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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Why Oprah (& millions of her fans) love Jenny McCarthy

(and why it doesn't matter very much)

"The rule that human beings seem to follow is to engage the brain only when all else fails — and usually not even then."-- David Hull*

“Most people would die sooner than think — in fact they do so."--Bertrand Russell*

May 11, 2009. Jenny McCarthy was signed to aJenny McCarthy multi-year contract with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, Inc. McCarthy is to develop projects on different platforms, including hosting a syndicated talk show.*

Skeptics think of Jenny McCarthy as a know-nothing anti-vaccination crusader who has deluded herself into thinking she cured her son's autism. Her fans know her as the mother warrior who has the courage to stand up to the Establishment's deadly crusade to harm our children with vaccines. Oprah is clearly a fan, not a skeptic. Why?

If you were to ask Oprah the following question, how would she answer? "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" Like most of you,* she would probably answer quickly: "Ten cents." Those of you who don't go with your gut instinct, but would think about the problem before answering, might say to yourself or out loud: Well, if the ball costs, say, a dime, then the bat would cost $1.10 and together they'd cost $1.20. If the ball costs 5 cents, then the bat would cost $1.05 and together they'd cost $1.10. Some of you might even instinctively answer "5 cents." Those of you who are skeptics and critical thinkers, but did not instinctively answer "5 cents," will learn from this example of what Kahneman and Frederick call Type 1 thinking. This is non-reflective thinking. There are some people whose non-reflective thinking is often accurate and reliable. They're the kind of people Malcolm Gladwell promised to explain in Blink (but didn't), though he was onto the answer in Outliers (though I don't think he saw it): some people instinctively use their prefrontal cortex to solve problems and they've engaged in a great deal of practice at making critical thinking instinctive.

Oprah, I think it can be safely said, has proved that you don't need to rely on your prefrontal cortex to achieve great things in this world. George W. Bush proved the same thing. Their appeal is not to the critical thinker, but to the feelings and emotions that unconsciously drive the thinking of most people most of the time. It is often said of George W. Bush that he thinks with his gut. He was able to use fear not only to stay in power, but to rally millions of people behind a series of irrational behaviors that his gut led him to. Oprah is also led by her gut or her heart. The same is true of billions of other people. All successful hucksters know this. Their success does not come from appealing to the higher brain functions, but to the parts of the brain governing instinctual survival behaviors and instinctual emotional responses. The successful hucksters appeal to fear, pity, vanity, and physical pleasure. They don't appeal to our ability to understand probability or double-blind randomized studies. They don't appeal to our ability to critically examine all the relevant evidence for an issue. Why should they? Most of us probably wouldn't pay attention. Hucksters intuitively know that magical thinking, the quintessential Type 1 thinking, drives most of us most of the time.

Talk show hosts, advertisers, and politicians have at least one thing in common: they must appeal to Type 1 thinking if they are to survive. Talk show hosts would have no audience if they stopped to reflect on anything said on their shows. Their job is to keep it moving and keep their guests moving. The greatest fear a talk show host or guest can have is fear of silence. Jenny McCarthy will make a perfect talk show host, if only because she seems to abhor silence. You will not have to worry about her braking for a moment of reflection. She'll stick to what her gut and her heart drives her to say. Why wouldn't Oprah love her?

Oprah and Bush are two of the most successful hucksters of our time, but let's leave Bush (and, byPhil McGraw association, Cheney) out of this for the time being. Let's focus on Oprah and her attraction to such people as Phil McGraw and Jenny McCarthy. As many of you know, Oprah met McGraw when she was called to defend herself against some cattle ranchers in Texas. (See Sham for details.) They sued her for defaming their product. Before millions of viewers of her talk show, she said she'd eaten her last burger when told by some "expert" that "mad cow disease" may be waiting for her in her next beefy meal. McGraw acted as an advisor on jury selection or some such thing. Oprah liked him and the rest is history. The very thought of doing psychotherapy in public before a live audience as a form of entertainment is a bit much for the rational mind to take, but it's a natural for Oprah and her fans. You can't defend it on an intellectual level. Its appeal is purely to the emotions, like the Jerry Springer show.

Why does Oprah like Jenny McCarthy so much that she thinks she can be another Dr. Phil, i.e., a successful entertainer? At least McGraw can occasionally dress up his entertainment as intellectually defensible by applying some well-known psychological practices and terms. McCarthy's intellectual credentials are not her strong suit, of course. Her physical features, her non-stop mouth, her "vivaciousness," if you will, are her main qualities that promise success on the Oprah train. But Oprah's had many guests who fit that bill, so why Jenny? I think the main reason goes back to all those letters sent to Oprah from parents of kids with autism who asked her to please, please, please, save our children from more devastation by speaking out against vaccines.

