The real reason why Oprah supports Jenny McCarthy

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to publicly support Jenny McCarthy is bewildering. Why would Oprah, who appears to care passionately about the health and well being of children, support quackery that can only result in the death and permanent injury of children?

Some have speculated that it is due the financial bonanza that McCarthy could represent. But Oprah does not need more money or more fame. I don’t doubt that Oprah’s support for McCarthy is real. Both women are bound together by a belief in magical thinking.

Magical thinking does not mean believing in magic. It means believing that thoughts and actions have the power to affect unconnected events. Magical thinking is at the heart of the success of books like The Secret, also an Oprah favorite. Once you believe that your thoughts can affect reality, it is but a small additional step to believing that you can construct your own reality.

Oprah dreamed of stardom unheard of for an African-American, a woman, a child of abject poverty, and single handedly turned her dreams into reality. That is the essence of her appeal to millions of women across the nation. She holds out the promise that their lives can be better than they are, and that they can make it happen.

Books like The Secret send a similar message. You can control your destiny by your thoughts and dreams. A relentlessly positive attitude has the power to create a relentless positive life. Yet somewhere along the way, Oprah has managed to elide a key difference between herself, and believers in The Secret. Oprah worked to bring about her new reality.

Oprah didn’t simply dream of being a superstar; she did the grunt work and paid her dues. Her dreams gave her the strength to do the work, but it is the work that made her a star. Oprah seems to have forgotten that key point.

Jenny McCarthy, like all purveyors of pseudoscience, believes in the power of magical thinking. Fundamentally, magical thinking in healthcare is a coping mechanism. Researcher Yannick St. James explains:

… [M]agical thinking … involves imparting moral meaning to a situation, reifying and externalizing one’s control over the situation, attempting to symbolically influence this powerful, mystical entity that is vested with control, and interpreting scientific symbols as objective signs from this entity…

…[W]hen faced with situations of uncertainty, loss, absence of control, or inability to attain a desired outcome … people often engage in magical thinking by creating and using meaning-based connections to understand and influence situation outcomes.

Autism is definitely a situation of uncertainty, potential loss, and absence of control. No one, not the parents nor the doctors, can control the process or even predict the outcome. The potential always exists for a devastating result: inability of the child to achieve, even in the most basic ways, the milestones of growth to successful adulthood.

In the face of this uncertainty, the most people have turned to science to understand autism. As St. James notes, integral to the practice of science is the impact of “chance, probability and randomness”. This is, in fact, what statistics tell us. Autism will affect some children; we can predict the probability of autism in a population, but its occurrence in an individual child is essentially random.

Vaccine rejectionism, in contrast, imparts a reason and moral meaning to autism. Children aren’t autistic because of random (probably genetic) accidents. The cause is vaccination, and the moral meaning is that evil vaccine manufacturers and doctors have conspired to withhold the connection between vaccination and autism from the general public.

Magical thinking holds out hope that may not exist in reality. As St. James comments:

Whereas scientific thinking seeks to empirically validate or invalidate possibilities to classify them as reality or fantasy, magical thinking creates and maintains ambiguity around what is possible in order to provide meaning and sustain hope in the context of stressful situations.

Hence, although it has been repeatedly demonstrated that vaccines do not cause autism, vaccine rejectionists persist in insisting that we “don’t know” what vaccination really does. Although it has been repeatedly demonstrated that autism cannot be cured, vaccine rejectionists persist in believing that they can rid their children of autism. The key point is that magical thinking within the context of vaccine rejectionism provides a way to manage the uncertainty and fear associated with autism.

Jenny McCarthy and the vaccine rejectionists use magical thinking because they believe it can change reality. Oprah Winfrey believes that thoughts can lead to a new reality. That is why Oprah is supporting Jenny McCarthy, even though, as Oprah must surely know, wishing does not make it so.