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Don't Listen to Jenny McCarthy

Don't listen to Jenny McCarthy.

That might, at first glance, seem like an unnecessary order. I might as well be telling you, "Do not, under any circumstances, masturbate to Kurt Loder." Right? Well, maybe a few years ago. But all of that is about to change. Here's why:

Recently, the former Playboy model/Actress(?) inked a deal with the power hurricane that is Oprah Winfrey. I view Oprah as the rest of you do, which is to say, with a delicate mixture of inspired awe and paralyzing terror. I know she's changed a lot of lives for the better and brought a lot of attention to worthy issues, but I also know that if she deemed a particular bowel movement of hers noteworthy, then that poop would have its own six-figure book deal before you can say A Million Little Feces. That's how powerful Oprah Winfrey is. She made Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray into household names, and now, like the sweet Momma Bird that she is, she's lovingly regurgitating a soft, warm, chunky career down the gaping throat of a hungry Jenny McCarthy.

And maybe you don't think this should worry me. After all, I'm neither a troubled, rebellious teen nor a bucket of tasty, tasty chicken, so I have nothing to fear from Dr. Phil, and the only danger I face when watching Rachel Ray is in deciding whether she or her food is responsible for my boner. Take this picture for example:

What is that, a Rice Krispie treat covered in chili? My dick is hungry and my stomach wants to have sex with her, nothing's making any sense.

But I digress. We were talking about how Oprah's mentorship of Jenny McCarthy should mean nothing to me because I don't watch daytime television and Oprah is not yet Supreme Emperor of Earth. But here's my worry. For years now, Jenny McCarthy has been an outspoken advocate for autism research, which in and of itself isn't troubling and is, in fact, very admirable. But there are a few problems.

Informed Activist vs. Wide-eyed Crusader

The problem is that she's turned herself into a fear mongering, anti-vaccination spokeswoman. She's not just promoting autism awareness, she's aligning herself with this "we're giving our children too many vaccines and it's giving them autism" agenda.

Granted, Jenny McCarthy isn't coming out against all vaccinations, and she's even gone on record to say that many vaccinations are incredibly useful. But every time she says "I'm not anti-vaccination," she almost invariably follows it up with some anti-vaccination rhetoric and thinks she's in the clear. It's like people who say "no offense" and then assume they can say whatever they want, free from blame. Like, "I'm not racist, but I think Puerto Ricans should be kept in cages. What? I said I'm not racist."

So, even though Jenny will occasionally say vaccinations are useful, her loudest and most passionate cries are the ones about the dangers of vaccines, and the evil conspiracy that fuels them, and those are the cries that are going to register. She and her boyfriend, Jim Carrey, are so passionate, that sometimes it seems like vaccinations are the onlythingstheytalk about.

If Jenny McCarthy was just an advocate for autism research, or even just an advocate for vaccination investigation, I wouldn't have a issue. Vaccinations are not without their risks--though the risks are extremely, extremely rare--and educating people is a good thing. We have 26 more vaccinations than we had a couple of decades ago, and that's a subject that's worth discussing. Wanting to talk about the potential problems with vaccinations is useful, but going on a some shitty doctor talk show with your team just to scream in the faces of a couple of doctors, is not. If you can't watch the video, I'll give you a run down:

1) A doctor explains that, though we have more vaccines today than we used to, we also have a lot less kids dying from meningitis and polio than we used to.

2) The doctor explains that, if parents suddenly stopped getting vaccinations for their kids, more children will die.

3) Jenny McCarthy terrifies the doctors into silence by making a face that is precisely a cross between Catwoman, snakes that can hypnotize you and all of my childhood fears:

4) Jenny and her antagonistic friend spend a few minutes finger-pointing and screaming at the doctors.

5) The stupid doctor with the sideburns almost cries.

Opening a dialogue and doing research is useful, but how is that useful? How is it helping anyone when you jab your finger at a doctor, and accost him like he's the root of autism while you prompt the audience for applause? [Sidebar: If you can get past what a ridiculous, overdramatic display that clip is, it's worth it to see the whiney sideburns doctor in the scrubs flip out. He never says it, but you can still totally tell that he's begging to scream "I'M A FUCKING DOCTOR! I FUCKING SAVE LIVES! NO ONE CAN BE MEAN TO ME!"]

Headlines Stick

That subheading is right. Headlines do stick. Most people don't get past the headline, in fact, so even though Jenny's thesis might be "Vaccinations might be dangerous," the headline is "VACCINES ARE AUTISM ROOOAAAARRR." Headlines stick, and then they snowball, because that's how it works. When someone gets on stage and shrieks that "vaccines contributed to autism," they're not raising awareness of autism or opening up dialogues about it; they're fostering a generation of alarmist supermoms who will say "No" to every single vaccination all too quickly, because the headline is still lodged in their brain, regardless of what comes after.

