What we can learn from Jenny McCarthy

Julia Belluz on anecdotes, context and the ‘lowest form’ of evidence

Fred Prouser/Reuters

I want to tell you a bit about how I ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and why. But to explain where I’m going, I first need to share an experience that was probably not unlike one you have had every day since you could read.

While perusing the newspaper one morning this week, I stumbled on an article about the link between Alzheimer’s and a particular bacterium in the mouth. The piece suggested that if you’re fanatical about your oral hygiene, the chance of getting Alzheimer’s decreases. After that, I logged on to my laptop to find a story about the actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest bit of health wisdom. In the article, she dishes her top tips for staying svelte, which include exercise, smoking and tinted moisturizer.

In the past, I probably would have been plied, or at least confused, by the suggestions in these pieces. I might have considered another round of daily tooth-brushing, and in a fit of magical thinking, ordered Paltrow’s cream for extra muscle tone (which she conveniently features on her lifestyle website Goop).

But after looking at the evidence behind such health-related claims here at Science-ish for more than two years, I am more skeptical. Now, I’d ask of the dental study – what methods did the researchers use? – and I’d remind myself that correlation does not equal causation. Of Paltrow, I’d wonder – what interest does she have in promoting this stuff? I’d remember her disappointing track record with science-based information and the generally faulty health advice doled out by people who make believe for a living.

Besides becoming more leery, my weekly foray into medical research has taught me other important lessons. While I may be less likely to buy vitamins or believe Dr. Oz, I now understand more than ever the compulsion to do so. I’ve come to appreciate that medicine is a relatively new science, and for all the incredible advances of the last 150 years, that it can’t keep up with the demands of a growing middle class to preserve health, and stave off death and old age. Our desire for health products, to be fit and young, has outstripped the doctor’s toolkit.

This leaves the door wide open for quackery. Or for treatments and cures for which we don’t have evidence yet, and for which we may never have good evidence. I’ve spoken to friends who had injured limbs which personal trainers fixed where surgeons failed; friends who swear by food-sensitivity testing or ‘cupping‘ to alleviate symptoms nothing else could.

I’ve heard from doctors – science-minded men and women – who practice alternative medicine, no matter how little evidence underpins it, because they have no other medicine to help; doctors who believe that, while anecdotes are the ‘lowest form’ of evidence, they can be used for good in their practices.

One, in particular, stands out: he admitted that he had given up on using science to change the minds of anti-vaccine parents. Instead, he persuaded them with stories and videos about what their kids would look like with polio. He was not unlike the health minister who told me that the surest way to get a drug covered on a provincial formulary was by a compelling patient story, not by compelling research. In these cases, context mattered more than evidence.

All this has led me to wonder whether evidence-based medicine and policy could learn something from behavioural economics. People, after all, are not rational actors. Treating them as such may not be the surest way to better health decisions. If Jenny McCarthy convinced people that vaccines cause autism through stories about her son, and the pharmaceutical industry figured out how to get doctors to prescribe their medications through manoeuvres like the ‘rule of seven touches,’ could health professionals do more to communicate evidence?

To be clear, I don’t mean to undermine science. In fact, I appreciate it more now than ever. One of the key distinctions the philosophers of science used to tell science from pseudoscience was whether a claim could be falsified. Their method – coming up with a hypothesis, setting up a well-designed test, running the experiment, reaching conclusions, re-testing, and now synthesizing that evidence – seems to me to be the best route humans have to truth.

But all this experience has shown me how complex the world is, and how even with the best evidence at hand, strange decisions get made. Perhaps by understanding more about the nature of evidence, how it is generated, and its role in medical practice and political decision making, I can better mediate that world through journalism and better question how well science, policy makers and the public are doing in their use of science instead of science-ish.

For this reason, I’m heading to MIT on a Knight Science Journalism fellowship. This fellowship was designed to get journalists into labs, and studying alongside scientists and other researchers, so they could develop a deeper understanding of the culture of science and report on it more thoroughly. I hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to blog here on Science-ish and on my website, here.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the senior editor at the Medical Post. She will be on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Check back for periodic updates here and here, and reach her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto




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What we can learn from Jenny McCarthy

  1. Congratulations. I’ve always appreciated your work here.
    Science is good. It’s just awfully hard to find it sometimes.

