What ever happened to Innocent Before Guilty?
Quote on Quote Celebrity Jenny McCarthy believes that vaccines cause autism. An organization called the IOM investigated the link between the MMR vaccine and autism in a widely publicized study in 2001. The research did not have any conclusive evidence on the MMR vaccine's effect on Autism. To begin with, the MMR vaccine was licensed long before the knowledge of Autism. There is simply no good explanation or justification behind the theories on MMR vaccines's contributions to autism, in either lab animals or humans. The studies conclusion was that there was probably not a connection between the two.
Because of this study, news reporters from every network imaginable started reporting the obvious falsehood of the rumors of harmful side effects to vaccines. Since 2001, American news has been obsessed with this story, with the key word "vaccine" and "autism" more than three thousands times in 2009. In an episode of the hit investigative series "60 minutes", a specialist further bolstered the study by saying "without question, [vaccines are]the safest, best-tested thing we put into our bodies...[T]hey have a better safety record than vitamins, a better safety record than cough-and-cold preparations, a better safety record than antibiotics". Although studies say otherwise, some parents are too stubborn to accept science. It is like the parents who don't let their children attend public school because they teach evolution. It is plain stupid.
This continued a barrage of new studies and experiments testing the validity of the argument regarding autism and vaccines. In 2006, autism was spreading at an exponential rate, with 1 in 110 children diagnosed with autism. In 2007, autism was at its apex, with 1 in 88 children diagnosed with autism. The continuous rise in this illness led to news coverage, which led to anxious parents.
Anxious parents = gullible.
Parents now started to suspect vaccines. The rise of the Internet and other means of communication, created yet another forum for parents’ suspicions to circulate and gain momentum. Americans in the early 2000s were flocking to the Internet for all sorts of reasons, including the quest for health and medical information. Websites like web-md led to diseases like Cyberchondria, or the self-diagnosis disease. With medical information widely available, the medical community lamented that patients’ web research was changing the traditional office visit, and not for the better. But for the parents of autistic children, the online world was a limitless source of information that empowered them to understand and manage their children’s needs. A couple in Massachusetts said they spent five hours a day researching autism tips online. A California mom connected with other parents of autistic children online and learned about their successes and failures. Still others went online to diagnose their own children: “[We] put [the kids] to bed and then got on the Web to do the research,” said a mother in Illinois. “By the end of the night, we knew [our son] Weston had autism.”
The web also gave such parents plenty of reasons to worry about vaccines. In the late 1990s, fledgling autism sites, such as Unlocking Autism and the Autism Autoimmunity Project, noted that vaccines’ effects on the immune system could lead to “profound neurological damage,” including autism—a connection Andrew Wakefield had “discovered.” As time progressed, autism sites not only summed up the evidence supporting a link between vaccines and autism; they also gave parents instructions on how to reduce the risk of vaccine harm. Avoid vaccines with thimerosal, they instructed, and make sure children weren’t deficient in vitamin A. Give kids a dose of vitamin C before and after getting vaccinated, they advised, space out vaccines so children didn’t receive them all in one day, and opt for separate shots against measles, mumps, and rubella in place of the combined MMR vaccine.
Information about the connections between vaccines and autism multiplied and spread like wildfire on the Internet—just as all information did. At the end of the decade, the CEO of Google estimated that humans were creating as much information in two days as they had since the appearance of Homo sapiens through 2003. The abundance of information online—and the countless hours that parents of autistic children spent combing through it all—led autism advocate (and model, television personality, and author) Jenny McCarthy to joke that she “should have a doctorate in Google research.” McCarthy began writing popular books about pregnancy and motherhood while pregnant with her son Evan, born in 2002; when Evan was diagnosed with autism two years later, the focus of her work changed. Her 2007 best seller, “Louder than Words,” detailed the trials of seeking treatment for Evan: the frustrations of dealing with the health care system, the doctors who belittled her concerns and dismissed her observations, the friends who couldn’t sympathize, even the spouse who pulled away. Only the Internet offered answers and support twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Online and through other mothers, McCarthy said she discovered the treatments, therapy, and dietary changes that helped pull her son out of his autistic world.
