And then there is the role of Americans’ plummeting ability to understand science, which Mnookin argues is making Americans ever more susceptible to vaccine fears. The problem is, according to a Michigan State University researcher, U. S. scientific literacy is actually rising, not falling. The numbers are certainly low (only 28 percent of Americans can understand the science section of The New York Times: ouch), but scientific literacy in this country has nearly tripled within the decade, and compares favorably to that of Europe and Japan.

It’s not only the public, of course, that Mnookin blames for phenomena like the thimerosal-autism panic. He’s equally hard on the news media, which he regards as too credulous, uninformed, or lazy to carry out the investigations that would drive a stake through the heart of this voodoo science. His book refers to journalists “parroting” junk science, and Mnookin recently told Publishers Weekly that “[j]ournalists don’t have the training to get things right.”

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.

 

Harriet A. Washington won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Her next book, Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself, will be published this year.