Robert De Niro And Vaccination Misinformation


Robert De Niro has joined the growing list of celebrity know-nothings who provide lip service to debunked claims about autism and vaccinations, as reported in The Telegraph.

Like many, I love Robert De Niro for his work in front of the camera, but he’s obviously not informed on this topic. I also don’t think this makes him a bad person – as he’s clearly motivated by a desire to protect children from harm (even if that harm is imagined).

It’s just an unfortunate fact that he is Robert De Niro which means his views will travel and misinform scores of others as a result. Tragically, this has the potential to cause genuine harm to children – unlike his unmerited concerns about autism.

The scientific consensus on this is clear: There is no link between autism and vaccinations.

The whole ‘anti-vax’ movement picked up steam due to a paper published by British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s ‘research’ on the link between the MMR vaccination and autism has been roundly discredited because of falsified data, yet is still used to justify anti-vaccination claims today.

I recorded a conversation with Sarah Levin from The Secular Coalition For America about the misinformation peddled by the anti-vaccination crowd and why it is vital to vaccinate your kids. You can listen to it below.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • Reminded me of this:

    A grave shame it’s been reignited.

  • The fact that they are trying to ban the documentary “Vaxxed” (which started the up roar in the first place) and criticizing everyone who talks about it makes me want to see it even more. Robert De Niro said on the Today show that he is pro-vaccine but wants safe ones (what’s so “anti vax” about that statement?). The movie is not about Andrew Wakefield or his debunked paper its about CDC whistleblower William Thompson who has claimed that the CDC committed fraud in regards to an MMR vaccine study. I for one would like to see what this guy has to say, does wanting to see the film make me an anti-vaxxer? You should probably see the film before you make up your mind. By the way the term anti-vaxxer is much like the term islamophobe, used to ridicule, bully and shut down debate.

    • Stephen Knight

      Thanks for your comments. Just a few points:

      “The fact that they are trying to ban the documentary “Vaxxed”

      No-one is trying to ‘ban’ anything. People are objecting to a reputable film festival (Tribeca Film Festival) from showing it. They are curious as to why they would give a platform to a discredited, conspiracy theorist and propagandist Andrew Wakefield. The answer to that is clear: Robert De Niro co-founded the festival. De Niro said the film was “very personal” to him because he has a child with autism. He’s seemingly been taken in by the films claims. Film Festivals can choose to show any film they want (or not) as far as I’m concerned. This isn’t ‘banning’.

      “De Niro said on the Today show that he is pro-vaccine but wants safe ones (what’s so “anti vax” about that statement?)”

      Did he say what is ‘unsafe’ about them? It’s clear to me the unsafe he (and the film) is talking about is the discredited link to autism.

      “The movie is not about Andrew Wakefield or his debunked paper its about CDC whistleblower William Thompson who has claimed that the CDC committed fraud in regards to an MMR vaccine study”

      The movie is directed by Andrew Wakefield. The movie is about the discredited link between vaccinations and autism. It states so in its own synopsis. It’s Andrew Wakefield’s propaganda piece.

      “You should probably see the film before you make up your mind”

      Do I need to see every documentary on creationism before I make up my mind? What about 9/11 conspiracy theories? Chemtrails? What if said movie is made by the very individual who has had his claims discredited already?

      “By the way the term anti-vaxxer is much like the term islamophobe, used to ridicule, bully and shut down debate”

      No, ‘Islamophobe’ is a term used to shut down legitimate criticism. Anti-Vaxxer points to a very specific (and dangerous) problem within a movement consisting mainly of conspiracy theory, poor logic and pseudo science. There are good reasons to criticise Islam. The main reasons offered by the anti-vax movement are without merit.

      • Fair enough. I guess I am interested in the CDC Whistle blower aspect of this. In my mind if a top researcher says they have committed fraud, it warrants a closer look.

  • I wonder why the antivaxxers don’t use the real dangers that some vaccines have. E.g. the swine flu vaccine that was used in Finland caused people to get narcolepsy. It is really rare for a widely used vaccine to have so severe adverse effects, but that one did.

    Some links so I don’t look like a total antivaxxer myself:

    (And I agree that vaccines are a huge net positive and really important to get.)

  • One problem of the vaccine debate is that most people want simple answers and certainty, one way or another. Vaccines and their consequences is a complicated subject. Generally, vaccines are like any other medicine: most people get only positive consequences (here, immunity to specified illnesses): and a small percentage experience negative side effects, sometimes with dire negative consequences. So while vaccines are generally, overwhelmingly safe, a small number of people are harmed to some extent by the side effects of every vaccine. There does not appear to be any practical way to determine in advance who is likely to suffer a side effect, which does make the process feel a bit like a lottery with very nasty prizes for just a few.

    Moreover, many parents seem incapable of rationally balancing the small risk of harm to their child against the overwhelming public good, and that while vaccines are not 100% safe, they still need to vaccinate their kids. The truth is messy; it is vital for public health that everyone (except those with compromised immune systems that cannot handle vaccination) get vaccinated, but vaccination does result in damage to a small number of children each and every year. Of course, if it is your child suffering a horrible side effect, for your child, after the fact, the risk looks like 100%.

    I believe the problem is make worse by public officials not always acknowledging the risk of side effects, or minimizing this risk, while claiming vaccines are “safe” (rather than mostly, overwhelmingly safe), as if no one was hurt by the side effects. Ultimately, this makes the officials look like they are lying, even if they are simply trying to avoid mass panicked vaccine refusal by minimizing the actual risk of harm. But nothing fuels conspiracy theories and distrust of government quite like the government obviously telling only part of the truth.

    In the US, the government has set up a special court to hear and award damages to those injured by vaccine side effects; if memory serves, the vaccine court was established to compensate such victims and shield vaccine makers from damages, since vaccines are not the most profitable drugs to make and if vaccine makers could be directly sued, many companies simply would not make vaccines. But this court is not well publicized (probably due to public health officials’ fear the public will overreact to the actual harm done and fail to vaccinate their kids as a result), but which provides more fuel for conspiracy theorists.

    At the end of the day, vaccination is always going to be a white-knuckle process for any informed parent, especially since the current FDA-recommended vaccine schedule is so much bigger than 40 years ago, and can be overwhelming to a new parent.

    Parents got away with free riding on herd immunity created by other people’s vaccinated children when only a few parents were doing it; but now that large clusters of unvaccinated children are becoming more common, society cannot afford to allow masses of parents to do so. That said, it would be reasonable to review whether everything on the recommended schedule should be mandated. Certainly, Dtap and MMR, and anything else likely to be fatal or disabling should be required, but we probably don’t need to mandate the chicken pox vaccine, for example.

  • 20 million people died at the end of and after WW1 due to the Spanish flu who would not have died if there had been a global vaccine production system then. The global population exploded after the 1950s largely due to global mass immunisation programs of diseases like Tuberculosis, Typhoid, rubella and measles, on infants and young children. You are talking about actual mortality here. There is also the herd immunity issue – so long as the proportion of people immunised is very high those with no immunity are protected and the disease can not spread. If this is not the case the disease can spread. Until the 1960s people were living in an iron lung (total paralysis) from poliomyelitis paralysation and in every (Western) country hundreds of thousands were effected to the point of being partially paralysed. Again immunisation by vaccine stopped this.

    Yes there are risks from vaccines but they are relatively tiny. It would be impossible to eradicate these risks because we have millions of different type of bacteria in our systems and the cells and biochemistry of our bodies individually react to environment and the rest of our biochemistry. A degree of risk is intrinsic to biochemistry and life – its impossible to be alive without it.

    Also the link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly debunked re Wakefield. Re the former CDC person William Thompson making these allegations the following link critiques him

    Admittedly there is a degree of dispute about the use of ethyl mercury in the vaccine (called thimerosal). The clear evidence at this point is that A) this ethymercury is in way too small a quantity to cause harm even if it was harmful and
    B) it is methyl mercury that is harmful – there is no record of ethyl mercury (called dimerosol in the measles vaccine) ever being harmful
    C) no effectual substitute has been found so far but further research is taking place to determine whether thimerosal is absolutely safe – pressure for such research is valid but undermining the validity of vaccines is not. Drug companies do not make their money on vaccines due to the pressures for these to be cheap and absolutely current as well as universally available. And finally, there a very many chemicals that we require for our survival in tiny or small quantities but which are toxic or even lethal to us in large quantities.

    Mercury, Vaccines and Autism
    Does thimerosal or other mercury exposure increase the risk for autism: A review
    Vaccines and toxins: More misunderstanding

What do you think? Leave some comments!