Sunday, December 28, 2008


It's time for my annual look back at some of the more egregious ethical lapses that have plagued the previous twelve months.

As always, I also offer positive alternatives to the questionable actions of many high-profile people in the news. I believe that as much can be learned from those people who do the right thing as from those who don't.


On January 20, Inauguration Day, a sea of people will descend on Washington to witness the swearing-in of a new president. Lodging will likely be scarce. Some residents are offering up their well-placed apartments for $1,000 a day. Hotels are charging a premium for any rooms not already booked.

None of that is unethical per se, but some people are going too far. Recently ads on Craigslist were offering to sell hotel reservations for a nonrefundable $300. This doesn't include the cost of the minimum four-night stay at the hotel, which will add more than $1,000 to the tab. Essentially, as The Washington Post points out, some guy wants you to pay him $300 to make a reservation for you!

Compare this to Earl Stafford, founder of a Virginia technology company, who paid $1 million to book hotel rooms to accommodate wounded soldiers, poor people and others who couldn't afford to participate in the inauguration otherwise. According to The New York Times, "He said he wanted to help people who have worked hard and done everything right but who find themselves without a job or home."


Not a week had passed, after the federal government's $85 billion bailout of the insurance company AIG, before some of its executives were treated to a spa vacation, running up a tab totaling more than $440,000. This, after AIG's CEO had told Congress that the company was facing a "financial global tsunami."

Financial tsunamis can make seasoned executives lose their poise, but doling out expensive vacations while crying poverty in an effort to get ahold of government funds suggests that these ones also lost their senses.

The incongruity was lost on AIG's leaders, but it didn't escape some university presidents who were asking their institutions to tighten their belts. Among them were Mark Wrighton, president of Washington University in St. Louis, who announced that he would take a 5-percent cut in his base salary come Jan. 1, and another 5-percent cut on July 1.

It packs a bit more ethical oomph, if you're asking people to tighten their belts, when you're willing to tighten your own.


To start with some disclosure: The actor and comedian Denis Leary is a graduate of, and a generous alumnus of, Emerson College, where I teach. My wife is a therapist who works with autistic children.

Leary has taken some hits for his new book, in which he attributes the boom in autism cases to "inattentive mothers and competitive dads" who throw money away to have their children diagnosed "to explain away their deficiencies."

His quote was taken out of context, Leary insists. And, to be fair, there are indeed some parents who look for any reason to explain their children's behavior other than their own lack of parenting skills. Had he simply stopped there, he might have done some good by addressing parental responsibility.

If you read on, however, Leary reveals a virtually complete lack of understanding of the process of autism diagnosis. In other words, in context the quote puts Leary in an even worse light than it does when pulled out and left to stand on its own.

OK, everyone has a right to an opinion, however wrongheaded. In the opinion of many highly trained professionals, including the one at my breakfast table, Leary's take on the issue is absurd. But that isn't itself unethical.

It reaches that level, however, when he uses his celebrity status to air his views to a readership who, themselves knowing little about the subject, don't realize how uninformed he is and may even take seriously the facetious byline, "Dr. Denis Leary" -- his only doctorate, I believe, is an honorary one from Emerson. It's especially unethical if, as I suspect, he overstates his own opinion for the sake of a laugh.

Also guilty of substandard ethics: Leary's publisher, Viking. Leary is used to spouting off-the-cuff rants onstage, and may not know any other way to work. Viking doesn't have that excuse. It's the job of any reputable publisher to make sure that what it prints is fair, accurate and not likely to do harm to others.

Groups such as Parents of Autistic Children -- at -- whose purpose is to help families with an autistic child get services and learn to cope day-to-day, don't enjoy Leary's spotlight. Nonetheless, they and the many service providers who work with them have a far deeper understanding of this issue, and it's a pity that their insights won't receive the circulation that Leary's have.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

There is so much information and misinformation about autism that I would not presume to enter this highly-charged debate. But it does appears the rise in autism cases does coincide with the change(s) in diagnosis to what is now called autism-spectrum disorder.

Steve Leveen said...

Way to go Jeff. Who can understand those AIG executives? Of course, you have to book and pay for most of that kind of event in advance, but still, better to lose deposits than to incur even more expense and the worst PR going.

