Well, I’ve finally seen it. The things I do for my readers, the pain to which I subject myself by watching neuron-apotosing levels of pseudoscience, misinformation, and lies as antivaccine propaganda, in order to deconstruct them for your amusement and, I hope, education! Yes, I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.
On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
There are a lot of people featured in VAXXED. Some, like Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, Brian Hooker, Sheila Ealey, and Polly Tommey, are featured extensively, some only briefly. It’s a rag tag bunch of vaccine-autism pseudoscientists, parents who sincerely but mistakenly believe their children were rendered autistic by the MMR vaccine, and a couple of TV doctors. A more complete list can be found here, but the main players are:
Andrew Wakefield: Andrew Wakefield is the director of VAXXED and, as regular readers know, a British gastroenterologist who in 1998 published a 12-patient case series in The Lancet that claimed to have found a correlation between the MMR vaccine, autism, and bowel disease. Given the amount of screen time he gets and how much the narrative keeps circling back to him, Wakefield is undeniably intended as the star and central character in VAXXED, even though the story is purportedly about Brian Hooker and William Thompson, the “CDC whistleblower”. It was Wakefield’s case series that launched the antivaccine fear mongering about the MMR vaccine that led to MMR uptake plummeting in the UK and the resurgence of measles in the UK and Europe. Ultimately, the General Medical Council in the UK stripped Wakefield of his medical license for research misconduct; his Lancet paper was retracted; and he has since been reduced to doing conspiracy ocean cruises along with crop circle mavens, other antivaccine luminaries, and New World Order conspiracy theorists. Clearly, directing a film in which the director is a major part of the story is rather a massive conflict of interest, and, not surprisingly, much of VAXXED regurgitates the lies and misinformation that Wakefield has been spouting for the last 18 years, while Wakefield’s critics are portrayed in the most unflattering way possible or only in passing. Basically, a major theme of VAXXED is how the CDC whistleblower’s revelations exonerate Andy Wakefield and his “finding” that the MMR causes autism.
Del Bigtree: Del Bigtree is the producer of VAXXED and is also featured a great deal in the movie. (The producer and director, both showing up a lot on camera? Who’da thunk it?) It is unclear why a television producer and filmmaker with no relevant background in medicine or science is so heavily featured, although I do admit to having laughed out loud when he bragged about having been a producer of “the best medical talk show in the world” (The Doctors). Let’s just put it this way: The Doctors is only slightly less quacky than The Dr. Oz Show but even more vapid. (Just check out its segment on vaccines from a few years back if you don’t believe me.) The IMDB tells me that Bigtree produced 30 episodes of The Doctors between 2010 and 2015 and was a field producer for two. He also produced some segments for The Dr. Phil Show. These are hardly the qualifications I’d expect for someone to competently tackle a topic like this. Like Wakefield, Bigtree also makes the story about him by opining about how he had to make this movie because the mainstream press wasn’t covering the CDC whistleblower, and the two seem to have a mutual admiration society bordering on a bromance going on.
Brian Hooker: Brian Hooker is a biochemical engineer who now fancies himself an epidemiologist. He is introduced as a scientist who’s published extensively. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those publications have nothing to do with vaccines or autism and the ones that do are terrible. The best example of this is his 2014 Translational Neurodegeneration paper containing his “reanalysis” of William Thompson’s data, which was ultimately retracted by the journal editor. (So Hooker and Wakefield share something in common!) He is portrayed as a “brave” scientist delving into secret CDC data (it’s not so secret) with the help of William Thompson to find what “they” didn’t want him to find.
