07 January 2011

In which I manage to talk about Playboy and the Space Race

News broke from Great Britain this week that the original study which linked autism to childhood vaccination was an "elaborate fraud". (details here in addition to other places). It turns out the author had falsified the records of EVERY SINGLE patient record he had used to draw his conclusions.

Since 1998, medical experts have been saying that the links between autism and vaccination were tenuous at best. However, Jenny McCarthy (whose qualifications for being in the public eye included getting naked and hosting a dating show on MTV) felt that she knew better. She wrote books, she went on TV, she co-founded a foundation, all of which were dedicated to autism. I have no problem with this. She has an autistic son. So I empathize with her having an autistic child. Lord knows the autistic student who just today implored me to "eat more paaaaaancakes" is hard to handle for 90 minutes, I couldn't do it for a lifetime. In short, my problem isn't with Jenny McCarthy.

My problem is because she was famous, people listened to her.  The only reason she gets on television programs (including The Doctors, Larry King Live, and Oprah) is because she was already famous. Then, once she's gotten on the TV, she uses the platform to spew non-sense.  If you watch the clip I linked, the doctor she appears with actually claims that infant mortality is higher in the U.S. because we have too many vaccines. I'm not an expert (a statement full of Friday irony), but that certainly seems counter-intuitive. Look at how much she confused Bones (Dr. Jim Sears). 

This wasn't a one time thing; nor has she stopped. She just keeps spreading non-sense. For example, her foundation's website calls the attention focused on the only study that backs up her claims about autism, "much ado about nothing." That's patently false. The study on which she's based her entire foundation is called "an elaborate fraud" and she responds with, in effect, "Look away, nothing to see here."

Now, by this point, if you're still reading, (thanks for that, by the way) you might be wondering why I've spent 500 words attacking Jenny McCarthy. Is he going to move into a rant about the over-diagnoses of autism? Is he going to rant about the desire to find a cause, so that people can rest assured that their genes had nothing to do with their child's autism? Is he going to link the the playboy images that made McCarthy famous in the first place, and use that to talk about the sexualization of society? No, no, and no. (although the last one would be totally hilarious and gratuitous. In fact, look for it next week).  

Nope, I spent all that time talking about Ms. McCarthy and autism to come back to one of my classic points. Trust the experts. Why would anyone trust Jenny McCarthy as a source on childhood vaccination? It doesn't make sense. But, because she could get on TV, people trusted her. Literally, the only reason she had a national voice was because pubescent boys liked to look at her in her birthday suit. And yet, people did listen. (admittedly, she's not the only person railing against vaccines, but she was clearly the voice and face of the movement.) 

I think the problem exists in society, but more importantly for this blog, education. People with no training, but a platform, believe that they know best. Parents went to school, so they feel comfortable questioning how a teacher conducts class. Politicians went to school, so they get on the stump and propose reforms that "make sense." People who lack the basic knowledge to know the difference between repudiate and refudiate are allowed to spew forth their opinions, and people follow them, simply because they are on TV.


I don't know when this became ok. I don't know when the voice of the "man on the street" became more important than the expert. But I do know that it's bad for America. We need, as a people, to trust the experts. It turns out that experts are specialists, and they understand the issues better than the average Joe. 

And now, a historical example: When the space program was faltering in the late '50's, there was a large hue and cry about the failings. Many people called for a merging of our civilian and military space programs. The Eisenhower administration, to its credit, didn't give in. They trusted the experts. Instead of simply following the crowd, the U.S. reinvested in math and science education. We let our engineers work, and in the end, they created spacecraft capable of reaching the moon. This would not have been possible on military rockets, since they were designed for ballistic, not orbital flight. But at the time, that was something that only the experts understood.

We are, if education critics are to be believed, in an education race. But now, we're rushing to implement programs too often not supported by experts. We're investing in charter schools, home school programs, and online schools. We're tailoring programs to facilitate childish behavior and attitudes, instead of fixing them. (just ask Dr. Dick) I encourage society to pause, and to give the experts a chance to "fix" education. I suspect that, given time, the supporters of charter, online, and home schooling will find themselves like Jenny McCarthy, having spent years of their lives defending positions that were based on false data. I suspect this because all of that testing data that they love to lean on will end up being, like the study in Lancet, misleading at best. 

If only the education critics looked as good in a bikini as Jenny Mac..........     


  1. I read that her son might not even have autism, that it was misdiagnosed Landau-Kleffner syndrome. I was wondering if her foundation had some sort of response to this, but did not take the time to look it up.

    Have you seen the Jenny McCarthy Body Count? http://www.jennymccarthybodycount.com/Jenny_McCarthy_Body_Count/Home.html

  2. At my place of employment we had a chicken pox outbreak the week before winter break. I had 2 students miss the final exam and final project of their class due to not being vaccinated and state law making them stay home. The cost is my free time to administer their exams and projects (projects they could have e-mailed but chose not to), grade them, and fill out the paperwork to approve a transcript grade change because of the anti-vaccine movement.

    Thanks Jenny McCarthy.