January 2012, Week 3


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Sun, 15 Jan 2012 22:28:00 -0500
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HuffPo Now Has A Science Section, and I Remain Skeptical
That It Changes Anything
by Orac
Respectful Insolence
January 6, 2012

It's no secret that I've been highly critical of The
Huffington Post, at least of its approach to science and
medicine. In fact, it was a mere three weeks after
Arianna Huffington launched her blog back in 2005 that I
noticed something very distressing about it, namely that
it had recruited someone who would later become and "old
friend" (and punching bag) of the blog, Dr. Jay Gordon,
as well as the mercury militia stalwart David Kirby,
among others. As a result, antivaccination lunacy was
running rampant on HuffPo, even in its infancy. Many,
many, many more examples followed very quickly. More
followed, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and even Jenny
McCarthy joining the stable of HuffPo antivaccine
bloggers. Indeed, the antivaccine slant at HuffPo has
been so pronounced for so long that it's irredeemable,
as far as I'm concerned.

Nor are antivaccine screeds the only pseudoscience
promoted by that wretched hive of scum and quackery. If
you have any doubt that HuffPo is soundly dedicated to
only the rankest forms of pseudoscience, I give you two
words: Deepak Chopra, who's regularly laid down his
"quantum" quackery for nearly as long as antivaccine
pseudoscience has reigned supreme at HuffPo. Still not
enough? How about the amount of attention to that
quackiest of quackery, homeopathy, in the form of Dana
Ullman. Heck, just last week a homeopath named Judith
Acosta completed a two-part "personal case for
homeopathy." (Part one is here.) None of this even
includes other woo-meisters, such as Robert Lanza, whose
quantum woo is even more embarrassing--if such a thing
were possible--than Deepak Chopra's quantum woo, Dr.
Nalini Chilkov's promotion of a breast cancer
testimonial in which a woman named Hollie Quinn eschewed
adjuvant therapy for quackery after surgery for breast
cancer, or Dr. Christiane Northrup's promotion of
thermography, an unproven technique, for breast cancer
screening. It was for that and many other reasons that
HuffPo's medical posts have been characterized as a war
on medical science and I scoffed contemptuously at the
idea of a science section for HuffPo and HuffPost Health
as "soon to be a one-stop shop for quackery." My
reaction was similar to the concept of a science section
for HuffPo, a concept that I characterized as a
pseudoscience section.

I guess it's now time to see if I was right or not.

The reason is this e-mail, which I received yesterday,
apparently because I'm a registered commenter over at
HuffPo. The e-mail announces:

    I'm delighted to announce the launch of our newest
    section, HuffPost Science, a one-stop shop for the
    latest scientific news and opinion. From the
    farthest reaches of space to the tiniest cells
    inside our bodies, HuffPost Science will report on
    the world's greatest mysteries, most cutting-edge
    discoveries, and most thought-provoking ideas.

The initial part of the announcement looks pretty
generic and unobjectionable, but then there are these
two passages:

    I'm particularly looking forward to HuffPost
    Science's coverage of one of my longtime passions:
    the intersection of science and religion, two fields
    often seen as contradictory -- or at least presented
    that way by those waging The War on Science. A key
    part of HuffPost Science's mission will be to cut
    through the divisions that have resulted from that
    false war.

    Rather than taking up arms in those misguided,
    outdated battles, HuffPost Science will work in the
    tradition of inquisitive minds that can accommodate
    both logic and mystery. It's a tradition exemplified
    by Brown University biology professor Kenneth
    Miller, who, when I visited with him last year, told
    me that he sees Darwin not as an obstacle to faith
    but as "the key to understanding our relationship
    with God."

That sure sounds to me like an opening for quantum woo
of the kind favored by Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza
big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.
Quantumly, of course.

The advent of a HuffPo Science Section, of course, begs
the question of whether HuffPo is no longer a denialist
site, as Mark Hoofnagle asked. My perspective with
respect to that question is that even if HuffPo Science
features only the hardest of the hard science, the most
scientifically rigorous blog posts, it doesn't matter.
HuffPo is still a denialist site, through and through.
Here's the reason. Let's take a look at what happened
when HuffPo introduced HuffPo Health. The content there
is not obviously quacky on the surface, and there are
even regularly some halfway decent health articles there
from time to time. There are also articles with titles
like Five Foods That Kick Your Metabolism Into Overdrive
Naturally, which features gems like claims that apple
cider vinegar increases your body's metabolic rate
"allowing you to burn calories more efficiently," that
drinking high quality cold water can "help to flush
toxins and fat from the cells in your body, which in
turn will help you lose weight," and that cayenne pepper
can help to "clean fat out of the arteries." If that's
not enough there are articles like this one, which touts
supplements slow aging, prevent Alzheimer's disease,

I rather suspect that that's just like what the HuffPo
Science Section will be.

