It was announced this week that the Tribeca Film Festival would show the pro-disease film entitled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. The film was directed by Andrew Wakefield, who is known as the father of the anti-vaccine movement, after his discredited, debunked, and retracted study alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and Autism.
In a surprising development, the festival’s co-founder, Robert De Niro, has decided to pull the film from the lineup in April, just one day after defending his decision to screen it.
The festival announced pulling the film in a Facebook post:
My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.
The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.
While this is an excellent development, this is far from a redemption story. De Niro shouldn’t have allowed himself to be put in this position in the first place.
It’s almost always wise to listen to opposing viewpoints when discussing a topic. In doing so, it you may find potential flaws in your own argument, or it prompts you to adjust your opinion on a subject based on the new information presented. In these instances, it helps avoid being caught in an echo chamber of ideas- the unabated affirmation of your own personal beliefs.
This is not one of those instances.
De Niro had originally defended the decision to screen the movie just a day ago, saying:
Grace and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.
What Wakefield’s position boils down to is one large conspiracy theory- the notion that the ~14,000 people employed or contracted by the CDC would be able to keep the vaccine-Autism link a secret. If only we had research examining people’s ability to keep a conspiracy secret, we could potentially refute claims along these lines!
Research Examining People’s Ability to Keep a Conspiracy Secret
A study published by PLoS One in March 2016 examined the likelihood of four common conspiracy theories being kept a secret. The study looked at the moon landing conspiracy, the climate change conspiracy, the vaccine conspiracy, and the cancer cure conspiracy. The study looked at the total amount of people involved in each conspiracy, and what their projected ability would be to shut up about it. They found that 411,000 people would be complicit in the moon landing conspiracy, 405,000 in the climate change conspiracy, 22,000 in the vaccination conspiracy, and 714,000 in the cancer cure conspiracy.
The study found that, for everyone that would be involved, the probability of failure to keep the moon landing and climate change conspiracies a secret reached 1 (meaning 100% chance of failure) after only 3.7 years. For the cancer cure and vaccine conspiracies, the cat would get out of the bag after just under 3.2 years.
The “3.2 years” figure includes all parties involved- the CDC, WHO, and vaccine manufacturers. So the study also looked into the probability of just the CDC/WHO being able to keep a lid on the conspiracy as well. They found that it would fail after about 35 years. For reference, the first vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in 1796, meaning that the vaccine conspiracy should have crumbled at a minimum of 6 times by now.
Spoiler alert: there’s no conspiracy.
The Vaxxed trailer parades parents of children with Autism, as well as the children themselves, in a blatant attempt to appeal to the viewer’s emotion. The filmmakers know that the general public is rather unfamiliar with Autism and how it can present itself in children, and use this to their advantage, yet at the expense of the children affected by it.
I have no doubt that many parents of children who have severe Autism are angry. They want answers and don’t want to believe that Autism could be caused by a genetic issue, which would mean the parents could possibly “blame” themselves. They’re so desperate for an answer that they become willing to accept nearly any that sound remotely plausible. Wakefield provides such an answer, albeit wrong. If anything, parents who subscribe to Wakefield’s opinion demonstrate an extremely low level of acceptance for who their child actually is.
Wakefield himself is particularly devious in his methodology. He knows these parents are vulnerable, and takes full advantage. He is exploiting the parents who want something/someone to blame
The film’s central thesis hinges on the infamous “CDC whistleblower,” William Thompson, who has been [thoroughly debunked](thoroughly debunked). It also has clips from Stephanie Seneff and Dr. Jim Sears.
Seneff is the MIT computer researcher (not a biologist, toxicologist, neurologist, or pathologist) who claimed that [half of all children will have Autism by 2025](half of all children will have Autism by 2025). Interestingly enough, in the trailer Seneff changes her prediction to now be by 2032. It’s moderately amusing that, as we get closer to her prediction reaching is manifestation date, she’s pushing back her prediction. It’s almost as if she’s spouting bullshit. Dr. Sears claims to “not be anti-vaccine,” yet is happy to appear in an anti-vaccine film.
The trailer features ominous music and intimidating graphics (a child inside a green syringe- scary stuff!), but lacks actual credibility. Wakefield himself has been barred from practicing medicine in his own home country (the UK).
Orac explains it very simply:
The bottom line is that the anti-vaccine movement is very much like a cult. They follow their heroes and reject any information that disconfirms their beliefs.
So perhaps De Niro didn’t understand the original statement he was making by allowing the film to screen. I will take him for his word that he wanted the discussion. However, the discussion panel that was planned for after the film screened lacked any semblance of balance, as it consisted of those who helped make the propaganda piece itself. Additionally, not all topics are worthy of being discussed (see also: Creationism). But if you are going to discuss an issue such as vaccines, include actual medical professionals who are licensed- not quacks desperately grasping at straws to maintain relevance in the public eye.