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February 24, 2011 • Editorials

Jenny McCarthy: Still Sticking with Debunked Autism Theory and Using ‘Mob Mind’ as Excuse

There are conspiracy theories everywhere that describe nearly every major political and social event throughout history, but until recently most common sense people simply dismissed them while allowing the theorists the ability to hold their nonfalsifiable opinions. Now there are those who think that conspiracy might be replacing democracy as the primary motivation in some people’s minds – in other words, they see every choice as motivated by some secret undercurrent hidden to most people.

Most of these conspiracies are harmless differential theories that have an alternate explanation to an event. However, there have always been certain ‘lunatic fringe’ elements who hold outlandish conspiratorial theories and promote means to deal with them that are almost certain to cause harm or even death.

Very often the ‘lunatic fringe’ look like this:

But occasionally they look like this:

I had assumed that a few months ago when the final nails were put in the ‘vaccines cause autism’ non-science coffin, and Jenny McCarthy was busy splitting up with Jim Carrey ‘because it wasn’t fun every day’, that this phase would have ended and she would get on with her life and focus on her own son.

In case you don’t remember, much of this started because McCarthy’s son was mis-diagnosed as autism which caused her some distress, and she was consoled by those who told her that it must have been caused by vaccinations! She was shown the already-debunked report by some other conspiracy-theorists and grabbed hold by it hook-line-and-sinker! That isn’t surprising – every parent wants the best for their kids and will do whatever possible to help them, as crazy as it might sound … but eventually most of us figure out that some things really are just plain crazy.

In a recent article at People magazine where she was pushing her new bedding line, she was asked about this:

As for a recent medical journal report debunking Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study connecting vaccinations and autism, which once affected Evan, McCarthy says there’s proof in the pudding.

“People aren’t just listening to what this doctor has said, or listening to me,” she explains. “People are listening to their neighbors and friends. That’s why this story has stayed so powerful. How many times in the media have they tried to disprove the connection? Numerous times. But why does it keep coming up? It’s the power of the people. Many, many more parents out there are still concerned about that connection.”

Once affected? Actually, even her son’s so-called autism has been debunked, so there was nothing to ‘cure’! But of course, like any celebrity time only moves forward, and so long as there is a new book, movie, or product line to sell she will never go back and recant anything she said.

Also, she counters scientific evidence with ‘people are concerned’. Non-specific fears are always easier to transmit than pure science, particularly when someone is selling books and working with ‘government is evil and hiding things’ groups, both of which Jenny McCarthy is certainly doing. She has sold loads of her books over the last few years, and with each year as more actual autistic kids are born she sells more and more to the unfortunate parents looking for hope and answers … and getting non-specific scapegoats based on bad science instead.

The article links you to the anti-vaccine site Generation Rescue. They claim not to be anti-vaccine, but that really doesn’t bear out. The group originally wanted to ‘green our vaccines’ – but the goals were so nebulous and fear-mongering that there was no way other than eliminating all vaccines that they would be happy.

Of course, the group claims not to be anti-vaccine, but constantly touts some ‘poison’ (such as sucrose) that is tenuously linked to causing some disease by a report … and when that report is debunked by actual science they simultaneously cry that the media is unfairly targeting them while moving on to the next target ingredient that will allow them to maintain the appearance of having an actual reason behind their anti-vaccine stance.

In other words, typical lunatic fringe fear-mongering.

The problem? Real kids are getting sick and dying because their parents see a beautiful blue-eyed blonde celebrity telling them that vaccines cause autism, and therefore choosing not to get their kids inoculated.

There is a fairly extreme site called Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which calls her out as follows:

In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.

Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened in the United States since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.

Is Jenny McCarthy directly responsible for every vaccine preventable illness and every vaccine preventable death listed here? No. However, as the unofficial spokesperson for the United States anti-vaccination movement she may be indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths and even one vaccine preventable illness or vaccine preventable death is too many.

Does she deserve all of the blame? Certainly not – it is the entire movement that has used pseudo-science and scare tactics to champion their own paranoid goals on the shoulders of celebrities like McCarthy and Carrey and to the harm of many thousands of children.

