One of the disadvantages of only doing one blog post a week here at Private-investigator-detective is that sometimes stuff happens at too fast a pace for me. If something happens on Tuesday, by the time Sunday rolls around and it’s time for me to do my weekly post, it’s often old news, too old to bother with. That’s why it’s a good thing that I have my not-so-super-secret other blog, where I can keep up with such events. On the other hand, the advantage of a once-a-week posting schedule is that there are times I can look back at a story that evolved over the last week and, instead of blogging about it in daily chunks, I can put together a post that tells the whole story and puts it in context. Something like that happened last week. The beauty of it is that I played a major role in bringing the story to public consciousness, followed the story as it evolved, and now can provide a fairly complete recounting. Or so I hope.
First, however, let’s take advantage of another good thing about waiting to blog about a story, namely getting to see the reactions of quacks to what happened. No one can do it better than everybody’s favorite all around quack, crank, and all-purpose conspiracy theorist Mike Adams, who greeted me yesterday morning with this headline: . What on earth is Adams talking about, you might wonder? In case you haven’t been following the news, here’s a link to the New York Times story on the same incident: “.” Basically, the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival selected an antivaccine documentary directed by Andrew Wakefield for screening and then thought better of it after a major uproar and a whole boatload of bad press.
I’ll deal with Adams’ post a bit later because it’s so hilariously nutty but also because it is basically the propaganda line that antivaccinationists are putting on this PR debacle brought about by Andrew Wakefield and Robert De Niro. (I never thought I’d use those two names in the same sentence.) Let’s go back a week and see what I mean.
The Tribeca Film Festival announces it will screen Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary”
Film lovers among our readers are probably already familiar with the , as it’s one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals on the yearly calendar. Founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, and Craig Hatkoff, the festival has grown into a major film juggernaut, and thousands of films are submitted each year for consideration. So it was with considerable surprise when last Monday I noted several announcements, discussions on Facebook, and gleeful Tweets and blog posts by antivaccine activists about how Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda film, , had been selected for a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s why.
When last we left Andrew Wakefield, hero to the antivaccine movement, he was a , a cruise filled with conspiracy theorists, crop circle chasers, cranks, quacks, and antivaccine activists. It was a huge come down from his formerly exalted position as chief , a position he enjoyed for many years before he was struck off (i.e., had his medical license stripped from him) in the UK and later had his scientific fraud documented so thoroughly by investigative reporter Brian Deer. Since then, it’s all been downhill, and, although his followers like to claim that he’s been done wrong and exonerated, . In January, it looked as though Wakefield had hit bottom, having been reduced to giving talks to adoring conspiracy cranks on the same podium as crop circle chasers. The only cranks missing were Bigfoot hunters. It was an incredibly appropriate venue for him, although no doubt he didn’t think so.
Regular readers might remember in the stories about Andrew Wakefield’s most excellent cruise adventure, such as the , that Wakefield screened a documentary that he had been working on. It was going to be about the latest conspiracy theory coming out of the fever swamp of antivaccine pseudoscience, the so-called “CDC Whistleblower” William W. Thompson. Thompson, as you recall, is the CDC scientist who complained to Brian Hooker, a biochemical-engineer-turned-incompetent-antivaccine-epidemiologist, that the analysis of important study done by his colleagues at the CDC in 2004 and him (DeStefano et al) was manipulated to hide a real positive result correlating MMR vaccination with autism in African-Americans. As I said at the time, Hooker’s “reanalysis” of the DeStefano et al study basically proved Andrew Wakefield wrong in that, other than for a very small subgroup, there wasn’t a hint of a whiff of a whisper of a positive correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the one seemingly positive result was almost certainly spurious. It was only because of Hooker’s utter incompetence at epidemiology and statistics that he foolishly inferred an actual result from his “reanalysis.”
Because this story seemed to confirm what I like to call the , namely that the CDC or other government agencies “knew” that vaccines cause autism but hid it from the people, the so-called “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory was born. Unfortunately, it has legs, too, as it was in August 2014 when Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker “outed” Thompson in a horrific video that compared this alleged CDC “coverup” to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Since then, has become a very common hashtag on Twitter, where antivaccine activists have . Of course, only antivaccine activists are not “sheeple.” Only they know The Truth.
