Splash, a style magazine in Chicago, is reporting that they’ve hired Jenny McCarthy to be their new daily blogger.
Yes, you read that right. But it gets better. And by better, I mean worse.
Besides a daily blog, she’s being given a weekly advice column called "Ask Jenny", where, among other things, she will "tackle parenting".
Tackle, indeed. Body slam is more like it.
As someone who strongly advocates parents to get their kids vaccinated – y’know, to keep them from contracting potentially debilitating or deadly diseases, because I’m funny that way – I am not exactly a fan of Ms. McCarthy. I’ve written about her many, many times, because of her tenuous grasp of medical reality. She has for example repeatedly and fallaciously linked vaccines to autism, and has spouted inflated propaganda about toxic ingredients in them.
If you want the truth about vaccinations, and why they are critical for our public health, then go to the Immunize for Good website. Or talk to your board-certified doctor (good advice under any circumstances). But don’t talk to Jenny McCarthy. When it comes to medical advice she’s as wrong as wrong can be, and people who listen to antivax propaganda are putting lives at risk.
As you can imagine, there are some questions for her "Ask Jenny" column it would be interesting to see her answer. Why, despite the vast and overwhelming evidence against it, do you think vaccines cause autism? Do you know the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury? How many babies die of pertussis every year? How big a number is acceptable to you?
Let me leave you with this. Guess what the slogan is for Splash magazine. Go ahead, guess.
"Chicago’s Dose of Style, Society, and Celebrity." Emphasis mine. But still.
You can’t make this stuff up. But antivaxxers make up lots of stuff about vaccines. Too bad people pay attention to them.
There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.
You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.
The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.
Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.
Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.
But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.
Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.
Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.
I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.
And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.
Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)
* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.
We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.
Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.
Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.
What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.
We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.
This is one of the scariest graphs I’ve seen in a long time.
This plot, from the CDC, shows probable and confirmed cases of pertussis – whooping cough – in the state of Washington from 2011 through June 2012. Last year’s numbers are the short, light-blue-grey rectangles, and this year’s are the dark blue. The plot is by week, so you can see the 2011 numbers slowly growing across the year; then this year’s numbers suddenly taking a huge leap upward. They are reporting the new rate as 13 times larger than last year. Note that 83% of these cases have been confirmed as being pertussis, while 17% are probable. The drop in recent weeks is due to a lag in complete reporting of cases.
Got that? There are 13 times as many people – more than 2500 in total so far – getting pertussis right now as there were last year at this time in Washington.
Some of this increase may be attributable to the pertussis bacterium growing a resistance to the vaccine and booster. However, it’s curious that Washington state has seen such a large jump; the incidence of pertussis overall in that state is nine times higher than the national average.
Why would this be? Well, it so happens that the antivax movement is quite strong in Washington state, and it also so happens that parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in higher numbers there than the rest of the nation.
There may be other factors, but it’s clear that people who don’t vaccinate are at least partially to blame for this. Maybe it’s due to religious reasons, or the large number of antivaxxers who still blame autism on vaccines, when we know for sure that’s not the case. Either way, when vaccine rates get too low, herd immunity is compromised, and we see more pertussis cases, even among those who are vaccinated.
Pertussis is a terrible, terrible disease. It puts infants at grave risk of dying, and eight infants so far this year have been killed by pertussis in the US. Even if it doesn’t kill them, it’s a horrible thing to put them through.
Vaccines save lives. Talk to your board-certified doctor and find out if you need one, or a booster. I did, and my whole family is up-to-date with their vaccinations. I refuse to be a part of spreading a disease that can kill anyone, let alone babies, and I refuse to be silent about it.
I do a roughly monthly segment with astronomer Seth Shostak on Big Picture Science, a radio show/podcast done by The SETI Institute. This month, Seth and I talked about the American Airlines dustup when they were planning to run an interview with reality-impaired antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. This story is a great victory for reality, and I’ve already written about the back story.
Never forget: this antivax issue is more than important: it is literally life and death. Because of lowering vaccine rates, pertussis outbreaks are so prevalent health officials in the state of Washington have declared it to be an epidemic. The governor has had to dip into emergency funds to the tune of $90,000 to finance an information campaign to get the word out.
But the money is secondary to the idea that babies and people with immune deficiencies are at risk of dying from a disease that is essentially totally preventable if everyone got their vaccinations and boosters.
I cannot state that any more simply. The antivax crowd says vaccines cause autism, vaccines cause neurological problems, vaccines hurt your immune system. None of that is true. The real danger is when people believe the antivax propaganda. Infants too young to be vaccinated themselves rely on herd immunity — if enough people are vaccinated the disease has no place to live. And when we as a community don’t vaccinate, people get sick, and some people — including those infants, usually just a few weeks old — die.
Talk to your board-certified doctor, and if they say it’s OK, get vaccinated. You may save more than one life doing so.
Reality recently scored a major win when American Airlines agreed not to run an interview with notorious antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. An American living in Australia, Dorey runs the Orwellian-named Australian Vaccine Network, where she dispenses horrifically bad and outright false information about vaccines. Read the link above to see details about her shenanigans.
