Earlier this week, research published in the peer-reviewed
medical journal Pediatrics found no evidence that special diets have any influence on autistic children.
This was a blow to some parents of autistic children who had hoped for a cure, but things took a more tragic twist when Diane Sawyer of “ABC Nightly News” followed a report of the autism study with,”We asked Jenny McCarthy, the actress and activist for a response.”
The news directors at ABC News presumably have some of the world’s top experts on hand to provide context and commentary to the new study by scientists and researchers who have spent decades studying autism.
Instead, they asked McCarthy, a former model and actress who has no formal education in medicine or autism. Her expertise comes from being the mother of an autistic child — a sort of “Mommy Doctorate” M.D., which is sort of like saying that owning a car
qualifies a person as a mechanic.
McCarthy has managed to tap into a strong anti-science, anti-medicine conspiracy theory sentiment that made convicted felon Kevin Trudeau (best-selling author of “Natural
Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About”) a rich man.
You might think that I’m too harsh on McCarthy. But who knows how many parents buy her best-selling books or see her on “Larry King Live” or ABC News and decide she must be right, and refuse to vaccinate their children for measles, chicken pox, mumps, influenza, polio, hepatitis and more, fearing the vaccine will make them autistic?
While she is sincere, she is doing real harm to innocent children and babies by repeatedly ignoring accurate and correct information about autism in favor of conspiracy theories.
McCarthy dismissed the latest scientific research as worthless, and the scientists who conduct autism research as incompetent: “We’re the ones seeing the real results. And until doctors start listening to our anecdotal evidence, which is, ‘This is working, it’s going to take so many more years for these kids to get better. Every parent will tell you
something different that helped their child.”
As I watched this segment, I could almost hear the sound of hundreds of thousands of scientists shaking their heads in disbelief. Let’s parse this out:
“We’re the ones seeing the real results.” That is, according to McCarthy, the real results and advances in autism treatment are being made by ordinary moms like her who write pseudoscientific books falsely linking autism to vaccines. All those silly doctors with their randomized, double-blind studies don’t know what they’re doing.
“And until doctors start listening to our anecdotal evidence …” McCarthy, like many non-scientists, seems to think that stories and anecdotal evidence are just as good as — if not superior to — well-controlled scientific studies. Anecdotal evidence, basically first-person stories, must be confirmed with rigorous research in order to be validated.
Her suggestion alone sets medical science back several hundred years, but her last statement is even more remarkable: “Every parent will tell you something different that helped their child.”
McCarthy doesn’t seem to realize that with this observation she completely contradicts herself. She has claimed in her books and elsewhere that a strict diet can treat or cure autism, yet in the interview she said the opposite, that every parent says “something different that helped their child.” That is, some parents believe that a special diet helped their child; others say dressing their child in certain colors helped their child;
another says something different, and so on.
This is not science, nor it is helpful. What are doctors supposed to do? Give desperate parents a long list of things that someone, somewhere thinks might help
their child, despite no good evidence that any of them do?
There is no doubt that McCarthy is sincere in her beliefs, and genuinely wants to help autistic children. It’s just a shame that she ignores and dismisses the one thing that can actually help them: good science.