Paul Offit wants you to get in the game.
Offit, a vaccine researcher who’s launched a second career as an author of several mass-market books on science and medicine, said it’s a “dangerous time” for science. Budgets are shrinking, and researchers’ voices are being drowned out by flacks, quacks and charlatans.
“We’ve sort of moved from scientific illiteracy to scientific denialism,” Offit said. “I think now more than ever, we scientists need to stand up and explain what we do and why it’s important — because otherwise, we might not be able to do it much longer.”
Offit is one of the inventors of a vaccine for rotavirus, a life-threatening gastrointestinal illness usually seen in infants and children. He now runs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and has become a prolific author.
His books have taken on the anti-vaccination movement, alternative medicine, and religious practices that shun modern treatment. His last book, Pandora’s Lab, is a kind of scientific blooper reel that recounts some of researchers’ worst hits and questionable calls — from lobotomies and eugenics to the unintended consequences of opioid painkillers, nitrogen fertilizers and trans fats.
His latest, Bad Advice, takes on the culture of celebrity experts, quack cures and bogus claims that he argues are misleading the public and fueling the denialism he finds so worrisome. The book hopes to encourage others to jump into the fray, and he uses some of his own experiences as guideposts.
“It’s like a Berenstain Bears book, where the father always does something wrong, and that’s the lesson,” he said.
Offit, 67, grew up in Baltimore and lived what he called a “boy’s life.” He was heavily into sports, rooting for the Orioles and the Colts — at least before the team moved to Indianapolis. He got a bachelor’s in psychology at Tufts University in Boston, then returned home for medical school at the University of Maryland.
His initial interest was in pediatrics. But during a residency at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, he became interested in infectious diseases and vaccines. That interest was spurred by his studies with Ellen Wald, an infectious disease specialist at Maryland who also taught at Pitt.
“She was brilliant and great at explaining things and passionate about the work,” Offit said.
When he came to Children’s Hospital in 1980, he worked under AAAS Member Stanley Plotkin, who developed the vaccine for the childhood disease rubella, or German measles, in the late 1960s. He and Plotkin worked together for 26 years to develop what eventually became the rotavirus vaccine RotaTeq, now one of two recommended inoculations for the illness in the United States.
But in 2008, the vaccine field was rocked by an ultimately retracted paper that asserted a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine given to infants. Though the paper was later declared a fraud and its author stripped of his license to practice, it sparked a movement against vaccinations that has led to increasing numbers of parents refusing shots for their children.
“I got to see how hard it was to make vaccines, and how easy it was to damn them,” Offit said. “I eventually got into trying to explain the science of vaccines to public. It also gave me a chance to increase my hate mail and death threats.”
Offit helped establish the Vaccine Education Center in 2000. Five of his 10 books to date have been about vaccines, including two that focus squarely on the vaccine-autism controversy and the resulting anti-vaccine movement. He’s also made public appearances in venues that range from congressional hearings to the Colbert Report.
Going on television in particular is “pretty harrowing,” he said. “You have to take fairly complex concepts and reduce them into a sound bite, which not only feels intellectually dishonest, at some level it is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “But that’s the trick. How do you make it compelling, simple and easy to understand to get your point out there? That’s a learned skill.”
So in his new book, he encourages other scientists to follow his lead. Science is often seen as scary, or worse — boring. But scientists tend to be passionate and are good storytellers at heart, and his advice would be to start telling those stories in their immediate communities.
“Like politics, I think all education is local,” he said. “Go to elementary schools. Go to PTA meetings. Go to churches and synagogues. Explain if you can, at any chance you get, why you do what you do and why it’s important that it be done.”
While his work has delved into some horrific mistakes, he said the public should understand more about how the scientific process works.
“Although scientists get it wrong occasionally, eventually science gets it right,” he said.