Jul 22 2008

Michael Savage, Britney Spears, and other Autism News

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Yesterday I wrote about the fact that Amanda Peet had come out in support of vaccine safety, adding her voice to those who wish to counter the now discredited notion that vaccines are linked to autism. While I admire her for essentially reading the situation correctly, I lamented the fact that celebrities (like Jenny McCarthy) are getting too much attention for their opinions on scientific questions. Today, while bouncing around the blogosphere, I see that McCarthy and Peet were only the tip of the iceberg.

Britney Spears

Orac reported yesterday that Jenny McCarthy held a fundraiser for her antivaccination group (mischaracterized as an autism charity) Generation Rescue. Her boyfriend, Jim Carrey, was there, of course. But also making an appearance was Britney Spears. Orac nailed it when he wrote: “Because no one knows parenting and science like Britney Spears, I guess.”

Also present were Charlie Sheen and his wife, who also have drunketh deeply from the anti-vaccine Kool Aid. But new to this scene was Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame. At first Hefner’s presence at such a function may seem odd, but I guess McCarthy is looking through her old contacts. She used to be a Playboy playmate (her turn ons include Harleys, daredevils, and men who cry.)

It seems that McCarthy and Carrey are to the anti-vaccine movement what Cruise and Holmes are to Scientology – celebrity shills.

Michael Savage

On the other end of the spectrum is radio host Michael Savage who recently weighed in on the autism issue with these words of wisdom:

“In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,”

and

“What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, `Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, you idiot.'”

I have to admit, this rivals McCarthy for abject ignorance. I understand that radio hosts have to fill a lot of air time, and they typically do so with their opinions and analysis rather than hard data – but this does not justify speaking utter ignorant nonsense to millions of listeners. This is simple-minded mental-illness denial.

Because Savage is not medically or scientifically trained and clearly has not availed himself of information meant for lay readers on Autism or other neurological disorders, he is not able to distinguish between a genetic disorder of brain function and bad parenting. He is probably not even able to describe autism as a syndrome or discuss the changes in diagnostic criteria over recent years.

According to Savage what those children on the autism spectrum need is a hard-ass father who will scream at them. If only the medical community had his common sense – they are wasting their time with fancy genetic studies, brain imaging, and detailed diagnostic criteria when all these kids need is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman to call them numbnuts every now and then.

Perhaps Savage has heard a snippet of truth that he did not fully understand – that there is no real autism epidemic. This is probably true, the evidence strongly suggests that the increase in autism diagnosis is due to expanding the diagnosis and increased surveillance efforts – not a true epidemic. But this does not mean that autism is not real.

Listening to the Moms

In response to my post yesterday, Jon Poling, a neurologist and father of Hannah Poling, wrote:

Jenny McCarthy is an Autism Mom looking for answers and rattling some cages—good for her. Amanda Peet is a new mom who believes in the importance of vaccines to protect her baby—good for her too. Don’t attack the moms, listen to them.

I will address Jon’s other points in a separate post, but this one was germane to my post today so I will address it here. First of all, I completely resent his characterization that I am “attacking moms.” This is reminiscent of RFK Jr.s ridiculous article also accusing scientists of attacking moms. This is a terrible emotional ploy. I am sorry to see that Dr. Poling appears to be descending into the anti-vax culture.

This is not about moms – this is about the scientific evidence. We listen to mothers and other family members for information about patients – but that does not mean we should give any credence to their scientific opinions. That is absurd. It is downright deceptive and manipulative to deflect criticism by characterizing it as attacking moms – as much as Jenny McCarthy’s claim that scientists should listen to her “mommy instinct.”

Also, I completely disagree with Dr. Poling’s characterization of Jenny McCarthy as “looking for answers and rattling some cages.” She thinks she has found her answer in the anti-vaccine movement, she is not looking with anything approaching an open mind to the scientific evidence. By her own account she was afraid of vaccines even before her son was diagnosed.

What McCarthy is doing is using her celebrity status to shill for a fringe anti-scientific ideological group that is pushing a specific agenda regardless of the consequences.They are a group dedicated to a conclusion – not a cause. They are not pro-autism research, they are not even pro-safe vaccines as they lamely claim. They are dedicated to a specific scientific claim – that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. This claim is rooted in a deeper ideological belief that vaccines are bad. It turns out that the science does not support these claims – so they resort to lies, distortions, and emotional manipulations to push their ideology.

They have put themselves in a position where they cannot look objectively at the evidence because they are wedded to a pre-existing conclusion. McCarthy is not rattling cages – she is nothing but a scientifically illiterate trouble-maker. For example, she continues to spread the falsehoods that there is ether and anti-freeze in vaccines, despite the fact that she had been publicly corrected.

Also – I wonder what cages Dr. Poling thinks need to be rattled? More on that later.

Conclusion

I think it is wonderful when celebrities use their fame to be a spokesperson for a good cause, such as a disease. Michael J. Fox has been great, for example, for Parkinson’s disease awareness and research.

However, everyone needs to respect their own limitations of knowledge and expertise. I don’t think that Michael Fox should be telling Parkinson’s researchers what drugs to study or his theories on the causes of Parkinson’s disease (and he doesn’t). Celebrities should advocate for a cause – not a scientific conclusion.

McCarthy is not just advocating for a cause – she is stepping into a scientific debate and taking the fringe side – the wrong side. She is hostile and insulting to researchers, she is confusing the public by spreading misinformation, and she is giving a boost to an anti-scientific group that is causing demonstrable harm to the public. Her “mommy” status does not justify any of this.

Michael Savage, on the other hand, was simply spouting off in abject ignorance. He apparently has the hubris of someone who has 6 millions people listening to him – the kind that might make someone think they know everything or can pontificate on subjects about which they know next to nothing.

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