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'Jeopardy!' hires vaccine critics as guest hosts during the COVID-19 pandemic

Science

‘Jeopardy!’ hires vaccine critics as guest hosts during the COVID-19 pandemic

You’d think they’d have a vetting process.

Last November, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, and America lost a television icon. ABC announced a series of upcoming guest hosts, including Katie Couric, 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker, and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. But not every name on that list is a seasoned news broadcaster, and in two cases, Jeopardy! has chosen to phrase their guest host in the form of a questionable celeb.

First, there’s renowned cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz, who also happens to be a long-time proponent of unproven and highly dubious medical treatments. Oz was even called before a Senate hearing in 2014 over his marketing of untested or bogus health products, where he claimed his endorsements were not intended as legitimate medical advice. But Oz never went away, and he continues to be touted as a serious health authority on television to this day. And though Oz did receive the COVID-19 vaccine last month, and even gave it a strong public endorsement, he has a history of pandering to anti-vaccine sentiments.

Oz isn’t the only upcoming Jeopardy! guest host who’s been a vaccine critic. Actress, neuroscientist, and “curator” of DC Comics’ recent Flash Facts science explainer, Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory, Blossom), also has a history of promoting pseudoscience organizations, and told People Magazine in 2009 she didn’t vaccinate her children.

In a recent video, Bialik encourages viewers to vaccinate against COVID-19, while attempting to clear the air about her historically controversial stance on vaccines:

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Bialik is using her celebrity to promote getting the vaccine. But it doesn’t erase her complicated history with vaccination. Worse, that endorsement is couched within numerous general anti-vaccine talking points. Right off the bat, she implies vaccines are a controversial topic of discussion; they’re not. There isn’t a reputable health organization on the planet that discourages vaccination. To the degree that there’s a public controversy, it’s almost entirely due to non-experts, conspiracy theorists, and bad faith actors.

Bialik acknowledges her children have NEVER received a flu shot until now, and that she’s questioned the official vaccine schedule in the past. She then implies her critics have been uncharitable to her position, because she never said “vaccines are not valuable, not useful, or not necessary.” But such an explicit statement isn’t really necessary. Her credentials lead lay audiences to believe she has expertise in all things science, leaving many to assume that if she has deep vaccine concerns driving her to not vaccinate her own children, she probably has good reason.

Vaccine critics often deploy this form of motte-and-bailey tactic that conflates their controversial positions with milder, easier-to-defend ones. “I’m not anti-vaccine; I’m pro safe vaccines” was once a common slogan used by the biggest names in the anti-vaccine movement, for the very reason that it conferred onto them the illusion of holding a more reasonable position.

Further, Bialik is changing her story from when she told People Magazine, “We are a non-vaccinating family,” to saying she merely delayed vaccinations, and, “My children may not have had every one of the vaccinations that your children have, but my children are vaccinated.” There’s that motte-and-bailey again. For someone who’s not credentialed in a relevant field like virology, immunology, or epidemiology to suggest she has a better understanding of when vaccines should be distributed to children than the CDC does is, at best, incredibly arrogant and, at worst, profoundly dangerous. And to never vaccinate her children from influenza flies in the face of responsible parenting.

Bialik is correct in saying some children have allergies and other conditions that carry increased health risks from some vaccines, but she doesn’t say if this is indeed the case with either or both of her own children. And she fails to mention that alternative forms of the vaccine can be provided in some allergy cases.

“Now, do I think we give way too many vaccines in this country, compared to when I was a vaccinated child? Yes,” Bialik says. Those who have studied the issue will recognize the “Too Many Too Soon” slogan of the anti-vaccine movement. After the medical community debunked their claims about many individual ingredients and adjuvants in vaccines, like thimerosal, lead, formaldehyde, and squalene, vaccine critics moved onto broader, more nebulous claims.

No longer was it any single ingredient; after all, that’s easily falsified. The objection became too many vaccines in too short a period. Openly rejecting all vaccines sounds crazy, but just nitpicking the number of vaccines compared to the good old days and calling for delayed vaccinations sounds sensible, even if the good old days featured worse health outcomes. But it still undermines confidence in health authorities, while potentially raising fears of vaccine risks.

A paper published in the journal Pediatrics in 2002 attempted to put this Too Many Too Soon myth to bed. In summary:

Current studies do not support the hypothesis that multiple vaccines overwhelm, weaken, or “use up” the immune system. On the contrary, young infants have an enormous capacity to respond to multiple vaccines, as well as to the many other challenges present in the environment. By providing protection against a number of bacterial and viral pathogens, vaccines prevent the “weakening” of the immune system and consequent secondary bacterial infections occasionally caused by natural infection.

