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On Jenny McCarthy, “The View” and snake oil — a dialogue

snakeoil1Russell: Hello, Rose.  By now you’ve no doubt heard the exciting news that Jenny McCarthy, quondam host of “Singled Out” and anti-vaccine firebrand, has been hired to replace Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “The View.”  This decision has proven… controversial.

For my part, I’m of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I am loath to see Ms. McCarthy’s dangerous campaign of misinformation get a broader platform.  I’ve written about the safety and efficacy of vaccines over and over and over, and so it should come as no surprise that I would object to the continued celebrity of someone whose notoriety is now almost entirely due to her vigorous campaigning against them.  What I really wish people would do with Ms. McCarthy is ignore her, and this very prominent new platform will give her a fabulous new perch from which to launch further efforts against one of the greatest triumphs of public health in human history.

On the other hand, I chafe at the notion that the best way of dealing with someone’s wrong-headed views is to agitate for that person to be silenced.  Perhaps it’s a ridiculous pipe dream, but I’d like to think (if the topic of vaccines ever came up) that the producers of “The View” would give plenty of time to a guest on the show who would articulately and clearly lay out the solid case for the safety of vaccines to counter Ms. McCarthy’s point of view.  Hell, for all I know, one of the other hosts is a staunch proponent of immunizations and will check Ms. McCarthy on her own without needing to bring someone else in.  As misguided as I find her, I don’t think trying to shut her up is the way we should be dealing with her.

However, that raises a question, and it’s one I’d like your perspective on.  To me, it should be obvious that one side is right and the other wrong.  To me, the case is as sound as can be.  But my thoughts on the matter are obviously informed by my medical training and my place within the medical establishment.  I come at Ms. McCarthy’s ilk from a position founded on years within the healthcare community.  I don’t really know what it’s like to experience a medical issue, even one that seems completely settled, from the outside.

Furthermore, I’m all too familiar with the limitations on what medical science can say with authority.  On an essentially daily basis I’m forced to give patients my best guess, usually about something minor like symptoms that are probably viral or a rash that’s probably nothing more than mild contact dermatitis.  A certain degree of uncertainty is inescapable.  And that’s to say nothing of major lacunae in medical science like where autism comes from.  We know it isn’t from vaccines, but we don’t know much beyond that,  And someone peddling an alternative answer that offers ersatz certainty must be appealing.  As I’ve written before:

Sometimes no answer is the only answer.  It’s awful, and medical providers need to acknowledge how hard it can be for parents or patients when we can’t give them a solid answer for their questions.  “We don’t know” must be delivered with humility, compassion and patience.  But sometimes “we don’t know” is the truth, and the truth is better than a lie.

If medical science is forced by ethical probity to admit its ignorance, can a peddler of snake oil and charmed cures ever be effectively refuted?  If a medical doctor must admit to the mother of an autistic child “I don’t know why” and one of Ms. McCarthy’s fellow travelers shouts “I do!”, can we hope to persuade a public intolerant of uncertainty?

I’m especially curious to know your perspective as the mother of a child with special needs.  While your son’s Ridiculously Rare syndrome has a known cause, you no doubt have encountered many people touting treatments meant to help him that are outside of what has been proven to be effective.  Is there a way that we could be making our case that would reassure in ways that we’re failing to do so now?

Rose: Hi Russell!

So, like you, I have mixed Jenny McCarthy views. But I see no reason against her joining “The View,” although I wouldn’t say I’m excited about it. I think McCarthy is mistaken about vaccines. She has likely caused some degree of harm due to these mistakes. I wish she would correct herself. Vaccination is one of the single most important advances in medical knowledge ever. The amount of lost life and suffering that is now prevented by vaccination is one of humankind’s most impressive achievements.

However, I also think McCarthy is unduly vilified. I strongly suspect there is some sexism involved in her vilification: she is a former Playboy model and a mother, two groups who are traditionally considered to have reduced rational capacities (the latter especially when the issue that requires rational thought regarding her kid).

I actually find Jenny McCarthy, minus her anti-vax campaign, appealing. It is not every Playboy model who is able to make a career for herself after posing. She is articulate and charismatic and forthright. Her book about pregnancy was funny. She has an astonishing ability for someone so gorgeous to have women as well as men find her attractive. While her cause is wrong-headed, there are many, many famous people who set out to use their fame to “raise awareness” or change the world in some way. She has been far more successful at it than most. More successful than Amanda Peet was in a pro-vaccination counter-campaign. This is quite sad, in that her cause has been the wrong cause. But it is also an impressive feat.

I have three children, one of whom has a Ridiculously Rare Syndrome caused by a chromosomal disorder. He has what the kids these days call “multiple intensive needs,” the condition formerly known as “severe or profound psychomotor and cognitive disability.”

So. I have some idea of what parents of autism deal with.

Most people with autism do not know what causes their kid’s symptoms. I can point to a difference in my kid’s genome. Perhaps, then, a parent of a kid with autism might be more apt to grasp at straws and snake oil than me.

But no one really knows why missing that particular part of a chromosome, and having an extra piece of another chromosome, causes the disabilities that it does. There is one gene he is missing that makes a protein that helps neuronal axons form. Reduced functioning of this gene has been associated with autism and Parkinson’s. There is another gene he is missing that makes a protein that aids in neuron dendrite formation and adhesion. Lack of this protein has been associated with Alzheimer’s. But I don’t know anything else. I don’t (nor do scientists) know what, if any, roles are played by the other genes he is missing. I don’t know why, if Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are degenerative, Ridiculously Rare Syndrome is not. People with it develop, even if verrrrry slowwwwwly.

Some fellow syndrome parents do grasp at straws. I have heard of high-dose supplement regimens, mitochondrial (or something like that) treatment in Switzerland, oxygen chambers, “brain development clinics.”

I totally understand, and to some degree succumb to, the desire for a snake oil cure. McCarthy has, as I have, seen her kid’s opportunities in life significantly reduced. She has seen her burdens of parenthood dramatically increase. No one can tell her why, as no one can tell me why. We want to help our kids. We want to do something, not simply sit idly by.