William Thompson: I’ve written so much about William Thompson over the last two years that I’m getting tired of it. However, he is a key player in that he was a co-author on the 2004 DeStefano et al paper that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield and Bigtree try to use Thompson’s words contrasted with the negative result published in DeStefano et al as slam-dunk evidence that the CDC “covered up” data showing that vaccines cause autism in African-American children. In a fit of payback to his colleagues, Thompson had multiple conversations with Brian Hooker alleging scientific misconduct at the CDC. Unfortunately for him, Thompson did not know that Hooker secretly recorded several of these conversations. The transcripts of Thompson’s conversations with Hooker (and why they don’t show what antivaccine activists claim they show) are discussed in detail here. Thompson also gave a large number of documents to Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), a number that is sometimes claimed by antivaxers to be “100,000 documents” but in reality was far fewer. A detailed discussion of the documents Thompson gave to Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) can be found here, here, and here. On the other hand, all my writings and delving into how Thompson became the “CDC whistleblower” were an enormous help to me in seeing through the utter BS that VAXXED lays down in so many of its scenes, because VAXXED is basically the story of the CDC whistleblower through the lens (if you’ll excuse the term) of Andrew Wakefield and his pathologic need to be “vindicated.”. Thompson is never seen on screen, other than by the occasional stock photo, which is understandable given that nothing has been heard from him since August 2014. However, inexplicably, I couldn’t help but notice, as others did, that whenever Thompson speaks, this graphic of an undulating computer-generated line over a document appears on screen, with occasional key words and phrases popping out. It’s very strange indeed:
Co-starring: The parents
The parents, contrary to what the filmmakers want you to think, really aren’t given top billing in VAXXED. They do, however, share co-starring roles:
Polly and Jon Tommey: Polly Tommey is the editor of the magazine The Autism File, which peddles antivaccine pseudoscience and quack “autism biomed” treatments. Better known in England than the US, she has also worked closely with Wakefield on the Autism Media Channel (e.g., the deceptively told story of the murder of autistic boy Alex Spourdalakis, whose mother was heavily into “autism biomed” quackery). (As an aside, my writings on Alex Spourdalakis inspired someone to complain to my bosses. How typical.) She and her husband have an autistic son whose autism they blame on the MMR, and that is what drove her into the antivaccine camp. No mention is made in the movie that she has been a longtime collaborator with Andrew Wakefield. In the movie, she is presented just as another parent who believes her son’s autism was caused by vaccines and now works for vaccine safety. In reality, she is as antivaccine as Wakefield. Some of the most exploitative footage of autistics used in VAXXED are of her son.
Sheila Ealey: Sheila Ealey is an African-American woman who believes her son’s autism was caused by an inadvertent double-dose of MMR administered at 13 months. Her story has a lot of holes in it in that she claims his medical records were stolen from her evacuated apartment in New Orleans and that her lawsuit was thrown out because of Merck’s machinations. These days, she’s been appearing with Wakefield and Bigtree when they do appearances in communities that are predominantly African-American, like Compton. Her story emphasizes how her daughter, who did not get the MMR is an accomplished pianist and doing very well. Here is one segment featuring her:
Mark Blaxill: Mark Blaxill is an antivaccine activist associated with SafeMinds. His penchant for twisting science is well known. For inexplicable reasons he keeps showing up in the film, even though, he too has no scientific credentials to speak of.
There are also several other parents whose children are briefly featured, including one whose child is shown seizing in an (intentionally) uncomfortably long shot taken from home video.
Also appearing: The doctors and scientists
Besides Brian Hooker, three other scientists and “autism experts” are featured:
Doreen Granpeesheh: I had never heard of Doreen Granpeesheh before, but she shows up early in the movie as an autism expert. On her first go-around, she appears reasonable in discussing how autism is diagnosed, although she does repeat oft-debunked antivaccine tropes about an “autism epidemic.” Later in the movie, she starts to let her antivax quack flag fly, opining about how autistic children are autistic because their “detoxification” is defective. (Remember, a lot of quack “autism biomed” therapies and concepts of “vaccine injury” blame impaired “detoxification” for autism.) She is the founder of The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) but also worked at Thoughtful House back when Andrew Wakefield was the director. No mention is made of this prior connection.
Luc Montagnier: Winner of a Nobel Prize in Medicine (which he is shown receiving in VAXXED) for discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, Luc Montagnier has of late become the foremost example of what I like to call the “Nobel Disease“; namely, a tendency for scientists who win the Nobel Prize to descend into crankery and quackery. Of late, he’s been publishing studies that seem to endorse homeopathy, appearing in an HIV/AIDS denialist film saying that HIV can be cured with supplements and diet, and presenting his work at the yearly autism biomed quackfest known as Autism One, to the point that the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism defended him. Clearly, Wakefield and Bigtree wanted him in VAXXED because his Nobel Prize adds scientific status to the antivaccine misinformation they present.
