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In “The Pathological Optimist” Wakefield Profits From False Hope and a Disproved Autism-MMR Hypothesis

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.

pathoopt

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.


pauloffit

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).

  1. October 23, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Offit, for discussing this movie and explaining its special perspective, and for pointing out, again, Andrew Wakefield’s many misrepresentations and errors.

    Like

  2. October 23, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    Very informative – thanks! Maybe I will actually see the movie . . . ya know, if it makes it to Netflix 🙂

    Like

  3. Missy
    October 23, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    Dr Offit
    In 1958 the CDC said smoking did not cause lung cancer. Huh?? So, when will u finally admit that vaccines do in fact cause inflammation in the brain and cause vaccine damage in the form of autism. I guess it will unfortunately be in 2032
    when half the children are diagnosed. Is that what it will take?? I pray that you see the light and admit it before it gets to that point.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. October 23, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    The CDC did not say smoking did not cause lung cancer.

    The same studies that show that cigarettes cause lung cancer show that vaccines don’t cause autism. Basically, the question has been asked, has been researched in the way the link to cancer was, and was answered: vaccines don’t cause autism. The data is there.

    Like

  5. Ann
    October 23, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    I would love to see Offit and Wakefield on stage together in a respectable debate. If Wakefield is said to have had as much influence on parents as what Offit is saying, then I’m sure as much as Offit cares for the well being of the children of the future, he would be the hero if he were to go face to face with Wakefield and debunk him once and for all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kim Mountjoy
    October 23, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    All over the medical insurance industry Paul Offit, MD is lying and denying of causes and cures. In fact the mantra of the medical insurance industry is “No known cause and no cure.” The medical industry continues to cure nothing. Meanwhile every day parents watch right before their eyes after the vaccines all the beautiful God given neurological networks of their baby’s brain being totally destroyed. TOTALLY DESTROYED IS THE BABY’S ABILITY TO WALK, TALK, LOVE, FEEL, HEAR, HAVE EYE CONTACT, GONE IN ONE SHOT FROM A VACCINE IS THE BABY’S NEUROLOGICAL CONNECTIONS TO FUNCTION. And this Paul Offit is what peoples all over the world, along with Wakefield is about: To Restore the Brains and Body’s of all walks of life to NOT be damaged by vaccine or end up dead.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. October 23, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Why does Dr. Offit misrepresent himself as Chief of Infectious Diseases at CHOP when he has not held that title since 2014?

    Like

  8. October 23, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Was pharma involved in a conspiracy to dump opiate pills into pill mills when they stymied FDA efforts to control the flow of the pills?

    Like

  9. October 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Perhaps Dr. Offit can post the placebo controlled, double blind study comparing health outcomes in never vaccinated populations to populations fully vaccinated according to Offit’s “recommended schedule.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kim Mountjoy
    October 23, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    The wonderful thing about the parents kids having Measles Offit is talking about here, is those kids now have a LIFE LONG IMMUNITY and a Brain that continue to grow, neurons and synapses that were not destroyed from (vaccines neurologic toxins) giving these children “A Mind Intact” with an ability to grow and learn and think.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Laura
    October 23, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    Interesting how you are deleting comments who disagree with you! So transparent!!! You’re a joke!

    Like

  12. October 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    I’m afraid a debate with a science denier like Wakefield only gives him legitimacy and attention he does not deserve. Serious astronomers don’t debate flat earthers on stage; there is no reason for a real scientist to debate someone with Wakefield’s record, someone who hasn’t done real science for decades.

    Like

  13. October 23, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    The data showing vaccines don’t cause autism comes from all over the world. The CDC couldn’t control it if it wanted. See:
    http://autismsciencefoundation.org/what-is-autism/autism-and-vaccines/

    The people writing this don’t fall under NCVIA, which isn’t actually relevant here.

    Like

  14. October 23, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    Vaccines don’t cause autism. By preventing diseases like measles, hib, etc they prevent neurological damage rather than cause it.

    Like

  15. October 23, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    And I am not sure what Dr. Offit has to do with the medical insurance industry.

