The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

    More info here.

    Contact David.

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    Speaking inquiries here.


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October 21, 2009


breast fibrocystic disease

The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced a six-stage classification that describes the process by which a novel influenza virus moves from the first few infections in humans through to a pandemic. This starts with the virus mostly infecting animals, with a few cases where animals infect people, then moves through the stage where the virus begins to spread directly between people, and ends with a pandemic when infections from the new virus have spread worldwide


The Atlantic magazine examines evidence for and against the efficacy of the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccinations, using the scientific method as the benchmark for the analysis and decrying the lack of rigorous research, the unsubstantiated claims of efficacy, and the reflexive defensiveness toward scrutiny of the research, concluding:

"The safety of the swine flu vaccine remains to be seen. In the absence of better evidence, vaccines and antivirals must be viewed as only partial and uncertain defenses against the flu. And they may be mere talismans. By being afraid to do the proper studies now, we may be condemning ourselves to using treatments based on illusion and faith rather than sound science."

That institutional science has come to resemble superstition more than the elegant tool the scientific method offers is a tragedy.


You claim vaccines are "rational" but don't use it in this piece -- instead you make appeals to emotion, suggesting your opposition is "superstitious" and equivalent to flat-earthers. You then laud Amy Wallace who does the same thing, insults her opposition's intelligence rather than consider the science -- or lack thereof.

This is bad science reporting.

My sister is pregnant and asked me to make a recommendation on the vaccination versus the alternatives, and all I could find was similarly uninformative information, such as the NYTimes piece you highlight. The NYT piece does not give me any data with which I can make an informed decision on the H1N1, and neither have you. You are both doing a disservice to your readers and to the debate.

The NYT piece says 28 pregnant women died from complications related to H1N1 in the first four months of the outbreak. How many women were infected? How many women were pregnant? How many women die from seasonal flu complications? They say that there are a "small number" of complications from the vaccine -- WHAT IS THAT SMALL NUMBER???? Because there would have been about 5 MILLION pregnant women in the first four months of the outbreak, and only 28 died. 28/5,000,000 is actually a VERY SMALL NUMBER, but it is not enough to make a decision with, because I can't compare it to anything because people aren't talking about the science and the statistics, they are talking about ideology and whether they believe in the superstition that the FDA and CDC are reliable (hormone replacement therapy, vioxx, thalidomide, etc anyone), or the superstition that vaccines are bad.

Your blog post was just as superstitious as those it was claiming intellectual superiority to, and your readers are no better off for the lack of evidence presented, or the substitution of insults for argumentation in defending your position.

Don D.

The antivax thing is weird, but posts like this that seem to take the polar opposite view - all vaccines are good - are just as weird to me. The annual flu shot seems demonstrably pointless, see the excellent article at for more, but this year's feeding frenzy over swine flu should be setting off everybody's b.s detectors. Instead even otherwise smart people are generally going with a version of pascal's wager as a defense for getting a flu shot all of a sudden. I don't get it.


For Markus,
There are 2 vaccines this year because the Swine flu surfaced after the seasonal flu vaccine was already in production.
The overall fatality of the H1N1 seems to be lower than the average seasonal flu. Unlike the seasonal flu that is dangerous to old and sick, the H1N1 kills healthier people, pregnant women are 6 times more likely to die from it.


I blame Oprah and low quality daytime television. She promotes feel good pseudoscience (along with Dr. Oz) and her followers obey religiously. Jenny McCarthy is against vaccination because she use it to explain her sos's autism. I feel very sad for her, but she needs to be stopped.
Actually, why aren't people familiar with such basic knowledge? I thought I learned about vaccination and flu in 4th/5th grade!


Do they also get the vaccines against the normal flu each year? Or just this one? If the latter: why?

The new flu is less dangerous than the normal one.

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