Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Visible Attacks on Invisible Threat

I've been a bit slow getting around to this post, so the subject is rather old news, in blogging terms. Back at the end of April and early May, the anti-vaccine world went into a tizzy about a documentary developed by chstvFILMS (Carlsbad High School Television), an award-winning broadcast journalism program run by high school students for high school students. They have a teacher adviser and a parent volunteer to help the students, but the students do the work of writing, filming, interviewing and so forth. Several years ago, the students started work on what was intended to be a short (15 minutes or so) documentary on the immune system. What they ended up with was a roughly 45-minute documentary on vaccines, the threat of infectious diseases and the role of vaccine refusal in the spread of disease: Invisible Threat.

From the moment the students announced the project, anti-vaccine folks attacked it, with comments like this, from Age of Autism's Anne Dachel (Age of Autism, "Reporters - The Next Generation", Sept. 19, 2012):
This class assignment was a HOW-TO GUIDE on how to deceive the public by covering up relevant facts about a major issue...What was produced here was propaganda.
This, of course, without Ms. Dachel having seen the film at all. Unlike AoA's Media Director, I wanted to actually watch the film before I made any comments on it, either for or against it. So, I contacted the film's producer Lisa Posard at

Let me start by saying that the high school students did a remarkable job with a huge topic. They stuck with the science and were very respectful to their subjects. And that includes the anti-vaccine people they interviewed.

Back Story
Before I delve into the criticism the students have received, here's a bit of background about CHSTV and the film. When the topic of doing a science film on the immune system was first presented to the group, they declined. The students didn't think that it would be a subject that their peers could relate to. But then it got personal. One of the students had a young puppy who became ill, and the veterinarian suspected it had parvovirus, a highly contagious and potentially deadly infection that can be prevented with vaccines. Just like with human diseases, like measles or pertussis, parvovirus was popping up in outbreaks because dog owners weren't vaccinating their pets. The story, affecting one of their own, piqued the students' interest. The parallels to outbreaks of human diseases made it a good hook to grab a viewer's attention and make a much larger topic something to which kids could relate.

The students decided to go ahead with the film, but it wasn't until they started getting attacked by anti-vaccine advocates that they decided to expand the film from 15 minutes to a longer format. The students' first documentary, about the Holocaust, prompted Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis to attack the students. Fearing a similar backlash from anti-vaccine groups, the two adults associated with CHSTV wanted to drop the topic, especially since they had plenty of other topics available, but the students wanted to apply what they had learned from that first film about bullying. As Invisible Threat writer, Camille Posard, noted:
We Must Remember was made to promote tolerance and alert people to the dangers of bullying, while teaching history from a peer-to-peer approach. How could we back down from a topic because of bullying after what we learned and experienced with We Must Remember? The adults weren’t budging until I asked them to “Remember what happens when good people do nothing!
It is rather ironic that anti-vaccine criticism, in the form of Anne Dachel's post, as well as various others' calls and emails to the school and students, resulted in what would have been a relatively short piece turning into a more in-depth look at the subject of vaccines and vaccine refuasl. According to Lisa Posard, lengthening the film beyond 20 minutes even created some issues with the Rotary Clubs that provided unrestricted grants for the project, "because it doesn't fit the Rotary meeting format".

At any rate, the students admitted to not knowing much about vaccinations at the start of the project. One of the filmmakers even went into the project believing that there actually was something to the vaccine-autism myth. Through the research that she did for the project, she gained a greater understanding of the science of how vaccinations work and how there isn't a causal connection between vaccines and autism. The students, at hearing the criticism the project was receiving, even thought that there was a good, juicy story here: children being hurt, injuries being covered up. As Camille writes:
What we uncovered was shocking, but it wasn’t what we originally expected and we learned that bad journalism has been part of the problem. Children are being harmed because when parents choose not to vaccinate, a gaping hole is created in the safety net that protects the vulnerable. Babies too young to be immunized, children with compromised immune systems, and those with waning immunity are then no longer protected. This gives deadly diseases, previously eradicated in the U.S., the opportunity to make a comeback. A safety net needs to be intact, otherwise it doesn’t work at all to catch any of us.