Those of you who are parents of typical children, try to imagine this happening to you. Can you not see how strong an emotion this must be? How strong a reason, not just an emotion? You probably fall prey to it, too. I am continually astounded by the number toys designed for “cognitive development” (with zero evidence), or flash cards, or music in the womb, or what have you, that are designed for the improvement of typical kids. Every woman in my social circle who can breastfeed does breastfeed. This is often much more uncomfortable, it should be acknowledged, than bottlefeeding. Some women love love love breastfeeding, and feel it creates an unbreakable bond. Some women however, find it difficult and miserable. Let’s consider that second set of parents. Nipple cracks, infections, far more sleepless nights (they cannot alternate feedings with dads the same way).This is for relatively little benefit, really. Reduced GI infections, reduced ear infections, reduced obesity, a 3.8 point difference in IQ. This is indeed a benefit, but it might well be simply correlational: people who breastfeed might be more likely to have habits that reduce GI infections, etc., in their kids. But the prospect of a somewhat increased chance of your child having a GI infection, or 3.8 friggin’ IQ difference (I defy you to detect such a difference in two people you know) is rather small potatoes compared to the deficits and difficulties my child faces and those with autism face. Yet these uncomfortable breastfeeders are willing to go through quite a lot of misery to prevent such an outcome. Would someone with a dispassionate cost/benefit risk analysis decide to do the same? I am not saying breastfeeding is snake oil (although I will happily say that about cognitive development toys and Baby Einstein videos). But if you think breastfeeding is important, or Baby Einstein videos, or if you have obsessed whether your child’s preschool was developing your child’s fine-motor coordination or social skills adequately, then you understand something of the lure of snake oil.

Here’s what I believe: I believe that my kid will never, ever, ever have normal brain function. His brain itself was formed incorrectly, and he went through critical periods of development with reduced brain function. I generally believe and plan on his having multiple intensive needs for the rest of his life. My current expectations are that he will continue to develop, albeit slowly. He will walk with assistance, he will be able to communicate in short sentences (either verbally, through sign language, or with an iPad app). I believe some self-care skills will be present (he already helps with his dressing and tries to brush his own hair), but I don’t know to what degree. He will always, I assume, need constant supervision.

Here’s what I wonder, sometimes. Almost no one researches my son’s syndrome. It is too rare. But will developments in treatments for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or even Down Syndrome help him? Again, I never think he will have typical brain function. But will he have higher brain function? It is this hope, this wondering, that makes me sympathetic to parents who succumb to pitches for snake oil.

All three of my kids are fully up-to-date on their vaccinations. I do, however, give my kid some forms of snake oil. Based on only one study with an n of 30-something, I give my kid an over-the-counter supplement that was shown to reduce self-injurious behavior in people with autism. I have not waited for a larger study or replication, so it has not been scientifically validated. I did check with his pediatrician to make sure that the supplement wouldn’t harm him. She thought it wouldn’t, and I should go ahead and give it a shot. I notice a reduction in self-injurious behavior and marked increase in motor skills and cognition when he is on it. Although, obviously, I don’t know if it’s the supplement that’s doing anything. Two other supplements I give him that are basically snake oil in terms of evidence (but that I think are unlikely to harm him) are probiotics and fish oil.

I am not a doctor or scientist, and I have researched my son’s condition (yes, an amateur researching! Horrors!). There are times when I think a doctor has given a wrong diagnosis and prescribed a treatment in error. What am I supposed to do in that case? Trust that all doctors and science is right?

Science is both a body of knowledge and a method. In that method is included the concept that every scientific conclusion in that body of knowledge is provisional. It could be overturned. Any conclusion of the majority of scientists might be wrong, and some, of course, have been wrong. I most certainly do not take an entirely skeptical approach to scientific knowledge. However, questioning one widely held view by scientists does not, in itself, make you “anti-science.” Indeed, some significant scientific leaps were made by people who questioned scientific consensus.

That said, Jenny McCarthy is unlikely to make any scientific leaps forward, and she does not have adequate reasons for what she believes. I teach philosophy, for goodness’ sake. I am all about getting rid of false beliefs, gaining true beliefs, and having good reasons for beliefs. I strongly believe that McCarthy is morally culpable in not having good reasons for her beliefs. The scientific evidence against vaccines causing autism is about as strong as scientific evidence gets. It is seriously, seriously unlikely to be overturned. Because McCarthy is not able to weigh the strength of evidence when considering whether scientists are likely to be wrong, she has failed her child and the public.

And yet. Can you not understand, even a tiny bit, where she’s coming from? Can you not be sympathetic? Are absolutely all your beliefs true? Have you never once acted without waiting for the evidence to come in? Yes, her mistake is to a much different degree and possibly with sadly, sadly deadlier consequences. But can you not recognize, at all, the humanity in this?

Because the discussion of her grants her absolutely zero charity. P. Z. Myers calls her equal to “a puppet with rags and styrofoam for a brain.” From the article to which Russell linked above:

“I think a network hiring a homicidal maniac, giving her a forum in front of people who have young children and are impressionable, is the most irresponsible thing I’ve heard of in a long time,” said Michael Specter, a New Yorker magazine staff writer and author of the book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.”

Um. Unless you’re Peter Singer, there’s a moral difference between a homicidal maniac and someone who misguidedly thinks she is helping people, but actually hurts them. Not that the latter has no moral culpability. She has serious, serious moral culpability. But there is a moral difference between her and John Wayne Gacy.

Why do I suspect sexism? Nearly every article critical of her starts with the fact that she was a Playboy model once. Instant discredit. Note, too, in the quotation by Michael Specter above, the connection between motherhood and lack of rationality: “…people who have young children and are impressionable…” “The View” is a show for women. What is he saying? You know those moms. They’ll believe anything a hot chick on TV tells them.

Why is McCarthy getting all the blame for this? Why not the parents who agree with McCarthy who are committing the same sin she is? Why is she responsible for those deaths, and not the parents? Why is there a site called Jenny McCarthy Body Count? Why isn’t it Andrew Wakefield Body Count? Or Irresponsible Parent Body Count? How do the creators of the site know which of those deaths are actually causally related to McCarthy? They don’t have scientific evidence, after all. You’d think pro-science people would understand the difference between correlation and causation.

“She’s very dangerous. It’s unfortunate that in our society, scientific evidence is now just taken as some other point of view,” said Specter, adding that recent outbreaks of easily preventable diseases such as measles are “directly attributable” to people like McCarthy.