And, as of less than a week ago, that “Truth” was going to get a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Vaxxed: A conspiracy theory propaganda film masquerading as a documentary
Basically, you can tell from that this is what Wakefield’s movie is about. You can also tell just how bad it is:
The film is described thusly on the website:
In 2014, biologist Dr. Brian Hooker received a call from a Senior Scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who led the agency’s 2004 study on the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and its link to autism. The scientist, Dr. William Thompson, confessed that the CDC had omitted crucial data in their final report that revealed a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Over several months, Dr. Hooker records the phone calls made to him by Dr. Thompson who provides the confidential data destroyed by his colleagues at the CDC. Dr. Hooker enlists the help of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist falsely accused of starting the anti-vax movement when he first reported in 1998 that the MMR vaccine may cause autism. In his ongoing effort to advocate for children’s health, Wakefield directs this documentary examining the evidence behind an appalling cover-up committed by the government agency charged with protecting the health of American citizens. Interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, and parents of vaccine-injured children reveal an alarming deception that has contributed to the skyrocketing increase of autism and potentially the most catastrophic epidemic of our lifetime.
The trailer, as you might expect, is a greatest hits of “CDC Whistleblower” conspiracy nonsense, beginning with a hilariously inept reenactment of Brian Hooker receiving his first phone call form William Thompson, after which “medical journalist” Del Bigtree starts bloviating about how Thompson told Hooker that the his coauthors, Frank DeStefano et al, had committed scientific fraud in its analysis of the data for their study. Of course, we all know now that and that Thompson his , although he sure did make it sound as though there was something not quite on the up and up about the way they analyzed their data. Unfortunately, . Meanwhile Hooker’s “reanalysis” was so bad that the paper reporting it was retracted, even by a new journal.
Particularly deceptive is a segment that occurs around 1:22 in the trailer, a cartoon that depicts a large syringe with green liquid in it in surrounding a girl with a Teddy Bear, clearly meant to represent a vaccine, presumably the MMR given the whole focus on the “CDC Whistleblower.” The animation is clearly meant to imply that the vaccine is toxic. Why is this deceptive? In the context of his “reanalysis” of the CDC dataset facilitated by Thompson, among Caucasian girls, even Brian Hooker couldn’t torture the data to make them “confess” to a correlation between vaccinating girls and an increased risk of autism. So why didn’t Wakefield choose to put an African-American boy in the syringe? After all, when Brian Hooker tortured the data, all he could get them to confess to was a correlation in a subset of African-American boys? Perhaps Wakefield knows his audience well and therefore considered the image of the white girl with a Teddy Bear more palatable for a trailer than that of an African-American boy.
True, later in the trailer children of all races are shown, but that seems to be just a means to imply that Hooker’s results are generalizable beyond African-American boys. Even if they were real results (which they are not), based on sound statistical analysis (Hooker’s statistical “analysis” was anything but sound), Hooker found no link in any other subgroup besides one group of African-American boys. Basically, the filmmaker is making a blatantly obvious attempt to take a single result from an incompetent “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al and suggest to the audience that the results apply to all children.
Later, to my surprise, Dr. Jim Sears shows up at around the 2:00 mark, thus shattering any of his yet again. (Usually .) After all, you don’t appear in a movie directed by Andrew Wakefield saying that Wakefield was right after all if you have a shred of scientific knowledge—or dignity—left or if you are not at least antivaccine-sympathetic, if not outright antivaccine. Sears is followed by (R-FL), whose swallowing of the misinformation promoted by Hooker and Thompson helped perpetuate the whole “CDC whistleblower” urban myth. He’s rapidly followed by Stephanie Seneff, someone with no expertise in epidemiology who thinks she can do autism epidemiology. Hilariously (to me), she claims that, if we extrapolate current trends, by 2032 80% of boys will be autistic. What’s particularly silly is that Seneff isn’t even an MMR crank. She’s a GMO crank, the author of a and another .
