Book Review: Autism’s False Profits

Autism’s False Profits, by Paul Offit

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Autism's False ProphetsPaul Offit had a bird’s eye view on the autism, vaccines, and thimerosol, controversy. In fact, he made some key decisions during the whole debacle, and some folks deeply resent him for those decisions. In his book, Autism’s false prophets: Bad science, risky medicine, and the search for a cure, Offit describes the people and circumstances that lead up to the current debate over whether or not thimerosol, a mercury derivative, is responsible for ‘causing autism’. According to Offit, who founded the vaccine education center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and helped to invent a rotavirus vaccine, there is no scientific debate. He cites 13 epidemiological studies debunking the correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine, and 6 epidemiological studies debunking the correlation between autism and thimerosol. Offit also cites studies claiming that the rate of autism is the same in vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

Although some might think that if the scientific community discredits the vaccine-autism connection, the media and the public should follow suit, Offit knows better. Throughout his book, Offit brings the reader’s attention to the method by which general public receives their scientific information: the media. The media and reliable scientific studies do not do business in the same way, Offit claims. Even fairly dependable media sources do not prioritize the same statistical standards as the scientific community, and neither group explains those standards to the public. Additionally, says Offit, this is the same public in which a full 50% believe in astrology, ghosts, aliens currently on earth, and dinosaurs and humans living in the same time period. This group is easy to scare, and difficult to un-scare, claims Offit, but he is not unsympathetic to parents who are desperate to find a distinct cause for autism. Over and over again, Offit points to a study by Dr. Adrian Sandler in which a half a group of children with autism receive secretin injections (an autism treatment trend in the early 2000’s), and half receive a benign saline injection. According to parent testimony (neither group knew which treatment they were receiving), the children receiving the secretin made improvements, but those who got the saline injection improved even more. This, says Offit and Sandler, is testament to the overwhelming parental need to see progress, to have hope for a cure.

Offit carefully details the way this desperate hope has been manipulated since autism was discovered by Leo Kanner in the mid 1900’s. The ‘false prophets’ Offit denounces include Bruno Bettleheim (refrigerator mothers), Matthew Israel (electric shock therapy), Douglas Biklen (facilitated communication), Victoria Beck (Secretin), Richard Deth (vitamin B12), and Andrew Wakefield and Defeat Autism Now (mercury chelation). According to Offit, each of these hysterical fads were based on sloppy, flawed research. The media, seeing itself as ‘defenders of the weak’, flashed newsbreaks about these treatments, and several politicians, not understanding the science themselves, got roped into promoting various dubious treatments. Many confused parents, already inundated with internet-cures and anecdotal stories, leapt to experiment with a huge variety of treatments, only to find their hopes dashed over and over again. Offit seems saddened and disgusted by these under-researched treatments, and slightly fed up with parents who turn an overly-critical eye on meticulously researched government-sanctioned vaccine programs, but do not keep this same critical outlook when evaluating treatments for their children. Although Offit receives hate mail and death threats from people who, despite all the evidence, still believe vaccines cause autism, he is committed to telling his version of the convoluted autism story.

APA citation: Offit, P. A. (2008). Autism’s false prophets: Bad science, risky medicine, and the search for a cure. New York: Columbia University Press.

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