Jennifer and I saw Vaxxed in Kansas City on June 11, along with her sister Julie. We have a lot of observations and thoughts about the movie, so we’ll probably be doing several articles discussing the film itself, the audience’s reaction to it, the protestors, our responses, and a lot more. Jenny’s post is here, and covers some of what happened after and as we left the movie.
My first, strong reaction was that very few people leaving the movie would have any idea what happened with the “CDC Whistleblower.” The audience left knowing next to nothing about the events it’s supposedly about; I confirmed that by talking to people afterwards, and they had very little grasp on the facts.
That’s no surprise. The movie is propaganda—it’s not educational, it’s manipulative and inflammatory. We can’t fact-check every statement or point out every strategic omission in the movie, so here are some simple and obvious illustrations of how it deceives audiences.
To fans of the movie who have seen it: I don’t expect this will change your mind. I don’t think much of anything would, really; I asked people on the ConspiraSea Cruise what evidence would change their minds, and not a single person could describe evidence that would persuaded them they were wrong. (Even Wakefield gave me a roundabout, evasive response.) Doesn’t that sound like ideology to you? Even if this doesn’t change your mind, I hope it makes you think. Do you know what William Thompson really thinks about vaccines? Or about Wakefield or Hooker? Do you know what data the CDC supposedly destroyed, or whether anyone has ever found any actual problems with the study it performed? Do you know what other independent organizations have found the same thing the CDC did—a total lack of any causal connection between vaccines and autism? Most fans of the movie don’t know anything about these subjects. If it leaves you scared and angry but misinformed, doesn’t that make it propaganda? And if you think it did leave you informed, well, see how many of these facts you actually knew.
Where is William Thompson, and why did they rearrange his words?
The movie is supposedly built around the statements of William Thompson, the “CDC Whistleblower.” He didn’t participate in the film, so they used recordings of calls he made to an anti-vaccine activist named Brian Hooker. I don’t have any problem with using recordings to construct a documentary, but that’s not exactly what Vaxxed did. The filmmakers selectively edited those phone calls, splicing different comments together without preserving the original context. Without a transcript of the movie I can’t catch every instance. Fortunately Matt Carey at Left Brain, Right Brain caught such a splice in the trailer, so I was listening for it.
Early in the movie, you hear Thompson’s voice say, ““Brian, you and I don’t know each other very well. I don’t know how this is all gonna play out. You have a son with autism and I have great shame now when I meet families with kids with autism because I have been part of the problem.” It sounded like one statement to me, but I knew from reading Carey’s piece that it’s not. It’s at least three different lines, taken from different places and jammed together. You can see where two of the lines come from, in context, in Carey’s piece. I can’t tell where the other line comes from, because I couldn’t even find it in the released transcripts of the Thompson calls.
It’s not just that they edited calls together to make new statements. The creative editing also changes the meaning of what Thompson was saying. Carey explains in more detail, but for example, when Thompson says he was “part of the problem” he’s saying that he feels guilty that the CDC hasn’t done more research into a supposed (and thoroughly debunked) connection between vaccines and autism. The Vaxxed crew spins it, connecting that statement to one that makes it sound as if this is the call in which he first met Hooker (it’s not, far from it). I think they’re trying to make it sound as if Thompson’s ashamed that he and/or the CDC is somehow to blame for Hooker’s son’s autism. In the transcript, which you can see at Left Brain Right Brain, even Hooker acknowledges that’s not true.
You’d need a transcript of the movie and a lot of time to check every sound bite for other creative edits; I don’t have it. So I can’t say for sure they only did this cut-and-paste job in the first minutes of the movie. Do you think that’s the only time they did it? I don’t. I think just the only time they’ve been caught so far.
What does William Thompson believe?
Vaxxed is an angry, emotional appeal designed to get parents to avoid vaccinations. Not just the MMR, all vaccinations. In fact, the Vaxxed panel at the screening we attended explicitly urged parents to stop seeing pediatricians completely! Thompson’s voice is a major part of that appeal, the supposedly factual foundation that is supposed to make parents distrust scientists and experts.
Interviewing an attendee after the movie, I focused on asking what he thought Thompson believes about vaccines. He had no idea Thompson supports vaccination, including the MMR. Of course not. The movie is about scary music and appeals to emotion, not confusing facts.
