Dr. Paul Offit Spoke About His New Book at the National Press Club in Washington, DC

October 30, 2018 Rene F. Najera

On Monday night (October 29, 2018), I had the privilege to drive down to Washington, DC, and listen to Dr. Paul Offit talk about his new book, Bad Advice. Unfortunately, the talk at the National Press Club devolved into a discussion about vaccine safety, the conspiracy theory that “Big Pharma” controls any and all vaccine safety research, the fraudulent and never-replicated study linking the MMR vaccine to autism, and how much Dr. Offit profits from vaccine policy. It started going downhill when a group of about 30 anti-vaccine activists showed up, and the discussion never really talked about the book.

Before we dive into what happened at the talk, let’s give you a quick primer on Dr. Paul Offit. Dr. Offit is an attending physician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Along with other researchers, Dr. Offit helped develop a vaccine against rotavirus (a virus that causes a gastrointestinal infection that can be deadly to young children). Rotavirus vaccines, in general, can save up to 2.4 million lives a year around the world, according to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

Dr. Offit has been the subject of many attacks by anti-vaccine groups and individuals. Their attacks range from plain-old name calling to credible death threats. People have taken very long trips to attend his talks and derail the conversation. He could be talking about virology in general, and they show up asking questions about vaccines and autism. Dr. Offit seems to take it all in stride, however. As we chatted before his talk, he seemed calm and focused. Then, as the anti-vaccine group arrived, he even took the time to welcome some of them to the talk with a smile and a handshake.

Immediately before the talk began, a man who appeared to be the leader of the anti-vaccine group handed out what he referred to as a “white paper” but appeared closer to a set of scripted questions to ask of Dr. Offit. As the talk began, the moderator tried to stick to talking about the book, but the anti-vaccine activists wouldn’t have it. They flooded the moderator with questions – copied from the script and written in cards, as was required by the hosts – about different conspiracy theories on vaccines.

Calmly and with plenty of examples to back up his claims, Dr. Offit responded to many of the questions asked by the crowd through the moderator. However, there were several instances where the leader of the group interrupted Dr. Offit, to the point where the leader of the group was asked to remain quiet (for the third time) or leave. Others continued interrupting, with another man in the audience asking Dr. Offit to disclose his earnings from the rotavirus vaccine. To that, Dr. Offit responded that he didn’t have to disclose anything, that it wasn’t any of the man’s business. (This response was met with some applause.)

In the end, very little was discussed about the book. Most of the questions were about vaccines and autism, vaccines and deaths, vaccines and “Big Pharma,” and a lot of the people who genuinely had questions about the book seemed upset that they didn’t get to ask them. Sure, the anti-vaccine activists paid their $10 to attend, and they had the same right to be there as any other member of the audience, but the hosts and other guests seemed upset that the anti-vaccine activists took over the discussion. Even if Dr. Offit responded calmly and with apparent sincerity to the questioning, the event was not about vaccines and their perceived dangers.

Dr. Paul Offit on stage with a moderator, responding to questions from the crowd

The message from Dr. Offit that night was that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence that is biologically plausible and that is reproducible. If any discovery is made in science, it needs to fit these criteria before it can be accepted as fact. The “MMR causes autism” claim was not biologically plausible, and it has not been replicated in a scientifically rigorous way. On the other hand, Dr. Offit stated that if something like vaccines has the ability to do good, it could also do harm. It’s just that vaccines don’t cause some of the harms attributed to them, and the harms that they could cause are in numbers and proportions, and severity, much smaller than claimed by anti-vaccine celebrities.

A second message embedded in the one above was that much of the media has been trying to give an equal platform to pseudoscience and misinformation. If a reporter wants to cover a scientific discovery or advancement in vaccine science, they don’t need to go find an anti-vaccine group to “balance” their reporting. Yet many reporters do, and they seem to be doing it for the sake of controversy. (Controversy selling better than just plain reporting of facts.) Dr. Offit pointed out that this is a general phenomenon in the media, with television being more complicit than, say, radio or print media.

The evening ended with the anti-vaccine group waiting for Dr. Offit in the lobby of the building. However, Dr. Offit and others went for dinner at the National Press Club’s restaurant. After a while, the activists disbanded, but not before several of them scorned their leader for interrupting so much and placing them in a bad light. Some of them, it seemed, wanted a dialogue and not a shouting match with accusations and name-calling. While Dr. Offit delivered that dialogue, their own leader and his “partners” interrupted often and repeated the same accusations.

Dr. Offit’s book, Bad Advice, is on sale now.

A video of a previous talk of his about his book is below.

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