Not everyone agrees with me. Or perhaps not everyone is
as cynical about HuffPo as I've become over the last six
and a half years. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic
Virus, for instance, is ready to let antivaccine bygones
be bygones and give HuffPo Science a chance, asking Has
the Huffington Post embraced science & closed the door
on anti-vaccine quackery? This, even though Mnookin

    For whatever reason, HuffPo seemed to have a
    particular bee in its bonnet about vaccines and
    autism: If you made a list of the most
    irresponsible, misinformed people on the topic, it
    was a safe bet the majority of them had been given
    space for their rantings on the site. David Kirby?
    Check. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? Check. Jim Carrey,
    Jenny McCarthy, Jay Gordon, and Kim Stagliano?
    Check, check, check, and check. There were days when
    the site's main prerequisites for getting published
    seemed to be either a hatred of Republicans or a
    love of pseudoscientific quackery.

Mnookin's first foray into posting for the HuffPo
Science section is a post entitled The Autism Vaccine
Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science
Journalism. It's a perfectly fine piece discussing the
damage that antivaccine pseudoscience can do and how
journalists' fetishizing "balance," even when it's false
balance, contributes to the problem. Not surprisingly,
given HuffPo's readership, the comments are crawling
with antivaccinationists, including Anne Dachel, Media
Editor for the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of
Autism, flooding the comments with her usual cut 'n'
paste jobs. True, the more recent comments are less
dominated by antivaccine loons, but there's still a lot
of nonsense there, and it's hard to combat. One also
can't help but wonder why Mnookin was invited to join
the science section, rather than the medicine section,
which is where he'd be more appropriate.

Dont' get me wrong. I'm not being critical of bloggers
who accepted Freeman's offer to blog for the HuffPo
Science. I understand the temptation. It's flattering to
be asked to join a large and famous blog network as a
way of trying to repair its reputation for
pseudoscience. It's easy to think that you might be part
of something bigger than yourself, that you can do some
good by helping to move a blog like HuffPo away from its
current orientation towards pseudoscience and quackery.
Who knows? Maybe you will. However, I would ask the
scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit
before joining up (or even after having joined up). The
quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine
propaganda. It hasn't gone away. It's just (mostly) not
the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to
keep things science-based in the beginning, but it's
infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft
woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture.
The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine
pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on
HuffPo. It's still there, though, and it still taints
the reputation of the entire enterprise.

That's why my advice to bloggers (and readers) would be
to wait before concluding that HuffPo has changed its
ways. Make its editors prove it. For example, as long as
RFK, Jr., homoepaths like Judith Acosta or Dana Ullman,
antivaccinationists like Kim Stagliano and other
refugees from Age of Autism, Deepak Chopra, and Robert
Lanza are still blogging for HuffPo, you don't want to
be associated with it. If HuffPo were really serious
about cleaning up its act with respect to science, it
would clean house and get rid of all the quacks and
pseudoscience boosters before undertaking a medicine or
science section. At the very least, it would start the
process, and there would be evidence that the level of
promotion of quackery and pseudoscience were decreasing.
It didn't, there isn't, and I suspect that's because
HuffPo wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants
to keep pleasing Arianna with a heapin' helpin' of
quackery but segregate the "real" science in the science
section as a means of "damage control" for its image,
which has been hurt by its enthusiastic embrace of
quackery and pseudoscience. The problem, of course, is
that there is no firewall between the science section
and the rest of HuffPo, just as there is no firewall
between the medical section and the rest of HuffPo. As
the example of HuffPo's medical section has shown, the
woo bleeds through, at least the "softer" woo, like
supplements and acupuncture, does. I fully expect that
the same thing will happen in the science section under
the guise of "exploring the interface between science
and religion," which no less a person than Arianna
Huffington herself has declared as a major focus of this
newborn science section.

It's up to HuffPo's editors to prove me wrong, at least
if they want to be taken seriously.


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