The movie misled him. Thompson does not think that parents should avoid vaccines. I think he’d be horrified, even furious to hear his words being chopped up, edited, and used to convince parents to stay away from pediatricians altogether.
Here’s what Thompson actually said about vaccines: “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”
Thompson made that statement himself, through his own lawyers, while protected by federal laws that would make it impossible for the CDC to punish him for speaking out (not that they’ve ever done so, or even tried). So it’s not something he had to say to keep his job, he’s protected there. He said it because he believes it. Vaxxed withheld it from you because they don’t want you to know what he thinks.
I confronted Wakefield about this after the movie. He denied any responsibility for giving audiences the full story, because “that’s not what the movie was about.” He’s right. The movie was about fear and anger, but it’s hard to make people scared enough about vaccines if you tell them that the CDC Whistleblower himself says they save lives and any risks are “vastly outweighed” by the benefits. So instead of his actual beliefs, they chop up recordings of his voice and blend those edited remarks in with scary music and graphics to make you scared and angry. Then people leave not only uninformed, but misinformed, actively believing that Thompson is opposed to vaccination. It’s propaganda, and it’s intentional. Vaxxed wants parents to be angry, even if it has to mislead them to get them there.
What about his allegations? Why doesn’t anyone take them seriously?
Because the world has looked at them and decided “there’s no whistle to blow.” Vaxxed makes a big deal about the documents Thompson released to a congressman. It doesn’t reveal that Wakefield didn’t release those documents to the public. Matt Carey, the autism advocate referenced above, did that just by asking the congressman for copies. Carey, not Wakefield, made sure the documents got released. He did it because he wanted people to know what’s in them. Wakefield didn’t do it, apparently because he wants people focused on his edited and carefully massaged version of the facts instead of reading the actual documents for themselves. So what’s in them?
The analysis plan that Vaxxed says the researchers deviated from? See if you can go through the actual documents, or Carey’s explanation if you don’t have the time, and find where the CDC team actually deviated from the analysis plan to cover anything up. I couldn’t. And the Vaxxed team apparently couldn’t, because they use slick graphics and voiceovers instead of just showing the final analysis plan in context. For example, they play Thompson’s voice saying that he would share a “draft” analysis plan with Hooker, but we can actually look at the drafts and final plans. And what that shows is that the Vaxxed narrative is just plain wrong. The CDC didn’t decide at the last minute to dump some of the children out of the study to reduce its statistical power; as Carey points out, “the full paragraph references table included in the analysis plan made it clear that race was to be analyzed for the birth certificate sample, not the total sample as Mr. Wakefield is leading us to believe.” (He’s analyzing a slightly earlier version of Wakefield’s charges, but I think the point is the same given the charges Vaxxed made.)
As for the destroyed documents, well, here’s an interesting question: what documents were destroyed? What data did the CDC try to delete? I asked as people were leaving the theater. I asked Twitter via the #Vaxxed hashtag. I even asked Wakefield, in person, while he was speaking at the ConspiraSea Cruise with other conspiracy theorists.
I have still not received an answer. No one seems to be able to say. The person I interviewed leaving the movie didn’t know. No one on Twitter seems to know. And Wakefield didn’t know. When I asked him what data were destroyed, he seemed taken aback by the question. I don’t think it had even occurred to him. At first he said that tables were deleted from the draft study—but that’s not destroying information. (Nor is it a problem, see the bottom of this piece.) Then he said that Thompson claimed all the data were going to be destroyed, and would have been if he hadn’t saved them.
But Wakefield has the kind of reputation that makes you double-check the things he tells you. So we checked. And I’m glad we did. Here is what Thompson actually said: “All the associated MMR-Autism Study computer files have been retained on the Immunization Safety Office computer servers since the inception of the study and they continue to reside there today.”
It seems Thompson explained that the CDC team met to destroy hard copies, which is what you do when you don’t need paper copies anymore—you leave the data stored digitally and clear out the paper. He might have been afraid that the CDC would delete data from the servers, but if he was, he was wrong. Even he admits the CDC never did that, and there’s no indication they ever wanted to. (We know that because the data aren’t a problem. Even Wakefield and Hooker couldn’t gin up an analysis that actually showed a serious issue with that data. See the next section of this piece.)
