The Tribeca Film Festival and its cofounder Robert De Niro came under intense fire last week for their decision to screen Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a film directed by disgraced gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. If Wakefield’s name doesn’t ring a bell, his legacy is surely familiar: his fraudulent 1998 study claiming to find a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine kicked off a major public health scare that’s had lasting, devastating consequences. While the purported link between autism and vaccines has been repeatedly debunked, the link lives on within the antivaccination movement. As a result of the backlash against vaccines, cases of the virtually eliminated measles are on the rise, as are outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Wakefield and his filmmaking colleagues’ official description of Vaxxed suggests that it sings his same tired, fear-mongering song: A whistleblower reveals a covered-up link between the MMR vaccine and autism. De Niro, who has a child with autism, initially defended the film’s screening, but after a firestorm of criticism, he changed his mind and Tribeca pulled the film from its lineup. The reversal was heralded as a win for science. If only it were that simple.
The notion that pulling the film means fewer people will buy into the vaccine-autism conspiracy theory isn’t supported by the data. Research suggests that efforts to correct errors with factual information often backfire. This is especially true when a topic is controversial or tied up with our identities, when it relates to our health, for example, or our kids.
“Once misinformation is out there about controversial issues, it is very hard to correct,” Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, an expert in misperception in health care and politics, told me.
Nyhan and his colleagues have looked at the antivaccination issue through this misperception lens, and the results are distressing. A few years ago, the researchers surveyed a random sampling of parents about their attitudes toward vaccines and then showed the participants one of four kinds of information: written material from the CDC explaining the lack of evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism; written material about the dangers of the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; images of children who have the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; or a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles. In a later round of questions, the parents were asked whether they intended to give their kids the MMR vaccine.
After seeing the CDC information explaining the lack of evidence linking autism to the MMR vaccine, slightly fewer parents agreed with the statement “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children.” But the participants who started out with the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines became even more resistant: The number intending to vaccinate their children dropped after getting the information debunking the link, Nyhan and his colleagues reported in Pediatrics. (The researchers have since found the same is true with correcting misinformation about the flu vaccine.) Moreover, Images of unvaccinated kids who were sick with diseases prevented by the vaccineactually led to an uptick in the number of people who said they thought vaccines cause autism. Likewise, the narrative about the sick baby also led to an increase in beliefs about serious side effects from the vaccine.
Tribeca should have pulled the film, as others have noted; Vaxxed should not be confused with a serious journalistic examination of a tough subject. But hearing about the film being withdrawn will very likely lead some people who are already wary of vaccines to just doubt them further.
“Often we overestimate our ability to make decisions based on facts,” says Seth Mnookin, who explores why parents spurn vaccines in his book The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. “But the reality of being human is the vast majority of our decisions are based on emotions.”
In the case of vaccines, that emotional response probably stems from many things, Mnookin says, including frustration with our lack of personalized health care, a general distrust of large corporations and of big pharma specifically, distrust that isn’t necessarily misplaced.
“‘How can you defend pharmaceutical companies?’ is a legitimate question,” says Mnookin. But equating vaccines, which have saved countless lives, with pharmaceutical companies as a whole is a huge mistake, he says; it’s an emotional response rather than one based on evidence.
Our tendency to make mistakes when it comes to emotional subjects like our children’s health suggests that we need safeguards to protect us not only from fraudsters like Wakefield, but from ourselves. The scientific community — and the media — need to change the incentives of the game, placing value on accuracy rather than flash, says Nyhan. Scientific journals should report negative results with the zeal with which they play up new and surprising findings, Mnookin and others argue. And public figures should think twice before they promote misinformation about vaccines, not after.
Editor’s note: This post was updated on April 1 to correct the title of the film.