Will This Doctor Hurt Your Baby?

Thanks to celebrity anti-vaccine crusaders like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Children’s Hospital doctor and vaccine inventor Paul Offit gets death threats from parents frantic about autism — and worse. He’s had enough. He’s taking his critics on

And one of the clear rules in science is that you’re supposed to avoid the public arena. There’s no control in the public arena. It’s too messy and heated. Even though it’s where all the important decisions and currents are being decided and hashed out, and it’s where all the weird vehemence is, and it’s where Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy are winning friends and influencing people with their plays to emotion and their rallies and their stinging indictments of Offit and his ilk, Offit isn’t supposed to fire back by saying something as baldly and factually true as “Vaccines don’t cause autism.” And the reason is, in science, “You can never prove never,” Offit says. “I can never prove that if I go in my backyard and, you know, try and fly like Superman flew, that I can’t fly. I can try it a billion times and not fly. That doesn’t prove I can’t fly. It only makes it all the more statistically unlikely.” But when a parent hears “statistically unlikely,” the parent thinks the jury’s still out, when it’s not.

So Offit finds himself in a paradoxical and somewhat impossible position: To defend science, he has to subvert it. Not the data itself, but the culture of science — what science teaches a scientist about what he can say and write. This means that Offit is always dealing with this low-level friction and discomfort, this voice in his head that says he’s going to get struck down by “the science gods,” even though he’s doing this, all of it, to please and redeem those same gods. And even when other scientists — the ones who would never dream of saying what he says — are cheering him on, as loudly as they can, behind closed doors.

OFFIT’S SITTING IN a chair before a roaring hearth, comparing U.S. parents who don’t vaccinate their kids to child abusers. He’s dressed up. This is rare. He hates dressing up. Still, he’s not wearing a tie. Just a blue blazer and khakis.

It’s a chilly evening in December, and Offit’s at his own book party, giving a speech. The party is outside of Princeton, at the home of one of his doctor friends. About 60 Princetonians — doctors, lawyers, astrophysicists — are slung across couches, some drinking wine, others munching on little lamb chops. They’ve come here to listen to Offit speak about his book, but the discussion has veered and shifted in a free-form and fluid way, and people have asked Offit good and smart questions, and one question in particular, about the informed-consent laws regarding vaccines, has gotten Offit thinking. In 21 states, including Pennsylvania, parents can decline vaccines for their children based on mere “personal belief” that vaccines are harmful. Offit has written about this legal regime as a “fatal exemption.” What Offit’s questioner wants to know is, does he think there will ever be a backlash against parents who opt out? And Offit says, “Well, see, that’s interesting.”

Let’s imagine, Offit says, that “a parent makes a choice not to vaccinate their child.” The doctor asks the parent to reconsider. The doctor says, look, this is a standard of care. And the parent says, “I’ve decided not to give my child the pneumococcal vaccine.” And then the kid gets pneumococcal meningitis and dies from it.