The new McCarthyism

May 12, 2009

I finally broke down and got some antibiotics from the Wal-Greens clinic on Sunday to kill off this ear-sinus thing of mine. My illness has hindered my commenting on a far more insidious disease: Jenny McCarthy’s wrongheaded campaign against childhood vaccination, now brought to you by Oprah.

With any luck, given Oprah’s sway with the disconnected masses, this new alliance means kids will soon be dropping in great numbers from measles, whooping cough and other diseases of the Oregon Trail days. I mean, you saw what happened with Oprah’s KFC coupons, right?

Here’s Jenny’s story in her own words. As Slate points out, she doesn’t give a shit about kids getting sick or dying. What she does give a shit about, in this Time snippet, is dropping the f-bomb on the vaccine-industrial complex:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Yikes. Sounds like a lot of pent up frustration and guilt. And as my war with Steven Pinker proves — temporary ceasefires notwithstanding — you can’t fight emotion with Science. Because a) confirmation bias; b) the asymmetrical advantage of bullshit.

Or in other words, I do sadly believe we’re in for another protracted cultural contest along the lines of evolution vs. creationism.

Chris Mooney has a thorough run-down of how the new McCarthyism has mutated under the selection pressure of trend data such as these from California. Originally, autism was supposed to have been caused by thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, even though it had been phased out of vaccines (except for flu shots) by 2001. But that didn’t pan out.

So, according to Mooney:

Advocates have begun moving the goalposts, now claiming, for instance, that the childhood vaccination schedule hits kids with too many vaccines at once, overwhelming their immune systems. Jenny McCarthy wants to “green our vaccines,” pointing to many other alleged toxins that they contain.

Naturally, the pro-vaccine camp wants to close off any avenue for debate. But you don’t want to start backtracking, which will be seized on by opponents as evidence the scientists are full of it. Mooney notes the evidence doesn’t rule out “some small subgroup of children might have a particular vulnerability to vaccines and yet be missed by epidemiological studies.”

Which leads you in to arguments about how big that group might be, where your prior assumptions will depend on whether or not you believe in your bones that doctors are corrupt assholes. Which in turn depends on your experiences with doctors.

I guess the root cause is a generation of parents who know that autism is a thing kids get but are struggling to cope with it and are looking to vent their pain, which is reasonable enough. And it’s easy pickings to target a public health intervention that’s more invisible the more successful it is. Plus, some doctors are insensitive jerks, and healthcare sucks (I’m told).

Can blogger activists like David Gorski and skeptic-in-chief Phil Plait do anything to help? I think you have to present the case against vaccine refusers, partly for the sake of integrity and the public record; partly to shore up the hesitaters, concerned parents who have no axe to grind but are simply unsure what to make of McCarthyite arguments.

It may all come down to state policies and doctors’ attitudes, and that’s terribly unsexy. Damn you, Oprah.

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14 Responses to “The new McCarthyism”

  1. JCL Says:

    ugh. too much.

    1. the best part of her story is the most ignored – that she has had incredible success elevating her sons autism primarily through diet. * amazing

    2. So she’s stupid and oprah is stupid and now everyone who listens to oprah is stupid?

    “she doesnt give a shit if kids die or get sick” – Really? Do you really think that or is this just your own emotional hyperbole. I think youre overlooking her point that the american medical insdustry has failed to maintain public trust.

    3. This isnt about people just not liking their doctors, but rahter a general distrust more and more people have of the US medical system.

    It is ‘for profit’ with a very long history of allowing profitability to overshadow public safety. re:pharm recalls, FDA inadequacy, overbilling hospitals, over treatment, insurance companies failing (both patients and doctors), etc.

    We don’t have alternatives, cant just go to the other guys, the only options are to accept the risk or to not take the drug until they can prove its safe.

    I think she’s right though – It’s the FDA and the vaccine makers job to ensure we have overwhelming faith they aren’t going to hurt our children.

    and noone experiences bad medicine more than a new parent. I wont go into this, but i mention it only to say its no surprise to me that parents are spearheading the movement to demand pharmaceutical accountability.

    4. evolution vs creationism? nice. is red the new christ? Accountability should never be an enemy to science.

    Let’s not get confused here. this is no morality debate. its a movement to reevaluate the way we americans approach medicine because it appears theres substancial evidence an allopathic approach isn’t always the healthiest.

