Bad Astronomy

Salon mag pulls dangerous and fallacious antivax article

Back in 2005, Salon magazine (along with Rolling Stone) published an antivax hit piece by Robert Kennedy Jr. called “Deadly Immunity”. This article had so many basic factual errors in it that doctors and skeptics were appalled; it was clearly an egregiously slanted antireality screed linking thimerosal (a preservative that used to be widely used in some vaccines) with autism. Even when it was published it was wrong, and new studies published showed conclusively that thimerosal was unrelated to autism; the number of diagnosed autism cases continued to rise even after thimerosal use was stopped in most vaccines.

Now, Salon has announced that they have taken the Kennedy article off of its archive due to its overwhelming lack of accuracy. A big cause of this was the publishing of Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus, which I’ve read and which is excellent. The book details just how awful the initial research into autism and vaccines was, the rise of the antivax movement, and how people like Kennedy and other journalists published articles that were almost entirely fact-free when it came to actual medical issues. Of course, having international headlines about Andrew Wakefield’s research being called fraud didn’t hurt, either.

I applaud Salon for doing this, but wish it had been done years ago, or better, that Salon had never published Kennedy’s piece at all. Once something like that is published, it gets placed into the antivaxxers’ quiver where it will remain forever. And no matter how much you can say the article is wrong, Kennedy was wrong, and the antivaxxers were wrong, those who fight against reality will simply say that Salon is clearly being pressured by Big Pharma or whatever made-up bogeyman they can find.

In fact, it would be best if they kept the article up with a big disclaimer on it, and a link to debunking articles, like the ones from Orac (here’s the original takedown) and Steve Novella. Then people could see how easily mainstream media get fooled, and have the information on-hand to see where reality exists.

As always, let me be clear: I am a parent, and went through all the worries every parent has for their young child. Even so, I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents whose child is diagnosed anywhere on the autism spectrum. My heart aches when I read about those families. But when we are scared, or looking for reasons when something bad happens, we cannot allow our emotions to trump our rationality. Sometimes it just leads to embarrassing mistakes… but antivaccination propaganda leads to children getting sick, and sometimes these diseases are deadly.

This isn’t spin, it isn’t some lie from nefarious organizations, this isn’t misinformation. Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives, and have been shown not to have the deleterious effects the antivaxxers claim. Talk to your doctor, and read reputable websites. Anecdotes may sometimes be convincing, but they can also be very wrong. And in this case, we can’t take that risk.