Stephanie Seneff: Stephanie Seneff is on staff at MIT and an expert in computer science, but for some strange reason is often presented as an expert on biomedical science, even though her only training in biology is a bachelor’s degree from decades ago. She can’t seem to make up her mind whether it’s GMOs or vaccines that will ultimately make every child autistic, but that doesn’t stop Wakefield from showing her repeating her risibly stupid claim that 50% of all children and 80% of all boys born in the year 2032 will be autistic. This claim is based on extrapolating current incidence trends in an exponential fashion and is about as ridiculous as claims get but is treated in the movie as a dire warning that we must “do something” (presumably stop vaccinating).
Del Bigtree also recruits two of the physicians from his old talk show The Doctors to help. More on that later.
Bookending VAXXED: The Disneyland measles outbreak
Now that we know the who, let’s move on to the what. VAXXED begins with a pre-credits montage of news reports about the Disneyland outbreak and its aftermath. The outbreak, as you remember, started around the Christmas holidays in 2014 and persisted for months into 2015. It also focused the nation’s attention on the problem of low vaccine uptake and the influence of the antivaccine movement, whose prominent members went into veritable contortions of logic and science to argue that the measles isn’t serious and the story was overblown. The montage features reporters and pundits blaming the outbreak on low vaccine uptake. There’s a clip in which Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy refers to Andrew Wakefield’s long-discredited 1998 Lancet case series claiming to link the MMR vaccine to GI problems in autistic children, which Murthy quite correctly blames for launching the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement, and one in which California Senator Dr. Richard Pan argues for the bill he co-sponsored last year, California SB 277, which ultimately passed and has eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California. VAXXED even includes a clip from the Penn and Teller’s Bullsh!t episode about the antivaccine movement and of President Obama stating how the vaccine-autism link has been debunked, to add to a clip by Dr. Murthy saying the same thing.
The reason I spent so much verbiage on the first two minutes or so of the film is to try to help you understand where Wakefield and Bigtree are coming from. The first segment on the Disneyland measles outbreak sets the stage. Wakefield, who directed the film, clearly hates scientists so routinely describing how his work has been “debunked” and at least in part wants to use VAXXED as a vehicle for his vindication. Those not familiar with Wakefield might not realize this, but I recognized it from the first minute of the film and Wakefield’s choice to begin using the Disneyland measles outbreak and experts referring to his 1998 case series as having been debunked. Also, this montage segues to a shot of fingers typing on a keyboard, meant to represent CDC scientist turned “CDC whistleblower” William Thompson. The scene is dark; the contrast is high; and the voiceover is ominous. Thompson is quoted as saying “we lied about the scientific findings” and that the “CDC can’t be trusted to police itself.” Also, the Disneyland measles outbreak serves as bookends to the movie, as Wakefield and Bigtree circle back to the story in the last 15 minutes of the movie, portraying it as being used by the CDC and big pharma as a tool to sell vaccines and crush the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory.
It’s only after this that the title of the movie is shown, accompanied with a rather puzzling view of a syringe shooting out what looks like blue exhaust and lifting off like a rocket, behind which the letter X appears, later turning into the word “VAXXED.” It looks like this poster:
What is it supposed to mean? Who knows? Vaccines as missiles? Vaccines spewing pollution? I don’t know what this image is supposed to convey, but clearly it’s meant to be just as ominous as the voiceover quoting William Thompson’s words. The intent is clarified by the next image of a reenactment of Brian Hooker picking up his phone to answer an unexpected call from William Thompson. Soon after, Hooker tells the story of how his son regressed into autism two weeks after his 15 month shots. It’s a dramatic story, a story very similar to the stories of many parents who fervently believe that vaccines caused their child’s autism based on temporal correlation. Thus, the narrative is framed: Parents suffering through what is portrayed as the horrors of autism wronged by the CDC which, according to the “CDC whistleblower” covered up data showing a link between vaccines and autism.
This is a device that is used relentlessly throughout the film: interviews with parents who believe that vaccines made their child autistic interspersed with home video footage of their low functioning autistic children contrasted with earlier home video showing those same children looking happy and normal before vaccines. The message couldn’t be less subtle. Worse, the shots of the autistic children are frequently nakedly exploitative, showing them at their worst. At times, the parents tear up as they tell their story. Basically, this movie uses emotional manipulation at its most naked. Indeed, it is a plea—nay, a scream—to believe the anecdotal evidence of these attractive, suffering parents over science. Wakefield and Bigtree then provide a highly slanted selection of data. It’s also a powerful reinforcement of a particularly odious narrative known as the “lost child,” in which the child is portrayed as perfectly normal until vaccines took that normal child away and made him autistic.
