Monday, January 14, 2008

The authority problem in the Age of Unreason illustrated by "celebrity idiots"

(Warning: long post.)
Age of Unreason is the title of a post by one of my favourite bloggers, Prometheus. He writes in it, "After centuries of slow but steady progress against the forces of unreason, a single generation is trying to send us back to the Dark Ages. After centuries of scientific progress in medicine, a single generation brings back homeopathy, naturopathy and introduces any number of new variations on shamanism... Much of “alternative” medicine encourages people to abandon scientific principles that have brought us in the West to a level of health and longevity that are unrivalled in human history. If we want to see what happens when that happens, we only have to look to those parts of the world where – for economic or philosophical reasons – scientific medicine is unavailable."
Let me begin with Oprah Winfrey. She is described by Wikipedia as "the American multiple-Emmy Award winning host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest-rated talk show in television history... an influential book critic, an Academy Award-nominated actress, and a magazine publisher. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century... She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world."
Personally, I've held a low opinion about Ms. Winfrey ever since I learned that she supports Palestinian terror (see details e.g. at CAMERA and Garbanzo Toons). And, to return to the subject of this post, she clearly belongs to the Age of Unreason. Wikipedia again: "Recently, Winfrey has been accused by magician and skeptic James Randi of being deliberately deceptive and uncritical in how she handles paranormal claims on her show. In 2007, Winfrey began to endorse the controversial self-help program The Secret. It claims that people can change their lives through positive thoughts, which will then cause vibrations that result in good things happening to them." Last September, Oprah invited to her show Jenny McCarthy... but if you belong to my target group of readers, you are likely to ask, "Who the hell Jenny McCarthy is?"
Wikipedia describes McCarthy as "a model, comedian, actress and author. She first appeared in Playboy magazine in October 1993 and was named Playmate of the Year in its June 1994 issue. She later began a career in television and film and has recently started writing books... Though McCarthy initially rose to fame because of her sexual image, a frequent source of her celebrity derives from toilet humor... In 1993, McCarthy underwent breast augmentation to enhance her look as a model for Playboy. McCarthy had the implants down-sized in 1998... (Her) son, Evan Joseph, (was) born on May 18, 2002... In May 2007 McCarthy announced that her son was diagnosed with autism in 2005... In June, 2007, Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) named McCarthy as its spokesperson. Her stated goal is to educate the public that autism is treatable... (Her book) Louder than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism was published Sept. 17, 2007. McCarthy told Oprah that her son was developing normally until he received his measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (at 15 months of age). She has stated in her book, and on her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show that her husband was unable to deal with their son's autism, which led to their divorce." (I have changed the order of some of the above pasted sequences - M.M.)
Now, I may be a puritan and an extreme feminist, but I admit I have little respect for women who photograph themselves undressed for money. Of course anybody is free to produce and publish any pictures (as long as the people photographed are consenting and over 18), but I think that magazines like Playboy and women contributing to them perpetuate the worst sexist stereotypes. If we, the other women, meet obstacles in our careers because of being women, or if men discuss our appearance when we try to explain our views, I think this is partly "thanks" to ladies like Ms. McCarthy. So, if a woman has appeared in Playboy, I put on her the entire burden to prove that she can be something more than a mere sexual object. And if, without providing any such proof, the lady becomes "an author" and begins "writing books" on serious subjects such as parenting and autism, my reaction is, Save us God! (Representative pictures of Jenny here, unfortunately I cannot paste one because they seem to be all copyrighted.)
The Oprah site has a page about Jenny McCarthy but it contains a narrative rather than the actual interview that took place in the talk show. So I'll rely on reports and commentaries by people who have watched the show. At Left Brain/Right Brain site, the phenomenon is described as New McCarthy-ism (as far as I know, this post introduced the term): "Step aside, people: Jenny McCarthy is armed with Google, and she’s not afraid to use it... No joke: McCarthy was cheered lustily by the studio audience for announcing that, after her son was diagnosed, she typed the word “autism” into the Google search engine, launching a courageous and audacious search for the truth. And what came up? Why, story after story about remedies and recoveries and other amazing stuff your pediatrician is paid handsomely by the CDC (the US Centre for Disease Control - M.M.) not to tell you about... McCarthy spoke particularly of clicking on a link “up in the corner” (I believe those are what are known as “advertisements”) and learning about the wonders of biomed... (Here, "biomed" refers to the quack "biomedical treatments" of autism widely advertised to parents of autistic kids by snake oil salesmen - M.M.) There was something chilling about the way she described getting an employee of a play gym fired for suggesting her son might have a “brain problem”... Oprah also cooed approvingly when McCarthy defended biomed by saying, “Well, chemotherapy doesn’t work for everybody either”... And naturally, vaccines had to come up. McCarthy said she had invoked what she calls her “mommy instinct” to finger the MMR in the case of her son. Then Oprah read a response she had received from the CDC (at least she took a stab at social responsibility by contacting the agency) that talked about the lack of scientific support for the idea that thimerosal triggers autism. McCarthy scoffed and said, speaking of her son: “He is my science.”"
