The Panic Virus

By Phil Plait | March 11, 2011 7:00 am

As I write this, I just got back from hearing author Seth Mnookin give a talk here in Boulder about his book, The Panic Virus (the talk was sponsored by my friends at the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition — I love those folks). It’s an excellent book about the rise and power of the antivax movement. I recommend reading it. That is, if your stomach doesn’t get upset over the events it describes. Mine did.

The talk was quite good, with him going over the basics of the people who fight against vaccinations. The most interesting part was during the Q&A, when a woman sitting right behind me starting soapboxing about how vaccines weren’t tested enough, and there weren’t enough studies showing their safety, and so on. It was clear after she said just a few words that she was from some antivax organization, and I found out afterward she was from Safeminds — a group that tried to get really awful ads placed in movie theaters but which was fought tooth and nail by Skepchicks.

The woman’s tactics were pretty simple: sow doubt, and use bad logic to do so. First she misrepresented what Seth wrote in his book (saying he was one-sided, always supporting vaccines, when in fact he has a lot to say about the failings of how they are tested and discussed by some doctors to parents). Then she tried to imply a false dichotomy: if they aren’t tested well, they cannot be safe, and we shouldn’t use them. That’s obviously wrong, and also ignores the vast amount of good vaccines do. When was the last time you heard of someone contracting smallpox? Oh right: 1977.

Thanks, vaccines!

Anyway, about Seth’s book, my friend and fellow science advocate Dr. Rachael Dunlop pointed me toward the new Australian edition of the book, which has a new preface as well. I’m happy to see that Mnookin directly takes on the situation in Australia, documenting the behavior of antivaxxer Meryl Dorey and relaying the story of the McCafferys, who lost their four week old daughter Dana due to pertussis and low vaccination rates. You can read the preface at that link above.

Again, I do recommend this book. Dorey’s organization may be on its way out, but the antivaxxers are still out there –obviously, as evidenced by the woman from Safeminds at the talk — and still spreading mistrust and fear. The Panic Virus will give you a lot of useful information about how this came to be, and what we can do about it.

[P.S. Before the usual brigade of antivaxxers swarm the comments below and accuse me of being a Big Pharma shill, please read this essay by skeptic Rebecca Watson about the pharmaceutical industry. I agree with her.]

Related posts:

The AVN falsehood keep on a-comin’
BREAKING: BMJ calls Andrew Wakefield a fraud
Whooping cough now an epidemic in California

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Piece of mind

Comments (33)

Links to this Post

  1. A week on the road: California & Colorado recap | March 12, 2011
  1. Out of curiosity, how was the Safeminds woman’s “concerns” handled?

  2. Aubri

    Thanks, vaccines!

    Sorry, sorry. (Go youtube “Look Around You” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s hilarious.)

    I think you’ve really said it all here. It’s valuable and valid to keep pharma companies on a short leash, just like you would any other, but it’s very bad to bombard them with so many frivolous lawsuits that it’s no longer profitable to make vaccines. I shudder to think what would happen if the government had to take over the vaccine-making industry.

  3. Jeff in Tucson
  4. TJ

    PLEASE say something about this “Extreme Supermoon” thing going around!!!!
    (Those who don’t know about it, just google the phrase…)
    I reaaaallly need something good to send to my friends that are posting about it on Facebook…. :-/

  5. The same people who lobby against “big pharma pushing untested vaccines on us” usually put their trust in homeopathic remedies to cure them of any ills. As if homeopathy isn’t big business and as if it is tested extremely well. If it weren’t for the deadly diseases that result from this mindset, the dichotomy would be funny to observe.

  6. “The woman’s tactics were pretty simple: sow doubt, and use bad logic to do so…”

    At least she didn’t bring out the too many too soon fallacy, which is basically a lie by omission, pointing out that kids receive more than twice the shots they initially did, but staying mum about the fact that they’re exposed to only 5% of the antigens. So how do we get too many too soon from a 20-fold reduction in the amount of antigens to which we expose patients? Maybe in homeopathic land where the laws of chemistry are made to stand on their head and swear that up is down and left is north?

