Monday, May 4, 2009

The Faith of Jenny McCarthy and Her War on Science

Recently Melanie delivered a presentation at a conference on the portrayal of disabilities in literature in which she discussed the use and abuses of narrative in parents’ accounts of their children’s autism. In particular she went after Jenny McCarthy, the most public face of the autism is a disease caused by mercury laden vaccines movement. Leaving the issues of narrative to Melanie, I would like to offer my own perspective McCarthy from reading her book Mother Warriors.

I am the sort of person who makes a habit out of reading oppositional literature. One might think that this is a matter of me being very open minded. I see it as a matter of me taking a masochistic pleasure in torturing myself. This form of masochism usually takes the form of me reading Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) material. I am a deeply religious person; I just happen to be the sort of deeply religious person who is strongly opposed to religious fundamentalism, Jewish or otherwise. While religious fundamentalism is traditionally portrayed simply as conservative fanaticism, born out of an ignorance of modern values, I view religious fundamentalism as a step child of modernism. In a world in which all cultures and values are to be considered equal this cultural relativism must, by definition, apply to religious fundamentalism. For example if traditional science is simply one set of values than what is to stop religious fundamentalists coming along and advocating for their “alternative” forms of science such as creationism and intelligent design.

This past weekend I sat down to engage in a little oppositional reading of McCarthy’s Mother Warriors, which I thought would be a different sort from my usual religious fundamentalist reading. Jenny McCarthy should certainly count as a non religious fundamentalist. She is a symbol of everything that the religious right hates, a former playboy model now living, in sin so it seems, with her boyfriend Jim Carrey. I received my first heads up in the in Foreword where Dr. Francis Collins was quoted. Dr. Collins is one of the leading theistic evolutionists; he is someone who believes in God, supports evolutions and is a powerful critic of both creationism and intelligent design। Now to be fair to Dr. Collins, the quote used had nothing to do with autism and was taken out of context. I assume that, as a man of science, Dr. Collins would be horrified to find out what his words were being used for. The fact that Dr. Collins was quoted was most probably a coincidence, but it got me thinking. What came next, as I read through the book, was a torrent of religious sentiment. In between McCarthy’s constant casual cussing were her constant references to her praying and her belief in God. If I did not know better, and if the book had undergone some slight editing, might have thought this book came out of Pat Robertson’s America.

Besides for her constant praying and God talk there is something else that one might associate with religion, her war on science. Let us be very clear about this. McCarthy’s line of argument goes way beyond issues of autism; it is a direct assault on the scientific establishment as represented in this case in the form of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) As McCarthy sees it, these organizations are the pawns of the pharmaceutical industry, conspiring to cover up the link between vaccines and autism. Behind her stripper costume of populist anti establishment rhetoric lies something even more dangerous, a war against the scientific method. In McCarthy’s "science," mommies have a special understanding of their children that trumps that of any medical professional. A parent’s intuition that vaccines can cause autism and their noticing that something is wrong after their child is vaccinated consists of legitimate scientific proof. Furthermore if a parent starts her child out on one of the special Gluten and Casein free diets or starts one of the detoxify procedures and they begin to notice improvement than that is proof that these procedures work. Strangely enough, in one of the stories in the book, the child starts to do worse after starting one of the “healing” procedures. Of course this regression, we are told, is also part of the healing process. There is even a case in the book where a child, unfortunately dies after starting “therapy.” An honest person might at least raise the issue of whether the “therapy” was responsible, but no; this too, we are told was the result of vaccinations. Only someone schooled in the worst of religious theodicy rhetoric could come up with such a twisted response.