    5. americans do have the most intense vaccination schedule in the world even though there is no evidence that other countries have any greater agenda (or likely hood) to kill off their children with small pox.

    p.s. – do us all a favor and try laying off the antibiotics next time. Drink alot of water, eat well, rest. then blog about it.

    -James

    • JR Minkel Says:

      Hi James,

      I have total respect for your intelligence and compassion. I’m happy to try to address these points but I don’t think that would affect either of our views on the matter. I’m much more interested in why you personally side with Jenny. Will you talk about your experiences with bad medicine as an expecting parent?

      • JCL Says:

        I guess what I was really getting at in my response is that I’m a little unclear what the views are on Pharmaceutical, FDA, AMA, Gov accountability.

        To honest though, I’m a little put off by your’s and, by extension Slate guy’s general (hostile?) attitude towards the issue. You both seem to imply that the issue is being raised out of an irrational hysteria rather than anything that warrants an actual response. AKA ‘I won’t even entertain a debate because you’re just being an emotional parent (woman)’. (Sr. Slate is more overtly offensive in this regard)

        Medical advocates too often treat patients and caretakers as if their intuition and experiences are irrelevant/ invalid. No doctor ever cares about or knows more about a person than that person (or their caretaker). So why treat them like they do?

        I think vaccines are good and important and clearly Jenny McCarthy does too. Just make sure they’re safe and believe people who are having problems. Obviously, we’re all just looking for some middle ground.

        know what i mean?

  2. Dina Says:

    I have to say I don’t think the issue is needing medical advocates or accountability. That is not to say we don’t need those things but rather that is not the matter at hand. To me the problem is parents are choosing to not vaccinate their children out of fear of autism risk. To do so is putting their child and other children at grave risk for what is a scientifically well refuted risk. There is no evidence vaccines cause autism. Plain and simple. The vaccines we are provided are not “shit”. Jenny McCarthy is frankly wrong on this specific issue and to give her a platform as wide reaching as Oprah is a poor idea. I agree with James that Doctors should listen. If they listened and took more accountability it is likely my father would still be alive. But that isn’t the point here. People please vaccinate your children and do not take Jenny McCarthy’s word for it that it might give your child autism.

    • Dad Fourkids Says:

      It is interesting how often people say that the handful of parents who opt out of vaccines (in part or in whole) out the “good” parents’ children at risk. If those who have not lost their blanket faith in the medical heirachy do what they are told and vaccinate their own children, the only way those kids who are not vaccinated could be a risk is if the vaccines are innefective to begin with.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    @James — Ya I hear what you’re saying. This is a polarizing debate because, as you indicated, it taps into stereotypes or ideals of masculine objectivity vs. feminine intuition. It’s not that I think Jenny McCarthy is stupid. I just think she’s wrong.

    I believe her when she says the stress of raising an autistic kid broke up her first marriage. See also this Double X writer who gets her 9yo autistic son stoned to try to curb his aggression. And I think all the pent up emotion is totally coloring her views on vaccination. What she needs is a good friend or a therapist to help her work through it. I could have titled this post, “Jim Carrey is supportive to a fault.”

    That’s the problem with this debate. There’s one fundamental reason to be pro-vaccine. There are many idiosyncratic reasons to be anti-vaccine. For the pro-vaccine side to stand around saying Jenny McCarthy should get a therapist would come off as condescending. But it’s true.

    So I guess I’ve come around to what I was saying on Facebook: Anyone who’s pro-vaccine should promote healthcare reform in general, policies to help struggling parents in particular and generally be sensitive to what parents have to go through.

    How’s that?

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    @Dina’s stance is probably the best one. I am the blogger seeking to make a name for myself so I try to be all punchy and clever, which antagonizes people who are skeptical of my position but are looking for reasoned debate. Everyone is better off if you vaccinate your kids. There’s no evidence vaccines cause autism. There’s plenty of evidence they prevent disease and death.

  5. JCL Says:

    It is not so simple as bunch of parents refusing to do get their kids vaccinated for some irrational reason. They arent just being contrarian, but rather believe they have legitimate fears and don’t trust the response theyve received.

    the question though is WHY do parents still fear that vaccines are unsafe after so many sources have proved otherwise?

    Roger Bernier from the CDC makes the right conclusion i think (as mentioned by Chris Mooney) rightly addressing this:
    “The problem is not only research,” Bernier says. “The problem is trust.”

