This hoo-ha over De Niro’s (brave) decision to screen Andrew Wakefield’s documentary is based on a masterstroke of pure disinformation—that Dr. Wakefield perpetrated “scientific fraud” and/or a “hoax,” and lost his license over it.

In fact—and as the Times reporters accurately note at the beginning of this article— Wakefield was charged with “ethical violations and a failure to disclose conflicts of interest.” They might have added that those “ethical violations” had to do with his inaccurate referrals for certain children to be subjects of his study of vaccines.

The charges are complex, and evidently serious; but in no way do they concern the findings of that study—as noted pointedly by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, in her thorough and meticulous (and pretty damning) analysis of Wakefield’s case:

Reiss argues—convincingly—that Wakefield was not “exonerated,” contrary to the exultant claims of many anti-vaccine activists (which I once sent around). It’s therefore well worth noting this important caveat:

Let me start by saying that anti-vaccine activists are correct when they say in comment threads that the GMC did not find that Andrew Wakefield committed research fraud. The GMC did not consider that question—those were not the issues before it. [Bolding in original] The GMC’s decision focused on the treatment of children subjected to invasive procedures without ethics approval … and on misrepresentations related to conflicts of interest and ethics approval. 

This crucial point is missing from the furious responses to De Niro’s (admirable) move: missing from filmmaker Penny Lane’s indignant charge that Wakefield’s study was a “hoax,” missing from Dr. William Schaffner’s charge that “Dr. Wakefield was a fraud”—and, therefore, effectively erased from this Times article, which quotes them both, so that we end up not remembering what the reporters wrote at the beginning of their piece.

Kudos, then, to Robert De Niro, for letting people see this documentary for themselves— since, as he so rightly says, it’s time for “a conversation around this issue,” as opposed to propaganda, and intimidated silence.



Robert De Niro Defends Screening of Anti-Vaccine Film at Tribeca Festival


In a decision that has dredged up the widely debunked link between vaccines and autism, the Tribeca Film Festival plans to screen a film by a discredited former doctor whose research caused widespread alarm about the issue.

The film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” is directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, an anti-vaccination activist and an author of a study — published in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1998 — that was retracted in 2010. In addition to the retraction of the study, which involved 12 children, Britain’s General Medical Council, citing ethical violations and a failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest, revoked Mr. Wakefield’s medical license.

On the festival’s website, the biographical material about Mr. 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.”

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