Finally, it’s interesting to consider others involved in the film. For example, there is Del Bigtree, who produced Vaxxed. It turns out that he also has produced a number of episodes and segments of , which could explain how Jim Sears was roped into appearing in Vaxxed. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that Sears appears not to be a principal “doctor” any more on The Doctors. His name is , although he has . But that’s not all. There was another unexpected surprise in the cast. I’m referring to , former CBS correspondent and , as has been going . Her connection to Wakefield dates back at least , but she is most “known” in antivaccine circles for her utterly dishonest reporting of the murder of an autistic teen named Alex Spourdalakis. , too.
Tribeca responds to the backlash
It’s clear that Vaxxed is an utter crankfest of a movie, far more antivaccine propaganda than any attempt at a serious treatment of a subject, which is why it’s not surprising that there was such an uproar among scientists, physicians, and skeptics when its selection was announced. At first, the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival seemed to be taken aback by the controversy. :
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
“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, unlike the case in social or political issues, there is very often a right answer, and, more importantly, there are very often answers that are clearly wrong based on science. (Guess which category Andrew Wakefield’s views fall into?) 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. Indeed, we’ve discussed the issue on this blog 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?
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 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.
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 has been written so before, there’s to that story. It’s worse than that, though, particularly with respect to this movie.
Just how worse this “documentary” was, was documented by Matt Carey, who did a 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 then 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.
So basically, what we had mid-week was a film selection for the Tribeca Film Festival that was causing increasing consternation both among science advocates and filmmakers. Indeed, filmmaker Penny Lane wrote an epic that she posted on her Facebook page that explains exactly why Vaxxed is different from other documentaries that take a controversial stance on a contentious issue and just why Tribeca’s defense was so disingenuous:
Here is the problem with your statement: it assumes that Vaxxed is just like any other film taking on an unpopular, controversial or provocative subject. It is not. There is a big difference between advocacy and fraud, between point of view and deception. For you to claim there is no difference, and for you to screen this film, perpetuates Wakefield’s fraud.
Robert De Niro confesses
As the week progressed, I kept asking myself: How on earth did a film as fraudulent as Vaxxed manage to get accepted for screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, complete with a Q&A afterwards? Those who’ve followed the story might also recall that elsewhere I speculated, based on Andrew Wakefield’s having bragged to the faithful that Leonardo DiCaprio was promoting his film, even though later he . Of course, it’s not as though Hollywood in particular and the film making community in general isn’t full of people with antivaccine views. Consequently, other possibilities that I considered included either that one or more of the people tasked with selecting films for the festival had greased the wheels, or even one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s founders, such as himself, had done so, noting that De Niro has an autistic child and has been involved with at least , appearing with Suzanne and Bob Wright, as well as their daughter Katie.
To my surprise, my latter speculation turned out to be correct, as I learned when Tribeca did the classic Friday afternoon PR dump with this :
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.
I couldn’t believe that it actually was De Niro who got Vaxxed into Tribeca. In any case, I couldn’t help but think that if Robert De Niro and his wife Grace wanted to help their autistic child, “dialogue” generated by a propaganda film directed and written by a known scientific fraud whose UK medical license was revoked featuring a viewpoint trumpeting a long-discredited idea that MMR causes autism grafted onto a about the CDC “covering up” the evidence that vaccines cause autism that has is not a good way to go about this.
Out of curiosity, I couldn’t help but try to figure out what film set my source had seen De Niro on. To answer this question, the most obvious things to do to try to figure this out are (1) see if De Niro had shot a film in Texas during the last decade or so, particularly near Austin, which is where Wakefield lives and (2) see if De Niro had ever done a movie with known antivaccinationists, particularly supporters of Wakefield. So I did. Regarding the latter, the first hit of a Google search about films made in Austin with Robert De Niro pulled up . Being somewhat of a connoisseur of bad movies, I remembered enjoying this violent cheesefest of a film, particularly the character played by De Niro, a hilariously racist and corrupt Texas state senator. I also remembered something about the director of the movie, Robert Rodriguez, namely that he and his wife had provided Wakefield with a blurb for his book, :
Meeting Dr. Andy Wakefield changed our lives and . . . we are forever grateful. His wise and measured advice about vaccinations helped us dodge a bullet . . . Our fourth son [had] multiple allergies and repeated infections . . . We now fully realize [he] would have been a victim of immune overload had we followed the regular vaccine schedule . . . [He] is [now] bright and healthy . . . This book provides a terrifying insight into what has been happening behind the scenes as efforts redouble to silence Dr. Wakefield . . . It is a wake-up call to those who think [he] is anything other than a modern day hero fighting for all of our children.
