Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Who's unscientific? Vicious critics of Jenny McCarthy and her new role as co-host of The View

This week, it was announced that Jenny McCarthy, a well-known and outspoken critic of the safety of vaccines for some children, has been selected as a co-host of the popular daytime television talk show The View, sparking immediate howls of outrage from those who apparently believe that such opinions should be banned from being broadcast to the masses, whom they do not deem worthy of making their own decisions on important subjects such as vaccinations.

Here is a link to a segment broadcast today on taxpayer-supported National Public Radio, in which only quotations from those calling McCarthy's concerns "baseless" are given airtime, and which ends with the smug observation that View host Barbara Walters had taken some time off this year due to chicken pox, which is now preventable with a vaccine.  The written transcript of that segment can be found here.

During the segment, a university professor calls McCarthy's views "baseless" and says her information "has no scientific support whatsoever."  The author of a book critical of those who question the safety of vaccines is reported to have said that "McCarthy's celebrity ensured her books receive coverage even as the link between autism and vaccines is given credence by no medical authority."  

The university professor adds that it ends up being pretty irresponsible to propound a course of action that actually can endanger the children of your listeners," which presumably means that he is against the selection of McCarthy as a regular co-host on a popular television show, because airing differences of opinion "can endanger" children.

Other popular media outlets did not just imply that those who hold different views about vaccinations should not be given a voice on popular television shows: they came right out and said it directly, often with a great deal of vitriol.  Time magazine's TV critic James Poniewozik published an article entitled "Viruses Don't Care About Your View: Why ABC Shouldn't Have Hired Jenny McCarthy."  In it, he says that, "to legitimize McCarthy’s dangerous anti-science because she will probably get crazy attention and ratings is irresponsible and shameful."  

He then goes further and states that "muddying a vital question of public health by framing it as a 'controversy' that you can hash out in a roundtable" may be the most dangerous aspect of having McCarthy on The View.  In other words, according to Time's TV critic, viewers cannot be allowed to believe that there is any debate about this issue, and to even so much as hire someone who has an alternative belief on a "vital question" is irresponsible.  According to those who see themselves as the gatekeepers of what subjects are open for debate, certain questions are off-limits, and they will decide which questions may be debated and which cannot.

Poniewozik ends his article by referring to Galileo and saying that some questions are already settled, as scientific fact, including the link between viruses and disease.  But this argument is disingenuous -- McCarthy is not necessarily arguing that a virus cannot cause a disease.  She is arguing that there may be a link between some vaccines and harm to some of those who receive them, and that parents should become informed on the issue.  

Furthermore, while one can point to Galileo and say, as Poniewozik does, that "The Earth didn’t revolve around the sun only for Galileo," there have been other beliefs that once had "no scientific support whatsoever" and which were argued only by a tiny minority which later became mainstream.  For example, see this previous post on the scorn that was heaped upon Alfred Wegener just a hundred years ago when he proposed his theory of continental drift, or this post from 2011 entitled "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists," which was a withering barb leveled by a fellow scientist at the work of a man who later became the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry for his work proving the existence of quasicrystals.

Here are some other scornful articles from around the media world blasting McCarthy and the idea that the safety of vaccines can be questioned: one from Slate calling her a "notorious anti-vaxxer," one from someone calling herself "MD Mama" at who says that McCarthy's "claims" are "made up," and one from New Yorker entitled "Jenny McCarthy's dangerous views" which concludes that "Executives at ABC should be ashamed of themselves for offering McCarthy a regular platform on which she can peddle denialism and fear to the parents of young children who may have legitimate questions about vaccine safety."  The author of the Slate article made the added point that, even if McCarthy does not mention her vaccine views, the very fact that she is now a co-host on The View will give her "a tacit credibility to the viewer."

Such virulence reveals the low opinion that those who consider themselves "opinion-makers" have of the general public.  It also reveals their view of the proper role of the media, including daytime talk shows such as The View that purport to discuss subjects from various perspectives.  They clearly see their fellow media outlets (and presumably their own media outlets) as platforms for disseminating the right view of certain important subjects, and wish to make sure that no "dangerous" dissent on certain topics is ever given even "tacit credibility."  

