The Tribeca Film Festival, co-founded by Robert De Niro in the wake of the 9-11 attack, decided to give anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, Andrew Wakefield, a huge public platform to spread his long discredited lies.
Wakefield is the author of the infamous 1998 study in the British medical journal, The Lancet, claiming to have proved a link between vaccinations and Autism. Wakefield’s phony research has long since been debunked as not simply wrong, but deliberately faked, and his ability to practice medicine in Britain has been revoked. You can easily find plenty of details about Wakefield, his so-called “whistleblower” Dr. Thompson, featured and misrepresented in the above trailer, and other related maters (I suggest you start with the science blog Respectful Insolence, the LA Times, the New York Times, Forbes, Snopes, and the Autism Science, News and Opinion blog, or just use the magic of Google and a bit of common sense to find a wealth of credible sources all saying the same thing). The bottomline is this: Wakefield has zero credibility, as conspiracy theorists typically do, and there is no reason to continue to pretend that we might learn anything from him now that he’s decided to make a movie.
Last Tuesday, Tribeca announced they would have one screening of Wakefield’s “documentary,” Vaxxed (2016), this April, during the festival. This created a huge backlash from scientists, doctors, documentarians, and others. By the time I fell into this firestorm on Twitter last night, De Niro had issued the following statement:
3/25/2016 Statement from Robert De Niro, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, regarding VAXXED at the Festival:
“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 love De Niro as an actor – one of the all time greats and a personal favorite – and I feel for him as a parent, struggling to find answers to unanswerable questions, but none of this forgives his choice to promote a false scare story from a known liar. You can try to cloak this in terms of, “discussion” and “conversation,” or pretend it is a “free speech” issue, as many knee-jerk tweets have done, but that’s just crap. Tribeca, or any other dignified organization, would not play a “documentary” from a proven liar that asks us to have a “conversation” about whether or not the Holocaust happened. Nor would they promote a “discussion” about how involved the Israelis were in 9-11. Some ideas are simply wrong and it is not a violation of anyone’s free speech rights for a credible institution to say we don’t want to be associated with your paranoid fairytales.
A few hours ago, I saw this very uninformative tweet from the Tribeca people:
I had to follow the link to Facebook to see what the “UPDATED statement” was, and even that was not listed as its own post, it was just an edited post from the previous day. Without admitting just how wrong they were, De Niro and the people advising him have at least decided to remove the film from their schedule:
I find all this very interesting and disturbing because of my own work arguing against conspiracy theories and the conspiracist mindset. As I have show in my latest documentary, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015) and several essays, conspiracy theories are not just fun, harmless entertainment, they are a corrupting force in society, which spreads fear, panic, hate, and distrust. In the case of the anti-vaccination crowd, they not only endanger their children, which is bad enough, they endanger others (most obviously children with weak immune systems or medical conditions that prevent them from getting vaccinated). They also increase the cost of public health for all of us the more popular their false conceptions grow.
The willingness of The Tribeca Film Festival to promote fear mongering and willful ignorance masquerading as legitimate questions is not an isolated instance of people who should know better choosing to accept the unacceptable. Everyone’s favorite Reality TV Presidential candidate has openly admitted to believing in a number of conspiracy theories, including the idea that vaccines cause Autism, President Obama wasn’t born in America, and the entire Bush Administration was able to lie us into war for some nefarious reason. Every day people are watching popular shows, playing hit video games, and reading best seller books that pretend vast, unworkable conspiracies, as the norm for how society operates. The fact that a small victory for truth and reason was won today, with the reversal of De Niro and his colleagues on one particularly bad film, is the rare exception in a world that routinely treats the impossible as probable. Nevertheless, this is a victory that I hope can lead to others and it encourages me to continue on with my efforts.