I was given the opportunity recently to watch Mr. Andy Wakefield’s fraudulent and self-serving anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Controversy, produced by the non-vaccine scientist, Del Bigtree. After getting physically ill and angry, I thought it was my duty to do my own Vaxxed review, something more in-depth than the general criticisms I’ve done with this piece of junk in the past.
I don’t have it in me to write about everything wrong with this “documentary” – to be honest, I heard not one single bit of science-based fact presented with respect to the MMR vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. The fraudumentary mostly presented lies, misinformation, anecdotes, and, notably, no real science. Worse yet, it tried to make Wakefield into a hero – maybe even a deity of some sort.
So, let’s be clear – this movie is about Wakefield. Not children. Not identifying real causes for autism. Not anything important.
There are a lot of excellent reviews of this “documentary,” including a recent one by David Gorski (you know, my doppelgänger according to certain crackpots on the internet) in Science-Based Medicine, “
Vaxxed review – The Good
Well, I guess it did have some good in it. The first 90 seconds or so had real scientists describing how a measles outbreak was caused by the lower incidence of vaccination. So if you knew nothing of Vaxxed, you might have thought that it was going to be a good documentary. You’d be wrong.
Otherwise, the fraudumentary did have some good production values. Is that a positive?
Really, there was nothing good about the movie. Well, except for President Barack Obama saying, “get your children vaccinated.” Thanks, Obama.
And Penn & Teller saying (well, just Penn, because Teller never speaks), “You may have heard that vaccination causes autism in 1 out of 110 children. Fuck that. Total bullshit.”
If you’re counting at home, all the good stuff happens in the first 90 seconds of the movie. And then, the fraudumentary goes off-the-rails very fast.
Someone on Facebook asked us, “Did you expect some enlightening piece of information?”
Well, no, not really. I try to keep an open mind to alternative points of view, but that doesn’t mean I accept lies as facts. I’m openminded to scientific evidence and where that evidence might lead me. I’m not openminded to anecdotes, misinformation, logical fallacies and conspiracies.
At a certain point in this film, I just got physically ill. Because, if someone listens to the lies presented, they might not vaccinate their children. And then children will get very ill and some may die. That makes me angry.
Vaxxed review – The Bad
Other than the first 90 seconds, the film was all bad, some parts worse than others. Keeping with the theme of the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, I’ll separate the merely bad from the truly ugly.
First up is Brian Hooker, an engineer with a doctoral degree in engineering. He is not an expert on anything about vaccines, but he sure thinks he’s an immunologist, epidemiologist, virologist, and general world-class expert on vaccines.
He is none of those, and his amateur “Google University” education in these fields is readily apparent while he speaks. So even if you want to invoke the “authority” card, he’s not an authority on anything to do with vaccines.
On the other hand, Hooker has an autistic child, whose condition he blamed on vaccines. He pushed a case through the vaccine court, which was recently denied, and he is driven by his passionate belief, unsupported by science, to “prove” that vaccines are dangerous.
I admit I’m empathetic toward his child and empathetic to the challenges he may have faced in raising his child. We all have the need to blame someone or something – vaccines were convenient for him. On the other hand, we must remember that vaccines save lives, and because of his amateurish link between his child and vaccines, he might convince some parent to not vaccinate.
Hooker is the one who was contacted by the so-called CDC whistleblower, Dr. William Thompson (more about him later). The film then presents some spy novel, Watergate-ish conspiracy (using a tape recording of Dr. Thompson, who never agreed to be recorded) in hushed terms that made it appear that the CDC was involved in a conspiracy to cover up a much higher rate of autism in African American children after receiving the MMR vaccine.
- Their analysis was based on a tiny subset of the study population in a larger study authored by DeStefano et al., which included the aforementioned William Thompson. The study wasn’t powered to look at this tiny subset that Hooker and Wakefield claim that shows MMR is linked to autism in African-American children. Moreover, it’s methodologically inappropriate to try to invent data from it.
- They did an improper statistical analysis, because, like most pseudoscience, Hooker had a conclusion, and he would do whatever he could to “prove” his hypothesis. See below for a more thorough review of their statistics.
- The rest of the large, original CDC study showed absolutely no link between vaccines and autism – supporting the conclusions of over 140 other scientific studies.
- The paper, based on this incredibly amateur statistical analysis, was published in a very low-quality journal. Which subsequently retracted it!
