Science and the media: three new books

There has been a surge of interest recently in science denial, particularly revolving around the issue of vaccines. Last year saw the release of Michael Specter's Denialism; in the last few months, three others have been released: Seth Mnookin's Panic Virus, Robert Goldberg's Tabloid Medicine, and Paul Offit's "Deadly Choices." More about each of them after the jump.

"The Panic Virus" by Seth Mnookin focuses on the general topic of media-fueled science denial, using vaccines as the case study. Like Offit's recent "Autism's False Prophets, Mnookin details a bit of the history of the anti-vaccine movement, from the beginnings of inoculation/vaccination to present-day anti-vax crusaders.

Roger Goldberg's Tabloid Medicine is the second book on the internet/science/denial that's been recently released. Goldberg is more of a policy wonk, and his book reflects that background, focusing more on FDA regulation and the intersection of the drug companies and academia. Goldberg focuses on the emergence of "instant experts" in subject areas (think Jenny McCarthy et al) who have been able to grow in prominence via the Internet and other media sources. While vaccines are covered, Goldberg's book is more broad-ranging, and spends much of its time on drug approval (not surprising, given Goldberg's "day job" at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest).

Finally, Paul Offit's new book, "Deadly Choices," rounds out the trifecta. Offit is a scientist and physician, and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He's also the author of another recent book on vaccines and autism, Autism's False Prophets. While that book focused largely on Wakefield and other researchers who have fueled the bogus autism/vaccine controversy, "Deadly Choices" is the book among these three that spends the most time looking at the media connection to vaccine panic. While both Mnookin and Offit discuss Jenny McCarthy (as does Goldman), Offit goes further in discussing other current anti-vax notables including Dr. Oz and Bill Maher, as well as other anti-vax movement leaders dating back well over a century.

Of the three, I was pretty evenly divided over Mnookin's "Panic Virus" and Offit's "Deadly Choices." Both are good picks, especially for someone who is new to this area (as Mnookin himself was prior to writing his book). Both are highly critical of the anti-vaccine groups, but take them on without seeming too "elitist" or "know-it-all." I know for me personally, it's difficult to write about some of these people without letting a bit of scorn and derision creep in, which you can sometimes sense in Goldberg's book. (Understandably so, in my opinion, but still--I can see how it may be off-putting to individuals who are not versed in these areas. I was actually pretty impressed that Offit's book managed to avoid this, even more so given the hardships he puts up with at the hands of the anti-vax community).

Both Mnookin and Offit also bring in stories of children who caught--and died from--vaccine-preventable illnesses, but it doesn't seem tawdry or manipulative. And Mnookin notes that, as a new parent himself, he still wrestles with issues of vaccination fear and a million other anxieties, but that he's more concerned that his son "might be one off those children for whom a given vaccine isn't effective, or that he'll come into contact with someone infected with Hib or measles or whooping cough before he's old enough to have gotten all his shots." These are sensible and, unfortunately, justifiable concerns, given the current anti-vaccine climate.

However, I felt that Goldberg's book is quite appropriate for those of us in the trenches over the anti-science debates. While I don't deal a lot with drug use/approval issues here, Goldberg finishes his book with his ideas about how personalized medicine can help hasten the downfall of some of these "instant experts," by better identifying who may be at risk for more extreme side effects from certain drugs (and conversely, who will benefit from their use). He also urges scientists and medical professionals to become more involved in using the internet to our advantage, and therefore be more active in taking it back from the "instant experts." I tend to agree.

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Hereâs one big science problem you fail to acknowledge. Multi-dose vaccine vials contain an extremely large quantity of mercury. Look at some of these mathematical facts;

0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury = Kills human neuroblastoma cells (Parran et al., Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

2 ppb mercury = U.S. EPA maximum limit for drinking water.

20 ppb mercury = Neurite membrane structure destroyed (Leong et al., Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37).

200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics.

25,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose, Hepatitis B vaccine vials, administered at birth from 1991-2001 in the U.S.

50,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose DTaP and Haemophilus B vaccine vials, administered 8 times in the 1990âs to children at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months of age and currently âpreservativeâ level mercury in multi-dose flu, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines. This can be confirmed by simply analyzing the multi-dose vials.

