Celebrities who support pseudoscience and quackery are worse than regular, run-of-the-mill believers because they have a much larger soapbox than any of us do. I have a pretty healthy blog traffic for a medical blog, but even I don’t reach more than maybe 10,000 people a day. Even at my not-so-super-secret other blog, we only reach four or five times that in a day on average. Compared to the millions that someone like, for example, Oprah Winfrey used to reach on a daily basis or that someone like Dr. Mehmet Oz reaches on a daily basis today, the reach of the entire science blogosphere is minuscule. That’s not to say that we don’t have an effect and that we don’t have influence, but most people don’t read science blogs, but they do watch TV, listen to the radio, and peruse Facebook, all of which can subject them to celebrity antivaccine messages.
Arguably, the first celebrity antivaccinationist (at least the first one who really became an activist) was Jenny McCarthy. True, you could make a case that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. preceded her with his infamous conspiracy- and pseudoscience-laden antivaccine manifesto Deadly Immunity. However, RFK, Jr. was nowhere near as famous as Jenny McCarthy. He didn’t declare himself a “father warrior” the way Jenny McCarthy declared herself a mother warrior after her son Evan was apparently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. RFK, Jr. didn’t take over an antivaccine organization the way Jenny McCarthy was invited to take over Generation Rescue, which was founded by our old friend J.B. Handley. Nor did RFK, Jr. lead an antivaccine march on Washington the way McCarthy did or give the yearly keynote for several years at the antivaccine quackfest known as AutismOne. True, RFK, Jr. did headline an antivaccine protest last year, but he’s at least seven years behind Ms. McCarthy on that score.
Fortunately, most antivaccine celebrities seem to be strictly B- and C-listers (or even D-listers). First there was Jenny McCarthy, and now there’s Rob Schneider, Jenna Elfman, Alicia Silverstone, Selma Blair, Kristin Cavallari, Bill Maher, and the like. There are even antivaccine politicians, such as Donald Trump; who has arguably become the most famous antivaccine loon in the world (although he hasn’t really been pushing his antivaccine message much since early in the 2016 campaign), Rand Paul; and, right in my own backyard, Patrick Colbeck, who is at least antivaccine-sympathetic. There are also director Robert Rodriguez and his wife Elizabeth Avellán. Rodriguez certainly isn’t a B list director. However, although it’s clear that Rodriguez and Avellán are great admirers of Andrew Wakefield, the most they’ve done has been to contribute a gushing blurb for Wakefield’s book Callous Disregard and to give the occasional quote about how meeting Wakefield changed their lives. It’s also true Jim Carrey, who at the time he was most active spewing antivaccine pseudoscience was an A-lister, but I rather suspect that his participation in antivaccine nonsense at the time derived from his romance with Jenny McCarthy, given that he hasn’t really said much about vaccines since the two of them broke up. No, I don’t think he isn’t still antivaccine, as I have seen news about him occasionally spewing antivaccine talking points on Twitter a couple of times. He just gave up activism.
That’s why I was very disappointed to see Robert De Niro reveal himself as the latest celebrity antivaccinationist. De Niro, of course, is anything but a B-lister or below. He’s one of Hollywood’s elite, an A+-lister through and through. He might even be the highest profile celebrity antivaxer yet.
Why do I say this? You might recall how last month pro-science advocates were shocked and dismayed to see that VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, a rabidly antivaccine “documentary” directed by arguably the most famous icon of the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield himself included in the list of films to be screened. Regular readers will recall that VAXXED recounts the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory about William Thompson, the CDC scientist who accused his colleagues of covering up evidence that the MMR vaccine was associated with an increased risk of autism in African-American boys. It was a charge without evidence to back it up and without merit, so much so that even Thompson doesn’t appear to believe it.
