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Penn and Teller's Latest "BullS**t" Episode Takes On Anti-Vax Movement

Penn of Penn and Teller has an internet TV show called Penn Point. In the recent installment, Penn discusses Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. I hesitated posting this, as Penn is proficient, fluent even, in profanity. So be warned. I also hesitate because I don’t want to get into the “my celebrity is better than your celebrity” arguments. I’m not putting this out because Penn is an expert. No, he’s no expert. He’s a celebrity. A celebrity who wants to champion the little guy being trampled by “the Man”. In this case, he says, “The man is right,” and Mr. Wakefield and Ms. McCarthy are wrong.

Penn and Teller have been working for some time on an episode of their cable TV program “Bullshit” which takes on the anti-vaccine movement. They fought with Showtime to do anti-anti-vaccination. Yes, they had to fight to do this show. The anti-vaccine groups have had the sympathy of the media for some time. But times are changing. Now, even a show like Bullshit, which takes on “the Man” (the establishment), is willing to take a critical look at people like Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy and Oprah.

The short bit in Penn Point notes that at the time they did the show Mr. Wakefield was not yet struck off so they were more careful with him. Keep that in mind when the episode airs. They went easy on him. Also of note, Penn references the Bad Astronomy blog. Bad Astronomy mentions this Penn Point in Penn’s – and the syringe’s – point.

The Penn Point show is here.

I could write the responses to that episode now, complete with complaints about how Mr. Wakefield’s study isn’t completely discredited ( [a] “it isn’t a study, it is a case series, [b] it has been replicated in five countries, [c] how dare he claim that Jenny McCarthy isn’t helping people—look at her books and talks….etc.).

But, again, I’ll stress: I’m blogging this not to say Penn is correct or to use his words as some sort of expert in the discussion. No. To me this is about the fact that the media viewpoint has shifted away from sympathy and false balance for the vaccines-caused-an-autism-epidemic groups. Consider the recent episode of Frontline and the recent episode of Dateline which both covered the vaccine-autism discussion and (especially in the case of Dateline) Mr. Wakefield. Both were very critical of Mr. Wakefield, and that was before Mr. Wakefield was struck off the General Medical Council register.

The groups focusing on vaccine causation have relied upon a sympathetic media for some time. Without it, they would have had a much harder time putting out a message which their media representative claims “...has severely eroded confidence in the cornerstone of health care: THE CHILDHOOD VACCINE PROGRAM.”

That said, I was actually looking forward to winding down discussion of Mr. Wakefield. He’s moved from front-page news in reputable media sources to a late night guest on AM radio shows which concentrate on UFOs.

But, as long as I am on the subject of Mr. Wakefield (regular guy), let me make a few recent observations:

Mr. Wakefield recently gave a talk in London. Or, as it was billed, people were able to have an “audience” with Andrew Wakefield. The lecture presented his current stump speech and was followed by a book signing. About 40 people attended. The live feed of the event was to be carried “pay per view”, with a fee of about US$70. The organizers abandoned that idea and put it out free. Even with that they were only able to get about 150 online viewers, which included many skeptics (including members of the Bad Science forum).

A good example of the sort of information Mr. Wakefield’s speeches include is a shifting of blame for the drop in immunizations in the UK to the government. It was there decision, he asserts, to remove the single vaccines which led to the outbreaks. As noted in the Telegraph recently, the UK has never had a single mumps vaccine:

‘Rubbish,’ says Salisbury. ‘There was no mumps vaccination licensed for routine use – certainly none available in the UK. We had never used a single mumps vaccination.

We could go on and on. Mr. Wakefield, who has supposedly thoroughly researched vaccines and their safety, still thinks the Amish have prohibition on vaccination. Just for example. Rather than go through all those points, I’ll leave you with this. The “audience” had to be moved to a different location than originally planned. The organizers claimed there were “threats” that caused the move. The Bad Science community, however, noted:

The venue is the offices of a well regarded independent television production company. So Becky Fisseux wrote some of the directors: “I’m writing to express my extreme disappointment that such a well thought of production company as Objective is playing host to this event tomorrow evening.” ... continuing with an explanation of the anti-vax nature, and rise of measles ending with …”Should you allow this event to go ahead, I fear your company’s reputation will be seriously tarnished, and respectfully ask you to reconsider your decision.”

She got a reply from a director who was confused… and that they will look into it. She says “Next morning, at about 9am I received emails from two directors saying that their rehearsal studio had been booked via a third party who was known to them, but the person who took the booking was not informed of the nature of the event, nor of the links to Wakefield and the anti-vax lobby. They withdrew the offer of the room.”

It’s not longer about a scientific debate when it comes to vaccines and autism and Mr. Wakefield. It’s about image management. If Penn is any indication, they need a lot of “management” for Mr. Wakefield’s image.


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