Jul 21 2008

Celebrity Smackdown: Amanda Peet vs Jenny McCarthy

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Comments: 35

I have bemoaned in the past the celebrity culture in which we grant more weight to the opinions of celebrities than they deserve. It seems to be part of human nature to idolize and hero-worship. It can be benign, even healthy. Young athletes idolizing the talent and hard work of sports stars may be spurred on to greater achievement themselves. I also think that intellectual heroes, like Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould, can have an enormously positive influence on culture and society.

TV and movie stars, however, are famous because their profession involves public performance in a medium that potentially reaches millions. This is fine as far as it goes – I have no problem admiring stars for their entertainment value, their charisma, and their artistic talent and skills. It is reasonable to admire artists for their art.

The problem comes, in my opinion, when actors and actresses feel that their political opinions or ideology are somehow more valuable than anyone else’s because of their fame. I don’t necessarily blame them – they have a right to express their opinions and their fame gives them an outlet. I do think that if they are going to trade on their fame then they have a responsibility for what they promote, but I am not questioning their right to promote whatever they choose. Rather I maintain that the public should largely not care what celebrities think about issues that have nothing to do with their art and profession.

Recently I have been very critical of actress Jenny McCarthy for becoming the celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaccinationist movement. My criticisms have focussed on what she has said – endorsing nonsense about toxins in vaccines, the “too many too soon” slogan which is not evidence-based, and generally promoting the false controversy about a link between vaccines and autism.

Now actress Amanda Peet has entered the game with a video in which she defends the safety of vaccines. In an interview about her views she said:

Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.

She is referring to the fact that when the majority of children are vaccinated they prevent the spread of infection through so-called “herd immunity.” Those who don’t vaccinate are benefiting from those who do. Calling this “parasitic” is inflammatory – but not inaccurate. Peet essentially gets it right. Of course, when enough people choose not to vaccinate there is the risk that herd immunity will be compromised and outbreaks will occur – this has already happened in the UK and is now starting to happen in the US.

Peet says she researched the issue with vaccines before deciding to vaccinate her own child, but she had some guidance from her brother-in-law who is a pediatrician. Not everyone has that advantage.

While I credit Peet for caring enough about the issue to use her celebrity status to promote a position I agree with, and I credit her with getting the issue correct – her celebrity endorsement of vaccines really shouldn’t matter. This question should not be settled by which side gets the sexier actresses as spokespersons (and, BTW, if that were the case Peet would win hands down – I’m just saying).

There has already been some backlash against Peet for coming out on the side of science. Some have questioned her right to speak out on this issue because she does not have a child with autism. I personally find this “you don’t have a right to express an opinion” gambit disgusting. Everyone has the right to express an opinion. And also, everyone has a stake in what is right and just – even if it does not affect you personally. And finally, it’s a false premise because everyone has a stake in herd immunity – not just parents of autistic children. This tactic is just a childish way of silencing opinions one doesn’t like.

But the biggest backlash came from David Kirby – that reporter who has made a career out of spreading misinformation about vaccines and any nonsense he can think of to prop up the failing claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism. Writing for the Huffington Post he chastised Peet for her “parasites” statement and then tried to argue that her opinions are against the medical establishment.

As evidence Kirby does not refer to the medical literature. He does not refer to official statements by professional medical organizations . What he gives is a list of recent statements by politicians or by professionals who are working for government agencies, like the CDC – which means they were given in a political and not purely scientific context. For example, he cites the fact that John McCain, Obama, and Clinton made statements acknowledging an autism epidemic or a possible environment role in the cause of autism. I didn’t realize that presidential candidates spoke for the medical establishment.

But let’s look at some of his more salient examples, coming from the CDC and the NIH. He refers again to the Hannah Poling case, a girl with a mitochondrial disorder who developed a neurodegenerative disorder with “features of autism” after getting a fever from vaccines. This special case – which is not a case of autism being caused by toxins in vaccines – says nothing about the broader vaccine-autism debate. The case was settled (not judged in Poling’s favor, but settled) because both sides realized it was a special case that could not be extrapolated to other vaccine-autism cases.

The rest of Kirby’s examples essentially boil down to – officials are studying the issue of vaccines and autism, therefore there must be something to it. This is a common ploy used by those who promote unscientific medical issues. First, they make a claim controversial by grass-roots lobbying and public misinformation, even when there is no scientific controversy. Then, when political pressure is applied to government agencies to look into the issue they claim that as vindication that the issue is being taken seriously – therefore it is a true scientific controversy. It is, rather, nothing more than a self-fulfillment saying nothing about the science.

But it’s even worse than that. Kev at Left brain right brain takes Kirby to task for specific misrepresentations. Kirby refers to a recent IACC (the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which includes HHS, CDC, NIH and others) report which calls for “specific objectives on vaccine research.” Kev points out that the IACC included Lynn Redwood of Safe Minds – an antivaccinationist group promoting the claim of a link between vaccines and autism.

This is the ultimate self-fulfillment. The IACC decided to include controversial advocates from the anti-vaccine side so that they would seem open to all views and hopefully form a consensus. Then those individuals insert their agenda into the IACC, and then ideologues like Kirby come along and try to make it seem like the IACC is concerned about vaccines so it must be legitimate.

Kev also makes this correction:

I would also like to correct David on his characterisation of the Combating Autism Act. The Act contains no mention of vaccines. It specifies environmental research but the words ‘vaccine’, ‘vaccination’ ‘immunize’, ‘immunization’, ‘mmr’ or ‘thimerosal’ appear nowhere in the CAA. I hope David will correct his HuffPo piece accordingly.

We will see.  The piece by Kirby was nothing more than misdirection, which is common from the anti-vaccine crowd – including their unconvincing insistence that they are not anti-vaccine. Essentially Kirby presented a list of dubious political evidence as if it were a scientific consensus of the medical establishment. Shame on him, yet again.

But hooray for Amanda Peet. Again – I don’t think this is an issue to be decided by celebrity endorsements, but at least she came down on the side of science and evidence.

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