Monday, October 27, 2008

All things being equal, bullshit is still bullshit

So last week I found myself on line at the grocery and drug store a couple of times. It seems that for the life of me, I couldn't escape this cover of US Magazine. Jenny McCarthy, who's made something of a career out of motherhood (publishing books about pregnancy and early motherhood, as well as shilling for a weight loss giant), has spent the last couple of years becoming one of the more visible advocates of the widely discredited movement pushing the widely disproven link between a supposed surge of incidents of childhood autism over the past twenty years and the administration of vaccines containing thimerosal.

Not to dive too deeply into the whole thimerosal debate, but my personal belief is that there probably hasn't been so much a surge of incidents as there has been a surge in diagnoses predictably accompanying an broadened definition of the disorder. For instance, while it was in the 1940s that Hans Asperger first described a social disorder he referred to as autistic psychopathy exhibited by some of the children in his practice, it wasn't until the early 1990s that Asperger syndrome was a recognised diagnosis by the WHO and APA. Likewise, other forms of high-functioning autism (those with an average or above-average IQ) used to go completely undiagnosed. In fact, prior to the 1940s, there were no diagnosed cases of autism at all; if children exhibited symptoms we would now recognise as autism, they may have been diagnosed as schizophrenics, idiots, or not diagnosed at all. Such is the history of psychiatric disorders, I'm afraid (not to sound like a Scientologist or anything); the past is rife with misdiagnoses and missed diagnoses.

Today, though, autism treatment is a growth industry; there are considerably more cases being diagnosed as autism at present than in decades past. I honestly don't know what to think of that other than that it is to be expected for reasons I've already addressed. I don't know whether these children should be diagnosed as having the same disorder or not, but I do know that when you allow for a widening spectrum of diagnoses, you're going to have a widening occurrence of the disorder.

Clearly the parents of diagnosed children are dealing with a trauma--at the point of diagnosis and thereafter--so I don't mean to demean their experience. Still, I find it difficult to take the substance of the thimerasol hypothesis seriously. Once upon a time, maybe, but today, it's just a conspiracy theory concocted to help the grief-stricken to cope and to direct blame. Something that relies on the lack of evidence of what's apparent to confirm that which has already been disproven. At this point, there's very little that separates this theory from that of 9/11 truthers or Natural Design proponents. The science is simply not there; the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise; Occam's razor, and so on.

As a matter of fact, it could be argued that while this dubious connection between vaccinations and the onset of autism is grounded in far more sympathetic origins--the suffering of parents and children--than that of either 9/11 Truthers (anarchic and excessive political distrust) or Natural Designers (the pitiful need to hold tight to archaic religious dogma), that it is still a far more nefarious and consequential theory because it actually puts children at risk. Today, many parents are so afraid of this fairy tale connection that they choose to not have their child immunized. Forget the fact that the trace levels of thimerasol have been removed from all major vaccinations, many parents are still not getting their children immunized. It's reckless. It's not reasonable. And it borders on abuse.

Now, with that off my chest, on to Jenny McCarthy.

Sarah actually read her pregnancy and early motherhood books while we waiting on Nate. Sarah will read anything--especially if it has something to do with babies, especially during that first pregnancy. Even if it was written by Jenny McCarthy, Sarah would read it. Alas, I did not read either of the books. I imagine that there was probably a lot of talk about feeling fat and farting. After Sarah finished, the books and their author left our collective consciousness only to reappear occasionally shilling for some Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers program.

Then, sometime last year, she showed up again. This time, she had a new story to tell. It was a touching story to be sure. Her son, whom she had written about fairly extensively, had been diagnosed with autism. Apparently his version of the disorder was characterized by seizures and by the child's tendency to arrange his toys in a line. While I found the story, or what I read of it, to be touching (if not all that insightful), I was left somewhat skeptical by her utter lack of skepticism. Clearly, her son had something wrong with him--he was having debilitating seizures--but from the way she describes the initial diagnosis, all it took was a couple observed quirks and the word autism to shake her very perception of who--or what--her child was.

Maybe it was an editorial choice, but there's no mention in this short piece of her seeking a second opinion, no frank discussion of the struggle involved in learning to communicate with her child, no talk at all about what it is to be a parent of an autistic kid. All she said was that she looked on the Internet and got help from UCLA (I imagine she means the medical facilities and not the university library) and a doctor, and abracadabra, three years later the kid is a quirky, but essentially normal kid. Not only that, but now she's CURED him! I'm sorry, I don't mean to be crass, but I'm just going to have to step back and call bullshit on this one.

I'm not even sure what part of this story is bullshit: the original diagnosis, her easy acceptance of it, the sensationalistic nature with which she's exploited the story, or the messianic one with which she claims to have solved the unsolvable. One thing I do know: There's bullshit in that story, and it's the kind that gets all mixed up in the works; now the whole thing stinks. And since I don't know who to be mad at, I'm going to choose to be mad at the one who's trying to make a buck selling the story.

What the fuck is this woman thinking? Does she actually believe she's cured her son of autism? Does she understand how stupid that makes her sound? How her insistence that such a cure can be found may do more harm than good? Where is her skepticism? Why state clearly that he's been cured? Why not ask yourself for a moment, did he have it in the first place?

When I was four or five, the doctors at Emory--the preeminent cancer treatment facility in the United States--thought I had leukemia. I had all the major symptoms, only I never tested positive for the disease, and when they took my marrow, they determined I must have had something else. It was like an episode of House, only I wasn't dying and no diagnosis ever came. I just got better. Most would argue that I had some kind of weird illness that mirrored the symptoms of leukemia, but was clearly not leukemia. There may even be a name for it, they just didn't know it at the time. My aunt, on the other hand, told me a few Christmases ago that to this day she believes I had leukemia and that contained within my blood is the necessary antibodies to defeat it! As cool as it would be, I'm skeptical. Occam's razor and all.

Maybe I'm a natural born skeptic, so this sort of thing comes easy to me, but I'm blown away by the ability of people to accept a dogma that requires a suspension of reason in order to sustain itself. This autism sensation is so rife with selective moments of self-delusion that if it weren't so painfully serious for so many people, it would be comical.

But this whole Jenny McCarthy thing seems especially farcical. How does one approach this story without skepticism? She's a former Playboy model and MTV personality whose been seeking a greater celebrity for herself since she peaked in the middle of the last decade. She's exploited her every opportunity to remain in the spotlight down to this weird decision to be at once a spokesperson for autistic parents while at the same time claiming she no longer is one. And since she never questioned any of this, she expects us to accept it all at face value. Personally, I don't know what the truth is. I have a good idea of what the truth isn't, though. Occam's razor and all.

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