Let’s see. A movie filmed in Austin in which Robert De Niro was one of the stars? Check. A movie whose director and his wife are very antivaccine and tight with Wakefield? Check. Yes, I could well be wrong about this, but at this point I don’t think I need to look any further for how Robert De Niro’s wife probably met Andrew Wakefield. This looks like the most likely film set over the last decade where Wakefield would be allowed to show up and where De Niro was starring. Of course, if it wasn’t Rodriguez who introduced De Niro’s wife to Wakefield, it could have been any number of antivaccine actors, actresses, or filmmakers. Hollywood is rife with them.
If it was indeed Rodriguez and his wife, what happened after that, who knows? I can only speculate that De Niro’s wife Grace Hightower either introduced De Niro to Wakefield or, at Wakefield’s urging (and you know it had to be at Wakefield’s urging, as I highly doubt that Hightower or De Niro would volunteer to do this unbidden) lobbied her husband to show it. Given that Hightower herself, she might well have been more susceptible to the message that the CDC was covering up data showing that the MMR vaccine can cause autism in African-American boys. I further speculate that De Niro might have done this against his better judgment, given that the movie was scheduled for the last day of the festival, opposite a lot of award ceremonies.
Unfortunately, barring someone involved (other than Wakefield, of course) talking, we can never know for sure. My speculation could be totally off-base, but circumstantially it sure strikes me as reasonable.
A surprise decision
As angry as I was at him, as of Saturday I actually did still kind of feel sorry for Mr. De Niro. He wouldn’t be the first person conned by Wakefield on the basis of he and his wife having an autistic child, and his decision to intervene to bypass the normal selection process for Wakefield was producing disastrous consequences for him and his festival. In the wake of his press release, all manner of articles appeared, with titles such as ““, castigating De Niro for having let Wakefield use his respected film festival as a vehicle to promote his antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Pretty much all the press Tribeca was receiving as of Saturday morning was bad press about screening Vaxxed. Meanwhile, ever their own worst enemies, the flying monkeys of the antivaccine movement had descended upon the Tribeca web page for Vaxxed, there to fling their poo of pseudoscience and nastiness so unhinged that surely it must have had an effect. Indeed, the last time I checked the total number of comments was over 2,000, and the crazies were truly out in force, including John Scudamore, the man responsible for Whale.to, one of the oldest and largest repositories of pseudoscience and quackery on the whole Interent. That, and and in the form of that old anti-Semitic forgery . It’s a shame the page is now gone, because antivaccinationists are their own worst enemies, and it was amusing to behold. No doubt this influx had an effect on De Niro as well, as no rational, intelligent person could look at the sorts of things they were saying and not conclude that these people are total loons.
I say this was a surprise decision, given how resistant the culture among film makers is to anything that appears to be “censorship,” but maybe I shouldn’t have been. The only way to stop the bleeding due to De Niro’s self-inflicted wound was to , which was done on Saturday afternoon:
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.
Interesting. It sounds as though De Niro never actually watched the film before okaying its inclusion in the Tribeca Film Festival and, with the help of people who actually knew something about vaccines and autism, realized that he’d been conned and was horrified. I wonder if “we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program” really means, “Oh, my god, how could I possibly have okayed a film this badly made and this obviously full of pseudoscientific nonsense and conspiracy theory claptrap?”
The name Wakefield should have been enough to tip him off.