For parents like McCarthy, the Internet was an invaluable source of community; it was also a powerful tool for creating and disseminating “experiential knowledge,” the form of knowledge production cultivated by the women’s health movement three decades before. In the late seventies, the feminist authors of “Ourselves and Our Children” had lamented that modern parents were “separated from the accumulated wisdom of other parents,” a fact that “deepens our dependence on experts”; this was precisely the problem their book and others like it were designed to address. Three decades later, the Internet provided access to a collective wisdom that was a health feminist ideal, in many ways. Science and medicine had few answers or solutions for the parents of autistic children, but in one another they found abundant expertise, shared across cultures and time zones. Each valuable piece of advice was profoundly treasured, simultaneously deepening the sense that shared lay wisdom was invaluable—and expert wisdom flawed. It was a sentiment McCarthy expressed repeatedly, as when another mother told her about treatment regimens that could free Evan from autism: “Why didn’t they tell me all this at the doctors’ office?” she bemoaned.
McCarthy and parents like her may have been empowered by the experiential knowledge they shared, but in encounters with health care experts they still found themselves dismissed. “Sometimes mothers instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, but the doctor wasn’t interested in hearing anything I had to say,” noted McCarthy. “It’s amazing how easily medical staff ignores crying, yelling mothers.” McCarthy wasn’t alone in feeling this way. She recounted being thanked by thousands of parents who felt abandoned and belittled in pursuit of treatment for their children; she dedicated her next book, “Mother Warriors,” to them. “Mother Warriors” was dedicated to all parent “warriors” fighting on behalf of their autistic children, but here and elsewhere, mothers were, once again, the primary caretakers of children and the ones uniquely frustrated by health care professionals who disparaged their expertise. “I would just say to the pediatricians, listen to [mothers] sometimes and give us a little bit more respect,” said Holly Robinson Peete, actress, autism advocate, and mother of an autistic son. “Our gut is really dead on.” Peete made her plea in an appearance on “Oprah.” Across the media—in particular in media targeting women—the fight for answers to autism was portrayed as a mother’s fight, and a fight that only mothers could truly understand.
Media representations of the autism epidemic, in short, pitted mothers against experts and institutions that didn’t listen to them and showed them little respect. Not surprisingly, a similar representation appeared in media coverage of the autism-vaccine link. McCarthy’s own autism advocacy quickly turned into a vaccine-safety crusade, when she concluded that Evan was born with an immune deficiency that was aggravated by vaccines and contributed to his autism. “I am not a doctor, and I am not trying to tell you how to treat your child,” she wrote. “But . . . I feel it’s good to be aware of the dialogue surrounding a possible link between vaccines and autism.” On “Larry King Live,” McCarthy appeared as the sole woman and vaccine critic in a panel discussion on autism. She argued with an all-male panel of health experts over vaccine-safety testing, the number of shots, and pharmaceutical companies’ undue influence. Gendered contestations of vaccine risks weren’t limited to late-night cable news. On a PBS “Frontline ”episode titled “The Vaccine War,” groups of mothers described their vaccine hesitations to a male reporter. Vaccine advocates in the film weren’t all male, but vaccine fears, it was clear, belonged to a domestic, feminized sphere while rationality and vaccine confidence resided in the masculinized professional domain. Throughout the 2000s, McCarthy kept asking experts to “listen to what the moms are saying”—but the message across the mainstream media was that while mothers were permitted to speak, if they said anything that cast doubt on vaccines, then what they were saying was simply wrong. The vaccine debate had become a gender war—and that was good for ratings.
