Mar 28 2016
This has been a typical saga, one we have seen played out many times. An organization (company, institution, etc.) provides a venue for an irresponsible anti-science article, speaker, or film. There is then a public outcry that the venue is being exploited to promote pseudoscience. The organization initially defends their decision, then reconsiders. The author, speaker, director then cries “censorship.”
It’s a predictable script.
Recently the Tribeca Film Festival announced its list of movies it will be screening this year, and among them was Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a movie perpetuating the idea that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is covering up data that shows a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Orac discusses the content of the movie in detail, but here is a quick summary. The movie is produced by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced struck-off British doctor who published a study in the Lancet claiming evidence for a connection between MMR and autism. The paper was later retracted and found to be fraudulent.
Meanwhile, Wakefield helped spark a panic about vaccines, leading to a resurgence of previously controlled vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles. Wakefield has since moved to the US and become an anti-vaccine activist.
The film is partly based on the alleged “CDC whistleblower,” Dr. William Thompson. This is another complex story, but the short version is that Thompson had a disagreement with some of his colleagues at the CDC about how to handle data in a particular study. He discussed his concerns with anti-vaccine activist, Brian Hooker, who then took what Thompson said out of context in order to weave it into a conspiracy. Wakefield then ran with that ball, culminating in the recent film.
The bottom line is that Thompson has not revealed any cover up at the CDC, and he has not revealed any data showing a link between MMR and autism. Hooker and Wakefield claim that the data show a link in African-American boys. As an aside, it’s always a red flag when a random subgroup shows a signal – that suggest the possibility of a statistical fluke or shenanigans.
That is, in fact, the case. When the data is properly analyzed there is no connection. Hooker did his own reanalysis, but did a hatchet job in order to create his false connection, then claimed a cover up. This is typical anti-vaccine lunacy.
This bad science in the service of anti-vaccine propaganda is the essence of Wakefield’s film.
The Film Festival
We now learn that it was Robert De Niro who included the film in Tribeca. As he says, “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” De Niro has a child with autism.
I can forgive De Niro, he was snookered by a slick piece of pseudoscience. That is the point of such documentaries. It is possible to make a very compelling documentary to make almost any position seem reasonable. You can tell a very one-sided narrative in such a film, and unless a viewer already has a lot of background information they are likely to be fooled (at least for a while).
De Niro says all he wanted was to start a conversation. He now concedes that screening this film was not the way to do it.
Quality Control vs Censorship
When the government blocks content because they don’t like what it says, that is censorship. When a private institution declines to provide their venue to promote content, that is quality control and/or editorial policy, not censorship. Crying “censorship” in the latter case just makes you look like a whiny idiot.
Institutions have a brand, and that brand is based on a certain guarantee of quality, and also a certain editorial policy which reflects their world view and their purpose. A science journal publishes science, not fashion recommendations, and their reputation is based on their editorial quality.
Once an institution has established a respected brand, which is partly based on the promise that they have a system for vetting what they present, then that institution is in the position of lending the credibility of their brand to whatever they present or publish. When something below the standards of their reputation sneaks by the goalposts, they cannot defend themselves by saying, “We’re just providing a neutral venue for discussion,” or something to that effect.
It’s tempting, I know. As small as my own brands are, I am sometimes in that position. If I post an article on my Facebook page, there is an implied endorsement (unless I specifically say that there isn’t, and even then it’s tricky). Even if I post something in order to criticize it, people will wonder if it was worth the attention I have afforded the thing I am criticizing.
Further, people seek out respected venues because they know it will help their own credibility, promotion, and brand. Cranks, charlatans, con-artists, and dubious activists know this too. They are frequently trying to work their way into respected venues, which then becomes a centerpiece of their self-promotion.
For example, the DiscoTute tried to screen anti-evolution movies at the Smithsonian Museum. They managed to get on the schedule, to public outcry, then were given the boot and cried “censorship.”
The Tribeca Film festival is a huge event with a widely known brand. When they screen a film, it gives that film a huge boost. They should take their responsibility seriously, and cannot hide behind the, “We’re just asking questions, starting a dialogue,” whatever, defense.
I am glad that Tribeca is booting this horrible pseudoscientific film, but the damage is done, unfortunately. The point of getting into the festival was to gain exposure, and the controversy has given them that. Still, it is better that the film festival removed their implied endorsement from the film.
I understand why people who are denied venues in this way cry “censorship,” even though this is completely wrong. The only alternative is to acknowledge that the decision was made based upon quality.
Every crank with nonsensical ideas would find it difficult to admit that their ideas are rejected by the mainstream because their scholarship is total crap. Since they are unable to accept reality, they have to find a convenient alternative narrative. These narratives take one of several forms – their ideas are simply too brilliant to be recognized, there is a conspiracy against them, or the scientific mainstream is closed-minded.
As part of any of these narratives is the claim that their ideas are being unfairly kept out of respected venues because of censorship. The reality, that they are being denied venues because their quality is terrible, cuts too deep.
Those who are more at the con-artist end of the spectrum, rather, know they don’t really deserve access to respected venues. This is all just part of their plan – if you get in, exploit the implied endorsement, if you are left out, then cry censorship in order to get attention.
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