Penn Point: Anti Vaccination is Bull Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy

21 Jun

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, 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”, Mr. Wakefield and Ms. McCarthy are wrong.

Penn Point: Anti Vaccination is Bull*** Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy

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-aniti-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 UFO’s.

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.

addendum: I forgot to credit the Countering Age of Autism blog for bringing the Penn Point episode to my attention.

20 Responses to “Penn Point: Anti Vaccination is Bull Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy”

  1. David N. Brown June 21, 2010 at 19:39 #

    “Mr. Wakefield, who has supposedly thoroughly researched vaccines and their safety, still thinks the Amish have prohibition on vaccination.”

    Approaching this as a theology student, I have been struck by how little precedent there is for decrees against vaccination by organized religious bodies. Another example to illustrate the point: Jehovah’s Witnesses, among the more notorious for resistance to medicine, reversed a rule against vaccination decades ago.

  2. David N. Brown June 21, 2010 at 19:42 #

    I think this new incident illustrates the value of individual protest. Plus, consider Wakefield’s fortunes: Kicked out of the Lancet, kicked out of Neurotoxicology, kicked out of Thoughtful House, kicked off the UK register, and now kicked out of a studio.

  3. Jay Gordon June 22, 2010 at 03:21 #

    This video is wonderful. I’ve always wanted to put a face on this point of view. (“Even if vaccines do cause autism, they’re still worth it!!!”)

    I think that the wisdom and logic displayed by Mr.Penn is nicely representative of the scientific attitude I have read in these circles.

    Nicely done.



    • Sullivan June 22, 2010 at 04:31 #

      Jay Gordon,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      By your comment, can we assume that you are not a part of the upcoming bull**** episode? If you were a part, then either you expected to be roasted or you expected to take part in roasting the pro vaccine side.

  4. Chris June 22, 2010 at 06:45 #

    Either Jay is trying to be sarcastic, or he has not actually watched the program Penn and Teller have had on Showtime for several years (it is an extra cable or satellite expense, I know we only have a bare bones package). I must confess I have only seen the first two seasons. For some reason my county library system never bought any DVDs of further seasons.

    Though there are several relevant snippets on YouTube. A Google video search on “Penn Teller” plus the name of show brings up over 4000 hits. Jay had better know what he was walking into.

  5. David N. Brown June 22, 2010 at 08:43 #

    Or, this is a driveby commenter using Gordon’s name and website. I saw it happen with “Andrew Wakefield”, though that individual left no serious doubt it was a “joke”. I didn’t appreciate the humor, and deleted it.

  6. Kent June 22, 2010 at 13:21 #

    I don’t expect this comment to be published, because this blog is an echo chamber. However, for your private consumption, Penn Jillette is a notorious ableist and has been arguing for the elimination of the American with Disabilities Act for years and thinks lots of disabled folks are faking it and would be better off without the ADA. I would have put this disclaimer on your post about this asshole.

  7. Chris June 22, 2010 at 14:57 #

    Kent, this is not Age of Autism. So what does Mr. Jillette’s religion or lack of religion have to do with his observations on Wakefield’s ability to practice medicine and that “Dr.” should not be used in front of his name?

    • Sullivan June 22, 2010 at 15:05 #


      are you mixing up “ableist” with “athiest”?

      I admit that I don’t watch anything by Penn and Teller. (Not completely true, I’ve recently watched a movie that included Teller). So I hunted down the source–I think–of Kent’s comments. There is a Bull**** episode “Handicap Parking”

  8. Chris June 22, 2010 at 15:28 #

    Oops, sorry… not enough coffee.

  9. Prometheus June 22, 2010 at 19:13 #

    One objection I had to the Penn Point video is that Andrew Wakefield was not stripped of his medical degree, so he is still “Dr.” Wakefield.

    Apart from that, Penn was spot on.

    As for Dr. Gordon’s comment, I am left questioning whether he realises that, while Penn stated “Even if vaccines cause autism, they’re still worth it.”, the data indicate that vaccines cause – at most – only rare, sporadic cases of autism. Measles virus alone causes 2 deaths and 1 permanent neurological injury per thousand cases. When you add in the other vaccine-preventable diseases, the death, disability and misery completely overwhelm any plausible risk of autism.

    I look forward to seeing Dr. Gordon’s interview when it airs on Bulls**t later this year.


  10. Chris June 22, 2010 at 22:00 #

    Yeah, I can see Kent’s point. Though their message is a bit garbled between the libertarian angle and let the businesses do their own accommodating. Having built a house to conform to the city’s building codes, I am not sure I understand the problem with not having ball shaped door knobs when we had to make sure our stair steps conformed to certain dimensional standards. Big freaking deal.

    Also as a mother with small children a while ago, I very much appreciated the curb cuts and wide doors when dealing with strollers. The wider areas on the buses for wheelchairs were also nice for the strollers (though occasionally occupied by someone in a wheelchair). The buses also have places on the front to put bicycles.

    Sometimes I think some of those guys who were interviewed have a libertarian nirvana view of how the world should work,, but reality is very different. The fact there are idiots who park in disabled spots kind of proves that some will not accommodate voluntarily.

  11. brian June 23, 2010 at 04:25 #

    Prometheus wrote: “One objection I had to the Penn Point video is that Andrew Wakefield was not stripped of his medical degree, so he is still “Dr.” Wakefield.”

    I understood that members of the FRSC, such as Wakefield, traditionally avoided the honorific title of “doctor” and preferred “mister”. However, since I trained in the USA (where I am grandly referred to as “doctor”) rather than in the UK, I can offer only this in support:

    Accordingly, I think that unless Wakefield is stripped of his fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons, it is entirely appropriate to refer to him as Mister Wakefield.

  12. Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone August 13, 2010 at 04:35 #

    I will say that some of Penn’s other bits are troubling- he’s pretty much Libertarian in the actual- rather than “oh hai conservative bandwagon!”- sense. Some of the other things he posts about are very worrisome, and I will not dispute that. At all.

    But to me the fact that someone notorious for being against the government’s/ the man’s view on issues (ranging from ADA to Global Warming) is able to recognize how much “bulls**t” the Anti-vaxxers are is heart warming. That he’s willing to side with the man on this when he is opposed to it on the majority of counts gives his conviction a little more weight.

    To Mr. Penn: you are hilarious, and though I may often disagree with your viewpoints on certain issues, I thank you for doing this episode. Thank you.

  13. angela August 17, 2010 at 20:14 #

    Vaccine manufacturers have paid out nearly $2B in damages to parents in America whose children were harmed by one of the childhood jabs such as the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) or DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus). In all, around 2,000 families have received compensation payments that have averaged $850,000 each. There are a further 700 claims that are going through the pipeline. None of the claims is for autism as medical researchers say they have failed to find a link between the disease and the MMR vaccine, despite the initial findings made by Dr Andrew Wakefield. Instead they are for a wide spectrum of physical and mental conditions that are likely to have been caused by one of the vaccinations. Around 7,000 parents have filed a claim of an adverse reaction with America’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). To win an award, the claimant must prove a causal link to a vaccine. As the medical establishment has refused to recognise any link to autism, the VICP has so far rejected 300 claims for this outright. (Source: New England Journal of Medicine)Medicine, 2007; 357: 1275-9

  14. Chris August 17, 2010 at 20:33 #

    Oooh, it is an echo! She cut and pasted the same thing over here.

    So will you answer my question here? Which MMR vaccine did Wakefield study, the one approved for use in the UK before or after 1992?


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