In relation to my recent bits about Jenny McCarthy and her antivaccination nonsense, reader Isabel asks the following:
I’ve been following this discussion for awhile, PalMD, and while I agree that JM sounds like a nut, and while I feel sorry for her kid for being stuck with her as a mother, it’s hard for me to see her as the evil force she is being portrayed as.
For starters, through no fault of her own, she’s obviously not particularly bright, which makes it hard to take her seriously, in either a positive or negative way. She seems like countless other neurotic women who are desperate for help with her child’s disorder, listening to charlatans and becoming a believer who wants to then spread the word.
Shouldn’t protests be focused on the dispassionate business people who are backing her up, who profit from stirring up controversy and who don’t have autistic children? And the doctors and labs who go along with the poop analyzing, etc, preying on parents fears? I mean, who is giving the lab the orders? This must be an arrangement through her doctor, no?
I have heard some complaints directed at Oprah, but they are much more polite, it seems, and I have only heard (please correct me if I’m wrong on this) JM specifically blamed for kids deaths and other horrible things…she seems more like a sad, almost pathetic pawn to me.
Now, I am not an ethicist, and while I do know something about medical ethics, more general cases are a bit outside my comfort zone. Still, let’s take a look at the issues. If we’re lucky, a real ethicist will stop by.
Jenny claims an expertise based on her personal experience. Whether one views themselves as an expert is largely irrelevant, unless others so christen them. In Jenny’s case, various fake experts have helped promote her status as an expert (making her a 2nd generation fake expert?) and she has embraced this status.
Being a public figure confers a certain status in our society, whether or not it should. It gives one great reach and influence. While Jenny’s putative lack of intelligence certainly makes her susceptible to having her status used by others, it does not absolve her of her responsibilities. She has made a conscious choice to use her status to spread a message, and has chosen to listen to some experts over others. The moral culpability is hers.
It is difficult (and probably useless) to create a culpability scale for the people involved in absurd and dangerous medical claims, but the reader’s point is well-taken, so I’ll do it anyway. When it comes to medical issues, the only thing consistent about Oprah is her own inconsistency. It appears that she christens experts based on her personal preference rather than any objective criteria. This is a problem. Oprah’s influence is inversely proportional to her ability to choose good experts, which is a troubling trend. One thing she is good at is picking a winner; Dr. Phil may or may not be a good therapist, but he’s great TV. Time will tell whether Jenny is equally lucrative, but Oprah doesn’t pick losers, so we’re likely to be seeing Jenny under Oprah’s banner for a long time to come.
If we are to assign moral culpability based on reach, Oprah wins. If we are to do it by prior responsibility, folks like Jay Gordon win. As physicians, we have a special responsibility in communicating to the public. There are a lot of pieces that I don’t write because of these responsibilities, and the pieces I do write I scrutinize carefully. I’ve pulled pieces that in retrospect seem to violate one or another of my ethical principles. Doctors who disseminate bad medical information may not be breaking any laws, but they are behaving very unethically.
So, Isabel, in criticizing Jenny, Oprah, and Gordon, I perhaps have not made clear the level of ethical culpability I assign to each one. However, sometimes my response is aimed more at the reach and visibility of the culprit than at the level of their moral responsibility. Jenny, as dimwitted as she may be, is visible, and requires an extra dose of smack-down, and while she has been my focus of late, no one who promulgates dangerous medical information will be immune.