    Also, can’t help but notice that the image of the virus used on the cover is actually a visualization of a computer virus’ code. Coincidence or a subtle allusion to the web’s role in propagating anti-vax conspiracy theories? I’m going with Occam’s Razor and sticking to the coincidence hypothesis, but still, something to think about for the hell of it I suppose…

  7. Brad

    So who is working on the vaccine for “Panic”?

    The Panic Virus is also known by it’s scientific name: BU115H17.

  8. Nigel Depledge

    Aubri (1) said:

    I shudder to think what would happen if the government had to take over the vaccine-making industry.

    You’d get a very obvious conflict of interest.

    On the one hand, governments regulate the healthcare industry (the FDA in the USA, the MHRA in the UK, and the EMEA across Europe). OTOH, if governments are making healthcare products, they’d need to be overseen by another department of the same organisation.

  9. Nigel Depledge

    Techy Dad (2) said:

    The same people who lobby against “big pharma pushing untested vaccines on us” usually put their trust in homeopathic remedies to cure them of any ills. As if homeopathy isn’t big business and as if it is tested extremely well.

    Yes. This.

  10. CrociDuck

    I’ll definetly give this book a look as I think the more we educate ourselves on the cold, hard evidence based facts, rather than the media hyped scare-mongering, the more we can fend off the tidal wave of anti-science that appears to be sweeping through society.
    …although slightly off topic, I would also recommend a book by Ben Goldacre, (Bad Science – notice a theme Phil?!? :-) ), which takes a very cool headed, skeptical and insightful look at Big Pharma and ‘alternative’ therapies. I’m only half through it but it is a fascinating read and provides the reader with a armoury of weapons against all the anti-science advocates.

  11. @Brad (#7): That made me LOL! 😀 Thanks.

    As always, feel free to visit

  12. Steve

    I’ll say it again and again, as a man who suffers from the effects of infantile polio, I sure as hell wish that vaccine had been available when I caught the bug! And I sure hope none of the anti-vaxxers have a kid suffer from polio, tetanus, pertussis, etc, etc.

  13. jaranath

    Phil! As TJ says, the SuperMoon is being blamed for the Japanese quake and we need your help!

    Bad Astronomer: Go!

    (okay, I should note that while the BA is a superhero, I don’t find the quake itself amusing in the slightest bit…)

  14. Dunc

    Re: the lunar perigee (I refuse to use that other stupid term) and the Japanese earthquake…

    We’re still a little more than a week away from perigee. The Moon is actually currently further than its average distance from the Earth. (394,494 km currently, 384,403 km average.) Plus, the gravitational effects of the Moon and Sun are currently more-or-less at right-angles, so we’re actually at the point in the cycle where the tidal forces are at their weakest.

    When your orbital period is only 29 days, 8 days makes a lot of difference.

  15. miss k

    Currently the US has a special panel to deal with any potential vaccination law suits to avoid frivolity. For the most part you can’t sue big pharma for just any vaccine related issues. Thus far its proven to be rather valuable in only allowing serious cases of negligence to get through and freeing up companies to invest resources in much needed research instead of lawyers. (google “vaccine court” for more info)

  16. Michel

    @4. TJ
    There is no good vaccine against it.
    And the one that excists makes you moon.

  17. Chris

    miss k:

    Currently the US has a special panel to deal with any potential vaccination law suits to avoid frivolity.

    And the irony is that Barbara Loe Fisher was partly responsible for that system.

  18. @ 13 Jaranath and @ 4 TJ:

    Well, I think the first steps in this debunking are:
    1.) What are the claims?
    All I can get thus far is some idea that a supermoon is a moon that is full AND at perigee, and this caused the morning’s earthquake. The moon is ever so slightly closer to Earth than it normally is at perigee, and because it’s full, the Sun is on the other side of the Earth.

