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23 years later: the specter of Andrew Wakefield still has something to teach us

Reviewing “The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many new challenges for our time, but it’s also exposed existing moth holes in our social fabric. One of those issues is the anti-vaccination movement, which threatens to impact our current vaccine roll-out and risks harm to vulnerable people who can’t vaccinate, or those around them.

If you’re the type of person who wonders how we came to this state of affairs, The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines, by Brian Deer, provides backstory on one of the main cartoon villains of this arena. Andrew Wakefield was a medical doctor in the U.K. who was enticed to the dark side, apparently by a combination of hubris and financial gains. Deer, a journalist who exposed the story as it played out over many years, walks us along Wakefield’s path, with solid evidence and detailed timelines of what transpired.

Andrew Wakefield was enticed to the dark side, apparently by a combination of hubris and financial gains.

Even though many of us may have been aware of the main aspects of Wakefield’s fraudulent research and claims, The Doctor Who Fooled the World provides additional context that’s illuminating. The previous dubious lawsuit claims made against other vaccines had created an expectation that parents’ stories about suffering children, correlated with a vaccination date, could provide financial compensation they genuinely needed to help their developmentally disabled kids. But a side effect of this was also lucrative to law firms and “experts” who could deliver data to support these spurious claims.

Deer explains how this mixture of parents seeking answers and an opportunistic, attention-seeking doctor with dreams of glory combine to scapegoat the entire practice of vaccination. The Doctor Who Fooled the World also illustrates how institutions can promote a media frenzy around controversial research to elevate their reputation and attract research funding, as the Royal Free Hospital did. The book is well-organized, with details revealed like puzzle pieces that the reader can use to assemble the complete picture.

In many parts of The Doctor Who Fooled the World, there are satisfying details about actual consequences that Wakefield suffered that may be new to the reader: losing his jobs, losing professional status, losing his medical license, ultimately losing the publication that set this all into motion, as his scientific papers came under full scrutiny. Yet we also witness an infuriating failure of Wakefield to show any remorse or reflection.

Ultimately, Wakefield went on to become a martyr of the anti-vaccine movement, supposedly ostracized by his profession for speaking truth to power. He segued his tattered career into one as a film producer, making two “documentaries” detailing his unfounded allegations, grievances, and conspiracy theories about vaccines. Vaxxed was eventually pulled from Robert De Niro’s Tribeca film festival in 2016, although De Niro later went on to seemingly defend the movie, suggesting in his opinion, it was “something people should see.”

The Doctor Who Fooled the World also gives glimpses into other features of our current matrix. Deer had a front row seat to the beginning of the internet culture of personal attack, as it developed. The early days of this drama provide a foreshadowing of the effective narrowcasting of an interest group/echo chamber. A disgraced doctor became a hero to parents who wanted someone to hear them, creating a cult of personality that further stoked Wakefield’s ego, in a vicious circle. This also generated hostility and baseless attacks on those who point out the emperor had no clothes, as Deer did. Scientists and science writers on heated topics suffer from the same things today. Ask Anthony Fauci.

Ultimately,The Doctor Who Fooled the World provides us with an overview of systemic problems with abuses of the scientific enterprise, the legal system, both the traditional media and the social media environment, and the ongoing grifting by self-appointed medical or science mavericks who target vulnerable communities. Human misery profiteers have latched onto a lucrative cycle: dubious claim, stoke doubts about science, file lawsuits, create appealing film, generate David-as-victim versus Goliath donations, lather-rinse-repeat.

Knowing how it happened might help us to recognize future situations and intervene sooner.

The Doctor Who Fooled the World doesn’t provide solutions to the problem of unscrupulous scammers targeting credulous marks who suffer from real medical mysteries, but knowing how it happened might help us to recognize future situations and intervene sooner. Many times I’ve asked colleagues in science, “What would you do if you saw another Andrew Wakefield coming today? His story helps us to see the signs and envision what might happen if we don’t wrangle fraudulent claims before they grab hold in the culture.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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