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“Motivated reasoning,” alternative medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement

One theme that we at Science-Based Medicine keep revisiting again and again is not so much a question of the science behind medical therapies (although we do discuss that issue arguably more than any other) but rather a question of why. Why is it that so many people cling so tenaciously to pseudoscience, quackery, and, frequently, conspiracy theories used by believers to justify why various pseudoscience and quackery are rejected by mainstream science and medicine? Certainly, I’ve touched on this issue before on several occasions, for example, with respect to the anti-vaccine movement, the claim that abortion causes breast cancer, and how we as humans crave certainty.

It turns out that science and science-based medicine are hard for humans to accept because they often conflict with what our senses perceive and brains interpret as irrefutable evidence. The pattern-seeking function of our brain, when evaluating questions of causation in medicine, frequently betrays us. For instance, when a parent sees her child regress into autism sometime not long after being vaccinated, the easiest, most instinctive, and most emotionally compelling conclusion is that the vaccine must have had something to do with it. When scientists tell her that, no, in large studies looking at hundreds of thousands of children, there is no good evidence that vaccination confers an increased risk of autism and a lot of evidence that it does not, it’s a very hard message to believe, because it goes against how the parent interprets what she’s seen with her own eyes. Indeed, how often have we seen believers in the vaccine-autism link pour derision on the concept that when something like autistic regression happens in close temporal proximity to vaccination that the correlation does not necessarily equal causation? Similarly, believers in “alternative medicine” who experience improvement in their symptoms also pour derision on the observation, explained so well by R. Barker Bausell in Snake Oil Science, that people frequently take remedies when their symptoms are at their worst, leading them to attribute natural regression to the mean to whatever nostrum they started taking at the time.

These issues have come to the fore again, thanks to an article by an acquaintance of mine, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum). The article appeared in a recent issue of Mother Jones and was entitled, rather ironically, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris made his name as an author primarily in writing about the science of anthropogenic global warming and the political battles over policies intended to mitigate it and, to a lesser extent, over creationism and evolution denial. Of late he has written about the anti-vaccine movement as an anti-science movement, leading predictably to his being attacked by the likes of J.B. Handley as viciously as I and others have. Also of note, although he was widely praised for The Republican War on Science and Storm World, Mooney has been widely criticized in some circles for being too critical of “new atheists” and for lack of substance. In his current article, he discusses some of the science thus far about why people can cling to beliefs that science doesn’t just cast doubt upon but shows convincingly are totally wrong.
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Posted in: Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Deadly Choices about vaccination

appThe year 2011 is starting out rather promisingly, at least from the point of view of science-based medicine. Its beginning coincides with the release of two — count ‘em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement. First off the mark is a new book by a man whom the anti-vaccine movement views as the Dark Lord of Vaccination, sitting up in Barad-dûr (apparently the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), a man utterly reviled by anti-vaccine quacks everywhere, Dr. Paul Offit. He has been subjected to considerable bile and harassment due to his simply standing up for the science behind vaccines. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Also being released is a new book by Seth Mnookin entitled The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Because I got a copy of Deadly Choices before my copy of The Panic Virus arrived, I decided to review Deadly Choices first; after I’ve managed to read The Panic Virus, I’ll write a review of it as well. Both books are arrows shot at the heart of the pseudoscience and fear at the heart of the vaccine manufactroversy, and it might well be useful to compare and contrast the two once I’ve finished The Panic Virus.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at Deadly Choices, an excellent, well-researched book with which I have relatively few disagreements. It is a followup to Dr. Offit’s last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, which I reviewed back when it first came out. In contrast to Autism’s False Prophets, which concentrated primarily on the manufactroversy that claims that vaccines are responsible for the “autism epidemic,” Deadly Choices steps back to take a broader look at the anti-vaccine movement. Regular readers of SBM hardly need to be reminded how pervasive and dangerous the modern-day anti-vaccine movement has become. Indeed, it is a frequently discussed theme of this blog, given that the anti-vaccine movement is such a major force among the forces that deny the efficacy of scientific medicine and seek either to replace it with unscientific or pseudoscientific “alternatives” or to “integrate” pseudoscience into science-based medicine. Indeed, anti-vaccine sentiment infuses large swaths of what we refer to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), be it chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or a wide variety of other modalities and systems.

