Last night I watched CNN as Sanjay Gupta interviewed accused medical fraudster Andrew Wakefield, and the subsequent discussion with Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, (along with Anderson Cooper). Aside from having given a podium to Wakefield, the interview was a good one. I have nothing to say about Wakefield’s performance except that it was hardly exculpatory. Mnookin was brilliant—knowledgeable, articulate; everything a science journalist should be. I was less happy with Dr. Gupta.
Sanjay made it clear that he favors vaccines, and that he has had his own children immunized fully and on time, and for that message he deserves kudos. But as has been his habit, he strayed a bit too far into a “both side-ism” that creates more confusion than clarity.
Gupta, a very bright and well-respected public figure and physician, has a lot of influence and his words matter. He had the opportunity here to speak loudly and clearly about this fraud and its negative effect on public health. Instead he peppered his remarks with qualifiers. He reiterated that Wakefield has no credibility in the scientific community, when he might properly have stopped at “no credibility”. He states that it’s impossible to prove a negative (sic?), and if we knew “the” cause of autism, the debate would be entirely different.
I’m not so sure.
We know, with as much certainty as is reasonable in science, that vaccines do not cause autism. The fact that we do not know the cause of most cases of autism is not as relevant as this fact. I really do appreciate his strong statements in favor of vaccines, but his other statements feel like an attempt at “balance” where none is warranted.
I respect Dr. Gupta (except the execrable John of God report) and I think he has a lot to offer in communicating medicine and science to the public. He might have used the Wakefield Fraud report to make a strong statement about good science, bad science, and the impact these have on public health. Instead, he was wishy-washy and for that I’m disappointed.