Thursday, May 7, 2009


I found out from Pandagon that Oprah Winfrey is giving Jenny McCarthy her own talk show. And her own blog, on

Here's what Amanda has to say about that:
This is a complete disaster. For reasons I can't quite understand, Jenny McCarthy is dedicated to fighting medical science on multiple fronts on the theory that she, as a celebrity who has given birth, understands way more about disease and biology than mere doctors and scientists, with their facts and their evidence.
While I have no interest in delving into specifics about what Jenny McCarthy espouses (Gonzo has already done that, really well --- sadly, those entries don't seem to have made it into her blog's new incarnation), the two Big Ideas she seems to have are: 1) autistics are not born, but made; more specifically, we are made autistic by toxic crap entering our bodies, and 2) autism can be "healed" by following a really strict diet.

Amanda noticed an awful lot of magical thinking about food on McCarthy's blog, but what she (rightly) focuses on is the irresponsibility of giving an anti-vaccination activist such a powerful public voice. (With her two mega-selling books, McCarthy has already given her idea that vaccines caused her son's autism way more of a public hearing than it should have).

Anti-vaccination ideas have become more and more widely accepted in America, with the result that vaccine-preventable diseases have started to reappear in some communities.
(Thank you to Bev of Asperger Square 8 for this image, and for the one at the top of the page).

While I'm pretty sure I haven't yet teased out all the different cultural and political strands making up the anti-vaccination (or anti-science in general) snarl, I do have a few starting points. I think part of it has to do with the way most human minds work.

People don't deal with randomness well. One of the things our brains do really, really well is detecting patterns, so it's not surprising that we've learned to play to this strength and see patterns everywhere. The other thing we do really well is express very specific ideas about --- as Steven Pinker says in his book The Language Instinct --- "who did what to whom". Because we've developed language, we can put events in order and indicate cause and effect. I think these built-in biases make us a lot likelier to see 1:1 cause-and-effect relationships, even where none really exist.

Another inherent bias we seem to have is what Daniel Dennett calls an "agent detector." When most people perceive motion, they evaluate whether that motion is likelier to come from a living or nonliving source. Dennett hypothesizes that, throughout much of our evolutionary history, it was advantageous for humans to be able to deduce, without needing to see the beast itself, when there might be a dangerous animal (or hostile group of humans!) in the vicinity. Accordingly, we're wired to err on the side of caution, and impute unexplained sounds, movement etc. to unseen living beings.

What does that mean for Jenny McCarthy? Well, I think it's making the impersonal, luck-of-the-draw genetic explanation for autism ring false to her --- she wants something more concrete, something she can fight against. It's probably easier for her to visualize evil little mercury atoms glomming onto her little boy's brain cells than it is to visualize his DNA simply encoding proteins that work together to build a slightly different nervous system than hers. Plus, with the evil-little-mercury-atoms option, she can conceive of her son's autism being a separate entity from her son, which she cannot do if her son simply developed differently.

It also gives her an illusion of control --- if Evan (her son) was born with different genes that led his embryonic nervous system to develop differently, there's nothing she can do to change that. If, however, she can simply rid his body of the thing she's convinced is in there, making him different --- well, she will! No power in the 'verse will stop her.

(That's another interesting fallacy of the autism-is-mercury-poisoning brigade: if they're right, the "damage" is irreversible. Mercury kills brain cells, and brain cells don't regenerate. You chelate someone who's been mercury poisoned to stop the cell-death process: you're cutting your losses, not restoring what's already gone).

Anyway, the "illusion of control" thing is very much up Oprah's alley, considering her past endorsement of The Secret, which told millions of gullible readers that all they need do is concentrate really hard on what they want from life, and "the universe" (ooh, hey, another vaguely anthropomorphic entity!) will reward them with it.

I've listed the individual psychological and cognitive factors that I think contribute to the surprising prevalence of magical thinking in a technocratic society above, and while I certainly think there's also a slew of societal, cultural and historical factors involved, I don't want to list them all here.

