Vanguard or Rearguard?

In a Financial Times discussion in new and old media Trevor Butterworth says:

Second, the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of “niche experts” blogging away (or ready and willing to blog) lacks empirical evidence. I’m very impressed with scienceblogs.com – read the surgeon/scientist “respectful insolence” and you get a real sense of how the mainstream need to upgrade their medical reporting.

And yet at the same time, I see scienceblogs.com as a sort of rearguard action against a blitzkrieg of rubbish on the net rather than the vanguard of an expert army. The “collective intelligence” of the blogosphere is nothing more than a virtual Maginot Line against bad information, which often begins in the mainstream press and, thanks to the immediate parasitical nature of blogging, invades and permanently occupies the Internet.

Consider the furor over vaccination and autism. Last year, the mainstream press (Rolling Stone and Salon) published an extraordinarily flawed story by Robert F. Kennedy on how the American government was supposedly covering up data linking a mercury-based preservative in vaccines to an “epidemic” of autism. This was picked up the Huffington Post, which, inter alia, damned ABC news for radically changing a story based on Kennedy’s claims. It was a big bad corporate pharma pile on.

Yes, the original story was negligent journalism of the highest order, but the frontlines of blogging simply amplified it. Bloggers such as Skeptico and Respectful Insolence did a terrific job of analysing and pointing out why Kennedy’s claims had no merit, but they lacked the impact of the Huffington Post or Salon or Rolling Stone. And given that the elite blogging circles are dominated by journalists, established pundits and their dauphins, I don’t see how this kind of expert network can leverage its intelligence to inoculate the public against bad information.

If you missed Orac’s righteous smackdown of Kennedy’s nonsense, you can catch it in reruns.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    March 27, 2006

    Does it not count for at least something against TB’s own argument that he knows Kennedy’s nonsense for the nonsense it is, precisely because of the blogs he reads? I am not so sure that there is any such thing as an “elite blogging circle”. Already we have, as a society, too much information for any individual to take in; filters and trusted agents are only going to become more important as the overload increases, and it’s as easy to add Orac to one’s RSS feeds as the Huff Post. Once one has internet access, the playing field is relatively level — blogging is perhaps the last refuge of real meritocracy. In other words, will Salon always have more impact than Orac?

  2. #2 Trevor Butterworth
    March 27, 2006

    Thanks for reading and posting a section from the online Q and A over at the FT. In answer to Bill’s question, I knew Kennedy’s rant was baloney based on the fact that I commissioned an article for http://www.stats.org a couple of years ago on the history of the controversy over the mmr vaccine and autism (which was prompted by the bizarre fact of Wakefield testifying in front of Congress – and the genuine fears of a return of childhood diseases in Britain thanks to a fear-campaign stoked by the Daily Mail.

    I also e-mailed Joan Walsh, the editor of Salon, to protest at how irresponsible the article was. And I talked to one of the people at the FDA conference to get a sense of how skewed RFK’s account was. If I had had the time and resources, I would have tackled the issue myself for STATS.

    Unfortunately, the ideas of meritocracy and equal access are just theoretical concepts in terms of media influence. Statistically, outsiders have a chance of moving the herd on their own, but I’d say the P value is pretty high.

    In our online Q and A, Reuter’s CEO Tom Glocer started a myspaces profile because Rupert Murdoch bought it – and ergo, must see something relevant in it.

    Now, what is the incentive for Glocer to go to Orac, based on my bringing it up? I’d like to think that he did, but news is a business and a product based on formulas and precendents. I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing them, but as my original FT feature (and blogathon – both linked in the discussion) shows, I don’t believe the blogosphere is changing or will change that (at least for the better in the main).

    Best –

    Trevor Butterworth

  3. #3 Paul Crowley
    March 27, 2006

    So just reading this blog makes me part of an elite circle? Cool!

  4. #4 Tim Curtin
    March 27, 2006

    Mercury in vaccines and autism – certainly scary if true. But is it? Not according to Trevor Butterworth or Dr Lambert. But the New Statesman’s Margaret Cook – reprinted in the Australian Financial Review on 24th March as “Autistic reactions” – would have us believe it. Margaret claims to be a retired consultant haemotologist, and claims that mercury was removed from infant vaccines in the UK in 2004. Is that also a lie? Somebody somewhere is not doing their due diligence.

  5. #5 Dennis Williams
    March 27, 2006

    meh…reading a blog is like having major plumbing work done; always get a second opinion.

  6. #6 Kristjan Wager
    March 28, 2006

    meh…reading a blog is like having major plumbing work done; always get a second opinion.

    Actually, when talking about stuff like science, economics, law and similar subjects, what one should on the lookout for is references to the primary literature.