How, exactly, does he know which deaths are attributable directly to people “like McCarthy” (whatever that means)? Citation, please.

To make a very long story short, I don’t think there is a problem with hiring Jenny McCarthy. She has a serious moral failing, possibly causing dreadful consequences. But she didn’t act in a vacuum. Others are responsible, too. Can we not hear what she has to say? Must we actually make sure no one hears what she has to say because she says one thing that’s wrong? I mean. Seriously? Is she so gorgeous that all critical evaluation stops when words fall from her lipsticked mouth? My guess is that most other anti-vaxxers looked on the web, heard from friends, etc. McCarthy was likely not their only source of information.

I would love, love, love for “The View” to have someone on, who treats McCarthy with a little humanity, explain why her reasons are not as weighty as reasons in response. I think that would actually be awesome. In any event, I see no good reason why she should not be on the show.

 Russell:  Thanks for you response, Rose.  I appreciate hearing a perspective that, in its own way, is a bit more pro-McCarthy.

I’m not sure if, when asking “But can you not recognize, at all, the humanity in this?” if by “you” you mean me.  If you’re asking me specifically, then yes… of course I can see the humanity in it.  I don’t think McCarthy is a monster and wouldn’t endorse much of the overheated rhetoric about her.  I agree with you that she is charismatic and appealing.  I thought she was a gas on “Singled Out.”  No matter what specific diagnosis her son has, I have no doubt that she loves him deeply and would never question what motivates her campaign.

So why am I taking the time to criticize her but not Andrew Wakefield?  Well, I would happily spend oodles of time excoriating him, but he isn’t being offered a prominent platform on a hugely successful daytime talk show and she is.  And after all, he has been stripped of his medical license in the UK, whereas her fame is actually waxing right now.  So she bears discussion in a way that he does not.  For what it’s worth, I actually locate more blame with him for the whole anti-vaccine movement than with her, since he is a fraud and she is merely misguided.

But she is deeply misguided, and has contributed to serious harm.  The re-emergence of previously controlled illnesses is a major problem, and 100% needless and avoidable.  It’s hard think of an apt parallel, since nobody would take her seriously and the result would be undeniably catastrophic if people did were she to advocate avoiding insulin, for example.  Her recommendations are much more insidious and much more credible, for some reason.  And so, while I don’t want her put in stocks or conflated with mass murderers, neither am I thrilled to see her given yet more celebrity.

Rose: Oops, I most certainly did not mean you! I meant the people who speak in such nasty, derogatory, sexist terms. I do not in the least think that about you. In fact, your tone is quite measured. In my irritation at the people who are so demeaning, I defend her more, probably, than I really feel. I really do think she has done something wrong, and if she convinces anyone else, that would be tragic. I hope that someone else on the show argues with her, and I suspect they might. In any case, I don’t think she needs to be muzzled. It reminds me, in weird way, of the religious boycotters of television. They do not like someone, someone they suspect of causing real harm, and so they demand that she not be heard. In either case, I don’t see why she shouldn’t be on TV. If you don’t like it, don’t watch “The View.” I also do not want to see her gain more celebrity. But I don’t think we need to insist on her removal.

Russell:  No worries.  I kinda assumed you didn’t mean me personally.  And, as is so often the case, we probably agree more than we disagree.  It was good to reminded that Ms. McCarthy isn’t just a caricature of ignorance, as I would probably err on the side of vilifying her.  I just don’t want her granted some kind of O’Reilly-esque carte blanche to browbeat people who might rise to challenge her view on vaccines, should the subject come up.  Charismatic as she may be, she’s still undeniably wrong, and I’d just as soon she not parlay her fame into yet more unvaccinated children.

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71 thoughts on “On Jenny McCarthy, “The View” and snake oil — a dialogue

  1. Thanks, Russell and Rose, for a very thought-provoking post. I have to admit that I’ve always thought of McCarthy as something of a bimbo, one of those perky blonde, perpetually cheerful types whom I have a difficult time taking seriously. I guess I’m guilty of profiling and will try harder to look at her more sympathetically.

    That said, I still think it’s an act of corporate irresponsibility on ABC’s part to provide McCarthy with a major platform from which to promote her views, which do pose a danger, both to individual children and to overall public health. I can see why she’s bought the snake oil, but I don’t think she should be put in a prominent position to sell it to others. Failure to win in job on The View doesn’t constitute silencing McCarthy. She has plenty of other places to spout her misinformed opinions. But I don’t think ABC needs to promote quack science. They should choose another replacement for the irritating Hasselback. McCarthy isn’t the only smart, articulate blonde out there.


    • To be clear, I don’t think she has a right to be on the show. Nor do I think it’s a particularly good idea for her to be on the show. But there are a lot of people whom I wish were not on TV. I don’t think we need to demand their removal.


    • Modeling as a career takes a specific personality type — or at least someone good at convincing others that they’ve got it.

      In this, it is remarkably like a certain set of CEOs…


  2. Thank you both for this.

    A few thoughts:

