As he explains in The Panic Virus, the number of dedicated science journalists is declining (which is true), so editors give science stories to generalists who are unequipped to understand what they’re writing about. (Presumably the editors are also unequipped to edit the stories.) However, publications without dedicated science teams or reporters tend to rely on national wire services, which still retain sophisticated science reporters. Also, as National Press Foundation president Bob Meyers once reminded us, “The media are plural”—in focus, perspective, and in sophistication. Surely between The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the National Enquirer, somebody will get it right.
So where does this leave us? Mnookin’s searing indictment of the deeply flawed science peddled by some vaccine skeptics may have been intended as the definitive postmortem on a seductive delusion. Instead, it falls short of the mark—haunted by its failure to maintain balance, and by its reluctance to portray medical science not as it is idealized, but as it is practiced. In the end, The Panic Virus offers an informative and entertaining sojourn through the history and science of the vaccine-autism controversy. It is a good place to start understanding that mess—but certainly not the last word.