    • Jenny isn’t a scientist, in fact, no science behind her at all. Just sensationalism for advertising attention.

      • ??

      • He was congratulating the author (Julia Belluz) on her Fellowship. And no, she’s not traveling with a wizard and a bunch of Hobbits to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mordor.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • For anyone reading these posts I hope that you realize these statements
        are not true and are posted by individuals for a reason unknown. I have
        worked
        with Martingrove Collegiate administrator V ivian Mavrou, G ordy
        Stefulic, Mary Gowans and V arla A brams for a number of years and find
        hers to be a great administrators. Now think, if any of these statements
        were true could TDSB really hide this from teachers, parents, students,
        the media or the police – absolutely not. I shudder to think what the
        purpose of these constant posts are. Names of students have been posted –
        you as teachers must agree that this is horrible – imagine when these
        students and families Google their names and see that they have been
        pulled into a slanderous campaign, very sad for the students and those
        employees of TDSB that would stoop so low for their own advancement

      • STFU I Googled the first name and we all know she is a filthy rotten woman who should be jailed for corrupting morals….

  2. Congratulations on the Fellowship, Julia! I greatly value the work you do and I hope the experience at MIT will not only be amazing, but enhance your life and work! Best of luck to you.

    • Mary gowans, Gordy Stefulic and V i v i a n M a v r o u have a better seks life and earn more money than you would ever save in your lifetime. Quit hating on Toronto District School Board employees.

      • For anyone reading these posts I hope that you realize these statements
        are not true and are posted by individuals for a reason unknown. I have
        worked
        with Martingrove Collegiate administrator V ivian Mavrou, G ordy
        Stefulic, Mary Gowans and V arla A brams for a number of years and find
        hers to be a great administrators. Now think, if any of these statements
        were true could TDSB really hide this from teachers, parents, students,
        the media or the police – absolutely not. I shudder to think what the
        purpose of these constant posts are. Names of students have been posted –
        you as teachers must agree that this is horrible – imagine when these
        students and families Google their names and see that they have been
        pulled into a slanderous campaign, very sad for the students and those
        employees of TDSB that would stoop so low

        • the school board is a bunch of criminals!

  3. Congrats Julia! Way to go!

    • For anyone reading these posts I hope that you realize these statements
      are not true and are posted by individuals for a reason unknown. I have
      worked
      with Martingrove Collegiate administrator V ivian Mavrou, G ordy
      Stefulic, Mary Gowans and V arla A brams for a number of years and find
      hers to be a great administrators. Now think, if any of these statements
      were true could TDSB really hide this from teachers, parents, students,
      the media or the police – absolutely not. I shudder to think what the
      purpose of these constant posts are. Names of students have been posted –
      you as teachers must agree that this is horrible – imagine when these
      students and families Google their names and see that they have been
      pulled into a slanderous campaign, very sad for the students and those
      employees of TDSB

    • Anyone with a brain.
      What’s the source of this piece of propaganda?

      • Life is about propaganda, 99% of what you hear and read is propaganda. Media is about controlling the herd. Very little of what you read is pure objective science.

    • Vaccine is about math, something I am sure Jenny would fail at as she is too emotionally wound to see logic and math. She is too close to the 1 in a million scenario.

      Sure, some small percentage of vaccination go wrong. I don’t even dispute that. But if you save 500,000 kids from polio but end up giving one kid issues do you not benefit by 499,000 healthy kids? It is simple math and why we vaccinate as it reduces the odds of problems.

      Maybe I would have more support for Jenny if she was critical of USA debt-spending $800 billion a year on CIA/military to bombs and terrorize small nations, and perhaps spend a small $10 billion on humanistic health research to make vaccinations better, cure cancer without the horrors of chemo, stem cells to cure blindness, stem cells to repair spinal injuries and stuff that will benefit making beyond a bomb blast.

      The reality is she doesn’t think clearly and is far too close to the problem to see the big picture.

      • While I mostly agree with you, you should check your math a bit more closely before making fun of someone for not getting math. 500,000 – 1 = 499,999, not 499,000.

        • Yep. Should have been 499,999. But I don’t really know the real numbers but know it is about benefit over prevention. We vaccinate as it does a lot more good than harm and the numbers are there to support it. Jenny like to ignore the reality of this.