    1.) When I think of JMac, I tend to think of her on “Singled Out”, not in Playboy. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Regardless, what makes it a little hard to take her seriously is how unseriously she presented herself on that show, her first real foray into the limelight, at least with people my age. Perhaps she was playing a part, but she seemed to carry the party forward into other things that she did. I understand she has since done other work (I think a show with one of the women from “90210”?), but I never caught that. So for people like myself, you have a memory of silly Jenny McCarthy prancing around onstage on “Singled Out” and then a gap and then a seemingly serious Jenny McCarthy peddling nonsense about autism and you basically have unfettered silliness from her with nothing to balance it out. So I don’t doubt that there is indeed a great deal of sexism motivating the criticism she receives, with the whole Playboy = discredit as the most obvious example, I think it is possible to arrive at a place of discrediting her that does not necessarily rely on that. Until reading your piece here, I never saw anything that represented her as articulate or charismatic, but that is because I haven’t seen much of her beyond “Singled Out” and her anti-vax advocacy. Is that on me? Or on her? Hard to say… but if she wants to be taken seriously, I think she must bear some of the onus. Perhaps that is what taking a role on “The View” is all about. As I understand the show, she doesn’t seem out of place. Didn’t Hasselbeck get her part in the first place by being cute, going on “Survivor”, and/or marrying a middling NFL quarterback? She went to my alma mater, graduating with my brother, and reports were that she was nothing special, though I could be wrong there. So, yea, I don’t think someone needs to be MENSA to be on “The View” (again, as I understand it), so I don’t object to her presence reflexively. I will, however, if she is able to use it as an unchallenged soapbox for her wrongheaded views.
    2.) Even if we concede the fiction that vaccines cause autism, wouldn’t they STILL be the right course of action? What is the claimed incidence of autism among the vaccine? What is the known incidence of disease among the unvaccinated? It seems that even if the anti-vaxers are right, they are likely still wrong as far as sound medical advice goes. Which leads me to believe that it is much more about their own personal struggle (which Rose admirably describes) than actually countering the scourge that is autism.
    3.) As a couple that is currently struggling with breastfeeding (that is, the emotional and physical toll it takes on Zazzy to keep up with Mayo’s feeding schedule), is there really that small a difference between breastfed babies and formula fed babies? Or by “bottle feeding”, were you referring to expressed breast milk? Right now, we are exclusively using breast milk, some expressed, some direct from the breast, but are increasingly tempted to supplement with formula. Unfortunately, the lactation consultants and their ilk have planted in Zazzy’s head that such a course would be outrageous, a damnable thing to do to a new mother prone to guilt and anxiety. I realize this is a conversation we should have with our pediatrician, but, frankly, I trust you two more than anyone else.

    Okay, I’ve sufficiently ranted and gone in too many directions. I’ll cede the floor. Again, this was fascinating and I appreciate the thoughtful approach both of you took to a topic that so rarely receives such.


    • Unfortunately, the lactation consultants and their ilk have planted in Zazzy’s head that such a course would be outrageous

      Well, since you asked…

      There is no reason not to supplement with formula if that would make life easier. Feeding your child is not zero-sum, and formula does not somehow negate the value of breast milk. There are measurable benefits to breastfeeding, as Rose notes, but they are nowhere near as great as you’d imagine from listening to the lactation martinets.


    • Kazzy, we supplemented early on. The main concern, really, wasn’t that supplementation would destroy the baby’s immune system or whatever, but making sure that supplementation did not reduce the breastmilk supply.

      (And we’re still bitter at our lactation consultant. A story for another time.)


      • Thanks Will and Russ. We really should bring up La Leche on RICO charges.

        In our brief discussion, I proposed that Mayo breastfeed when he’s with Zazzy and formula when he’s not. If she needs to pump once a day to maintain flow, so be it. So long as she doesn’t need to spend the 2 hours+ a day that she is currently to pump (most of it at work).

        Of course, that led to her starting to cry over the guilt and I shook my fist at La Leche all over again. Then I puppeted Mayo to curse at her and demand more play time and less pumping time. Two can play the guilt game!


        • FWIW, I couldn’t breastfeed. I would have if I could, but I couldn’t. My kid with Ridiculously Rare Syndrome received donated breast milk in the NICU. And I have only met one tolerable lactation consultant.

          I felt bad sometimes, but it was nice to get my body back, trade off feedings with my husband, not deal with pumping, etc. etc. I did a lot of research to assuage my guilt, and found, as Russell said, that the benefits are real, but generally grossly overrated. We did skin-to-skin contact, etc.

          FWIW, my typical kids who were bottle fed are both noticeably bright, not in the slightest overweight, and seemed to have no more than the typical course of childhood illnesses.


  3. Thanks for the dialogue Rose and Russell. Or as I will call you know R & R.

    I have a hard-time wondering whether the anti-Vax crowd gets more heat for being women but then again, I can’t think of a single important man in the anti-vax movement. The spokespeople all seem to be women (from my not very careful following of the scene). There are guys in the anti-Flouride movement and I will mock them without mercy. Flouride in the water is one of the cheapest and most effective public health campaigns ever launched.

    This is where I think some people on my side (the left) get a bit silly. I think there are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of big Pharma. However, vaccines are not one of those issues. Big Pharma is a bete noir/bogeyman of the left generally, so I see a lot of posts from my more-hippie friends (including guys) on facebook about how most diseases can be cured with natural things like honey but Big Pharma does not want you to know this. I’m a “better living through Chemistry” kind of guy and never really bought into natural remedy path.

    The sexist thing is more interesting/complicated. There seem to be two types of places that cover the anti-Vaxxers, science places and parent reporting places (which tend to be but are not always in “women’s media”)

    I have been thinking about why certain issues get covered more by “women’s media” like the Double XX Blog on Slate than by the traditional media and I can’t think of a good one. A few months ago there was a thread on the Double XX Blog protesting that women’s magazines rarely win long-form journalism awards. Another contributor to Double XX pointed out that women’s magazines tend to bury their serious stories deep in the pages, tend not to put female politicians or business people on the cover, and go for cheaper interviews over long-form reporting. I’m not sure why this is because I am not a student of the media or in it. I’ve also noticed that the Double XX blog covers a lot of stuff but spends a lot more time focused on pop culture than other places.


    • The most important man in anti-vaccination is unquestionably Andrew Wakefield, but his influence is more indirect; it’s his crappy, fraudulent study that gave the anti vaccine movement impetus, though you don’t see him speaking publicly a soften as McCarthy.


  4. And yet. Can you not understand, even a tiny bit, where she’s coming from? Can you not be sympathetic? Are absolutely all your beliefs true? Have you never once acted without waiting for the evidence to come in? Yes, her mistake is to a much different degree and possibly with sadly, sadly deadlier consequences. But can you not recognize, at all, the humanity in this?

    There are no shortage of examples of loving parents hurting their own children (with the best of intentions). There’s a place, I suppose, for feeling bad for the parents who are stuck using the only tools they feel they have at their disposal to deal with what they see are horrible problems.

    So let’s take a moment to feel bad for those parents.

    Polio is making a comeback. The Measles are making (is making?) a comeback. The last time I got a tetanus shot, it had a Whooping Cough booster… because Whooping Cough is making a comeback.

    On one level, there is nothing more human than coming down with polio, the measles, whooping cough… when I look at pictures of my surprisingly recent ancestors at my grandmother’s house, there are pictures of a man with a withered leg (I am told, rather proudly, that he was the equal of any man when he was on a horse).