McCarthy's understanding of science explains her frustration at the unwillingness of the mainstream medical community to even sit down with a group such as Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!), which “recover” children from autism on a daily basis। Of course they are operating with now fixed standard of what counts as autism and what counts as significant progress. Furthermore there is no attempt to compare autistic children on their program to those who are not. These things would be necessary for the scientific method. McCarthy, though, feels that she can put aside the scientific method for simple anecdotal evidence; who is to argue with the science of a mother fighting for her child. DAN! seems to be a good stand in for the
Discovery Institute One takes the fa├žade of science, eschewing the technical ins and outs of the scientific method and then demand to be treated as a full member of the scientific community. If the AAP does not even want to send a representative to a DAN! conference it is not because, as McCarthy thinks, they are closed minded. As when one deals with creationism and intelligent design, the moment you even acknowledge them you have lost because you have then conceded to them the claim that they are some sort of legitimate alternative to the scientific method.

There is another side to McCarthy’s faith. While she talks about God and prays a lot there is an absence of any sense of authority. One never gets the sense that there might be certain obligations, in terms of her personal life or anything else, stemming from her belief in God. Her God is simply someone to whom one can turn to for support in moments of crisis and will and confirm for her that she is right. This explains not only the absence of any formal religious structure or theology but also her willingness to stand against science. Her faith has given her the confirmation that she is the barrier of some “special” understanding, beyond the purview of any authority, scientist or otherwise. For me this is neatly captured in the end of the book where she describes herself praying to Elias, the little boy I mentioned earlier who did not make it. She asks him to be her son Evan’s guardian angel. On what authority does she pray to a dead autistic child? Prayer and belief for McCarthy are simply other ways to feel good in this universe and to confirm that she is at the center of it.

To use an analogy from evolutionary theory, McCarthy serves as a “missing link” to explain how the mental deficiencies (Scholars are still debating if this mental deficiency is caused by genetics or some childhood incident and if it is curable.) prevalent in more liberal circles in our society could have ended up on the right as well, creating our modern religious fundamentalist empowered by the mental deficiencies of both sides. It does not take any great leap of the imagination to see how a creature such as Jenny McCarthy, created by modern liberalism, could evolve to take on more of the trappings of a traditional religion, becoming a creature with the narcissistic faith in one’s own greatness to wage war against science.


Anonymous said...

A gluten-free diet is recommended amongst other things in the treatment of celiac disease and wheat allergy. It is a diet completely free of ingredients derived from gluten-containing cereals...
Watch the video-instruction:gluten-free diet-instruction !!!

Izgad said...

I have nothing against gluten free diets. In fact my step mom is on one because of issues with wheat. Last I checked, though, gluten free diets do not cure autism. I am sure you would agree that brushing one's teeth is a good idea. To suggest that brushing your teeth will help with autism is to win a one way ticket to a mad house.

Anonymous said...

I find a lot of what you said interesting and true... i'm not arguing that. But one comment i do have is (and this comes from me calling myself a Christian as well) is it comes off very judgemental. And one thing i think in these days we MUST be careful of as Christians is to not be judgemental in a negative way. The word does say for us to judge other believers... but not to judge the unbelievers. But to LOVE them. Like i said i do think you made some good points, but i pray that we would all be sensative to our attitudes towards others. God has called us to love. Not be 'religious'. That's the worst thing i think any of us can do. Religion is based on man made rules. It's about a true relationship with God that counts. And when we have that we can truly walk in love. And again, i do pray that all of us Christians walk like that!

Izgad said...

As the author of this article and as someone who is not a Christian, but a Jew, I am at a loss as to how to respond. Last I checked lots of religions believe in love and even loving one’s enemies. They also balance these things with other beliefs. As a Jew I find what you are saying about Christianity equaling love to be problematic. Either, as a loving person, I am also a Christian and the word “Christianity” looses all meaning or we are to imply that Jews and all other non-Christians do not love. If I were a Christian I would be really offended. Last I checked most Christians have beliefs about a person named Jesus dying to bring redemption to the world and that people who enter the community of believers in this Jesus are supposed to live their lives a certain way.

Three typos to be corrected please.
“I received my first heads up in the in Foreword where Dr. Francis Collins was quoted.”
in the forward
“supports evolutions and is a powerful critic of both creationism and intelligent design”
“Of course they are operating with now fixed standard”