Why it doesn’t matter that Jenny McCarthy’s son may not be autistic

May 27, 2009

In comments to one of the vaccine-autism posts, Sue expressed irritation at how the discussion often glosses over the diagnosis and “etiology,” or causation, of autism. If we were all perfectly rational truth seekers, maybe it would matter that Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan was possibly misdiagnosed. See this post on the autism blog Left Brain/Right Brain about whether Evan might actually have Landau-Kleffner syndrome (LKS). I was going to try to get into the differential diagnosis, but then I remembered that’s not my thing. The following is my thing.

1. Even if Evan did have LKS, it barely matters.

Read Liza Gross’s story I posted about yesterday.

Kaufman [the medical anthropologist] sees the persistence of the vaccine–autism theory as a consequence of how individuals manage risk in modern society. People must trust experts to protect them from risk, whether they’re getting on an airplane or vaccinating their kids, she explains. When faith in experts erodes, personal responsibility prevails. “People think if you blindly follow experts, you’re not taking personal responsibility,” she adds.

Feelings of personal responsibility can backfire (the masculinist fantasy/fallacy).

After hearing several parents explain why they don’t vaccinate, [pediatrician Jeffrey] Baker pointed out that parents who claim nonmedical exemptions seem to become so focused on their own children that they “lose the bigger picture,” not accepting responsibility for the impacts their actions may have on the health of the community. Reflecting on the radio show, Baker says, “it really hit me hard. Many of these parents who aren’t vaccinating their children are just convinced that there’s something in the vaccines that is poisoning their children.”

2. Can we please blame it all on faith in science?

There was an interesting statement in this Oprah.com bit about Jenny McCarthy. 

In recent years, a Centers for Disease Control study found that the number of children diagnosed with autism has risen from 1 in every 500 children to 1 in 150—and scientists have not discovered a cause or a cure.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but think about the faith in science implicit in that statement. When science works, it’s magic in white coats. Then when it stops working, the magicians become bullies.

Here’s geneticist Michael Wigler, from a Q&A with my friend Nikhil:

Unless you’re tone deaf, you’re aware that autism is a large, unsolved problem. Also, if you’re at all sensitive to the public support for biomedical research, you realize the public’s been disappointed. […] Number one, there’s a crying unsolved problem. Number two, the public has been losing faith in the return for investing in molecular biology, in particular, in the Human Genome Project.

Here’s Nikhil on Wigler’s “unified theory of autism,” really a genetic risk model. Maybe Matt Nisbet has polling data on confidence in genetics post-Human Genome Project.

Always remember: 1) Science is a type of expertise. 2) “Genes” = MAGIC.

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