In the words of my young son, it appears that Tribeca Film Festival made a bad choice (thumb down). It apparently decided to screen a problematic film by a man with a problematic history. Let’s look at the Andrew Wakefield, Tribeca Film Festival “partnership” for this “documentary.”
It was, appropriately, called to task for it by science bloggers, and journalists from several sources, for example Jezebel, LATimes, and others. Especially after it provided a very problematic non-response response to the criticism.
This post isn’t going to repeat these points. Instead, I want to remind readers that there’s nothing new in this; it’s old news in a new package, and it’s not anymore true now than it was in the past. Tribeca’s bad choice and Andrew Wakefield’s bad movie do not change the basic facts. MMR does not cause autism (nor do vaccines more generally). There is no massive conspiracy to hide vaccine harms; and Andrew Wakefield’s past actions still discredit him as a scientist and as a source of information on vaccines and autism.
The Wakefield, Tribeca Film Festival partnership should be judged carefully by the examination of evidence.
Our talented host already addressed the fact that many, many studies demonstrate that there is no link between vaccines and autism, and that the evidence on the other side is deeply flawed.
The Autism Science Foundation also has a nice discussion with a list of studies.
I want to remind readers that of all the claims about vaccines and autism, thanks to Andrew Wakefield’s statements on the matter, the question whether MMR is linked to autism has been studied in depth (In the United States, the timing is also tricky on this one. MMR was licensed in 1971 (pdf) – the rise in autism diagnoses did not take off until the change in diagnostic criteria in the 1990s.
Studies were done in many, many countries that have dismissed any link between vaccines (specifically the MMR vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella). Here is a small sampling of these peer-reviewed, published articles, in no particular order:
- A recent very large sibling study in the United States.
- A recent large meta review.
- A large scale Canadian study.
- A UK study.
- A large scale Finnish study.
- A large scale Danish study
- A large scale Japanese study.
- A more recent, if smaller, Japanese study.
In other words, large scale, carefully controlled studies all around the world looked at whether children who got MMR were more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children who were not. Other aspects of Andrew Wakefield’s original claims were also studied, but that’s a little beyond this discussion.
For over two decades scientists seriously considered this question. To the tune of millions of research dollars and countless research hours. Other important studies were not done because scientists took the claim that MMR causes autism very, very seriously. With such a large body of studies, continuing to make the claim requires rejecting a lot of evidence. It’s been answered.
No evidence of conspiracy to hide vaccine harms
At most, what we see is a disagreement on whether to include a clearly spurious sub-result in an article. Thompson himself says “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.”
Aside from this there is no real support to the claim that the CDC was trying to hide a link between vaccines and autism. Not even in the small paper in question. Certainly not beyond.
And of course, the claim of a Grand Conspiracy requires believing that either the CDC could control diverse groups of researchers in Scandinavia, the United States, the U.K., Canada, Japan and elsewhere or some other super force – be it pharma, the Lizard People, the Rockefellers, or the illuminati – controls all of these groups and the CDC. I am aware that some people believe that. I am pretty sure it falls down on feasibility alone. In their classic book “Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All, This Being a Saga … Morals on a Foundation (Oakland Project)” (that’s a book title).
Pressman and Wildavsky detail how hard it is to get anything done in the administrative state in the United States because coordinating multiple stake holders is very, very, very difficult. And they look at one program in one country, where secrecy is not required. The implementation problems facing a global conspiracy – getting all this in place and doing it in secrecy – are simply insurmountable. It’s unrealistic.
Frankly, you’re probably on more solid ground believing in the Lizard people.
Wakefield is still a discredited scientist
Our host has also addressed Andrew Wakefield’s actions, in stronger language than I would. But it’s important for people to remember why the past casts doubt on any claim Andrew Wakefield makes about vaccines and autism.
- As already mentioned, repeated large scale studies from all around the world have shown Andrew Wakefield’s claims of a link between MMR and autism wrong. But being wrong doesn’t discredit a scientist. It happens.
- Andrew Wakefield was shown by Brian Deer to have committed, and found guilty by GMC of committing, serious ethical violations. For example, he was found guilty of hiding conflicts of interests in his article, hiding the fact that he was being paid to be an expert witness in the litigation in question; he was found guilty of writing in the paper that it had ethics committee approval, when it did not.
- Andrew Wakefield stands accused, by careful documentation from Brian Deer, along with the testimony of his research assistant of research misrepresentation. While the BMJ claims were not judicially tested, they are carefully and heavily documented.
- I would add that Andrew Wakefield repeatedly said or implied in the media that there is a link between vaccines and autism even though his own paper – even setting aside the misrepresentation in it – found none. It is simply implausible that he was not aware that his words will scare parents from vaccinating against measles, mumps and rubella, and potentially erode mistrust in vaccines in general. In other words, he irresponsibly made claims that could get children sick that he knew were at best unsupported, at worst outright false. And he continues to do so, in the face of increasing evidence that he was wrong.
In other words, Andrew Wakefield is thoroughly discredited – not because he spoke up against vaccines, not because he was wrong on the science but because he repeatedly acted in unethical ways, and continues to do so.
It’s because of his own actions that:
- He is still known, and likely to be remembered, mostly as the man who promoted untrue claims that put children at risk of disease, a byword for bad science and misrepresentation.
- He is not a serious job candidate for any self-respecting scientific or medical institution.
- Creating a misleading film repeating the same old conspiracy claims does not rehabilitate him. It just reinforces the reasons he is not a credible source on vaccines or autism.
Andrew Wakefield, Tribeca Film Festival
Discredited anti-vaccine actors like Andrew Wakefield are going to continue to try and claim that there is a grand conspiracy to hide a link between vaccines and autism. It’s their only way to try and convince themselves and others that they are not wrong, irresponsible, and harmful. It’s up to the rest of us – the responsible public – to provide the right response, reject these claims and go on protecting our children from disease.
Unless you aren’t closely following this story, Robert De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival removed the documentary from the schedule. They listened.