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American Today


Mnookin First Guest at Science in Society Series

By Mike Unger

Photo: SOC professor Declan Fahy, left, and author Seth Mnookin.

SOC professor Declan Fahy, left, and author Seth Mnookin. (Photo: Mike Unger)

The Science in Society Film and Lecture series’ inaugural event featured a fascinating interview with Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear.

Those who caught the January 31 Q&A conducted by School of Communication professor Declan Fahy left the Wechsler Theatre pondering not only questions surrounding the lingering debate over the effectiveness of vaccines, but the very nature of how we judge scientific information.

Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, became interested in the vaccination debate after moving to a New York neighborhood populated by many young families.

“In conversation the issue of vaccination would come up, and I was surprised that a lot of my friends would say it feels like there are too many vaccines,” he told Fahy, program director for SOC’s MA in international media. “What struck me was these were the same people who were disdainful of global warming skeptics [and creationists].”

The issue has simmered since 1998, when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a paper suggesting that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. Though Wakefield and his theory have since been discredited, the “myth,” as Mnookin calls it, has remained, popularized by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. The book also delves into the way the media has covered the subject.

“What unique story did you want to tell? What part of the story did you feel hadn’t come out?” Fahy asked.

“One of my goals was to come at it from the perspective of not having made up my mind coming into it,” Mnookin answered. “One of my biggest pet peeves is the ‘on one hand, on the other hand’ kind of crap you get [in the media] all the time. About issues of fact I don’t think you present [the story that way].”

After years of research and dozens of interviews with vaccination opponents, public health officials, parents of children who contracted a preventable disease before they were old enough to be vaccinated, and even multiple conversations with Wakefield, Mnookin became convinced that the science is clear: no link exists between childhood vaccines and autism.

“I have a lot of empathy for parents whose children are sick and are struggling to try and find out how that came about,” Mnookin told Fahy, a former reporter for the Irish Times, Irish Daily Mirror and Longford Leader newspapers. “Emotionally I was not prepared for what the project would entail. [But] you need to be honest about the facts.”

The next edition of the series, also sponsored by SOC and the College of Arts and Sciences, is February 17 at 7:30 p.m. SOC professor Larry Engel will screen an episode he directed of The Human Spark.