ABC’s daily talk show program The View has decided to woo its mostly female audience by hiring outspoken celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy as co-host. The only problem is that Jenny McCarthy remains a celebrity mainly by championing the discredited, baseless view that childhood vaccines cause autism.
Why does McCarthy’s simplistic approach to autism attract so many people? To confused and worried parents, there’s nothing quite so compelling as someone who says, convincingly and prettily, that she has answers science hasn’t yet discovered. Doctors offer partial answers, tentative answers, because the truth is complex and still largely unknown. Autism has no single cause and no sure-fire treatment. A solution to the problem of autism can’t be served up over coffee between commercial breaks. But families of autism and the larger viewing public deserve better than Jenny McCarthy.
No doubt ABC decided that hiring the outgoing, warm, former Playboy model would be good for the bottom line. No harm in that, is there? Well, yes, there is. Hiring McCarthy causes harm in at least four ways.
First, it does harm to science. Even if ABC does not publicly embrace McCarthy’s dangerous anti-vaccine views—even if ABC asks her never to mention the words “vaccine” or “autism” on the program—hiring a person whose main claim to fame is a strongly anti-science stance can’t help but send a message. Knowledge isn’t important: celebrity is. The pursuit of truth doesn’t draw viewers: manufactured controversy does. Kids, you don’t really have to learn stuff in school. You don’t have to think critically or examine evidence fairly. Your untutored opinion is as good as anyone’s as long as you market it well.
Second, hiring McCarthy does harm to public health. It suggests that the decision not to vaccinate is a personal matter for privileged parents to make for their children, much like deciding not to feed them gluten or to hold them back from kindergarten a year so they’ll excel in sports in middle school. But that’s not true. Not vaccinating your children plays with the lives of those around them who are not as strong and healthy—neighbors with leukemia, say, or children with immune deficiency. Not vaccinating your children is about as responsible as deciding not to put out your campfire as you leave a campsite because the smoke might bother your children.
Third, hiring McCarthy does harm to the parents of autistic children. First, it tells them they probably caused their child’s autism. No matter how much medical professionals try to reassure the parents that it’s not so, ignorant strangers and some small voice of doubt within their own heads will tell some parents they could have saved their children this burden. It isn’t so. Signs of autism appear before the age of vaccines. The major peer-reviewed study that hinted at a link between vaccines and autism could never be replicated and was eventually withdrawn because of conflict of interest and fraud in its writing. The major author had his medical license stripped away.
Finally, hiring McCarthy does harm to autistic children. Don’t rely on science and medicine, this act tells families of autism. Look elsewhere. Try anything. Celebrities care more about your child than doctors do. Such a message encourages desperate families to try quack cures that may be dangerous, and to do so without consulting a physician. The risks are wasted time, nutritional deficits, traumatic treatments, and crushing disappointment.
Advances in understanding the causes and treatments for autism are hard-won and slow in coming. Shame on ABC for muddling the picture by elevating a person espousing an anti-science, self-promoting view of autism to a position of even wider visibility and influence.