After the media uproar caused by this announcement had built up to become a major distraction, Tribeca tried a disingenuous excuse for having included this film in its line up, complete with a Q&A afterward by Andrew Wakefield and his latest buddy in pseudoscience, Brian Hooker. It didn’t assuage anyone, and the increasing uproar finally lead Robert De Niro, one of the cofounders of the Tribeca Film Festival, to admit that he had bypassed the festival’s regular selection process for documentaries and added the film to the festival’s roster. Even though De Niro’s publicist released this admission in a typical Friday afternoon PR dump used to deliver embarrassing news, even that wasn’t enough. The next day, De Niro pulled the plug on VAXXED, leading to the usual cries of “Conspiracy!” from the usual suspects.
Yesterday, on the first day of the Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro did an interview on Today in which he revealed more. Unfortunately, that more showed how far down the rabbit hole of antivaccine pseudoscience he has dived. Unfortunately, because he is the father of a son with autism, he was susceptible to the antivaccine narrative, and it appears that Andrew Wakefield and/or other antivaccinationists played De Niro and his wife (or De Niro’s wife and him) like the proverbial Stradivarius. Here’s the video:
It takes about 2:15 min. before the interviewers get to the “controversy.” First, De Niro is asked if he was surprised by the backlash. He demurs that he was shooting a movie and not really engaged, but he nonetheless defended it as “something people should see.”
De Niro also notes that there was a “backlash that I haven’t fully explored,” noting “but I will.” So why did he yank the film? He explains:
I didn’t want it to start affecting festival in ways that that I couldn’t see. But definitely there’s something to that movie and there’s another movie called Trace Amounts. And these movies have a lot of information about things that are happening with the CDC, the pharmaceutical companies, there’s a lot of things that are not said. I as a parent of a child who has autism am concerned. I want to know the truth, and I want to know the truth, and I’m not antivaccine. I want safe vaccines
Whoa. Stop right there. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the many years that I’ve been countering antivaccine pseudoscience, it’s this. Whenever someone feels the need to assert that he’s “not antivaccine” and claims he is “pro-safe vaccine,” that person is antivaccine—or at least antivaccine-sympathetic. If he were not, he wouldn’t feel the the need to pre-emptively assert his purity, his state of not being “antivaccine.” All antivaccinationists seem to sense intuitively that it is not a good thing to be antivaccine, that the rest of society quite rightly views being antivaccine as a threat to public health. That’s why they are so quick to proclaim that they are “not antivaccine” and that they are only advocating “vaccine safety.” They might not realize that that’s what they’re doing, declaring their antivaccine views, but that’s what they are doing. Indeed, over the years, I’ve found that one of the most reliable indicators of antivaccine views is the denial that one is “antivaccine” followed by the assertion that one is only promoting “vaccine safety.” Thus it has ever been.
De Niro follows the script:
Some people can’t get a certain kind of shot, and they can die from it, from penicillin. So why should that not be with vaccines?
Ugh. De Niro appears to be laboring under the delusion that scientists haven’t asked these very same questions, investigated them, and found there to be no reason for concern. They’ve investigated the MMR many times and failed to find a link to autism.
If you don’t believe that De Niro is antivaccine, just consider what he says next. It’s pointed out to him that Andrew Wakefield has been discredited, and that is undeniably true. De Niro responds:
Even he, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the day, even him.
To me, anyone who thinks that Wakefield hasn’t been thoroughly discredited either doesn’t have a sufficient knowledge base to judge or doesn’t know Andrew Wakefield. Which is Robert De Niro? Who knows? I just know that he seems to think that Wakefield is anything other than the fraud he is. That’s plenty bad, man.
De Niro was not alone, however. He was with Jane Rosenthal, a film producer who co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival with De Niro. It was Rosenthal who added to De Niro’s explanation. In fact, Rosenthal admitted that it was not the sponsors who were unhappy about the inclusion of VAXXED in the Tribeca Film Festival, as one might have guessed. She actually took pains to point out that it wasn’t the donors who were threatening to pull out of the film festival. Rather, it was the filmmakers themselves who were complaining, as well they should have. Let’s just put it this way. If I were a documentary filmmaker who had spent years making a real documentary, perhaps going into debt to do it, and managed to get it accepted for screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and I saw something like VAXXED being given a spot in Tribeca, I’d be seriously cheesed.
