Jun 06 2008

Drinking the Anti-Vaccine Kool-Aid

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Comments: 59

It’s not enough to mean well. You have to get the science right.

I believe that Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy mean well. They think they are saving the world from greedy corporations, corrupt government, and arrogant doctors. In their minds they are enlightened saviors, leaders of a “green” army alerting the rest of us to the dangers of toxins and the malfeasance of those in charge. Yesterday they lead a “green our vaccines” rally in Washington DC to help save the world.

But it’s not enough to mean well. Carrey and McCarthy get the science terribly, hopelessly, and tragically wrong. In fact, meaning well is part of what makes them dangerous. They display that toxic brew of arrogance and self-righteousness, combined with the power of celebrity to do real damage.

They are self-righteous because they think that only they and their group mean well. Like all conspiracy mongers, they readily and eagerly believe that the faceless “powers that be” are evil. They believe that doctors have abandoned (as Jenny McCarthy claimed in her speech at the rally) their oath to “do no harm.” They believe that people in government are so corrupt they will knowingly condemn millions of children to autism in order to avoid inconveniencing their buddies in “Big Pharma.” (Carrey also throws in the myth that restless leg syndrome is a made up diagnosis by Big Pharma – so I guess he only has to care about diseases that touch him personally, or does he think that all drug treatment is a conspiracy.)

They are arrogant because they believe that they know better than scientists – indeed than “science” itself. McCarthy warns us that science has been wrong before, as if that is some big insight. She wants us to trust her mommy instinct over hard evidence. Carrey predicts that the future will vindicate his claims and anyone who disagrees with him will be viewed as a flat-earther. He wants us to trust anecdotal hysteria over hard scientific evidence. In fact they are both perplexed as to why those evil scientists won’t just accept their low grade bad evidence and why they insist on believing all that carefully collected scientific evidence. They just don’t get it.

Meaning well does not excuse the harm they are doing. They lack the humility to consider that perhaps the science is complex and they better work harder to understand it, or at least understand why the scientific community disagrees with them (rather than just leaping to the self-serving conclusion that they must be smarter and more ethical than all those scientists). They lack the intellectual honesty or diligence to correct their egregious factual errors. They lack the wisdom to see that just assuming the other side is evil is a recipe for dangerous ideological extremism.

Jenny McCarthy has the gall to chastise doctors for failing their oath to do no harm. Meanwhile she and Jim Carrey have thrown that caution to the wind. They and their antivaccinationist buddies are doing demonstrable harm – as evidenced by the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years.

Others have done an excellent job at outlining all the factual errors in the “green vaccine” propaganda, but I want to highlight a few here.

Too Many Too Soon

This is the primary slogan of the rally; the phrase marchers are chanting as they move herd-like down the streets. They claim that children are getting too many vaccines too soon. Carrey, for example, harps on the point that 20 years ago children received 10 vaccines and now they get 36 in the routine schedule. He fails to note, however, that even though the number of vaccines have increased, the total number of antigens in those vaccines have decreased (due to improved vaccine technology). So children are getting less of an antigen challenge today than 20 years ago.

Also – there is no evidence nor any reason to believe that the vaccine schedule is unsafe or that the number or timing of vaccines is too great. This is just a convenient assumption. They throw out numbers as if they have some scientific or empirical meaning, but they don’t. Where is the evidence that 20 vaccines is safer than 36, or that spreading them out more reduces any side effect?

There is evidence that delaying vaccines leaves children vulnerable to those diseases longer and increases the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases. First do no harm.

It’s The Toxins

It’s easy to scare people with “toxins” – it’s difficult to understand the research and that everything is a toxin – toxicity is all about dose and risk vs benefit. McCarthy loves to rattle off he list of supposed toxins in vaccine. The problem is – she gets the science completely wrong. She says there is still mercury in childhood vaccines, but she is wrong, or at least grossly misleading. Mercury has been removed from the routine vaccine schedule – those 36 vaccines do not contain any significant mercury. Some versions of the flu vaccine still do, but these are optional.

How does she deal with this inconvenient fact? She refers to the fact that some of these vaccines still contain “trace” amounts of mercury – left over from the manufacturing process. These trace amounts are truly trace – an insignificant dose that no honest, thinking, and informed person could think is toxic. But don’t confuse McCarthy with these facts. Instead she throws out the deliberately misleading propaganda that these trace amount are higher than the safe levels for drinking water. This is deliberately misleading – safe levels for a one-time dose is different than safe levels in drinking water which someone could consume large quantities of every day for years. If children were given 10 vaccines every day for years, she might have a point.

If the mercury in vaccines were linked to autism, as she amazingly still claims, then (as toxicity is all about dose) when the mercury-containing thimerosal was removed from vaccines by the end of 2001 (even if small amounts remained) this dramatic decrease in the dose should have been followed by an equally dramatic decrease in the supposed toxicity (autism) – but this decrease never happened. Autism rates have continued to climb without the slightest blip. Any honest person with the slightest understanding of science recognizes that his has killed the mercury hypothesis.

Mercury is the failed toxin of the anti-vaccine movement, so they have moved on to other toxins. McCarthy is still claiming that vaccines contain antifreeze and ether – they don’t. This is simply a lie, probably based in extreme chemical scientific illiteracy. She has been called on this nonsense, but has not changed her tune. So add intellectual laziness vs dishonesty to her list of sins.

There’s more, of course, mostly covered already by me and other science bloggers – but the nonsense never goes away. There is no autism epidemic -the increased diagnosis rates are caused by expanding diagnosis and increased surveillance. The Hannah Poling case was not an admission, as Carrey and McCarthy both claimed, by the government that vaccines can cause autism.


It is ironic that Carrey and McCarthy worry so much about toxins when they have drunk so deeply and carelessly of the toxin-laiden anti-vaccine Kool-Aid. They mean well, but in the self-righteous and arrogant way that witch burners meant well. They are inside the self-contained world of the conspiracy theorist – and just like the world of The Truman Show (actually a decent movie starring Jim Carrey) it’s all fake, and there is no apparent way out. They are buried under a pile of ideological propaganda and they don’t have the scientific chops to dig themselves out, nor the humility to listen to those who do.

Carrey and McCarthy would be just another couple of sad cranks, except their celebrity gives force to their delusions. They are now the poster children for the phrase – It’s not enough to mean well. You have to get the science right.

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