11 January 2011

Jenny McCarthy is killing kids

Amazingly, on the same day that the Huffintgon Post runs a piece about cooling down political rhetoric they run a(nother) tragically misinformed, catastrophically misleading, and generally stupid piece from Jenny McCarthy. Message received, when the victims of your rhetoric blast to the front page of the paper because of a tragedy, we all must take note. When your rhetoric quietly sickens tens of thousands of people, most of them children, your platform will not be taken away, no matter the nonsense you shout from it.

Anyway, unless you've been living under a rock the article purporting to show a link between autism and the MMR vaccine is a fraud. In what specific way was it a fraud? Journalist Brian Deer wrote the complete report documenting, in nauseating detail, the outright fraud that was perpetrated. Diagnoses were confabulated, nonexistent records were used, particular claims were omitted to strengthen the case, in almost every single way that one could have been fraudulent in crafting this paper, Wakefield was. The editors of the BMJ wrote (emphasis mine):
Drawing on interviews, documents, and data made public at the GMC hearings, Deer shows how Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients’ medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome; how his institution, the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London, supported him as he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain; and how key players failed to investigate thoroughly in the public interest when Deer first raised his concerns.
Deer actually shows a good deal more that just "altered facts" but the point is clear. This study was an absolute and complete fraud. This has happened before in science and it will certainly happen again. What doesn't typically accompany the illumination of such fraud is high profile defense of the fraud itself as well as the swindler.

McCarthy says, "Dr. Wakefield did something I wish all doctors would do: he listened to parents and reported what they said." When someone begins their argument by invoking the inability of doctors to listen I am generally suspicious. McCarthy, evidently, has failed to realize that Wakefield may have listened to these parents, but what he reported was not what the parents said. From Deer's report, here is what the father of child #11 had to say, "[Wakefield's] misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable. His motives for this I may never know."

McCarthy continues in this vein for awhile, eventually reaching the fact that Mr Deer is not a doctor and that he did not have access to all of the children's medical records. It is beside the point that Mr Deer is not a doctor since he makes no medical assertions, he did what journalists are tasked with doing: investigating a fraud that was perpetrated for monetary gain. The fruitfulness of Mr Deer's investigation has nothing to do with the already debunked notion that the MMR vaccine (or any other) cause autism. It has everything to do with the deception concocted by Mr Wakefield for monetary gain (who has been stripped of his medical license, it must be noted).

Things get worse however. For her next rhetorical trick McCarthy will emotionally rape you with her own grief. Witness: "I know children regress after vaccination because it happened to my own son." Indeed, her own evocation of how she came by this "knowledge" makes anyone who questions it an impolite boor attacking the psyche of a grieving mother. That her knowledge is based on a fundamental flaw makes wrapping it in emotionally charged language considerably more devious.

A momentary digression. In English we have one verb for knowledge of something, to know. In German there are two, kennen and wissen. Without getting into the mundane details of it, wissen is used to convey facts and kennen is used to convey emotive things (i.e. wissen would be used in expressing the elevation of Mt. Rainierkennen would be used in expressing what it is like to climb Mt. Rainier.) I bring this up because the dichotomy between types of knowledge is very important and its conflation a major problem. Science has no claim on emotive (kennen) knowledge and anecdotes (such as McCarthy's) have no claim on factual (wissen) knowledge.

What ought to be clear to you after this German grammar lesson is that McCarthy's "knowledge" is of a distinctly nonscientific kind. She has made a singular observation (that her child regressed after vaccination) and attributed causality to it. You can not do that. Accepting this method leads in short order to the sacrifice of humans to appease unseen Gods. "Hey, we didn't do it last Sunday and then there was an earthquake on Tuesday... you sure you want to risk it again?"

McCarthy moves her essay forward by dangling a number of unanswered questions in front of her audience as though their existence proves her point. Scientists don't study every single vaccine and its relationship to autism because there is not (any longer) a hypothetical mechanism by which a vaccine could cause autism. The theory, with respect to the MMR vaccine, was that mercury from thiomersal, a preservative, was entering the CNS and damaging DNA. Elemental mercury as well as methyl mercury is known to do this. That the metabolite of thiomersal is ethyl mercury, which cannot pass through the blood brain barrier, was conveniently overlooked.

I can ask unanswered questions regarding autism endlessly. Why has no one studied the link between central heating and autism? (It's real, because people who don't have central heating don't get diagnosed with autism). Why has no one examined the link between SUV ownership and autism? (Also real; same reason). This could go on forever, but I'm sure you get the point.

In any case, she concludes her essay with probably the worst news yet:
I have never met stronger women than the moms of children with autism. Last week, this hoopla made us a little stronger, and even more determined to fight for the truth about what's happening to our kids.
In case you missed it, she accomplished the nifty rhetorical trick of linking her statements to those of all "moms of children with autism." This is awesome because now you can no longer argue with just her, you're arguing with all of them. Furthermore, it's a masterful play of the grief card. Now when I point out that she isn't fighting for the truth you will think I am being a bully. Nevertheless, the fact remains McCarthy is not fighting for the truth, she is fighting for her truth. She isn't even interested in what the truth is, unless it serendipitously meshes with her own.

As to her question, "Vaccines save lives, but might be harming some children -- is moderation such a terrible idea?"

Yes. It is a catastrophic, horrible, child-killing idea.


  1. Two things:
    1) Kennen isn't just emotive, and wissen isn't just factual. Consider the sentences "Ich kenne keinen Grund, warum ich so hungrig sein sollte." and "Aber ich weiß doch, dass er lieb ist." The first is a factual kennen, and the second is an emotive wissen (works rather like connaitre and savoir in French). Your semantic beef might be better expressed by the distinction between "to know" and "to believe". McCarthy says she knows that the vaccines cause regression, but in fact she *just* believes it, in the way that a kid might believe there are monsters under the bed without knowing it.
    2) So you've established that people are just as likely to believe celebrities' factual claims as those of scientists and journalists. They pick a celebrity they identify with, and defend the association of their identity with the celebrity's via the claims. Is the problem, then, that celebrities should really be more informed about the topics they discuss publicly and the methods to assess information about those topics, or people should listen more to scientists (like you and Wakefield), or that everybody should be smarter and more moral, or what? You've identified a troublesome event, but of what is it an instance, and what is anybody supposed to do about it (besides write and comment on nascent but promising blogs)?

  2. Are you deleting (on topic, inoffensive) comments, amigo? Didn't think you were the type. Pity.

  3. I didn't delete your comment. I read it in my inbox and went looking to reply to it and wondered where it went.

    After reading this post at Neuroskeptic I found your post in the spam folder. Seems to be a Blogger wide problem, but you have my apologies anyway.

  4. Here is my response on, and a place we can have a further discussion of kennen vs. wissen if you would like.

    Here is my response to saying McCarthy merely believes in mistaken ideas.

    As to point #2, you're right I haven't provided any. My reflexive answer is to trust in the weight of established science and vehemently reject a rush to judgement (Bezwoda and Wakefield were only able to perpetrate enormous frauds because people trusted them and did not wait for any confirmation; as well as ignoring those who disputed their findings). I'll try and write something about this.