Oh, and Wakefield is vindicated. (Remember, this movie is, more than anything else, about Wakefield.) Indeed, the movie beats the viewer over the head later with Wakefield defending his retracted paper, with the clear message that the “CDC whistleblower” vindicates Wakefield, who is portrayed throughout the entire movie as the “brave” defender of children and vaccine safety advocate. Much of the first 40 minutes or so of the movie features Wakefield repeating the same lies he’s been repeating for 18 years about how he came to want to investigate vaccines and autism (a parent called him out of the blue) with no mention of how he accepted large sums of money from a barrister looking to sue vaccine manufacturers. As Kathy at VaccinesWork notes, Wakefield’s 1998 case series is treated as totally legitimate, with no mention of why it was retracted or that Wakefield had his medical license stripped from him. Wakefield recounts how he recommended the monovalent measles vaccine instead of the trivalent MMR, neglecting to mention that he had a patent on a competing monovalent measles vaccine. Basically, everything he says in this segment portrays Wakefield as a man willing to sacrifice all for his beliefs and vaccine safety and his detractors as motivated by ideology, greed, or part of the conspiracy between big pharma and the CDC. Oddly enough, the movie doesn’t mention Brian Deer. Maybe it’s because Brian Deer ripped the cover off the whole rotten edifice that was Wakefield’s MMR scam and exposed it to the light of day.
I wonder why. (I know, sarcasm.)
The first holes in Brian Hooker’s autism narrative
Hooker’s story is dramatic and very similar to many stories of regression into autism after vaccination. It is also, as Matt Carey explains, a story that’s full of holes. I don’t mean to imply by this that Hooker is lying. Rather, human memory is malleable and parental recollection, when compared to objective records, is often shown to be incorrect. In this case, we have the records of Hooker’s case before the Vaccine Court, for which a claim of vaccine injury was denied, to compare to what Hooker says in the film. I urge you to read Carey’s post and Dorit Reiss’ analysis of Hooker’s case. Hooker states in VAXXED:
Two weeks after his 15 month vaccines, then he lost all language. He lost all eye contact. You would pick him up and he would just hang limp.
Yet according to court records, his son was seen by his pediatrician 19 days after his vaccination, and no such symptoms were noted, just fever, irritability, and decreased appetite. Moreover, other court records note that the Hookers had reported decreased eye contact as early as 12 months. Of course, there’s no way for a viewer of VAXXED to know this or to be familiar with just how unreliable human memory can be and how easily memories over time come to conform themselves with preexisting beliefs. It is a human trait to which we are all prone. However, if VAXXED represents Hooker’s story in such a slanted fashion, leaving out key pieces of information and presenting his flawed memories as fact, what else does VAXXED get wrong, intentionally or unintentionally?
Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al
I frequently refer to Brian Hooker as a biochemical engineer (which he is, by training and career) turned incompetent epidemiologist (which is what he demonstrates himself to be with every attempt at analyzing epidemiological data). In VAXXED, Thompson is portrayed as guiding Hooker, as Deep Throat guided Woodward and Bernstein during their investigation of the Watergate break-in, to the data that would reveal the conspiracy for all to see. (It’s just that subtle.) The funny thing is that it is implied on more than one occasion that the dataset used by DeStefano et al was not available to the public and that Thompson was fearful of providing it to Hooker, but then it’s claimed that through a “loophole” in the law through which Thompson guided Hooker, the “classified” dataset could be obtained legally.
Be that as it may, Hooker is an utterly incompetent epidemiologist. He analyzed data intended for a case-control study as a cohort study using “simple” statistical analyses. (Translation: He didn’t bother to control for confounders.) Indeed, he was later featured on a video (now taken down) bragging about the “simplicity” of his statistical analysis, to which I responded: “Here’s a hint. In statistics, simplicity is not beauty, nor is it rigor.” Basically, Hooker tortured the data until they confessed what he wanted them to. No wonder his study was retracted by the editor of Translational Neurodegeneration, the journal that originally published it. One notes that this was a relatively new journal, likely a bit desperate for submissions, as most new journals are. That its editors decided to retract Hooker’s monumental piece of statistical malfeasance is a big deal indeed.