    Like

  16. October 23, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    For most people Andrew Wakefield is a byword for scientific fraud and Dr. Offit a serious scientist with many awards, publications and honors.

    Don’t confuse the views of the extreme anti vaccine minority, a tiny group, with “people”.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. October 23, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    I’m not sure where anyone thinks Dr. Offit misrepresents himself. As to the myth about no placebo testing, or no testing of the schedule, I address both here: https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/debunking-myths-about-vaccine-testing-and-safety/

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Lawrence
    October 24, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Measles, is in fact, extremely dangerous.

    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-measles-long-term-effects-20150507-story.html

    I don’t see this as any kind of positive.

    Like

  19. Dr Rachael Pickering
    October 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Dear ex-Dr Wakefield

    I am a British trained GP who gave birth as your MMR was gearing up. I was the only mother who turned up on the day of my baby’s first MMR appointment – everyone else believed you. And then my dear little child went on to be diagnosed with autism.

    Do I believe that my daughter’s condition was caused by MMR? Do I wish I had listened to you? Do I long to turn back the clock and un-give her that vaccine?

    No, no and no.

    I have read your research and all of the major follow-up research done in the wake of your scandal. The plain fact is that you are wrong…. and that’s the conclusion I told my examiners a couple of years later when, ironically for the medical mother of an autistic child vaccinated at the height of the scare, your research came up as the hot topic in my MRCGP viva.

    Anyone can make research mistakes: that’s academic life. But what kind of person would continue, so many years later and in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to appeal to the desperate hopes of autistic children’s parents? To do so wouldn’t be a mistake: it would to be unbelievably selfish and flawed.

    Please stop. Enough is enough.

    Signed, a medical mother who is proud have had her autistic child MMR-ed.

    Like

  20. Alabama
    October 24, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    Maybe “ex-vaxxers” would be more appropriate than the lose term “anti- vaxxers”? Considering a large number of the anti- vaxx population consists of parents of vaccine injured children, let’s correctly represent us. That’s just a start. Wakefield actually found the connection of gut issues and neuro symptoms of Autism spectrum disorder. This literally changes the perspective in so many ways. He IS a champion. He is only downplayed by bought pharma rogues. If you don’t know this you’re not trying.

    Like

  21. October 24, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Most people in the anti-vaccine movement have children who suffer from conditions not caused by vaccines, like autism, allergies and SIDS, and are therefore not vaccine injured.

    People can become anti-vaccine, even if they were not in the past, so anti-vaccine is descriptively correct for most of the people so described.

    And to remind you, Andrew Wakefield created a connection on data that did not show one. I do not think misrepresenting data in ways that put children at risk is a good thing.

    Like

  22. Thai Tanic
    October 24, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    Dorit, you clearly need to read up more on Dr. Wakefield and his data. First and foremost he did not put any children at risk. The parents of the 12 children he studied wrote a letter to the GMC letting them know that their children had been treated well by Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues. As far as Wakefield’s data goes, he did not misrepresent any. Judge Mitting who exonerated Dr. John Walker-Smith criticized the disciplinary panel’s “inadequate and superficial reasoning and, in a number of instances, a wrong conclusion”. The judge said: “It would be a misfortune if this were to happen again.” Wakefield was demonized and we know it.

    Like

  23. October 24, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    By falsely suggesting vaccines cause autism Andrew Wakefield scared parents from protecting their children from measles, putting children at risk of a disease that can kill and harm them. That’s directly putting children at risk.

    I realize the parents did not complain. It’s sad that the children misused for the Lancet article did not get a voice.

    And to remind you, the Walker-Smith acquittal did nothing to overturn the findings against Wakefield. In fact, in part it was based on Walker-Smith’s contention that Wakefield lied to him. http://www.ecbt.org/index.php/facts_and_issues/article/andrew_wakefield_has_never_been_exonerated_justice_mittings_decision_in_the

    Like

  24. October 25, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Thai Tanic, one of the ways in which ex-doctor Wakefield put children at risk was by paying children to give blood samples at a birthday party. Completely unethical and dangerous.

