Paul Offit is not a “denialist”

I’m afraid I must reluctantly take fellow SB’er Mark Hoofnagle to task here, because he appears to have allowed himself to get a bit carried away when it comes to throwing around the label of “denialist.”

In an otherwise excellent takedown of some really bad propaganda in the Wall Street Journal editorial page, he did something below the usual high standards of his blog. He casually and offhandedly lumped Paul Offit in with the other “denialists” that he was castigating, based on this editorial about Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko. It’s something that most people probably wouldn’t have noticed, were they not as involved in combatting real denialism, namely antivaccination lunacy, as I am. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view), I am involved and I did notice.

I merely point this out because this is the same Paul Offit who’s been a steadfast defender of vaccines against antivaccination cranks and has become target #1 of the mercury militia, suffering demonization on par with the demonization to which Kentucky Fried Chicken is subjected by PETA. (OK, maybe #2. Julie Gerberding of the CDC is probably target #1.) Moreover, Dr. Offit’s the #1 go-to guy whenever the antivaxers start agitating and has been for quite some time.

I’ll admit that you could argue about Offit’s specific complaints about Michael Moore’s movie and I’ll admit that his appeal to emotion when it comes to pharmaceutical executive Dr. Penny Heaton did grate on me as a bit over-the-top as I read his editorial, but most of the points Offit raised at the end of his article were eminently reasonable. I saw nothing in the editorial that could reasonably be construed as “denialist,” only as annoyance with Michael Moore’s line of attack. (Of course, I could facetiously point out that expecting any sort of objectivity out of Michael Moore is totally wishful thinking.) I consider it a massive exaggeration to lump Dr. Offit in with the denialists so casually. Dr. Offit has arguably done more to champion safe and effective vaccines than anyone since Maurice Hilleman. He’s the vaccine denialists’ worst enemy, and that’s something to be proud of.

Unfortunately, in response to criticism, Mark claims that he “wasn’t calling Offit a denialist or a crank in this instance.” As much as I truly pains me to say it, that excuse strikes me as a tad bit disingenuous. What message am I supposed to take away when Mark characterizes the WSJ as a “denialist organization” and its editorial page as “virtual clearinghouse of denialism on par with Uncommon Descent,” while citing Paul Offit’s article as one of only three examples to support his characterization, one of which is so completely full of bad math as to be utterly risible? Sadly, I must come to the conclusion that either Mark was indeed by association calling Offit a denialist (or at the very least accusing him of contributing to the “clearinghouse of denialism” that is the WSJ editorial page), or, by casually lumping Offit in with real denialists, he was just as sloppy in his writing and thinking as he accuses Offit of being in his review of Sicko.

Take your pick.

Mark later complains that Offit was attacking straw men in his review of Sicko. Even if that is indeed the case, it would not justify lumping him in with real “denialism.” The term “denialist” implies a consistent history of making denialist arguments; there is no way anyone could reasonably accuse Dr. Offit of such a thing. At the very worst, one could characterize Dr. Offit’s review of Sicko as a bit of a misfire, nothing more. Lumping him in with the the anti-evolution clods at Uncommon Descent and whatever idiot wrote the Laffer Curve article is unjustified and profoundly unfair to Dr. Offit. In his zeal to target the WSJ as a denialist organ, Mark slimed one of the good guys, someone who’s on our side and has not published, as far as I am aware, anything that could be characterized as “denialist” in nature.

As much as Iike Marks’ blog, I must say that I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “denialism.” (This is, of course, not the first time I’ve said this.) It’s a powerful label that should be used only very sparingly. Certainly it’s absolutely appropriate in the case of Holocaust deniers, evolution denialists, antivaccinationists, and HIV/AIDS denialists, to all of whom the term clearly applies. However, I see a very real danger of diluting its meaning by applying the label too liberally, which is an easy trap to fall into, given how seductive it is as a shorthand for cranks. There is a very real danger of applying the label to people whose views might be a bit out of the mainstream but are not truly “denialists.” There was a time when I virtually never used the term other than for Holocaust deniers, but more recently I admit that I’ve started using it more frequently, probably subtly influenced by my fellow SBer and my near daily reading of denialism.com. In light of this incident, I think I’m going to make a conscious effort to use the term much less and only in the most egregious cases.

ADDENDUM: Paul Offit has responded to Mark’s comments.