Ironically, Hooker’s reanalysis is portrayed in the movie, as it’s been portrayed all along, as “vindication” of Wakefield’s finding that the MMR vaccine increases the risk of autism. It did not. Basically, it found a significantly increased risk of autism in a small subset (African-American males) of autism that was almost certainly spurious. For every other group, even Hooker’s reanalysis was in line with there being no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Of course, DeStefano et al is also presented as the be-all and end-all of studies examining whether vaccines are associated with autism, ignoring all the many other studies that have found no link. As I like to point out, even if DeStefano et al were totally discredited, the overwhelming scientific consensus would remain that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism based on many other studies, studies that VAXXED doesn’t mention.
Asks VAXXED: Did the CDC commit fraud?
The answer is “no,” as I’ve discussed time and time again, but, having set their story up in the first half of VAXXED, in the second half of the movie Wakefield and Bigtree then proceed to do their damnedest to convince you that the answer is “yes” with three “exhibits.” All of these will come as no surprise to those who’ve followed the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, as they are claims that Wakefield and Hooker have been making ever since they first created the CDC whistleblower manufactroversy. The three “exhibits” are:
- Exhibit #1: Deviation from the analysis plan
- Exhibit #2: Omission of data
- Exhibit #3: Destruction of documents
Between roughly the halfway point of the movie and the looping around again to the Disneyland measles outbreak, VAXXED makes each claim in a separate section with the title introducing it. Let’s take a look at these claims individually
Exhibit #1: Deviation from the analysis plan
The first claim attributed to Thompson in this section is that the CDC scientists led by Frank DeStefano deviated from the analysis plan in order to “hide” a statistically significant association between vaccination with MMR and autism in African American children. I’ve discussed this issue before, as has Matt Carey long before VAXXED and in his review of VAXXED. In the VAXXED narrative, CDC scientists didn’t like what they were seeing in the first analysis of the data that later formed the basis of the 2004 paper by DeStefano et al that failed to find a link between MMR and autism. The problem, as previously cited links show, is that the “race effect” was not discovered until after the final analysis plan was locked in, and no changes in the analysis plan were made after that. Moreover, the analysis plan did allow for the analyses that were ultimately performed, as Matt Carey has shown again and again.
VAXXED also claims that the CDC substituted birth certificate data in order to “hide” the association in African-Americans. I’ve discussed that claim in detail before, as have Matt Carey and Reuben. The bottom line is that it’s a smokescreen. The birth certificate analysis was planned, and there were legitimate reasons for it.
Exhibit #2: Omission of data
The next seemingly damning claim made by Wakefield and Bigtree is that the CDC omitted data in the final published version of DeStefano et al. This claim was first trotted out in film form in a video made by Autism Media Channel (remember Wakefield and Tommey?) Specifically, it is claimed that there was a strong association between MMR and “isolated autism.” What is “isolated autism”? In VAXXED, it’s autism without developmental delay. In the movie, it’s “just autism” and “nothing but autism”; i.e., completely normal kids with no hint of autism or autism spectrum disorders who didn’t show any signs of autism until 18 months. The claim is that the CDC conspired to omit data showing a shockingly high relative risk of “isolated autism” in children vaccinated earlier. It sounds convincing if you don’t know a lot about the issue. Indeed, if I were unschooled in the whole CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory, I would have been puzzled about how to explain it. Fortunately, Matt Carey is way ahead of me. First, he shows that DeStefano et al didn’t “hide” the result. It’s in Table 4 of the paper. What DeStefano et al did was similar, but not identical, to what Hooker claimed to have done. Instead of “isolated autism,” DeStefano et al examined autism without mental retardation:
If you want to say, “well autism without MR isn’t the same thing as ‘isolated autism’, consider this: the answer is basically unchanged from what Mr. Wakefield claims was “omitted”. Take a look at the table: in the total sample, the group without MR has basically the same result as was supposedly hidden. Odds ratio 2.45 (compared to 2.48), with confidence interval from 1.20 to 5.00 (compared to 1.16 to 5.31). Which is to say: the CDC published the result that Mr. Wakefield claims was hidden.
Smoke. Mirrors. Wakefield. Hooker.
This result is 10 years old. And no one, not Wakefield, Not Hooker, not anyone in the real advocacy community has made a big deal out of it until now. I do not profess to understand how Mr. Wakefield nor Mr. Hooker think, but here’s one reason why most people haven’t considered this “autism without MR” result a big deal: this is a raw data result. A result unadjusted for any possible confounders. The adjusted result, also highlighted in the figure above, shows a confidence interval that spans 1. In other words, there’s no suggestion of a real effect when one does a full analysis.
