The Tribeca Film Festival’s disingenuous excuse for screening an antivaccine propaganda film by Andrew Wakefield

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about this again so soon, because one post seemed adequate to describe the massive dump that the Tribeca Film Festival just took on reality by announcing the screening of a pseudoscientific antivaccine propaganda film by The One Antivaccine Quack To Rule Them All, Andrew Wakefield. Any skeptic with an interest in medicine and vaccines knows that he’s one man most responsible for creating the myth that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. As a result, MMR vaccine uptake plummeted in the UK, and the measles came roaring back. I speculated why this might have happened. For instance, in a talk Wakefield had bragged that Leonardo DiCaprio was promoting his movie, only to deny later that he had ever said such a thing. Based on that it was hard not to speculate that perhaps DiCaprio or another movie star had something to do with greasing the wheels to get Wakefield’s film selected. Of course, as commenters pointed out, given how prevalent antivaccine views are in Hollywood, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there might be some antivaccine reviewers in major film festivals willing to let through a film like Wakefield’s Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, which tells the conspiracy theory of the so-called “CDC whistleblower.”

I was happy to see major websites and news outlets picking up the story. For instance, Anna Merlan, one of the reporters on the Conspira-Sea Cruise in January, published a story on Jezebel about it, and Steven Zeitchik published a story in the LA Times about it. What interested me about the latter story were two pieces of information I had not yet seen anywhere.

First:

On Monday, the annual springtime confab quietly announced that, amid a list of Hollywood-centric talks, it would screen a documentary titled “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.” The festival said that the film, a previously unknown production, draws a link between vaccines and autism and that the April 24 event would also feature “a conversation with creators and subjects of the film.”

Tribeca did not reveal the director. He is, it turns out, the highly controversial anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield.

This sort of behavior makes me think that the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival knew all along exactly what they were doing with this. On the other hand, why hide the identity of the director? After all, it would come out eventually. There’s no way antivaccine activists could resist trumpeting it to high heaven. The antivaccine cranks at Age of Autism are, not surprisingly, already doing exactly that.

Now here’s the part that really irritated me:

Contacted by the Times, a Tribeca spokeswoman provided a statement about the decision to host the film and its director.

“Tribeca, as most film festivals, are about dialogue and discussion. Over the years we have presented many films from opposing sides of an issue. We are a forum, not a judge,” it read.

Efforts to reach Wakefield via his publisher were not immediately successful.

Festivals are known for including provocative voices, especially in documentary categories, which sometimes feature advocacy pieces.

But it’s rare for a gathering to touch on such a hot-button issue from only one side. Many screenings with activist positions usually come from outside filmmakers, such as Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” about animal abuse at Sea World, or Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” about public education in the United States, both of which premiered at Sundance. The latter was strongly opposed by teachers unions, but it was made by a decorated Oscar winner, not the activists themselves.

“We are a forum, not a judge.” Let’s examine that assertion for a moment. It’s a common excuse made by, for example, reporters for “telling both sides” about scientific issues. Here’s the problem. This sort of attitude might make sense for social and political issues, but science is different, because in science there is often a right and a wrong answer. You can have all the “dialogue and discussion” you want about a scientific topic, such as the question of whether vaccines cause autism, but at the end of the day there is a correct answer based on science. Within a very small margin of error, the existing scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism, and it’s not as though this question hasn’t been studied many, many times.

Let’s look at this another way. The question of whether or not vaccines cause autism is very much like other scientific questions, questions such as

  • Did the diversity of life arise through undirected evolution?
  • Is human activity a major contributor to global climate change?

There are people who believe that the diversity of life did not arise through undirected evolution. They are called creationists or intelligent design creationists. Creationists believe God created all creatures in their original form, which hasn’t changed. Some young earth creationists believe the earth is only 6,000 years old. Intelligent design creationists, in contrast, believe that living organisms evolve, but that their evolution is somehow “directed,” that there is a “designer” (cough, cough, God) directing that evolution. Of course, from a scientific standpoint, none of these are scientific controversies. There is no science involved in their claims; in fact, science refutes their claims, as it does for the claims of believers in antivaccine pseudoscience. Would the Tribeca Film Festival organizers select a film by, for instance, Ken Ham claiming that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that evolution is a sham? Would they do it for the sake of “dialogue and discussion” as part of a “forum”? Would the Tribeca film festival screen the anti-evolution film the dishonest Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed or a film like it? Somehow I doubt it. Yet they have just done the equivalent by letting Andrew Wakefield use the imprimatur of their festival screen his conspiracy- and pseudoscience-laden film.