  4. Considering the author of this blog is on par with her target in terms of actual medical credentials… Gee, the pharma companies falsify their findings on a regular basis, so it’s the ultimate pseudoscience.
    Read the actual medical journals, Julia. The concept of “evidence-based medicine” is no closer to reality than it was before the term was coined.
    And as far as “anecdotes” are concerned, what exactly do you think your GP relies on when they ask you how you’re feeling?

    • Uh, your GP is relying on medical science which has established a correlation or causation between the symptoms you describe and a medical condition?

      • Uh, you’re missing the point.

        • No no, Lenny has accurately showed why symptoms aren’t just anecdotes which dismantled your point.

          Also, the author of this blog is actually a well researched journalist and if you were to read it on a regular basis you would know that she knows her way around a medical journal. That’s why she knows what questions to ask when faced with any medical study.

          • Actually I find her opinions to be extremely biased against anything in non-mainstream medicine and she seems to have a hate-on for Jenny McCarthy.
            And medicine is not science, it’s health care technology. And it’s getting a huge failing grade from the WHO (and most patients) in dealing with chronic illness.

          • Have you actually read the Science-ish articles on the Tamiflu scam and the lack of reporting of clinical trials? I guess not, since these directly question mainstream medicine. McCarthy is, like Dr Oz, a celebrity quack who popularizes practices that actually cause harm. Nothing wrong with being critical of mainstream medicine, it is certainly not perfect, but the garbage advice that McCarthy gives about vaccines should have no place in mainstream media.

          • What documentation of “harm” do you actually have?
            First of all, McCarthy isn’t a medical practitioner and doesn’t claim to be one. She’s entitled to her opinions. If you don’t like them that’s tough. If you don’t like Dr. Oz change the channel.
            People are entitled to inform themselves and make their own decisions regarding vaccines. Funny how the CDC shills flu shots every year when it’s been established by the Cochrane Review that they’re useless. But you can line up to have one if you’re a vaccine addict who buys into all the fear mongering.

          • McCarthy has been a staunch supporter of the entirely discredited link between autism and MMR vaccination popularized by Andrew Wakefield. This has contributed to a significant reduction in children protected from these viruses, which has led to increases in infections and associated morbidity in places such as Swansea and other cities. I guess its “tough” for those kids.

            I don’t watch shills like Dr Oz. I catch up on science fiction in the cashier line at the supermarket. He is an entertainer of sorts, I just wish he didn’t endorse products and practices that are expensive and ineffective. But everyone has a right to waste their money.

            Flu vaccines aren’t particularly efficacious due to the need for guessing the appropriate circulating strains 9 months in advance. I work in a place that strongly encourages them because there are a lot of elderly and sick people about. I do get my shot. You are also grossly misrepresenting the Cochrane review. That’s true McCarthyism!

          • Wakefield was in favor of a single measles shot, not MMR and the big problem was that the UK government had already stockpiled MMR from a manufacturer whose products had already been red flagged by Canada and Japan.
            Blaming Wakefield for measles outbreaks is naïve and idiotic.
            The media overhyped the measles incidence in Swansea and official health dept. figures put incidence figures way below what was reported. There was little to no “morbidity”.
            Suggest you do some more research. Most outbreaks of any childhood disease occur in highly vaccinated populations. Amish communities where there’s no vaccination never have any problems.

          • A little research into the Amish myth. You really should question the sources of this rubbish. The entire story has been repeatedly disproven. E.g.

            http://autism-news-beat.com/archives/29

            Wakefield was pushing single virus vaccines thanks to his commercial interests. I think open-mindedness is good, but can’t you see this guy is an out and out fraud, in it for the money. He was disbarred by the British Medical Association for very good reason.

            As for no measles morbidity, clearly you have not seen children deafened by the illness, or been hospitalized with prolonged fevers. Nevermind the scarring and other non-life threatening effects.

            Lastly, in Canada most people are well covered by vaccines. Yes, they get diseases. They are also among the healthiest people in the world. Unfortunately, there is hard data showing this to be the case.

          • No, you aren’t entitled to ‘make your own decisions’. It’s a matter of public safety.

          • Really? So where in Canada do we have mandatory vaccinations? Nowhere. You wanna line up, go line up.

          • Schools….are you unaware of that?

          • If you have a school aged child who didn’t get vaccinated you can fill out a form stating you don’t believe in vaccinating your child and they will let them go to school.