McCarthy aired her views in numerous high-profile media appearances, including appearances on teh Oprah show, Ellen Show, and "The View". Three years after the IOM study, McCarthy's high profile was the driving force behind her campaign against modern medicine, not the science. Her quote on quote cause was often broader than the link between vaccines and autism, but her media appearances were often used to manipulate the public. During an appearance on "Larry King Live” in 2008 and 2009, she argued like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity with pediatricians and health experts on the subject of childhood vaccines, even though she was there to celebrate World Autism Day. (BOTH TIMES)
The dialogue on “Larry King” partly concerned whether vaccines “contributed” to autism, but it was also about much more than that. The invited health experts denied that vaccines caused autism and stressed the ever-present dangers of the diseases they prevented, including polio, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough. McCarthy railed against corrupt drug companies and complicit doctors, arguing that too many unsafe vaccines were being forced on children in the name of profit, causing new epidemics in misguided attempts to control overblown ones. The heated and testy conversations on occasion devolved into shouting matches. Debates, of course, are newsworthy; harmonious agreement is not. And newsrooms were, arguably, more in need of debates than ever as the 2000s progressed. The advent of cable, the Internet, and multimedia conglomerates had completely reshaped the news media. Ownership of media outlets had become increasingly concentrated, but at the same time audiences had fragmented, dispersing to hundreds of cable and online sources of news and information. News outlets, as a result, were “losing audience” and under tremendous pressure to keep viewers and readers. It was a “seller’s market for information,” concluded one report on the changing state of the media.
The debate over the vaccine-autism link was good for ratings and readership precisely because it was so heated, so emotional, and so relevant to contemporary autism concerns. News reports that covered the debate or simply made reference to it found in it a ready source of tension and drama. On the one side stood doctors and public health experts talking about evidence. On the other side stood parents (and sometimes politicians) talking about personal observations, struggles, and beliefs. The debate was also a ready source of an emotional and widely relatable plight: the parent struggling to care for her child as best as she could. Often, as the media reported on scientific findings—another study showing no link between vaccines and autism, another piece of evidence discrediting Wakefield—the news was delivered over images of a parent holding a crying child as a needle slipped into his arm, or over images of autistic children rocking, banging their heads, or flapping their arms as they played alone, their parents powerless to reach them.
On a deeper level, the debate also evoked tension because it wasn’t just about science or medicine—it was a contest of values. Its core features included disagreements over the nature of evidence, the battle between reason and emotion, and impossible-to-settle disputes over the kinds of risks that parents should assume and the kinds they should avoid. These themes had deep cultural resonance—as did the trends and stereotypes with which they connected.
The battle between reason and emotion, or irrationality, was one of the most prominent themes in reporting on vaccination and autism in the later 2000s. The theme was well-captured in a 2009 article in Wired magazine by science writer Amy Wallace, which drew hundreds of angry comments online. Wallace cast the vaccine-autism controversy as a “war on science,” with one side defending data, evidence, and reason while the other side fought for “pseudo-science” and “snake-oil.” In defense of science stood Offit, described as a pediatrician living in middle-class modesty, who “from an early age . . . embraced the logic and elegance of the scientific method.” Among his enemies were men like autism advocate Curt Linderman, who was reportedly “puffing on a cigarette” as he told Wallace, “We live in a very toxic world.” The battle between allegedly rational and irrational actors boiled over into the reader comments. One reader joked that autism was caused by the decline in pirates, since the two were inversely correlated on a graph. Another accused Wallace of being irrational herself: “200 years ago you would’ve been writing this article on the practice of using leeches to remove ‘bad blood,’” he wrote, “eventually the truth does come out . . . hence we know the world is not flat.”
