It’s easy to dismiss the idea that McCarthy’s work on autism and vaccines has an impact–celebrity activism often gets accorded outsized importance or treated with utter contempt, when it’s a much more complicated phenomenon. But a University of Michigan survey of parents found that 24 percent of them were willing to place some trust in figures like McCarthy on the question of the link between vaccines and autism, which is a much higher level of credibility than the average person’s going to be able to elicit from the general public.
And even a small number of parents who decide not to vaccinate on the word of someone like McCarthy, or Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who wrote the initial paper linking autism and vaccines, and has since been banned from practicing medicine in the UK, can have significant public health impacts. California saw a spike in whooping cough in 2010 that resulted in a number of deaths. Wakefield’s work contributed to a rise in measles cases in the United Kingdom. And fears of vaccines in general have lead to suspicion of the HPV vaccine, which is a critical way to help girls reduce their risk of certain kinds of cancers.
If perpetuating myths about vaccines that save children’s lives is enough to get you banned from medical practice in the United States, you’d think it might be a disqualifying factor when considering someone for a job that involves communicating information to the public. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. Dr. Mehmet Oz, one of Oprah Winfrey’s proteges, has repeatedly bumped up against pseudoscience, suggesting that apple juice had dangerous levels of arsenic in tests that were called into question, shilling for Real Age, a web site that solicits information from patients it gives to pharmaceutical researchers, and giving a platform to NARTH, the organization that advocates that therapy can change sexual orientation.
Oz’s justification for the segment involving NARTH, which will probably be used again to justify McCarthy’s appointment, was that he was including all perspectives in a discussion. But while it’s possible to debate many sides of many issues, one of the benefits of medicine is that there’s actual evidence that some ideas and right and others are wrong. McCarthy’s are wrong, and continuing to defend them with that other standby of people who like to advance conspiracy theories without evidence, that she’s just raising questions, doesn’t make her decision to stick to her discredited ideas any more admirable. And it doesn’t give The View cover, either. This is not a vital debate in American society in which McCarthy’s position has been historically underrepresented, or a polarity along which it’s important to have multiple perspectives in order to make for a lively conversation. It’s a hoax, on par with McCarthy’s original belief, before her son’s autism diagnosis, that her son was an “indigo child,” a New Age theory that tries to comfort parents of children with autism and learning disabilities by convincing them that their children actually represent a new stage in human evolution.
I absolutely understand that parents who are raising children with autism, given that the range of disorders included on the spectrum, want to explore every possible potential cause and treatment for their children’s conditions. But the best way news organizations can fulfill their obligation to inform the public, and to show respect for their consumers is to pick through evidence, be discerning in which ideas and which advocates they give airtime to. Maybe Jenny McCarthy has a range of other opinions that ABC, which airs The View, thinks will be valuable to its audience. But the company is a news organization in addition to an entertainment company. And ABC should consider the damage McCarthy’s done to the public interest against whatever else she might have to offer.