    When I wrote a guest post for Orac debunking the often repeated claim that the Danish researchers (or at least their employer) had a conflict of interest because they would be liable for claims, if they found a link between thimerosal and autism, I made sure to refer to the Danish laws in question, so people could look it up themselves.

    Orac does the same when he talks about the medical aspects – he links, or refers, to the medical studies and articles that he talks about, so people can go and look at them themselves.

    Refering to primary literature is not a sign of quality in itself, howver lack of such references (or references to doubtious sources) should be a clear warning sign.

  7. #7 Tim Curtin
    March 28, 2006

    Thanks Christjan

    Has mercury been removed from infant vaccines in USA and UK or not?

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    March 28, 2006

    What do you define as “infant vaccines”?

    As far as I know only the flu vaccination still contains it in the UK, but I don’t know for sure. In the US it varries from state to state.

  9. #9 Tim Curtin
    March 28, 2006

    What do you define as “infant vaccines”?

    As far as I know only the flu vaccination still contains it in the UK, but I don’t know for sure. In the US it varries from state to state.

    Posted by: Kristjan Wager | March 28, 2006 06:19 AM

    Why don’t you try yourself? or ask Dr Lambert?

  10. #10 Kristjan Wager
    March 28, 2006

    Why don’t you try yourself? or ask Dr Lambert?

    Both Tim Lambert and I are from the world of computer science (he as a professor, me as a student and systems developer), so we are hardly experts on this field.

    However, you are the one who raised “infant vaccines”, and hence I asked you to define what you ment by it. Most people talk about childhood vaccinations rather than infant vaccines, and I wanted to be clear if you were talking about the same.

    I’m sure that there is a point to your question somewhere, but as long as you don’t define the parametres of your questions properly, it’s hard to say. So please do that.
    Alternatively, you could also just make your point, and we could continue from there.

  11. #11 z
    March 28, 2006

    i thought they stopped using it in US vaccines when they went to selling only by individual packaged doses instead of in batch quantities (so there wouldn’t be any need for a preservative, since there aren’t any opened leftovers). But i don’t know for sure.

  12. #12 Kristjan Wager
    March 28, 2006

    I know for sure that some flu vaccinations still contain thimerosal in the US.

  13. #13 Tim Curtin
    March 28, 2006

    Apologies to Kristjan – definitions of infancy vary, say under 12 months. My main concern is the cavalier way issues of life and death are dealt with by Tim Lambert and others here – as a computer scientist he seems too quick to warrant eg that all non-DDT pesticides are non-toxic and that thimeresol has no side-effects or risks. He may be right, but what are his credentials for us to take his medical advice on his sayso alone? Meantime I suggest he check his professional indemnity insurance!

  14. #14 Dano
    March 28, 2006

    My concern is the cavalier way Timmy Curtin flings FUD phrases around this site. For example, that UHI howler. You likely aren’t right, given your credentials and scattershot, tapdancing text that appears out of the ether and out of Tim’s bandwidth allotment. Meantime Timmy should check his Uni library for empirical findings!

    Best,

    D

  15. #15 jre
    March 28, 2006

    What D said.
    As to the presence or absence of thimerosal in vaccines recommended for pediatric use in the US, the answer is not terribly hard to find out.
    Tim C. — if you can’t be troubled to do even this trivial bit of research before accusing Tim L. of warranting “that thimeresol has no side-effects or risks”, isn’t it possible that you are pulling this thread’s average information content down just a smidge?

  16. #16 Dano
    March 28, 2006

    Glad to see you’re back up and running jre. Wrt to your latest post, IIRC Milloy was recently caught with the receipts for some tobacco money…

    D

  17. #17 david tiley
    March 29, 2006

    It is true that certain bits of the blogosphere are really long running campaigns against vile politicised dross. This one, and good luck to its stalwarts for doing it.

    But the blogosphere is still evolving fast, and I think it will get more and more like online magazines enlivened by comments threads, which will also get more selective.

    We can see the power of the group blog already; most of them lack an organising principle which distributes the posting work and encourages people to write less and dig further.

    I think we will see the slow rise of the editor.

  18. #18 z
    March 29, 2006

    “I know for sure that some flu vaccinations still contain thimerosal in the US.”
    In accord with the other thread regarding mea culpas “i was wrong when I said they didn’t any more”
    an official list of thimerosal in US vaccines:
    http://www.fda.gov/Cber/vaccine/thimerosal.htm#t3

  19. #19 z
    March 29, 2006

    “cavalier way issues of life and death are dealt with by Tim Lambert and others here”

    How exactly is it that political hacks asserting by fiat that malaria-fighting programs around the world must switch over to DDT, without any direct studies to prove it, is not being cavalier with third world life and death; but saying that that’s scientifically invalid, is?

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