Thursday, July 18, 2013

The wrong response to Jenny McCarthy

I have been watching and listening to the ABC/The View/Jenny McCarthy hysteria both nationally and in Delaware.

I don't have to link to it, because unless you live in a cave and don't have wireless you know that ABC has been royally roasted for putting Jenny McCarthy on The View to replace Elizabeth Hasselback because apparently when she gets on the air millions of impressionable parents will cease vaccinating their children and we will be overrun by The Walking Dead ...

The first problem I have with this is that anybody who is ready to take medical, political, social, economic, or cultural advice from her ...

... just because she puts on a pair of glasses ...

... should probably be thinned from the evolutionary herd as a precautionary measure.

But even that cheap visual is beside the point.

The point is that, first of all, scientists don't get to dictate public entertainment or public discourse.

Allow me to explain why:  in Great Britain, researchers at the National Health Service have determined  (quite scientifically, they will tell you) that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a pure psychiatric disorder, and thus NHS will not authorize any of the several dozen medications being used to treat it successfully in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other places ...

In this country, dealing with the very same disease, the Center for Disease Control posted a medical "toolbox" for dealing with CFS/ME that almost every single expert in the disease outside Atlanta condemned (and it required months to convince them to take it down).

During the late 1990s when the US military started mandatory anthrax vaccinations for the troops and there were rumors of dire side effects, I remember being required to bring my soldiers into formation so that they could be lectured on their duty and the need to trust those above them, and the scientists, and the technicians, who would never put them at risk.  Weeks later I got to listen in as several high-ranking medical officers discussed the fact that they had been informed through back-channels about production problems that had led to thousands of soldiers being vaccinated with what may have been contaminated vaccines.

Rule 1:  Science is also political, especially when it is tied to the state.  And one of the side effects of letting folks like Jenny McCarthy pass out her view is that real dissident scientists and theorists cannot be silenced, either.  The First Amendment protects political speech, even noxious and dangerous political speech, and it also applies to political speech about science.

Then there is the fact that such media outrage is, ahem, exceptionally selective.  I note that Oprah survived her "mad cow" apostasy quite well and is still deemed to be a positive role model and media darling despite the fact that almost everything hysterical she said about supposedly tainted meat was incorrect.

And have you ever actually wondered what would happen if anybody--anybody--took Whoopi Goldberg or Joy Behar seriously as pundits of what to eat, or how to medicate, or how to educate?

So Rule 2:  The only crackpots who are really "dangerous" are the ones who don't fit the media template in terms of the ideas they espouse.  So Dr. Phil gets to keep doing outrageous pseudo-psychology year after year without serious public outcry, but Jenny McCarthy is going to cause our children to all die?

Then there's the more serious point that you don't deal with pseudo-science or misinformation or even competing ideas by trying to remove them from the marketplace because you can't.  At best you will drive them "underground" and into the fringes of the internet where they will settle in quite happily in self-referential communities and wait to lure people in ...

There are always "high traditions" and "low traditions"--sometime read about all the cartwheels the medieval Christian church jumped through attempting to destroy vampire legends, and how unsuccessful the clerics were at doing so.  Why?  Because vampires represented a vibrant "little tradition" about how immortality could be achieved without the need for the church or church authorities, and they were far more visceral and satisfying than the approved myths.

Today I guarantee you that more, far more, Americans have paid out to watch any major vampire movie than ever contemplated going to see Mel Gibson's rendition of the death of Jesus.

So Rule 3:  Trying to push bad arguments off the stage by fiat or force majeur only makes them more resilient.  Ask the people who confronted and essentially killed holocaust deniers.  They didn't succeed by trying to muzzle them (OK, they did try that in Germany for awhile), they succeeded when they came out and took them on and did the heavy lifting to convince the public that they were a sham and a scam.

Leading me to note, by the way, that scientists don't know how to win arguments in the public forum.  They are really bad at it.  With mountains of climate change evidence, scientists still have not managed to convince a majority of the people in this country that androcentric global warming is process already under way.

Rule 4:  Scientists should not be trusted to make media decisions, and people all worried that Jenny McCarthy will create an epidemic of whooping cough that will wipe out the second class of 2013 need to get over it.

Here's the grim reality:  people dumb enough to buy really, really dumb shit cannot be saved from themselves by censoring what they are allowed to see or read and then expecting them to get smarter by being inundated by the "right stuff."

That's because there is enough really, really dumb shit out there that you couldn't get it all, even with dictatorial powers (not that this reality stops anybody from trying), and so the gain you will make by insulating them from this dumb shit will immediately be canceled out when they fall for that dumb shit instead.

Let them watch The View, and quit pretending that putting Jenny McCarthy on instead of intellectual heavyweight Elizabeth Hasselback (did I really just type that) is going to make a single damn difference in the world.

Instead, let's spend some time worrying about, uh, actually important shit.

A PS for the intellectually challenged:  despite what you will assume and what you will eventually say in the comments, if you read this post carefully you cannot actually tell what my opinion of Jenny McCarthy's vaccine argument is.  Go ahead, go back and check, I'll wait.



delacrat said...

"The point is that, first of all, scientists don't get to dictate public entertainment or public discourse."

I don't know any, or of any, scientist who claims they should "dictate" entertainment or discourse.

"... one of the side effects of letting folks like Jenny McCarthy pass out her view is that real dissident scientists and theorists cannot be silenced, either."

I don't know how that works. The airtime given to a McCarthy is airtime "real dissident scientists and theorists" are not granted.

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