In fact, seeing this interview makes me even more cheesed. De Niro talks about how the “vaccine are dangerous” and how they’re dangerous to certain people who are more susceptible. The problem is, there’s no good evidence that vaccines, especially the MMR, cause autism or that there are babies who are “more susceptible” to the alleged effects of those evil vaccines. Not that reality inhibits De Niro from making these claims.
We learn at this point that De Niro’s wife, Grace Hightower, thinks she saw something change in their child after vaccinations. It is a story that we’ve heard time and time again. It’s also a story that remains singularly unconvincing, given the human tendency to confuse correlation with causation. In fact, De Niro even goes so far as to assert that there “is a link’ between vaccines and autism. As I’ve described so many times before, there is not. There isn’t even a whisk of a hit of a hint to link the MMR vaccine and autism. The idea that vaccines cause or contribute to autism is a failed hypothesis.
Not that any of that deters Robert De Niro from relating that his wife thinks that something “changed” in their son after being vaccinated. In fact, De Niro insists, against all evidence, that there’s “something there.” He even inists that “it’s not such a simple thing.”
Actually, it is. Vaccines do not cause autism. The interviewer even points that out, saying that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no link between vaccines and autism. De Niro would have none of that, airily proclaiming that it’s “much more complicated than that.” He even says that there is definitely a link between vaccines and autism.
Except that there isn’t.
It’s even worse than that, however. The interviewers gently try to suggest that decreased MMR uptake leads to increased incidence of measles, which is undeniably true and a major reason why antivaccine beliefs harm children. Well, it’s undeniably true to everyone but people like Robert De Niro, who goes on about how vaccines are “dangerous” to certain people:
Nobody seems to want to address that, or they say they’ve addressed it and it’s a closed issue, because there are many people who will come out and say, no, it changed overnight. I saw what happened, and I should have done something but I didn’t. So there’s more to this than meets the eye.
De Niro is asked if that’s been his experience, and De Niro responds:
My wife says that, I don’t remember, my child is autistic and every kid is different. There’s something there. There’s something there that people aren’t addressing, and for me to get so upset here, today, on The Today Show, means there’s something there. All I wanted was for the movie to be seen, for people to make their own judgment, but you must see it. There are other films, also, just documents show, just simple things.
Does De Niro regret pulling the film? Yes. He says so. He even admits that he pulled it because he didn’t want the festival to be affected, bemoaning the “knee-jerk reaction.” He says on the one hand that he “doesn’t even want to ask” who they are” but then says, “but now I will ask.” To me that sounds a bit like ain implicit threat, meaning, “OK, you filmmakers who complained about VAXXED.” I’m going to find out who you are.” When someone like De Niro says he’s going to find out who you are, if you make your living making movies, it’s time to be worried. De Niro’s threat is followed up by a gentle reminder from the interviewers to De Niro that it’s scientific consensus that there’s no link between vaccines and autism, followed by a question, “Do you believe that’s not true?” Here’s where De Niro really lets is antivaccine freak flag fly:
I believe it’s much more complicated than that. It’s much more complicated than that. There is a link. They’re saying there isn’t, but there are certain things. The obvious one is thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, but there are other things. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, but I know because I’ve seen so much reaction about…about…let’s just find out the truth. Let’s just find out the truth. I’m not antivaccine, as I say, but I’m pro-safe vaccine. Some people who cannot take the vaccine, and they have to be found out and warned. You give a kid a bunch of shots, and then something happens. Some parents are even in this documentary saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I talked to the doctor. He’s the doctor. I should listen. I didn’t. The next day…” Can you imagine how the parent feels?
When challenged on outbreaks due to decreased uptake of vaccines, De Niro says:
I don’t know if those statistics are accurate. I’m not the one to say. But there’s kind of a hysteria, a knee-jerk reaction. Let’s see. Everyone should have the choice to take the vaccines. Some places it’s becoming mandatory, but it benefits the big drug companies, funnily enough.
