Celia Farber is an independent American journalist who has written some groundbreaking articles on HIV/AIDS. After she was attacked in scurrilous fashion for her incisive reporting, she said in disgust that, “… what’s really scary and alarming and dangerous about our culture right now … is that it’s a culture of PR. It’s a public relations phenomenon. The truth doesn’t matter. What matters is the image.”
This disregard for truth is a critical issue for the ecological crisis. I would therefore like to examine a recent example – the intense controversy that erupted over the documentary VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe.
As indicated by its title, the film addresses the vaccination issue. It is directed by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who was stripped of his medical licence in the UK. VAXXED was initially selected by New York’s Tribeca film festival, but it was quickly dropped after scientists and others vented their outrage at an “anti-vaccination” film directed by a “discredited” doctor. I have not been able to view the film itself, but based on the trailer it features a whistleblower named William Thompson who works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). According to Thompson, the CDC falsified data that demonstrates a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism.
I don’t want to wade into the details regarding the Tribeca brouhaha or the vaccination debate. I simply want to establish that this entire issue, like so many others, is based on an egregious falsehood that has been aggressively disseminated and is now seen as unimpeachable fact.
Virtually all attacks on Wakefield and his message are based on a 1998 paper that was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Several television reports about the Tribeca dust-up prominently featured the paper’s first page, with “RETRACTED” stamped across it. The standard claim about this paper is that Wakefield, who was its lead author, claimed to have found a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. As in all cases where a significant assertion is made by mainstream sources, our first question should be: is this assertion actually true, or is it a lie or distortion? Let me answer this question by doing what very few of Wakefield’s critics appear to have done, which is to examine the original document itself.
The paper is a medical case study with a technical title: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. It has 12 co-authors and is identified as an “early report”. Including photos and tables it takes up five pages of The Lancet’s February 28, 1998 issue. The bulk of the paper describes the symptoms displayed by 12 children with various forms of developmental regression. Because a case study is intended to generate hypotheses, it also identifies possible causes – including the MMR vaccine. The study was based on the doctors’ clinical observations and on information provided by the parents.
How did the 13 doctors present the results of their investigation? Here are the paper’s key statements, prefaced by the name of the section in which they appear:
1. FINDINGS: “Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children, with measles infection in one child, and otitis media in another.”
2. DISCUSSION: “Rubella virus is associated with autism, and the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (rather than monovalent measles vaccine) has also been implicated. Fudenberg noted that for 15 of 20 autistic children, the first symptoms developed within a week of vaccination. Gupta commented on the striking association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and the onset of behavioural symptoms in all the children that he had investigated for regressive autism.”
3. DISCUSSION: “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.”
4. DISCUSSION: “If there is a causal link between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and this syndrome, a rising incidence might be anticipated after the introduction of this vaccine in the UK in 1988. Published evidence is inadequate to show whether there is a change in incidence or a link with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.”
5. DISCUSSION (this is the paper’s concluding paragraph): “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.”
Let me quickly run through these statements:
• #1 reports what the parents said.
• #2 reports what two other researchers said.
• #3 explicitly denies that the authors proved a link between the MMR vaccine and a syndrome that includes autism.
• #4 tells us how this link might be proved IF it exists.
• #5 repeats the parents’ observation from #1, but says that further research is required to substantiate their suspicions.
So: Wakefield unequivocally did NOT make the MMR-autism claim attributed to him. He and his colleagues simply stated that the evidence suggests such a link, which should be investigated. This is standard and responsible practice. The central charge against Wakefield is therefore an outright lie. Because this lie has been repeated thousands of times in the mainstream media, it is now woven into the social fabric. That is, it has been transformed into a socially-determined truth, which means that empirical evidence and sound logic are irrelevant. This is the shameful, almost unbelievable corruption that so distressed Farber, and that should profoundly trouble us all.
What does this have to do with the ecological crisis? Plenty, but the most important connection is that the natural world is an objective reality: it is completely unaffected by the lies we tell each other or the illusions that shape our lives. Thus, the greater a society’s self-delusion, the further it is from coming to terms with environmental constraints. A culture where PR overwhelms truth is doomed to ecological collapse and social dissolution.
Of comparable importance is the historically unprecedented nature of the crisis, which implies that new modes of thought are required to find a way out. However, intellectual initiative and independent thought are viciously discouraged in a PR culture. Thus, not only does society as a whole live in a fog of manufactured unreality, its intellectuals are prevented from penetrating this fog and developing a rational plan. This discouragement has been amplified by Wakefield’s persecution. His personal ordeal and professional censure have served to intimidate intellectuals, who are now more reluctant than ever to expose a falsehood, propose a daring idea, or initiate unsanctioned research.
The Wakefield case has another major implication for the biosphere. The lies about the Lancet paper have implanted a carefully chosen image in the popular mind. When doubts now arise about vaccine safety, most people reflexively picture fraud and irresponsibility, leading them to dismiss their concerns. Similarly, when most people think about environmental decline they picture climate change, hence excessive greenhouse gases and a transformed energy system to solve the problem. What they don’t picture is the much broader issue of ecological overshoot and the radical economic transformation this implies. In both cases a false image has manipulated people into supporting a position that ignores the true threat, but that is acceptable to those in power.
I named this website nomoreillusions.org for a reason. It is only when informed people reject the core illusions that the overshoot crisis can be seriously addressed. Currently they are trapped in a cauldron of lies, where the truth really doesn’t matter.