The rumor mill had been buzzing for days. Then last week, as many of us were at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, it was confirmed: former Playboy Playmate, has-been actor, and anti-vaxx leader Jenny McCarthy will join the cast of The View this fall. A number of Amazing Meeting speakers commented on it. The media were full of statements of shock and anger, not only from the prominent skeptics and bloggers like Phil Plait and Sharon Hill, but even from the mainstream media, who uniformly saw this as a bad move. The ABC network released a lame statement from The View founder Barbara Walters, "Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous. She has connected with our audience and offers a fresh point of view."
I've seen McCarthy's previous TV and movie appearances, and the best that can be said for them was they were outrageous. Whether her past efforts demonstrate "intelligence," "humor," and "seriousness" is debatable. Most people found her humor (especially in her disastrous movie Dirty Love, often ranked as one of the worst movies ever made) stupid, lowbrow and gross. None of her TV efforts showed she was any more intelligent than any other Hollywood celeb who is promoted for their good looks. Over the last 8 years, she has been the principal spokesperson for the anti-vaxxer movement, lending her celebrity (and that of her once-boyfriend, Jim Carrey) to spread and legitimize her deadly ideas. She is such a symbol of the movement that one of the leading sites criticizing her is called JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com and keeps a constant tally of the number of unnecessary deaths and illnesses caused by the anti-vaxxers.
This is not to say that I have any illusions that most TV is anything other than a vast wasteland, driven by advertising to put on pure garbage that appeals to the lowest common denominator of viewers who don't discriminate, and can be lured to watch anything that goes on the air. We've all seen the pseudoscience constantly broadcast on some of the major cable channels, from UFOs to Bigfoot to ghosts to mermaids, all promoted as real and scientifically supported. Oprah had an even bigger audience than The View, yet she routinely programmed all sorts of woo, especially "New Age" healing and quack medicine, as well as con men like Deepak Chopra—and Jenny McCarthy, promoting anti-vaxxer ideas. Thankfully, Oprah's show is off the air, and her eponymous network has nowhere the same reach as her network show once did.
Nor is The View itself a paragon of reason and critical thinking and intelligence. It currently has 3.1 million viewers daily, the highest ratings on daytime TV, but the numbers have been sliding since 2009. There have been relatively well informed, well educated, intelligent members of the cast before, such as previously departed Meredith Vieira and Lisa Ling, and now-departing Joy Behar (whom McCarthy is replacing). But they also featured the embarrassingly ignorant Sherri Shepard, who wasn't sure that the world is round, believed in creationism, and thought Christianity preceded the Greeks and Romans. Or there was the now-departed Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who supported creationism and climate denial nonsense. She is now headed for a much more congenial setting: Fox News.
As I detailed in my new book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, the anti-vaxx movement began with a fraudulent 1998 study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield. He faked data to allege a connection between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) in order to promote his own vaccine. He was also paid by a lawyer secretly working with him to generate lawsuits against the MMR vaccine. This study that has since been repudiated by its coauthors, withdrawn by the journal that published it, and led to Wakefield being barred from practicing medicine in the UK. Nevertheless, it caused widespread and unnecessary fear and panic about vaccines, both in the UK and in the US. Large numbers of parents, frightened of vaccines because of the false claim that they triggered ASD, left their kids unvaccinated. The reason for the panic (besides the fraudulent Wakefield claim) is that the symptoms of ASD begin to show up at about the same age when the MMR vaccine is given. Given the emotional devastation that an ASD diagnosis can do to a family, and fed lies by the internet, parents were quick to believe this false correlation between two events that just happen to coincide in time. The medical community did hundreds of studies, using thousands of patients, investigating the claim. All have consistently shown that there is no connection between vaccination (or any ingredient in the vaccines, such as thimerosal) and ASD—but real data and facts don't easily overcome emotional overreactions by distraught parents. Although there are many possible causes, the latest research shows that ASD disorders are largely genetic in origin (especially common in male children of older fathers), so nothing the parents could have done (shots, any other environmental factors) made any difference—it was probably in their genetic makeup and unaffected by what happened after the child was born.
The results of the scare have been horrendous: herd immunity has dropped so low in many places that there is a significant pool of unvaccinated kids, and diseases can spread. In fact, in many areas the once-rare diseases are now rampant. These infections that we vaccinate against are not just inconvenient, but deadly. The irony is that few of these anti-vaxx parents are old enough to remember the horrendous days when polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and whooping cough routinely sickened large number of kids and killed a significant percentage of the infected population. But my generation, and especially my parents' generation, remembers them well. I was deathly ill with the mumps, measles and chicken pox as a child, and my own mother was stricken by polio and barely survived. These diseases now spread rapidly in this age of air travel, when a virus from the underdeveloped world can jump across the world in hours, and infect a population in the developed world in a few days.
