De Niro and Tribeca: Hate the misinformers, not the misinformed

Robert De Niro co-founded the Tribeca film festival. He’s featured prominently in American cinema since the 70s, and has starred in over 100 films. He’s not really unknown.

This is why his decision to pressure the Tribeca film festival to screen an anti-vaccination documentary “Vaxxed: from cover-up to catastrophe” (directed by Andrew Wakefield, the father of the modern anti-vaccination movement) was met with an incredibly strong reaction.

Less than 48 hours after making the announcement, De Niro pulled the documentary.

“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”

As you might expect, the reaction from the broader anti-vaccination crowd was to cry ‘free speech!’, as if the concept entitles them to force a film festival to air their pre-packaged attack on child health. The right to speak freely doesn’t incorporate the right to demand a platform. Shouting down those obsessively advocating for child harm is justified.

The interesting and important point to be gleaned from this episode is simply that sane, rational people can fall into advocating for harmful beliefs, with surprising ease. Education, wealth and age serve as no barrier to the acceptance of bad science, and its varied outcomes.

Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes about her reaction to De Niro’s original decision:

“[De Niro] is helping to harm autistic individuals and public health by screening a film that inaccurately suggests there is any link between vaccines and autism.

DeNiro has done so much good, through his films’ messages and simply entertaining us over his remarkable career. He is now harming that legacy. He is harming parents and their children. He is harming the autistic community. He has broken my heart”

We feel a direct connection with celebrities, an emotion that’s hard to shake. I can’t help but imagine that if I hung out with  Seth Rogen, that we’d have a good ‘ol laff, and that we’d be best buddies. So, when celebrities publicly express some view that directly contradicts a personal belief, it’s almost as if a close friend has betrayed us.

This highlights the danger presented by the mechanism of anti-vaccination sentiment. It seizes on emotion, and personal connection. It doesn’t matter how well-credentialed, empathetic or ethical someone is – the rejection of the science of vaccination is not formed through deliberative decision making, but through emotional reasoning. Counter-intuitively, presenting scientific information can reinforce beliefs.

There’s an excellent essay in Aeon, discussing this:

“The conflict isn’t about science,’ Goldenberg says. ‘It’s a conflict about much deeper values, and the science serves as placeholders for arguing out value disputes”

Spectating the reaction on Twitter to De Niro’s original decision, many attributed it to ignorance, ‘anti-science’ or simple stupidity.

The inaccuracy of this diagnosis is pretty clear. De Niro’s own child has autism, and so his concern was quite clearly spurred by this. This is examined in the aforementioned essay:

“[Associate Professor Maya Goldberg’s] research found that many parents’ concerns about vaccines are similar to those of Fisher and Carlson: they can’t quite mesh the goals of widespread, population-scale public health with their personal goals for their individual children. She cites focus groups where experts reassured frightened parents that the MMR vaccine was safe for the general public. Meanwhile, the parents kept asking: ‘Is the MMR vaccine safe for my child?”

Your heroes? They’re not immune to this. No one is. We should certainly dedicate time and effort to stopping pseudoscience advocacy in its tracks – in this particular instance, to not do so is to directly contribute to injury and death in children.

But, pause, before you discard your love of Robert De Niro, or form a new-found hatred of your hero who is nervous about vaccination technology. Their motivations are almost certainly not sinister.

Save your energy for people like Wakefield, who devote their existence to spreading misinformation – save some sympathy for people like De Niro, who are targeted by the cruel misinformers in the anti-vaccination lobby.

  1. Bang on. This illustrates an extremely important point that is often missed in media articles, blog posts and comment threads – that “anti-vaxers” are not the same as “people who don’t vaccinate”. To me, anti-vaxers are those who actively campaign against vaccination, usually by misunderstanding, misinterpreting or ignoring established evidence – not people who merely fail to vaccinate. The blame for vaccine refusal falls more squarely at the feet of the promoters of emotionally-phrased, well-targeted anti-vax information than the consumers of that information. Criticism of anti-vaxers is so often interpreted as criticism of well-meaning, non-vaccinating parents. A subtle difference perhaps, but extremely important.


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