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How the anti-vaccine movement infiltrated Robert De Niro’s film festival

Actor Robert De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower.
Actor Robert De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Over the weekend, science collided hard with celebrity culture when public health advocates successfully intervened in a film festival selection.

At the center of the imbroglio was actor Robert De Niro, who last week revealed that he had greenlit the screening of an anti-vaccine film at the Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded.

The film, Vaxxed, is directed by the discredited physician-researcher Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield helped sow the seeds of the current anti-vaccine movement in 1998 with a bogus study that claimed to have demonstrated that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine can be linked to autism. (I explained precisely why his research is fraudulent here.)

The study, which appeared in the Lancet, has since been retracted, and many subsequent studies involving thousands of participants in several countries have also failed to establish a link between the MMR vaccine and the developmental disorder. Wakefield was found to be guilty of manipulating and misrepresenting his data, and in the wake of this massive scientific scandal his medical license was revoked.

But this hasn't stopped him. Instead, he's made a career out of playing the embattled hero of the anti-vaccine movement, even spreading his ideas on the Conspira-Sea Cruise, a sea voyage focused on conspiracy theories. In this role, he's alleged that he's been bullied for his beliefs, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has covered up the link between vaccines and the risk of autism — a nonsense claim "on the level of the Apollo Moon hoax" that also happens to be the subject of his new film.

The film caught the attention of De Niro, who helped get Vaxxed on the festival lineup and invited Wakefield to appear at the event.

On Friday, De Niro defended the decision, which he said he'd made for personal reasons. "Grace [De Niro’s wife] and I have a child with autism," he said in a statement, "and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined."

But blowback from the scientific community and the media was swift and devastating. Articles like this one scolded De Niro for turning the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival into a platform for unfounded conspiracy theories that could damage public health. By Saturday, De Niro was forced to make an about-face. In a new statement, he said input from researchers helped him change his mind:

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. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.

With this latest Hollywood foray into woo now resolved, it's a good time to pause on what can be gleaned from the controversy. Here are a few takeaways.

1) With enough protest, reason can win over pseudoscience

As soon as the LA Times outed De Niro as the booster of this film, members of the press and the scientific community immediately pushed back, imploring the actor to avoid giving more airtime to an absurd idea. Check out this moving post by science journalist Tara Haelle over at Forbes. She pointed out that the decision to screen this film would not only tarnish De Niro’s reputation but would also continue to draw attention to a discredited idea, confusing the public. The consequences of misinformation are particularly bad for those who have autism, she wrote:

For nearly two decades, funding for autism research has been continually diverted away from study into treatment and supports for autistic individuals and instead toward debunking a fear that has been debunked dozens of time. That harms autistic people.

Others noted that giving the movie a platform would be akin to elevating fringe deniers of climate change or the Holocaust. "It’s a rehash of worries about autism, the scientific community basically had a justifiable conniption, including me," medical ethicist Arthur Caplan told Newsweek. "It’s the equivalent of a Holocaust denial film. [Wakefield] is a guy who’s been adjudicated many times. Nobody believes it anymore. It’s a settled issue. He’s been disgraced."

We can't know about De Niro's thought process (the festival declined to comment on the matter any further on Sunday night), but it seems that, due to all the negative press, the threat to De Niro's reputation and the festival became too great to bear.

And that's a sign that science can hold sway when woo enablers are held accountable.

"Maybe the outcry against the Tribeca Film Festival will make other public figures think twice before legitimizing dangerous misinformation about vaccines," said Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has studied the impact of debunking on public opinion.

2) Celebrities can be dangerous disseminators of magical thinking

autism wakefield

McCarthy wrote the intro to one of Wakefield's anti-vaccine books.

This case demonstrates the powerful hold pseudoscience nonsense can have over even the most privileged among us. With all the power and access to information celebrities have, it's surprising how often they get taken in by magical thinking. In this case, De Niro may have been desperately searching for answers about his own child who has autism. And despite the wide discrediting of Wakefield, his tale remains appealing, even to people like De Niro.

De Niro wouldn't be the first to get hoodwinked by this idea. The actress and talk show host Jenny McCarthy (and her ex Jim Carrey) helped propel Wakefield to fame, influencing at least some parents to opt out of vaccines. De Niro, as a powerful Hollywood figure, could have further added legitimacy to the idea.

Though De Niro was ultimately thwarted, it's a reminder that when celebrities lend their credibility to woo, there can be big public health implications.

To be clear, celebrities can also be a force for good in public health. Just consider Charlie Sheen's haphazard foray into HIV advocacy and how he managed to raise more awareness about the disease than most United Nations conferences. But when celebrities abuse their power, they can also be a hugely damaging force.

3) Despite years of debunking, the vaccine-autism myth persists

Measles and whooping cough, two infectious diseases US public health officials had gotten pretty good at preventing, have made a disturbing comeback in the form of several outbreaks in recent years. And new research has demonstrated that vaccine deniers have helped spark these infections. But even this isn't enough evidence for some. It's hard to estimate the size of the anti-vaccine community, but public health experts continue to struggle to convince some parents that choosing not to vaccinate is dangerous.

It took a long time for people to come around to the fact that the Earth isn’t flat, despite all the evidence to the contrary. (Some still deny it.) So maybe it’s unfair to think that less than 20 years after the seeds of the vaccine-autism myth were sown, people's minds could swiftly be changed. The triumph of science over bunk this weekend demonstrates that, at the very least, we're making progress.