Jenny McCarthy addresses the audience at an Ante Up for Autism fundraiser. (Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dorausch)
On February 28, 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the appearance of autism in children. The results provoked a widespread backlash against vaccines, forcing the medical community to spend years attempting to debunk his false claims. Eventually, it was revealed that Wakefield had fabricated his research as part of a scheme that promised him millions of dollars. Wakefield suffered a dramatic public downfall—his medical license stripped, his paper retracted from publication—but the damage was done. His propaganda had led to decreased immunization rates and an outbreak of measles in London.
Wakefield’s falsified claims remain at the core of a stubbornly popular anti-vaccination movement. To this day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people believe that vaccines are the principal cause of autistic spectrum disorders.
One of the most prominent promoters of this falsehood is actress Jenny McCarthy, who was recently named as Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s replacement on ABC’s hit daytime talk-show, The View. Once she’s on air, it will be difficult to prevent her from advocating for the anti-vaccine movement. And the mere act of hiring her would seem to credit her as a reliable source.
In 2007, McCarthy debuted her views on the national stage when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss autism, which is growing at alarming rates and continues to baffle medical researchers. McCarthy was convinced that vaccines gave her son autism and seizures. In addition to a gluten-free diet, aromatherapies, B-12 shots and vitamins, she also tried chelation therapy, which is meant to remove toxic substances from the body. Her son, she claimed, was “cured.”
Within the first few minutes of the interview, McCarthy cited as reasons for her success a “little voice” and her “mommy instincts,” all while denigrating several doctors and EMTs.
Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.
In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”
Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.
Despite the evidence, it is easy to understand why the parent of an autistic child—in fear and confusion and desperation—might find McCarthy’s claims enticing. These are parents at their most vulnerable and McCarthy, though perhaps well intentioned, has preyed on them. This fear-mongering is incredibly dangerous, especially when a quarter of parents trust the information provided by celebrities about the safety of vaccines. A movement borne out of Wakefield’s discredited research, animated by misinformation, and promoted by people like McCarthy has fed an anti-vaccine frenzy, leading to a huge spike in cases of whooping cough in communities across the United States, especially in Washington State, which, in 2012, saw its worst epidemic in seventy years.
We see the same dangerous nonsense playing out with the HPV vaccine, a major breakthrough that can prevent cervical cancer and, it was recently found, throat cancer in men and women. Unfortunately, parents studying at McCarthy’s alma mater, the University of Google, are absorbing misinformation and refusing to vaccinate their kids.
These incidents reflect a broader disconnect between science and the media on a range of issues. The vast majority of scientists accept that evolution is real, that man-made climate change is occurring and that vaccines do not cause autism. But in the general public, these issues are often hotly debated, and, too often, the media fuels these arguments by airing junk science as though it were legitimate. The result? A major public health risk. Vaccine avoidance makes the entire country more susceptible to diseases like the measles that were once vanquished.
By giving science deniers a public forum, media outlets implicitly condone their claims as legitimate. As Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan recently argued in a post about McCarthy and her vaccination fear-mongering, “he said” “she said” coverage simply puts “unsupported claims alongside credible arguments, or failed to push back altogether.” False equivalency is one of journalism’s great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve “balance,” reporters often obscure the truth. What’s the merit in “he said, she said” reporting when he says the world is round and she insists it is flat. Indeed, there is an enormous cost to society when the truth could save lives.
Mark Hertsgaard argues that it is time to confront those in government who are undermining our response to climate change.