We live in an age where actors can become president and wrestlers can become governor. Where a trend can be set overnight if the right person starts it. The right person is usually someone a lot of people know, most often a celebrity of some sort. So, sadly, it comes as no surprise to me that when it comes to science, most people will listen to what a celebrity tells them rather than the actual experts.
Thankfully, celebrities rarely tread upon the realm of science. They tend to keep their distance, sticking to political issues rather than scientific ones. From human rights to animal rights, from war-torn countries to disease-stricken countries, celebrities rarely associate themselves with hard science. And that’s okay.
Unfortunately, when a celebrity embraces bad science and tells the world, you can’t fight back with cold, hard science, you have to break out the big guns. You have to get a celebrity of your own.
Enter the vaccine debate. For a while now, Jenny McCarthy has been the poster celebrity for the anti-vaccination movement. She has been given outlet after outlet by the media to spout her anti-scientific nonsense. Not because she makes a good point, or she has the facts, or even because it was a HUGE controversy at the time, but because she is a celebrity. I submit that the vaccine debate would be much less prevalent in today’s society were it not for McCarthy.
Perhaps it’s just my perception of the anti-vaccination movement, but it seems to have gone mainstream in the last few years. You read about it in newspapers, on websites, see it on TV, there are countless opinion pieces and blog posts about it on the internet. And it seems to have taken the spotlight in both the scientific and the anti-scientific community. Position papers have been released by everyone from the CDC to the various homeopathic associations. It seems to me that the popularity that the evolution/creationism debate once had has shifted to the vaccination debate.
And I attribute a lot of that to Jenny McCarthy. She has done what no scientist could, she has become a media spokesperson for one side of the debate. Unfortunately, it’s the side that is based on anti-scientific positions. McCarty’s claims have been deconstructed piece by piece and have been shown to be false. Steve has written many articles regarding McCarty’s, and the anti-vaccination movement’s claims. From his old Weird Science column in the New Haven Advocate to a cover article in the Skeptical Inquirer to giving it air time on the SGU to numerous posts on all blogs he contributes to. And that’s just Steve. There are many scientists out there doing just the same. Yet still McCarthy is the one who’s all over my TV, my print media and my intertubes spouting her unscientific opinion as if it were scientific fact.
But out of nowhere, a shining light of scientific skepticism has hit the media. Not in the form of a scientist or a skeptic or an organization of scientists. But in the form of an incredibly sexy actress. Amanda Peet.
In an interview with the parenting magazine Cookie, Amanda Peet said the following:
Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.
Peet was referring to what’s called “herd immunity”. Herd immunity is when the vaccination of a portion of the population provides protection to unvaccinated individuals. Basically, it becomes more difficult for a disease to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of the population are immune. Thus, the unvaccinated individuals rely on this to maintain their disease-free status. Parasites.
Peet apologized for her harsh words on Cookie’s website. But maintained:
I still believe that the decision not to vaccinate our children bodes for a dangerous future. Vast reductions in immunization will lead to a resurgence of deadly viruses. This is as indisputable as global warming. I know a lot of parents who secretly use as a justification, “Well, enough other people are vaccinating, so therefore, we don’t have to.”
This passed Tuesday, Peet was on Good Morning America urging parents to vaccinate their children. Here’s the interview:
Talk about getting it right. As Steve said on NeuroLogica about this interview. “Here is the money quote”:
It seems that the media is often giving celebrities and actors more authority on this issue than they are giving the experts. I know it’s a paradox, but that’s part of why I wanted to become a spokesperson, to say to people, Please don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to actors. Go to the experts.
So here we are, the debate rages on. We now have a voice equal to that of Jenny McCarthy. One the media can latch onto. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way to have a debate, but it seems that, in this case, the only way to fight fire, is with fire.
Thank you Amanda Peet.
Bonus pic, because, well, I had to: