Dateline's shot at vaccines

By Phil Plait | September 2, 2009 2:30 pm

On Monday, NBC aired an episode of "Dateline" about the manufactured controversy over vaccines and autism. They had on Andrew Wakefield — the guy who started the whole antivax movement with his widely discredited and embarrassing paper falsely linking them — as well as Brian Deer, the journalist who dug up a lot of Wakefield’s shady history, and Paul Offitt, a doctor who researches vaccines.

I missed the show, dagummit. But a lot of people have been talking about it. I figure you know what my take is on this issue by now, so instead of railing once again against people who’d rather see babies fall ill to preventable diseases than vaccinate them, I’ll link to the others who have commented:

SkepticDad, who felt the show was weak;

Orac, who is predictably and correctly angry about the idea of balance in scientific and health issues;

Consumerist and Psychology Today;

MSNBC has links about the show itself; and

LizDitz, which is a metalink because she has lots of links on her site to others who wrote about the show, too.

I’m glad the mainstream press is noticing, but I wish they would give up their false notion of balance when it comes to matters of reality. People can and should disagree on political matters, but when it comes to testable claims and provably fallacious health hazards like antivaxxers, that sense of balance can lead to an outbreak of illness and even deaths… things which can be prevented by a simple vaccination.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience

Comments (35)

  1. Dave B

    I couldn’t watch it because (as my wife put it) I “would just end up yelling at the television”. For balance they should allocate the time based on the support it has in the community of experts. Wakefield might have enough time to get a word in (if it’s a short one). The rest of the hour can be spent on the truth.

  2. I don’t know about the episode itself, but the promos for this show made the quack out to be some kind of heroic lone defender of endangered babies. Yet more evidence that “duh media” is basically worthless at presenting anything but sensationalism that sells laundry soap.

  3. Pro Libertate

    What bugs me is the amount of attention the anti-vax side gets in the media. Rather than asking whether there’s adequate proof about autism claims, they generally just run with the “nobody really knows” statement. And simultaneously leave out the very real and known danger of discouraging large segments of the population from getting vaccinations.

    “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.”


    Phil, there are typos in the first & second lines; that should be vaccines and autism.

  5. Elmar_M

    The whole balance thing is a result of one of the biggest illnesses of these days. For that illness there is no vaccine and no cure is in sight. It is called “political correctness”.
    With MTV and Oprah deciding what is politically correct and what is not. It is a sad world.

  6. Notatheist

    don’t be a pedant ivan, it’s very annoying.

  7. Sir Eccles

    Notatheist, you should really start sentences with a capital.

  8. John Keller

    I liked that they gave time to the other side. They looked like complete idiots when confronted with the data.


    @ Notatheist,

    Not half as annoying as antivaxxers!

  10. Hey, don’t forget to provide a link like: :) We gotta fight the ignorance in every way we can.

  11. I wonder what these anti-vaxxers would say if you asked if you could put their children in a room for several hours, full of other kids who have never been vaccinated for ANY DISEASE… EVER.

    Remember the lawyer’s reaction in “Erin Brokovich” when she offers them some water supposedly imported from the town where the water was poisoned? I think they’d react something like that.

  12. Susan

    Oops! Mistaken assumption in your article Phil: Anti-vaxxers don’t “hate healthy babies”, they don’t hate any babies! Everybody loves babies. They just want to know if anything harmful is being injected into humanity’s future. This obviously requires further testing– more so than an astronomer and some web-links can provide. You’re free to inject your kids with degenerative enzymes without knowing the long-term effects over of some romantic notion of “disease prevention” but please stop trying to force popular science on the rest of us.

    Glad I could clear that up for you 😀

  13. @kuhnigget,

    Actually, the beginning of the program introduced his research and told of some TV movies that portrayed him as a hero. Then they quickly went into the discrediting of his research and ethical concerns about him. I thought that part was handled very well. To someone who didn’t know anything about this issue or Dr. Wakefield, it was a very good narrative. Build him up only to quickly tear him apart.

    In fact, I thought that the entire program was handled pretty well. Considering it was a mainstream media program. Any “other side” anti-vax story was more than made up for by scientists/experts saying just why those people were dead wrong.

  14. I thought one interesting revelation about Dr. Andrew Wakefield was that he wasn’t against giving vaccines entirely, just against giving the MMR as one shot. His recommendation was to split up the shot into 3 shots. Somehow, this got perverted into “all vaccines are evil and should be avoided.”

    Now, if he stood up to this movement and said “No, I only meant for the MMR to be split up into 3 shots”, I’d have some respect for him. Instead, he takes speaking engagements for these groups and has become a symbol (in some respects) for the anti-vax movement. So the position he seems to be supporting (ban all vaccines) isn’t even supported if you actually accepted his study as being valid. In the end, he’s just in it for the money and he doesn’t seem to care if children get hurt/killed along the way.

  15. Andrew


    An assumption is what you start with – “Vaccines have degenerative enzymes in them” is an assumption (and a bogus one). Conclusions are what you end up with, based on evidence – “Antivaxxers hate babies” is a conclusion based on the fact that antivaxxers take actions that lead to the death and crippling of babies (and seem to enjoy doing so). Hope that helps.

  16. Susan, assuming you’re not a troll, I didn’t write antivaxxers hate healthy babies. Pay attention here, because I know facts are troubling to antivaxxers: I wrote, they’d “rather see babies fall ill to preventable diseases than vaccinate them.” Is that not incorrect?

    Incidentally, disease prevention isn’t a romantic notion, it’s a rock solid scientific fact. If you don’t have polio, or smallpox, or rubella, or pertussis, or measles, or the flu, or mumps, why then, you can thank vaccinations! Even if you weren’t vaccinated, enough people were to give us herd immunity.

    But if you’d rather turn your back on science, that’s your choice, of course. Also of course, if you don’t vaccinate you’re not just putting your baby at risk of getting seriously ill and potentially dying, you’re putting other babies at that same risk too. Who knows how many babies may get sick or possibly die because you chose not to vaccinate! But be happy you still have your wrong beliefs to cling to. That should be comforting.

  17. Gonzo

    While it’s not directly about anti-vaxxers this piece in Miami Herald by Edward Wasserman is good advice for all media when confronting out and out falsehoods.

  18. Nomen Publicus

    I wish there was a way to show anti-vaxers how things were 100 years ago. Oh, yes, there is. Have a look at this table

    Notice the reduction in morbidity is close to 100% in every single case. Vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing some very nasty diseases. By discouraging families from taking action, anti-vaxers are working to bring back the conditions of 100 years ago where roughly 1million children a year, every year, caught a now preventable disease.

    Let’s get real here. Anti-vaxers are advocating child-abuse and should be treated accordingly by the media.

  19. Bazza

    There’s been a growing profile in the media in Australia too. Three babies have died of Whooping Cough this year alone, due to the misinformation out there.

  20. Jon B

    I shot off a strongly worded email to NBC after seeing that travesty, questioning why they bothered to give any legitimacy to Wakefield. I’m still waiting for a response.

    PS: Got my Galileoscope today, ordered June 2. Very cool. Still too smokey and nasty to view anything from LA, but the scope itself is uber-kool…

  21. csrster

    I’m reminded of Monty Python here (cue strong fake Australian accent):
    “I love animals. That’s why I kill them.”

  22. About summer of 1955 the first of the Sauk shots became widely available. The school called an unheard of summer session (with two more later that summer for the same thing) and gave everybody shots. I suppose permission slips were around someplace, but I don’t remember them. I was 8ish. Even the Christian Science kids were in line.

    The Superintendent of Schools, one H.A.Hoff, took the hard line, no shot, no public school. I heard of no objections.

    Most people who major in Broadcast Journalism have no science education, quite possibly having their last course in high school.

    Datelines MD was supposedly explicitly excluded from this show, if true she should have quit.

  23. MoMan

    Yes, the promos did tend to make it look like the show was going to be pro-anti-vaxxers (to attract more viewers, no doubt), but once it started I was delighted. I had never before seen any revelations (that I remember) about how Wakefield had been paid by one firm in a clear-cut case of conflict of interest. The English journalist nailed him (where the hell are the American journalists?), and Matt Lauer gave the smarmy Wakefield enough rope to continue hanging himself. I did not feel that there was a Faux-like attempt to be “fair and balanced.” It seemed quite clear to me that anyone with half a brain and two grains of objectivity would see the insanity of Wakefield and the anti-vaxxers, so Matt Lauer and crew desevere accolades for putting on a good show. One that was long overdue.

  24. Charles Boyer

    Is it only me that “Susan” lectures Phil about vaccines replete with an ad hominem about his being an astronomer — ostensibly attacking his critical thinking — all the while without stating her own qualifications. They must be somewhat shaky, because when she talks about “degenerative enzymes” she obviously fails 1) to qualify what a “degenerative” enzyme is and 2) that her body contains enzymes, produced naturally and as part of the biological process.

    Real people of genius, these fear mongerers. I would laugh at them were their hands not bloody with innocent deaths they have caused by their utter idiocy. In fact, were it me, I would put a few of them on trial for manslaughter and put them in PMITA prison for a couple of decades in order to contemplate what they have done.

  25. @Larian LeQuella

    Just an FYI, I reformatted my info on a little, giving squalene its own section, now.

  26. John

    I have two children and they’ve both been vaccinated on schedule throughout their childhood. I had no fears or qualms about doing so and neither did my wife. Our children are healthy and neither shows any signs of Autism. So then, what the hell causes SO MUCH Autism these days??? Is it in the air we breathe, is it sent to our youths through the power of televison?? Barney? The Wiggles? Sesame Street? Is it extraterrestrial? (joke) Hormones in our food? Everyone is so attached to this one argument about the idea of a connection between vaccinations and Autism , but what are the other theories, and do any hold ANY water? And I keep hearing about how high the rate of diagnosis is, it seems we’re going to have a helluva future with a huge percentage of the population walking around unable to relate to others, in a zombie sort-of way. And what is the comparison between the U.S. and other countries as far as diagnoses of Autism goes?

  27. @Nomen Publicus,

    Thanks for that data. It’s really saying something when the *worst* one of the bunch had “only” a 95.7% decrease and saves close to 141,000 lives annually. Meanwhile, 24,000 people are diagnosed with autism annually (2007 CDC statistics). While those 24,000 are important, putting millions at risk (all of the people vaccines save) every year to “save” 24,000 per year seems off to me.


    I thought it was pretty well done too. However, I don’t think this will convince the anti-vaxxers. I stumbled across some anti-vaxxer message boards in a (failed) search for an online version of the Dateline report. The anti-vaxxers called Wakefield’s detractors “angry” and “discredited”, called the studies disproving him “highly flawed”, and called Wakefield’s comments “holding firm despite false accusations against him.” In other words, unless Wakefield suddenly grows a handlebar mustache and twirls it while cackling about killing babies, anything he says will be taken as Gospel Truth. And unless Wakefield’s detractors suddenly sprout halos and wings, nothing they say will be anything but vicious lies paid for by Big Pharma to take down The Maverick Doctor.

  28. @Todd W. Thanks for the head’s up. I’ll get to it as soon as I can. I will also add in a caveat on the other delivery methods on the things I mentioned in another exchange we had. Sorry, only in my second week on the new job, and it’s keeping me quite buys (which beats being unemployed though!).

  29. @Larian
    What? No more goofing off on the job?

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    she talks about “degenerative enzymes”

    Remember the good old goalposts of “mercury” or “adjuvants”?

    Of course, since viruses (and fast food :-D) are nothing but globs of “degenerative enzymes” it’s hard going to sell in that vaccines preventing diseases are worse than the diseases.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Not half as annoying as antivaxxers!

    Great, now the annoyance (antivaxxers and anti-communication both) is safely contained to antivaxx threads!

    … , or is there perchance _other_ items that I3M find annoying, like creationists? Oh, bother!

  32. @23 ntsc.

    There was a similar program here in England at the same time when I was also 8ish. Parents were queing up to get their children vaccinated. The difference then, of course, was that we had all seen the terrible effects of the disease. My best friend was crippled by Polio and the ntire school was terrified that they might catch the disease.

    Many parents today take the attitude that “nobody catches measles anymore so why do we need to vaccinate” – I really have heard a mother say that.

  33. Doug

    My wife tried to record this episode of Dateline on our DVR, but when we went to watch it, it was another episode entirely. Random DVR malfunction, or . . . something else . . .?

  34. Bill Nettles

    Charles Boyer 25. – I noticed that, too. She must be imminently qualified so that we recognize the name, kind of like Oprah or Bono or Tiger. I wonder if she allows her kids to ingest processed foods and drinks. That stuff causes colon cancer. Enzymes? Really informed about that.

    John 27. – The real source of the increase in autism is all the low and high frequency EM radiation that we expose children to. The technology explosion occurred about the same time that all these vaccines were introduced, but nobody paid attention because “shots make my baby cry.” Electrical wires surround them as they sleep. Cell phones, wireless internet, TV unit RF modulators. We don’t know the long term effects of the combination. There might be subtractive and additive harmonic resonance displacement of developing neurons. I know one thing. This stuff causes my tongue to be firmly stuck to the inside of my cheek.


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