‘Popular Science’ vs. Jenny McCarthy, or, How Not To Engage In Cultural Dialogue

It was recently announced that television personality and former model Jenny McCarthy would become one of the hosts of the daytime talkshow The View. Most of the time, this sort of announcement would probably fly under most people’s radars, but McCarthy’s hiring has prompted a not insignificant amount of criticism and backlash. And not, as you might expect, because of McCarthy’s past experience as a Playboy model. Rather, it’s because she is a well-known and popular critic of child vaccinations.

Critics of the anti-vaccine movement fear that giving McCarthy a higher profile will allow her to spread more disinformation and falsehoods about child vaccinations. To that end, Popular Science recently published an extensive article that rebuts some of the anti-vaccine movement’s claims (e.g., that vaccines are made with dangerous ingredients). Personally, I’m skeptical of anti-vaccine claims — especially in light of numerous studies showing no causal link between vaccinations and autism (among other things) — so I’m thankful for a resource like Popular Science‘s article. I just really wish they had given it a different title.

Simply put, the article’s title — “How To Argue With The Anti-Vaccine Crazies: A Guide” — is a terrible example of framing and positioning, especially when compared to the rest of the article’s tone, which is largely informative and free of snark or hyperbole.

How do you argue with people who take a different stance than you, be it on childhood vaccines, politics, religion, or any other (controversial) topic? I humbly submit that you begin by not referring to them as “crazies.” I know this seems strange, but immediately labeling those who disagree with you as crazy probably does little to win them to your side. For parents, their children’s health and well-being is already a highly charged issue, so immediately leading with something suggesting that their choices stem from mental instability is hardly winsome or endearing.

Of course, if your goal is to simply belittle, ostracize, and otherwise score cultural points on them, rather than inform and persuade, then by all means, resort to calling them names. Just don’t think they’re crazy when they tune you out.

Image via ABC News

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Susan_G1

    I think you might be a touch too sensitive here. You stated that the article was informative, helpful, and free of snark.

    You are (among other things) a writer. You know that titles draw audiences. Myself, I love funny or provocative titles, and Peter Enns here at Patheos rarely disappoints (e.g. “6 Helpful Hints for Blog Commenters So You Can Avoid Looking Criminally Insane”) In that post, point #2 was “…don’t judge a post by its title. Read the post itself.” Surely you can bestow upon readers the benefit of enough intelligence to see beyond a post’s title.

    With regards to your own post, my concern (heretofore not expressed) is that a person unable to think through the vaccine issue based on copious, available, and high-quality evidence (and holds an opinion unaltered by the fact that the perpetrator of the anti-vaccine hoax falsified evidence and has lost his medical license) will make a poor commentator. However, they want viewers, not necessarily veracity.

    My lesser concern is that as a writer, you get your medical information from Popular Science. Or were you just searching for a provocative blog post title?

  • http://www.pbcliberal.com/ PBCliberal

    One of the biggest non-medical talking points the vaccine deniers depend upon is that “big pharma” is pulling the strings keeping “the truth” from ever being told by the “main stream media.”

    The absolute worst thing for this debate would be for a clause to come to light in McCarthy’s contract that prohibits her from talking about vaccines. The View’s demos are getting older, so like the evening news it will be lousy with drug company ads if it isn’t already. That’s all the proof they’ll need that the fix is in, she’s right and has been shut up by the powerful behind the curtain once again.

    So much of this debate is carried on by personal attack. Even the books that claim to be defenses of vaccine safety are full of snarky imperious putdowns. I’m a effete arugula-eating intellectual snob, so I like a good Dorothy Parker style witticism as much as the next nerd, but this whole method of trying to win the argument by either preempting the argument or scorched-earth character assassination isn’t working.

    Jason Morehead is right. Calling them crazies is going to blow right back in our faces. You know as well as I do this is important shit. We need them to want to vaccinate because its the right thing to do. We need to be honest with them so that they understand there are risks involved, no matter what they choose. We need to find ways to minimize those risks so that we keep our herd immunity. Being nice is a small price to pay for that tremendous benefit.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    A few responses to Susan_G1:

    1) Telling, asking, or relying on people to not judge a post by its title, but rather, to actually read the post, strikes me as rather idealistic in this day and age of social media, where we are bombarded by hundreds of links, articles, posts, tweets, etc. all vying for our attention. We simply don’t have the time or energy to read everything that crosses our newsfeeds.

    In other words, I never assume that people will look past titles. Nor do I assume they’ll read the entire post, either, if they click on a title. And that goes for my own posts. (This is based on numerous usability studies which have shown that people tend to scan content online, rather than read anything in-depth.)

