Robert De Niro Defends Anti-Vax Nonsense

Apr 14, 2016

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Lev Radin

By Phil Plait

In late March, the Tribeca Film Festival announced it was pulling a “documentary” from their lineup. The film, called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, was a clear piece of propaganda designed to bolster anti-vaccination nonsense.

The trailer is loaded with easily debunked claims, and the producer, Andrew Wakefield, is the founder of the modern anti-vax movement. Not so incidentally, the paper he authored linking vaccines and autism was retracted, he also lost his medical license for acting unethically (really, really unethically), had a huge conflict of interest in his aim to cast doubt on the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, and has been accused of fraud by the British Medical Journal.

It’s very, very clear this film was going to just be more of the same tired arguments made by anti-vaxxers who rail in the face of reality.

Tribeca is run in part by actor Robert De Niro, and the film got in the lineup due to De Niro’s influence. He has a child with autism and wanted an open discussion of it.

On Wednesday, he and Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal appeared on The Today Show to talk about the festival and Vaxxed. In my original article about this I praised De Niro for pulling the film. I now rescind that praise.

At the time, he said, “But after reviewing [the film] 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.” You can watch the video here; the discussion about vaccines starts at 2:15.

But for some reason he has completely backtracked on this. In this more recent interview he parrots quite a few false anti-vax claims and phrases, and clearly buys into the movement’s falsehoods.

For example, he says, “The movie is something that people should see. … Definitely there’s something to that movie. … There’s a lot of information about things that are happening with the CDC and the pharmaceutical companies.”

What he’s talking about is the alleged “whistleblower” who claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was lying about research into a connection between autism and vaccines. However, that’s been widely debunked. Interestingly, although the trailer of Vaxxed heavily features this conspiracy theory, the whistleblower reportedly isn’t even in the film.

De Niro goes on: “I, as a parent of a child who has autism, I’m concerned and I want to know the truth. I’m not anti-vaccine; I want safe vaccines.”

This is an old chestnut. Jenny McCarthy claims she’s not anti-vax either, and just wants safe vaccines, but then dives right into making false claims about vaccines. But the thing is, if you do that, you’re an anti-vaxxer.

And that’s what De Niro does. When the interviewer tells him that scientists have found no evidence at all of a link between autism and vaccines, De Niro responds, “It’s more complicated than that. There is a link, and [scientists are] saying there isn’t. The obvious one is thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative.”


Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

18 comments on “Robert De Niro Defends Anti-Vax Nonsense

  • Second, anti-vaxxers confuse (willfully or otherwise) different mercury compounds: Methylmercury, which can build up in your system and is dangerous, and ethylmercury, which does not build up and is excreted rapidly from the body. Thimerosal is the latter.

    A pet peeve of mine. I don’t think it is wilful conflation by anti-vaxxers I just think it is woeful ignorance of simple chemistry. I try to make the analogy of methanol and ethanol but I am usually met with vacuous stares indicating they not only do not understand but are not capable of understanding this simple concept.



    Report abuse

  • Another misleading headline?

    I sympathise with the actor, but it’s essential for someone in his postion to discover the facts before saying anything.

    The tragedy is that the fundamental evolutionary facts have been lost sight of.

    The make up of the treatment is a separate issue altogether, and it seems to me that it is being introduced as a mitigating factor.

    At least with Thalidomide they came clean.



    Report abuse

  • The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that the more you debunk their science, the more you expose their motives, the more you prosecute them for fraud, the more you publish materials which prove them conclusively wrong: the more you confirm their beliefs. After all, if mainstream science is right and their alternative science is wrong, why does mainstream science spend so much time, energy and money trying to discredit them? Obviously because THEY want to hide the truth.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – This is an old chestnut. Jenny McCarthy claims she’s not anti-vax either, and just wants safe vaccines, but then dives right into making false claims about vaccines. But the thing is, if you do that, you’re an anti-vaxxer.

    And that’s what De Niro does. When the interviewer tells him that scientists have found no evidence at all of a link between autism and vaccines, De Niro responds, “It’s more complicated than that. There is a link, and [scientists are] saying there isn’t. The obvious one is thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative.”

    De Nero is an actor! They just confidently repeat whatever lines they are given, without any need to understand them!