(NB: I don't recommend reading very many of the comments at Pandagon; while the commenters there are generally intelligent, reasonable and scientifically literate --- as opposed to commenters at most major news websites! --- they almost all share the anti-vax crowd's assumption that autism is a terrible, horrible thing that ought to be eliminated as soon as possible. And reading comment after comment to that effect can be pretty demoralizing).


lurker said...

I wish the anti-vaccination and vaccine suspicion was put away long ago because of its huge distraction away from the issue of mercury and other toxic substances' contribution to autism. I'm disturbed that many were duped into thinking that the vaccines themselves, and not the mercury in them, contributed to autism. I think that vaccine hysteria nonsense will go nowhere.

I think that the anti-vaccine distraction has been a robust advantage to the pharma/mercury defenders, especially in light of the piling up of evidence that many autistics have metabolic problems that lead to attenuated detoxification systems, and that some have genetic variations that lead to those metabolic/detoxification problems.

Meowser said...

Also, doesn't JMcC's son actually have a seizure disorder, rather than being autistic? If in fact he was initially misdiagnosed, she's really a shyster, claiming to have "cured" a "disease" her son never had in the first place and making bags of cash off the claim. I can't wait to read HIS memoir 20 years from now, it should be a doozy.

And Carrey? Um, dude, your biggest movie role was portraying Andy Kaufman, who regardless of what his official diagnosis was or wasn't, was absolutely NOT neurotypical. I suppose he thinks people like Kaufman, if they must exist at all, should be created in a lab as full adults, so nobody has to go through the trouble of raising htem.

(Carrey, though, at least is honest enough to admit he has no use for any strain of non-neurotypicality, unlike a lot of anti-autism activists who claim they only want to "cure" the nonspeakers, then turn around and pad their numbers with PDD-NOS and Asperger's and speaking auties to make them sound more "epidemic-like.")

Anonymous said...

Autism can probably have a number of different causes. Don't flame her because her son had the kind that was curable by a special diet.

Gonzo said...

Lovely post title!
And I really love your exploration where this kind of thinking is coming from, because that's the thing with the anti-vaxx nuttery: it has already moved so far away from science into creationist thinking territory.
First they firmly believe something and then they look for evidence to back up the preconceived idea. From that mindset, a search for truth just isn't possible anymore.

Btw, my old posts (including the Jenny series) are just temporarily saved as drafts, I'm publishing them bit by bit, because I need to fix a lot of broken links- they will all be back soon. ;)

abfh said...

Yup, the antivax nonsense is a cargo cult. And I love Bev's posters too.

cripchick said...

NO! no no no no no....

Lindsay said...

Lurker's comment is making me paranoid that I might've misstated something in the post.

Lurker sez:

I'm disturbed that many were duped into thinking that the vaccines themselves, and not the mercury in them, contributed to autism.It is true that there are two camps within the anti-vaccine movement: those who believe that some toxic compound within the vaccine causes autism, and those who believe the vaccine itself (i.e., the dead or attenuated virus or viral antigen) causes it by overloading an infant's fragile immune system.

Both of these hypotheses have been shot down repeatedly and effectively.

Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue, near as I can tell, believe that something in the vaccines (what, exactly, has been up for grabs ever since thimerosal was phased out) is causing autism --- hence the injunction to "Green Our Vaccines."

I wouldn't be calling attention to Lurker at all, were it not for his Argument to Moderation along these lines:

-Position A is that vaccines cause autism.

-Position Z is that no, they don't.

-Therefore the correct position must lie somewhere between A and Z: that while vaccines in themselves don't cause autism, something associated with them might contribute to it.

lurker said...

I have doubts about the "debunking" of the mercury hypothesis, and don't think the source of the mercury and other toxic substances necessarily always comes from vaccines. I wasn't using any argument to moderation fallacy. I had the same viewpoint before the extreme of the idea of vaccination itself being causative was even available. I came to my viewpoint based on what I thought and heard.

Whitecoat Tales said...


Oddly enough, we can get mercury blood levels. So it's pretty easy to prove ASD indviduals aren't suffering heavy metal poisoning.