    Crafting an eye-catching, provocative title is imperative given the above. A good title is the “hook” that draws people in, and like it or not, is what they’ll use to assess whether the article is worth their time and energy. So throwing out a title that is immediately going to raise the defenses of the very people that the rest of the article might try to convince otherwise strikes me as particularly egregious and smacks more of simply trying to score cultural points.

    2) “However, they want viewers, not necessarily veracity.”

    That’s a very good point, and pretty problematic in its own way. But that’s a topic for another blog post. :)

    3) “My lesser concern is that as a writer, you get your medical information from Popular Science. Or were you just searching for a provocative blog post title?”

    I get my medical information from a variety of sources, including — gasp! — actual doctors. As for whether I was searching for a provocative blog post title, I wasn’t searching for anything McCarthy-related when I saw the article pop up on Twitter. And even though, as I wrote above, I’m no vaccine skeptic, the tone of the title immediately rankled me and made me think of my friends who are, and with whom I’ve had discussions on the subject, and what they might think were they to see it.

    4) Out of curiosity, in what ways did the Popular Science article fail to make its case.

  • Susan_G1

    First, I love your self-deprecatory whimsy. How refreshing. :) I wish I had your wit. You are absolutely correct on the contract clause. My bad. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I understand your point about scorched-earth character assassination. Being nice is a very small price to pay for even a tiny benefit, like one death prevented by vaccinations. But, who is Popular Science’s audience? People who do not believe in “science”? Not likely. Personally, I think the snarky title probably hooked the people they wanted as readers: people who are interested in the issue but who haven’t made up their minds, and people who want to be more educated about the issue. This way, they get on-the-fencers to see the light, and they equip ordinary people to be able to debate the anti-vaccine folks intelligently, and frankly, who are these people most likely to be influenced by, medical articles/studies or their friends? I think they probably got more readers with, “How To Argue With The Anti-Vaccine Crazies: A Guide” than “Facts in the Vaccine Wars” or some similar nice title. So, if all the folks who read the articles are scandalized by the actions of their anti-vaccine friends and ensuing dialogue converts any of them, I say it’s exactly the win I’m hoping for: a few more for herd immunity.

  • Susan_G1

    Jason, it’s hard to read emotions from the written word, but I get the sense of some degree of hostility here. Did I — gasp!– offend you? I truly did not intend this. Please forgive me.

    #1) Not being a writer, I don’t read usability studies. I don’t have a twitter account, so I don’t have to choose between hundreds of titles. In this, I am merely a reader, but I still maintain you could trust readers a titch more. Quoted another writer, Peter Enns, whom I trust. Hilarious titles, like “Ken Ham Clubs Baby Seals”! Do you for one millisecond think I believed that? Do you know how many google hits that gets? Interrobang! “Cultural dialogue” pulled me in. Egregious? That’s a bit of overkill. jmho.

    #2) Thanks! :)

    #3) The title rankled you? I’m a doc, I’ve had the conversation a bazillion times, am acutely aware of the importance of dialoguing convincingly on the issue, worry a little every time I administer a vaccine (some more than others) that my patient might suffer an adverse event, pay malpractice while doing something lifesaving, and I wasn’t rankled at all. I was tickled. You rankle far more easily than I, sir. Try delivering a baby with shoulder dystocia (http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0401/p1707.html). I guarantee you, it will put everything in your life in perspective, and you will never pray harder in. your. life.