          • Yes, we’ve always had that. No religion prohibits vaccination, but people are strange about it.

            Anyway, there were always very few kids affected and they got ‘herd immunity’. They were involved with a lot of people that were immune so it lessened their chances of getting whatever disease it was.

            The danger now is that more people are refusing vaccines, and endangering everyone else.

          • Medicine is indeed science….technology refers to equipment.

            Jenny McCarthy knows how to make a name for herself….she’s a model and an actress who created some publicity for herself….and also created a lot of harm for other people

            Her son is not autistic.

  5. Really? I love Jenny McCarthy for my animal instincts, she is attractive. But when it comes to medicine, she is not rational at all.

    So does this mean Jenny has hit new lows and now supports alternative medicine quackery to lift other peoples money? I say quackery as much of the ACM stuff is fraud lift your money for snake-oil.

    Want ginger, get it at Superstore fresh. Works great in cookies, stir fries and comes without the snake-oil middle man.

  6. Best of luck in the MIT labs Julia. Don’t get tempted to stay – we need more science writers like you!

  7. For anyone reading these posts I hope that you realize these statements
    are not true and are posted by individuals for a reason unknown. I have
    worked with Martingrove Collegiate administrator V ivian Mavrou, G ordy Stefulic, Mary Gowans and V arla A brams for a number of years and find hers to be a great administrators. Now think, if any of these statements were true could TDSB really hide this from teachers, parents, students, the media or the police – absolutely not. I shudder to think what the purpose of these constant posts are. Names of students have been posted – you as teachers must agree that this is horrible – imagine when these students and families Google their names and see that they have been pulled into a slanderous campaign, very sad for the students and those employees of TDSB that would stoop so low for their own advancement !

  8. When you contract the disease who is going to cure you, the Drug
    Companies, thats how they make a profit. The sicker you get the more
    money they make. When are you people going to GET IT. Sex is great in a
    loving relationship with one person, not the multitudes. There is no
    free love or free sex, parasites don’t care whose body they invade, all
    the disease & viruses is trying to survive like everything else in
    the world. What do we need, propper conduct, we are not animals we are
    people. The teachers should refrain from encouraging sinful acts. No wonder people like Mary Gowans are plastered all over the news. They are nothing but shameless prostitutes working as teachers corrupting the students.

  9. The role of Darwinism is being discounted here… As unfortunate or even tragic as the result may be, people who take their medical advice from Playboy bunnies deserve what they get!… You can’t protect people from themselves, and you can’t legislate common sense!… The world never stops turning.

  10. Congrats on your Knight fellowship at MIT, Julia. Your observation about Jenny McCarthy’s success in convincing a generation of other young parents of a vaccine/autism link is a perfect example of the profound power of her personal stories.

    As Dr. Mike Evans told his European TED talk audience about changing people’s behaviours and attitudes: “Stories trump data!” The health care profession needs to take notes from Jenny on how to tell stories more effectively. Most chilling argument ever in favour of vaccination is the 5-minute YouTube video I watched recently of a tiny toddler suffering with whooping cough. It’s unbearably painful to watch – and utterly impossible to imagine any parent watching it who could then say: “I want that for my baby!” More on this at “Why You’ll Listen To Me But Not Your Doctor” – http://myheartsisters.org/2012/04/13/dr-mike-evans/

  11. ummm…. who is this health minister? you should probably name him/her if he/she is apparently risking the health of millions/thousands.

  12. I really recommend that you take a history of science or history of medicine course. I think it would add a lot to your understanding of the issues you cover.

    Here are some recommended readings for anyone interested:

    S.Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York, 1999).

    M. E. Fissell, “The Disappearance of the Patient’s Narrative and the Invention of
    Hospital Medicine”, in R. French and A. Wear (eds.), British Medicine in an Age of Reform (London, 1991)

    A. Rusnock, ‘The Weight of Evidence and the Burden of Authority: Case Histories, Medical Statistics, and Smallpox Inoculation,’ in R. Porter (ed), Medicine
    in the Enlightenment, Wellcome Institute Series in the History of Medicine
    (Amsterdam and Atlanta, 1995).

    Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles”, Signs, 16 (3), 1991, pp. 485 – 501.

  13. Thanks for sticking with Science-ish and good luck at MIT!

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