ScienceBlogs has written loads about all of these things as a routine part of tracking research, including this:

autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis, and it is not that uncommon for autistic children, especially mildly autistic children (as McCarthy’s son appears to be) to “move off the autistic spectrum” before their 7th birthday; in other words, to appear to be “cured” spontaneously.

My own son was born with low muscle tone but a very high activity level, needing early speech and occupational therapy and a second grade teacher who was sure he had ADHD. After spending time with the chief of Neuropsychology at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, we found it was exactly the opposite – he got more engaged over time, but was such a quick processor that he got bored and sought new inputs. All of the doctors said that by puberty all of these things would resolve, with many things dropping year by year. And sure enough, he is 13 now without a sign of any of it …

Another quote from ScienceBlogs addressing the so-called increase in ADHD, autism, etc:

Studies have been quite clear that broadening of the diagnostic criteria and diagnostic substitution account for most of the increase. Again, anecdotal evidence easily misleads, something I’ve never been able to convince Dr. Jay of. “On the ground,” it may appear that way to teachers, but services are better for special needs children, and I doubt they ever consider whether diagnoses that were once common (mental retardation, for instance) have gone down as autism diagnoses have gone up

Which makes perfect sense – when I was young, there was no ADHD, no autism, nothing. Dyslexic kids either coped or were sent to the lower classes or held back – there was no diagnosis. Is there a dyslexia epidemic? No – I know way too many adults who realize now that they were actually ADHD or dyslexic as kids and that they had to struggle to get through.

But back to Jenny – one reason I single her out here is because she has provided a rallying point. On the one hand it is a good thing as it has brought money into legitimate autism treatment and research. But on the other hand it has added a sense of legitimacy to nonsensical rantings that would otherwise have been dismissed out of hand.

I have no idea the extent to which she actually writes her own books (as Sarah Palin’s books show, having a single name as author means nothing anymore), but this quote makes my jaw drop:

You know, I could in two months turn Evan completely autistic again. I could do it completely through diet. And maybe getting some vaccine boosters. Through diet, I could load him up again with all the things that will aggravate the damage that was done. Right now, what happened now was that I healed him to the point where he got everything back to this baseline level and it stays there like this. But I mess with it at all–boom!

If true, that would mean that she had single-handedly established causality in a condition for which none has yet been established. Too bad it is pure hogwash, just like so many of the ‘autism causes’ she and her collaborators have tried to foist upon the public, shot down one after the next.

For reasonable folks with some basic science knowledge, this whole thing is easily dismissed as nonsense. But for many who are scared of science and prone to distrust the government it is terribly confusing. The removal of Thimerosal from vaccines was done due to concerns over general toxicity of the preservative, but since it had been touted as causing autism it was seen as an admission of guilt by the CDC in spite of scientific reports.

The complete lack of any impact on autism reporting has been swept aside by the anti-vaccine folks … and this makes things even more confusing for normal folks. They ask ‘you said it caused autism, but since it is gone there is no change … how can we believe you’? And there is no answer – because as many scientists say, this is not a technical challenge but a fringe movement based on fear. And sadly, the children are paying – and all of the time going into dealing with this stuff is not going into proper research to keep making vaccines safer and more effective.

The sad thing is that all of this does nothing to help the unfortunate kids and their families dealing with autism, which is a very challenging condition. All it has done is help re-establish polio and other conditions the anti-vaccine folks have scared them into not getting immunized for, which have led to way too many illnesses through the years.

So what do I think about all of this? Well, in case it isn’t already obvious …

What about you?

15 Responses to " Jenny McCarthy: Still Sticking with Debunked Autism Theory and Using ‘Mob Mind’ as Excuse "

  1. Michael Jones says:

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  3. Liz Ditz says:

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  5. Jon Sharman says:

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  6. RT @lizditz: via @geardiary: Jenny McCarthy: Clinging to "Autism as Vaccine Injury" http://bit.ly/erhPem #vaxfax confuses popularity …

  7. Liz Ditz says:

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  8. walker karraa says:

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  9. Liz Ditz says:

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