Just after the beginning of the year, leading anti-vaxxer and former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy was in the news again. Several years ago, she apparently told Time magazine that her son Evan didn’t have autism, but (as doctors have long suspected) Landau-Kleffner syndrome. Then in January, McCarthy made several angry denials of this old interview. Frankly, I doubt that a source like Time magazine misquoted her—I think she’s lying again. She now claims that Time magazine inaccurately reported the facts! I think my irony meter just broke. Jenny McCarthy was a washed-up actress with nothing but a series of low-brow movies and TV shows to her credit until she became the national spokeswoman for the anti-vaxxer movement—a movement which was, in a form of supreme irony, legendary for an inaccurate grasp of the facts, then shifting the goal posts on their demands when the mercury was removed from the vaccines and there was still no effect on rates of autism. She rejects mainstream science, yet cites biomedical science in support of her claim that her son really has autism. I think we should reject her claim outright, because she (like many anti-vaxxers) have no clue what mainstream science and medicine are about.
Now she and her anti-vaxx cohort are demanding that medicine and drug companies should “green the vaccine”! What the heck do they think the FDA is for? All vaccines must pass rigorous testing and quality control through the FDA, which has one of the most stringent standards for drugs and medicine in the world. Fat chance that she and her fellow science-denying protesters are going to help the process in any way! Meanwhile, she’s now on The View every day, giving an air of legitimacy to her form of pseudoscience. And the movement she bolstered is causing huge numbers of kids to go unvaccinated, get sick and sometimes die of preventable diseases—and, even worse, spread those diseases to and often kill infants too young for vaccination (even if their parents do believe in modern medicine).
All of this nonsense persists largely because these yuppie anti-vaxxer parents get all their info from bad websites rather than from trained medical professionals. They’re too young to remember the bad old days when measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, chicken pox, and especially polio routinely sickened thousands of kids every year, and quite a few of them died from these preventable diseases. I remember them vividly when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I got very sick on several occasions. My mother (now 90 years old) suffered from polio, which traumatized their entire family for years, even though she survived with only minor muscle loss in her abdomen.
The emotional and family trauma of finding out your child has autism leads them to all sorts of irrational action and quack cures, because the truth is not what they want to hear: there is no “cure” for autism since it is largely genetically inherited, so NOTHING they did or didn’t do during the child’s lifetime caused it. Instead, the fault lies in their own genes, which they cannot change or control.
Nevertheless, you hear the anti-vaxxers go on and on about “my son got his shots, then we first noticed the symptoms of autism.” This the famous fallacy of false correlation, or correlation is not causation. Just because two events happen to co-occur does not mean that one caused the other, or even that one is related to the other in any way.
But some might say: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” (another false maxim, which assumes guilt when nothing is proven). There is no scientific or medical evidence connecting autism and vaccines, just gut reactions, anecdotes, and emotions of the anti-vaxxers. But what might explain the possible association in the first place? Why does it appear than autism increased at about the time vaccines became widespread?
As in the case of many examples of false correlation, there is usually another unrelated cause that explains it. It turns out that children at about 18 months old reach a critical stage in their development. This is when they form simple sentences, and move from chewing or pawing toys to interactive forms of play. This is also the age where a child who might already have inherited autism genetically will begin to show developmental delays, and thus parents would notice their child’s autism for the first time. And it so happens that this is the age when the MMR vaccines are traditionally given. Once again, two unrelated events that happen to coincide in time might explain this false attempt at a causal connection.
What about the increasing rates of autism in children over the past few years? Once again, when you look closely at the data, this assertion breaks down. Contrary to the anti-vaxxers’ claims, the increase in documented cases does not precisely track the timing of the introduction of certain vaccines, but lags some years behind it. More importantly, the increase in reported cases is widely acknowledged by the medical community to be an artifact of the historical reality that autism was not even a recognized disorder in psychiatry until the late 1960s. Naturally, once a disorder was formally diagnosed and named, it was gradually recognized and diagnosed by more and more doctors as it became more familiar. In recent years, child psychologists have developed even more sophisticated tests to spot it early, leading to even more diagnosed cases. Prior to the formal diagnosis of autism, there were many cases of people with this disorder, but they were just lumped into the “mentally retarded” and their diagnosis was incorrect: they were called “adult psychopaths” or “schizophrenics”. Once again, correlation does not prove causation. Here, the increase in both diagnoses and vaccinations is an artifact of two unrelated events that occurred as medicine improved in the 1960s and the 1970s: the increase in childhood vaccinations, and the improved ability to diagnose different psychological disorders.
As the blogger Dr. David Gorksi, AKA Orac (a surgical oncologist) argued about the false correlation between autism and the rise of vaccinations in 1983:
A lot of other things have happened since 1983 as well. For example, in the early 1990s, the diagnostic criteria for autism were broadened, and campaigns for greater awareness were begun. Diagnoses of autism in 1983 were made using the DSM-III, where the criteria for an autism diagnosis were much more restrictive than those in the DSM-IV, released in the early 1990s. Moreover, in 1983, categories of Asperger’s and pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified, both of which are lumped into the 1 in 150 figure for 2008, weren’t recognized in the DSM-III. Of course, if I wanted to be snarky (and perish forbid that I would ever be snarky), I could point out that 1981 was the year that the IBM PC was released, followed by the Apple Macintosh in 1984, both of which led to the exponential growth of households owning and using personal computers. That’s it! It must be computer use that led to the increase in autism in the 25 years since 1983! Wait, what about the compact disc? It just so happens that 1983 is the year that the CD was first released in the American market. Ergo, it must be CDs that cause autism.
We can take the ridiculous false correlation example even further. For example, not only sales of CDs or personal computers has increased since the early 1980s, but many things have. For example, the sales of health foods increased over the same period! Does health food cause autism? Of course not! Their expansion just happens to be associated in time. In another irony, the anti-vaxxers are often big advocates about how certain health foods will magically “cure” diseases. If they believe that “correlation proves causation,” they’d better change their diets and stop going to Whole Foods Market.
Or here’s a real zinger: the rise of autism actually correlates with the rise of Jenny McCarthy’s career! AHA! So Jenny herself MUST have caused autism to increase in America. Get thee to a nunnery, Jenny!