Loe Fisher said she thought the CDC’s numbers on flu deaths were inflated.
The breakout session’s moderator, another scientist, asked Loe Fisher something like, “You don’t really think that the CDC is lying?”
Here, memories diverge. Offit remembers Loe Fisher growing more and more upset — “Just my being upset her” — and Loe Fisher remembers the same about Offit, his rage. Still in that session, she started talking about freedom and choice. What about that? Parents might not have white coats and medical diplomas, but they’re not stupid. They’re bright, college-educated and passionate, and now they’ve got the Internet, “basically the library of the world,” and they should have the freedom to make their own informed choices about vaccines for their own kids. Offit responded that he actually agreed, in theory, but the problem was, where do you get your information to make that free choice? If you go to certain websites, you can read about how vaccines cause autism, but that’s wrong, vaccines don’t actually cause autism, and so “You’ll be badly informed, and you’ll make a decision that will hurt the child.”
And that’s when Loe Fisher — who correctly guessed that Offit was talking about her website — said that Offit had “an elitist attitude, and a paternalistic attitude, and an authoritarian attitude, and it’s just not appropriate in America.”
“Oh, gosh, and I just couldn’t help myself,” Loe Fisher tells me. She adds, “I remember when he walked into the room and saw that I was in there, he goes, ‘What is she doing here? Why would you put us in this room together?’”
I ask Offit if he remembers saying this.
“No, I never said that,” he says, flatly.
Offit has a remarkable, distinctive voice. It’s the voice of a natural storyteller, nimble and fluid, with speed settings from Pregnant Pause to Warp 9.
“What are you doing here?”
He lets the quote wash over him. He can’t believe Loe Fisher said he said that. He’s going into warp. “I never said that. You think I’m crazy? Like, suicidal? … Why would I ever say this? My colleagues are here? I’m going to say this in front of my colleagues? Also, I don’t like confrontation, actually.”
There’s a pause. “Although I seem to have immersed myself in it.”
And then, laughing slightly: “Did she say anything nice about me at all?”
Vaccine-makers. Germ-slayers. They used to be the good guys. But if the last decade of Paul Offit’s life is any guide, the culture no longer has much use for pragmatic doctors who know how to treat microbes with appropriate brutality. Nobody ever wrote Jonas Salk at his good old polio lab to say “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead!” — which is what a man in Seattle threatened to do to Paul Offit in the late ’90s. (At that time, Offit was serving on the committee that makes vaccine recommendations to the CDC; an armed FBI bodyguard began to tail Offit at the meetings.) Nobody ever typed messages to Dr. Salk that read, “You have blood on your hands” or “Your day of reckoning will come,” which are both e-mails from Offit’s inbox.