According to the Poxes Blog, the statistics that Hooker used were simply ludicrous:
Next come the statistics. Hooker uses Pearson’s chi squared test to see if there is a significant association between MMR and autism in children at different ages. DeStefano et al used conditional logistic regression. For the non-biostatisticians out there, the technique that DeStefano et al used accounts for confounders and effect modifiers, different traits in their population that could skew the results. Hooker’s technique doesn’t really do that, unless you stratify results and use very, very large datasets. Hooker’s approach is more “conservative,” meaning that it will detect small effects and amplify them, and those effects can come from anything.
So why did we not see this in the other ethnic groups or in girls? The answer here is simple, again. Hooker had a limited dataset to work with when he boiled it down to African-American baby boys. In this table, for example, he tells us that he had to modify the analysis to 31 months instead of 36 because he had less than 5 children in that group. It’s the same goddamned mistake that Andrew Jeremy Wakefield wanted to pass off as legitimate science. You cannot, and must not use small numbers to make big assertions…
Hooker also pushes the old thiomersal myth, that is, the preservative is equivalent to mercury and it causes autism. No to both. Thimerosal (American spelling) is mercury bound to an organic ethyl group – this is like saying table salt, sodium chloride, is really like eating chlorine, a poison. It isn’t.
Moreover, there is simply no evidence that thiomersal was correlated (let alone causally associated) with autism spectrum disorders.
Which leads me to one of the parents of a “vaccine-injured” story, an African American mother, Sheila Ealey. She claims that her son became autistic after receiving the MMR vaccine, although there are no medical records presented that may show this association. That’s all irrelevant.
What bothered me was that claimed her daughter is multilingual and an accomplished pianist because she didn’t get the vaccine. What she fails to say is that her daughter is now at risk from getting measles, mumps or rubella – she could be permanently disabled or even die of these diseases.
Given what’s going on in the USA these days, black Americans are losing trust in many institutions of government. The lies presented by Hooker are more than just lies – they may bring undue harm to one ethnic group in a grand desire to push the anti-vaccine religious dogma.
There were other characters in this charade that were bad enough. There’s Del Bigtree, the producer, director, writer and actor on the show. I laughed hysterically when Bigtree claimed himself to be a “medical investigative journalist.” As has been written here, Del Bigtree lacks any credibility on vaccines, plus we can’t forget about his Holocaust-denying rhetoric.
His “medical investigative journalist” chops are centered on his producing a few episodes of the medical talk show, The Doctors. The premise of this show is simply “a team of medical professionals discuss a range of various health-related topics and answer questions from viewers who are too embarrassed to ask their own doctors.”
That is not medical investigative journalism. By that standard, I must be Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, which I am not. Of course, if someone wants to nominate me, this old dinosaur would be humbled.
One other character has always angered me – Polly Tommey. She has an autistic son, whom she (and her husband) believe was caused by the MMR vaccine. Tommey almost, but not quite, makes it appear that autistic children are somehow defective and embarrassing. The scenes of her son made me feel like she was trying to manipulate the audience. Simply disgusting.
She pushes her own self-published pseudoscience in The Autism File, which is filled with quack autism cures along with the standard anti-vaccine lies. Furthermore, she has worked with Andrew Wakefield (more about him later) for years, even though the fraudumentary tries to make her out to be just another sad parent. She’s is, and has been for many years, one of Wakefield’s most loyal sycophants.
There were many other characters who were just merely bad, not rising to the level of truly ugly.
Also, there was Doreen Granpeesheh, the founder of The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) which has never crossed my radar before. Furthermore, Granpeesheh worked at Thoughtful House, where she crossed paths with Wakefield.
I’m not a conspiracist, but damn, if we connected the dots, it would be a spider web of the anti-vaccine ignoramuses of the world.
During the movie, Granpeesheh pushed a trope that autism is caused by the lack of detoxification after receiving vaccines and eating GMO foods. Yes, she intersected GMOs and vaccines, which just caused me to lose another irony meter. CARD pushes quack “cures” for autism based on this pseudoscience. You’ll note that much of the medical quackery world push their junk science to make money off of their useless “cures.”