What about the question of whether human activity is a a major contributor to global climate change? The scientific consensus is overwhelming that human activity is contributing to the overall warming of the planet. Yet, as is the case with evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists) and antivaccine cranks like Andrew Wakefield, there are a lot of people who deny the science, using the same low-quality and deceptive arguments. Would the Tribeca Film Festival organizers select a film by, for instance, Lord Monckton or Anthony Watts, claiming that human beings are not contributing to the warming of the climate? Would they do it for the sake of “dialogue and discussion” as part of a “forum”? Somehow I doubt it. Yet they have just done the equivalent by letting Andrew Wakefield use the imprimatur of their festival screen his conspiracy- and pseudoscience-laden film.

You see where I’m going. The claim that human activity is not contributing to climate change, that undirected evolution does not explain the diversity of life, these are all questions for which there is an overwhelming scientific consensus refuting them. Color me—shall we say?—skeptical that the Tribeca Film Festival would screen advocacy films promoting these pseudoscientific ideas so blatantly and unabashedly in the name of “dialogue and discussion.” Of course, antivaccine pseudoscience of the sort that Andrew Wakefield promotes is every bit as refuted by an overwhelming scientific consensus as evolution or climate science denial, but the Tribeca Film Festival thinks it’s just hunky dory to let Wakefield have a one-sided “dialogue and discussion” about vaccines.

I can see the organizers retorting that, sure, maybe the science is against Wakefield, but what about the whole “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy, which is what the movie appears to be mainly about. As I’ve written so many times before, there’s just no “there” there to that story. It’s worse than that, though, particularly with respect to this movie.

Yesterday, Matt Carey did a masterful job of demonstrating how Wakefield deceptively edited recorded statements from William Thompson (a.k.a. the “CDC whistleblower,” the scientist who was critical of a 2004 study that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, the same study tortured by Brian Hooker to appear to show a greatly increased risk of autism in a subset of African-American males) to give a very different impression than the actual transcripts give. You really should read all of Matt’s post, but the CliffsNotes version is that Wakefield spliced two statements by Thompson together to make it sound as though Thompson was introducing himself to Hooker and than stating that he had “great shame” now because he knew Hooker had a son with autism, all as a prelude to alleging that the CDC had committed scientific fraud when in fact Thompson never really said anything of the sort. In reality, the statements were phone conversations much later in the Hooker-Thompson relationship, and Thompson, although complaining about a disagreement in methodology in the study never accused his colleagues at the CDC of scientific fraud. In fact, he even said:

The fact that we found a strong statistically significant finding among black males does not mean that there was a true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation.

Thompson just wanted more research, or at least that’s all he’s ever said in any public statements or any of his phone calls with Hooker that have been published.

I really hope that some intrepid reporter will dig deeper into this. Already, I see some interesting tidbits. First, apparently Jim Sears, the celebrity pediatrician featured in the trailer for Vaxxed, no longer has his TV gig on The Doctors. At least, he’s no longer on the show’s website. Meanwhile, on Facebook, Sears is sounding a lot like his brother, Dr. Bob Sears, in doing the “I’m not antivaccine” but the “CDC committed fraud” boogaloo. Credulity must run in the family. It just took longer to manifest itself in Jim Sears with respect to vaccines and bogus conspiracy theories than it did in his brother Bob, who appears to me to be busy selling medical exemptions to the California school vaccine mandate under SB 277, the new law that eliminates non-medical exemptions starting next school year.

Another interesting tidbit is that the producer of Wakefield’s antivaccine crapfest is Del Bigtree, who has produced many episodes of The Doctors since 2010 and has served in the past as a segment producer for the Dr. Phil Show. All he’d need would be a stint on The Dr. Oz Show to complete his credentials. Even without it, though, no wonder he gravitated to a a project as misinformation-filled as Wakefield’s.

In any case, I don’t buy for a minute the Tribeca Film Festival’s reason for selecting Vaxxed for screening and a Q&A afterward. It’s disingenuous as hell. Someone, somewhere in the process, be it a celebrity who recommended the film or a reviewer charged with selecting films for screening, there was an antivaccine or antivaccine-sympathetic person making sure Wakefield got in. Either that, or Tribeca has so little integrity that it would promote a film full of lies for the sake of some buzz and publicity. Either way, it reflects very poorly on the Tribeca Film Festival.

Here’s hoping (again) that there is a strong skeptic turnout to make sure that the Q&A after the film has some polite, but pointed questions about the content of the film. In the meantime, skeptics can make their displeasure known in the comments after the Tribeca Film Festival entry for Vaxxed.