Alternately, if you wish you say that they are more susceptible to mercury poisoning at "seemingly acceptable" levels, than you lack epidemiologic data. Because autism rates are not higher in places with higher background levels of mercury. If this was the case, the great lakes region would have a much higher incidence of ASD than other regions!

Furthermore, science doesn't support a link between mercury on any level and any possible pathophysiology of autism.

Interestingly, I know that you had access to this evidence for these comments, because I'm the author of one of the posts Lindsay linked too - the ones at Beyond the Short Coat.

I understand the draw of sticking to one's own thoughts. Sometimes it's important to read about, and understand the evidence before deciding.

@Lindsay: Great job with the post, it's always nice to see a point of view of ASD individuals.

After people like Mr Kartzinel (I refuse to call him Dr) say that Autism "steal's the soul from a child", it's important to get your point of view out there. People need to see that noone's soul has been lost, and that people, regardless of neurotypicalness, deserve respect, and the help we can give them.

lurker said...

Whitecoat, the levels of mercury involved probably don't need to be as high as those associated with what would be considered heavy metal poisoning. It isn't known what dangers there are from low levels of mercury. I'm also concerned with what the tissue levels of mercury would be. I've heard about the studies on higher levels of mercury specific porphyrins in autistics.

Whitecoat Tales said...

Interesting. I explicitly said that you didn't read my source before making your point.
Then you respond, again explicitly having not read the information you've been directed to... twice.

Further, I actually addressed your response
"the levels of mercury involved probably don't need to be as high as those associated with what would be considered heavy metal poisoning." in my initial comment. Is this a misunderstanding? The epidemiologic data does not support any link between mercury levels of any sort and ASD.

We HAVE studied the effects of low levels of mercury. That's how we determined what ARE "low" levels of mercury.

Interestingly, there are 4 studies on "mercury specific" porphyrin profiles, and autism. 3 of them are by the Geier's. The papers they have written are of no merit whatsoever.
I refer you to

Where you will find thorough dissections of the "research" you are referring to.

You seem to couch your statements "I've heard" and probably, perhaps you could replace those with "Ok, now I've studied the data and I think..."

lurker said...

Whitecoat, I don't care about your source. The links hardly deal with thimerosal/mercury at all. I'm not going to make things easy for you by debating vaccines themselves. I don't think there's enough epidemiologic data. There is no safe level of mercury for small chidren or fetuses. Mercury has been shown to ruin neurite outgrowth at low concentrations, in pictures. I think the papers have merit. I don't trust all of the repudiations of them. I've read some of those and other papers.

Whitecoat Tales said...

The links Lindsay posted deal with thimerosal and mercury, the links I posted dealt with "mercury specific" porphyrin profiles which you brought up.
You say you don't think there is "enough" epidemiologic data.
What WOULD be enough data? whats your threshhold.
How have you decided that there is "no" safe level of mercury? What's your threshold to believe that?
Whats your reference for mercury and neurite outgrwoth, and what were the "low concentrations" involved?
You don't trust the repudiations, is that because they ARE repudiations? Because while you've swept aside large piles of evidence you haven't said why.

Science isn't about picking the evidence that agrees with you. it's about consistently looking at all of the evidence.

lurker said...

I think enough epidemiological data would be whatever is sufficient to discern what is being looked for. I wouldn't know what that level would be in detail as I'm not an expert.
They used a concentration of 10^-7M
There is no evidence of a safe level of mercury. If there is one, it isn't known. Not all individuals have the same capacity to detoxify and eliminate mercury.

I wasn't convinced by the refutations. I'm not completely thrilled about all of the papers that support my position. I don't always think enough can be done with the limited data available. What I don't like about the studies that are said to disprove the link is that they don't use control groups that had no thimerosal exposure, while they use lower exposure control groups. I read about the high relative risk rates shown in the earliest CDC studies which did use a control group with no thimerosal exposure, and that those rates were watered down when that control group was removed and low and high exposure groups were used instead.