Actress and soon-to-be TV host Jenny McCarthy, who is expected to join “The View” on Sept. 9, considers herself an activist for children with autism. In May 2007, McCarthy announced that in 2005, her then-3-year-old son had been diagnosed with autism. During a 2008 appearance on the “Larry King Show,” she first added her support to the argument that there is a connection between vaccines and autism. Since then, she has been aggressively active in her anti-vaccine campaign.
How did we get to this health scare that discourages parents from immunizing their children? Well, it began with one doctor, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who conducted a “study” on all of 12 children — all of whom had autism and bowel problems — and concluded that because all of them had also been vaccinated, that their autism and bowel issues were caused by the vaccines they received. You’d think the scientific community would have said, “Hello, correlation does not imply causation,” right? Well, that’s just it. It did. Wakefield’s paper was subsequently debunked.
In his Bad Science column for the Guardian and in his book of the same name, Ben Goldacre discusses Wakefield, the paper in question and the manner in which the media jumped all over the sensational and seductive story that helped boost readership levels but did so at the cost of contributing to public hysteria. The media also had access to countless studies and reports showing no link between vaccines and autism but for the most part ignored those and instead kept Wakefield’s debunked study in the limelight.
Never mind that according to McCarthy herself in a blog post for CNN, doctors and neurologists have told her that her son was very likely misdiagnosed — which she then dismissed as brainwashing because “it's as if they are wired to believe that children can't recover from autism.” Her son was diagnosed with autism after having seizures, and he improved when those seizures were treated, which would be more consistent with Landau-Kleffner syndrome — a syndrome that is often misdiagnosed as autism.
And never mind her refusal to acknowledge the extensive scientific research that has consistently shown no link between vaccines and autism. McCarthy keeps referencing — guess who? — Wakefield’s debunked study as evidence for her beliefs.
What we have here is a combination of factors, one of which is the media’s sloppy mishandling of scientific reports and studies and its penchant for using sensationalism to gain maximum readership. Add to that McCarthy’s celebrity and the fact that, arguably, she truly believes her son had autism; fervently believes vaccines caused it; and adamantly believes she cured him through diet and by submitting him to “chelation therapy.”
She is leveraging her celebrity to advocate this message that, if heeded, can result in a serious public health issue. And the media keeps it alive and well in the news. What we’re left with are the consequences of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, which have already played out in Swansea, in Wales, earlier this year, where a measles outbreak left 600 children affected and 60 in the hospital. Measles, folks. A preventable disease, if one is vaccinated.
So taking all this into consideration, we turn to Michael Specter’s July 16 article in the New Yorker, which tackles the problem of network executives offering McCarthy a regular platform from which “she can peddle denial and fear to the parents of young children who may have legitimate questions about vaccine safety.” We come full circle to the real problem at hand here: not so much people like McCarthy, but the media’s hunger for revenue and hits.
In all matters of scientific reporting, the media needs to be more responsible. But in a world driven by generating the most revenue and having the highest possible viewership, we will have networks like ABC put people like McCarthy on "The View," despite their very dangerous beliefs. And in a world where online media scrambles for clicks, we will continue to see sensationalist headlines luring us in. So it’s up to us to do our own digging.
Consider Goldacre’s sound point: “While stories on [genetically modified] food, or cloning, stood a good chance of being written by specialist science reporters, with stories on MMR, their knowledge was deliberately sidelined, and 80% of the coverage was by generalist reporters.”
You see a report about something scary? Don’t panic. Remember that “scientists write papers, and pull them apart to see if their findings are robust.” Read the source material. Pull it apart. Question it. Are you basing your conclusions on a study that looked at all of 12 children and was — I mean, come on! — debunked?
If the media continues putting scientifically illiterate people at the helm of potentially highly emotive stories, then it’s up to us to become more scientifically astute so we can learn to see through the bullshit, and not fall into the trap that has ensnared people like McCarthy.