The tension between good science and conspiracy-happy fearmongering about some of the most important innovations in science has manifested itself in every aspect of social life, including and perhaps especially in popular culture. A recent instance of this tension can be seen in the kerfuffle that arose in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Robert De Niro, one of the founders and organizers of the annual event, approved a controversial documentary film titled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe for screening at the festival. The documentary’s main thesis is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is suppressing data that proves a causal link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and the neurodevelopmental disorder known as autism.
It would be bad enough if this film was made by any relatively unknown independent filmmaker. But what makes De Niro’s initial approval even worse is that Vaxxed was produced by none other than Andrew Wakefield, the former physician and medical researcher from Britain who faked data in a study he wrote that claimed a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was published in 1998 in the medical journal The Lancet but was later retracted and withdrawn by the journal when an investigation revealed that Wakefield’s paper was fraudulent. As a result, Wakefield was struck off the medical register and stripped of his license to practice medicine in the UK. Now thoroughly and irreparably discredited by the scientific community, Wakefield nevertheless went on to become the popular media’s spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield’s influence contributed to a global decrease in vaccination rates, and because of this he is directly responsible for vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths of at least thousands of people who eschewed vaccination based on his advice.
As it happens, one of De Niro’s children has autism, making the subject of vaccinations one that hits close to home for him. He made a statement explaining what motivated his initial decision to approve Wakefield’s film. “My intent in screening this film,” he said, “was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” But due to the uproar that came from the scientific community almost immediately after it was announced that an anti-vaccination film would be screened, De Niro and other organizers made the very wise decision to remove Vaxxed from the festival.
The response of Wakefield’s supporters in the anti-vaccination movement was a predictable one: they claim that Wakefield is being censored. Unsurprisingly, Mike Adams of Natural News was very quick to jump on this bandwagon, blaming the removal of Wakefield’s film from the festival on “an intense censorship effort waged by the vaccine-pushing mainstream media and pharma-funded media science trolls.” This charge is frankly childish and absurd in the extreme. The decision to pull Wakefield’s film is clearly not an instance of censorship under any reasonable definition of the word. Dr. Steven Novella’s blog post on this topic nicely nails the distinction between quality control and censorship:
When the government blocks content because they don’t like what it says, that is censorship. When a private institution declines to provide their venue to promote content, that is quality control and/or editorial policy, not censorship. Crying “censorship” in the latter case just makes you look like a whiny idiot.
Mike Adams, not satisfied with being merely a whiny idiot, has graduated to the status of unhinged lunatic who proudly displays his ignorance of what historical verisimilitude would look like. In a recent Natural News article, Adams launched into a lengthy and schizophrenic tirade in which he likened Robert De Niro to Joseph Goebbels and called the Tribeca Film Festival “the official state-run film festival of approved speech.” The portion I quote below would be enough to make Godwin weep:
Today, just as Americans are waking up to the shocking fact that the vaccine industry has been systematically poisoning their children for decades while committing scientific fraud to hide the evidence of harm, Robert De Niro has followed in the footsteps of Joseph Goebbels as the Tribeca Propaganda Minister of Truth, silencing independent filmmakers who have extraordinary contributions to offer the world.
As a privately-owned production company, the Tribeca Film Festival is under no obligation to provide a platform to all views that come knocking. The Tribeca Film Festival has a vested interest in maintaining a reputation for promoting high-quality filmmaking, and ideally that should mean holding their documentary selections to a fact-based standard. The festival organizers presumably do not want to damage that hard-earned reputation by exposing their audience to anti-scientific propaganda, and that is a perfectly legitimate reason for either rejecting film candidates or – as happened in this case – retracting an original decision to air a film that they later found to disseminate highly questionable content. As we will see, Wakefield’s film is hardly the “extraordinary contribution” Adams has deluded himself into thinking it is.
Vaxxed vs. Facts
What is the nature of this film’s highly questionable content? David Gorski, a surgeon who writes under the nom de plume of “Orac,” has written an excellent and nicely detailed takedown of the film and its claims on his Respectful Insolence blog, which is my main source for the brief explanation that follows. Vaxxed tells the story of William W. Thompson, popularly regarded by the anti-vaccine crowd as the “CDC Whistleblower.” Thompson, who worked as a psychologist for the CDC, co-authored an important paper in 2004 with Frank DeStefano and others critically examining the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The DeStefano et al study failed to show any positive correlation or causation, but Thompson disagreed with his colleagues on a technical issue having to do with how some of the data were handled.
Thompson took his complaints to Brian Hooker, a former biochemical engineer who now spends his time as an anti-vaccine quack. Hooker seized the opportunity that was handed to him when Thompson made the mistake of confiding in him. He selectively edited the recorded conversations he had with Thompson, putting portions of the audio out of sequence and lifting other bits out of context, to make it seem as if Thompson was blowing the whistle on a CDC conspiracy to hide the truth. But Thompson himself never explicitly accused his colleagues of fraud. In fact, as Orac has discussed on his blog, he never even argued that the confounding race factor he thought he detected in the data indicated the MMR vaccine/autism link that Brian Hooker wanted to tease out of him. Hooker, like Andrew Wakefield before him, manufactured a lie to support his anti-scientific vendetta against vaccines. He then put the lie into Thompson’s mouth, effectively exploiting Thompson’s apparent difficulty in communicating and getting along well with others, as well as his anger management issues.
These dishonestly-edited telephone conversations form the basis and main narrative thread of Wakefield’s new film. Vaxxed also relies heavily on a very poorly and unprofessionally conducted “reanalysis” paper written by Hooker that has been thoroughly discredited by the epidemiological community and ultimately retracted from the journal Translational Neurodegeneration for its grossly incompetent use of basic statistics. Hooker’s “reanalysis” tortured the data into a positive correlation between the MMR vaccine and cases of autism in African-American boys. As Orac points out in his detailed critical review of Hooker’s paper, even if this correlation really was positive (it isn’t), the results would still disprove the central thesis on which Andrew Wakefield has built his sordid reputation:
Even if Hooker is “right,” he has just undermined the MMR-autism hypothesis and proven Wakefield wrong, with the possible (and unlikely) exception of a single group, African American males. Given the dubiousness of his analysis and background, he hasn’t even demonstrated it for them, either, particularly given the copious other studies that have failed to find a correlation between MMR and autism. What he has done, apparently, is found grist for a perfect conspiracy theory to demonize the CDC, play the race card in a truly despicable fashion, and cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the CDC vaccination program, knowing that most of the white antivaccine activists who support hate the CDC so much that they won’t notice that even Hooker’s reanalysis doesn’t support their belief that vaccines caused the autism in their children.
No Such Thing as Bad Publicity
So it seems one can only go so far with pseudoscientific lies and misinformation in the scientific community. But apparently Wakefield will take anything he can get at this point, even when what he gets is a documentary that not only contradicts what he’s been preaching for years, but also suffers from abysmally poor production quality, as is evident from the film’s trailer.
Unfortunately, by not being more discerning in his first once-over of Wakefield’s film, De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival have effectively given Vaxxed the attention and publicity Wakefield wanted it to enjoy all along. This situation has allowed the anti-vaccination movement to construct a bogus censorship narrative. But their wedge strategy is apparent to anyone well-informed on the issues. They are crying censorship as a substitute for the sound, evidence-based argumentation that they lack. No one is conspiring to silence Wakefield. The reality is simply that his documentary is a piece of shit that has no place in any respectable venue.