    If we cannot prevent a future where our grandchildren’s grandchildren will not similarly look at pictures (or jpegs or whatever tech they’ll have) of their surprisingly recent ancestors without sneering at McCarthy, is that something that we should see as acceptable?

    Because, it seems to me, that providing her a voice, providing her a platform, and making room for how perfectly understandable her feelings are will result in polio, measles, whooping cough, and god knows what else to make even more of a comeback.

    It seems to me that, in this very particular case, the price of keeping an open, sympathetic mind is higher than the price of deep intolerance to her opinions on vaccines.


    • I am more in the mind of not calling her horrible names and making unscientific claims about her connections to deaths. I would not put her on my TV show. I would rather she not be on a TV show. But I don’t think someone who decides otherwise should be denounced.


      • It’s weird to talk about the rights of the unborn (and by “unborn”, I mean not just parasitic clumps of cells but the yet unconcieved) but it seems to me that civilization has fought and clawed its way to something as magnificent as the polio vaccine and future generations are entitled to that particular bounty. The gift of growing up with TWO LEGS.

        What Jenny McCarthy is doing is the agnostic/atheist version of Faith Healing.

        We’re talking about the denial of the accumulated knowledge of millennia of civilization in service to some whackadoodle religion that doesn’t even have the benefit of being able to say “well, it’s a tradition”.

        A child being denied vaccines is similar to a Christian Scientist child being denied insulin. Or a snake-handling child being denied anti-venom.

        It’s all well and good that people have religious beliefs and that’s awesome. When it comes to denial of vaccines, it’s neglect. Benign? Sure. It’s benign neglect. It’s neglect with the best of intentions. It’s neglect with the intention of saving the eternal soul of the child. These parents, I’m sure we all agree, have the absolute best of intentions and should not be vilified.

        In the exact same way that we shouldn’t vilify parents who deny their kids health care for religious reasons.

        Should we get the government involved? Well… at this point you’ve got me. No. Of course not.

        When it comes to our response? We should acknowledge their intentions as being really special and awesome and bright and shiny and, when we’re done with that, hold their backwards retrograde views in open contempt.


        • From her interviews I’ve read, like this one by PBS, she’s not against vaccines, just against too many vaccines being given over a short period in a very young child that might have immune system issues.

          She might have a valid point about that. Ken Alibek, who ran the Soviet Union’s biological warfare efforts, says he and a lot of his fellow scientists ended up with immune problems because they were vaccinated for all the diseases they were trying to weaponize (the list of weapons program includes anthrax, glanders, smallpox, marburg, tularemia, brucellosis, Q-fever, etc). His recommendation to the US Congress was against a massive vaccination program for US soldiers and civilians covering the range of possible biological weapons that terrorists might use, since there are so many that the side effects of so many vaccinations might outweigh the threat. Interestingly, he said a better option might lie with all the progress being made on anti-viral drugs as part of the battle against HIV/AIDS, giving us new broad spectrum tools against viral threats like we already have against bacteriological threats due to antibiotics (one of the reasons the Soviets didn’t consider the Black Death to be particularly effective as a military weapon).


          • There are also interviews from 2007 that are, well… not in line with what she argues in 2010.

            Perhaps the charitable interpretation is that people’s viewpoints should be expected to evolve when they get new information.


            • Sorry George, I watched the clip hoping this was indeed just a big misunderstanding, but in the one instance where McCarthy expands on that statement, she says: “We’re not against vaccines … but we do believe there ought to be safe ones”. You’re a critically thinking person, you’ve obviously thought about both sides of this issue, what do you think that statement implies?


                • I think “could be improved” is being overly generous, it’s pretty clear that something which “ought to be safe” is not currently safe, and we should not be administrating unsafe things to our children. That’s both unscientific and dangerous. “I’m not against fluoridation, I just think it ought to be safe” is qualitatively different from “I’m not against fluoridation”.


                  • It may be qualitatively different, but isn’t it also less ig’nrint?

                    She has worries – and evidence she accepts – that vaccines can cause harm to some kids. I know a few people like that myself. They have kids with autism and believe with 100% certainty that immunizations were the cause. They’re all rational, intelligent, clear thinking, Western materialist types. So they know – and admit – that vaccines have tremendous social value. Personally speaking, I don’t think they’re disputing that fact.


                    • Stillwater, I don’t know your friends and I would never presume to tell them how to understand their own lives. All I can say is what I’ve said before:

                      1) I have personally vaccinated, at this point in my career, thousands of children. I have worked with colleagues who have vaccinated their own thousands of patients. The number of cases of autism that I have encountered that could be in any way plausibly linked to vaccines, either directly or by anecdote, is precisely zero.

                      2) Along those lines, for there to be a discernible link between vaccines and autism and yet for physicians to keep administering them anyway would require a massive and deeply malign conspiracy. The medical community would be guilty of terrible recklessness and callous indifference, for what purpose I cannot imagine. Either you believe doctors and nurses and the entire lot of us are monsters, or the “vaccines cause autism” story simply doesn’t add up.


                  • If this was one of my friends talking about it then I’d agree that they are more enlightened on the issue than someone who says “No vaccines never!”. But coming from a national spokesperson, I can only interpret this kind of stance as manipulation. When you’re advocating for what people should do with their kids, there is no longer a difference between “no vaccines never” and “no vaccines until they’re safe”. The video that George linked to is full of this kind of double-speak: she doesn’t say that vaccines cause autism but that it can be triggered by “environmental stimuli” and vaccines just happens to be the one she focuses on. Frankly, I’d much rather she was just honest about her proscriptions, because at least that is something that science can respond to: here are the decades of testing we’ve done, here are the minuscule negative side-effects we’ve seen from millions of applications, here is the highly increased risk from non-application. But McCarthy gets to say she’s not against vaccines while setting up a maze of Hobson’s choices where you can either go with Big Pharma and vaccinate or you can listen to Jenny and do what’s safe for your child, the choice is entirely up to you!

                    It’s this appearance of impartiality that’s the most offensive (and effective) part of her whole campaign.


                  • Hey, she has some rhetorical skills (misused, perhaps) and is smokin’ hot.