The biggest problem is not just the kids of anti-vaxx parents, who through their parents' ignorance and false beliefs are at risk by remaining unvaccinated. Even greater is the risk to babies and toddlers too young for their first shots, with their immature developing immune systems. If exposed to an older child with a deadly virus, they have a much higher risk of getting very sick and dying. Anti-vaxx parents assert that they have the right to determine their own child's health care—but when they infect other kids too young for shots, then they are a public health menace. They have no right to expose other people's kids to deadly viruses—any more that someone has the right (under free speech) to shout "Fire" in a crowded movie theater. As Time magazine said:
ABC might argue that hiring McCarthy does not mean endorsing her vaccine beliefs. Maybe not—in a way, it may be more dangerous, muddying a vital question of public health by framing it as a “controversy” that you can hash out in a roundtable before interviewing Bruce Willis about Red 2. Maybe ABC sees McCarthy as a lateral swap for Hasselbeck—another outspoken, blonde woman around the same age. But medical science is not a matter of “views” and “opinion.” It’s not like believing that capital gains taxes should be lowered or gay marriage permitted. Things cause disease or they don’t. Even if The View never airs McCarthy’s beliefs about vaccines—or, conversely, if every other panelist argues against them every day—by giving her implicit credibility the show has already suggested that her scaremongering is up for debate. She says one thing, Whoopi says something else—hey, you decide! People are talking! We must be doing something right! And there’s the bigger problem. To say that you can simply shrug off differences about medical fact as “outrageousness” or “controversy” is to feed the belief that science in general, be it vaccines or climate change or evolution, is simply subjective: you have your truth and I have mine. But we don’t. The Earth didn’t revolve around the sun only for Galileo. The problem with treating factual matters of science like opinion debates is that as soon as you do that, anti-science has already won. Let The View on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand as many hot-button social issues it wants. A virus doesn’t have two hands.McCarthy's anti-vaxx career started in 2005, when she claimed that her son Evan showed signs of ASD (although most medical experts doubt this diagnosis, and say he has Landau-Kleffner syndrome). She immediately latched on to the growing anti-vaxx movement, and became its leading celebrity spokesperson. She claimed to have "cured" her son of ASD through all sorts of quack medicines, including a gluten-free diet and risky "chelation therapy" (using toxic copper compounds in the body). In reality there is still no "cure" for ASD, since it a complex of disorders, probably with multiple causes. If it is a largely genetic disorder, there is little likelihood that it will ever be a single, simple cure. Don't get me wrong: I feel her pain. I was probably an Asperger's child (years before it was ever defined or diagnosed) and two of my own children have Asperger's syndrome. But I'm not adopting quack medicine treatments or preaching discredited ideas from the internet, but following the best science-based medicine to treat them and help make their lives better. I don't blame vaccines or anything else, because I probably passed the gene on to my sons as an older father with ASD and a member of a high-risk category. As journalist Michael Specter (author of Denialism) wrote in The New Yorker:
Jenny McCarthy, who will join The View in September, will be the show’s first co-host whose dangerous views on childhood vaccination may—if only indirectly—have contributed to the sickness and death of people throughout the Western world. McCarthy, who is savvy, telegenic, and pulchritudinous, is also the person most visibly associated with the deadly and authoritatively discredited anti-vaccine movement in the United States. She is not subtle: McCarthy once essentially threatened the actress Amanda Peet, who has often spoken out about the obvious benefits of childhood vaccinations, by warning Peet that she had an angry mob on her side. When people disagree with her views on television, McCarthy has been known to refute scientific data by shouting “bullshit.”
McCarthy's false ideas are more than just another idiot talking head blathering on about stuff they don't understand on TV. As the leading celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaxx movement, she is a symbol of this form of virulent anti-science, and everything she says (even if she never speaks a word about it on the show) is colored by that perception. It is akin to hiring any other leading figure of an anti-science movement to such a prominent platform on TV. Take, for example, Dr. Peter Duesberg, who more than anyone gave legitimacy to the false notion that HIV does not cause AIDS. He doomed at least 300,000 people when the South African Mbeki regime rejected modern medicine, treated AIDS with witch-doctor remedies like beetroot, and refused to tell their people to take precautions against HIV. Or instead of McCarthy or Duesberg, they could have hired Ken Ham, the leading creationist in the US (except he and most evangelists have an even larger audience on their religious networks). Or how about the clownish climate-denier, "Lord" Christopher Monckton?
For all its faults, TV is the most powerful medium in the popular culture. People really do believe what they see and hear on TV, whether it be a faked show about mermaids, or bad medical advice on Oprah. TV executives may only care what their advertisers think, but they are also using public airwaves to spout dangerous nonsense that kills innocent children. We can't censor most of what TV broadcasts—but we shouldn't be encouraging deadly pseudoscience by giving Jenny McCarthy a platform on the highest-rated show on daytime TV, either. The lives of the babies and toddlers who died needlessly because of the anti-vaxxers demand no less.
Donald R. Prothero is Emeritus Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He has published 32 books, including Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres (IUP, 2013); Earth: Portrait of a Planet; The Evolution of Earth; Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters; Catastrophes!; and After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (IUP, 2006).