So once again, the facts don’t support the terror and anger Vaxxed is trying to gin up. So they get buried, and instead the movie tries to make audiences believe that the CDC destroyed actual data. It’s not true, but it’s convenient, and over and over again Vaxxed chooses messages that are ideologically convenient over true facts.
Don’t agree with me? I hardly expect the hardcore conspiracy theorists who were screaming in passion and rage during the screening to be persuaded by this. But think for a moment: when you left the theater, did you know that Thompson didn’t participate? Did you know that he opposes the anti-vaccine mission of the film? Did you know that the filmmakers were editing the tapes of his phone calls to splice together sentences from different parts of the conversation, making them sound like a single statement? Did you know that Thompson actually recommends that parents not avoid vaccines? Did you know that he flatly stated that the study files were always stored safely on the CDC servers, and never deleted? No one I talked to knew any of these things… except Andrew Wakefield. Who decided not to share those facts with you. As he said, that’s not what the movie’s about. He was honest about that. It’s not about facts.
So why aren’t there any experts taking Brian Hooker seriously?
When I say “any experts,” I mean actual experts in this field: epidemiology, neuroscientists, development specialists, etc. And they completely reject the things Hooker and Wakefield have been claiming. That’s why the movie relies on Stephanie Seneff, a computer scientist who laughably claims 80% of boys will be autistic soon, rather than a scientist who’s actually trained to analyze this kind of data. Or Luc Montagnier, who despite some kooky ideas is a legitimate virologist—but not an expert in autism or vaccines or epidemiology, and is onscreen for about ten seconds. I don’t think they could find any actual experts in this field who would read the kind of propaganda Vaxxed uses a straight face. We know that because even the makers of Vaxxed couldn’t show real problems with the CDC’s study, when they had a chance to really scrutinize it in the scientific literature.
The ultimate question here is, was the CDC right to conclude that there’s no causal link between autism and vaccines? (It’s the same conclusion scientists everywhere reach when they study this question, too–not just the CDC.) Vaxxed relies on one in-depth analysis to challenge that claim: the work of Brian Hooker, who took Thompson’s data and wrote it up in a journal. But this isn’t Hooker’s area of expertise, and in my opinion—and the opinion of every exert I’ve seen comment on it—his re analysis was neither well-done nor reliable.
Here, for example, is an analysis of the statistical analysis Hooker did. It’s specific, detailed, and quite clear in its conclusions: “Hooker’s results have no scientific value at all.”
I would like to link to a contrary opinion from the anti-vax crowd. But I can’t find a single statistician who would defend the analysis Hooker did. Nor any epidemiologist. Nor any vaccine expert. Nor any autism expert. Nor any neurologist. The usual explanation for this is, of course, that it’s all part of the giant vaccine conspiracy. Which shows how silly conspiracy theories get; after a while, the conspiracy theorists have to assume that all the pediatricians are in on it, all the epidemiologists are in on it, all the neurologists are in on it, all the immunologists are in on it, all the WHO are in on it, all the CDC are in on it, all the federal courts are in on it, and now all the statisticians are in on it… the conspiracy theory grows to any size it has to, because the conspiracy theorist isn’t about to admit, “Wait, maybe Hooker was just wrong.” But that’s what happened here. Hooker was just wrong.
The journal that published Hooker’s paper retracted it. Not because of secret pressure because by evil pharma companies, even Wakefield admits that. When I asked Wakefield that, he said, “It was retracted on the basis that [Hooker] did not disclose a conflict of interest.” As I understand it, the conflict is that Hooker has an autistic child and went to court to try to get compensation under the theory that a vaccine caused it. He apparently decided not to tell the journal about that, which is a major ethical problem; the journal decided that was and “undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process.” (Wakefield got in similar trouble back with the Lancet paper, when he failed to disclose the massive amounts of money he was making related to attacks on the MMR vaccine.) When I asked him whether Hooker’s statistical results were any good, he pointed out that they’d passed the journal’s “rigorous criteria,” referring to the peer review process.