Think I'm wrong? Do you remember what happened the first time an idiot publicly ran his mouth about measles mumps and rubella vaccinations leading to autism? Rates of MMR inoculation dropped by over 10 percent almost immediately. But don't worry, not everything went down. One statistic went skyrocketing from 56 all the way up to 1,348. Do you know what that statistic was? The number of confirmed diagnoses of fucking measles. Oh, and by the way, the doctor who published that initial study, the one that planted the seed of doubt by initially claiming that vaccinations cause autism? He faked his results, and the headline of his fake study still infects society today.

Celebrity Culture

Now, Jenny McCarthy, I'm not saying that autism isn't heartbreaking, and I'm sure you want someone to blame, and more importantly you want to do something to prevent autism for the future. Also, you want to be mad, like everyone else in your position.

I know this.

But I also know that, in general, people like to listen to the nice, good-looking people that talk on their televisions. And you're one of those people, Jenny McCarthy, so you can't just get mad like everyone else. You are an Oprah-certified celebrity on a daytime talk show; People are going to eat up what you say. This is a celebrity culture, so for better or worse, there is a large chunk of the population that is going to listen to and often follow the example of its prettiest celebrities. People donate to Darfur relief when George Clooney smiles at them, they buy fuel efficient cars when Leonardo DiCaprio furrows his brow and I once took formal karate lessons for a year because I thought it might make the Pink Power Ranger love me.

One day, Kimberly. One Day.

Sure, there are doctors to ask, and the research is out there but, unfortunately, the things that celebrities say resonate more with the public than the things that doctors say. It's awful, but it's true. According to Science, we do this because "evolutionary pressures acting on a tribal group of protohumans instilled in us an instinctive need to listen to authority figures." So doing what an authority figure tells us is wired into our brains. The problem, Science argues, is that we've confused "famous" with "authority," and that's what makes us turn a skeptical eye on our doctors while at the same time spouting off half-remembered, misleading statistics we heard from that pretty lady on Oprah's show. Why do you think politicians go nuts for celebrity endorsements? They know that their speeches, policies and experience mean nothing if their opponent can get their picture taken with Will Smith.

"Get jiggy with alternate sources of fuel!"Talking Out of Your Ass

All I'm really asking, Jenny McCarthy, is that you understand the influence you have as a pretty, Oprah-anointed TV star and you be careful with it. A typical McCarthy justification for believing a relationship between vaccines and autism is that she "just knows" or she "can just feel it," based on her own personal observations as a parent, and her movement gains momentum by other parents that feel it or "know it to be true." In one video, I heard her say "Contrary to scientific belief, autism is not genetic and I truly believe it is a genetic vulnerability." You know why science never says it "truly believes" anything? Because it's fucking science. Which isn't to say that science is infallible, just that I respect that science won't say that a vaccine is good for you because it "believes" in it. Doctors do research and perform exhaustive and expensive studies (in fact, because the vaccine issue was so high profile, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years studying and restudying vaccinations so much, that, as a result, they couldn't examine any other potential causes of autism). If you're going to be a spokeswoman, you need to know what you're talking about and do actual research, not just quoting articles that bend to your beliefs.

Take me for example. I'm no expert on medicine. All I did was sort of study it for a while and read every available piece of literature on the subject of vaccinations in preparation for this column. But I'm also kind of an idiot. So, as I do with most matters I don't fully understand, I decided to turn to a trusted, educated source to get a second opinion. I called my mom, who has been a for-real working nurse for many years and also makes this one pasta dish that'll knock your goddamned socks off.

DOB: Hey, Mommy, it's Daniel. Is there any link between vaccination and autism?

MOM: A lot of people think there is, and they want to believe there is, but there just isn't enough evidence to support it. There have been countless, extensive studies into the matter, and there's no link. The case was just brought before Congress, where it was ruled that there was no causation.

DOB: So why do people think there's a link?

MOM: Well, we do have more vaccinations today, and autism is on the rise, which may be too cozy a coincidence for some people. And another problem is that autism by its nature will manifest in infancy, between 18 months and three or four years, and that's also when babies are receiving their vaccinations, which is probably why people assume the correlation. Now, we still don't know what's causing the current rise in autism, but as of now there is no link.DOB: Booya.

MOM: Yes.

DOB: One more question. Give me the recipe for that pasta that you make that I love.MOM:Never.

-Click-

While I can't say the call ended exactly the way I wanted it to (what's that spice? It's thyme, isn't it? Is it thyme? IS IT THYME?!), I can say that there's more to this issue than saying "I believe there's a link to autism." I also believe that there's a chance I'm wrong. And maybe 10 years down the line, somehow, a link will be discovered, and it'll turn out that Jenny McCarthy was some kind of psychic.

But just in case Congress, my mom and me and science are right, don't listen to Jenny McCarthy.


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Daniel O'Brien

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