You know, despite apologetics for De Niro that I’ve read, I’m sorry, I know antivaccine. De Niro is antivaccine. Either that, or he’s doing a very good imitation of being antivaccine. Hell, I could play antivaccine Bingo! with this interview. It hits all the major antivaccine talking points, complete with the “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine’; I’m pro-safe vaccine.” De Niro states it word for word! He’s also wrong. This is a question that’s been asked and answered many times. Vaccines are not associated with autism. Scientists have already looked at this on multiple occasions.
How did De Niro become antivaccine? His is a story we’ve heard again and again. He has a son with autism, and it’s difficult for him to take care of him. The natural reaction is to ask, “How did this happen?” His wife, apparently, suffered the all too human failing of confusing correlation with causation, and De Niro bought into it too. Reading between the lines in this interview, I think De Niro wasn’t the one who “went antivax” first, but rather his wife Grace Hightower was. I’ve also heard a report from one of my readers that Hightower was seen talking to Andrew Wakefield on the set of one of her husband’s movies in Austin. Given that the director was Robert Rodriguez and that Rodriguez and his wife Elizabeth Avellán are very antivaccine, having contributed a gushing blurb to Wakefield’s book Callous Disregard, as I mentioned above, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was how Hightower and De Niro were indoctrinated. Then there’s this:
— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) April 14, 2016
Woops. I guess Carrey is still antivaccine, after all. That’s him with Niro with RFK, Jr. and De Niro.
Elsewhere, there’s Alicia Silverstone:
Check out Robert De Niro speaking from his heart, passionately, about an important issue for our children https://t.co/1I8VgSQ9KV
— Alicia Silverstone (@AliciaSilv) April 14, 2016
So where and how did De Niro become antivaccine? Was it Rodriguez and his wife? Was it Jim Carrey? Was it Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? Who knows? Hollywood is rife with antivaccine loons. Unfortunately, Robert De Niro has revealed himself to be just the latest in a long line of celebrity antivaccinationists. He walks the walk and talks the talk. He tried to help Andrew Wakefield out. Whether he did it at the behest of his wife or someone else, who knows, and, really, who cares? It doesn’t really matter much at this point. He did it just the same. The only good thing about this whole mess is that the media landscape has changed considerably since Jenny McCarthy first arose. Now, most news stories routinely refer to the “discredited” Andrew Wakefield and are less likely to engage in false balance, “tell both sides” interviews. Examples include articles about De Niro’s appearance by Anna Merlan and Maggie Fox. You could even see it here, where De Niro was asked point blank about the scientific consensus and forced to say that, although he’s not a scientist, but by damn he knows all those scientists are wrong because his wife saw “something change” in their son after vaccination and thinks vaccines probably caused his son’s autism.
Sadly, Robert De Niro has revealed himself to be antivaccine. He probably had hoped that no one would notice, that he’d be able to sneak Wakefield’s film into the Tribeca Film Festival to give it a boost without too much risk, scheduling it, as he did, on the last day of the festival and for only one screening. He miscalculated. The uproar forced him to backtrack, lest he damage the film festival he co-founded, and in his backtracking he was forced to declare himself as antivaccine, his denials notwithstanding. True, now he’s cleverly taking back his retraction, trying to have his cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, it’s working, as the majority of antivaccine coverage is resembling that of Mike Adams, who likens the whole situation to fascism and “medical totalitarianism,” painting De Niro as the victim of “mentally deranged vaccine fanatics who exercise no more cognitive rationality than a band of mind-numbed zombies on a bloodthirsty rampage.”
Depressingly, Robert De Niro is now at risk of becoming the new Jenny McCarthy. I know he’s doing this because he loves his son and wants to help him, but this is not the way. I only hope that he and his wife haven’t progressed to the next stage of antivaccine delusions: “Autism biomed.” He has, after all, already appeared at an Autism Speaks film premiere.