Which of course shows us why people do full analyses. Sometimes associations change when one controls for other factors. Sometimes associations get stronger. Sometimes they go away. Sometimes things that appear to not be associations are shown to be associations.
Yes, Hooker does love his “simple” analyses. Unfortunately, in epidemiology and statistics, “simple” usually means preliminary and not controlling for confounders. When confounders are appropriate controlled for, an analysis that is not “simple,” and often those initially discovered associations go away.
Exhibit #3: Destruction of documents
The final “exhibit” seems most damning of all, but it’s actually the simplest of all to deal with. When Rep. Posey gave his speech announcing the CDC whistleblower documents a year ago, he read a statement allegedly by William Thompson claiming:
The remaining four co-authors all met and brought a big garbage can into the meeting room and reviewed and went through all the hard copy documents that we had thought we should discard and put them in a huge garbage can. However, because I assumed it was illegal and would violate both FOIA and DOJ requests, I kept hard copies of all documents in my office and I retained all associated computer files. I believe we intentionally withheld controversial findings from the final draft of the Pediatrics paper.
Unfortunately, as Matt Carey and I pointed out, this story is highly unlikely as described. For one thing, as VAXXED mentions, all the remaining co-authors of the study other than Thompson have denied it (which VAXXED portrays as evidence of the conspiracy, of course), but more importantly it’s just not very plausible given government data retention and computer backup policies. There is no evidence that raw data from DeStefano et al were destroyed. Yet VAXXED portrays a frenzied situation in the couple of years leading up to the publication of DeStefano et al in which, after the “race findings,” the co-investigators met weekly to try to figure out a way to bury the finding, ultimately resorting to leaving out the problematic data. Wakefield also resorts to an appeal to disbelief, because he couldn’t believe that an epidemiologic study could take four years to complete and publish. Truly, it is obvious that Wakefield has not done anything resembling legitimate human subjects research since the early 1990s, if then.
Indeed, antivaccinationists seemed most displeased when the “CDC whistleblower” documents were released to the public by Carey and other bloggers because examination failed to find evidence of a coverup, no matter how much antivaccine-sympathetic journalists like Ben Swann tried to make them. We did learn from the documents that Thompson seemed to be a troubled employee back around 2004, as he complained about being placed on administrative leave for “inappropriate and unacceptable behavior in the work place.”
The Doctors attack
Perhaps the unintentionally hilarious scene in VAXXED occurs near the end of the movie, right after the story loops back around to the Disneyland measles outbreak. After portraying the outbreak as a tool used by the CDC and pharma to silence those who “question” vaccines and stir fear to sell more vaccines, Bigtree is shown bringing in two of the doctors on The Doctors, Dr. Jim Sears and Dr. Rachel Ross. It’s a scene that is so blatantly scripted, stilted, and fake that most reality show producers would have nixed it as being too obvious. Basically, Bigtree, after establishing that Sears and Ross have supported vaccination (which for Sears is doubtful) and administered vaccines (complete with shots of a pregnant Dr. Ross seeing patients and saying that she follows the CDC recommendations), gives them a set of documents, which he claims include the complaint about the CDC by William Thompson and the reanalysis of DeStefano et al and evidence of the CDC coverup. Shots of Ross and Sears in shock demonstrating acting more appropriate for a Telemundo soap opera follow. (All that is missing is the dramatically appropriate Latin score.) Next follow interviews, in which both state that their faith in the CDC and vaccines has been “shaken.” Dr. Ross in particular states that she will be delaying the MMR for her baby and asks, “What else am I being lied to about?” She even went so far as to write an apology letter featured on the VAXXED website in which she regurgitates antivaccine lies about the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and the CDC whistleblower and writes, “I apologize from the bottom of my heart to any children and parents that I have unknowingly harmed. I had no idea.”
Truly, I believe that Dr. Ross has no idea. Actually, I should rephrase that to say that clearly she has no clue.
What’s painfully hilarious about this whole sequence is how brazen it is. First, family practitioners and pediatricians (indeed, most MDs) are not scientists and lack the background to analyze the reanalysis of DeStefano et al. Second, they were only given one side of the story, with no context upon which to judge the claims made in the documents. Jim Sears, in particular, is the brother of Dr. Bob Sears, who has been discussed many times for his antivaccine-sympathetic views and his deceptive vaccine book and lately has been telling California parents how to avoid vaccinating after the passage of SB 277.
