Reporting on findings concerning the "dangers" of vaccination and the various "cures" for autism, the latest issue of The New England Journal of MedicineUS Weekly features Jenny McCarthy's personal story in caring for her son, Evan, who is autistic. McCarthy has been sufficiently chastised by Orac of Respectful Insolence. My focus is on a different kind of celebrity, one Amanda Peet.
Peet, spokeswoman of the organization, Every Child By Two, which works to increase childhood immunization, said in an interview in Cookie Magazine (I know, how was I not made aware that such a publication existed?):
“Frankly, I feel that parents who do not vaccinate their children are parasites...I have a lazy, fluffy, actor-y side that’s instinctive. And I have a side that’s practical and into statistical evidence. I’m not a casual person.”
After an uproar, as well as some snippy comments from McCarthy, Peet apologized, saying,
I believe in my heart that my use of the word 'parasites' was mean and divisive. I completely understand why it offended some parents, and in particular, parents of children with autism who feel that vaccines caused their illness. For this I am truly sorry.... I still believe that the decision not to vaccinate our children bodes for a dangerous future. Vast reductions in immunization will lead to a resurgence of deadly viruses."
This is what I admire about Amanda Peet: Most celebrities avoid controversy (other than those involving sex tapes and cat fights). Raising money to combat breast cancer or HIV is important and admirable, but also relatively uncontroversial (Well, perhaps uncontroversial to the overwhelming number of people who are not AIDS denialists). I sincerely hope that we rid of such horrible diseases in our lifetime (bimhara, biyamaynu, amen, to all the Jews out there). However, the fact is, is that celebrities clamor over who can be the first to have the biggest fundraiser for the trendiest organization that raises the most money to combat AIDS. Some diseases are simply disproportionately favored by the Hollywood glitterati.
Vaccination, however? Not so trendy. Certainly not in a time when only 38% of respondents, in a recent Florida Institute of Technology survey, said they believed that there was no link between vaccines and autism (19% believed there was a link, and 38% weren't sure).
Peet's crusade comes with an even further disadvantage, in that, one can often point to a specific child whose leukemia was cured, due to the benefactor's specific donation, but one can never point to a specific kid who was saved, because she had been vaccinated. We simply don't know which children, without their having received Menactra, would have been the ones to succumb to bacterial meningitis. It's a crapshoot. Thus, Amanda Peet, and all vaccine activists and researchers, get no adorable photo-ops. Preventative medicine is inherently media-unfriendly. All its advocates can do is present boring charts that show how, in the aggregate, inoculation allows for such and such number of kids to likely be spared from death due to infectious disease (and even those are based on statistical models).
One aspect of Amanda Peet's exasperated outburst that I found refreshing was her noticeable anger concerning an idea. I have a prejudice in that I often assume that celebrities, and even many or most people, tend to feel affronted only when they (or their teammates or their cult leaders preferred presidential candidates are personally insulted or disrespected (Yes, I'm aware that the strike-through-thing is passive-aggressive). In contrast, what really irks people like Orac from Respectful Insolence, as well as all the docs at ScienceBasedMedicine, is when people say things that are, G-d help them, CONTRADICTED BY THE EVIDENCE. Yes, the docs and scientists lose their cool sometimes. However, this is because they know that ideas matter, and that results matter, and that the scientific method, arguably the most glorious rubric ever formulated by man, matters. Ironically, while the scientific method has no patience for emotion, passion, conjecture, or desire, its proponents (admirably) treat attacks upon it as a somewhat personal affront, and often react to its critics with zealous fervor.
For example, when a homeopath made a list called "51 Facts About Homeopathy," (My favorite fact is Number 18, which seems cribbed from a confused ninth grader's chemistry notes: "Any remedy up to a 12c or a 24x potency still contains the original molecules of the substance and this is known as Avogadro’s number."), Mark Crislip, painstakingly debunked all 51 of this woman's assertions. As a practicing physician, Dr. Crislip probably has better things to do than discredit every foolish claim posted on the internet. However, I know why Mark Crislip did it. Reading statements that are objectively false, and then failing to address them, feels like a persistent itch that has not been properly scratched. Such reactions are understandable, and even admirable.
The fact that that Amanda Peet calls herself "practical and into statistical evidence," and becomes noticeably distressed by willful ignorance, even when it means that some people will boycott her movies, is understandable and admirable, as well.