I confess to erring when I wrote a couple of months ago that the L.A. Times editors should consider running white space in lieu of James Rainey’s media column. Instead, he’s become the gift that keeps on – well, you can guess the rest.
In yet another of his “You readers are all stupid, now read to what I have to say” masterpieces, he rips what he acknowledges are a minority of fruitcakes who criticized writer Amy Wallace’s article in Wired magazine that rebuts the alleged links between rising cases of autism and childhood vaccines. This is in spite of the fact that Wallace, when interviewed on NPR, openly welcomed the responses she’s received, even though a few have been misguided and even profane.
Rainey doesn’t bother to disclose that. Instead, he laments that the world is brimming with idiots, ever emboldened by their Internet connections. “We see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job,” he writes.
I’ll concede on global warming, but songwriting and movie reviews? I must have missed the Beatles’ and Elvis’ formative years at Juilliard. I’m unaware of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert graduating from the Bosley Crowther School of Celluloid Critique at Columbia University, but I don’t always keep track of such esoterica. However, I’m pretty certain Rainey attended for his doctoral studies.
As an amusing aside, the online version of Rainey’s article is bracketed by Google ads hawking the same disinformation he is trying to debunk. But I digress.
Rainey makes it sound as if sanctimonious, know-it-all blowhards suddenly began appearing with the advent of the Internet. They’ve always been out there. But 50 years ago, they needed to type a letter, correct the mistakes, address, stamp and mail it. Nine times out of 10, the target threw it in the garbage without so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. Now, people can slam their targets without leaving their chairs. So, why not?
I will agree with Rainey there is a surfeit of nutwings out there, and their unfounded prejudices are fueled by ill-informed and undereducated celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. But that is not the entire story.
The fear of vaccines stem not only from ignorance but ever-present suspicions about the drug industry. These are the same people who ply doctors with free lunches, speaking gigs and other honorariums to get them to recommend their products, which are then sold to patients at grossly inflated prices. Wallace does admit that the physician she focuses on in the article, pediatrician Paul Offit, made at least several million dollars from sales of a vaccine he invented that is sold at a 17-fold markup. Offit says it was an unforeseen consequence of his research, but he didn’t exactly turn it down.
And while Wallace’s article is a fine piece of journalism and Offit may be passionate about defending the scientific method, most people never receive such passion for their well-being from doctors. They get cursory visits and a hastily scribbled prescription – and often sticker shock at filling it.
Wallace also failed to mention that the debate on autism occurs in a push-me-pull-you flurry of scientific data. One study is published claiming a link to cancer, and another is published the following year rebuts it. Half a century ago, the common treatment for heart attack victims was bed rest – something the medical community now concludes puts patients at risk for developing fatal blood clots. There may indeed be a dozen current studies debunking a link between vaccines and autism. They may hold up over time. Or they may not.
Lump all that in with the extraordinary difficulty of caring for an autistic child – another burden often met by the medical profession with indifference – and that is among the reasons there is so much anger out there.
Wallace is onto something when she notes that pseudo-science offers comfort, which is why it has attractions. Being told you’re wrong only geometrically amplifies the anger.
Of course, you can leave that part to Rainey. He quotes Andrew Keen, an author who has claimed the Internet has left us culturally bereft, even as he helped propagate it by being a part of various Web startups.
“Keen makes abundant sense when he argues that people who have worked hard to gain expertise can’t so easily, and passively, cave in to ‘the wisdom of the crowd,’” Rainey writes. “He believes experts — in the media, science, law – need to drop their ‘false, almost suicidal, humility.’”
Right. Because a bunch of elite members of society arrogantly getting into the faces of people who are already uneasy or suspicious of them will persuade them to change their minds.
I can only predict one thing with certitude: fewer people will be reading the L.A. Times a year from now than they are today. Perhaps Rainey can discuss that cause-and-effect in a future column.