Again, it’s Andrew Wakefield. You’ve got to check these things. And again, I’m glad we did. What the journal actually said was that Hooker had failed to disclose a conflict of interest, and that “post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings.” So the undeclared conflict of interest wasn’t the only problem—the journal that published the paper, whose “rigorous standards” Wakefield cited, has no confidence in Hooker’s work. Oh, and when Wakefield pointed out that Hooker’s paper had passed peer review? The journal publicly stated that Hooker’s “undeclared competing interests” had “compromised the peer review process.”
Wakefield must have read the annotated interview where we caught him on this. When I asked him about it at the screening, his story had changed. His new explanation was that when the journal sent Hooker a letter about the retraction, the only problem they mentioned was that he used a single population for his analysis. That can’t be a real problem, Wakefield implied, because that’s exactly what the CDC did.
I haven’t read that letter. And I’d like to, because I’ve learned it’s very important to fact-check Wakefield’s explanations. But let’s assume he’s telling the truth about the letter—is it true that the CDC use one population for its study? Good lord, no. It used a much larger, more diverse data set. Hooker pared it down into a tiny population and that does indeed seem to have been a serious problem with his biased study.
On these statistical problems with Hooker’s work, I’m no statistician, so I can’t really follow the critique. Why do I think it’s right, then? Because Hooker and Wakefield have caved. They’d surely love to have actual published science supporting their conspiracy theory. The data just don’t support it.
So they don’t bother. Rather than publish science, they made a documentary. Documentaries don’t get the same kind of scrutiny as scientific papers, and aren’t held to the same standards of honesty and forthrightness. They can get away with things in a documentary they can’t in a published paper. (You can’t quietly edit and rearrange numbers, as they did Thompson’s voice!) So why would they even bother to try to fix that paper? Indeed, when I spoke to Wakefield at his conspiracy theory conference, he didn’t seem to care much whether Hooker’s work was valid. He hadn’t looked into the criticisms. And I’m not surprised. No research paper is going to generate standing ovations for him. He needs a movie for that.
Is Wakefield really that dishonest?
I think so. He was exhaustively investigated, had the opportunity to defend himself, and even took his accusers to court. And he lost. And lost. And lost. The facts have been beaten to death, and only die-hard conspiracy theorists think he was exonerated. (He wasn’t.)
But here’s a more personal anecdote from the screening itself. My sister-in-law, Julie, attended the screening with us. We sat separately because we thought there was some chance the Vaxxed staff would keep me out of the screening, as they did when they showed it to the conspiracy theorists on the ConspiraSea Cruise. (I’m a big conspicuous bald guy, I don’t really blend into crowds.) They didn’t, though. Instead, once the Q&A started, Wakefield asked if anyone attended the movie as a pro-vaxer and didn’t have their mind changed. I looked over and there’s Julie, bold as brass, standing up to challenge Wakefield.
Now Julie doesn’t follow this stuff very closely. She cares about science and health, but she’s not as in the weeds on the anti-vax stuff as Jenny and I are. She made a comment to Wakefield about how she’d heard that he made over $600,000 as part of his efforts to make money attacking the MMR vaccine in England. He took the opportunity to make the following self-serving speech:
“I was asked by lawyers to take part in a litigation [inaudible] in the UK, in which I worked as a medical expert, between 1996 and 2004. I, along with about 50 other experts, some working for the children, some working against the children for the pharmaceutical industry, everyone was paid. They were paid a standard rate. I was paid the same rate as everyone else, perhaps slightly less. Over the nine years, I made considerably less than the figure you quoted. All of that money that I earned, not that anyone else earned, was donated to an initiative to build a center at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, to research and care for children with neurodevelopmental disorders and gastrointestinal injuries. Sadly that initiative failed because I was forced to leave England. So did I make any money out of it? No. Did I lose my career? Yes. Do I mind? No. [applause]” (emphasis added)
A few things jumped out at me as he gave this speech. First, I was shocked that he would characterize other people as working “against the children.” Wakefield was found, after a careful investigation, to have acted with “callous disregard to pain and distress of children” and “contrary to the clinical interests” of children. Not children generally, specific children under his care. It’s a cold, ugly thing for him to smear the people who disagreed with him as working “against the children,” given his history. Similarly, I’m very skeptical of his story about the treatment center he was supposedly going to create. Wakefield has for example made serious money off of a nonprofit supposedly benefitting autistic kids; he apparently made $316,000 in one three-year period, administering just $80,000 in grant money in that time. Would this center have been a similar moneymaker for him? He’s also collaborated, directly and indirectly, with deeply scary autism profiteers like Arthur Krigsman (who lost hospital privileges for “performing medically unwarranted endoscopies on autistic children”) and the Geiers (who charged exorbitant fees to subject autistic kids to a chemical castration drug, based on a useless “junk science” theory). I don’t know what this center would have looked like, but I’m glad autistic kids in England never had to find out.
