In “The Pathological Optimist” Wakefield Profits From False Hope and a Disproved Autism-MMR Hypothesis
Oct 23, 2017
This guest post has been written by Every Child By Two Board Member, Dr. Paul A. Offit, who is a professor of pediatrics and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The Pathological Optimist, which had its theatrical release on September 29, 2017, is a movie about Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who claimed that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism.
Although much has been written about this man and his discredited hypothesis, one question remains unanswered. And it’s this question that makes Andrew Wakefield such an interesting character study.
Among scientists, Andrew Wakefield is unique. He’s not unique because his explanation for why MMR caused autism was nonsensical. (MMR vaccine doesn’t overwhelm the immune system; measles vaccine virus doesn’t damage the intestine; and brain-damaging toxins don’t then enter the body and cause autism). And he’s not unique because 17 studies performed in seven countries on three continents showed that those who received MMR weren’t at greater risk of autism. (Four thousand studies are published in the scientific and medical literature every day; not surprisingly, false claims are published all the time). He’s not unique because the Lancet, the medical journal that published his original paper, retracted it when the editor learned that Wakefield had misrepresented biological and clinical data. (Researchers who falsify data are an occasional problem in science—a human endeavor). And he’s not unique because several of the families mentioned in his paper were in the midst of suing pharmaceutical companies, essentially laundering their legal claims through a medical journal. (Conflicts of interest occasionally confound medical research). Finally, he’s not unique because his misrepresentations and falsehoods caused him to lose his medical license. (Every year some doctors lose their license to practice medicine).
No. What makes Andrew Wakefield unique is that unlike many of the discredited, defrocked, and humiliated scientists who have preceded him, he continues to insist that he is right and that the rest of the world is wrong.
The question is: Why? In The Pathological Optimist, executive producer Miranda Bailey pulls back the curtain.
Between 2011 and 2016, Bailey, who is best known for her work in Swiss Army Man, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Norman, embedded herself in Andrew Wakefield’s life. Bailey is no novice. She’s spent a lot of time working around people who act for a living. She’s not easily fooled. And she’s not fooled here.
Throughout the movie, Andrew Wakefield’s grandiosity, his exaggerated sense of self-importance, his fantasies of brilliance, his sense of entitlement, his need for constant admiration, and his arrogance are on full display.
The Pathological Optimist follows Wakefield on what appears to be a cross-country, money-seeking tour targeting parents of children with autism. Wakefield isn’t raising money for research on autism’s causes or cures. And he isn’t raising money to promote better services or better educational tools for children with the disorder. Rather, he’s raising money for himself; specifically, to pay legal fees for his lawsuits against Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who had exposed Wakefield’s falsifications in the Lancet paper, and Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal who had called Wakefield’s paper fraudulent and challenged the Lancet to retract it.
Wakefield is out to restore his reputation. And he’s taking advantage of vulnerable parents who believe in him to do it. For Andrew Wakefield, it’s all about Andrew Wakefield.
During Wakefield’s fund-raising efforts, he’s surrounded by adoring parents. They hug him, cry, call him their hero, take selfies, and fork over at least $130,000. These parents see in Wakefield someone who can cure their children, even though he can’t: a peddler of false hope. J.B. Handley, founder of the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Organization, has likened Wakefield to Jesus Christ . Throughout the movie, viewers are left with the impression that Wakefield sees himself the same way: a savior, a messiah, a man who is being persecuted for daring to speak truth to power.
Typically, scientists are uncomfortable in front of a camera. Not Andrew Wakefield. At the beginning of the movie you watch in painful close-up as he slowly does his yoga exercises, a thin sheen of sweat dripping from his face. At the end of the movie, you see him chopping wood in his T-shirt. Because Wakefield burst onto the scene in 1998, his television interviews go back about 20 years. We watch as he becomes older, more grizzled, less baby-faced. Now, claiming to be a documentary filmmaker, his love for the camera hasn’t changed. Recently, he directed, wrote, and starred in the movie, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. As noted by W.H. Auden, “Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.”
Toward the middle of the movie, Wakefield likens himself to Nelson Mandela:
“People say to me, ‘Listen, you can’t win this, can you?’ I say that’s not a reason not to fight. Mandela was in prison for 27 years in solitary confinement—how many people told him during that time that he couldn’t win.”
Mandela fought against apartheid in South Africa. Wakefield is suing an investigative journalist and the editor-in-chief of a major medical journal for exposing him. Mandela’s goal was to end racial discrimination in his native country. Wakefield’s is to restore his own reputation and possibly win a lot of money from his lawsuits. It’s hard to see these two missions as analogous.
Also, it’s difficult enough to hear people refer to themselves in the third person. Wakefield actually manages to use his name as a verb. He explains that his ostracism from the medical and scientific community has now scared others away from challenging the safety of vaccines for fear of being “Wakefielded.” In truth, scientists challenge the safety of vaccines all the time. For example, scientists have reported that a squalene-adjuvanted influenza vaccine used in Europe in 2009 caused narcolepsy, a permanent disorder of wakefulness. And they’ve reported that the yellow fever vaccine can itself cause yellow fever in about 1 per 10 million recipients, a rare but real and often fatal side effect. And they’ve reported that the oral polio vaccine could itself cause polio; again rare—about 1 case per 2.4 million doses—but real. The scientists who made these claims weren’t “Wakefielded.” That’s because they were right. Wakefield wasn’t “Wakefielded” because he claimed that a vaccine was harmful; he was “Wakefielded” because he continues to push a disproved hypothesis without apparent empathy for the children who have suffered needlessly from measles because their parents believed him.
Toward the end of the movie, Wakefield says,
“What I believe is irrelevant. At the end of the day, it’s what the science demonstrates.”
Bailey follows this statement with a graphic showing all of the studies that failed to find any connection between MMR and autism. The inability of these studies to find what Wakefield believed he had found can only be interpreted in two ways. One: nothing was there to be found. Two: a massive, international conspiracy involving thousands of scientists, clinicians, and public health officials, as well as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all deeply in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry have banded together for the sole purpose of discrediting Andrew Wakefield. This conspiracy, which we hear again and again throughout the movie, is Wakefield’s explanation for his current predicament.
Bailey opens her movie with a quote from Mark Twain:
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
At first, it’s unclear who is being fooled. By the end of the movie it isn’t. Wakefield has been fooling thousands of parents into avoiding vaccines for their children, leaving them unnecessarily vulnerable. And although Wakefield would like us to believe that in The Pathological Optimist he plays the role of Nelson Mandela in The Long Walk to Freedom, what we are really watching is Willy Loman in the last few scenes of Death of a Salesman: a man who has been exposed for his character flaws and is now paying the price.
Paul A. Offit, MD, is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His most recent book is Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (National Geographic Press, April 2017).
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