In examining the modern anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Offit structures his book into three major sections. First, beginning in a chapter entitled The Birth of Fear, Dr. Offit begins with a description of the birth of the modern anti-vaccine movement, which in the U.S. Dr. Offit traces, in large part, to the broadcast of an irresponsible and anecdote-driven news documentary about the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine in 1982, and in the U.K. to a scare about the DPT triggered by a presentation by Dr. John Wilson to the Royal Society of Medicine about horrific complications thought to be due to the pertussis vaccine in the DPT. Next, Dr. Offit goes back into history to describe the development of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1800s in England and notes parallels with the modern day anti-vaccine movement. Finally, the story shifts back to today, where he describes the situation now, how demands for vaccines turned into fear of vaccines, and what we might do about it.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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Vaccine Wars: the NCCAM Drops the Ball

If you go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), you’ll find that one of its self-identified roles is to “provide information about CAM.” NCCAM Director Josephine Briggs is proud to assert that the website fulfills this expectation. As many readers will recall, three of your bloggers visited the NCCAM last April, after having received an invitation from Dr. Briggs. We differed from her in our opinion of the website: one of our suggestions was that the NCCAM could do a better job providing American citizens with useful and accurate information about “CAM.”

We cited, among several examples, the website offering little response to the dangerous problem of widespread misinformation about childhood immunizations. As Dr. Novella subsequently reported, it seemed that we’d scored a point on that one:

…Dr. Briggs did agree that anti-vaccine sentiments are common in the world of CAM and that the NCCAM can do more to combat this. Information countering anti-vaccine propaganda would be a welcome addition to the NCCAM site.

In anticipation of SBM’s Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether such a welcome addition has come to fruition. The short answer: nope.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Andrew Wakefield Fights Back

Dr. Andrew Wakefield was almost single-handedly responsible for frightening the public about a possible association between autism and the MMR vaccine. His alarmist recommendations directly led to lower vaccination rates and a resurgence of measles to endemic levels in the UK. The MMR/autism interpretation of his 1998 article in The Lancet was retracted by 10 of his 12 co-authors. The article itself was “fully retracted from the public record” by The Lancet. And now Wakefield has lost his license to practice medicine after the General Medical Council’s exhaustive 2½-year review of his ethical conduct.

His career was in shreds and there was only one way left for him to fight back: to write a book. Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines — The Truth Behind a Tragedy has just been published. I tried hard to read it with an open mind and to understand his point of view. He did make some points that I will accept as valid unless they can be refuted by the others involved. Some of what he said and did was apparently misinterpreted and distorted by his critics. But the book did not convince me that he was an ethical, rigorous scientist or that MMR is linked to autism or to bowel disease. In my opinion the book does nothing to scientifically validate his beliefs or to excuse his behavior, but rather boils down to self-serving apologetics and misleading rhetoric. It also undermines his claim that he is a good scientist by showing that he values anecdotal evidence (“listening to the parents”) over experimental evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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The Vaccine War

On Tuesday night PBS FRONTLINE aired an episode about the anti-vaccine movement entitled The Vaccine War (which, by the time you read this, should be available for online viewing in case you missed it). When I first heard that this show was going to air, I was a bit concerned. My concern, of course is what I’m always concerned about when journalists do a story about pseudoscience, be it the anti-vaccine movement, “intelligent design” creationism, various “alternative medicine” modalities, or whatever. We’ve written about such things right here on SBM on more than one occasion, be it Dr. Jay Gordon on The Doctors or Andrew Wakefield being interviewed by Matt Lauer. Although FRONTLINE has done a pretty good, science-based job on controversial topics, I felt some trepidation, particularly after seeing some of the promos for the show, even though it featured Dr. Paul Offit, and other physicians and scientists.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Vaccine War is not perfect. There are some definite flaws, but by and large it is a rare thing on TV: A science-based discussion of a pseudoscientific movement. True, the opening montage did bring back a bit of that anxiety that this was going to be a “tell both sides” bit of false balance in that it included J.B. Handley blathering and Jenny McCarthy spewing her same false dilemma of measles versus autism. (She’d choose the measles, of course.) I was able to forgive that, because it’s very clear that the producers were just setting up the story. The show then launched straight into a birth and a list of the vaccines that children get, with Melinda Wharton of the CDC and Paul Offit pointing out how much good vaccines do, how we no longer see diseases that once killed thousands or even milions.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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J.B. Handley and the anti-vaccine movement: Gloating over the decline in confidence in vaccines among parents