Science blogger Orac discusses the show under the title Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfery: Two Crappy Tastes that Taste Crappy Together on Autism. He writes, "Jenny McCarthy... was apparently quite susceptible to woo. Indeed, she once ran a website for "Indigo Moms." The website was apparently taken down shortly before the release of McCarthy's book, perhaps to take away an obvious bit of evidence of her New Age credulity..., but Joseph points to a source that tells us a bit about "Indigo Kids": "Jenny, who runs, is of the belief that Evan is a 'crystal child,' and she herself is an 'adult indigo.' This belief suggests that 'indigo/crystal phenomenon is the next step in our evolution as a human species.' Proponents also suggest that many indigo and crystal children are wrongly diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, and autism." There's more about what "indigo children" are here, and McCarthy herself has written about it here. In addition, Kristina Chew also discussed some of the woo found on the IndigoMoms website before it was shut down around the time McCarthy's book was released. I think McCarthy's involvement with the "indigo children" movement shows all you need to know about her critical thinking skills. Of course, if she really thinks she is an "indigo adult" and thus part of the next step in human evolution, she probably has a very inflated view of her own reasoning abilities."
After the Oprah show, Jenny McCarthy was also invited and interviewed by Larry King. Prometheus commented on Not Mercury's blog, "Why is it that "everybody" (i.e. Oprah, Larry King...) is willing to take as Gospel the opinions of a woman who - by her own admission - believed a total stranger who stopped her on the street and told her that her son was a "Crystal" or "Indigo" or whatever (I can't keep that sort of nonsense straight)? Isn't it much more likely that her latest "revelation" is as fanciful as the previous one(s)? Is there an epidemic of gullibility going on?"
On Steve's blog, commenters wrote, "Jenny McCarthy appeals to parents by being just like them except with a porn star appearance. She doesn't particularly pretend to be smart or educated. She says "I'm just like you. We're in this together. We know things those smartypants scientists can't figure out with all their numbers." People enjoy identifying with glamorous porn stars (God/FSM help America)"; "The US has a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism. Keep in mind that, for example, the majority of Americans do not believe in evolution. If something is said by a scientist, that makes in suspect in and of itself."
There are many more good texts about Jenny on the Autism Hub, I am sorry that I cannot mention all of them. Outside the Hub, Debbie Schlussel writes about Bimbo Science: "Doctor" Jenny McCarthy & The New McCarthyism: "You've heard of "junk science." Now there's a new form, which I call "Bimbo Science." The latest (and maybe the first of many such bims to come) "scientist" to come along and dismiss accepted, proven medicine is former Playboy model, Playboy video star, and all around blow-up doll Jenny McCarthy. She's parading around all the usual shows that welcome Bimbo Science--Oprah, The View, etc.--claiming that vaccines caused her son's autism. But while the "New McCarthyist" has a medical degree from the University of Google, Dr. Ari Brown, a Medical Doctor, pediatrician, and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics exposes McCarthy's many lies and idiocy in one of the best Wall Street Journal op-eds I've read in a while... Dr. Brown refers to Jenny McCarthy as an "actress." That's being charitable. But who knew America would actually be taking medical advice from this bim?... While life often imitates art, it's sad that the world of "Idiocracy" is already this dominant."
Knudsen also has an excellent post titled Jenny McCarthy to Host Autism Symposium: "Los Angeles, CA-A meeting of the world's foremost experts on neurodevelopmental disorders and vaccine science, moderated by autism authority and former co-host of MTV's Singled Out Jenny McCarthy, will be held today at UCLA's Schoenberg Auditorium. "For years now, the scientific community has lagged behind the overwhelming anecdotal evidence that has been collected and compiled in places like Google and YouTube," Dr. McCarthy explained..."
Now, after criticizing two female celebrities, let me add a gentleman to the list. Citing Autism Street's post Where Is Trump's Science Team: "I was really beginning to think that Jenny McCarthy would be an extremely popular candidate for being considered the “celebrity idiot of the year” by many scientific thinkers in the autism blogging community. I suppose I should have known better about claims to the singular, where the plural is not only possible, but likely. Jenny apparently has company... (Quote from) the Palm Beach Politics blog: "Trump: Autism linked to child vaccinations... In an interview with Palm Beach Politics, Donald Trump offered a controversial opinion on a new topic: autism. The New York-Palm Beach real estate mogul is no doctor, but he said he thinks the rising prevalence of autism is related to vaccinations given to children at a young age."... Mr. Trump, do you have any science to go with this nonsense?"