The film also gives us two of the more annoying members of the anti-vaccine brigade. We get Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV. But like a few other eminent scientists, he’s gone off the rails, becoming pro-homeopathy, an HIV/AIDS denialist (meaning, he doesn’t think that HIV causes AIDS), and anti-vaccine.
“Scientists” like Montagnier or Tetyana Obukhanych are why the “appeal to false authority” causes us to dismiss their claims. The only thing that matters is if the evidence supports those claims. Drs. Paul Offit and David Gorski are authorities – but they speak from mountains of evidence supporting their claims (see Note 1).
And then the fraudumentary presents us with Stephanie Seneff, a Senior Research Scientist in computer technology at MIT. She has made a name for herself in the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine world by claiming that 50% of all children and 80% of all boys born in the year 2032 will be autistic.
Why does she claim this? By using one of the most unprofessional and awesomely beginner methods of epidemiology – creating trends out of population-level data, without any consideration of confounders, statistics, and basic epidemiology. Apparently, she can use her computers to make simple graphs, again I could do that, and I’m not a “Senior Research Scientist” at MIT.
Enough with the bad – it’s time to move on to the Ugly.
Vaxxed review – The Ugly
There’s only one character in this fraudumentary who qualifies as “ugly.” Yes, it’s Andy “Not a doctor” Wakefield.
Generally speaking, this film is all about Wakefield. It’s about making him a hero. It’s about excusing his falsified data. It’s overlooking his fraudulent behavior. It’s ignoring the fact that he’s been suing everyone who calls him out on his fraud.
Every time Wakefield shows up in the film, they soften the light and make him out to be a sympathetic, even angelic, character in this immorality play.
In case you were living under a rock for the last 20 years (and if you have, please contact me, I need to ask so many questions), let me recount the sins of Andy Wakefield:
- The UK’s General Medical Council struck Wakefield off of the physician registry (British terminology for losing a medical license) for research misconduct. In other words, Wakefield is no longer a physician and cannot practice medicine anywhere in the world. I guess he could apply for a license in Texas, where he lives in a mansion paid for by his autism claims, but I’m pretty sure they would deny it.
- Wakefield’s article in the Lancet was disowned by his coauthors and eventually retracted by the journal.
- BMJ, once known as the British Medical Journal, published a series of articles, written by Brian Deer, about Wakefield’s despicable deceit. You can read about it here, here, and here. Basically, Deer uncovered the massive fraud by Wakefield, which included things like working for attorneys who were suing MMR manufacturers, and trying to patent his own version of measles vaccine.
- Wakefield continues to litigate against BMJ, just because, according to Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a legal scholar, he’s trying to make it appear that there is a legal debate about vaccines and autism.
- Because of Wakefield’s fraud, vaccinations against measles has dropped, and the incidence of measles has skyrocketed.
Based on this, is there anyone who thinks that Wakefield was wronged? Or that he’s right about vaccines and autism? Anyone?
If there is any doubt in your mind, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vaccines are absolutely unrelated to autism spectrum disorders. Even if you believe Wakefield, which you shouldn’t, and maybe the CDC mishandled or misinterpreted data, which it hasn’t, it does not indicate a conspiracy of any sort. And there are still hundreds of other studies that still show no link between vaccines and autism.
As I’ve said so many times, the only thing that matters in science and medicine is evidence. High-quality evidence published and repeated over and over again – that is the standard. A “documentary” film, partially presented by one of the great scientific fraudsters of our time, does not qualify as evidence. No, Vaxxed and evidence have nothing in common except for a few letters.
This film was nothing more than a pathetic and cynical attempt by Wakefield and his minions to paint a picture that he’s right and the rest of the scientific community is wrong. Well, unless you have a closed mind or no critical thinking skills, there is nothing in this film that would make you think that vaccines do anything but prevent deadly diseases.
I’m almost done. But there’s one more character in this Vaxxed review.
Vaxxed review – The Sad
With all due respect to a fine spaghetti western, I had to add one more group. The sad and pathetic Dr. William Thompson.
I’m not a psychiatrist, so I don’t even pretend to understand him. He was secretly recorded by Brian Hooker. Yes, it is legal for Hooker to do so since it only requires one of the two parties to consent to a recording. The ethics of doing so is subject to another debate.
