Respectful Insolence

What’s going on here? Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda film to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival

When last we left Andrew Wakefield, hero to the antivaccine movement, he was a headliner on the Conspira-Sea Cruise, 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 spokesman and “scientist” for the antivaccine movement, 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. In January, it looked as though Wakefield had hit bottom.

Maybe he did, because, unfortunately, things appear to be looking up for him, at least somewhat. Here’s what I mean. Regular readers might remember my mentioning the documentary Andrew Wakefield was 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 a 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 central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that the CDC or other government agencies “knew” that vaccines cause autism but hid it from the people. Of course, only antivaccine activists are not “sheeple.” Only they know The Truth. Only they have figured the conspiracy out. Only they are not sheeple. And now Andrew Wakefield has made a movie about it, called Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe.

It’s going to premiere in New York on April 24. And, get this. It’s going to be featured in the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s its description on the Tribeca Film Festival website, which describes the film and points out that it’s in the “Tribeca Talks After the Movie” section, meaning there will be a discussion with the filmmakers afterwards. You read that right. Andrew Wakefield had an antivaccine film accepted by the Tribeca Film Festival. That’s why I said things might be looking up for him.

Here’s the trailer:

The film is described thusly on the Vaxxed 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.

Hoo boy. The trailer, as you might expect, is a greatest hits of “CDC Whistleblower” nonsense, beginning with a reenactment of Brian Hooker receiving a phone call form William Thompson and then a “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 nothing of the sort happened and that Thompson never accused his co-authors of fraud, at least not explicitly, 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, conspiracy-friendly journalists ate it up. 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.” Of course, as I pointed out before, 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. Why didn’t the filmmaker 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 the filmmaker considered the image of the white girl with a Teddy Bear more palatable for a trailer than that of an African-American boy for the audience for which this documentary is intended.

Yes, I went there. I make no apologies.

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, based on sound statistical analysis, Hooker found no link in any other subgroup besides one group of African-American boys. Of course, they’re almost certainly not real, and I’ve discussed why on many occasions before. 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 the children of the intended audience for the film.

Then, to my surprise, Dr. Jim Sears shows up at around the 2:00 mark, thus shattering any of his claims that he isn’t antivaccine yet again. (Usually it’s “Dr. Bob” Sears who’s spewing the antivaccine misinformation.) 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 Rep. Bill Posey (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 risibly bad paper blaming autism on glyphosate and another blaming it on aluminum adjuvants.

Upon learning about this film, my one question was this: How on earth did Wakefield get this film accepted by the Tribeca Film Festival? After all, this isn’t just any film festival, like the festival that accepted Eric Merola’s paean to the cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski three years ago. Its submission requirements are clear, and the festival regularly attracts renowned filmmakers and actors. In 2006 and 2007, the festival received 8,600 submissions and only had 1,500 screenings. This year, the festival will feature actors and actresses like Tom Hanks, Tina Fey, and the cast and crew of Taxi Driver, as well as acclaimed directors like J.J. Abrams, Jodie Foster, Baz Luhrmann, and Alfonso Cuarón. Also participating will be Patti Smith, Idina Menzel, and Francis Ford Coppola, Ricky Gervais, Katie Couric, David Byrne, and Anthony Bourdain. This is not B-list stuff. It’s at least A-list and above.

So, knowing that, once again, I ask: How on earth did this documentary full of antivaccine lies whose filmmaking isn’t even particularly impressive, if the trailer is any indication, get into Tribeca? Not being a filmmaker myself or particularly privy to the film selection process, I could only look around. I found one particularly revealing blog post buy a filmmaker that explains how this travesty might have happened:

Simply put, the festival submission process is the filmmaking equivalent to the lottery. Worse actually, because at least all lottery ticket buyers are playing on the same level. Do you think every film that submits to a festival gets equal consideration? You don’t? Good, I would hate to be the one to throw that bucket of cold water on you.

