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Archive for July, 2013

The New McCarthyism

Posted by prof e on July 25, 2013

In the 1950s senator Joseph McCarthy made accusations that communists and communist sympathizers were taking over American institutions, including the entertainment industries.  According to Wikipedia, the term McCarthyism has come to mean “the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence.” 


This week the On The Media podcast has a story about a new kind of McCarthyism. According to OTM, ABC recently announced, “model, comedian, and anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy would be joining the hit daytime talk show The View.” OTM host Bob Garfield didn’t mince words when he weighed in on this development. He doesn’t like it and thinks it is irresponsible of ABC to give McCarthy a platform to spread her “dangerous” message that vaccines can cause autism and other illnesses.

Garfield is not alone. Over at the US News & World Report website an editorial reaches the same conclusion. And at The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel issued a similar verdict and accused McCarthy of fear mongering. This last article makes reference to a study that found that, “24% of parents surveyed recently by the University of Michigan say they place “some trust” in information provided by celebrities such as McCarthy about the safety of vaccines.” And among Hispanics, “40% of parents reported they have ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ trust in celebrities’ insight” (cited in Time magazine).

Which raises the question: who is guilty of making accusations without regard for evidence? Garfield and others are accusing McCarthy of making claims about the danger of vaccines without regard for the scientific evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, McCarthy may feel like these powerful media personalities are using their platform to silence her by accusing her of ignorance and fear mongering.

And that raises the question: does McCarthy have credentials that permit her to question medical science? McCarthy has said that she studied at “the University of Google” which, we all know, has some pretty wacky professors. McCarthy might counter that science is never conclusive. Science is always cumulative…it builds on previous studies and moves toward certainty but never arrives. It is questioning, not blind belief, that leads the way forward. Those who approach life from a more holistic philosophical perspective even argue that the “worship” of science has prevented mankind from experiencing and understanding the natural and supernatural realms that exist outside the reach of empiricism.

What do you think? Are the media complicit by giving celebrities a platform from which to espouse their sometimes-unfounded beliefs? Does ABC have an obligation to ensure that its talk show hosts are credible and trustworthy sources, and not purveyors of pseudoscience? Or should we let the marketplace of ideas operate without oversight imposed by media authorities?


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