In addition ethylmercury, the type used in vaccines, is more toxic than methylmercury. Why? Primate studies show that ethylmercury leaves behind twice as much divalent mercury in the brain than methylmercury. Injecting this into the muscle provides rapid access to the bloodstream and just makes this situation much worse. Now there are a lot of people who just donât understand this. These people will buy into your nonsense. Unfortunately, most educated people will not. This is why this debate will never go away.

Actually, Joe, most educated people know that parts per billion is a dimensionless quantity, and the sorts of comparisons you made are pretty much meaningless -- even if they were accurate (and for the most part they aren't). They also have read that several large studies have shown that the supposed deleterious effects of mercury preservatives don't seem to be affected when the mercury is removed. This matters a lot more than cherry-picked unreplicated in vitro studies and in vivo studies where N is in the single digits.

You're flogging a horse that has long since expired.

Not to mention that thimerosal is no longer used in most vaccines, and is metabolized by the body much more quickly than methylmercury...

You're right Tara. It is metabolized more quickly. It rapidlly enters the brain and metabolizes to Hg++ where it remains trapped. This metabolized form is the one most linked to degenerative brain disease. You need to do some basic research. Go to Pubmed and type in "mercury brain injury". See what you find about this subject.

Idledmind, a ppb is a number relative to a billion (like micrograms per kilogram or microgram per liter). This is how mercury is monitored in all substances. What exactly are you talking about?

Pubmed-ing "mercury brain injury" brings up 4 pages of results, and I don't see any looking at thimerosal. You certainly wouldn't be trying to conflate that with methylmercury, would you? You also (unsurprisingly) ignored my point about thimerosal's use.

"200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics."

Let's assume that is true. If so, it's still misleading. LOT'S of things qualify as "hazardous waste" for the purposes of EPA regulation. Thimerosal is a preservative, which means it is intended to kill or prevent the growth of microorganisms. Great in a medical context, not so great to be dumping into the environment in large quantities. The fact that the EPA regulates waste at those concentrations does NOT necessarily indicate that mercury at those concentrations is toxic to people.

The statement about drinking water is also misleading, because no one is DRINKING vaccines. A vaccine dose is .5ml. The EPA has to make recommendations based on the idea that a person could get ALL of their water intake from one source, AND also still be exposed to the chemical through other likely routes, and STILL not exceed maximum safe doses for exposure PER DAY or OVER TIME.

Also, all the studies I'm finding for toxicity in whole organisms (rats, rabbits, people) sees observable toxic effects at the mg/kg level. Quantities of mercury in a vaccine are micrograms rather than milligrams, so at best you could argue small effects building over time.

And really, all of this is irrelevant for many reasons.

1) None of the problems attributed to mercury in vaccines have decreased in number or severity since thimerosal use was discontinued.

2) There are many routes for exposure of children to toxins, many of which are more dangerous than vaccines.

3) Worst case scenario? A few neurons lost to mercury poisoning >>> many neurons lost to severe illness or death of a child.

Let's try this again Tara. Ethylmercury and methylmercury are both short chain alkyl mercury compounds. Once in the bloodstream, they are both distributed to the brain. In the brain they de-alkylized to Hg++. The ethylmercury , as you mentioned, does this more rapidily. The vaccines that still contain mercury in the U.S. are the flu, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines, all administered to children. The flu shot is required every year. Injection is the most efficent way to get mercury into the bloodstream.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to take away your folks rights to inject yourselves with anything you want to.

Hi Tara, when I Pubmed mercury and brain (leave out the and on Pubmed) I get 2,159 hits. When I do the same with thimerosal and brain I get 89 hits. I think you made a mistake by putting the terms in between quotation marks. This would require the term to be listed all together as one phrase.

Also, have you noticed that someone keeps repeating the same post using different names? It is someone disruptive to the discussion here.

Most often the things we never see are in front of us all the time. We all have a part of ourselves that is always there within us and always escaping our attention. This part of who we are, always hidden in plain sight, is the ability to foresee future changes in our mind-bodies as unintended consequences of our behaviors. Therefore, once you read âHealth Secrets from the Seventh Heavenâ you will realize that the solutions to your existing or potential health problems are so close to you that all you need to do is to become aware of them. More at

Robert Goldman or Robert Goldberg? You call him both in this posting, you know.

By Calton Bolick (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

Dang it, sorry about that. Fixed now.

Jerry, no quotes. I have had a bit of experience searching pubmed. The suggested terms noted above were mercury and brain injury.