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Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey: Two crappy tastes that taste crappy together on autism

I have to tip my hat to Kevin Leitch. I really do. He’s done something that I couldn’t manage to force myself to do, at least not completely.

He’s subjected himself to the entire episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in which Jenny McCarthy showed up to plug her new book about her fight to “save” her child from autism, Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism.

Far be it from me to attack Jenny McCarthy for wanting to help her autistic son. Her devotion is admirable, and virtually all parents, other than crappy parents, want to help their children. The problem is that, in seeking to help her son, she’s seriously drunk the Kool Aid and believes that vaccines contributed to her son’s autism. Moreover, like so many parents, she’s been subjecting him to a wide variety of “biomedical” treatments whose rationale is dubious at best and for which there is no good evidence of efficacy to try to “cure” his autism. Now, she’s using her B-list celebrity to peddle a boatload of misinformation about autism, vaccines, and biomedical treatment. Kev’s already covered her appearance on Oprah in detail; I just want to focus on a few key aspects. First, there is Google knowledge versus scientific knowledge:

No joke: McCarthy was cheered lustily by the studio audience for announcing that, after her son was diagnosed, she typed the word “autism” into the Google search engine, launching a courageous and audacious search for the truth. And what came up? Why, story after story about remedies and recoveries and other amazing stuff your pediatrician is paid handsomely by the CDC not to tell you about.

Luckily, Google employs an army of people whose only job is to make sure everything that pops up on the site is totally legit, although I probably should Google that sometime just to make sure it’s true.

McCarthy spoke particularly of clicking on a link “up in the corner” (I believe those are what are known as “advertisements”) and learning about the wonders of biomed.

And it’s true. Just Google the word “autism” yourself. When I did it this morning, the first link that came up was Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a somewhat unreliable reference, but certainly better than most of the rest. However, look at those links “in the corner,” which are, in fact, ads. What’s there? Take a look:

And a number of others, some appearing OK, others like the conspiracy-mongering Generation Rescue. The great thing about the Internet is that information is more easily accessible than ever before. The bad thing about the Internet is that there’s no filter. A lay person unversed in the science of a topic like autism has no reliable way of figuring out what is and is not reliable information, and all too often, for topics like autism, the reliable information is very difficult to discern from the tsunami of crap.

As Kev relates, Jenny McCarthy went on to say a number of things so breathtakingly stupid that even I have a hard time recalling anything dumber. Point one, straight from McCarthy’s book:

And here’s Oprah opening the show by quoting McCarthy’s book (yep, she writes, too!) on the different reactions encountered when people learn a child has been diagnosed with cancer vs. diagnosed with autism. Surprising those reactions are so divergent, because as we’ve been conditioned to learn by Autism Speaks and others, autism is at least as terrifying as pending death.

Oprah also cooed approvingly when McCarthy defended biomed by saying, “Well, chemotherapy doesn’t work for everybody either.”

Ack! The stupid, it really does burn. (And I don’t care if I use that phrase too often; in this case it’s entirely appropriate.)

The difference, of course, is that there is good scientific and clinical evidence that chemotherapy works. True, it “doesn’t work for everybody,” but there is a huge body of data that defines who is and is not likely to benefit from specific chemotherapy regimens for specific tumors. We know what percentage of patients with particular tumors respond to specific chemotherapy regimens and the factors that make specific patients more or less likely to respond. We know how much chemotherapy can (or cannot) extend life for patients with different cancers. In contrast, there is no such enormous body of data for so-called “biomedical” treatments for autism. Sure, there are lots of glowing “anecdotes.” However, because autism is a condition of developmental delay, not developmental stasis, anecdotes are essentially useless. Only well-designed, randomized, double-blind clinical trials can tease out whether any observed improvement is due to an intervention or to the expected development of autistic children. (No doubt, if her son grows up to be a fully functional adult, as many autistic children do, McCarthy will pat herself on the back for having “saved” him with all these dubious treatments.) Moreover, most of these biomedical interventions (chelation therapy, in particular) utterly fail to be scientifically plausible. Perhaps the best example of implausibility is Mark and David Geier’s “testosterone sheets” idea and their use of a powerful anti-androgen agent (Lupron) to treat autistic children.

But the real stupidity came when the topic of vaccines came up, when McCarthy said her “mommy instinct” told her that the MMR had been a cause of her son’s autism. Kev relates:

Then Oprah read a response she had received from the CDC (at least she took a stab at social responsibility by contacting the agency) that talked about the lack of scientific support for the idea that thimerosal triggers autism.

McCarthy scoffed and said, speaking of her son: “He is my science.”

That’s right. Science doesn’t matter. Only McCarthy’s poorly informed ideas formed by the misinformation she found about autism on the Internet do. Of course, it’s rather odd that this CDC response would have mentioned thimerosal, given that the MMR vaccine doesn’t contain (and never has contained) thimerosal. It may well have been a canned response that emphasized mercury because mercury is the big issue in the U.S., not the MMR; however, its point nonetheless remains correct. There is no good evidence that vaccines, be they the MMR or thimerosal-containing vaccines, are associated with autism. McCarthy is likely blinded by a combination of confirmation bias plus the normal, albeit delayed, development of her autistic son. Now she’s spouting ignorant tripe like:

The universe didn’t mean for me to do anything else besides what I did. But if I had another child, I would not vaccinate.

Among other things.

In this culture, we tend to glorify a parent’s struggle to help her child. We tend to believe that a parent knows her child better than anyone else. Often, this assumption is correct, and there are stories of parents whose doctors didn’t believe that anything was wrong with their child who had to fight to get doctors to believe them. However, because of the powerful emotional bond between mother and child, these instincts can just as easily go awry, leading the mother astray and into quackery. This is particularly true in the case of a condition like autism, for which there is no “cure.” Parents don’t want to hear that, don’t want to believe that, and thus become prey for practitioners pushing all manner of pseudoscientific or unscientific “miracle cures.” Indeed, look at the number of parents who swear by Mark and David Geier’s pseudoscientific and downright dangerous Lupron protocol.

This is what appears to have happened to Jenny McCarthy, who was apparently quite susceptible to woo. Indeed, she once ran a website for “Indigo Moms.” The website was apparently taken down shortly before the release of McCarthy’s book, perhaps to take away an obvious bit of evidence of her New Age credulity (and making me regret that, although I knew about the site, I never got around to doing a piece about it), but Joseph points to a source that tells us a bit about “Indigo Kids”:

Jenny, who runs, is of the belief that Evan is a ‘crystal child,’ and she herself is an ‘adult indigo.’ This belief suggests that ‘indigo/crystal phenomenon is the next step in our evolution as a human species.’ Proponents also suggest that many indigo and crystal children are wrongly diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, and autism.

There’s more about what “indigo children” are here, and McCarthy herself has written about it here. In addition, Kristina Chew also discussed some of the woo found on the IndigoMoms website before it was shut down around the time McCarthy’s book was released.

I think McCarthy’s involvement with the “indigo children” movement shows all you need to know about her critical thinking skills. Of course, if she really thinks she is an “indigo adult” and thus part of the next step in human evolution, she probably has a very inflated view of her own reasoning abilities. Unfortunately, someone as credulous as she has sufficient celebrity to peddle her woo on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Oprah Winfrey is sufficiently credulous to swallow this unscientific and unproven tripe, hook, line, and sinker.

ADDENDUM: Oh, no! I forgot. While flipping channels last night, I saw that she was on 20/20, too! She’s everywhere! I wonder if she encountered at least a little more skepticism than she did on the lovefest that occurred on Oprah’s show.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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