                    I’d give her a pass because most of Hollywood is always off their rocker with some kind of wacked out pseudo scientific worry or other. I’ll bet everyone else on The View is always about five minutes away from a freak-out over herbicides, pesticides, depleted uranium, fracking, high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified crops, mercury, or carbon pollution. Heck, they even had Rosie O’Donnell explaining how fire can’t melt steel.


          • In a weird bit of synchronicity, the episode of Babylon 5 we’re watching this week is about a couple of religious parents who withhold medical treatment from their child due to their religious views.

            There’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens and a whole bunch of arguments are made about what the right thing to do is… but, most importantly, the parents are not shown as morally monstrous. They’re deeply sympathetic, they love their child to distraction, it’s just that their religion prevents them from seeing medical treatment that involves deliberate cutting of the flesh as an option.

            The show does a very good job of showing the parents as having the best of intentions… even as they take a path that will inevitably lead to the death of their child.

            There’s a part of me that says “why in the hell do their intentions matter”, even as I look for a box of Kleenex, as I watch the episode.


          • I have two feelings about this:

            1) I have no reason to think that McCarthy doesn’t believe the (mis)information she spreads about vaccines. If I believed something was potentially dangerous for people, particularly children, and I had the visibility she does, I’d feel compelled to tell people too.
            2) I do have contempt for people who spread misinformation from a position of authority (and like it or not, she is in a position of authority, even if that authority derives only from her being recognizable, well-spoken, and being on television).

            These are in direct conflict with each other. On the one hand, how could I expect her to behave differently, if this is what she believes? On the other hand, she and the movement of which she is a part are causing real harm, and I seriously doubt no one has pointed this out to her. So I do have contempt for her, but sympathy as well. I don’t know that there’s any other way I could approach it.


            • Chris, I have these thoughts too. So this is how I hash it out in my mind.

              1) Intentions matter. Of course. Otherwise, tigers would be guilty of cruelty to animals. Children would regularly be guilty of assault. Etc.

              2) Someone who harms people through malicious intent is doing something worse than someone who acts through misguided good will. If her beliefs were correct, what she is doing would indeed be morally correct. (A much tougher case: what about a racist who believes that racial segregation is a moral imperative?)

              3) However, we have an obligation, especially when the matter is a very weighty one, involving life and death, to make sure our beliefs are correct.

              So McCarthy, I think, is (as I said above) seriously morally culpable. But not as morally culpable as the jerks who ridicule her (instead of arguing with her) believe.

              Our society is morally culpable, too. We don’t teach philosophy, particularly philosophy of science, in a public school education. Not to toot philosophy’s horn. I know we can be very useless. But here’s where we can be useful. Philosophy of science teaches you which science to trust, and why you should. I note many of the supposedly pro-science people are grossly mistaken about the nature of science (e.g., they think the body of knowledge that makes up science is inviolable and should be embraced uncritically) and make unscientific statements themselves (e.g., that children’s deaths are “directly attributable” to McCarthy).

              And again, what should I do in my case? I sometimes research an aspect of my kid’s condition, and I think my doctor is making a mistake. In fact, there are several times when I know a doctor has been wrong. (One said, e.g., before it was confirmed that my kid couldn’t possibly have Ridiculously Rare syndrome because they all have cleft palates. I actually don’t know any with cleft palates. Indeed, my husband and I said we suspected Ridiculously Rare syndrome, and a large majority of doctors told us it couldn’t be that. He presented very atypically, so it makes sense, but still.) Should I substitute the doctor’s judgment for my own? Luckily, there has been only one time recently where I thought the doctor was making a mistake of any gravity. I insisted on a confirming test (realizing that she saw me as a pain in the a** whiny hysterical special needs mom), so then she recognized her mistake.

              However, I do try to understand what constitutes good evidence. McCarthy has an obligation to do that, too.


        • “It’s weird to talk about the rights of the unborn (and by “unborn”, I mean not just parasitic clumps of cells but the yet unconcieved)”

          If you’re referring to the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, my understanding is that its opposition is based on a view of the proper role of sex and not on the presumed rights of the unconceived.


  5. 1. I am more concerned about Whoopi Goldberg’s dangerous campaign against the germ theory of diseases.

    2. I was already boycotting the View, but this McCarthy thing now gives me a reason to boycott the View. It’s a win-win.

    3. I think people’s worries about boycotting things (the OS Card debate, too) are overblown. Boycotts are a reasonably decent and good tool to effect social change in lots of cases. I wouldn’t boycott the work of anyone dead like Wagner. But if Wagner were alive, I’d boycott him. I also wouldn’t boycott anyone who had apologized and recanted. (Michael Richards is fine.) And I wouldn’t boycott anyone who promised to keep their personal views and work (movies, TV, whatever) wholly separate. What do I mean by “wholly seperate?” Well, that is a tough question. I think the person would have to promise not to use their fame to advocate for their position or their wealth generated from their work to campaign for their position. (IMO, there are pro-life people and anti-gay people who I would boycott if they didn’t pass the “wholly separate” test, but they do pass it.)

    But OS Card and McCarthy are using their fame (in interviews for OSC and JM or even on her show now for JM) and the money generated from their fame to support homophobia and anti-vaccine lunacy. So if you give them any support through money or ratings, you are indirectly supporting those causes, which should be avoided, when avodining it is very easy. (I don’t blame people who have trouble boycotting things, e.g. a starving actor who got offered a role in OSC’s movie.)


    • Whoopi Goldberg is what?
      I really don’t follow these things but campaigning against germ theory is so far from my experience my first instinct was to assume it can’t be true. Then I remembered there are people, even people I know and respect who think the Earth is only 6000 years old and all species once fitted on a single boat.

      Do you have any more details.


    • In Hasselbeck’s defense, even IBC’s count is less than half the low-end estimate of civilians who would’ve been killed had Saddam stayed in power (based on how many people he killed per day during his 8,000 day reign), and a fourth of the high-end estimate. Plus, the IBC inflates their figures by a factor of two due to the nature of their data collection (each body is counted twice). Since the invasion, Iraq has only had about a fifth as many people killed as Brazil.


  6. I think what I will chew on most is the confluence of factors Rose points out in the McCarthy hate: she’s a mother and therefore irrational especially about her own kid so it’s no wonder she won’t listen to reason and examine evidence objectively, she’s an attractive woman who posed for Playboy so she must necessarily be mentally simple and therefore easily fooled, and she’s bought in to a fringe theory that contradicts mainstream scientific medicine and therefore must be a weirdo who should be ignored and shunned in all things.