UPDATE, 4/25/2011: I can’t resist pointing you to a hilariously misguided attack against me that proves once again that, for the anti-vaccine activists, it’s all about the ad hominem. Clifford Miller, a.k.a. ChildHealthSafety, was unhappy that I showed up in the comments of Seth Mnookin’s post complaining about J.B. Handley’s attacking him solely based on his having once been a heroin addict, an addiction that Seth managed to beat. In response, Miller writes. Not only was he unhappy about a post of mine that was over a year old, but he regurgitated Jake Crosby’s fallacious pharma shill gambit that he used against me last summer. Thank you, Mr. Miller, for, in your utterly irony challenged manner, proving my point that to the anti-vaccine movement it’s all about the ad hominem. You did it better than I ever could. Now, back to my post.

One of the key talking points of the anti-vaccine movement is to repeat the claim, “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’” Indeed, one of Jenny McCarthy’s favorite refrains has been “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine,” or “I’m ‘anti-toxin.’” In doing so, the anti-vaccine movement tries very hard to paint itself as being made up of defenders of vaccine safety, as if the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and all the regulatory agencies don’t support safe vaccines. Many are the times that we have seen examples of this particular denial, both on this blog and elsewhere. For which specific anti-vaccine activists this is self-deception, delusion, or outright lie is a complicated question, but one thing that is clear to me is that the very existence of this talking point demonstrates that, at least for now, being anti-vaccine is still viewed unfavorably by the vast majority of people. If it were not, there would be no need for vaccine conspiracy theorists to use this particular line over and over again. Also, if the rhetoric from the anti-vaccine movement didn’t demonize vaccines so viciously as the One True Cause of autism, asthma, and a variety of other conditions, diseases, and disorders, leaders of the anti-vaccine movement wouldn’t be so anxious to assure us at every turn that, really and truly, they aren’t “anti-vaccine.” Oh, no, not at all.

Unfortunately for them, their rhetoric and activities betray them. For one thing, the anti-vaccine movement is not monolithic. There are indeed anti-vaccine zealots who are not afraid to admit that they are against vaccines. Many of them showed up to Jenny McCarthy’s Green Our Vaccines march on Washington two years ago with signs bearing slogans such as “Danger: Child Vaccine (Toxic Waste)”; “We found the weapons of mass destruction”; “Stop poisoning our children”; and, of course, “No forced vaccination! Not in America!” In the run-up to that march, I lurked on several anti-vaccine discussion forums, and I saw first hand how the organizers of the march were trying to keep people with these signs in line and less visible, not so much because they don’t agree with them but because they promoted the “wrong” message. In this, they remind me of political parties trying to rein in their most radical elements.

Among these groups, Generation Rescue has supplanted the former most influential anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). It has achieved this largely through somehow attracting a scientifically ignorant washed-up model, actress, and comedienne named Jenny McCarthy who, most recently before having a son diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum had been promoting “Indigo Child” woo on her IndigoMoms.com website, complete with a “quantum prayer wheel” invented by William Nelson, inventor of the quackalicious EPFX-SCIO. Back in 2007, just prior to the release of her first autism book, Louder Than Words: A Mothers’ Journey in Healing Autism, McCarthy’s “indigo” website disappeared from the web in a futile attempt to send it down the memory hole, but thankfully The Wayback Machine knows all. In any case, thanks to Jenny McCarthy and, at least as much to her boyfriend, the massively more famous Jim Carrey, Generation Rescue has been tranformed from an ignored fringe anti-vaccine group to a famous and influential fringe anti-vaccine group with all sorts of ins among the Hollywood elite, just as it’s been tranformed from just Generation Rescue to Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization – Generation Rescue.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The General Medical Council to Andrew Wakefield: “The panel is satisfied that your conduct was irresponsible and dishonest”