Kim Stagliano's idea of not demonizing others?
So fast forward to this year. The film premiered in January in Houston, but it wasn't until Every Child By Two and the Immunization Coalition of Washington, DC announced they were going to host a screening for members of Congress on May 1 that really ruffled the feathers of anti-vaccine groups. The response was quick. Focus Autism put together a press release urging anti-vaxers to "warn Congress about vax propaganda film Invisible Threat". The press release was reposted by several different anti-vaccine web sites (e.g., NVIC, PRNewswire, Autism Daily Newscast, The Mind Unleashed, OMSJ and The Robert Scott Bell Show), many without any original commentary or additional thought. Jake Crosby, at Autism Investigated, even momentarily put aside his attacks on his former friends to post a slightly modified version of the press release, in which he emphasizes his dislike for the film's scientific technical adviser, Dr. Paul Offit (Dr. Offit was a favorite focus of attacks on the film, even though he was just one among many interviewees), and indulges in his six degrees of separation conspiracy mongering. Age of Autism's Managing Editor Kim Stagliano even went so far as to include the image above with the press release, at the same time, apparently without any irony, writing:
"demonize the enemy" is a war tactic.
I think she intended to mean that science-based people were demonizing her and others like her, rather than admitting she was engaging in demonizing others.

Let's review some of the errors in the press release, keeping in mind that these critics have not seen the film. First off, they proclaim that the documentary was not actually produced by high school students, since the director, Douglas Green, is the teacher-supervisor for the group, and the producer, Lisa Posard, is a parent volunteer. Just pay no attention to the student producers, student interviewers, student camera operators, student sound designers, student animators or student writer. Ignore the fact that the students researched the topic and came up with the questions to ask. Put all of that student effort aside, they say, and view this solely as the production of adults. Oh, and that "woman conducting interviews" who was "clearly not a student" was Lisa Posard, who conducted a followup interview with Dr. Shawn Centers. What's left out is that Dr. Centers was interviewed by one of the students first.

Another apparent fib is the claim that Dr. Centers was misled. According to the filmmakers, however, Dr. Centers asked them to come back to film some of his patients. Dr. Centers also alleges that a student who did come to one of the taping sessions at his practice was "being used" for a "propaganda film run by adults". As with other claims, this completely sweeps under the rug all of the work that the students did, their research and their coming to their own conclusions. It is an incredibly disrespectful comment.

However, the worst comment comes from Barry Segal, founder of Focus Autism and major financial contributor to anti-vaccine groups like Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, the Canary Party and so forth. He is quoted as saying:
All of the deceptions involved in the making of this film are a good reminder of how the vaccine industry operates.
Without seeing the film and presumably without having spoken to any of the filmmakers themselves, he is accusing the students of deception, as well as implying that the documentary is a product of the vaccine industry.

That's what was proudly stated in the press release and reposted at multiple sites. But what else have anti-vaccine activists been saying? Here are some selections from around the 'net:
Making a movie to promote vaccinations is a new low but truly shows their desperation. - Constanze Carlson
A pharmaceutical funded film - The Greater Good producers
While promoters want us to believe the teens “stumbled into” the vaccine controversy, the Rotary Club grant, Offit’s involvement and ECBT’s relentless promotion of the film are ample evidence that Invisible Threat is pharma’s most shameless PR effort to date. - Lowell Hubbs
It’s no wonder that vaccine promoters had to come up with Invisible Threat. - Anne Dachel
And then there's Teri Arranga, who devoted an entire hour-long podcast on AutismOne Radio, hosted by Voice America, to attacking a film she had not seen. She raises a lot of easily refuted anti-vaccine claims to try to discredit the film and the students. For example, she asks Dr. Mayer Eisenstein if there's a way to determine whether vaccines actually prevented a disease. Dr. Eisenstein chooses to focus on mortality rates (i.e., deaths from disease) that than morbidity (incidence of disease) to claim that vaccines didn't work. She also paints conspiracy theories about "the powers that be" taking away people's rights. If you can stomach it, listen to the podcast and count how many factual errors are made, not to mention logical fallacies like confusing correlation with causation, strawman attacks, ad hominems, poisoning the well and so on.

I should note that what I have quoted is just what has been available online. According to Lisa Posard, the students and the school have also received emails and phone calls attacking the film. What all of the unjustified attacks amount to are attempts to attack and dismiss the hard work these students put into their project. For all their cries of "do your own research", these anti-vaccine individuals certainly do not like it when people really do their own research and come to the only conclusion possible after objectively looking at the evidence.