After AA decided not to run the interview, Dorey pulled a lot of tired and clearly silly claims out of her playbook, saying it’s denying her free speech — which it obviously isn’t, since this isn’t a free speech issue! — and that we’re all part of a global cabal funded by Big Pharma blah blah blah. I’ve yet to see a check from Big Pharma, so her making this claim is at best paranoid and at worst a lie. You can read more about her nonsensical claims in an ABC article about this.
As usual, I have a very, very hard time feeling any sympathy for Dorey, especially when measles is roaring back into the population. Measles is easy to prevent with a simple vaccination, but due in large part to the antivax effort (and I include religious exemptions in that group) it’s still out there and infecting more and more people.
Some folks are fighting back, though. While I was in Utah last weekend I saw some great billboards promoting vaccines. Shane Larson, an astronomer at Utah State University where I spoke, grabbed a great photo of one:
That shot shows the billboard in context and might be hard to see with everything else in the picture. Here’s a zoom on the billboard itself:
It says, “Vaccine preventable diseases are just a plane ride away" and shows a child standing next to an open suitcase. The line refers to the fact that Europe and other countries are seeing a resurgence in measles and other diseases due in part to the antivax movement, and if you’re not vaccinated, you can bring those diseases back to the US. Measles was stopped natively in this country in 2000 due to high vaccination rates, but international travel has brought it back. That’s not speculation; we know this has happened.
The billboard links to the wonderful website Vaccinate Your Baby, which has great advice — science-based, reality-based, fact-based, and truthful — about vaccinations.
You can help save lives.
Tip o’ the needle to Liz Ditz for several of the links in this article.
Good news: I just received a tweet from the American Airlines Twitter feed:
Yay! They have decided to not air the audio version of the antivax interview. That’s excellent, and I thank American Airlines for that.
However, as far as I can tell, the interview is still slated to run in their in-flight magazine. I will hopefully have more news about that soon as well.
Update: When I asked about the printed version, I got this reply back very quickly:
Again, I thank American Airlines for considering this issue and making the right decision. I also want to sincerely thank everyone who wrote and tweeted about this.
Remember: we have the power to make sure good, accurate science gets told, and bad, inaccurate misinformation does not spread. Never rest, never tire, and never forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
[UPDATE: American Airlines has agreed not to run the interview! That includes both the audio and print versions.]
[Note: This post contains numerous links to articles showing antivax claims are misleading at best, and pose a huge health risk. I strongly urge you to read those links before leaving a comment.]
In May 2011, an
unvaccinated infant infected with measles was brought on board American Airlines flight 3965. Measles is a highly contagious, dangerous, and potentially fatal disease, and because of this public health emergency officials had to track down 100 passengers and quarantine quite a few of them.
This event was not American Airlines’ fault. However, it’s hard to see what they learned from it, since they plan on printing and airing an interview with a notorious antivaxxer who makes provably false and incredibly dangerous claims about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases.
The antivaxxer in question is Meryl Dorey, an American living in Australia who has made it her life’s work to spread misinformation about vaccines. Her ability to distort the truth — to phrase it kindly — is nothing short of herculean. As I wrote about her in 2010:
She has said no one dies from pertussis anymore… when little four-week-old Dana McCaffery died of that very disease, because herd immunity in her area of Australia was so low. Dorey is an HIV denier. She thinks doctors lie and poison babies. […] It goes on and on.
So why on Earth would American Airlines choose to run an interview with her in their in-flight magazine and air that interview on the in-flight TVs?
The interview is her usual passel of untruths about vaccinations: she tries to tie them to worsening diseases and autism — neither of which is remotely true — and then relies on the discredited research of a man the British Medical Journal outright called a "fraud".
Bizarrely, the interviewer for the American Airlines piece apparently didn’t even contact an actual doctor to get professional information on this topic. At the very least (the very least) the ability to show Meryl Dorey’s claims to be completely wrong is a Google search away, a trivial amount of work for an interviewer to do. Her horrid behavior towards Toni and David McCaffery — little Dana’s parents, who had to suffer through Dorey’s attacks while still grieving over their daughter — is also out there for all to see.
I don’t think they should. That’s why I signed a petition asking American Airlines to not run the interview. I added a note to it, saying in part:
"I will not fly AA ever again if they run this interview, and I will make very sure the thousands of people who read my blog know about my decision."
And I have one more thing to note. Read More
And yet, antivaccination groups exist.
Let me be very, very clear: they are wrong. Vaccines save lives. Vaccines save millions of lives. And not just directly, like they did by wiping out smallpox, a scourge that killed hundreds of millions of people. But also, through herd immunity, vaccines save infants too young to be vaccinated, the elderly with weak immune systems, and people whose immune systems are compromised due to chemotherapy, genetic issues, or because they are taking immunosuppressants for other illnesses (like arthritis).
Vaccines don’t cause autism. Vaccines don’t contain dangerous levels of mercury. Vaccines don’t contain fetal tissue. Each of these – and many, many more — is misinformation spread by antivaxxers, statements that are easily proven wrong (like, in order, here, here, and here). But many antivaxxers continue to use them.
What does that say about their willingness to tell the truth?
