“Both sides! Both sides!”

There’s a new movie out, The Pathological Optimist, about Andrew Wakefield. I agree with the adjective, at least.

The blurb for the movie includes a notorious phrase.

THE PATHOLOGICAL OPTIMIST takes no sides, instead letting Wakefield and the battles he fought speak for themselves.

There are questions on which it is fair to give equal attention to both sides. “Is football a better game than baseball?” “Which is better on a pizza, pineapple or jalapenos, or both?” There are some things where the evidence hasn’t settled one way or another, and we should pursue alternatives, but there are others where there is no controversy. “Is the Earth flat?” “Is the earth about 6000 years old?” “Are black people and women as deserving of rights as white men?” If you’re going to address those questions honestly, taking no sides is dishonest and biases the argument in favor of the untenable side.

Orac is having none of that nonsense, and reviews The Pathological Optimist.

The “take no sides” claim sends up huge red flags for me. My retort to this is that, when it comes to pseudoscience, “not taking a side” is taking a side, the side of giving that pseudoscience far more believability and stature than it deserves. It’s also utter nonsense to claim that “letting Wakefield and the battles he fought speak for themselves.” If there’s one misconception about documentaries, it’s that they are (or should be) objective. They’re not. A documentary filmmaker has a story to tell, and that story is very much colored by how she chooses to frame it, what she decides to show (and, equally importantly, not to show), what order scenes are shown in, who is interviewed and who isn’t, and even the music and narration used. Bailey’s film no more “lets Wakefield and the battles he fought” speak for themselves than Wakefield’s VAXXED is an objective portrait of a CDC “conspiracy.” It is how Miranda Bailey chose to tell Wakefield’s story. Indeed, it’s hard not to note that the only people directly interviewed for the film are Andrew Wakefield, his family, and his supporters. All criticism of Wakefield comes in the form of grainy archival footage from TV news interviews, which Wakefield or one of his supporters gets to answer.

Taking no sides is intellectually vacuous and dishonest. The one thing they could to make it worse is to have somewhere in it the odious phrase, “agree to disagree”.


  1. microraptor says

    Wouldn’t a truly objective look at Wakefield actually end with the conclusion that he’s a fraud? Any other conclusion shows that it clearly wasn’t objective and was, in fact, biased in favor of Wakefield.

  2. ealloc says

    That’s the common strategy with pseudoscientists: Say something that, on the surface, is tantalizingly close to something reasonable, perhaps mix in a few tiny nuggets of truth, but twist it to say something preposterous. Here they’re going “meta” by doing it to the process of thinking itself, by confusing the concept of “critical thinking” with the idea of “take no sides”.

    It *is* important to consider alternatives to a new idea, and to try to understand not only the evidence in favor of a position, but also how it might be wrong. That’s subtly yet importantly different from “taking both sides”. “Thinking critically” does not require you to eventually defend all positions with equal strength or devote them equal intellectual energy. Instead it can lead you to quickly and strongly favor only one side.

  3. Artor says

    “Letting Wakefield and the battles he fought speak for themselves.”
    If that’s what the “documentary” does, it should clearly show Wakefield to be a lying, fraudulent sack of shit, because that’s exactly what he and the battles he’s fought show. Anything else is mendacious bullshit.

  4. multitool says

    I want to make a documentary that presents both sides of whether drinking gasoline makes you immortal.

    It has to be the exact same format and style as this show and Ben Stein’s anti-evo flick.

    Then we’ll do a film on both sides of eating broken glass, etc.

  5. robro says

    So in this case, “take no sides” is a lie. It should be a lie subject to criminal prosecution because it harms people.

  6. erichoug says

    There’s a sucker born every minute, and they’re all commenting very positively on that video PZ posted.

  7. gijoel says

    They never talk about Wakefield taking money from lawyers to run his dubious trials.
    I thought about asking the youtube commenters about why my cousin suffered from congenital rubella syndrome, but honestly I don’t have the strength to ask. Even her own sister is on the antivax train, stating that vaccines aren’t vegan. Therefore she won’t be using them if she has a child.

  8. snuffcurry says

    It would be unfair to people’s feelings (and unprofitable! because there’s nothing like a both-sides horserace to rile up consumers) to just give us the unvarnished truth. Instead, we’re supposed to “tolerate” deliberate deceptions, pseudo-science, and conspiracy theories because All Opinions Have Equal Value and Deserve Equal Time, thereby enabling us to go nowhere and end at a stalemate. Where are the snowflake hecklers when you really need them?

  9. mond says

    I put him and Milo Y in the same camp.
    They are pedellers of dangerous nonsense who have no traction of their home country so they use the USA as a cash cow.
    As far as I know they are both non-US citizens so they could be prevented from entry or certain activities if allowed to entry into the USA.
    All countries have rules and regulations about who is allowed into their country and what they can do once allowed in especially if they are viewed as harmful to the population.
    This may seem heavy handed and makes me feel uneasy as a solution but it would work.