Here is what Barbara Loe Fisher, who calls herself an "autism mom," wrote on her blog after Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah's show in 2007 as a "warrior mom" in the fight against vaccines as the cause of autism:

When she was not yet a superstar or even broadcasting nationally, in early 1985 a friend gave Oprah a copy of "DPT: A Shot in the Dark," which was the first report of an association between autism and vaccination. "We're waiting until it comes out in paperback," a producer told her friend. The paperback version was published in 1986 but, by then, Oprah had starred in "The Color Purple," her show had been nationally syndicated and the vaccine safety debate had become a heated controversy. Over the last two decades, many parents of vaccine injured children have written letters to Oprah in hopes that she would do a show about vaccine risks.*

Yes, and over those past two decades numerous scientific studies have been published on the issue and the evidence has failed to support the notion that vaccines are a significant risk factor for autism. But it doesn't matter to Barbara Loe Fisher,  Jenny McCarthy, or Oprah Winfrey. Once their guts told them vaccines are a problem, their brains were guided by confirmation bias. They ignored or brushed off the scientific evidence and found "experts" who agreed with them. Mostly, however, they collected anecdotes.

The letters from parents about their "vaccine injured children" was not the first time Oprah has been moved to promote junk science because her gut told her to do so. (She's even promoted critical thinking because her gut told her to do it!)  She did it for road rage.  A few vivid anecdotes are all it takes for Oprah to turn a few stories about disturbed people and motor vehicles into a candidate for admission into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She did it with breast implants. Jenny Jones and Oprah had programs featuring women who'd had breast implants telling the stories of their horrific suffering from painful disorders. The general public, governed by Type 1 thinking, would reasonably conclude from these sad stories that there must be strong evidence that breast implants caused these disorders. There was no scientific study that had shown any such connection, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter even when the evidence came in and showed that the more than one million women who had had breast implants did not suffer from any major disease or disorder at a greater rate than women who had not had breast implants.* (Oprah is not unique here. Remember that the FDA banned silicone implants. Unlike Oprah and millions of others, however, once the evidence clearly showed that silicone implants do not cause all the diseases and disorders that had been blamed on them, the FDA admitted its error. It lifted the ban. Remember also that the media played a major role in perpetuating the fear of breast implants, the "illness" of road rage, and the hysteria around childhood vaccinations, but they have played almost no role in correcting any of these errors.)

Understanding why Oprah loves Jenny McCarthy is as easy as understanding why Dick Cheney loves Rush Limbaugh. Jenny McCarthy is loved by Oprah because Jenny represents what Oprah represents to Type 1 thinking: an attractive, caring storyteller, someone with compassion and courage, someone from Heartland (upstream from Gutland) who is here to help and protect us from harm. The fact that McCarthy doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to autism or vaccines is as irrelevant as the fact that Cheney and Limbaugh don't know what they're talking about when it comes to 9/11 and terrorism. (For details on the latter pair, see The Science of Fear.) She's compelling to the unreflective mind looking into the mirror. She's not a threat to anyone who considers evidence and medical training essential to the credibility of someone making claims about vaccines. On the other hand, someone like Mehmet Oz, another Oprah favorite, has the potential to do great harm because he has the credentials to speak with authority on medical matters. Let's hope he's not McCarthy's first guest when the topic is vaccines. Even if he is, though, neither he nor McCarthy could ever match the harm done by the political merchants of fear whose motto seems to be: the only thing we need fear is the end of the fear of fear.

further reading

Poop Stories by Jenny McCarthy on Oprah.com

Jenny McCarthy's relationship with poo by PalMD

reader comments

Alright, alright! I get it: you're a Democrat who still hates G. W. Bush ... so much so that you even have to work that hatred into totally unrelated postings. What, exactly, does your anti-Republicanism have to do with Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccine campaign?

To be a skeptical, rational thinker and an atheist, do I now have to be a paid-up, capital-D Democrat? Or, since I'm staunchly independent, small-"l" libertarian distrustful of both Republicans *and* Democrats, am I doomed to second-class Skeptic status? And will SkepDic ever turn that withering political gaze on the current administration when (not if) the Obamessiah's bailout plans eventually tank?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address,

C. J. O'Connor

reply: I tried to find a point I could respond to that might benefit somebody reading this, but I couldn't. Type 1 thinking doesn't want a response. It wants to vent, express, evoke, but it doesn't really elicit debate or discussion about anything substantive. I hope you feel better and I'll keep a watch on my 'withering' gaze. By the way, I don't hate George W. Bush for ruining our country despite his good intentions, nor is it reasonable to equate Bush and Cheney with Republicans. You're probably not interested, but I don't care much for libertarians, either. And for the record, I despise Dick Cheney.

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