    I see one problem already, that the Moon was nowhere near full this morning (~8 days away, which is roughly 102 degrees). Thus, if the moon is going to reach perigee at the same moment it becomes full, it’s nowhere NEAR perigee now (and in fact, the distance to the Moon should be almost dead onto the average value). If this particular amount of gravitational force caused massive earthquakes, it’d do that ALL THE TIME. Ergo, nothing doing.

    But- further things to look at, to be thorough:
    When will the moon be at perigee?
    When will the moon be full?
    Are they both 19 March?
    Will the moon be unusually close at this perigee?

    What is the force of the Sun on the Earth right now?
    on average?

    Even if it IS 19 March, how much more gravitational effect will the Moon have on the Earth than it normally does
    a.) on average
    b.) at a normal perigee
    The moon’s orbital eccentricity is about 0.055, so I’m betting the changes in its orbit are MINISCULE, maybe even to the point where they’d be dwarfed by mountains on the Earth. (Update: probably not miniscule, see below)

    How often does such a conjunction happen? (probably something like 18 years, for the Saros cycle)
    How often do magnitude 8+ earthquakes happen?

    (Update: Check the UniverseToday link in my name. They give numbers: Yes, it’s an 18-year thing, and it will be only 356,577 km away, as opposed to 364,397. Without knowing any other numbers, F=2RGm/r^3 (tidal force, where R= radius of Earth, and r=distance to Moon) tells me the force should be 6% stronger, as all other factors are equal.)

    (Also, #14 Dunc beat me to all this)

  19. Gaebolga

    @ Dunc and DigitalAxis:

    What is it about the words “Extreme” and “SuperMoon” that you don’t understand?

    Your pathetic “science” and “facts” mean less than nothing to a moon so “Super” and “Extreme!”

    You seek to chain the mighty astological forces of a SuperMoon – forces so Extreme that they can turn your very flesh into a collection of bite-sized Twinkie holes held loosely together by nothing more your Sun sign’s humoric alignment – with the insignificant bonds of actual knowledge?

    Have you learned nothing from Jenny McCarthy, you pitiful fools?


  20. Muzz

    Did anyone record that Q&A for later publication?

  21. Gaebolga has been infected with tiger blood and Adonis DNA!!!!

  22. DigitalAxis

    @20 Gaebolga:
    If they were serious, they would have put more X’s in XXXXXTREEEME!

  23. Lucia

    CBC Radio’s The Current has an excellent interview with Seth Mnookin (I’m not sure if this link will work in the US):—seth-mnookin/

  24. Dave Jerrard

    Wait. You’re asking antivaxxers to READ something – an ESSAY no less! – before spouting off?

  25. Another Canadian interview with Seth Mnookin, as well as discussion of the Wakefield Study debacle in general: 20:00:00.0

    I subscribe to The Agenda’s podcast and watch episodes during my daily commute… well worth the viewing, in my opinion. And that episode was one of their best.

    — Steve

  26. Peter Eldergill

    @ 26 Anton

    I saw that interview as well .

    It really is worth watching. I like how “The Agenda” doesn’t bring on crackpots in the name of “Balance”


  27. DLC

    Too bad for me that every time I see Seth Mnookin in print I want to “correct” the spelling to Moonkin . . . Me and my damn WoW.

  28. Kevin

    You just helped Seth Mnookin sell another copy of his book. I read the free ebook sample download from B&N on my computer, and plan to go out and purchase a “real” copy (call me a nostalgic throwback if you like, but I’m still talking myself into an ereader) to finish it.

    I especially liked the line:

    “Intuition leads to the flat earth society and bloodletting; experiments lead to men on the moon and microsurgery.”

    Thanks for the recommendation, Phil.

  29. Quaoar

    Just a comment about “clean” and “tested” vaccines…

    I am 64 years old. I was a child during the polio outbreaks in the 1950s, smallpox was still rampant worldwide, penicillin was just a mix of “stuff” that was remarkable for treating infections. None of these vaccines and antibiotics would ever have seen the light of day if use were governed by today’s FDA.