There have been two hypotheses linking vaccines to autism causation: one implicating the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal which was widely present in vaccines in the recent past, and another one implicating the live viruses in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. If you, dear reader, want to know what science says about the vaccine-autism link, let me inform you: it's disproved. In fact, it was never considered very plausible because autism symptoms don't resemble symptoms of known vaccine complications or of actual mercury poisoning. Populations with known exposure to mercury haven't higher prevalence of autism. Epidemiological studies showed that removing thimerosal from mandatory childhood vaccines, as well as skipping the MMR vaccine, does not curb autism prevalence a bit. And attempts to induce an autism-like condition in animal models by vaccine components have been unsuccessful. Of course many people still think that their child's autism has been caused by vaccines. They are likely to remain that way; in fact, some of them openly say that no scientific evidence will ever succeed to shake their belief.
The three celebrity idiots discussed above illustrate the deeper problem present-day societies have with authority. Here, by "authority" I mean a person to whom we voluntarily transfer our decision-making power, such as a doctor when we have care for our health or a Member of Parliament when we vote. Some American commenters cited above were highly critical of their own society and described the problem as specific for the USA. It is beyond doubt present in the USA - just compare the Founding Fathers to the people populating the American political landscape in recent decades. However, it is not restricted to the USA. It is a global problem.
What have Oprah Winfrey, Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump in common? They have all succeeded to become rich and well-known people. It seems that in today's Western world, the ability to earn money has remained the single attribute of authority.
The ability to become rich requires some specific intelligence and skills, but isn't correlated with ability or expertise in any other field. It isn't even necessarily accompanied by high general intelligence. Anybody who has been around rich people, especially if he has tried to educate them, is likely to agree with me. It is understandable that the rich themselves tend to mistake their income for actual intelligence. But why do other people do the same?
After the Oprah's show with Jenny McCarthy, some my online friends - autistics and parents of autistic children, suggested writing to Oprah and explaining to her why the show had wronged autistic people. (And it wronged them in many other ways besides the vaccine thing, it will become tomorrow if I try to explain in debth.) I disagreed. I wrote, "I've repeatedly observed that (1) few individuals can do more harm than popular TV show hosts and (2) glorious career and earning millions are quite compatible with moral and intellectual qualities far below the average. The question is, why people let themselves be influenced by celebrities instead of thinking with their own heads? I don't think writing Oprah would be to any avail. Do it, it will do no harm either. But people like her are very pompous and consider themselves very good and smart. They think they make no mistakes and even if they make one, it cannot be noted and should not be pointed out by mere mortals."
Because celebrity idiots parasitize on society's backwardness, they cannot be expected to work for the cause of enlightenment. So it's no use to try and recruit them as our allies; they are our natural enemies. If we manage to bring enlightenment, it will be despite them. Let them keep their damn money, but not the undeserved respect and authority they enjoy now. Authority must be given to people based on their expertise, intelligence, record of decent life and loyal service to society and adherence to solid moral principles even in situations when this is unpopular.
Isn't it a bit scary that the last sentence sounds so old-fashioned?
Update: Jenny McCarthy was Larry's guest again and here is how Gawker reports it (hattip Kev): "Larry King had noted medical expert/softcore video star Jenny McCarthy on the program last night to talk about AUTISM. Specifically, how it’s caused by VACCINATING YOUR CHILDREN. This is patent conspiratorial nonsense, but it’s very popular conspiratorial nonsense. Of course, in a battle between concerned, credulous parents and medical experts, the media will generally frame it as, say, Debate Rages Anew on Vaccine-Autism Link. Faced with a panel of three trained pediatricians, Ms. McCarthy shouted “BULLSHIT” twice."


Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious you don't have children, let alone one with a disability. Parents, always, see more in their children than do scientists(dr.s) and these professionals' 'clinical' approach have because since time began... they've been wrong about their plan and approach to a does evolve and the general public helps them to do that.
And as far as scientist go and believing what they say...we all know that big pharma and big business has placed a different face on the scientific community. And your feminism and judgement about strippers and erotica changin mans perception of women and placing these women as to the blame as to why other women aren't treated well...rediculous.. Many men are creeps...whether or not they've looked at a naked lady or not...and we've got to deal with it just as we have to deal with people like yourself.

Maya M said...

Anonymous, I see you are not a regular reader of this blog. I have two children. My elder son has hyperlexia. He began talking well after turning 3 and now, at 4.5, is still much behind his peers in speech development.
I don't see why the presence of children in my family, or the presence of disability in my children, should make me susceptible to quackery.
And if women photographing themselves making for money aren't feeding obscene male impulses, I don't see why these women are so handsomely paid. Generally the same holds true for women making sex for money. This is just my old-fashioned, puritan opinion. If you like, choose your friends entirely among women with such occupations.