I blame Robert De Niro
I realize that documentaries are not necessarily supposed to be in any way “objective.” Indeed, most documentaries have a definite point of view and are trying to convince the audience that the filmmaker’s point of view is correct. However, having a point of view, a position if you will, to argue does not give filmmakers like Bigtree and Wakefield license to present their data deceptively or dishonestly, but that’s exactly what they do in VAXXED. That’s why some have referred to VAXXED, quite accurately, as a “fraudumentary.” They both present antivaccine misinformation and frame correct information in a deceptive way meant to persuade the audience that the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory is real, that the CDC is covering up evidence that vaccines cause autism, and that vaccines are dangerous. In the process they trot out a large list of the “greatest hits” of the antivaccine movement, such as:
- Autism is an epidemic. Nary a mention is made of the effect of changes in diagnostic definitions in the 1990s, better screening, and diagnostic substitution that strongly suggest autism prevalence is likely not increasing.
- Vaccines are not tested for safety as rigorously as pharmaceutical drugs (and, oh, Vioxxx…). Wrong. They are tested at least as rigorously as than other drugs.
- The vaccine omnibus hearings were defeated by a single “fraudulent study” from the CDC; that is, DeStefano et al, the very study featured in VAXXED as having been revealed as “fraudulent” by William Thompson. Nope. You can also read more here. I also note that one of the children who was a test case used to establish biological plausibility, William Yates Hazlehurst, was shown in video in VAXXED without the audience being informed that this child was one of the test cases and that his parents’ complaint was denied.
- There has never been a “vaxxed vs. unvaxxed” study. This is a favorite antivaccine fantasy. First, the question is framed as a randomized study, like a drug study, in which one group receives a placebo. This, of course, would be unethical because one group would be left unprotected. It’s also not true that there hasn’t been a “vaxxed vs. unvaxxed” study. In fact, there have been several. They generally show at least no differences in health and often better health in the vaccinated group. Basically, the claim that there is no “vaxxed vs. unvaxxed” study is a lie, antivaccine propaganda.
Yes, VAXXED is a deceptive bit of antivaccine propaganda, but it’s unfortunately become an influential piece of antivaccine propaganda. For example, Wakefield and Bigtree have actually successfully used VAXXED to win a meeting with powerful Congressmen like Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who is currently the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Dan Burton’s old committee). Chaffetz met with Bigtree, antivaccine lawyers, and an antivaccine blogger with the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss, best known for attacking a 12-year-old boy who posted a pro-vaccine video and having her posterior epically handed back to her in a hilarious manner, just a couple of weeks ago, with Chaffetz seemingly promising an “investigation” of the CDC. Meanwhile, Bigtree and Wakefield have teamed with Sheila Ealey to go into African American communities for showings of VAXXED promoting the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory.
I blame Robert De Niro for a large percentage of the damage VAXXED can potentially do.
Why do I blame Robert De Niro? Recall that De Niro bypassed the selection process of the Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded, in order to get VAXXED a showing there. True, the uproar among writers and documentarians over his giving preferential treatment to VAXXED ultimately led De Niro withdraw the film, but the uproar also brought a lot of publicity to the movie, as did Robert De Niro’s outing himself as a particularly clueless antivaxer.
Unlike other antivaccine movies like The Greater Good, which found only a small audience and rapidly faded into oblivion, VAXXED stayed in the news longer than any antivaccine (or even any quack) film I remember. Bigtree, Tommey, and Wakefield launched a nationwide publicity tour, doing Q&A’s after screenings all over the US, sometimes drawing decent-sized crowds. There might even be Congressional hearings (although I remain skeptical until I actually see it happening). Some African-American communities, communities that can least afford a decline in vaccination rates, have become more suspicious of vaccines, thanks to the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory. There’s almost certainly no way this would have happened if Robert De Niro hadn’t given VAXXED a leg up by inserting it into the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival lineup. Even if there hadn’t been such an uproar that forced De Niro to retreat, VAXXED could still have been marketed as having been selected for screening at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.
Thanks, Mr. De Niro. Thanks for making a weak weapon for antivaccine activists much stronger than it had to be.