.
But visitors of Age of Autism know that the end of an article on the site is only the fun begins as their fanatical followers continue the discussion in the echo chamber that is the Age of Autism comments section, where no critics are allowed.
Take for instance, one commenter named “A Friend”:
Just so we are clear… The former heroin addict Seth Mnookin wrote a book and I’m supposed to be impressed? Um, no thanks. I’ll take a Autism Mom former playboy bunny any day of the week!!He’s going to be speaking @ Hospitals?!?! Lock up the medicine cabinets. :( How sad.
This led Kristina to write:
Oh, wow. a former heroin addict? Why is this the first time I’m hearing this? One would think all news articles about his book would introduce him as, “former heroin addict, Seth Mnookin,” just as they have done with Jenny McCarthy and her being a former Playboy model. Not that there is anything illegal or brain-frying about being a former Playboy model.
Could brain frying via heroin be an explanation for all his ridiculous factual mistakes?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a little peak at the fact manufacturing process at Age of Autism.