Vaxxed, the documentary by researcher and activist Andrew Wakefield that links mumps, measles and rubella vaccine (given to all children in their infancy) and autism, is dangerous. Not dangerous in a cool, countercultural, Hunter S. Thompson sense, but in the sense that not vaccinating your kids is dangerous. It has the potential to spread diseases eradicated decades ago. Diseases that leave people brain-damaged and sterile.
We live in hostile, polarized times. So, let me extend a verbal olive branch: I legitimately opened my mind when I sat down to watch Vaxxed.
It's totally reasonable to believe in widespread government cover-ups. The U.S. government spies on you through your computer and phone, the Chicago police department ran a secret torture chamber, and public officials in our own city knowingly allowed our kids to drink polluted water. If all of these are true—and they are—is it so crazy to think the Centers for Disease Control could be covering up vaccines' ability to cause autism? I listened to Wakefield's argument.
My zen attitude lasted about 40 minutes, less than halfway through the movie. Vaxxed is a mess. It starts with an animated history of the MMR vaccine, before getting to Wakefield's research, which has since been completely discredited. Using sound bites from autism journalists, activists and parents of autistic people, and a few shorthand notes from a CDC meeting schedule, it posits that the CDC suppressed evidence the MMR vaccine causes autism in order to retain funding from Big Pharma.
Parents' testimonials are the most compelling part of Vaxxed. It's moving to watch them sacrifice everything to raise their children and organize activism on behalf of their offspring. It's also emblematic of what's wrong with this documentary. It's not scientific evidence. A teary-eyed anecdote about how a kid started showing signs of autism after getting a vaccine does not mean we should stop vaccinating. Correlation is not causation.
With a little bit of research, the "documentary" degrades further. One of the key talking heads is, in fact, a voice—that of Dr. William Thompson, who was secretly recorded by another doctor, Brian Hooker, who appears prominently in the movie. That's bad journalism. There's also the fact that the increase in documented cases of autism has been concurrent with increased rigor in autism screenings. We're looking harder, so we find it more. And while the CDC works with Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, vaccines were reported to be 1 or 2 percent of those companies' sales. That makes the incentive behind a potential cover-up pretty dubious. Vaccines aren't really a lucrative business.
Motive is an important factor in conspiracies. Would Pfizer et al. give the CDC enough money to eclipse the Centers' mission, the lives it imperiled and the $1.73 billion it receives from the federal government? What about all the scientists whose auspices this would have passed through? What do they gain?
Wakefield has a lot to gain from proving vaccines cause autism—most notably, redeeming his reputation and career. But the evidence is against him. "Compared to when the original incorrect Wakefield research came out, we actually know more than ever about the causes of autism," explained one of the doctors in my family, Dr. James Priest. Autism is genetic.
That's how science works. Somebody finds out a thing, others look into it, then they add to the findings. In the case of Wakefield, the scientific method revealed he was totally wrong. But he's led his crusade from the frying pan of bad science into the fire of bad journalism. The overwhelming bias in the film, and the degree to which it goes unchecked, further damns Wakefield.
Conspiracies are real, but what differentiates the MMR vaccine-autism conspiracy from others is that others have a body of evidence that proves they are true. Should evidence that vaccines cause autism appear, I will raise the alarm. As will, no doubt, the vast majority of pediatricians across the country. But that hasn't happened. Vaccinate your goddamn kids.
Critic's Grade: F
SEE it: Vaxxed opens Friday at Cinema 21. Producers Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey will appear for Q&As after the 3:45 and 7 pm shows Saturday and Sunday.
(courtesy of Cinema Libre Studios)