Respectful Insolence

I don’t normally read the Financial Times. “What?” you say. “I thought that all doctors read the FT.”

Ah, but you forget that I’m an academic physician. Don’t get me wrong; I make a comfortable living, more money than I’ve made in my entire life, but I could almost certainly increase my earnings by 50-100% by going into private practice. I’d probably work roughly the same hours with the exception that I’d be called in more often for emergencies and that I’d spend all of my time either in the clinic or in the O.R., in contrast to the situation now where I spend half my time begging for money to support my lab (a.k.a. writing grants) or trying to come up with the next big idea. And, of course, there’s the little matter that I didn’t get a real job until I was 37, thanks to all those years out of the prime of my life I spent in medical school, graduate school, residency, and fellowship. I’m also hopelessly inept at investing, although I have managed to be quite good at living well below my means and finally saving some serious money after many years of deprivation in the name of education. In other words, I’m not the type to be reading the Financial Times, Money, or The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps I should be, to help me out while I still have 25 years or so before I hope to retire.

Be that as it may, were it not for Skeptico, I would probably have been completely unaware of this debate posted on the Financial Times website, entitled Ask The Expert: Should the Old Media Embrace the New?. Here’s what caught my attention:

Presently, the reality of the blogathons at some newspapers in the U.S. seems to be less expert disquisition and more inquisitorial musing on American Idol or Lindsey Lohan. Fine, clearly there is a market for this kind of pop cultural chatter – but how much is it enhancing the newspaper as a business? Not as much as devoting more resources to producing original, insightful and well-written content, I’d warrant.

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.

The moral of this story is that mainstream news organisations need to look at this kind of event, and figure out what is best for the public interest. Co-opt science and medical expert bloggers into their news model? Maybe. Do a better job of covering this kind of story? Definitely. Re-evaluate what constitutes news and how it should be presented? Absolutely. It’s no good patting yourself on the back because your organisation knew better than to swallow Kennedy’s anti-vaccine Kool Aid if a rival publication ends up propagating misleading and potentially deadly information.

Of course, Trevor Butterworth apparently did not realize that I did the vast majority of my debunking of RFK Jr.’s biased and shoddy hit pieces in the pre-ScienceBlogs incarnation of Respectful Insolence. That’s OK, though, because I continued the tradition since joining ScienceBlogs, giving a thorough fisking to RFK Jr’s most recent conspiracy-mongering about the CDC and big pharma. To skeptical bloggers like Skeptico and myself, RFK Jr. is the gift that keeps on giving, at least with regards to his utter credulity when it comes to claims that mercury causes autism and the CDC covered it up. I do not know about the quality of his other reporting, but his utter lack of critical thinking skills about the claimed link between mercury and autism and his blatant quote-mining of various transcripts to make up a nonexistent conspiracy do not give me confidence in his other work.

Leaving all that aside, though, it’s hard not to think that somewhere out there someone in the “old media” might actually be appreciating all this verbiage that I’ve been laying down. Of course, keeping my head from getting too inflated is the realization that, compared to the “old media” and many of the bigger bloggers, my influence is minuscule. Still, it’s worth fighting the good fight for science, skepticism, and critical thinking, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t truly love it.

I wonder if Mr. Butterworth could get me a subscription to the Financial Times. I could use to develop some financial savvy.

[File under: Shameless self-promotion.]

Comments

  1. #1 Fore Sam
    March 29, 2006

    A statistical wizard like you should be reading the Daily Racing Form and making solid investments that pay better odds than the stock market.

  2. #2 outeast
    March 29, 2006

    Jeebus, Fore Sam, anyone would think you were playing whack-a-mole (except that your every blow misses by a mile). Can’t you lay off the snarky insults for 11 seconds?

  3. #3 Opiwan
    March 29, 2006

    Dude, seriously… could you be more of a tool? Daily Racing Form? What? Ugh

  4. #4 Fore Sam
    March 29, 2006

    Some intellectuals enjoy the challenge presented by handicapping horse races. We also enjoy the profits.

  5. #5 Dr. Curtis E. Flush
    March 29, 2006

    Mr. Fore Sam,

    Very few intellectuals employ the consistent use of name calling language, arguments based almost entirely on logical fallacy, and apparent tight bond you have with belief.

  6. #6 Kurt
    March 29, 2006

    Given the earlier thread those were years spent in “evil” medical school I presume?

