If you’re trying to debunk a conspiracy theory and your message is complicated, you’ve probably already lost. The sorts of people who fall for a given conspiracy are unlikely to be moved by an explanation that takes a lot of unspooling, because most conspiracy theories can be summed up in just a few scary words — part of the reason successful ones spread so far, so fast.
That’s why anyone curious about the controversy surrounding Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, the film from Andrew Wakefield, the discredited former physician who posits a link between childhood vaccination and autism, should read Rebecca Robbins’s rundown of the controversy in STAT. She explains in a very tight, concise way why the film’s scaremongering over vaccines is unwarranted.
Vaxxed was supposed to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, but was subsequently pulled amid protest over its potentially harmful message. One of its biggest claims is one that has been bouncing around the anti-vaxx internet for awhile: The CDC is covering up evidence of a connection between childhood vaccination and autism in a sample of African-American boys from Georgia.
Robbins’s treatment of this claim is a particularly important part of her rundown. The rumor started, she writes, when “One of the CDC researchers who co-authored a 2004 study that found no link between vaccines and autism harbored concerns about the way the analysis was conducted,” and Wakefield and anti-vaccine activist Brian Hooker latched onto those concerns. The researcher himself has released a statement reading, in part, that he “would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race” (though he also doesn’t back away from the claim that he thinks there were methodological problems with the original study).
Robbins explains why, despite all that online hubbub, there isn’t an actual scandal here:
Nobody has produced evidence that the CDC covered up anything. The CDC makes the raw data from the study available to researchers to analyze, and no credible scientists have raised an alarm.
There’s also no compelling biological explanation why African-American boys would be the only group at increased risk for autism. The smaller the subgroup you’re analyzing, the more likely you are to stumble across false positives.
Hooker, the anti-vaccine activist, did his own analysis of the raw data, looking at all African-American kids, not just those with Georgia birth certificates. He found that black boys who were vaccinated before age 3 were 3.4 times more likely to have autism than those who weren’t. The journal Translational Neurodegeneration published his study, then quickly retracted it, citing concerns about Hooker’s “competing interests” and the validity of his methods and statistics.
And don’t overlook the biggest issue: Even if there was a problem with the 2004 Pediatrics study, an association found in a single study of children in one city would not overturn or cast doubt on the enormous body of evidence ruling out a link between vaccines and autism.
As you can see, even just a partial explanation of what’s going on here — Robbins provides further context in the article — takes four paragraphs to explain, and that explanation is far less juicy than The government is covering up a scandal that could harm your kids!
Robbins’s story is worth checking out if you want to better understand the full context behind Vaxxed and the persistent conspiracy theories about vaccination. Though it’s unlikely that the people who would most benefit from reading it will do so.