No, this is not “censorship”
So in the end, science won this battle, with De Niro essentially admitting his error (without actually saying he made a mistake or apologizing—baby steps I guess) and having taken a step towards reclaiming the reputation of the Tribeca Film Festival by yanking Vaxxed. But it’s a victory I feel ambivalent about. Before I explain why, I can’t help but point out that I don’t feel the least bit ambivalent about reactions of the antivaccine fringe, like and rants like this:
Yet De Niro discovered that even declaring yourself to be pro-vaccine isn’t enough to appease the vaccine totalitarians. The mere granting of any public platform to this explosive document is very nearly a crime in the eyes of the corrupt, fraudulent vaccine industry and all its arrogant zealots.
As more pressure was brought against De Niro for defending the free speech of what might be one of the single most important documentaries of our modern age, he caved. He pulled the film from Tribeca, participating in the censorship that was demanded by the vaccine totalitarians. The film’s page on Tribeca was also memory holed — it used to be found at this link — and De Niro felt compelled to issue a follow-up statement today that appeases the demands of the vaccine fundamentalists.
Earlier in the week, the “Media Editor” at that wretched hive of scum and quackery Age of Autism, Anne Dachel, had over articles attacking the Tribeca Film Festival for including Vaxxed in its lineup.
Let me spell it out one more time for Ms. Dachel and Mr. Adams:
I hate this gambit, because it is so clueless.
Let’s take a look at what happened here. Robert De Niro, for whatever reason, made a huge mistake, choosing to bypass the regular selection process for the Tribeca Film Festival to include what even the trailer reveals to be a dishonest film that , William Thompson, and promotes a dangerous pseudoscientific idea. Of course, the Tribeca Film Institute is a private corporation; it had the right to choose to screen any film its organizers wanted to screen. It could use any criteria and process that its organizers deemed appropriate. It could have, if it so desired, taken 3″ x 5″ cards with the name of each film entered into a big bowl and draw them at random or just had Robert De Niro, pick whatever he wanted the festival to show if that’s what it had wanted to do. There’s nothing any of us could do about that directly. Those of us on the pro-science side were also quite cognizant that in any film festival screening hundreds of films selected from thousands of submissions, there will be occasional—or even not-so-occasional—pieces of cinematic crap that slip through. Vaxxed, as said by Penny Lane, “smells” different than the run-of-the-mill bad movie that sometimes gets selected for film festivals, even ones as prestigious as Tribeca or Sundance.
What we could, should, and did do was to criticize and question the selection. We also had every right to start asking organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival how such a piece of scientific and cinematic dreck could have been selected. None of those of us writing critical articles called for “censorship.” The worst that we called for were (1) an accounting by the organizers of the festival for how this film was selected and (2) for skeptics to attend the screening in order to draw attention to the lies in the film and, quite frankly, to make Andy and his fellow filmmakers sweat with some uncomfortable—but polite!—questions that poke holes in the claims made in the film.
Seeing these criticisms, Robert De Niro first tried to defend his decision through the classic technique for dealing with bad PR, the Friday afternoon press release, and then the next day decided to reverse himself and pull the film. Why? In retrospect it is obvious that De Niro had no idea what he was doing when he agreed to have Vaxxed screened at Tribeca, because he clearly did not foresee the backlash. I’m sure that, motivated by his experiences with his autistic child, he thought he was doing a good thing that might help others with autistic children. That’s how Wakefield gets you.
Still, in a way I’m a bit disappointed. De Niro had made a horrible decision, but, once the decision had been made, I really didn’t expect it to be unmade. It would have been great to have some skeptics be among the first to see the movie in a venue that Wakefield could not completely control. I expect now that Vaxxed will probably see its first showing at an antivaccine quackfest like Autism One. Meanwhile, antivaxers like Mike Adams will portray this as yet more evidence of a “conspiracy” to suppress their viewpoint and will use it to fire up their followers. That’s why I’m not sure if this is a victory or not.
Whether this decision is a victory for science or not, Robert De Niro is now learning a painful lesson. He’s now finding out the hard way why those of us who’ve studied him say that Andrew Wakefield discredits anything he touches. That now includes the Tribeca Film Festival.