Science, Celebrity, And The Media

Jenny McCarthy is still railing against vaccines in her crusade against autism, and the media is still covering both her efforts and the questionable scientist who fueled the debate in the first place. What we Americans are ready to believe is often and interesting study in contrast. Literally thousands of long term studies of historical CO2 levels, temperature records via thermometers, temperature records via proxies (like corals and tree rings), direct observation, and simulation, have concluded that this planet is experiencing damaging anthropogenic climate change. But because the fossil fuel industry refuses to look out of its box, and a handful of fundamentalist Christians think science is an attack on God, this overwhelming argument still struggles for public credibility.

When an ex-Playmate and her comedian domestic partner however, raised the alarm based on one exceptionally flawed research paper, vaccination rates for newer diseases and in some high-risk communities fell. The medical community, fueled by a rigorous ethic of peer-reviewed reporting on long-term clinical studies, has managed to steadily control or destroy major diseases that devastated communities as recently as 60 years ago, . This history, however, slid to the background after Dr. Andrew Caulfield did a study of 12 children whose parents reported behavioral problems after they received vaccines. Jenny McCarthy and the good doctor believed that the parent’s association of behavioral difficulties and the MMR vaccine constitutes proof of a causal relationship between the two. Many parents around the world seem to have agreed with the pair.

The lack of a sound foundation in scientific method, in the population at large and within the media, is a major problem in our nation. Scientists have found themselves lumped, along with politicians and “the government” into the they/them paradigm. Media outlets report, and many Americans believe, scientific findings as though there was a congress somewhere of scientists taking a vote. “Why can’t scientists stick to a story?”…”Those people change their minds all the time.” Bad reporting is the bane of credibility, no matter what group to which you may be associated. When that reporting is related to a public health issue, it rises to the level of criminally dangerous. In this dangerous paradigm, media outlets cherry-pick interesting results from academic journals, and publish articles based (often poorly) on the findings. Think of the typical headline; “Scientists Report…”

Celebrities add a particularly difficult ingredient to the mix; their credibility is often far ahead of their knowledge. Making matters worse, many celebrities (like many humans) are the last to know that their point of view is poorly informed. When those same celebrities embrace a good cause for good reasons, their credibility explodes dangerously past their actual knowledge. Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey are on a mission to save children; they are motivated to defend a doctor who based his conclusions on what he heard when he listened to parents. Any parent who has felt ignored or run over (intellectually) by their g.p. or pediatrician may feel quite the same as McCarthy and Carey. After all; when it comes to their children, parents always know best.

But they don’t. Good parents are a great resource for learning what a child would like for Christmas, what they will or won’t eat, and which relatives their kids really don’t want to see during the holidays. Conversly, most parents suffer, at one time or another, from the disease known as “My Little Angel Syndrome”, or “Little Jimmy Disorder”. “Little Jimmy wouldn’t do that…” and “My little angel is a better child than that…”, are just two examples of how most parents see either what they want to see or what they believe they will see.

In the British study that sparked the autism debate, 12 sets of parents who may or may not have been nervous about vaccines (they are, after all, weakened or dead versions of the disease they aim to prevent), reported behavioral symptoms at undetermined times after the administration of the vaccine. This information suggests an area for research, and contrary to Jenny McCarthy’s reckless and ill-informed statements, such research has been and continues to be done. But what a group of parents reports or claims to have witnessed must be taken with more than one grain of salt by all parents. It is dangerous to put too much weight on the statements of parents because they are, by definition, biased.

We parents are inclined by evolution and trained by experience to quickly identify outside threats to our children and look for the quickest solutions possible. This doesn’t mean we are necessarily good at determining those threats when they don’t involve fangs or the merging of silverware and electrical sockets. Our kid’s reading problems stem from poor teachers, not our (necessary) work schedules that keep us from reading to and with our kids. Our kid’s behavior issues must be linked to: sex on TV, those horrible video games, the “bad” kids down the block…or the vaccines the “government” made my kids get. We ascribe simple, direct causation to our problems and those of our children because they are easy to understand. Many of these issues have indirect links to the issues we face as parents, but indirect linkage is not something we the people deal with well. We appreciate the finding of fault, the existence of black and white answers, and easy solutions to our problems.

The issues of causation and linkage are symptomatic of our society’s lack of scientific understanding. Activists working to raise awareness on climate change are every bit as likely to commit the same errors in logic that the deniers do: “There is climate change, just look at these record highs.”; “There isn’t climate change, just look at all of that snow.” “Scientists say that autism is not caused by vaccines, so it isn’t.”; “Some guy in Britain said that a dozen parents said that autism was caused by the MMR vaccine, and Jenny McCarthy agrees with them; so it is.” Our decision-making as a democracy and our parental habits are both damaged by the unwillingness to follow an argument through to its logical conclusion, and then to accept and act on the results.

We parents have a difficult time accepting societal norms and our own behavior as causes of our children’s problems. Reflexively reaching for a drug to solve our kid’s problem, and having a beer every day after work may both be acceptable in our society, but they present real problems to the parent explaining to his or her offspring that “drugs are bad”. The simple truth of the matter, when it comes to autism, ADHD, and many other childhood disorders that have exploded in recent decades, is that most parents ignore the science on the most likely causes of these issues. The ignorance of the science, and the very human tendency to look outside the home for solutions, are every bit as devastating to our families as the increase in diagnosed autism.

If you think your kid has ADHD, don’t take him to the g.p. and ask for drug therapy; ban sugary drinks and snacks as every day items and see what happens. If your kid is depressed, has behavioral issues, and is struggling in school, don’t go to your pediatrician and ask them to dose your kid up on Concerta and an anti-depressant (or two). Try working with them on their schoolwork every day, applying consistent consequences to their bad behavior, and starting to spend time talking with them about their interests.

Autism may, some day, be found to have some causal linkage to vaccinations; it would be foolish and hypocritical to deny the possibility because the science isn’t complete on the issue. But we do know that there are dozens of other issues, specific to the last 3 or 4 decades, that are causing problems in other sectors in childhood health. All of these issues are being studied by committed scientists, most of whom are themselves parents. Perhaps a commitment to the whole of the method is more appropriate than an emotional defense of one non-representative example. We the people also know one even more vital fact; that the development and use of vaccinations on the population as a whole, has meant that millions of families have been spared the agony that no parent anywhere should ever experience; the death of their child. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?

The Rational Middle is listening (and hoping that Diego isn’t getting another tattoo, and that Joe is studying for the MCAT)…

2 thoughts on “Science, Celebrity, And The Media

  1. Mike:

    Are you pulling my leg, Jenny McCarthy is not an expert? I guess I will have to just read Playboy for the articles and ignore the long walks and good book comments. Good article, and your next assignment is to find what stars are wrong on Global Warming.

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