BACKGROUND

In my not-so-humble opinion, the very kindest thing that can be said about Andrew Wakefield is that he is utterly incompetent as a scientist. After all, it’s been proven time and time again that his unethical and scientifically incompetent “study” that was published in The Lancet in 1999 claiming to find a correlation between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression in autistic children with bowel symptoms was at best dubious science and at worst fraudulent. For one thing, as investigative journalist Brian Deer found, Wakefield was in the pocket of trial lawyers, who were interested in suing vaccine manufacturers, to the tune of £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses beginning even before his infamous “study” started accruing patients. Even though the study itself used the typical careful and relatively neutral language that we all expect from scientists, Wakefield himself was not nearly so circumspect. In a press conference announcing the Lancet study, he said:

He told journalists it was a “moral issue” and he could no longer support the continued use of the three-in-one jab for measles, mumps and rubella.

“Urgent further research is needed to determine whether MMR may give rise to this complication in a small number of people,” Dr Wakefield said at the time.

And so began one of the most contentious health stories of this generation.

Wakefield’s Lancet paper, even interpreted as sympathetically as possible, concluded nothing that justified such language. Yet his rhetoric, along with sensationalistic and credulous British journalists, ignited a firestorm of fear over the MMR that has not yet subsided now, over a decade later. Vaccination rates plummeted in the UK, and measles, a disease once thought to be under control, has surged back and become endemic again. It is a feat that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey appear to be trying to replicate right here in the U.S. with their wonderfully Orwellian-named Green Our Vaccines activism and ceaseless promotion of anti-vaccine messages.

More recently, at the Autism Omnibus hearings, we learned from a world expert in the polymerase chain reaction, Dr Stephen Bustin, that the techniques used in the laboratory running PCR on the clinical specimens from Wakefield’s clinical trial were so shoddy, so devoid of routine controls necessary in any PCR experiment, that the measles sequences reported as amplified in Wakefield’s followup to his Lancet study were false positives derived from plasmids with measles sequences in them contaminating the laboratory. Then, in late 2008, Mady Hornig and colleagues at Columbia University published an attempted replication of Wakefield’s study. They failed. There was no association between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression, nor could Hornig find any evidence that measles in the gut was any more common in the autistic children studied than in the neurotypical controls. This study was particularly devastating to Wakefield because it was carried out by a researcher who had previously been sympathetic to the myth that vaccines cause autism, as evidenced by her infamous “rain mouse” study and, even more close to home, using the same laboratory that had performed Wakefield’s PCR, which had apparently cleaned up its act in the years following its work on Wakefield’s specimens.

When it comes to the science, there is no doubt. No reputable scientist has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings, and there is a remarkable convergence and agreement of findings of major studies looking for a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism: There ain’t one. Indeed, closing out 2009 was the publication of yet another study that failed to find any correlation between MMR and autism, or, as I put it at the time, yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield’s repeated claims that the MMR can cause or “trigger” autism in some children is deader than dead as a scientific hypothesis and without a basis in scientific or clinical evidence. True, Wakefield tried to counter with a horribly unethical and badly designed primate study that seemed custom-designed to be used in court rather than in the court of scientific inquiry. It didn’t help and only made Wakefield’s Thoughtful House, Wakefield’s Fortress of Solitude in Texas to which he retreated in the wake of the revelations about his conduct, look even worse. Even a credulously “balanced” TV story by NBC news and Matt Lauer couldn’t hide the dubiousness nature of what goes on there.

Of course, while the science refuting Wakefield’s pseudoscience and evidence showing Wakefield to be incompetent and unethical continued to roll in, a little less than a year ago, it got even worse for him. Brian Deer reported that Wakefield very well may have engaged in scientific fraud in the “research” (and I do use the term loosely) that led to the publication of his Lancet paper in 1999. Through it all, the General Medical Council began an inquiry into whether Andrew Wakefield behaved unethically in the “research” that resulted in his 1999 Lancet report. It should be pointed out that the investigation of the GMC began before Deer’s latest revelation of potential fraud; rather it was far more concerned with how Wakefield ran his study and recruited patients. Nonetheless, the revelations nearly a year ago about Wakefield’s playing fast and loose with research methodology could not help but contribute to the sense that the Good Ship Wakefield had been torpedoed below the water line and was taking on water fast.

