Respectful Insolence

One development that will increasingly pose an interesting and perhaps uncomfortable question for newspapers is the increasing addition of blogs run under the banner of newspapers. I’m not sure if it’s cluelessness about the blogosphere leading newspapers to think that they can have bloggers write whatever they want under the newspaper’s banner and not have it reflect on their reptuation, but reputable papers have in some cases allowed some seriously credulous people to spread misinformation in a seemingly respectable form.

This thought occurred to me when I was made aware of a blog entry by Julie Deardorff on a blog hosted by The Chicago Tribune called Julie’s Health Club. Ms. Deardorff describes her blog thusly:

Julie’s Health Club blog is a forum to discuss whatever personal health issues are currently in the news or on your mind. My personal interests include triathlons, running, integrative medicine, children and maternal health, environmental health, sustainable living, nutrition, yoga and Pilates, alternatives to surgery and prescription drugs, and chemicals in the environment.

The other day, Ms. Deardorff posted an unbelievably poorly reasoned article that regurgitated many of the fallacies and canards of the mercury militia, all in the form of a “recovered autistic child” story entitled Autism recovery stories: Mercury poisoning? In it was a “recovered child” story by a woman named Julie Obradovic, who clearly totally buys into the myth that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

I’m sure that Ms. Obradovic’s life has been difficult. Raising an autistic child is a challenge beyond anything I’ve ever faced. However, that does not entitle her to a free pass when she parrots the worst misinformation spread by the mercury militia in a high visibility venue like the Tribune, all the while citing her “mommy instinct,” just as Jenny McCarthy did. In the story cited by Ms. Deardoff, autism is represented as definitely being due to “mercury poisoning” due to vaccines, with no good evidence cited initially. When a few skeptics showed up to question the assertions in the article, the only response was to post references to the same dubious studies that are usually trotted out to “support” the supposed connection between mercury and autism. Ms. Obradovic’s response generally went along this line:

I’m not sure why anyone finds that so difficult or controversial. If the word “mercury” was substituted with “lead”, no one would flinch. No one would argue for one second that’s what happened to her. And mercury is up to 500 times more toxic! But because it happened via a vaccine, well, that throws everyone into a defensive tizzy. The science to support the link is overwhelming, and it certainly won’t be found on the CDC website (although, you may read 2 of their recent studies that found a link between thimerosal and speech delay in girls and tics in boys)…I could go on an on. I chose to use actual science, actual medicine, and actual logic to get to the root of the problem, not manipulated population studies, to get my child well. We can disagree with how it happened, but my daughter was exposed to mercury and got sick from it. Treating her for it made her better. End of story.

That’s right. How dare those nasty skeptics question Obradovic’s pseudoscientific statements presented as fact? Do they hate mothers? Meanwhile, in the comments, antivaccination loons (and I do not use this term lightly–just read their comments) trot out the same old logical fallacies, such as the old favorite of “science doesn’t know everything” or “science has been wrong before” or appeals to ignorance (“although there is no identified scientific link between vaccines and autism, I understand there also is no scientific evidence to release vaccines from the suspected link to autism”).

In reality, my purpose here is not to deconstruct Obradovic story in detail. I’ve heard and read lots of stories like it, and almost none of them are particularly convincing as evidence for a link between mercury and autism if you know a bit about autism and the fallacies of confusing correlation with causation and confirmation bias are kept in mind. Anyone who wants to see all my previous discussion of autism antivaccination pseudoscience, can peruse the autism and antivaccination lunacy categories of the archives. What I’m more interested in is how a major newspaper can allow someone like Julie Deardorff to run a blog that arguably promotes pseudoscience. For example, she credulously cited one of Jenny McCarthy’s more outrageous statements and wrote approvingly of her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s also written some borderline antivaccination pieces and arguably irresponsible articles about the flu vaccine. Although Deardorff may not be blatantly antivaccinationist, she clearly has sympathies that lie in that direction, particularly demonstrated when she gloated over a flu vaccine shortage last year, which was chock full of antivaccination canards like this truly idiotic statement:

Plus, don’t we all know people who get the flu shot and come down with the flu anyway?

