Jul 22 2008

Michael Savage, Britney Spears, and other Autism News

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Comments: 20

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,”


“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.


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.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “Michael Savage, Britney Spears, and other Autism News”

  1. Orac says:

    Steve, you forgot that not only is Britney Spears down with Generation Rescue, now J.B. Handley has pro wrestling on his side. 🙂

  2. Jim Shaver says:

    Thanks for the update, Dr. Novella. I just wanted to point out an unusually high number of typos in your last paragraph, which you may want to correct.

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

    I think I should get college credit for reading your blog, it’s so informative. (Just don’t expect me to take a final exam.)

  3. Orac says:

    Her husband, Jim Carrey, was there, of course.

    Actually, I don’t think they’re married.

  4. I proof read the entry – so everything should be correct now. Thanks.

  5. betakate says:

    Michael Savage isn’t ignorant; he’s purposely saying hateful things to get airtime. We should try not to feed the trolls.

  6. *applause*

    I will have to write something on this matter. It’s just begging to be satirized.

  7. decius says:

    Charlie Sheen doesn’t miss a chance to look like an arse.
    I remember when he garrulously jumped on the 9-11 conspiracy bandwagon, where he probably still stands like a living monument to hollywoodian gullibility.

  8. Cerebro says:

    Jenny McCarthy is crazy and only famous because of her boobs.

    Michael Savage is a nut. His ego almost rivals Bill O’Reilly’s.

  9. Niels Kjaer says:

    I looked at the Savage page and I laughed and I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.

    What that absurd joke means to an adult Aspie is: “It’s not the Aspie child who creates problems but the absurd environment.” It is an mirror-image upside-down joke.

    Aspies do recognize Aspie humor faster than lightning! Very few Aspies would ever get upset by this kind of absurd humor.
    How can non-physical absurdities hurt? Either you get it or you don’t get it. Take a deep breath. Imagine Savage is really an Aspie himself, and reread the page. The “Know what I mean Notch Notch” scetch by Monty Python examplifies another mirror image joke about joking.

    This is simply how many adult Aspies think laugh and barely survive in the US… If they succeed they get ignored by the NeuroTypics and applauded by other Aspies. The doctor who diagnosed my as an Aspie wrote: “Niels has a very well developed and deep sense of humor.” “Well, as one Aspie joked to another: I always look smarter when I see my self in a mirror”. Neuraltypics would typically substitute “smarter” with “prettier” or “more handsome”. Smart has a double meaning and is therefore considered more deep by Aspies.
    The real smart Aspies move to places like Silicon Valley, where blogs like this are quite different in scope and tone.

    I should apologize not as an Aspie to a NeuroTypic community but as a human being who is part of a human community. Is it not about time that we humans take ourselves seriously? Why is it that Aspies in the US seem only to be mostly problem, while in Denmark Aspies are treated as specialists? Please use our brains fellow humans! And then we could enjoy a good laugh together!

    I would never dream of advocating a scientific conclusion. I don’t tell people what to do or think. I simply show my data, my analysis, my results, and my cross-validation. Anything beyond that I call politics and woo.

    If you don’t follow my reasoning, it is also fine with me, I’ll just disappear like a Cheshire cat. To me it seems that the US is still suffering from a rather mixed past. Many humans around the world simply don’t understand your attitude to your original declaration of independence from 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To an Aspie that is an ultimate load of political woo completely void of any ethical consideration. The declaration was made as an effective political statement during a time of war. It worked fine at the time dealing with weak brits, but don’t teach this woo to autistic children. They will see a bad pattern immediately. In Denmark we laugh at our own outdated constitution, but realize that it doesn’t really matter what it says, as it only reflects our past, and not the present or future.

    If you don’t start pulling your self up from the woo, I might use this excersize to consider US a greater threat than I thought to the future of humanity due to its large military power, nuclear arsenal and obvious problems with lacking communication and self-validation. Don’t worry, I don’t use any old fashioned push technologies, only pull technologies.

  10. b_calder says:

    Wikipedia has a list of Savage’s books:
    # Secrets of Fijian Medicine, Quantum Books, 1983, ISBN 0912845023
    # Vital Signs, San Diego: Avant Books, 1983, ISBN 0932238203
    # Getting Off Cocaine, Avon Books, February, 1984, ISBN 0380679000
    # Dr. Weiner’s High Fiber Counter, Pinnacle Books, May, 1984, ISBN 0523422113
    # Maximum Immunity, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986, ISBN 0395379105
    # Reducing the Risk of Alzheimer’s, New York: Stein and Day, 1987, re-published under the name Michael Savage, Ph.D., in 2007, ISBN 0946551537
    # The Complete Book of Homeopathy, Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery Pub., 1989, ISBN 0895294125
    # The Herbal Bible, San Rafael, CA: Quantum Books, 1992, ISBN 0912845066
    # Healing Children Naturally, San Rafael, CA: Quantum Books, 1993, re-published under the name Michael Savage, Ph.D., in 2007, ISBN 0912845104
    # Herbs That Heal: Prescription for Herbal Healing, Mill Valley, CA: Quantum Books, 1994, ISBN 0912845112
    # The Antioxidant Cookbook, Mill Valley, CA: Quantum Books, 1995, ISBN 0912845139

    Who says he isn’t qualified? Huge ROFLs @ teh conservative talk radio listeners.
    If half of the books are cited correctly, it is hugely funny and sad at the same time.

  11. tooth fairy says:

    woot woot a comment left before devils *chuckle* come on devils i have nothing of significance to add here, i’m waiting on something from you!-take this as a compliment i always look forward to your comments.

    This seems like we’re just drumming the same beat i don’t know how many times i hear

    “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.”

    this seems to me like as Dr.Novella you said on the podcast last week with science based med, this argument needs to also re-group and take a new approach.

  12. waltdakind says:

    My local paper just had an article about parents being cautious of vaccines because of autism fears. The article itself doesn’t handle the issue very well, it seems to give just as much weight to parents’ fears as an attempt to not offend the anti-vaccine people.

    There are comments from me in response, some of which are good — there’s also some real nutball comments from others.

    Here’s the article:


  13. kristina says:

    just a mom here — if mccarthy is “rattling cages,” I’ll hazard it’s because she’s caught in a figurative one of misinformation and pseudoscience.

  14. thethyme says:

    Jenny Mccarthy is also promoting Generation Rescue on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) She is due to appear on Saturday Nights Main Event in August. If you check out wwe.com you will find a link to generation rescue website with the tag autism is reversible on the main page.

    WWE holds 3-4 arena shows a week all over the country as well as 5 hours of TV programming each week in which they are currently promoting generation rescue and McCarthy, this is a way for her to reach a huge audience and spread this misinformation.

  15. TheProbe says:

    Savage was also bleating and braying about people who use handicapped placards for parking. He seems to think that everyone who does should be an amputee, use a wheelchair, or something that is obvious. What he does not realize is that placards are issued to those who have mobility limited by exertional conditions, e.g. COPD, ASHD, PAD, etc.

    He is truly ignorant, and I bet he parks in the blue spaces so the “falers” cannot use them. 🙂

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