But what really struck me about this speech was the idea that he made less than $600,000 from his anti-MMR efforts in England. His denial was so carefully structured it got my lawyer senses tingling. Why focus just on the rate he was paid, when there were more sources of money flowing to him? To me, that sounds like someone hedging bets. It sounds like a tacit admission that there was a lot more money he doesn’t want to talk about.
So I went digging, based on that and a half-remembered report I read once about how the money he made was structured to go through a company in his wife’s name and other channels, rather than to him directly. What I found was that not only does that appear to be true, it looks like Wakefield made far more than he represented to the Vaxxed audience.
This isn’t my personal research. The journalist Brian Deer did the legwork on this, and did it incredibly thoroughly. Here is a table showing ₤439,553 paid to “Dr. A. Wakefield.” That’s over $800,000 in 2016 dollars. Here is a letter from Wakefield showing that he expected to bill through his wife’s company; I think it’s for the same payments, but it could be for more or different money. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, except that he seems to have forgotten about this money when he answered Julie’s question. And that’s not all; Wakefield was a director of a company called Unigenetics, which also took money: “After Wakefield submitted a confidential report to the Legal Aid Board, Unigenetics was awarded—without checks—£800,000 of taxpayers’ money to perform polymerase chain reaction tests on bowel tissue and blood samples from children passing through Malcolm ward.” That’s well over a $1 million in 2016 dollars. So even though he told Julie he made less “considerably less” than $600,000 over nine years, it looks to me like he made considerably more. I think he just phrased his answer very carefully to make himself sound good, knowing his audience of conspiracy theorists would eat it up.
Not all of that money would have gone to Wakefield’s pockets, but that’s not all the sources of money, either. There are more stories about the money Wakefield made, and the millions upon millions he hoped to make, here and here and elsewhere. For him to cry poverty, and simultaneously declare himself a martyr for the children, is the kind of shameless hypocrisy that just makes you feel sad.
So what really happened with the CDC study?
As far as I can tell, Thompson believed there were indications in the data that African-American kids were more susceptible to autism depending on when they were vaccinated. The other authors disagreed with him, as do all the relevant experts, and he didn’t take their disagreement very well. That’s too bad, because the huge body of research on this point is very clear that all the experts were right—vaccines don’t cause autism. But Thompson took his complaint to Hooker, who tortured the data to try to prove the point. He failed, because he was wrong. Ultimately the CDC didn’t do anything wrong: they preserved their data, they followed the analysis plan, and they found (as have other unaffiliated researchers) that there’s no link between autism and vaccines. That’s why Thompson tells parents they shouldn’t avoid vaccines, and it’s why Hooker and Wakefield couldn’t put up an analysis of the paper that would withstand scrutiny by people who understand the science. And it’s why their results were consistent with the consensus of studies done by other labs and scientists around the world, who aren’t part of the CDC or even in the United States but have also found that vaccines–including the MMR–are safe and effective.
But those are the facts. And that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about making parents angry and afraid and desperate. It’s about convincing them that no vaccine is safe. It’s about convincing them to go see holistic healers and avoid pediatricians. It’s about making money. It’s about repairing Wakefield’s tattered reputation. It’s about the applause he gets when he tells an audience of conspiracy theorists that he’s a martyr for them. It’s about a lot of things.
It’s just not about facts.
Jenny’s piece is going up at the same time as mine. I think it’s interesting that we didn’t really compare notes. We just divided up general topics and wrote down our own individual impressions. I’m not surprised that we came to the same conclusions. Great minds think alike. And hers is pretty great, which is why I’m so happy and proud that today is our first wedding anniversary. It’s been a great year, even if Vaxxed tickets were a pretty crappy present.