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The empiricists strike back

August 7th, 2008 · 11 Comments · AAP, Narrative

Amanda Peet is a rare species of Hollywood celebrity – thoughtful, humble, serene, and strangely not self-absorbed. That makes her the perfect spokesperson to help the American Academy of Pediatrics inject some much-needed sanity into the manufactured debate over vaccines. The contrast between Peet, who supports vaccines, and Jenny McCarthy, who loudly opposes them, couldn’t have been more obvious during a recent Good Morning America interview. The contrast also illustrates fundamental differences between the two spokeswomen’s science advisers.

Peet discovered her celebrity PSA niche after consulting with Dr. Paul Offit about the safety of vaccinating her infant daughter. Offit is a pediatric immunologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, an ivy league professor, researcher, author, and oft-quoted source for news stories about vaccines. Peet says she was surprised at the ignorance and fear (funny how they go together) regarding vaccines, which are arguably the single greatest achievement in medical history. She’s a quick study, and now understands that dose makes the poison, and “toxic” substances such as mercury occur naturally. On GMA she talked about antigens and implored the news media to get this story right.

And then there is Jenny McCarthy’s de facto science adviser, Dr. Jay Gordon, Pediatrician to the Stars, who sat by her side during a memorable Larry King interview. His wise counsel was full on display during a brief clip when McCarthy explained why vaccines are the devil’s brew:

The FDA still has 11 shots that contain mercury and other ingredients like ether and anti-freeze, that we believe played a role in my child’s autism… In 1983 the shot schedule was ten and that’s when autism was 1 in 10,000. Now, today, there are 36 shots and autism is 1 in 150. If you put those two side by side comparisons, you will see what parents are talking about. You can see the blood work-up after we test our kids for heavy metal poisoning or other toxins, or viruses. All the arrows point in one direction.

McCarthy packed three confabulations and one intentionally misleading phrase into that 10 second sound bite. First the lies. She said that vaccines contain ether and anti-freeze, which they do not. Even McCarthy’s Pediatrician to the Stars now admits vaccines do not contain anti-freeze. She said that in 1983 the autism rate was 1:10,000. The real number is 1:2,500. The present day 1:150 prevalence is for all autism spectrum disorders, not just autism.

McCarthy’s claim that 11 vaccines contain thimerosal is irrelevant if her concern is autism, a disorder whose symptoms first appear in the child’s first 36 months. None of McCarthy’s Gang of Eleven are scheduled childhood vaccines. Some are booster shots given to teenagers. Flu shots with thimerosal are not given to infants. Once again, McCarthy aimed to scare, not to inform. And so it goes with the anti-vaccine activists and, too often, the news coverage.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Harold L Doherty // Aug 7, 2008 at 10:15 am

    “Amanda Peet is a rare species of Hollywood celebrity – thoughtful, humble, serene, and strangely not self-absorbed. That makes her the perfect spokesperson to help the American Academy of Pediatrics inject some much-needed sanity into the manufactured debate over vaccines.”

    I have never advocated the view that vaccines cause autism. The evidence, to date, has not supported that argument as far as I can tell.

    But it is silly and counterproductive to describe people who agree with you in glowing, angelic terms and describe those you disagree with in negative, demonic terms.

    Especially from someone who purports to offer
    an “An evidence-based resource for journalists”.

  • 2 autblog // Aug 7, 2008 at 10:42 am

    It’s not a gratuitous observation, and I’m confident that if you read the post again, perhaps more slowly, you’ll get my point.

  • 3 Harold L Doherty // Aug 8, 2008 at 12:23 am

    I read it well the first time and, following your suggestion, read your post again. The personal characterizations add nothing to the subsequent information you provide. The autism/vaccine debate is heated enough. Both sides use fear as part of their arguments.

  • 4 autblog // Aug 8, 2008 at 5:05 am

    Was my characterization of Peet accurate, in your opinion? Did you draw any conclusions from the contrast in style between the two actresses? Do you not agree that Peet’s attributes are also characteristic of science in general – not jumping to conclusions, reserved in judgment until all the facts are in, etc?

  • 5 isles // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    It was painful to watch the clips of McJenny. I think she is the type that, in a more genteel era, would have been referred to as “a hard woman.”

    I think the biggest difference between the two is gracefulness. Peet was unruffled under pressure, didn’t try to answer beyond her expertise, never raised her voice. When challenged on the Larry King show, McJenny started shouting profanities. I think the cause of science could not ask for a better spokesperson.

  • 6 autblog // Aug 9, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Exactly. Science doesn’t willingly appeal to emotions or encourage magical thinking. Yelling “bullshit” is no substitute for an honest, open minded discussion of the evidence.

  • 7 Joseph // Aug 9, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    But it is silly and counterproductive to describe people who agree with you in glowing, angelic terms and describe those you disagree with in negative, demonic terms.

    Did Harold Doherty actually just say that? Tell me it was an impostor.

  • 8 autblog // Aug 9, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    He’s lampooning himself.

  • 9 Sullivan // Aug 16, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    There is no mistaking the difference in demeanor between Jenny (Warrior Mom) McCarthy and Amanda Peet.

    I have no doubt that given Amanda Peet’s success, she is not entirely humble. She can and should take pride in, say, graduating from Columbia and rising to some level of prominence in her career.

    That said, she doesn’t present herself as an expert on vaccines. She does present herself as someone who has looked at the problem closely, and who has sought the advice of experts.

    The contrast in character and approach is striking.

  • 10 Robyne Rohde // Aug 26, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Unlike most of you on this list, I prefer to use my real name when speaking on these blogs.

    I was so impressed by the unbiased report about Amanda Peet I just had to comment. Were you equally impressed by her comment about parents who choose to make informed decisions about vaccinatinng (which in most states is one of the rights parents still have), when she called them parasites?

    You know when I heard that comment, the first thing that came to mind was ‘thoughtful, humble, serene, and strangely not self-absorbed’. What a joke. She did say something I thought was uncharaterisically intelligent. She said …..’don’t listen to her’…. I plan to do just that as do millions of families with children on the spectrum.

    Keep your eyes on the Oklahoma Legislature next session, we are coming back stronger than ever and imagine what we are fighting for? Insurance coverage for our sweet children…..Nick’s Law…named after our son…so all of you who keep believing the NIH, CDC, FDA and AAP are only looking out for the well being of your children……..keep tuning in to the TV and Radio stations in Oklahoma….we will be all over the place. Insurance coverage won’t be our only agenda.

    Take care everyone. And remember vaccinate, but vaccinate wisely.
    Robyne Rohde

  • 11 HCN // Aug 27, 2008 at 9:47 am

    So what?

    You still have not answered my questions on what real evidence shows that the DTaP is more dangerous than pertussis (which kills a dozen American babies each year), tetanus and pertussis… or how the MMR (which has been used since 1971 and never contained thimerosal) is worse than mumps, rubella or measles (which is coming back).

    We’ll be sure to look you up when the first American child dies from measles.

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