Anonymous said...

Well..I'm surprised you are a parent...I'd think you would have a little more empathy..but it's not important if you are or aren't...what concerns me is your seemingly expertise on what's quackery and what's not. Adelle Davis who wrote many books about nutrition and its link to health was poo pooed by the medical profession in the 60's, 70's and into the 80's and acupuncture was considered something mystical(that Chinese thing with needles) and yet ... they're all jumping on the bandwagon now and suggesting that it really is beneficial for health..guess all of those people back then must have been idiots to believe in such quackery..
I truely think that some women have consideralble problems with 'pretty' women...You're pretty, you're a're stupid. I don't know a darn thing about Jenny 'cept at this time in her life she's trying to muster some courage for a challenged future in a hostile world. I don't know if Ms. McCarthy has taken her clothes off for anyone..I don't keep up with celebrities, don't much care if she has or not.. You do seem to have problems with nudity of any kind. Certainly obsessions to anything in society can lead to maladaptive behaviour..why should women who 'make money' in the field of erotica concern themselves with humans who have poor impulse control(usually men, however, women are gaining ground in this area). Shouldn't control and responsibility be taught in the home by parents so that they grow up to be responsible adults or do you want society to take every (temptation if you will) out of the equation and then parent don't have to do anything...There are people, I suppose, who watch violent shows and go out and commit then we have to ban all movies...Look, your kind of rational leads to..."censorship"..Of course, the constitution has been raped so much during this administration..I could be wrong about that...We waste so much time and energy judging others about what they do...that we really are missing the big picture. Ms. McCarthy possibly failed to recognize the millions of parents in the united states who deal with issues concerning their special needs children 24/7 .. and I think
perhaps that just that fact may have gotten under some peoples skin..for she isn't the first..won't be the last ... that has a child with a disability...she's new all of this so ... I'd cut her a little slack..even tho she is an ex-Bunny.
We're all learning something here..and we're talking about I believe it's all a positive thing.
Thanks for your time.

Maya M said...

Some of alleged connections between nutrition and health are sound, some are quackery. I don't know what Adelle Davis has claimed, so I can't comment. The same is true about acupuncture.
When all respectable scientists say that the vaccine-autism link is not only unproven but specifically disproved, it is quackery to claim the opposite. Jenny McCarthy's "medical advice" can result in children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. This is why I have no empathy for her.
Puritan and feminist women are accused all the time that their views are due to them being ugly and envying pretty women. Oscar Wylde wrote this a century ago. So I am not suprprised that you are using this "argument" against me.
However, I checked Ms. McCarthy's age - she is just a year younger than me. I know first-hand what happens with the female body in the mid-30s, especially after a childbirth. So, if your pretty body has been your main source of income, you have to look for an alternative source. For Ms. McCarthy, this was her son. She wrote a book about pregnancy and birth, then about the first year of motherhood. Then she wrote about his autism.
Jenny McCarthy IS stupid. Clever people don't believe in Indigo, Crystal and other New Age nonsense. At least, this is my opinion.
Our culture has a taboo on nudity. This is why the photos of naked Abu Ghraib prisoners were regarded as abuse. Would you say that they weren't, and that people who regard them as abuse "have problems with nudity of any kind"?
After you presumably have no such problems, would you baloon your breasts and make shots for Playboy? Honestly :-) ?
I am not for censoring everything I don't like. So I dislike portography and violence in movies, but I am not for banning them.

Ettina said...

"The ability to become rich requires some specific intelligence and skills, but isn't correlated with ability or expertise in any other field."

No it doesn't. In most cases, it's either luck or inheritance.
Anonymous, I think it's really ironic for you to be accusing maya m of lack of empathy.

Maya M said...

Thank you, Ettina!

ladyfp52 said...

From your post, I really got the sense that you just don't plain like Jenny McCarthy. Also, the female body is a beautiful thing. It has been potrayed countless times in art since man first slabbed berry juice onto cave walls. I see Playboy as more of 'erotic art' then anything else.

Jenny McCarthy chose to pose naked and isn't that what feminism is about? Equal rights and a womens right to choose?

Maya M said...

Jenny McCarthy didn't pose as a model for artists or art students. This would bring her considerably less money than exposing her butts and silicone-pumped tits on Playboy.
There have been many discussions about how to distinguish nude art from pornography. I suggest a new criterion: If Jenny McCarthy is in it, then it is art. It is unthinkable for a great mother like her to have her child endangered to get porno from the Web by simply googling his mom's name.
"Jenny McCarthy chose to pose naked and isn't that what feminism is about?"
Most prostitutes also choose to be prostitutes. Is prostitution also a triumph of feminism?
If a child chooses to pose naked, is the resulting pornography a triumph of child protection and rights?
These matters are too complex for me, perhaps somebody should teach me a Feminism 101 course.