Even though the film attempted to use what Dr. Thompson said as “proof” of the CDC conspiracy to hide evidence of a link between autism and vaccines, it really doesn’t. Matt Carey, of the blog, Left Brain Right Brain, demonstrated how Wakefield “creatively” edited recorded statements from these calls:
But, hey, let’s just make this simple–if Thompson had said something clearly claiming fraud, clearly claiming that the CDC knew vaccines cause autism, Wakefield would have included that in his video. Instead he splices disparate conversations together and has his narrator tell us what we should think.
In other words, if Wakefield had the facts, he’d use them. Instead all I see is more smoke and mirrors.
And that’s just the beginning. The first 30 seconds. We could go on and on, dissecting the trailer frame by frame. It’s that bad. And this is just the trailer. He has a full film out now.
And Dr. Thompson never shows his face on this film. Every time he speaks, there’s this odd graphic of a fake sound recording waveform that appears on the screen. I swear this is something an undergraduate film student would do at the Harvard of the San Fernando Valley, Cal State University at Northridge.
If Dr. Thompson thought this conspiracy was real, why was he not on the film? Actually, we haven’t heard a peep out of Dr. Thompson since 2014, when the whole CDC whistleblower conspiracy first blew up.
Again, I don’t know what Dr. Thompson’s motivation was. Maybe he felt frustrated with not being respected. Maybe he was duped by Wakefield and Hooker (my personal hypothesis). Maybe he just wanted to make a name for himself and got in over his head. Remember, Dr. Thompson has been steadfast in his support of vaccinations.
I think Thompson is a sad sad character in this immorality play. He probably lost all respect with his peers, and his career has no future. But he naively contacted Hooker, so it is mostly his own fault.
Vaxxed banned from Vimeo
Although this isn’t a part of the Vaxxed review, Vimeo is a YouTube competitor except it posts more long-form videos and movies in 4K (if available). The perception is that Vimeo is a place for artists, producers, and others to post videos that may not fit well on YouTube. If I want to see a new music video, I’ll generally find it on Vimeo.
Yes, the ancient dinosaur watches music videos, like the new one from the goth metal band, Gloryhammer. They are probably vaccinated.
Anyway, the fraudumentary was pulled/banned/blocked/restricted from Vimeo (there’s no official statement from Vimeo, so facts are a bit sketchy). Of course, whiny anti-vaccine zealots are trying to claim that this is censorship, which it is not since only a government can be accused of that. A private corporation can set its own “terms of service” that block pseudoscience that harms children. Like Vaxxed.
Nevertheless, a quick search of Vimeo shows that the fraudumentary no longer appears in search results (although an Italian version does). Amazon Prime (at least in the USA) has pulled the video from streaming, although you can still buy the DVD. It is not on Netflix, the other major streaming service.
Many tech companies are concerned about promoting pseudoscience and quackery. Although it may be difficult to remove them, it appears that all the major streaming services have said goodbye to Vaxxed. The fraudumentary’s lies, misinformation, and conspiracies do harm by making people think that vaccines cause autism – science says no.
The TL;DR Vaxxed review
Let me summarize – this film sucked. It lied. It misrepresented facts. It relied upon anecdotes, along with seriously deranged characters. It was all about that cunning conman, Andrew Wakefield.
I’m not sure why I watched it. I felt I should, but I was debunking nearly everything said on TV. I didn’t even hit 25% of what I was saying in this article, because I didn’t want it to reach 10 thousand words.
If you want to see the fraudumentary, it’s no longer on most streaming services. I guess you could find it on some obscure anti-vaccine website, but why would you want to give them traffic.
Nevertheless, if this was a real Vaxxed review (well, it is), I’d give it 0.1 stars. Only because the first 90 seconds were accurate.
- This old feathery dinosaur avoids claiming that he’s an authority on anything, except the value of running 12 km every morning. However, the Skeptical Raptor relies upon independent, robust, peer-reviewed evidence to support everything else.
This article was first published in July 2016. It’s been significantly updated to fix broken links, improve formatting, and lots of copyediting. I also wanted to include the recent banning from Vimeo, because there’s nothing like piling on.
- DeStefano F, Bhasin TK, Thompson WW, Yeargin-Allsopp M, Boyle C. Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta. Pediatrics. 2004 Feb;113(2):259-66. PubMed PMID: 14754936.
- Hooker BS. Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. Transl Neurodegener. 2014 Aug 8;3:16. doi: 10.1186/2047-9158-3-16. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 25114790; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4128611.
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