In Their Own Words

Here are some thoughts from the students on this whole experience:
We hadn’t even started filming, yet the blogs prompted hundreds of ugly comments and calls. Yes, the anti-vaccine bloggers were harshly criticizing high school students doing an after school project sponsored by an unrestricted local Rotary grant. - Camille (at Shot of Prevention)
Through the opportunity to work on this film, I have increased my knowledge regarding vaccines while developing my journalistic skills. I’ve learned that as a storyteller, it is my responsibility to present information in an accurate and unbiased manner––ultimately leaving the opinions to the discretion of the viewer. - Hannah (at Shot of Prevention)
The approach of filming and creating a documentary can also include humor and irony; but it is the “actual” and “real” nature that separates documentaries from other types of movie media. For me, this meant that in no way could we as filmmakers bend the truth about vaccinations in any way. We were very careful to make sure we presented all sides of our story using science, personal stories and testimonies. - Mark (personal correspondence)
After months of researching, filming, and interviewing, we had all drawn our own conclusions on the subject. My personal conclusion is that vaccinations causing autism is a social controversy, not a scientific one. - Allie (personal correspondence)
I also sent several questions to the students, with the condition that they would remain anonymous. Here are their responses, some of which are quite insightful, and others rather amusing:

What were your thoughts on vaccines before you started work on this film?
  • I was always a proponent of vaccines, but looking at both sides of the debate through filmmaking was the most enriching part of the process.
  • I hated shots
  • It wasn't anything I ever thought about before.
  • As a journalist that doesn't matter.
  • I was scared of shots
What surprised you most as you researched the subject?
  • Many people think that not vaccinating their child is an entirely personal decision, but what most don’t realize is how that decision impacts the friends, families, and community around them.
  • That people are not vaccinating their children for very serious diseases
  • The kids with cancer or other diseases that rely on herd immunity who can't be vaccinated
  • Even with modern medicine babies are dying from vaccine preventable diseases because of outbreaks
  • Diseases once thought eliminated are returning because parents aren't vaccinating their kids
What are your thoughts about vaccines after the film was completed?
  • Working on the film validated my opinion that vaccines are beneficial for society because it applied more scientific evidence to my initial thoughts.
  • I'm going to vaccinate my kids
  • I decided to get all the recommended vaccines for college
  • I'm getting the flu shot now
  • While I still worry about some aspects I realize how important vaccines are
What was the most positive feedback you received?
  • The usage of the film in school curriculum coupled with praise from acclaimed scientists is one of the greatest compliments we could have asked for. As long as we’re helping to inspire and educate the public to make a difference, we know we’re doing something right.
  • Reading the comments online
  • The letters we have gotten from all over the Nation
  • Mothers of children with compromised immune systems thanking us
What has been the most negative feedback you've received?
  • The bullies online
  • Cyber bullies
  • Facebook posts by anti-vaccine organizations who sent out press releases and action alerts about us
  • Criticism has come from those opposed to vaccinating children, which was certainly expected as we took on the project.
  • Online haters
Was there ever a point where you wanted to stop because of the reactions you got? What kept you going?
  • Never. That’s part of what we’re taught as journalists—you never stop pushing for the truth even when you’re met with opposition. As journalists and filmmakers, it was our job to investigate a controversial topic from each side of the debate to give our audience a clear understanding of the facts.
  • No!
  • Haters gunna hate
  • Nope
Is there anything about either the positive or negative feedback that has surprised or shocked you? If so, what was it?
  • The cyber bullies
  • Nazi references shocked us
  • How ugly comments were
  • That adults would bully CHSTV
  • It shocked me how insistent the anti-vaccine community is on their views even after hearing so much scientific evidence verifying the safety of vaccines.
What do you hope people will take away from this film?
  • I hope people will spread the word. The most powerful tool at our disposal is word of mouth, and if we can help educate one person and inspire them to educate their friends, we’re already making a difference in the world.
  • I hope the public is outraged by the bullies and takes action
  • It would be great if we help kids with cancer or newborns
  • I hope we raise awareness about protecting the vulnerable
  • I hope there is a backlash against cyber bullying
Critics of Invisible Threat think that the students were used, misled or lied to (by doctors, Big Pharma, the adults involved, etc.) regarding vaccines and autism. What would you say to them?
  • These claims could not be more inaccurate. We assumed a journalistic responsibility to conduct our own research and draw our own conclusions.
  • Blah ha haha
  • Absolutely not
  • The people who were making those claims had no idea what we do at CHSTV. They picked the wrong program to pick on.
These kids deserve high praise for not only producing a high-quality documentary film, but for maintaining great poise in the face of personal attacks and baseless assertions from anti-vaccine critics who hadn't even seen the film. The students entered into this topic with an open mind. They did their research. They presented their work as accurately as possible, letting the truth speak for itself. Against this, we see their critics, who allow ideology to trump reason. I thought one of the filmmakers summed up the criticism wonderfully:
My personal conclusion is that vaccinations causing autism is a social controversy, not a scientific one.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for providing this background which pokes a lot of holes in the vapid complaints of the anti-vaxxers complaining about this film and vilifying children.


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