    That’s a seriously uncharitable attitude and Rose’s diagnosis of it makes me wonder about the degree to which I’ve adopted it.

    But like Russell, I’m certain that a charitable attitude doesn’t mean that McCarthy ought to get license to spout off views that really do contradict science, especially given that the anti-vax viewpoint can and has caused tangible harm (see Jaybird’s comments above about the rise of preventable diseases).

    This becomes a rather difficult needle to thread, particularly in a social forum rather than the formal structure in which I’m used to presenting disagreements. In the courtroom, there are rituals and conventions by which people disagree, vehemently, with one another and in which sometimes people are given license to advocate for things that are plainly incorrect. When it’s all done, the disputants (well, their advocates, in any event) generally easily set aside the intellectual daggers they had at one anothers’ throats moments before and exchange kind thoughts about family and commiserate with one another about professional obstacles. It’s actually quite pleasant.

    Without those rituals and conventions and without the presence of an arbiter to rule on one side or the other being correct and thus ending the dispute, it becomes much more difficult to deal with someone who insists on the veracity of something that all available reliable evidence demonstrates is incorrect. The frustration of failing to convince only contributes to the temptation to hold the opposing disputant in contempt.

    It’s a bit like blogging, actually.


    • It’s not that she posed for Playboy—it’s that she’s famous solely for being a model and an actress. There’s no evidence that she’s in any way qualified to present herself as an expert on these topics, and yet she does. I don’t see that this is really any different from “Shut up and sing,” or the mockery of male actors by people who disagree with their political opinions.


      • As I mentioned in my long, meandering comment above, many people (my generation in particular) were introduced to McCarthy not through Playboy or modeling, but “Singled Out”, where she played the role of the buffoon. Maybe she was acting, maybe she wasn’t… but she appeared as herself and acted the clown. Whether that is representative of her or not, it is the lasting impression for many people who saw her there and then few places else.

        So when you have “acting a fool on a dumb MTV show” followed by years of apparent silence followed by “vaccines cause autism” it becomes easy to think, “This woman is a very real fool,” without necessarily relying on sexism and the like.

        Of course, we could dissect her role on “Singled Out” and determine how much of the expectations of her were based on sexist tropes; if I recall, Carmen Electra played it quite similarly.


          • Some quick GoogleFu tells me I was 12-14 when McCarthy was on and 15 when Electra took over. At the risk of being presumptuous, I think you and I might have been watching with slightly different eyes.


        • Well she also had her own television show for about 6 episodes and wrote and starred in her own movie vehicle called Dirty Love. It got a whopping 4% on Rotten Tomatoes and its comedic peak was her throwing a temper tantrum in a grocery aisle while sitting in a pool of her own menstrual blood.

          Without her anti-vax cause, she is a C-list celebrity at best.


  7. I’m pretty unfamiliar with The View, except that Casey did an appearance on it on Sports Night and took undeserved credit for picking out his on-air wardrobe. Checking Wikipedia, I see luminaries like Whoopi Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Joy Behar. Does appearing on it actually increase anyone’s credibility?


    • From the same Wikpedia page: ” ABC Daytime shows, four soap operas and The View, were the top five shows for 18-49 women television watchers.”. Their daily ratings seem to hover around 3mil. (for comparison, the Mad Men season finale got 2.7mil, Monday Night Football gets their weekly haul – 15mil.). That’s huge. And it’s all presented as just five girls hanging out which makes any sort of subversive message way more effective than on the news shows where everyone knows the slant.


      • Again, just because it’s “five girls hanging out” doesn’t mean they never discuss issues of import or disagree with one another. Hasselbeck, whom McCarthy is replacing, was the show’s lone conservative, and there were often arguments between her and the co-hosts. E.g., see here and here. I don’t watch the show ever, but older female relatives do, and they always seem to be talking about arguments among the hosts.

        I am reasonably certain, actually, that her anti-vax views would not go unanswered.


        • Again, just because it’s “five girls hanging out” doesn’t mean they never discuss issues of import or disagree with one another

          Oh, I agree, I did not mean to denigrate the format but rather the opposite. The fact that the tone is conversational rather than adversarial means that individual opinions are more likely to gain traction even if they’re contested. I have no doubt that O’Donnell’s 9-11 trutherism got more people considering her position than if she’d gone on Fox & Friends (where they would have cut her down) or on Olbermann (where there are very few undecideds to convince).

          But I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that as long as equal time is given to her co-hosts to respond then order is mostly restored. McCarthy doesn’t just have some vague notions about this, it’s her primary advocacy and she’s extremely skilled at discussing it. Her co-hosts, on the other hand, while skilled and accomplished women, do not spend their time thinking about rebuttals to the anti-vax argument. In that format, I would not be surprised if this type of scenario happened, and I think it would be a shame on the apart of ABC for allowing it.


  8. Jenny McCarthy is hardly the only anti-vaccination advocate. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also the Boko Haram in Nigeria, preach that vaccinations will convert a child to Christianity. The correlation is wonderful: Christian medical missionaries have been vaccinating children for as long as there have been vaccines. My parents stopped a smallpox epidemic in Niger Republic.

    Nor is Jenny McCarthy the only good-lookin’ mama on television preaching idiocy. Let’s not get confused here, Jenny McCarthy is on television because she’s good looking, not because she’s smart. Smart people write peer-reviewed papers. The salubrious winds of doubt fill their sails as they advance the cause of science, one little nagging doubt turns into an experiment and our view of the world is changed forever. Not many people read those papers but it’s an important audience.

    The domains of smartness and good-looking are not exclusive: having seen the latest LeagueCast, I can vouch for the fact that at least one of its participants is as good-looking as she is a competent philosopher. But then, such telecasts will never bring in the ratings and share of The View and we will not soon see an eminently qualified philosopher on The View to discuss the nature of fiction. We will, however, be presented with fiction, simple, stupid, fearful views of the world, larded throughout with lies and advertisements. That’s what the folks want and that’s what television is gonna give ’em.