    He has quite clearly been sold a load of anti-vax nonsense, but changed his mind and withdrew the film from the festival.

    He seems to have recognised some of the claims as dishonest nonsense, – but does not have the skills to recognise all of them, or to know who are the honest scientists, and who are the pseudo-science posers.

    Andrew Wakefield is sufficiently devious and persistent, to have mixed in some real big-pharma issues to cause confusion, and try to add credibility to his false claims.



    Report abuse

  • de Niro is a fine actor. He is good at pretending to have encephalitis. But he is no more an expert on vaccinations than Donald Trump. People assume he is wise just because he is famous.



    Report abuse

  • My Advanced Placement Class (11th grade) is currently studying the immune system. I have a couple kids of anti-vaxxer parents. One pass through the content of how the immune system works and the kids are smacking their foreheads and going home to confront their parents. They are like “Duh”…..

    I find the anti vaxx folks tedious and dishonest. Case in point, they swallow hook line and sinker the info that has been proffered regarding Zika and birth defects (which presumably has been garnered using the scientific method). Then they sit and poo poo the findings regarding their pet peeve which have been garnered using the same method.

    At no point in any process is it ok to declare you know something just because you know it. Knowledge is EARNED. And simply thinking your kid has autism because _________________… Is sad and pitiful. However, sad and pitiful does not play a part in intellectual discourse.

    BTW, the same people who will not allow you to vaccinate their kids implore everyone in the school to refrain from eating peanut butter because their kid is allergic. Fucking hypocritical know nothing stooges.



    Report abuse

  • If peanut allergies are as common as media (and cheap-shot drama scripts) suggest, how come airlines routinely serve peanut snacks?

    On the school policy, how about “we’ll ban peanuts, due to allergy concerns, and we’ll ban the unvaccinated due to concerns about diseases”. Now, that would be fair, wouldn’t it?



    Report abuse

  • @crookedshoes

    Hi there crookedshoes, haven’t heard from you in ages.

    As a fellow educator I sympathise entirely with your comments, I’m teaching a year 8 class currently and getting all sort of religious nonsense trickling down into class, while I try to put out bush fires without unduly causing offence. Frankly I’m a bit over it.



    Report abuse

  • Alan4discussion @ # 4.

    De Nero is an actor! They just confidently repeat whatever lines they are given, without any need to understand them!

    Because of his position, the father of an Autistic child has had his vulnerability exploited in public, and I have to say I think that it’s uncharitable of you to make such a remark.

    Also, as someone who’s clearly very knowledgable about many things, I would have thought that you’d avoid talking about something you know nothing about; namely, acting.

    It’s nothing personal, you just touched a nerve.

    If I’ve overstepped the mark, I apologize; but as you well know we speak our minds around here.



    Report abuse

  • Stafford Gordon #10
    Apr 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Because of his position, the father of an Autistic child has had his vulnerability exploited in public, and I have to say I think that it’s uncharitable of you to make such a remark.

    Actually, on this earlier discussion, I commented on him changing his mind as he became aware of the facts and improved his understanding. I also put a link explaining his position.

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/03/this-week-in-science-march-20-27/#li-comment-200715

    De Nero is an actor! They just confidently repeat whatever lines they are given, without any need to understand them!

    Also, as someone who’s clearly very knowledgable about many things, I would have thought that you’d avoid talking about something you know nothing about; namely, acting.

    Actually I perform some evening most weeks, but as a singer and musician rather than a straight actor.

    I can assure you that singers and actors when in character on stage, do not believe or need to understand, all the words they recite for the purpose of portraying characters, moods, or send-up comedy!

    It’s nothing personal, you just touched a nerve.

    Don’t worry about it.
    You obviously did not see the other thread or the link.



    Report abuse

  • Steven007 #12
    Apr 18, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    It seems that De Nero had been influenced by the anti-vaxers of Hollywood, before the bad publicity encouraged him to talk to real scientists, rather than being impressed by Wakefield’s pseudo-science posers!

