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Tribeca Film Festival Can’t Undo the Damage From Including Anti-Vaccine Doc

Just giving air to conspiracy theories furthers the twisted logic behind them.

Image by MyCanon via Wikiemedia Commons

Yesterday Robert De Niro announced that the Tribeca International Film Festival, which he co-founded in 2002, was canceling its slated screening of the anti-vaccination film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. To many this seemed like a victory for rationality. Despite his initial support for the film’s inclusion, De Niro apparently determined, after reviewing it with TIFF officials and scientists, that it’s problematic (rather than the thoughtful conversation starter he’d hoped for), and acted accordingly.

Yet while De Niro deserves a round of applause, this reversal is hardly a coup against the debunked anti-vaccination camp. Instead it’s likely that this decision will be used as evidence supporting a sense of righteous martyrdom amongst the anti-vaccine community—a result that just goes to show that the only way to evade a harmful conspiracy theory is to conduct due diligence on it in private and deny even unintentional opportunities for conspiracy theorists to grandstand.

This sorry affair started a week ago when TIFF, which opens in mid-April, announced its film slate, which included one screening of Vaxxed on April 24, the festival’s last day. Directed by the controversial anti-vaccination figurehead Andrew Wakefield, the movie sets forth the well-trod idea that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR), administered to children when they’re a year to 15 months old, directly causes autism. Wakefield also claims in the film that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long known about but suppressed news of this connection, citing the testimony of agency whistleblower Dr. William Thompson, who claims that crucial data was omitted from a 2004 study he co-published disproving a MMR-autism link.

De Niro said he’d pushed the film onto the docket—supposedly his first program intervention in 15 years—because he has a child with autism. Cutting down the middle, he did not call himself an anti-vaccination sympathizer, but instead argued that it’s vital to engage in dialogue on all potential causes of autism. Yet many noted that TIFF’s marketing around the film, along with the festival’s elevation of this one-sided screed, looks like a type of support for its arguments.

Andrew Wakefield on InfoWars. Screenshot via YouTube.

It’s unclear why De Niro about-faced on the documentary, but it could be related to the fact that Wakefield’s 1998 article in The Lancet, which became Exhibit A of his movement, has never been substantiated. Instead, this 12-child study has been contradicted by numerous investigations from a host of independent agencies—among them a 2014 survey of studies involving 1.26 million children which found absolutely no evidence of an MMR-autism tie. In fact, in 2010 The Lancet retracted the article—and Wakefield had his medical license revoked for gross ethical violations including some related to that paper. None of this showed up in his TIFF bio.

Beyond this, the crux of Vaxxed, Thompson’s testimony, is hardly a cut-and-dried case of whistleblowing. Although a legit CDC scientist, his claims of malfeasance have been contested. And analyses of the study in question yielded only a tortured statistical correlation (not causation) between MMR and autism in African-American boys—mathematical magic dissected and largely rejected by experts. Thompson may not even actually appear in the film thanks to the fact that he claims he never knew his conversations on the subject were being recorded and never approved their use. He himself remains pro-vaccination despite his doubts about one study—so, hardly a smoking gun.

On the basis of its trailer and other promotional material, Wakefield’s film seems (like most anti-vaccination advocacy) to prove little, constructed of sketchy half-facts and stoking a potentially harmful sense of fear. Not only has vaccination skepticism led to an increasing number of dangerous outbreaks of wholly preventable diseases, but it also blatantly stigmatizes autism as a state of damage and tragedy, rather than the different mode of thought and expression that most experts on the condition agree that it is. The existence of these conspiracy theories also diverts money from research on optimal methods of care and accommodation for autism into, well, telling Wakefield and his followers to stop subjecting children to scorn.

Yet canceling the film’s screening isn’t the end of the Tribeca anti-vaccination saga. It’s just provided ammunition for Wakefield to accuse De Niro of caving in to shadowy corporate interests and becoming part of the social censorship suppressing his “truth.” That’s hardly a measured, logical response to a measured, logical decision. But it is a type of emotional expression that’ll earn Wakefield a lot of influence mileage.

That’s the problem with conspiracy theorists: The more you try to disprove them, the more they use that as proof of their claims. It’s basically the “backfire effect,” by which most people who believe a proposition tend to embrace evidence or interpretations of facts that support their beliefs and reject those that dispute them. There’s something almost admirable or optimistic in these delusions: Conspiracy theorists, for instance, place more confidence in the ability of humans to commit all but mathematically impossible feats of cooperation and deception than most of us would ever afford our species. But there’s something insidious in them as well, as this type of conviction transforms into a type of proselytizing charisma. And every time experts publicly refute these conspiracy theorists’ cases, they provide yet another avenue and piece of evidence for the cause to strengthen and spread.

Sadly, De Niro’s reversal aside, there’s probably no place for a victory for rationality in this Tribeca debacle—not because the anti-vaccination movement has factual legs, but because the movement is a lot like, say, a fart. Once expelled, the hot air just hovers, stinking up the room no matter what you do, forcing you to try to ignore it until it dissipates.

The only real way to avoid the kind of fruitless debate the TIFF tiff has started is to avoid giving anti-vaccination advocates platforms (and by extension, room for grandstanding) in the first place. Folks within the cause will argue that this is censorship, but that’s a stretch. When ideas appear to be plainly false after years of debate, there’s no real reason to keep giving them screen time.

It would have been easy for TIFF to avoid giving Wakefield and company this opportunity to grandstand by doing due diligence in private. One check could have confirmed whether there was a real debate to have or just a can of worms to open. It would have been a simple process as well. Here’s the first step. Perhaps that’s the constructive thing we can take away from this: In the future, let’s all remember to practice a habit of constructive skepticism before inadvertently lionizing or bolstering the facile arguments of discredited fearmongers at film festivals and other public venues.

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