    #4) a.) One of the last sentences (“It’s always important to know about side effects before deciding to give your kid a vaccine or another medicine.”) undoes the previous good by implying an intelligent choice might be to forgo vaccines. Better, “Here are the real side effects you may encounter with vaccinations” or some such. The point was to make people secure in their decision to vaccinate. Bad move. b.) Too many links! Save for important stuff. c.) The Swansea measles outbreak was mentioned almost as an aside (“…outbreak of measles in Wales, precipitated by the low measles vaccination rates there, that sickened more than 1,200 and killed one 25-year-old man.”) This deserved a link! 88 kids were hospitalized for moderate to severe pneumonia, seizures, etc. Babies got spinal taps. Over 75,000 doses of vaccine were needed to stop the outbreak. 75,000! A missed opportunity to point out the safety, efficacy, and importance of the MMR vaccine. d.) They discuss polio and pertussis historically. Polio vaccine is a complete non-issue now. “Different countries must judge the risks and benefits of the oral polio vaccine differently.” Who cares what we do in Zimbabwe? This is the US. Polio is a non-issue. That statement obfuscates. e.) The real concerns were/are pertussis and the MMR. They don’t even touch on the MMR. An important opportunity missed. f.) pertussis discussion: arrrgh! They discuss scary problems with the old vaccine. then one sentence: “U.S. doctors now use a new pertussis vaccine with milder side effects.” Followed by a cover-your-ass disclaimer: “Of course, it’s up to everyone to decide individually whether the risks of a medicine outweigh its benefits.” Way to go! Again, the option, as opposed to the conviction, is validated. g.) This is good: “Though immature, babies’ systems are prepared to handle vaccines. They already handle numerous viruses and bacteria all around them in everyday life.” This is bad: “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend vaccines at very young ages because that’s when kids are the most vulnerable, as some of the natural immunization they got from breastfeeding fades.” Assumption: all women breastfeed. Unnamed fact: continued breastfeeding continues to boost immune system. Unnamed fact: waning immunity is not why we recommend vaccines at such young ages. We recommend early vaccination because diseases prevented by vaccines are most harmful to kids under the age of one! h.) thimerosol: why not take the opportunity to mention, cough, cough, that the research that implicated it in autism was FALSIFIED, was FALSIFIED FOR PROFIT, that the monstrous charlatan who started the hoax PERFORMED UNETHICAL PROCEDURES ON CHILDREN, was THOROUGHLY DISPROVED multiple times in mega-thousand kid studies in the UK and US, and the SOB LOST HIS LICENSE TO PRACTICE MEDICINE! Think that doesn’t matter? To me, it does. See all-caps. i.) still there? j.) not going to criticize what’s written anymore. Too much. How about what’s not addressed: is natural infection better/safer than vaccination? (common, beloved fantasy) Why so early? Because the younger the child, the worse the mortality rate. Oh, stretch those out and babies die. What about the amazing, truly life saving vaccines like Hib and pneumoccal vaccine? Not a peep. The latter only saves about 90,000 American kids per year from serious, life-threatening diseases like meningitis and sepsis. Hib? You never, ever want to see a kid with epiglotitis. Now, we don’t! Hooray! Finally, really good link, easy to read, incredibly convincing without denying concerns: CHOP. Placement? After way too many less useful links. Prioritize. Location, location, location. OK, I’m getting verbose. Time to watch Firefly. Hope I convinced you. If not, my bad.

    p.s. i read a few comments. bahaha! most of them were crazies!

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Susan_G1: No hostility was intended. My apologies if it seemed that way.

    In addition to being a writer, I’m also a web developer, so I’m approaching this as someone who is keenly interested in how people gather, consume, and interpret content online. This isn’t so much about trusting readers, it’s about observing what most readers do, and crafting content accordingly. As I said before, the simple fact is that people do not read deeply online. Rather, they scan and jump around, looking for things to jump out at them.

    In this case, an article talking about “crazies” will certainly jump out, but in a bad way that immediately frames the article as antagonistic and combative to those who, arguably, the article is hoping will change their minds. Did it get attention and clicks because of the title? I don’t doubt that. Did it result in changed minds? I’m more skeptical about that.

    In response to PBCliberal’s comment, you wrote: “Personally, I think the snarky title probably hooked the people they wanted as readers: people who are interested in the issue but who haven’t made up their minds, and people who want to be more educated about the issue. This way, they get on-the-fencers to see the light, and they equip ordinary people to be able to debate the anti-vaccine folks intelligently, and frankly, who are these people most likely to be influenced by, medical articles/studies or their friends?”

    That’s a fair point, but I think you’re forgetting something else: that people who might want to “convert” their friends will share this article on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m sure it launched plenty of debates when it was shared (3,204 times on Facebook as I write this), but my concern — as you might guess — is that the title immediately sets a negative, combative tone for those debates amongst friends, which might be less fruitful as a result.

    Also, thanks for the exhaustive critique of the PopSci article. Those were some very interesting points.

  • StRalph

    FWIW, the crazies certainly aren’t worried about politesse or diplomacy when it comes to discussing their opponents…

  • StRalph

    I can’t say that the gluten-free diet recommended by Ms. McCarthy isn’t beneficial for autistic kids, since it’s among the interventions we’ve used with our son, which seem to be effective in aggregate.

    However, it would appear that Ms. McCarthy’s son was misdiagnosed and never had autism in the first place, which of course gives the lie to her claim that he’s been cured. To her credit, it sounds as though she’s backed off some of her more egregious statements about the MMR. On the other hand, continuing to promote a bogus “cure” for a condition her kid never had in the first place makes her even more of a fraud. She ought to be locked up somewhere, not hosting a TV show.

    Calling the anti-vaccine crowd “crazies” is, in my view, tantamount to calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “brusque,” or calling Hugo Chavez “controversial.” It hardly touches the kind of dangerous depravity they’re spreading.

  • StRalph