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Post-holiday “The stupid, it burns,” part 1: Jenny McCarthy

I know, I know.

Picking on Jenny McCarthy over her now frequent idiotic statements about autism and her parroting of the myth that vaccines cause autism is like shooting fish in a barrel, boxing a one-armed opponent, playing tennis with a blind man (like the infamous Saturday Night Live sketch from so long ago, in which Stevie Wonder was shown playing tennis), or [insert your favorite metaphor or simile here]. I guess that America really is the land of opportunity, though. After all, where else could such a bubble-head go from being Playboy Playmate of the Year, to a raunchy MTV star who made a “splash” (so to speak) eating her own vomit in a comedy sketch, to starring in a short-lived situation comedy, to appearing in a number of bad movies (in one of which she was portrayed sitting in a pool of her own menstrual blood), to being known as a booster of the über-woo “indigo child” movement (an association that was rapidly shelved, along with her Indigo Moms website, when her latest book came out), to finally morphing into a seemingly serious spokesperson about autism, all just because she had a child with autism and is credulous enough to buy into a lot of dubious autism treatments? Now, suddenly, she’s an “expert.” Why? Because she (or more likely a ghostwriter) wrote a book about “curing” her son of autism.

I know, I know again. Look at the arguments and data, not the person. Don’t be tempted to go for the cheap shot. However, McCarthy makes it really difficult to stay pure on that account. She really does, and it’s not just because of her past history. After all, who knows? Maybe the birth of her child transformed her. Maybe she suddenly got serious. Maybe she’s acquired some wisdom.


Sadly, in the week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, McCarthy has decided to crank the Stupid-O-Meter up to 11 in two astoundingly annoying interviews. Personally, I think I like the old gross-out Jenny better than this new sanctimonious Jenny selling herself, her ludicrous book, and autism quackery to the nation. At least the old gross-out bimbo Jenny probably did no lasting harm to anyone or anything, even the table onto which she discharged her gastric contents (although those with weak stomachs may have had a momentary bit of discomfort at her antics). In contrast, the new, reborn, “serious” Jenny has the potential to lead many parents of autistic children down the same antivaccination, “biomedical” road that she’s gone down. Their children may not be as lucky as her son Evan was.

First, there’s an interview during a publicity appearance in Madison, WI. Before the inevitable deconstruction, let me just say that I will give McCarthy credit for raising a lot of money for the UCLA autism program and for fighting to decrease the waiting list for newly diagnosed autistic children to gain access to services. That’s good. I wish she’d stick to doing that sort of thing; she could use her celebrity status to bring some real benefits to autistic children and their parents that way. Unfortunately, she can’t help but go around spouting stuff like this to credulous audiences:

People don’t think that the diet is helpful. But I say, “It’s just food.” Nothing is dangerous about food unless you have allergies. So when I say get a food allergy test, that could be extremely helpful to a child who is sensitive.

It blows my mind that the medical community has a hard time believing that nutrition equals feeling better. The backlash doesn’t upset me. You know the “Are you going to listen to the celebrity diet or are you going to listen to your doctor?” Well, if the celebrity diet is making the kids feel better, so be it.

“If the celebrity diet is making the kids feel better”? How does she know that her “celebrity diet” does one whit of good? She doesn’t. Hers is an anecdote, and I hope I don’t have to go into it too much more as to why anecdotal evidence in medicine, particularly if it does not even rise to the level of a case report, which requires detailed objective documentation, is usually useless. Indeed, often, thanks to the human tendency to confuse correlation with causation, anecdotes are worse than useless. It’s the tendency that led McCarthy (and many other parents) to mistakenly blame vaccines for their children’s autism, and it’s the same tendency that’s led her to believe that her interventions of diet led to her son’s “improvement,” even though he underwent a number of other interventions as well that could confound. Also, McCarthy clearly does not seem to understand that autism is a condition of developmental delay, not developmental stasis; autistic children do develop, unlike the stereotype that seems to be so common among those pushing “biomedical” interventions. Chances are that, with the same attention otherwise and without the “biomedical interventions,” McCarthy’s son would be just where he is now, about which she says in other interviews as well as the one above:

“Does your son have autism?” actress Jenny McCarthy is regularly asked.

She smiles. “No. Not anymore,” McCarthy replies.

It’s a question actress McCarthy is eager to answer. It is clear she has been asked and answered the same questions dozens, if not hundreds of times, in the past few months.

Whatever that means. Once again, as Prometheus has pointed out, autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis, and it is not that uncommon for autistic children, especially mildly autistic children (as McCarthy’s son appears to be) to “move off the autistic spectrum” before their 7th birthday; in other words, to appear to be “cured” spontaneously. There’s no way to be sure if an intervention is doing anything to promote such an outcome without careful randomized, double-blind, controlled trials that take into account this minority of autistic children. Once again, a single anecdote means little, and the plural of “anecdotes” is not “data.” It also leads her to say spectacularly stupid things like this in a recent interview in Atlanta:

CFI: What do you consider recovered?