He continues:

I won’t pretend to know all the inner workings of the selection process but many films that get in get in do so through back channels, who-knows-who and sometimes even through bribery – friendly and playful bribery, but bribery none-the-less. Many films get selected after screening at a major festival or because the star of the film has connections. There is no way to compete with that. None. My very favorite story was reading an interview with the festival director of the 2009 South-by-Southwest Film Festival joking that she was thrilled a film she acted in was selected. She would have to be one hell of a great actress to make me believe she was really surprised.

So let’s see. The founders of the Tribeca Film Festival are Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff. Could there be a link? Robert De Niro, for instance, has hosted events with Autism Speaks. In the past, Autism Speaks caught deserved flak for being very sympathetic to the view that vaccines cause autism, although of late Bob and Suzanne Wright were never as much on the side of the vaccine-autism concept as their daughter Katie. In any case, Robert De Niro is known to have a son with special needs, but I could not find any evidence that he’s ever publicly said anything that could be interpreted as antivaccine. So it could just be that with hundreds of films accepted and thousands submitted Andrew Wakefield got lucky. Or maybe there was an antivaccine-sympathetic reviewer who saw his film. There’s really no way of knowing, and there certainly are lots of other people involved with organizing the film festival who might have given Wakefield some special consideration. It’s not as though there aren’t a lot of actors, actresses, and filmmakers out there who are antivaccine-sympathetic, if not outright antivaccine. One can only hope that the organizers can be embarrassed, because they should be.

Here’s another possible explanation. During a talk on the Conspira-Sea Cruise Andrew Wakefield claimed that Leonardo DiCaprio was promoting his film and that DiCaprio and his father were “going to put all their efforts behind it,” although he denied that he had made that claim when interviewed later in the cruise. If Wakefield’s claim is true, one can’t help but wonder. DiCaprio and De Niro have known each other since DiCaprio was 15, when they worked together in DiCaprio’s first major film. Could this be how Wakefield’s propaganda piece was selected for Tribeca? Again. there’s no way of knowing, but it’s hard not to speculate that, if what Wakefield let slip is true, DiCaprio might have had a word with his buddy or just used his star power to “suggest” Wakefield’s film. If true, it would explain a lot. Certainly DiCaprio wouldn’t be the first famous environmentalist to extend his beliefs to include antivaccine pseudoscience about “toxins.” (I’m talking to you, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources or skill set to investigate further. Maybe someone else does.

By whatever means Wakefield’s film was accepted for the Tribeca Film Festival, through someone in the festival with power to influence film selection who is sympathetic to the antivaccine message, an antivaccine-sympathetic star putting a good word in to the festival organizers, or through sheer, dumb luck (it almost certainly wasn’t due to the quality of his filmmaking, if the trailer is any indication), you can count on antivaccine propagandists milking this selection for all it’s worth. (Indeed, the antivaccine crank collective at Age of Autism are very happy.) At the very least, it’s a propaganda coup for Wakefield. I’m sure this is by no means the worst or most offensive film ever selected for the Tribeca Film Festival or another major festival, but it’s certainly one that has the potential to do the most harm to public health. However they selected Wakefield’s documentary, the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival have screwed up big time and given antivaccine a big, fat piece of propaganda to scare parents into not vaccinating.

ADDENDUM: Jezebel has picked up the story, and Anna Merlan reached out to the film’s publicist. Here’s the denial she got again:

Vaxxed is being represented by a company called Lighthouse Public Relations. We spoke with Dawna Schuman of Lighthouse today, who again denied that Leonardo DiCaprio is involved with promoting the film in any way.

That said, she added, “There’s been people who have supported it. A lot of people have liked the idea of the film. Nobody’s lent their name publicly to the film.”

That’s going to change at the Tribeca screening, Schuman added: “There is celebrity support and they’ll be attending in New York.”

OK, NYC Skeptics and any skeptics in the NYC area: You need to attend. Besides asking skeptical questions, you can report on which celebrities show up for this screening. My guess is that they’ll be on the order of Jenny McCarthy or Rob Schneider, as the really big name celebrities could just ask for a screener and almost certainly get it, but it never hurts to watch.