In other words, their view of mainstream media outlets is as organs for the dissemination of propaganda, speaking with one voice on some subjects so that the watchers do not get any ideas or look into certain issues for themselves.  We can identify vaccines as one of these subjects on which many in the media apparently believe no alternative views can afford to be heard.  What might some of the others be?

For her part, Jenny McCarthy's non-profit organization, Generation Rescue, has a website on which an FAQ page gives what appear to be her actual positions on the subject.  There, the organization's position on vaccination is stated in this manner:
Generation Rescue firmly believes that all parents have the power of choice – to vaccinate or not – and should be armed with the right questions to make an informed decision. We encourage all new parents to educate themselves about vaccinations so they can stand with confidence behind their decisions. Parents need to discuss vaccination options directly with their child’s pediatrician.
Now there's a set of assertions that critics can rightly label as "dangerous views" and "irresponsible" -- the idea that "all parents have the power of choice -- to vaccinate or not -- and should be armed with the right questions to make an informed decision."  

As noted above, one need not deny that there is a link between virus and disease to want more information on the safety issues surrounding a specific vaccine, or the preservatives used for a specific vaccine, or the vaccine schedule currently being recommended for young children.  For instance, one could believe that certain vaccines are important, but that others which are recommended (such as the chicken pox vaccine) might not be worth the potential risk.  Or, one could believe that certain vaccines are important, but that the number of vaccines that are now given to infants in rapid succession might be safer if the vaccinations were spread out over a period of months instead of all being given on a single day.  Or, one could believe that certain vaccines are important, but that combining three different vaccines into a single shot administered all at once (such as the DPT vaccine) might be dangerous, and they might wish to seek ways to have these vaccines administered separately instead of all together.

The idea that parents should become more informed on this subject should not be controversial, but some people apparently believe that the mere sight of McCarthy on The View is intolerable because it could cause viewers to start to investigate such issues on their own, and to think for themselves instead of listening to the unified message that they and their fellow media outlets are trying to shape for their audiences.

Finally, many of the critics referenced above condescendingly come right out and say that McCarthy has no right to speak out on this subject because she is not a doctor and because she is an actress and a model.  In just about every crime mystery, this type of argument is put forward by "the authorities" who think they have the crime all figured out, and are upset when an "outsider" such as Sherlock Holmes or the gang from Scooby Doo show up.  They want to marginalize and attack outside voices that threaten the establishment (which they represent, and from which they derive all of their authority and livelihood). 

Jenny McCarthy has just as much right to speak out about this subject as any other human being, and as she is also a mother and someone who believes her child may have been harmed by a vaccine, she has every right to try to become as informed as possible on all sides of the issue, and to share what she believes with other parents of children who are concerned about these issues.  

Additionally, to imply that no medical doctors have any questions at all about the safety of vaccines is simply untrue.  Here are several links to doctors raising various concerns about the safety of the current vaccine methodology, from the website of Dr. Joseph Mercola (another figure that the establishment would like to marginalize and discredit): 
The data in these articles suggests that the vaccine question may not be such a "closed case" as the authorities -- and those in the media who for some reason want to control all debate on this subject -- want people to believe.  This subject is an outstanding example of a subject in which certain parties do not want anyone to question the official story, and in which those seeking to quell independent investigation on the part of parents or other concerned citizens will resort to throwing around the term "science" to imply that their position is unassailable and that any men or women who question their position are akin to those who believe the earth is flat or that it does not revolve around the sun.

Whatever your position on this particular issue, we should all agree that this kind of name-calling and stifling of debate is reprehensible and ugly.  In fact, it may well be termed "irresponsible" and even "dangerous" -- the very terms the media critics are using to describe Jenny McCarthy's selection as a co-host of The View.  This type of behavior threatens open inquiry and the search for the truth in a wide variety of subjects, from medicine to history to geology and biology, as discussed in this blog in many other posts.  In this way, it is also extremely unscientific -- yet another term that the critics are applying to Jenny McCarthy, but which actually applies to them.