Offit isn’t saying he’s the reincarnation of Jonas Salk. Just that he’s not, you know, evil. And he certainly doesn’t look the part. He’s 58. He’s a suburban dad. Two kids, two dogs. He’s six feet tall, and he goes to work in lumpy Polartec fleeces and khakis, and he’s got these wide, bright, owlish eyes and a springy, tousled head of graying hair. This is what nerds resemble when they start to get old. Not at all scary or imposing or evil-seeming. But there are those who see something malevolent in those owlish eyes, who view Offit as a symbol of everything they’re up against: a dark and powerful man who would literally harm their children for fun and profit. On the Internet, they call him “Darth Offit,” “Madoffit,” “Dr. Proffit,” “The Voice of Sauron,” and worse. Invoking Offit’s name in the right context and with the right crowd can produce a totemic power, akin to walking into an ACLU meeting and screaming “DICK CHENEY!” It happened at the “Green Our Vaccines” rally on June 4, 2008, in Washington, D.C. The rally was organized by Jenny McCarthy, the plasticine actress and former Playboy Playmate, and her boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey. McCarthy has an autistic son, Evan, and she claims to have cured him with a special diet she invented. She has written best-selling books about it, promoting the books in exuberant appearances on Larry King Live, Oprah and The View. “My science is Evan,” she has said, “and he’s at home.” Other parents of autistic kids have rallied around McCarthy, and so have environmental activists more generally — people who see vaccines as mere toxin-delivery systems, directly analogous to lead-laden Chinese toys and coal-burning power plants.
One of the speakers at the rally that day was Bobby Kennedy’s son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer specializing in environmental litigation. Standing in front of the Capitol in a bristlingly white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Kennedy said, “This guy Paul Offit — you guys know him?”
“BOOOOOOOOOOO!” jeered the thousands of assembled parents of autistic children, many of them jabbing their thumbs toward the grass on the Capitol lawn. It was a sunny day, and they held water bottles, and pictures of their kids mounted on signs. They all knew about Paul Offit.
Kennedy continued: “And he is the poster child for the term ‘biostitute.’”
“Biostitute” is a word Kennedy pronounces so it rhymes with “prostitute.” In the past, he mostly applied it to scientists with ties to oil and coal companies who wrote studies downplaying the threat of global warming. Now he was expanding the term to encompass biologists with ties to drug companies — biologists like Paul Offit, who worked side by side with the drug company Merck to develop his vaccine. Kennedy said of Offit, “This is a man who has made himself the spokesperson for the vaccine industry. He portrays himself as an independent scientist. … He does not disclose the millions of dollars of transactions.” Kennedy was followed at the rally by Carrey, who compared McCarthy to a Biblical prophet. (“The source of all that is good is doing some of its best work through her.”) Then McCarthy, wearing an emerald-green t-shirt, delivered a short speech decrying “the frickin’ mercury” she claimed was in vaccines, at the end of which she asked the parents in the crowd to hold up the pictures of their kids “and turn around and face the media, please,” and she linked arms with Carrey and grinned as photographers angled for shots.