Difference Maker Seth Mnookin takes on autism and vaccines.


Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus takes on the controversial topic of autism and vaccines.


Happy February, everyone!

In addition to being Black History Month, and thus the month in which we will hold our third annual Black History Month quiz, we also will continue this year’s look at Difference Makers.

Seth Mnookin, a son of one of Dad’s fellow men’s group members, is today’s choice.

Not year 40 years old, Mnookin has already had a highly productive journalistic career.  He used the material covering the Jayson Blair scandal to write his first book, which I have not yet read, about The New York Times.  His second book, Feeding the Monster, provided a behind-the=scenes look at the building of the Boston Red Sox to become one of the world’s most valued sports franchises.

His third book, The Panic Virus, began with a dinner conversation.

As he relates the story in the introduction, Mnookin was talking with a friend who demonstrated an increasingly passionate and equally irrational opposition to having his child vaccinated.

Not understanding, but intrigued by, his friend’s response, Mnookin started to look in to the topic.

The Panic Virus is the result of his digging.

It is an ambitious and intellectually versatile work, at different points delving into history, politics, media criticism, popular culture, and, unsurprisingly, the science of vaccines.

Mnookin shows convincingly the emergence of the belief that many people like his friend hold that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine.

His debunking of that popularly held conviction would be enough of a contribution, and Mnookin puts this phenomenon in a global context of the history of diseases, the rise of vaccination, and the stumbles that occur along the way to scientific breakthrough.   While based primarily in America, he does include reporting from Australia and England, home of Andrew Wakefield, to whom Mnookin administers a pretty serious debunking.

He also has a firm enough grip of his material and sufficient intellectual integrity to give credit to those with whom he disagrees when he finds their tactics effective.

In one of the chapters about David Kirby, a journalist who cast his lot with the pro-vaccine-as-cause group Safe Minds, for example, Mnookin explains that Kirby played with skill on the impossibility of proving a negative to undermine the many studies that found there was no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.  During this section of the book Mnookin shows how Kirby presented his case more succinctly and effectively than a Harvard professor with whom he was paired on television.

The product of voluminous research, The Panic Virus also contains enough people dealing with autism to ground the work in a reminder of the disease’s painful impact on the children who have it as well as their families.

I have not quite finished the book, and look forward to polishing it off this evening as the snow continues to pile high here in Chicago.  I have certainly read enough to know, though,  both that Mnookin’s impressive work deserves a wide audience and that he will continue to produce high-quality work for years to come.


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