Jenny McCarthy Thinks Vaccines Cause Autism? Not so fast…

OK, so what do you know about Jenny McCarthy?

People who read People  (sorry, I couldn’t resist..) will know all about her Playboy years, her failed relationship with Jim Carrey, her years on MTV and all the other assorted TMZ fodder— but I’m not talking about that stuff.

I’m talking about her views on autism.

And vaccinations.

When Jenny McCarthy was recently hired to join the daytime gab fest, “The View” there was much outrage, fueled by concerns that she would use the show to advance her “radical” agenda: getting parents to just say “no” to vaccinations.

Because, as we know, Jenny McCarthy—whose own son, Evan, is autistic– believes that vaccinations cause autism. So Jenny’s against vaccinations.

So far, so good, right?

Except that it’s not true.

OK, a confession. This article is not really about Jenny McCarthy. It’s not really even about autism and vaccinations.

It’s about how we think about things in America. And about the gradual but very real dumbing down of our culture and our capacity for nuanced and critical thinking.

Jenny McCarthy just happens to be a great example.

Recently, Jenny was interviewed for 45 minutes on the Howard Stern show.  I listened to that interview twice, and carefully. She was asked all about her views on vaccinations. She was asked whether she believes they cause autism.

And what she said—what she actually believes—is very, very different from what we believe about what she believes.

Now I’m going to paraphrase a bit here, but here’s the executive summary of what she actually said:

  • People are very different
  • One of the many ways they may be different is in the strength of their immune systems
  • It’s entirely possible that some children do not have strong enough immune systems to weather the onslaught of multiple vaccinations given at the same time.
  • Wouldn’t it therefore make sense, just as a matter of caution, to stagger these vaccinations so that they don’t present as much of a challenge for those whose immune systems can’t handle everything at once?

I’d call that the most reasonable argument on earth, and you might completely disagree with me on that, but it doesn’t matter what either of us think of her argument, what matters is that nobody heard her argument. What they heard was a mindlessly repeated media shorthand (Jenny McCarthy is against vaccinations!) that turned into a cultural meme (Jenny McCarthy thinks vaccines cause autism!)

And we believe that because, unfortunately, we’ve become all-too-accustomed to thinking in sound bites.

The media—and, sadly, its target audience, us—has made nuance and shading the vestigial organ of communication. We no longer use it. Our public dialogue resembles the “dynamic” mode on our Smart TV’s, making everything pop out, larger than life, brilliant blacks and whites, in your face. You’re either “with us” or “against us”. It’s good guys and bad guys.  (Oh wait. That’s the 113th congress.)

Nuance and detail is out, professional wrestling (or its intellectual equivalent, CNN’s Crossfire) is in.

So Jenny McCarthy presents a nuanced position on vaccinations and it becomes “Jenny is anti-vaccinations”. My co-author, Stephen Sinatra, MD and I suggest that statins are being overprescribed for populations in which they have shown no particular benefit and we are suddenly “anti-statins”. Lawrence Summers suggests that the shortage of women in certain disciplines like math might possibly be influenced by known differences in the male and female brain and hebecomes “anti-woman”.

Really, folks.

The odd thing is that just as this coarsening of the public dialogue is taking place, Americans seem to be- in other areas of their lives, like television watching—increasingly comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. Walter White, anyone?

When I was a kid, the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. Now, anti-heroes are the norm. Tony Soprano, Omar, Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, the eponymous Dexter, and, of course, Walter White, are impossible to stick into the “good” or “bad” filing cabinet in our brain, which is precisely why they engage us so profoundly. They’re complex. They’re morally ambidextrous.

What they’re not is black and white.

Yet how much of our thinking about nutrition and health can be reduced to sound bites of “good” and “bad”? Actually, a lot. Carbs are “bad” (or “good”), so is fat, cholesterol, butter, meat, vegetarianism, raw food diets, you name it. Jenny McCarthy is “against” vaccinations. Jonny Bowden is “against” statin drugs. Atkins was “for” pork rinds. Ted Cruz is a “Nazi”. Obama is a “socialist”.


How about a moratorium on “absolutes” for a while?  OK, let’s grant exceptions for child porn, cruelty to animals, genocide and world hunger. But for the rest of it, perhaps a willingness to see the bigger picture—one that frequently has a lot more than 50 shades of grey– would be in order.

At the very least It would make us more educated consumers— not to mention better thinkers.

And that bigger picture—to my mind—is that most things in life have some positives and some negatives. Most things are a little more textured when looked at up close than looked at from a distance. The “other side” often has some reasonably good points to make, if you could get past the decision that they’re “wrong” or “bad”.

And for goodness sake, the next time the media tells you about someone’s “position” on anything– from vaccinations to statin drugs to fracking to fluoride– don’t accept it at face value. Go to the source and hear what the person actually said.

Nuance, detail and context take a little more time than sound bites.

But if you put a value on thinking for yourself, the extra time will be well spent indeed.