Such a statement seems more appropriate to WingNut Daily–I mean WorldNet Daily– or the that celebrity blog repository of antivaccination pseudoscience, the Huffington Post, than the Chicago Tribune, even on its blogs. I suppose that, because other vaccines aren’t 100% effective either, by Deardorff’s “logic” apparently we should give up on those as well. Heck, condoms aren’t 100% effective at preventing pregnancy, STDs, or AIDS. By Deardorff’s “reasoning,” presumably these aren’t necessary, either.

Moreover, one major crux of her argument is that it’s too inconvenient to get her child vaccinated and she doesn’t consider it worth the effort, with a statement thrown in that shows she’s truly down with the mercury militia: “Yes, I know that officially the mercury preservative thimerosal, which has been removed from almost all vaccines, does not cause autism, though plenty of parents with autistic children will beg to differ.” And plenty of people beg to differ with the National Cancer Institutes’s statement that quackery like the Hoxsey therapy can cure cancer, too. Perhaps that means their belief in quackery should be taken seriously. Also note the ominous use of the word “officially.” (Take that, CDC!)

It makes me wonder if ostensibly respectable newspapers like the Tribune realize that allowing credulous bloggers like Ms. Deardorff, who clearly has a borderline (if not full-blown) antivaccination agenda and demonstrates a poor track record, as far as I can tell, of evaluating medical evidence, a voice under the hallowed auspice of a respected newspaper reflects poorly on their journalistic reliability. Indeed, when commenters pointed out that the story posted in Deardorff’s blog was unreferenced, with no science or scientific studies to support Obradovic’s “belief” that mercury in vaccines caused her child’s autism and “biomedical interventions” corrected it, Deardorff responded:

But in this blog, citations aren’t required when someone is giving an opinion. Her story is clearly her own opinion.

Yes, you heard it correctly. This utterly pathetic response tells you the level of “evidence” required by the Ms. Deardorff, whose mind appears to be so open to the blandishments of antivaccinationists that her brains are in serious danger of falling out. If you have an antivaccination opinion that seems like an interesting story to her, she might let you use her blog to spread it to the world–no documentation, scientific studies, or evidence to back up your speculations necessary! Is this the level of evidence that the Tribune requires of its journalists? If not, then why does it tolerate such sloppy reporting by its bloggers? Remember, some of the links to blog posts show up on the Tribune main site as though they were regular newspaper articles, implying that they are on par with the real news and opinion pieces published by the Tribune.

Maybe I’m expecting too much, but, having lived in Chicago, I always used to consider the Tribune to be a reliable source for quality news and commentary. Most of the time, it was. Unfortunately, apparently the same is not true of its blogs. Thinking Deardorff’s credulous blog, I have to wonder if newspapers like the Tribune are using blogs to allow outrageous viewpoints to be published without having to go through that pesky editorial process while at the same time asserting “plausible deniability” by declaring, “hey, it’s just a blog.”

Comments

  1. #1 ebohlman
    October 10, 2007

    One of the regular posters to the healthfraud mailing list calls her “the Chicago Tribune’s pseudoscience writer.” She’s generally very woo-receptive.

  2. #2 WTFWJD
    October 10, 2007

    Plus, don’t we all know people who learned to swim but drowned anyway?

    Yes, I know that officially perpetual motion machines are impossible, though plenty of idiots with steaming piles for brains will beg to differ.

    (snark)

    As to your article question, yes, the papers do have a responsibility. It is my opinion that Thai food is better than Scottish cuisine, and I have a right to state my opinion. But if I write that eating ground glass is safe, then since that would be as a matter of fact very dangerous, the editor should either talk me out of it or issue a bold black banner stating that I am factually wrong, what the truth is, and the fact that I’m irresponsible and dangerous and everyone should be warned to take nothing I say seriously.

