Posted by: Ticktock | September 28, 2008

Book Review: Autism’s False Prophets

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.


  1. This is an excellent review, and I’m going to point people to it and to the book when they sound open minded about learning about autism rather than railing against it and against the easy targets.

    But argumentatively I just need to point out that the move to defend big pharma from smears falls a little flat. Because while I agree with you that just because they are Big doesn’t mean they are evil, the existence of the CDC, and the threat of litigation if they put out deadly or damaging products is not compelling enough to keep them from behaving badly. By analogy, Big Tobacco should have been out of business years ago. At the very least Big Pharma would be able to delay successful litigation and deflect criticism as well as Tobacco has done for the past twenty-five years. And twenty-five more years of profits from pharmaceuticals might be attractive enough for them to take the calculated risk if the scientific evidence for danger is only as strong as the link between smoking and cancer.

    I don’t actually suspect them of any such thing, but at this stage in the game that’s more a leap of faith and benefit of the doubt than anything else.

  2. He mentions the tobacco lobby in the book. The public relations firm Hill and knowlton sowed seeds of doubt about whether smoking was unhealthy by enlisting media and actors to defend cigarettes. Offit’s argument is that the tobacco companies did the same thing that antivaccine activists are doing now – creating uncertainty and controversy where none should exist.

    I’d say that the difference is that nicotine was addictive and not seen as a tool for public health and safety. And the science didn’t back up their claims.

    Offit also uses the analogy of the silicone breast implant scare of the early nineties. If you’ll remember, people were just absolutely convinced that silicone was leaking and causing joint problems. So many people sued that Dow Corning had to file bankruptcy. Then, the science disproved the link between silicone implants and connective tissue disease, but by that time it was too late and these companies making the implants had lost billions. The exact same thing could happen to pharmaceutical companies, who are currently being sued in a massive omnibus lawsuit.

    Besides, let those who are crying about “big pharma” prove it. All the studies disproving the link between vaccines and autism are replicable and open to peer review. And yet, the only studies that have been discredited are those that are done by antivaccine scientists Wakefield and Geier & Geier, who were both paid large sums from biased interests. Anyone can speculate about a vast conspiracy, but let the facts stand on their own merit.

  3. Would Linda read the book “Vaccine” by Arthur Allen? You know from reading AFP that Allen did first fall into the thimerosal=bad camp, but he has since looked at all the evidence and changed his mind.

    Other books I could suggest would be “Polio, an American Story” by Oshinsky, “The Great Influenza” by John Barry (though that is more understood if one reads Gina Kolata’s book “Flu”).

    Then there is this book:

    If she weren’t so prejudice against Offit, I would recommend two of his other books, “The Cutter Incident” and “Vaccinated” (a biography of a vaccine researcher).

    Or you could just find some classic children’s tales where kids got diphtheria, measles and what-not. Unfortunately, the only one I can think of is Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”. One interesting contemporary book is Lois Lowry’s “The Silent Boy”. Then there are biographies, I just read “American Bloomsbury”, which has the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first child (I think it was scarlet fever), and also the death of Henry David Thoreau’s brother from tetanus. Roald Dahl’s oldest daughter died from measles, Mary Shelley had five pregancies but only one lived (one died of malaria, they don’t say what the second baby named Clara dies from), The family featured in the “Cheaper by the Dozen” was actually eleven after one died from diphtheria (see “Making Time – Lillian Moller Gilbreth” by Jane Lancaster).

    By the way, I think the “big bad” pharma bit is silly when you look at all the studies that Offit mentions and realize they are not done in just one country, but in several. You would have to be very big believer in conspiracies if you think that Japan, Canada, the UK, Denmark and few others were all in collusion.

    It also breaks down when you realize the medical costs associated with the diseases. While the death rate for measles is about 1 in 1000, that means that one person was in the hospital with lots of people, meds and equipment trying to keep him/her alive — and then multiply it by the several who are hospitalized who do survive (in the local outbreak out of about 15, at least three were hospitalized). Then there is keeping kids alive who have pertussis, mostly making sure they are ventilated (antibiotics are of limited use when a bacterial infection relies mostly on releasing toxins, real toxins).

  4. Wow! Thanks for the information! My wife and I have vaccinated our daughter but I think the reflexive defense posture parents get to protect their children is much stronger than the inclination to believe the science behind this. As for Big Pharma, they have done little to sow trust with the American public and every time that a parent with a child with an expensive/difficult disease sees another ad on TV for lifestyle drugs like Cialis and Viagra, they continue to seeth.

    Curing disease, finding treatments that are affordable or even accessible is becoming a tougher and tougher proposition for everyday Americans. Until we have true health care reform where everyday Americans can get inexpensive medical services, I’m sure we’ll see this Us vs. Them attitude. I hope that is something that we can all agree on.

  5. […] book by Dr. Bob Sears.  Dr. Sears responded to the criticisms on his own web site.  I recently reviewed Offit’s new book Autism’s False Prophets, which is an excellent explanation and […]

  6. […] on Vaccines at Babble Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccine expert, wrote a book called Autism’s False Prophets about the rise of the antivaccine movement.  One of the chapters has been condensed into an […]

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