As the investigation and hearings wound on seemingly endlessly for two and a half years, Wakefield’s supporters intermittently waged an increasingly histrionic and ridiculous propaganda offensive to try to preemptively discredit the GMC’s findings. As it became clear that finally after all this time the GMC was on the verge of announcing its ruling, I noticed that the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism was ramping up an increasingly bizarre and unhinged last minute propaganda campaign, complete with reposting a hilariously inapt post by Mark Blaxill comparing Wakefield to Galileo and the GMC to the Inquisition, complete with references to Stalin and Mao (I suppose I should be relieved that Blaxill refrained from playing the Hitler card); a defense of “that paper” by Wakefield himself; claims that parent witnesses had been “silenced” at the GMC hearings; and a whole series of posts by John Stone trying to discredit the GMC.

And then on Thursday, the GMC ruled.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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David & Goliath: A Dramatic Role Reversal Spurred On By The Media

The Internet is teeming with false health claims and a long line of celebrities willing to throw their media weight behind every new flavor of snake oil. The irony is that alternative medicine proponents see themselves as a persecuted minority – the victims of some nebulous health industry conspiracy. But in reality, they have ingratiated themselves with the media to such an extent that they may in fact have the upper hand.

Pseudoscience has become Goliath, and physicians have never faced a more pernicious foe. With patients’ lives hanging in the balance, some of us are waging the war for hearts and minds with gumption, zeal, and a little help from a brave minority of media who have finally woken up and realized that alternative medicine is not as soft and cuddly as they once thought.

Take for example those who wrongly believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of them subject their children to unproven and harmful therapies, diets, and regimens – some of which are tantamount to child abuse. Consider the cases described most recently by David Gorski here. One child underwent repeated IV chelation therapy for years followed by the invasive injection of “stem cells” into her cerebrospinal fluid. (more…)

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The price of anti-vaccine fanaticism: Case histories

One of the major themes of SBM has been to combat one flavor of anti-SBM movement that believes, despite all the evidence otherwise, that vaccines cause autism and that autism can be reversed with all sorts of “biomedical” quackery. Many (but by no means all) of these so-called “biomedical” treatments are based on the false view that vaccines somehow caused autism. I and my fellow SBM bloggers have expended huge quantities of verbiage refuting the pseudoscience, misinformation, and outright lies regularly spread by various anti-vaccine groups and two celebrities in particular, namely Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey. Most of the time, we discuss these issues in terms of the harm to public health that is done by falling vaccination rates due to the fear engendered by the message of the anti-vaccine movement and the threat of the return of vaccine-preventable diseases that once wreaked havoc among children.

There is another price, however. There is a price that is paid by autistic children themselves and their parents. It is a price paid in money and lost time. It is a price paid in being subjected to treatments that are highly implausible from a scientific standpoint and for which there is no good scientific evidence. It is a price that can result in bankruptcy, suffering, and, yes, even death.

It is a price, I think, that is best demonstrated through a few case studies. This is a situation when anecdotes have their use.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Will The Real, Silent Majority Please Stand Up – To Oprah and Jenny McCarthy?

Much to my surprise and delight, my recent blog post about Jenny McCarthy’s  “educational” video was picked up by several other blogs and websites, resulting in a small flood of emails applauding my efforts to expose dangerous pseudoscience. I had braced myself for what I assumed would be an onslaught of hate mail (what else would irrational folks do about a sensible warning message?) and found that instead I received a small number of high-fives from advocates and health organizations committed to cutting through the rhetoric and providing accurate information about vaccines. Perhaps the hate is still in the mail?

I began wondering who is in the majority on the issue of vaccines – those who want to study concerns carefully and accept what the science shows, or those who are fixated on blaming vaccines for diseases they don’t cause, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Since the latter are louder than the former, one does tend to feel as if the world has gone a bit nutty. And when celebrities like Oprah Winfrey promote the unfounded anti-vaccine rhetoric of Jenny McCarthy, sensible parents across the country begin to shudder. But when will this shuddering lead to action?
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