  9. Personally I think it bears repeating, loudly, that there are children, -other- than the children of anti vaccination advocates, who are directly harmed by this irrational snake oiling.
    There is a not insignificant population of children who are for various empirical reasons (allergies or compromised immune systems off the top of my head), cannot be vaccinated. They are directly vulnerable through no choice of their own or their parents and have been protected indirectly by vaccination through herd immunity.
    Now I’m pretty pissy about parents irrationally sentencing their own little darlings to horrible suffering and potential death and disfigurement but it is when I factor in that their little bio-bombs are potentially taking out innocent by standing children when they pick up an olde fasion plague or two that I want to break out the torches and pitchforks.
    While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that government should be parachuting into each household to mandate vaccination I would say that government should at least be making proof of vaccination mandatory before children can enjoy use any public services that puts them into a massed child population.


    • True. And let’s not forget also that vaccines are not a hundred percent effective. Your little darling could give it to someone who actually was vaccinated.

      And there is the free rider problem. Our kids are taking a risk so that their kids stay healthy. Not cool.

      If anyone takes from the above that I think Jenny McCarthy is helpful or not to be held morally responsible, please do not take that. I just think holding her as the sole responsible figure is ridiculous. And she’s not Hitler. There is no one I hold in more contempt than snake oil salesmen who take advantage of sick kids and parent love.


  10. Wouldn’t Jenny have to knowingly being saying things she doesn’t really believe in order to be a snake oil salesman? To me there is a difference between someone who honestly believes something is hinky with the way things are done and someone who says don’t do this in order to make themselves rich and or powerful. If Jenny really does think that vaccinations are somehow causing unintended consequences is that the same as someone selling a cure all knowing it is tap water?

    Would those who back in the day said that bloodletting is hinky be defined as snake oil salesmen too? Bloodletting was practiced for a couple of thousand years and believed to be a sound medical treatment. Some thought, hey, maybe this bloodletting shouldn’t be done all the time for every ailment; it might cause some unintended side effects…..like death. Were they whack jobs who just weren’t educated enough to know that when their loved one died maybe the treatment of bloodletting might have had something to do with it.

    As Burt stated, anti-vaxers believe that we (the public and the doctors) don’t know all of the consequences or side effects of using vaccines. If we want to argue that some children possibly having medical side effects is okay as long as more children are saved from horrible diseases so be it. Argue that instead of trying to belittle or demonize the people who just aren’t as knowledgeable and grounded in scientific study as you believe you are but think that maybe we should do more research on vaccines.

    BTW, great discussion and thanks for sharing your thought Rose and Russell.


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  12. i think i can (abstractly) appreciate the desperation that drives parents to do crazy stuff like chelation therapies.

    and i think you’re right about some of the sexism, especially from the pz myers nerd rage dudebro contingent.

    however, you failed to point out that one other downside to the sexism is that people are far less negative toward jim carey. this is unfortunate because he’s just awful at everything.

    that said, i do think we’d be a better country if she were shunned for publicly advocating for the suffering and pain of others, no matter whether she genuinely believes it or not. not having tomatoes thrown at her shunned, but you know, regular shuns.

    though cynical me’s not sure how genuinely she believes it – the son’s autism may have been “autism”, etc. and people have done worse things to stay in the spotlight. maybe it’s one of those “oh wow people think i’m like jesus and mlk put together” things. i would imagine that’s quite addictive, especially coupled with cycles of despair and hope.


  13. I wish my memory were better, but did not the original controversy revolve around the vaccine medium, not the virus itself? The medium being a mercury compound. It always struck me that being in objection to a vaccine medium containing mercury as being quite reasonable.


  14. Alll of u should just WAKE UP n realize that what she is saying is TRUE!!! We dont just have higher autism rates because of NOTHING…there are MANY doctors and scientists that back this information. Are u all going to also tell me that CANNIBUS OIL doesnt cure cancer. Oh of course you would because your all bloody fools, IVE SEEN IT WORK N IVE DONE it, So u jus keep on pumping your children with these fluids that u and the doctors are giving them have NO IDEA how your child may react. If you knew anything about MEDICINE OR the practices of Medicine, we are all not straight across the board here, everybody is DIFFERENT, and yet the orthodox way continuies to treat us allll the same, its PISSES ME OFF AND ITS SOOOO STUPID I HAVE TO lLOL AT MOST OF U, I back this lady 100% n I hope sh
    e gets even LOUDER…P.S. Chemo/radiation DO NOT WORK 90% of the time, n YET u alll still believe it cures or helps ..its the biggest SCAM out there jus like VACCINES, ill stick to natural n my cannibus oil. Have a nice day fools!!!!!!!!!


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  16. My main issue with giving JMcC a platform such as “The View” – it lends a tacit approval for her claims – all in the quest for a spurious notion of ‘balance’ in journalism.

    The science behind vaccines is clear: they are an important tool to safeguard the public health, and they are safe and effective* to the best current manufacturing guidelines.

    (*No vaccine – or medicine, medical intervention, etc -is ever going to be 100% safe or effective. But what we have works!)


  17. I’ve no idea what The View’s viewership stats are. Is it really that much of a cultural influence that we care who’s on the show? That’s my immediate question.

    I’m not suggesting that I’m somehow representative of the masses, but I don’t watch it. I tried watching the show a couple of times for whatever reasons (probably for a specific guest), but as much as I might genuinely like any of those gals on their individual merits, and I do, listening to their chatter as they talk over one another is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

    I dunno. I won’t mince words here- McCarthy’s whole anti-vac thing is founded upon medical quackery. I’m sure she’s sincere in her quest to find pat answers to complicated questions, but aren’t we all. But does a gig on The View cement a person as a voice of authority? I mean, it seems that the crux of the concern here is that McCarthy will gain some extra measure of cred just by virtue of being a View gal. Have any of the other View gals experienced that kind of perk? Anyone paying more attention to whatever Whoopi has to say?


      • Well, said bigger platform presumes she’ll have the network nod to go ahead and make some seriously controversial hay. I’m skeptical that’s the case. In fact, I’d sooner believe that in order to secure this sweet network gig, she’d have had to sign in blood her promise never to mention her crazy anti-vac drivel. I suspect that The View’s producers were simply looking for a gregarious and shapely blonde. Not whacky fringe controversy. (Melanie’s got that covered, though, jic.)


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