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Viruses Don’t Care About Your View: Why ABC Shouldn’t Have Hired Jenny McCarthy

Giving a job on The View to a anti-vaccine celebrity sends a dangerous message about public health and science in general

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Victoria Will / Invision / AP

This morning, ABC announced that Jenny McCarthy would be taking the place of Elisabeth Hasselbeck this fall as co-host of The View. Announcing the hire, producer (and soon-to-be-exiting co-host) Barbara Walters praised McCarthy thus:

Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous. She has connected with our audience and offers a fresh point of view.

“Fresh”? “Outrageous”? Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. McCarthy, former Singled Out host, columnist, and Playboy model, is telegenic and outspoken. She’s also the single most visible celebrity spokesperson for the discredited, literally dangerous belief that childhood vaccines can cause autism. On her side is her anecdotal claim that vaccination gave her son autism, and a debunked study from 1998. On the other is, pretty much, the entire pediatric community.

Why should anyone care about one celeb on a TV show? There are many TV critics who dismiss The View as silly out of hand. I’m not one of them; if anything, I’ve been a View apologist. However loopy the show can get, I give it credit for at least trying to discuss issues and politics in daytime TV.

But discussing the news, even at 11 in the morning, comes with responsibility. And for a show even remotely about news–and a career newswoman like Walters–to legitimize McCarthy’s dangerous anti-science because she will probably get crazy attention and ratings is irresponsible and shameful.

Because persuading parents that needed vaccines cause autism isn’t just a zany, oh-no-she-didn’t opinion. It’s wrong. Study after study has refuted the claimed link between vaccines and autism. And the fear of vaccines doesn’t just potentially harm the children whose parents forego vaccination, but other kids as well, by threatening the “herd immunity” that we rely on to protect the larger population from disease.

The View’s Sherri Shepherd may once have wondered if the world might be flat, but at least no one fell into orbit as a result.¬†Vaccines are actually a matter of life and death.

Our public health system depends on parents immunizing their kids. And The View, by nature and demographics, is a show aimed largely at parents, mothers in particular. And people can condescendingly write off its influence at their peril, and children’s peril; a University of Michigan study showed that about a quarter of parents placed “some trust” in celebrities’ views on the safety of vaccines.

(By the way, you’d probably no sooner get your immune-science information from a TV critic than a celebrity. If you want to read about this in detail, Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus traces the history and deadly effects of the anti-vaccine beliefs, and the irresponsibility of treating it as a he-said-she-said issue. [Update: Mnookin has posted an excerpt about McCarthy on his blog.] For a shorter read, Phil Plait has done great coverage on the issue, and McCarthy’s disinformation, at Slate.)

ABC might argue that hiring McCarthy does not mean endorsing her vaccine beliefs. Maybe not–in a way, it may be more dangerous, muddying a vital question of public health by framing it as a “controversy” that you can hash out in a roundtable before interviewing Bruce Willis about Red 2.

Maybe ABC sees McCarthy as a lateral swap for Hasselbeck–another outspoken, blonde woman around the same age. But medical science is not a matter of “views” and “opinion.” It’s not like believing that capital gains taxes should be lowered or gay marriage permitted. Things cause disease or they don’t.

Even if The View never airs McCarthy’s beliefs about vaccines–or, conversely, if every other panelist argues against them every day–by giving her implicit credibility the show has already suggested that her scaremongering is up for debate. She says one thing, Whoopi says something else–hey, you decide! People are talking! We must be doing something right!

And there’s the bigger problem. To say that you can simply shrug off differences about medical fact as “outrageousness” or “controversy” is to feed the belief that science in general, be it vaccines or climate change or evolution, is simply subjective: you have your truth and I have mine. But we don’t. The Earth didn’t revolve around the sun only for Galileo.

The problem with treating factual matters of science like opinion debates is that as soon as you do that, anti-science has already won. Let The View on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand as many hot-button social issues it wants. A virus doesn’t have two hands.