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by Paul A. Offit
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Mar 29th 2011

Autism's False Prophets

Autism's False Prophets targets the area of autism.  The author, Dr. Paul A. Offit, is the Chief of Infectious Diseases, at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and Professor of Pediatrics, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  The defining characteristic of Offit's captivating discourse is its expertly critical nature.  With very considerable intellectual firepower, Offit takes aim expertly and pulls the trigger unapologetically on sighted falsehoods in the region of autism.  Offit's field of critically discerning vision is quite wide ranging, and spots keenly autism related issues enmeshed with science as well as public health, health policy, ethics, law, politics, and journalism.  The sharp blade of Offit's critical examination cuts rights through the flesh of scientifically unsubstantiated claims, exposing some of autism's false prophets; the deftly wielded scalpel of Offit reveals also some of autism's true prophets, who have followed the path of scientific truth.

Across the length and breadth of the text, Offit expertly and critically reviews selected scientific studies, pertinent to autism.  Quoted fragments from some of these studies are grafted instructively into the textual body.  The review efforts of Offit reveal not only his considerable acumen as a medical scientific investigator, but also his artistic adeptness as a very skilled writer.

Following the "Epilogue" is a "Notes" section, in which Offit, by chapter and by page, provides multitudinous citations for research materials tethered tightly to the textual corpus.

A "Selected Bibliography" follows the Notes, and provides citations, alphabetized by author last name, for some books germane to the contents of the text.

Occasional visual images enhance the text's appeal.

It is noteworthy that the text is populated copiously with fragmented quotes of anecdotal origin.  These anecdotal data help breathe animating life into the nostrils of the text.  There may be alarm, however, that the suffusing of the book's substance with anecdotal matter may dilute its academic potency.

In the book's "Introduction", Offit opines that there have been false prophets, who have offered therapies for autism which may be quite expensive, don't help patients, and may even hurt them.  In the eleven chapters that follow, Offit adds much critical flesh to the bones of autism research.

In Chapter 1, for instance, Offit comments critically on the "facilitated communication" approach of Douglas Biklen to treating autistic children.  Secretin therapy for children with autism likewise draws critical fire.  The conclusion of Offit is that these supposed autism therapies actually offer false promises.

The belief of British surgeon Andrew Wakefield that the measles mumps rubella ("MMR") vaccine might cause autism is examined in Chapter 2.  As is his wont throughout the text, Offit pens discourse notable for its forceful intellectual power, bluntly opinionated nature, and expertly critical informativeness.  The politics, of the possible link between MMR vaccine and autism, and the media response to the controversy additionally are fleshed out by Offit.

Contentious ethical issues and litigation entangled in the net of the MMR vaccine and autism controversy are disentangled and examined by the intellectually skilled hands of Offit, in Chapter 3.  As detailed by Offit, scientific data support the conclusion that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism.  And, in Offit's judgment, Wakefield is one of autism's false prophets.

A flashlight of enlightening scrutiny is shined, in Chapter 4, at public health risks associated possibly with the presence of thimerosal (a mercury containing preservative) in vaccines.  Vaccine  policy making, in this context,  is described enthrallingly.

With informatively illumining effect, Offit's luminous flashlight, in Chapter 5, is directed at the area of thimerosal in vaccines as a possible cause of autism.  The thimerosal causes autism hypothesis is eyed by Offit with his customary, critically expert vision.  Some journalistic and political strands entwined with the thimerosal and autism controversy are separated meticulously by Offit.

Scientific data, germane to an evaluation of public health risks associated possibly with thimerosal in vaccines, are reviewed expertly in Chapter 6.  As detailed by Offit, these data hammer many nails into the thimerosal causes autism coffin.

The determined efforts of a woman named Kathleen Seidel (one of autism's true prophets) to expose scientifically unsubstantiated claims regarding autism are recounted in Chapter7.

The attention of Offit, in Chapter 8, is riveted especially on litigation pertaining to autism.

In Chapter 9, the rapt attention of Offit turns in the direction of the news media.  Following custom, Offit is bluntly (albeit thoughtfully) opinionated.  In this manner, Offit expounds on sundry real life obstacles to public understanding of science.

In the book's Epilogue, there is further thoughtfully opinionated comment by Offit, concerning the media and autism related issues.

Offit does not mince words.  Although specific views Offit advances may not be shared fully by other experts, it cannot sensibly be gainsaid that this book is an educationally enriching contribution to the autism literature.

The vast range of professionals who may be enriched, professionally, by the book's contents extends to:  psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, neuroscientists, speech pathologists, pediatricians, primary care physicians, geneticists, virologists, immunologists, vaccine experts, nurses, infectious disease experts, internists, gastroenterologists, epidemiologists, public health professionals, special education teachers, bioethicists, biochemists, biologists, biostatisticians, endocrinologists, pharmacists, pharmacologists, pharmaceutical industry professionals, health policy makers, journalists, politicians, and trial lawyers.

 

© 2011 Leo Uzych

 

Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.