    @your link – if De Niro had shot a film in Texas during the last decade or so, particularly near Austin, which is where Wakefield lives and (2) see if De Niro had ever done a movie with known antivaccinationists, particularly supporters of Wakefield. So I did. Regarding the latter, the first hit of a Google search about films made in Austin with Robert De Niro pulled up Machete. Being somewhat of a connoisseur of bad movies, I remembered enjoying this violent cheesefest of a film, particularly the character played by De Niro, a hilariously racist and corrupt Texas state senator. I also remembered something about the director of the movie, Robert Rodriguez, namely that he and his wife had provided Wakefield with a blurb for his book,

    As angry as I was at him, as of Saturday I actually did still kind of feel sorry for Mr. De Niro. He wouldn’t be the first person conned by Wakefield on the basis of he and his wife having an autistic child, and his decision to intervene to bypass the normal selection process for Wakefield was producing disastrous consequences for him and his festival. In the wake of his press release, all manner of articles appeared, with titles such as “Robert De Niro just broke my heart“, castigating De Niro for having let Wakefield use his respected film festival as a vehicle to promote his antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Pretty much all the press Tribeca was receiving as of Saturday morning was bad press about screening Vaxxed. Meanwhile, ever their own worst enemies, the flying monkeys of the antivaccine movement had descended upon the Tribeca web page for Vaxxed, there to fling their poo of pseudoscience and nastiness so unhinged that surely it must have had an effect. Indeed, the last time I checked the total number of comments was over 2,000, and the crazies were truly out in force,



    Report abuse

  • @ reckless monkey,
    Hello, I have been so so busy with some very important stuff that I’ve neglected to post much. Always a pleasure to interact with you. I am very existential when it comes to other people’s beliefs and stress repeatedly that i care nothing about said beliefs and subsequently care nothing about influencing or changing them. I care about the science that goes on in the four walls of my classroom. I believe in very little. I accept evidence. i say this as my preface to any lesson that may prove caustic. it is effective but not @ 100%!!!

    I no longer entertain the religious students who often wander into my room looking to fight. I tell them to read their bible and their bio text and decide for themselves what their world should contain. i am acutely aware of some people’s need to believe not just in a god but to believe and belong to just something. I have no such need. but that does not entitle me to reach into their world view and change it to my world view. I can only invite them to look at the world through my eyes for the time that we have together and hope that at some point they have an “a-ha” moment. Some do, many don’t.

    i have a current student who graduated me 4 years ago and is at Liberty university. She e-mails me from time to time asking for specific (and sometimes weird) opinions of mine. She has stayed in touch for 4 years of college despite our being polar opposites. We do not have to agree to be kind and charitable. She is an awesome person and uses religion to overcome a horrible backstory. i respect her, think she is dead wrong, and would stand for her right to be wrong all day every day.



    Report abuse

  • crookedshoes #15
    Apr 18, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    If you leave 4 spaces at the beginning of a line, the text presents as a block of monospaced font.

    Likewise when starting a line with > to quote, line spaces at the end of paragraphs are important for formatting.



    Report abuse

  • As usual, “the religion of peace”, has more vicious anti-vax nonsense, with its deluded followers, making their usual contribution to world health and welfare!!!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36090891

    Seven Pakistani policemen, three of whom were guarding polio workers, have been killed in Karachi, officials say.

    Eight gunmen on motorcycles fired at a group of three police guards and later at a van containing four officers, officials told the Pakistan Tribune.

    Islamist militants oppose vaccination, saying it is a Western conspiracy to sterilise Pakistani children.

    In January, 15 people were killed in a bomb attack on a vaccination centre in the south-western city of Quetta.
    Reward

    Polio workers called off the vaccination drive in Karachi following the attack, despite the home minister’s order to continue, the Tribune reported.

    According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, police have offered a reward of 5 million rupees (£33,000) for information on the killers, and 2 million rupees (£13,000) compensation to the victims’ families.

    Talking to reporters at the scene, Sindh police Inspector General AD Khawaja said polio drops would be “administered to our children at all costs” and said security for polio teams would be increased.

    Pakistan is one of only two countries, along with Afghanistan, where polio remains endemic. Militants have repeatedly targeted vaccination programmes, killing nearly 80 people since December 2012.

    The country recorded more than 300 polio cases in 2014 – its highest number since 1999.

    Most of the new infections were in north-west Pakistan, where militants regularly target roving health teams, and health officials blamed the rise in cases on several deadly attacks on police workers that year.

    The number of cases fell to just 52 in 2015, largely because vaccination teams could reach areas that were previously off limits because of militancy.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.