  3. #3 Amy Alkon
    October 10, 2007

    I am a syndicated advice columnist, and have been encouraged, over the years, to write more than one column a week. I work seven days a week on that one column, and that’s because it’s often research and data-based, and that’s what it takes to do comprehensive research and not put out misinformation. For example, I read a lot of stats and studies on domestic violence against men, and I decided it would be irresponsible to put any stat in my column, since there seems to be both under-reporting and over-reporting in that area. I simply wrote that it happens, more than people tend to think, and people tend to laugh it off, or not even recognize it as domestic violence (when it happens to men). And finally, I noted that while a man can generally do more damage with his fists, a woman can hurt or kill a man by hurling an object (or, of course, using a weapon — which I implied). Likewise, I think it’s wrong to use stats to report on child sexual abuse. I think it’s more reponsible to say “It happens, here are the signs.” But people, especially reporters, are just aching to say “one in this many” or “x percent.” And it’s often blatantly irresponsible.

    There’s a cost to writing only once weekly — I’d make much more money if I wrote daily, but then, I value sleeping nights. Newspapers not only hire irresponsible writers like this woman, they foster an environment for misinformation by not giving their reporters adequate time to research their pieces, and the time and funds to get a serious background in what they do (like sending them to conferences — like the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference, which I go to annually, on my own dime).

  4. #4 notmercury
    October 10, 2007

    Julie Obradovic is GR Rescue Angel just like John Best. ’nuff said.

    Julie Obradovic is a High School Spanish Teacher in the suburbs of Chicago where she lives with her husband and 3 beautiful children, one of whom is recovered from Autism. She is a member of the NAA, a Rescue Angel, and founder of the Southwest Suburban Biomedical Support Group. Last year she threw the First Annual Evening for ACE, a benefit that raised several thousand dollars for the Autism Center for Enlightenment, Dr. Anju Usman’s not-for-profit organization.

  5. #5 Dangerous Bacon
    October 10, 2007

    Why would anyone be surprised at a major newspaper playing host to this sort of thing? Newspapers routinely run big ads promoting blatant medical quackery (including “wonder” weight loss formulas, chiropractic cure-alls and magical herbal detox preparations). USA Today a few years back printed an extended series by one of its staffers with metastatic breast cancer, chronicling her successes with enemas and other alternative clinic treatments (she died, but that must have been because her system was already poisoned by chemotherapy).

    http://www.optimumhealth.org/NR/rdonlyres/CACE03B8-4EB9-42BF-9EA8-41227F93F0BB/0/USATodayarticle.doc

    Running a credulous blogger’s nonsense isn’t much different.

  6. #6 IanR
    October 10, 2007

    I’m not sure why anyone finds that so difficult or controversial. If the word “mercury” was substituted with “lead”, no one would flinch.

    Really? That’s interesting. I have heard that low-level lead poisoning is linked to reduced IQ and increased predilection towards violence (source: something my sister told me years ago that she read somewhere), and that acute lead poisoning leads to loss of muscle control (or something like that; source: half-remembered conversation with a doctor/family friend a decade ago). So based on the little I know about lead, I would flinch if someone suggested that lead was related to autism. Is she seriously suggesting that it’s ok to substitute any random heavy metal for another, and expect the same symptoms?

  7. #7 Gamer
    October 10, 2007

    Ian,

    I believe that she is decrying the lack of concern about mercury in vaccines by comparing it to the outcry that would happen if it were lead in vaccines. Never mind the boggling lack of chemical knowledge inherent in making that point. I’d say tell her about how deadly sodium is next time she reaches for a salt shaker.

  8. #8 Bronze Dog
    October 10, 2007

    Minor correction note: You messed up the link to Skeptico’s “Science was wrong before” entry.

  9. #9 Club 166
    October 14, 2007

    I also blogged about this article. I didn’t realize that you had already blogged about it until I had it about 7/8 written (including the title), so I went ahead and posted mine anyway.

    I guess we both were somewhat flabbergasted that an otherwise respectable major newspaper would allow such obvious unsubstantiated rubbish to be published under its masthead.

    Joe

  10. #10 CHH
    October 21, 2007

    Today’s (10/21/07)Chicago Tribune column by Julie Deardroff is a discussion of Jenny McCarthy’s book. She manages to mention DAN!, vaccines, the “600 doctors who use alternative and complementary medical treatments” to cure autism, and eliminating wheat gluten and milk from the diet of autistics. “McCarthy wasn’t about to wait for evidence-based medicine; she felt she had a limited window of time to pull her son back into this world”