Editor’s Note: This post was previously submitted to Age of Autism, but rejected without being read. It is now published here as Autism Investigated’s first full-length article.
By Jake Crosby
On March 29th, a few weeks after I publicly challenged the vaccine lobby’s blogger David Gorski (“Orac”) on his broken promises related to thimerosal removal, I challenged the vaccine industry’s media go-to guy Seth Mnookin, at his alma mater of Harvard no less. The event was organized by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the topic was “Does the public believe in science?” Not only did it cover the vaccine controversy, but also controversies over climate change and of course stem cell research.
As with the event in New York City where I had my first conversation with Seth Mnookin over a year ago, this event was also in the form of a panel discussion. Sitting on the panel with Mnookin were two Harvard Professors and a writer for USA Today.
The moderator was M. William Lensch, Faculty Director of Education for the Institute. He introduced each member of the panel, but gave a special introduction for Seth Mnookin.
Speaking jovially, Lensch said of Mnookin, “His dad’s a buddy of mine!”
Lensch revealed that he was introduced to Seth Mnookin’s writing through his father Jim Mnookin, who was the 2011′s “Hedge Fund Consultant of the Year.”
“Jim told me to read Seth’s book about the Red Sox.” Lensch said how much he loved that book and about what an avid fan he is of the Boston Red Sox.
“So the Red Sox got Seth Mnookin this speaking gig,” I thought to myself.
Each panelist spoke briefly. When Seth Mnookin spoke, he talked about how there were more cases of measles and how concerning he thought those were and blamed them on vaccine exemptions. However, a measles “outbreak” occurred in Britain just after the UK Health Minister declared before Parliament that, “… MMR vaccination uptake is currently at historically high levels.” That said, Mnookin blaming any US increase there might be in measles on decreased vaccination rates seems premature at best.
He then continued about the recent epidemics of whooping cough – which actually did kill children in the United States – but he did concede that it was waning immunity from the vaccine, not vaccine exemptions, that were causing those outbreaks. In fact, I was the first to inform him of this last year on Twitter, citing none other than the CDC when he tried to exploit the pertussis epidemic in Washington State to serve his agenda. (His only response was to block me from responding to any more of his tweets.)
Then he brought up a study that had apparently just come out – by one of the original thimerosal cover-up co-conspirators Dr. Frank DeStefano of CDC – which Mnookin claimed laid to rest the “myth” that receiving many vaccinations at once increases one’s risk for developing autism. Of course, that study did not look at vaccines at all, but number of “antigens” per vaccine, the lion’s share of which were in the whole-cell pertussis (DTP) vaccine that was being replaced by the acellular pertussis (DTaP) vaccine while the vaccine schedule was increasing in correlation with the explosion of the autism epidemic. The study was merely a re-analysis of old data from a 2010 study claiming to show no association between exposure to the mercury-based preservative thimerosal and autism. In that study the authors suppressed results showing prenatal thimerosal exposure multiplied the risk for autism by eight-fold as revealed by biochemical engineer and autism parent Dr. Brian Hooker.
Unfortunately, I knew none of this regarding this new study, hearing about it for the first time and only having Seth Mnookin’s interpretation of it, which is obviously unreliable. So I brought up yet another study led by DeStefano from all the way back in 2004 that also suppressed results – this time showing that early exposure to the MMR vaccine can multiply the risk for autism by more than 2-fold, which the authors dismissed as an artifact of non-existent immunization requirements for special education children in Georgia. I felt this was more relevant as it concerned a combined vaccine and also because Mnookin consistently blamed measles outbreaks on vaccine exemptions. Bringing up this study by CDC and how the results directly conflicted with the conclusion, I asked Seth Mnookin if he felt the conclusion should be retracted.
Rather than responding to my question, he asked me:
“You want to introduce yourself?”
Although there were other questioners who didn’t introduce themselves, I went ahead and introduced myself:
“Sure, Jake Crosby, MPH Candidate concentrating in epidemiology at GW School of Public Health and Health Services.”
That wasn’t enough for Mnookin, who then asked me:
“What website are you contributing editor to?”
I replied, “Age of Autism: Daily Web Newspaper of the Autism Epidemic.”
I have to give him credit for giving me such an opportunity to plug my then-forum, although I am no longer allowed to contribute to Age of Autism despite still being listed as a contributing editor. Mnookin then asked me:
“And what is Age of Autism’s opinion about autism and vaccines?”
“The opposite of yours.”
At that point, the civility broke down and Seth Mnookin went off on a rant against me, starting by calling a CDC study led by the same author as the one he plugged that day: “insignificant minutia to anyone unfamiliar with this topic,” and said my question was “devoid of facts.” It’s funny how he called the CDC’s study of MMR “insignificant minutia,” but felt the study that didn’t even study what he purported it studied was worth mentioning.
Meanwhile, he continued his rant, claiming there are “studies” of “millions” of children that show no connection whatsoever between vaccines and autism. When he made that argument to me the first time I met him, I pointed out that it was one Merck-funded Finnish study that compared the number of doses of MMR vaccinations to hospitalization rates of autism – the latter is totally useless for measuring autism rates since children are almost never hospitalized for developing autism.
Mnookin went on to say “I don’t know why you follow me to my events, I don’t know what rise you get out of this. You regularly attack me on Age of Autism, attacking my past, attacking my uncle.” The uncle he was referring to was Robert Mnookin, close colleague of vaccine lobby front group president Alison Singer’s mother-in-law. And if attending two of his talks within a year and a half constitutes “following” him, things must be pretty quiet for Seth Mnookin. He also said, “I know there will be a post about this tomorrow” (more like three months, actually).
Mnookin then concluded, “I will not engage you in a big debate about this.”
Taken aback, I replied, “Thank you for not answering my question.”
Then an audience member stood up for me, telling Mnookin, “You shouldn’t take it personally; science isn’t personal.”
The last time I publicly challenged Seth Mnookin at one of his talks, I got booted out after he lied that I disrupted past events of his. In his interview with a neurodiversity blog, Mnookin later tried to claim he had nothing to do with my removal:
“I recently spoke at a medical research conference — via Skype as my daughter had just been born — and there was someone in the audience who was very vocally anti-vaccine, and who ended being taken out of the room for something I had nothing to do with, and in fact I probably would have preferred that he stayed — but regardless, that was an upsetting incident to me.”
Mnookin did not prefer my attendance at the panel discussion he gave at Harvard, that’s for sure.
Jake Crosby is editor of Autism Investigated and is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is completing his candidacy for an MPH in epidemiology. For nearly five years, he was contributing editor to Age of Autism where he eventually encountered resistance to his investigations into the activities of several of the blog’s sponsors (one of which is also an editor) and was ultimately blocked from writing for the site.