You might’ve heard this past week about a little kerfuffle at the Tribeca Film Festival. The headlines may have mentioned any or all of the following: disgraced ex-MD Andrew Wakefield, the anti-vaccine “movement,” the festival’s founder Robert De Niro, and the word “censorship.” This article is about that.
Let’s be clear as to exactly what happened: a piece of anti-vaccine profiteering propaganda masquerading as a documentary called “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” was slated to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. After complaints, festival founder and parent of an autistic person (we’ll get to that) Robert De Niro at first defended the screening, and then pulled it from the schedule, after which Wakefield cried censorship, and everyone with half a jot of sense said “piss off.”
Why? Because this is not censorship.
I’ll say it again, just to be doubly clear: This is not censorship.
Censorship is the curtailing of freedom of speech, a right that protects you from the government and other state powers telling you that there are things you cannot say. If a government says “you can’t say that or we’ll throw you in jail,” that’s censorship. If a military says “you can’t print that or we’ll shoot you,” that’s censorship.
There may be grey areas: a university governance committee telling a club at that university that a certain speaker can’t speak on campus, for example, might be a kind of censorship — depending if they’re publicly-funded or not, and whether there are other possible venues for that speaker to be heard, but even then you’d have to make a case for it. But this is not a grey area.
If a privately-run film festival declines to show your film, it’s not censorship. It’s a private venue withdrawing an invitation to speak. If I don’t want Donald Trump to give a speech about hating immigrants in my backyard (assuming he wants to for some unknown reason), I don’t have to let him, and that’s not censorship.
But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to say this: I’m very, very happy Andrew Wakefield has been denied another chance to hurt people.
Andrew Wakefield is responsible for a lot of human suffering. His fraudulent, retracted 1998 study claimed, using falsified and cherry-picked data, that there was a link between vaccination and the autism spectrum. This is not true. There is no evidence whatsoever of it being true. Many have tried and failed to corroborate such a story. If there is a link, it is as yet unknown to science, and hiding in some brilliantly-hidden corner of the vast array of data showing no link between the two.
Vaccines do not cause autism.
But in making the link he has done a fantastic amount of harm. First, to herd immunity: a convincing case could indeed be made that Wakefield kick-started the modern anti-vaccine movement that has led to lower immunization rates in the West than in many other parts of the world that really haven’t had half as much time to get fully vaccinated as we have. Outbreaks of once near-eradicated diseases are popping up again because people think the risk of their children “contracting” autism is greater than the risk of contracting preventable serious diseases. Every bit of special pleading, naturalistic fallacy-laden anti-vaccine argument stems from the idea that there’s a risk to children to be vaccinated, and the only thing that’s ever been floated is the risk of autism.
Which brings me to the other community that Wakefield has done harm to: the autistic community. Wakefield not only flagged autism as a condition that amounts to a moral failing of someone’s parents (by having them vaccinated, you see, it’s someone’s “fault”), but also doubled-down on his autism claims for so long (and so abusively) that he had his medical license revoked in 2010. Here’s how it’s described on Wikipedia:
“On 28 January 2010, a five-member statutory tribunal of the [General Medical Council] found three dozen charges proved, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children. The panel ruled that Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”, acted both against the interests of his patients, and “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his published research. The Lancet fully retracted the 1998 publication on the basis of the GMC’s findings, noting that elements of the manuscript had been falsified. The Lancet’s editor-in-chief Richard Horton said the paper was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived”. Three months following The Lancet’s retraction, Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register, with a statement identifying deliberate falsification in the research published in The Lancet, and was barred from practising medicine in the UK.”
But Wakefield hasn’t stopped. He’s decided to continue his insane and hurtful crusade against autistic people and against the immunocompromised (not to mention against science) by donning a tinfoil hat and producing yet another piece of propaganda (probably designed to sell his first piece of propaganda, a book called “Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines: The Truth Behind a Tragedy,“ which, if you ask me, only shows a callous disregard for the appropriate number of colons in a title).
De Niro, as the parent of an autistic person, generously wanted to show the film under the well-meaning but misguided idea of “balance.” He and his wife think, quite laudably, that it’s “critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.” But as he’s hopefully come to realize, this particular issue has been openly discussed and examined for nearly two decades. At this point it’s time to throw it out.
Vaccines don’t cause autism. They never have.
Maintaining such a position and creating propaganda to convince others of the same does nothing but lower vaccination rates and insult autistic people by using them as a bogeyman. Don’t use vaccines or the autism will get you.
De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival were absolutely in the right to withdraw their invitation. In a perfect world, the only place you’d be able to get a copy of “Vaxxed” would be from Wakefield himself, for your own private viewing (if it didn’t mean giving him money, I’d love to have a copy to use as a drinking game, for instance), not because it would be banned, but because there would be no market for it anywhere else. But since we don’t live in that world, we can at least be grateful that at least one high-publicity venue has been denied to Wakefield’s hurtful lies. May many more follow suit.
Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.