Jenny: Recovered is when the state comes over and says “Sorry, you’re no longer eligible for services.”

By that criteria, it has been said, the poor and minority autistic children must be “cured” at a pretty high rate.

It’s probably not that stupid that McCarthy seems to believe that she’s “cured” her son. People much more intelligent and educated than she still sometimes have a hard time comprehending just how easy it is to confuse correlation with causation. It is, however, pretty idiotic that McCarthy goes around saying things like (to paraphrase liberally): “I don’t need no steeenkin’ science; my son is my science” to Oprah. What is worse (and unbelievably dumb) is that she is going around saying that, if she has another child, she will not vaccinate. (Let’s hope she doesn’t have another child, then.) She blames mercury in vaccines for her son’s autism, even though he was born in 2002, just after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines. Indeed, in the very same interview, she complains about being called “antivaccine” and then retorts:

What I really am is “anti-toxins” in the vaccines. I do believe that there is a correlation between vaccinations and autism. I don’t think it’s the sole cause, but I think they’re triggering–it’s triggering–autism in these kids. A really great example is…is, sometimes obesity can trigger diabetes. I do believe that vaccines can trigger autism…It’s so much more than just mercury. That is one ingredient in the recipe of autism. And, after my press tour, CNN had Gupta on saying, “Thimerosal, there is no connection,” and I wanted to say I did not mention thimerosal once in any of my programs. I’m talking about all of them. I’m calling for cleaning out the toxins. People don’t realize that there is aluminum, ether, antifreeze, still mercury, in the shots…People are afraid of secondhand smoke, but they’re OK with injecting the second worst neurotoxin on the planet in newborns.

From that quote alone, the stupid really does burn, but perhaps Gupta was mistaken in just mentioning thimerosal. So I’ll say it right here: There’s no good evidence that vaccines cause, promote, or contribute to the development of autism. (Perhaps the Stupid-O-Meter goes up past 11, to 12 or even 13 to accommodate McCarthy.) Also, note how Jenny proclaims that she “isn’t antivaccination,” but then continues to mindlessly parrot talking points right off of the worst antivaccination websites, all while piously telling the CDC to “stop poisoning our kids” and to “clean out the toxins from vaccines.” But, really, she still tells us, you must believe her when she says she isn’t “antivaccine.”

Sure, Jen. Anything you say. You moron. Think I’m being unfair in characterizing her this way? Think again. Who else but a moron could would say something like this:

You know, I could in two months turn Evan completely autistic again. I could do it completely through diet. And maybe getting some vaccine boosters. Through diet, I could load him up again with all the things that will aggravate the damage that was done. Right now, what happened now was that I healed him to the point where he got everything back to this baseline level and it stays there like this. But I mess with it at all–boom!

What arrogance! McCarthy seems to think that somehow she has the power over whether Evan is autistic or not. You know, coupled with her previous statement that Evan “is my science,” McCarthy’s attitude makes me wonder how she views her son. She seems to view him as a laboratory rat, upon whom she can tinker as needed until he behaves to her satisfaction as though he is “cured.” What’s she going to think if Evan changes and goes “back on the spectrum” again?

Listen to the rest of the interview if you dare. It’s hard to stomach, as she goes on about fungus, “toxins,” and all the shots that babies get, saying that she “wouldn’t vaccinate at all, never, ever,” after which she goes on and on about “immune problems” and how she would have done “heavy chelation” if her son had had more serious problems associated with autism. Perhaps most galling is her sanctimonious emphasis on how mothers should “accept their child the way he is.” That actually is good advice. Too bad McCarthy doesn’t follow it, though. After all, given the number of dubious, scientifically unproven “therapies” McCarthy has put her son through in order to “cure” him of his autism, it’s mind-numbingly obvious that she wasn’t willing to accept her own son the way he was.

Sometime next week I think I’m going to have to address the whole issue of “toxins” in vaccines. It’s such a favorite antivax canard, and now McCarthy is spreading it to a new and larger audience. As I pointed out two years ago, for people like Jenny McCarthy, no matter how much they claim otherwise, it’s all about the vaccines, and if they can’t blame mercury in vaccines for autism, they’ll find other ingredients to blame. McCarthy would have fit right in on the bulletin boards where I found that out. It’s a shame that she’s using her star power (as D-list as it might be) to push a message that could lead parents to eschew vaccination. If there’s a decline in vaccination rates leading to a resurgence in morbidity and mortality from vaccine-preventable disease, she will never admit that she played a role, even if small, in bringing such harm to pass.

You know, it occurs to me that this latest incarnation of Jenny McCarthy is not all that far removed from the gross-out incarnation from a decade ago. She’s basically doing the same thing, only in a different context. Then, she barfed all over a table. Now she’s barfing all over science and then eating it up. Only this time she’s expecting you to join her in her little feast.

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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