    Yet, the polio vaccines did largely eradicate the scourge of polio within a couple of years, smallpox was eradicated in the western world in just several years, and lethal infections were reduced markedly.

    I am not saying that todays biologicals and pharmaceuticals should not be regulated. I am simply saying that were it not for the absolute need to use these primitive products, many people my age would never have had the opportunity to become my age.

    I think that the anti-vaxers should be given the opportunity to go back into time and take their chances of survival.

    Let’s not even begin the discussion of how these products transformed India, China, etc.

  30. Quaoar

    Well, I read what Rebecca Watson has to say. I disagree.

    But, let’s review:

    “Big Pharma” and “Big Biotech” identify “problems” that are not true health problems: male erectile dysfunction disorder, female sexual arousal disorder. BIG PH&BIO market the treatments for these directly to the consumer (I assume that they also market the same products to the health care cabal the same way, but with enticements).

    So what? Someone, I don’t know who, decided that Cialis, Viagra, were eligible for coverage under health care insurance. Someone, I don’t know who, decides that a product to “treat” female sexual arousal disorder is eligible for coverage on health care insurance.

    The determination that these types of products are eligible for coverage by health care insurance companies is due to the decisions of the health care insurance companies themselves.

    Your inference that Big Damned Pharma and Big Damned Biotech are responsible for health care insurance allowing these treatments is totally off base.

    The reason that these types of products become normative in the health care insurance and health care treatment industries is due to the prevalence of the public-sector “unions” that have the clout to MAKE the insurance companies to allow payments. The taxpayers have no vote in the selection.

    The public-sector “unions” whose health insurance costs are paid by taxpayers, are rampant in the US. These public-sector “unions” have been given carte blanche by their elected public servant managers to charge the public at large for all health care and retirement costs. No private sector union would demand or private sector corporation would agree to payments for these off-the-wall “treatments”.

    Big Pharma and Big Biotech are simply taking advantage of the uncontrolled floods of private taxpayer funds to public sector unions. The California public sector retirement system, funded by taxpayers that have little vote, is the largest single investor in the stock and bond markets.

    Get real. Big Pharma and Big Biotech simply see a very, very, fat and uncontrolled pig, and are successfully stripping some bacon from that public pig. …because they can, and there is no way for the taxpayer to do anything about it.

    Why can’t the public do anything about it? Simple: over the years, the public employee unions have become large enough and strong enough as a bloc to elect public officers who are in their pockets.

    Why can’t the public do anything about it? Simple, over the years, the public have become disinterested in voting for school boards, mayors, county commissioners, etc. The public sector unions become the largest voting blocs, and have their way, raping and pillaging private moneys without the tiniest squeal from the public at large. …until now when taxpayers are becoming educated about their being ripped off because they weren’t paying attention to how their tax pennies became tax Benjamins.

    So, the real criminals are public sector unions. The rubes are the public at large that failed to understand how three-card-monte is played. The fat vultures, cleaning up the countrysides of loose change, are Big Fat Pharma and Big Fat Biotech. The only loser is the taxpayer, where the flow of money starts.

    We taxpayers are starting to get a clue. Big Fat Pharma and Big Fat Biotech are starting to feel the effects of the taxpayer revolt over high health insurance costs driven by Big Fat Public Sector Unions. Big Fat Public Sector Unions HAVE GOTTEN THE MESSAGE, and they are not amused. Their public officer toadies are in Illinois.

  31. A tiny bit of nit-pickery on the mention of small pox: although the last natural case was in 1977, it was also contracted by Janet Parker in August 1978, while working in the same building as a laboratory studying smallpox that had a flawed ventilation system. Janet’s mother also contracted the disease (through her daughter).

    Janet died September 11th 1978 and her mother recovered; the head of the microbiology department, Professor Henry Bedson, committed suicide.

    I had the fortune of non-existence until August of 1982, so the correct answer to when I last heard of someone contracting smallpox is… never.


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