That comment hinted at yet another key theme of vaccine-autism reporting: the nature of evidence and expertise. On one level, the debate was about the very claim that science alone formed the pinnacle of knowledge, and that scientists were the only source of such knowledge. “What I’m asking is that people trust their experts,” pleaded Offit on “60 Minutes.” McCarthy, meanwhile, asked that doctors and scientists acknowledge the expertise of parents (and mothers in particular). “I believe that parents’ anecdotal information is scientific information,” she argued on “Larry King.” “At home, Evan is my science,” she said on Oprah. In dispute was the definition of scientific evidence, the validity of that evidence, and such evidence as a basis for expertise. The debate over vaccines and autism took place in the context of a growing popular backlash against the pharmaceutical industry generally, which helped bring scientists’ claims to exclusive expertise under scrutiny. “Vaccines make the pharmaceutical industry billions of dollars. They make my business billions of dollars,” said UCLA pediatrician and McCarthy supporter Jay Gordon; surely, he added, that would influence how vaccines were used. To McCarthy and other vaccine-skeptical parents, anyone with any connection to Big Pharma’s profits could not possibly produce objective evidence. In this context, they argued that parental observations constituted critical evidence not only because parents knew their children best, but also because only their observations were untainted by profit and greed.
This was a very very very very big double standard. If government, doctors, and the drug industry couldn’t be trusted, neither could middle-and upper-middle-class stay at home mothers. Representations of these mothers constituted another key theme of vaccine-autism media reports. They were shown caring for autistic children, they were recorded saying that they blamed vaccines for the condition, and, increasingly as the decade progressed, they were held up as the nation’s premier vaccine refusers, putting the rest of society at risk of infectious disease epidemics in their narrow-minded quest to protect their own children from vaccine injury. The self-serving, usually white, often liberal mother appeared in media as diverse as “Frontline” and the television drama “Law and Order".
McCarthy is two faced because she says that is not anti-vaccine but “anti-toxin,” and she lent her support to a rising popular movement that marched on Washington in 2008 to demand that government and industry stops having mandatory vaccinations. This movement was advocated by many people who were victims of horrific overlooked lapses in the scientific world, of using mercury in vaccines. However, this movement could only exist with the support of celebrities. In addition to the support of popular actor and boyfriend to McCarthy, Jim Carrey, the movement emphasized the growing “green” movement in which consumers began seeking environmentally “friendly” cars, food, toys, clothes, and more. The movement was, in many ways, the contemporary embodiment of what anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky called a “widespread, across-the-board concern about environmental pollution and personal contamination.” In their study on risk perception, Douglas and Wildavsky argued that in our modern world, “evil” comes in the form of “hidden technological contamination that invades the body of nature and of man.” In this world, risks are “hidden, involuntary, and irreversible”—a perfect description of how many vaccine skeptics in the 2000s understood vaccines. Douglas and Wildavsky also argued that each society’s view of the environment shapes the risks and dangers it chooses to pay attention to or ignore. In this framework, the search for an objective method to choose between risks is “doomed to failure,” because tolerable and intolerable risks are determined not by facts and figures but by a society’s commonly held values. In media reports that covered the vaccine-autism link, scientists quoted facts and figures about the very “real” risk of vaccine-preventable diseases, and the minuscule or non-existent risks of vaccines themselves. Parents described the risks they most feared—autism, not polio; toxic chemicals, not diphtheria. Objectivity had little hope of bringing such disparate risk perceptions into alignment. And so the debate continued.
IN CONCLUSION, Jenny McCarthy is a Dumbass, but we are all like her in some ways. This debate persisted because it was a side effect to what is often referred to as a "risk society". What plagues us in this modern society is not autisim, but rather uncertainty. In this instance, because the risk can’t be dependably identified or avoided, the parents assumes it is everywhere. This mentality is connected to the increasingly protective form of child rearing prevalent in countries such as the United States, where the economic and emotional value of children continues its upward climb; safety gear and safety precautions for children—from car seats to organic baby food to flame-retardant pajamas—are ubiquitous and ever growing in number. In such a society, the media is a critical venue for identifying, communicating, and evaluating risks. The media certainly embraced this role in the debate over vaccines, covering it attentively, staying focused on the vaccine-autism link long after scientists had dismissed it, and giving voice to parental fears that spoke directly to a lack of confidence in government’s—and industry’s—ability to protect their children from omnipresent risks.