De Niro welcomes Wakefield to Tribeca

Update: De Niro has now pulled the film from Tribeca

In a statement posted to the Tribeca Film Festival’s Facebook page, Robert De Niro has defended the screening of Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine conspiracy theory movie VAXXED, saying:

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.

The fact that an issue is of personal concern to Mr De Niro doesn’t grant that issue any extra substance, or make it more worthy of thought or debate. Of course he has the right to screen whatever he wants at his festival – that’s not the issue here at all.

The issue is whether he should do so, and whether there’s an “conversation around the issue” that is worth having. The answer to both these questions is clearly “no”, and I hope that Tribeca reconsiders the decision to screen this “documentary”.

He shouldn’t screen the film because it’s not a documentary – it’s a conspiracy fantasy directed by a thoroughly discredited scientist, in which the “dangers” of vaccines are “exposed” primary through presentation of his own discredited research.

Vaccines save lives. The most recent Cochrane review included more than 15 million children, and found no evidence linking vaccines to autism. There is no point debating this anymore, and there hasn’t been a point in quite some time.

This means that screening the documentary is morally irresponsible, as doing so encourages people to ask questions that have already been answered, and encourages them to make decisions that will harm their (and thanks to herd immunity, everyone’s) children.

It also serves to undermine the efforts of other directors in the documentary category, in that the credibility of the festival is impaired. People who have made an effort to investigate an issue with some impartiality would likely not be enthused about sharing a platform with a propagandist.

It’s clear that Tribeca is making no effort to highlight Wakefield’s failings – as the New York Times reports, their biographical section on Wakefield

does not mention that he was stripped of his license or that his Lancet study was retracted. Rather, it says that the Lancet study “would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine”

For a more accurate biography of Wakefield, see Joe Hanson’s edit to what appears on Tribeca’s website:

All-too-predictably, the Tribeca Facebook page is filled with supportive comments applauding them for not giving in to “censorship”. Nonsense – there’s no attempt at censorship here, but rather a desire to see a Festival curated in a sensible manner.

Wakefield is free to speak, but should do so elsewhere – he has no entitlement to any given platform, because free speech doesn’t come with any guarantee of an audience.

Talk of censorship in cases like this typically serves to grant an illusion of credibility to the thing being “censored” – the conspiratorial folk can say “what are they afraid of hearing”, etc., or “if the science is so clear, why are they worried about this inconsequential film”?

Because people are sometimes confused, and fearful for the health of their children, and can get suckered by charlatans and fools, which is why the rest of us have to try to reveal those charlatans and fools when we find them.

There’s no “discussion” to be had on this issue, and pretending that there is is a clear case of “false balance“. The panel that will discuss the film after its screening seems to include no vaccine or autism experts, indicating that there’s not even a pretense at objectivity.

The discussion has been had, in two decades of medical literature. Wakefield lost. Here’s 10 of his co-authors distancing themselves from the MMR vaccine-autism link, and here’s the full retraction of the paper.

Meanwhile, the children of anti-vaxxers are the biggest victims of measles outbreaks. And measles is a disease that was pretty much extinct (in the USA at least), until anti-vaxxers brought it back. As the conclusion a recent Slate article puts it:

People who choose not to vaccinate their children are mostly hurting their children. Refusing vaccines increases your child’s odds of getting sick, and in all likelihood they won’t develop “natural immunity.” The new study ought to convince parents that vaccinating their kids is the only healthy choice, unless medically contraindicated. But considering that anti-vaxxers are typically impervious to facts, it’s likely that they’ll ignore the new evidence, and their children will continue to pay the price.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.