I agree that everyone should be reassessing their needs. It's a time for that for sure. Keep it coming.

Steve Leveen

BubbaRich said...

Dennis O'Leary is not the first name that leaps to mind when I think of celebrities spouting stupid and dangerous things about autism. Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey have dedicated themselves to being loud voices screaming dangerous lies about autism. Their ideas are dangerous to children with autism, families of children with autism, and all children (and society at large) with the dangers caused by decreased vaccination.

O'Leary is an insensitive idiot with his errors. McCarthy is a dangerous person potentially harming millions.

krelnik said...

I agree that Jenny McCarthy's public statements are far less ethical and more dangerous than those of Denis Leary. In a year-end summary of the "most egregious" lapses, she should rank far higher than Leary.

Her ridiculous views on vaccines are actually influencing parents, via her appearances on Oprah and Larry King, to refuse vaccinations for their kids. As a result we now have measles outbreaks in the United States, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.

Denis Leary's comments might anger or hurt parents, but Jenny McCarthy's public statements are absolutely going to cause child deaths and cases of brain damage.

Further reading on this:

Also, check out Dr. Paul A. Offit's excellent book "Autism's False Prophets" which documents the history of the ridiculous anti-science movement of which Jenny McCarthy is now the de-facto celebrity leader.

Jeff said...

I agree that another person who is unethical is Jenny McCarthy. While Ms McCarthy is speaking from experience, she is hurting many kids who are now getting measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. In addition, she is leading people down the wrong path when it comes to treatment of autism. Instead of getting effective treatment, they wasting valuable time and money that would be better used to get effective interventions that really help kids with autism.

In both cases, both Dennis Leary and Jenny McCarthy deserve our scorn for speaking far beyond their knowledge base and for failing to do the proper homework in understanding autism before speaking out. Kids with vaccine-preventable diseases and autism are their ultimate victims.

David said...

I'd also like to echo the above mentions of Jenny McCarthy. Her celebrity status has served as a megaphone for her to spew scientifically illiterate nonsense that results in children harmed and killed by vaccine-preventable illnesses. It's mind-blowingly tragic stupidity.

M. Lawrence said...

I have to disagree on one important point. Having never heard of Jenny McCarthy, I went on one of the suggested websites and now know more than I wanted to. Yes, she's a nut and a potentially dangerous one, but where does the responsibility really lie? There have always been nuts on "Save the World" missions. It's the responsibility of parents to use better sense about who influences them, and I believe it's the responsibility of personalities such as Oprah and Larry King to leven the interview with an expert from the other side. Just because she spews hysterical nonsense doesn't make her responsible for the credulous herd that takes her seriously - and acts on her advice, more's the pity.

John Snyder, M.D. said...

Not to belabor the point, but I concur that the dangerous, science-illiterate anti-vaccine movement fronted by Jenny McCarthy is by far the worst example of celebrity fear-mongering. Not only has Ms. McCarthy absolutely no understanding of the science against which she rants, the claims and misinformation she spreads through her celebrity status has certainly contributed to the growing trend of vaccine refusers and has therefore been an indirect cause for the spreading of serious illness in children.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Seglin:

I read your column taking Denis Leary to task for statements he made in a new book regarding autism. I agree that there are ethical problems with using one's celebrity status to promote ignorant views about autism.

I'm amazed, however, that you didn't see fit to mention the worst abuse of celebrity status in this regard - Jenny McCarthy's books and public appearances on the subject of autism. Her lack of understanding of autism is arguably as bad as Leary's - plus, she vastly compounds the damage by blaming autism on vaccination (a "connection" that's been soundly refuted in numerous scientific studies).

It's easy enough to target Leary, more difficult to criticize McCarthy who unfortunately has a following among some parents of autistic children who have put their children through useless, risky chelation treatments that reflect her beliefs.

I hope you consider a followup in which McCarthy and other celebrities who boost science quackery are mentioned (including luminaries like Prince Charles, who has promoted such nonsense as coffee enemas for cancer treatment).

Thank you.

Eric Lang M.D.

Ruth said...

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