    He along with the CDC has responded by creating projects such as the Vaccine Policy Analysis CollaborativE 2005 that bring together doctors, patients, and policy makers to reexamine how to come to a viable solution on all sides. Sounds like a smart way to get things done. But I worry that before we can specifically solve the current vaccine dilemma, we’ll need to see much more of this style of public inclusion in general.

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    I totally missed that closing bit in Mooney’s article. I actually agree completely with Bernier’s perspective. Whether or not the evidence is on your side, you can’t just dismiss parents’ fears or the problem will only get worse. CERN (home of the LHC) basically discovered the same thing about the false black hole controversy. People come from different places of knowledge and trust. Policy makers and vaccine advocates need to find a way to gain parents’ trust first. That’s the message I took from the NEJM article I cited. I think if and when parents do take a step back, they will find there is no reason to fear vaccines causing autism. The key to not getting shrill about this issue – on the pro-vaccine side, at least – is to TRUST parents to make that call.

  7. Sue Marasco Says:

    What irritates me about debates over Autism is a lack of discussion on its etiology and diagnostic process. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV-TR) definition reads “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a severe developmental disorder of the central nervous system characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication, and range of interests and behaviors.” It is closely associated with Pervasive Developmental Disorders that include Asperger’s disorder along with several PDD subtypes that share many characteristics. Up until 2008 the diagnostic process has been highly subjective with a series of interview type tests like the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Assessment System. See: “Reliability and validity of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Assessment System” by Hiroshi Kurita, et al.
    Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Volume 62, Issue 2 (p 226-233)
    There is a possible genetic identifier for Autism (and Autism spectrum disorders), but those studies are just now being published and expanded. For example, in Roohi et al write in Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2008 Jun 5;147B(4):411-7 the “Examination of observed cytogenetic variants in individuals with ASD may identify genes involved in its pathogenesis.” Why are we pointing fingers at vaccines as the culprit when we don’t have a clear idea of what Autism is and how to diagnose it? As Roohi et al write in their article, “The syndrome’s prevalence is estimated to be as high as 1 in 150 American children yet its etiology remains largely unknown.”


  8. [...] The new McCarthyism Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Why ‘Oprah’ advice could make you sickIt Bugs Me!What’s Your Dirty Little Mom Secret?Oprah, KFC and the Great PC Cleanup? [...]

  9. JR Minkel Says:

    @Dina and Dad Fourkids: I think the proper way for the two sides to think about it is this: Science can’t “prove” that a parent should vaccinate their children. That is an ethical choice. As a society, we need scientific data to inform our ethical choices, many of which are made “collectively” at great remove from our ability to exert individual control. For scientists to make ethical judgments *while wearing their expert hats* corrodes the proper relationship between facts and values. Only when both sides agree on the framing of the facts can we make judgments of *advancing* or *hindering* a shared value.


  10. [...] The history of science is usually presented in terms Great Men: Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick. A People’s History of Science balances out that narrative by focusing on the ways that workers, native peoples and other marginalized groups – or miners, midwives and “low mechanicks,” as the book’s subtitle puts it – have contributed to the vast body of knowledge we call science. Jonathan Weiner may have damned this book by faint praise in his Times review, but he says rightly that the early chapters are the most interesting. For example, we learn in chapter 2, “Prehistory: Were Hunter-Gatherers Stupid?”, that Pacific Islanders developed a whole system of navigation based on the positions of the stars and the pattern of ocean swells. If the swells were very faint, male navigators would use their testicles as sensitive balances to detect tiny motions of the boat. But my favorite cocktail party tidbit from the book would have to be the debunking of Edward Jenner’s supposed discovery of smallpox vaccination in 1796. In the US, Puritan minister Cotton Mather first promoted the idea of inoculating people with fluid from smallpox victims during an outbreak in Boston in the 1720s. Mather had learned about the practice years before from from a slave of his named Onesimus, who said it was a common African practice. In Europe, Turkish peasant women had hit on the same concept. It may have even earlier roots. Although Edward Jenner gets credit for the idea of vaccinating people with fluid from cowpox sores, a farmer named Benjamin Jesty beat him to it in 1774. Jenner goes down in history because (to his credit) he was the first to successfully defend the practice to the highly skeptical scientific elites of the day. The message: be skeptical of scientific elites, and be more sympathetic to Jenny McCarthy. [...]


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