  7. #7 Fore Sam
    March 29, 2006

    Curtis;
    Intellectuals don’t knowingly inject poison into infants in doses larger than safety standards.

  8. #8 Catherina
    March 29, 2006

    Orac: congratulations!

  9. #9 Ali
    March 29, 2006

    That’s actually a very well-written, thoughtful piece. I don’t know if you noticed the link at the bottom, but Butterworth also runs a fairly interesting site (“a site devoted to analysing how the media uses and abuses science and statistics.”) here:
    http://www.stats.org/

  10. #10 Dunc
    March 29, 2006

    I’ve got one major problem with that write up:

    The moral of this story is that mainstream news organisations need to look at this kind of event, and figure out what is best for the public interest.

    Since when do “mainstream news organisations” give a fig for the public interest? They’re publicly traded corporations, whose sole, legally-mandated purpose is to generate profit for their shareholders. If there’s a conflict between profit and the public interest, profit wins every time – and sensationalist tripe is extremely profitable. Of course, profitability requires that they maintain the illusion of serving the public interest…

    To my mind, that’s the single biggest strength of blogs like this – you’re not legally bound to try and make money out of it, so you can actually spend some time trying to investigate the truth.

  11. #11 Dr. Curtis E. Flush
    March 29, 2006

    Good point Kurt (raises pinky to teeth). I will not assert to be an intellectual myself.

    Mr Fore Sam; good point as well. I highly suspect that the “knowingly” part of your statement is (for those intellectuals) not based on participation in a governmental or industrial cover-up, or mere lack of scientific evidence that could prevent such “knowing” rather it is very likely the result of an imbalance in intellectual energy fields caused by some yet to be proven or identified toxin (such as the ink used to print logos on drug rep handout pens and notepads). This can be clearly demonstrated through meridian stress analysis or sophisticated photographic methods which allow us to visualize fluctuations in the intellectual’s aura. This can then be addressed with an appropriate course of detoxificiation and mind-body life-force energy balance techniques. Of course, it could all be the work of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and if that’s the case, who knows except the great noodliness himself?

  12. #12 BronzeDog
    March 29, 2006

    Intellectuals don’t knowingly inject poison into infants in doses larger than safety standards.

    Of course not. That’s why Orac doesn’t recommend chelation except in cases of metal poisoning. He especially doesn’t recommend it for an unrelated condition like autism.

    Oh, and I smell Humpty Dumpty hiding in an enthymeme.

  13. #13 Steve
    March 29, 2006

    “I’m also hopelessly inept at investing”

    As an investment professional I assure you that this is the case for 95% of the doctors out there. The difference is most of them do not recognize they are inept.

  14. #14 Fore Sam
    March 29, 2006

    Dr Flush;
    When the regulatory agencies tell us one microgram of mercury is safe and you guys shoot 75 micrograms into an infant in one day, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you have exceded the limit of safety. BTW, how come veterinarians stopped using thimerosal a long time ago? Is that because some horses are worth more than humans?

  15. #16 Dr. Curtis E. Flush
    March 29, 2006

    BTW, how come veterinarians stopped using thimerosal a long time ago? Is that because some horses are worth more than humans?

    Mr. Fore Sam,
    Wouldn’t it be logical to assume that it’s because they didn’t want autistic horses?

  16. #17 David Harmon
    March 29, 2006

    So this guy can’t help but admit the quality of some science bloggers, complimenting you by reference. But, not by name, and he hastens to assure their readers that no way is this stuff going to catch on, because the MSM have the “elite” blogs locked up tight. ;-)

    Talk about your left-handed compliments….

  17. #18 Faithful Reader
    March 29, 2006

    Now, now, let’s not diss the DRF. A PP chart is an excellent example of the complex info that can be put in a table and statistically analyzed.

    That said, I still pick more winners on hunch than numbers :-)

  18. #19 Mechanophile
    March 29, 2006

    I wonder why the ‘mercury causes autism’ people don’t go after the seafood industry, considering that your average can of tuna contains 5.6 mcg of mercury… I mean, come on! It’s so obvious that tuna causes autism! Why do all you doctors cover up for Big Seafood?!

