In a media-saturated society, public figures have a disproportionate influence on people’s understanding of science and medicine. Most patients see their doctor no more than a couple of times a year, but they watch TV, go online, or read a paper daily. In our newspapers and in our news rooms, dedicated science reporters are becoming vanishingly rare.   A wide range of news sources seep into this gap, but perhaps one of the most unfortunate is the “celebrity health expert”.

Uninformed statements from celebrities are nothing new, but when the queen of the antivaccination movement gets to call someone else stupid, that’s news.

Comedian Dennis Leary did little to advance the cause of humor or medical knowledge when he wrote this:

“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a [bleep] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

There is no “autism epidemic” as such, but there sure is a lot of ink spilled in ignorance, and Leary certainly seems to have a surfeit of that.  But never fear, Jenny McCarthy will come to the rescue of autistic folks everywhere.

“My fight isn’t with Denis Leary, my fight is with the government — a bigger fish to fry. So I’m still gonna work on the vaccines and I’m still working on pediatricians and Denis Leary can go hopefully be more educated by every mother that stops him from this day forward to give him a piece of their mind,” she said.

Jenny is right—Leary’s comments are stupid, hurtful, and wrong.  But Jenny is very, very wrong in choosing her battles.  I’d argue that Leary’s comments are an opportunity for public education. The story is getting a lot of press, which gives us a chance to explain to people what autism is (a serious neuro-developmental disease) and what it is not (a joke, a fake label, a government conspiracy, a complication of vaccination, a case of heavy metal poisoning).

Jenny’s continued fixed, false beliefs about autism would, in anyone else, be simply pitiable, but in a celebrity, they can be at least as harmful as Leary’s unfunny riff.  

“Evan [Jenny’s son] was non-speaking, hands flapping in the corner and didn’t know anyone was in the room,” McCarthy told Us. “Look where he is now. I healed a vaccine injury. The [Centers for Disease Control] and American Academy of Pediatrics won’t endorse or even look at our treatment.”

McCarthy is the blind queen of the “mother warrior” hive.  Without the help of actual evidence, she is convinced that her son had a “vaccine injury”, that this injury caused autism, and that she was able to cure his autism with implausible treatments.  She further feels persecuted because her “breakthrough” is being ignored by two large organizations (the CDC and AAP) who have nothing to do with investigating the implausible medical claims of individuals.

Science-based medicine has a lot to offer in understanding health and disease.  Autism spectrum disorder is a diagnosis that probably encompasses many different pathologies and etiologies.  This makes the study of autism more difficult, but not impossible.  To study a disease, we need to be able to define a case.  This isn’t easy with autism, but we do have some operational definitions that can be used in order to study the disease.  If we miscategorize a patient, for example as having autism when they do not, it will confound our understanding.

In studying a treatment for a disease, we may have anecdotes that guide our ideas for research, and we may have models of similar diseases that help us develop plausible treatments to try.

But plausibility is a sine qua non.  There is no reason to think that treating “autism” with a particular diet should be effective.  There is no evidence that failing to vaccinate children prevents autism, nor is there any evidence that vaccinating children causes autism.  There is no evidence that chelation, hyperbaric oxygen, or any other bizarre and dangerous therapy is effective.  But more important, there is no reason to think that these “treatments” should work, and our resources should be focused elsewhere.

I don’t doubt that Jenny McCarthy is passionate, and perhaps compassionate (Dennis Leary not so much).  But compassion wielded blindly as a cudgel  ceases to be compassion.  When a celebrity uses her disproportionate societal power to spread her own brand of ignorance, it’s up to those of us who know better to tell the truth.  Given how many people read this blog vs. how many people watch TMZ, we’re going to have to spill a lot of e-ink to make a difference.


Posted by Peter Lipson

Peter A. Lipson, MD is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan.  After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He currently maintains a private practice, and serves as a teaching physician at a large community hospital He also maintains appointments as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, the first being a large, established medical school, the latter being a newly-formed medical school which will soon be accepting its first class of students.  He blogs at White Coat Underground at the Scientopia blog network. A primary goal of his writing is to illuminate the differences between science-based medicine and everything else.  His perspective as a primary care physician and his daily interaction with real patients gives him what he hopes is special insight into the current "De-lightenment" in medicine.  As new media evolve, pseudo-scientific, deceptive, and immoral health practices become more and more available to patients, making his job all that much more difficult---and all that much more interesting. Disclaimer: The views in all of of Dr. Lipson's writing are his alone.  They do not represent in any way his practice, hospital, employers, or anyone else. Any medical information is general and should not be applied to specific personal medical decisions.  Any medical questions should be directed to your personal physician.  Dr. Lipson will not answer any specific medical questions, and any emails and comments should be assumed public. Dr. Lipson receives no compensation for his writing. Dr. Lipson's posts for Science-Based Medicine are archived here.