    Like

  25. Ann
    October 25, 2017 at 11:04 am

    I think Offit has made is position very clear. And here he is again reasserting it. Vaccines are his life’s work and everything he has built for himself depends on the science being settled. As one of the world’s most prominent vaccines spokespeople and a vaccine patent-holder (for rotavirus), he can’t afford to question the status quo. But with over 270 new vaccines coming down the pipeline and laws protecting vaccine-makers from any liability, the rest of us can’t afford to stop asking questions. Kudos to Miranda Bailey for being brave enough to explore her questions.

    Like

  26. Lawrence
    October 25, 2017 at 11:35 am

    If anything, Walker-Smith threw Wakefield under the bus in his appeal…if you actually read the transcripts, WS didn’t have many positive things to say about his former colleague.

    Like

  27. Missy
    October 25, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Have you listened to the scores of parents tell their stories.?? How about the triplets that suddenly the same day, within 24 hours of a vaccine had no eye contact, screaming in pain…. now teenagers and in diapers.. Try telling them they weren’t vaccine damaged. Truth is hard to swallow when the lie pays the rent!!!

    Like

  28. October 25, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    The comment above is right that we should certainly ask questions, but is wrong in several ways.

    A. Dr. Offit certainly speaks up against vaccines when the data doesn’t support a vaccine. For example, he spoke up against giving the military smallpox vaccines.

    He follows the data.

    B. Dr. Offit is not currently a patent holder. The patent has been sold years ago.

    I would add that the approach of trying to delegitimize Dr. Offit – almost always with incorrect claims – is a poor substitute to actually addressing what he said.

    If anything it shows his points cannot be countered.

    C. The claim of 270 vaccines in the pipeline is also misleading, if it tries to suggests children will be given that many. Many vaccines in development are not for the U.S. – like a malaria vaccine or dengue fever, others are better versions of current vaccines, yet others therapeutic, for treating things like cancer.
    https://vaxopedia.org/2016/10/20/vaccines-in-development/

    I would add it’s a little ironic to present having more tools to fight dangerous diseases as a bad thing.

    Like

  29. October 25, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I have listened to many of the stories. The fact that the parents sincerely believe the vaccines caused autism does not change the data – the studies in millions that show they do not.

    I have also listened to the triplet story, and found it less than convincing. First, they claim there was a bad lot of pneumococcal vaccine – but I have been unable to find the lot they say was recalled, and I have seen no evidence that ever happened. Second, autism doesn’t appear in hours. This seems like a family that was already suspicious of vaccines, and something strange.

    Like

  30. Lawrence
    October 25, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    You mean three, genetically-identical babies ended up with a diagnosis of autism?

    Certainly doesn’t lend credence to a vaccine link, but a genetic link.

    Like

  31. Lawrence
    October 25, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    @Ann – I’m sure you can back up that statement by providing evidence that Dr. Offit still holds a vaccine patent, right?

    (when in actuality, he never “held” the patent, he was a contributor) – and all rights were sold a long, long time ago.

    But anti-vaxers never let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

    Like

  32. Chris
    October 27, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Missy: “How about the triplets that suddenly the same day, within 24 hours of a vaccine had no eye contact, screaming in pain…. now teenagers and in diapers..”

    One thing that family can do is join https://sparkforautism.org/. All they have to do is answer questions on an online form, contribute spit from each affected child, and from each parent. This will contribute to real autism science, and they will learn why their children have a developmental disorder.

    They now know several of the genetic sequences that trigger a bit over half of the cases on the autism spectrum. There are now even parent groups based on some of those genetic sequences, some of which have actual treatments that can help.

    Like

  33. Chris
    October 29, 2017 at 12:38 am

    Le sigh. There is real research being done by the Simons Foundation that is recruiting fifty thousand families for genetic causes of autism spectrum disorders. If a Vaxxed family truly wishes to find out what happened with their child they would join. Some of the known genetic sequences come with a side benefit of actual factual medical therapies.

    Like

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