    And Bronzedog: The EPA’s reference dose for *methylmercury* (thimerosal containing ethylmercury, which has a significantly shorter half-life) is actually 0.1 mcg/kg body weight/day. With about five minutes of searching, though, I managed to find this: “[The EPA ref. dose] is based on oral ingestion of methylmercury, not ethylmercury; it is meant as a starting point for investigation, not a level at which toxicity is thought to occur; it has a 10-fold safety factor built in; it was set to avoid toxicity to a fetus; and it assumes a cumulative dose if ingested daily over a prolonged period of time.”

    Sometimes I wonder if ignorance really is bliss, or whether it actually takes significant effort for people like Fore Sam to distort and ignore what ‘the regulatory agencies’ (or the evidence, for that matter) actually say.

  19. #20 Mechanophile
    March 29, 2006

    Oh, and kudos, Orac. :)

  20. #21 Kristjan Wager
    March 29, 2006

    Tim Lambert also posted about it. There is even a comment from the author of article.

  21. #22 Orac
    March 29, 2006

    Yikes. How did I miss Tim’s post? I usually read him almost every day. I must be slipping up…

    That’s the problem with using an RSS feed aggregator. I often judge whether or not a post is worth reading based solely on the title and the first sentence or two. That means I sometimes miss posts that I should have read.

  22. #23 Kristjan Wager
    March 29, 2006

    I’m sure Tim will forgive you. BTW Orac, you should have received an e-mail from me. If you haven’t could you please let me know?

  23. #24 TheProbe
    March 29, 2006

    Big time!

    Sadly, the FT author is probably right. No matter how much outsiders complain about the lousy reporting, it will not change.

  24. #25 Ahistoricality
    March 29, 2006

    I was under the impression that journalists were supposed to ask experts about things requiring expertise. Journalists are supposed to report; what RFK, Jr. was doing was punditry, which is entirely different.

  25. #26 Flex
    March 30, 2006

    Funny,

    I get a little different take on the whole expert blogging phenomena from the article.

    Instead of lamanting that the big journalistic blogs are big, it is acknowledging that there are experts in the blogosphere, as small as they may be, who are providing better information.

    Twenty years ago, when I graduated high school, the means to communicate with experts were extremly limited. I could go to college and learn from a couple of dozen experts if I was lucky. I could dig through libraries for articles and books, many of which would be 30-40 years old. (Which doesn’t make the knowledge contained in them incorrect, but it would be hard to call it cutting edge.) If I was very persistant, I could attempt to start a correspondance, through the mail, with an expert.

    Lacking these options, the only way to learn about subjects outside of my own field was through the media. I rapidly learned to distrust the local newspapers, and even magazines I learned to take with a grain of salt. Not because I knew that they were not telling the complete story, because I usually lacked the knowledge to verify the claims. But I learned to distrust the media because when they did report on my own field, they more often than not got some details horribly confused. If they are confused about the areas I know something about, I have to doubt their accuracy in the areas I know nothing about.

    Contrast that to the interaction possible today. The barriers to communication have dropped to the point where spending ten minutes on adding a comment to Respectful Insolence doesn’t bother me at all. In addition, I am pretty well assured that Orac will read the comment, and if he doesn’t other people will.

    I can express my incomprehension to one of his medical posts if I need to, with the expectation that either Orac or one of the other commentors will take the time to improve my understanding or correct my errors. So long as I think about the knowledge offered, and evidence for that knowledge, I am getting an education beyond that which a simple electrical engineering degree could confer.

    So I’m not annoyed at the amount of miss-inormation and ill-informed rantings found on the majority of journalistic blogs. I expect it from mainstream journalism, which after all, has had few shining stars in it’s history of muck-raking (Menkin as an example).

    Instead I’m pleased as punch that places like Respectful Insolence do exist to slake my thirst for knowledge.

    Thanks Orac, and keep it up!

    -Flex

  26. #27 Ronald Brak
    April 4, 2006

    Investments? I’d recommend putting money into an indexed share market fund such as those available from the Vanguard investment company. Indexed funds generally do better than managed funds because of their very low fees. Don’t buy and sell, just make regular investments and otherwise ignore the ups and downs of the market. Don’t get depressed when your investments go down or excited when they go up. Take a relaxed attitude about it. Over time you can expect an indexed share market fund to make about 10% per year after inflation. People will tell you that they have plans that can make more money than this, but many of these people will be lying, many of them will be deluding themselves and just a few will be right. How will you tell which is which?

    I’d suggest putting money into an indexed fund that invests in a variety of nations as there is a lot of downward pressure building up on the U.S. dollar.

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