Yesterday, in Australia, one of the most vocal antivaxxers alive, Meryl Dorey of the grossly misnamed Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), spoke at the Woodford Folk Festival about her beliefs. However, she didn’t get quite the chance she had hoped for. Once the news got out that she was invited to the festival, the group Stop AVN went into action. A protest cry went up, and the venue was changed from her speaking solo, to her participating in a panel with a series of experts — actual, real experts — on vaccines. As I write this, I have a window open on Twitter, and I’m watching the tweets using the hashtag #StopAVN flow by. It’s a thing of beauty. Dorey’s arguments are being destroyed, 140 characters at a time.
The bottom line, repeated over and over again: Vaccinations save lives. That statement of fact is so simple, so powerful, that Stop AVN put it on a banner and had it flown behind a plane at the festival.
Wonderful! My congratulations to my friends Down Under for this impressive campaign.
But we here in America cannot rest easy. We have antivaxxers here; loud, wealthy, ones, who won’t hesitate to spread the same kind of misinformation; dangerous misinformation that poses a serious health threat.
The National Vaccine Information Center is one such group. They have a long history of antivax rhetoric, remarkable only in its breathtaking inaccuracy, and their ability to get it into the mainstream. And they’re at it again: they’ve put an ad on ABC’s digital 5000 square foot screen in Times Square in New York City, a place that will be packed with people celebrating the new year. To top it all off, Jenny McCarthy — who dispenses incredibly dangerous and incredibly wrong advice about vaccinations and other health safety issues — is slated to be a guest on ABC’s New Year’s Rocking Eve with Dick Clark… and she has stated she plans to promote her dangerous nonsense on the show.
Skepchick has an excellent post about this. My friend Jamie Bernstein has started a petition on change.org to get the ad taken down. I signed it.
Again, let me be clear: these antivax groups pose a public health threat. If you don’t believe me, then read this account by someone who knows.
And if you wonder why I feel so strongly about this, then I suggest you steel yourself — seriously — and read this account written by the parents of Dana McCaffery, who lost her life to pertussis when she was four weeks old. She was too young to be vaccinated. Because vaccine rates were so low in her area, pertussis had a place to grow. She was infected, and she died.
You want to know why I feel so strongly? This is why. She is why.
Talk to your board-certified doctor about vaccines. Find out what you might need — being an adult doesn’t mean you’re exempt from childhood vaccines; you may need a booster — and if your doctor approves, then do what needs to be done.
The solution against the antivaxxers is to make sure their misinformation is countered by facts. It’s one of life’s great ironies that vaccines have helped these people live as long as they have to spread their nonsense about vaccines. We can speak up to stop them… and at the same time get vaccinated to make sure that they — that everyone — gets a chance to be wrong for a long, long time.
The antiscience stance of the Republican candidates for President is getting so chaotic I swear I need a scorecard to keep it all straight. The latest: Michele Bachmann goes antivax.
No, seriously. Generally associated with the far left, antivaccination rhetoric reared its head at the latest Republican candidate debate. In 2007, Governor Rick Perry of Texas — and current front runner of the cohort of White House contenders — issued an Executive Order mandating the Gardasil vaccination for girls. This vaccination prevents girls from getting the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a virus that is a major factor in contracting cervical cancer later in life. This cancer has a greater than 30% fatality rate once contracted, and is a horrible, horrible condition. 20 million people in the US alone carry the virus.
Representative Bachmann is not quite so subtle. During the recent debate, she tried to hammer Rick Perry on this issue, saying it’s wrong to mandate vaccines, saying that Gardasil "can have very dangerous side effects".
"There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate," Bachmann said after the debate, where she had told Perry on stage that she was "offended" by his decision. "She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine."
There has never been a single confirmed case of anything like this happening (in fact, a bioethicist has offered Bachmann $10,000 if she can come up with some evidence for her statement; no word from her campaign so far). Some people do have adverse reactions to vaccinations, but they are rare (like a girl who had an extraordinarily rare mitochondrial disorder which might — might — have caused a vaccine-related problem). But mental retardation from Gardasil is totally unheard-of.
The source is incredibly suspect, too. A unnamed woman came up to Bachmann and told her this unsubstantiated story? And Bachmann goes on national TV to score points with it? The line of evidence breaks down at every step here. Bachmann saying this during a nationally televised debate is nothing short of shameful. And reckless.
She’s not the only one making hay of this, either. A PAC backing Ron Paul has a video that calls Gardasil "an STD vaccine". That a pretty cynical spin on it; the issue of vaccinating against HPV is not about sex, it’s about health. However, because HPV is contracted through sexual contact, this also plays into the far-right’s morality issues.
Generally speaking, antivaxxers tend to be to the left of the political spectrum. I doubt Bachmann is sincerely trying to woo that vote. More likely, she is just displaying more of her antiscience predilections like creationism and global warming denialism.
I also doubt Bachmann would’ve gotten the Republican nomination even before she said something like this, but mirroring the thinking of the far-left could very well sink her once and for all inside her own party. We’ll see. But don’t forget: even if and when she’s gone, we’ll still have a coterie of antireality candidates to deal with on that ticket.