Bialik goes on to imply that parents who don’t know anything about Hepatitis B vaccinating infants from it is an irrational behavior driven by blind allegiance to authority. That’s like saying you must study aeronautics before getting on a plane. The process of science and the record of constant improvements in health outcomes justifies a reasonable, provisional trust in health organizations with proven track records. For instance, here’s the CDC’s explanation for why parents should vaccinate their infants against Hep B.

Bialik brings up profit-motive, suggesting at least some vaccines may be promoted only to make money: “Does the medical community often operate from a place of fear in order to make money? Heck yeah, they do!” This is a two-for-one. She’s almost charging the entire global medical community with both dishonestly fearmongering about the dangers of infectious diseases, and of putting profits over patient well-being. But she hedges with the weasel word “often,” which is doing Olympic-level heavy lifting here.

Of course, profit motives exist all over our society. And yes, sometimes certain medical treatments are promoted over others because hospitals can send a bigger bill to insurance companies. It’s a sad reality that medical care in the U.S. and in many countries operate as businesses. But “often” is a curious word choice, particularly in a conversation about vaccines, which, as one piece in The Atlantic explains, are broadly unprofitable and, at best, offer “abysmal profit margins.”

Bialik says she feels “icky about injecting babies and children with tons of chemicals and parts of cows and chickens and eggs.” Notable word choices: “icky,” “injecting babies,” “tons of chemicals.” Reminder, this is the video where she’s supposed to be dispelling critics’ charges that she’s anti-vaccine. I know Bialik isn’t a chemist, but it doesn’t take one to know that literally everything is made of chemicals, and the word itself has no bearing on how harmful a particular substance might be.

It certainly doesn’t help when celebrities use overly sensationalized, loaded language like “injecting babies.” It seems impossible to not read this word choice as deliberately provocative and in bad faith. Infants are vaccinated early to provide them greater protection, as soon as possible. According to the CDC:

Recommendations for the age at which vaccines are administered are influenced by age-specific risks for disease, age-specific risks for complications, age-specific responses to vaccination, and potential interference with the immune response by passively transferred maternal antibodies. Vaccines are generally recommended for members of the youngest age group at risk for experiencing the disease for which vaccine efficacy and safety have been demonstrated.

And of course the “parts of cows and chickens and eggs” is classic anti-vaccine rhetoric designed to elicit disgust. It’s like when abortion opponents show up in front of clinics with signs depicting graphic images of the procedure. Animal protein plays a key role in vaccine manufacturing, and it’s neither scary nor icky. It’s just science.

Like Oz, Bialik has now chosen to “enthusiastically vaccinate” for both COVID-19 and the flu. And that’s a good thing. In fact, much of the second half of Bialik’s video makes some great points. She explains there’s a difference between mortality rates and rates of infection, highlighting that even surviving COVID-19 can bring about debilitating, long-term health problems. She stresses the importance of reaching herd immunity. She sets appropriate expectations by saying the vaccine, like all vaccines, is not 100% effective, while making it clear that’s not a good reason to not vaccinate:

However, it is critical for a virus like COVID that as many people as possible stack the statistics in our favor, so as to avoid continuing spreading the virus. And we need to do that as quickly as possible.

Why do they look at COVID-19 differently? Perhaps its impact is so ubiquitous that it’s easier for some vaccine critics to apply special pleading, and convince themselves it’s an exception. Vaccines have often been said to be victims of their own success. Diseases like influenza, measles, mumps, polio, and chickenpox no longer seem threatening to those who have never known a time when those illnesses delivered high mortality rates. COVID-19 is a clear and present threat right now, so denying the everyday reality of it may expend too much cognitive energy.

vaccinate against covid

Photo by Michael Rosch at New York City March For Science, 2017

Whatever the reason though, again, it’s great that Oz and Bialik — two figures who have held fringe positions about vaccines — have come out to urge the public to vaccinate against COVID-19. So why even write this? They’re giving me what I wanted; what’s my problem now?

The problem is these unqualified figures have been given license in the media to sell a self-image as science and medical experts, as well as of general intellectualism — an image that a trivia competition show that celebrates knowledge like Jeopardy! can easily reinforce — and that illusion of expertise can have a lasting, deadly fallout when the public’s trust is misplaced.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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