Respectful Insolence

One of the advantages of having been a blogger for nearly five years is that you gain a sense of perspective after having written about various issues over and over for a long time. True, the disadvantage is that it sometimes becomes difficult to think of something new to say about longstanding issues. Even so, it’s still quite useful, every so often, to take a look back over a longstanding issue of interest to the blog (more like a festering sore that keeps getting worse), and a new article in Salon.com gives me a perfect excuse to do just that. The topic has been a frequent topic on this blog since 2005, specifically the promotion of quackery and woo at The Huffington Post. Specifically, Dr. Rahul Parikh, a skeptical pediatrician who blogs for Salon.com, wrote an excellent overview of the more than four years of quackery that is the Arianna Huffington’s massive group blog, The Huffington Post, or HuffPo, as it’s commonly called, entitled The Huffington Post is crazy about your health. This is such good stuff that I wanted to write about it yesterday, but real life (and sleep deprivation) intervened.

Before I discuss Dr. Parikh’s article, let me just point out that, in a perverse way, I am very grateful to the HuffPo. I really am. It’s provided me with enormous quantities of material upon which to inflict my special brand of not-so-Respectful Insolence upon over the years. Really. Some of my funniest and best stuff has come in response to some pseudoscientific idiocy or other published on HuffPo. It began right away, too, a mere two or three weeks after HuffPo launched, when I was one of the very first to notice a plethora of anti-vaccine cranks blogging there. At first, the anti-vaccine contingent was relatively small (although certainly vocal). It consisted mainly of Santa Monica pediatrician to the stars and “vaccine skeptic” Dr. Jay Gordon (a fairly regular topic on this blog) had found a home there, along with David Kirby, author of the mercury militia Bible Evidence of Harm (and who has been a regular punching bag of mine for at least four years, and deservedly so), and Janet Grilo.

These anti-vaccine “luminaries” were soon joined by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr (whose anti-vaccine activism I have discussed before) and more recently by Deirdre Imus, the driving force ramping up the antivaccinationist mercury militia proclivities of her husband, aging shock jock Don Imus. (Indeed, if Jenny McCarthy didn’t exist, Deirdre Imus would get my vote for the antvaccine zealot who routinely says the most astoundingly ignorant things about science.) Although we don’t hear much from Grilo or Gordon anymore, other than an occasional specious analogy between tobacco companies and the pro-vaccine stance of the CDC and AAP or nonsense about Tamiflu, unfortunately we do still hear from Kirby, Imus, and Kennedy on a fairly regular basis, all on The Huffington Post. Given this history, it’s not for naught that on occasion I’ve referred to The Huffington Post “Arianna’s Home for Happy Antivaccinationists” and noted that it’s been seriously questioned whether it could ever do a real science section.

Then let’s not forget Deepak Chopra, who has been a regular at HuffPo at least since 2005. As you might expect, he’s been spewing his “universal consciousness” woo along with laying down some really, really dumb stylings about evolution. Indeed, so woo-ful has Chopra’s contribution to HuffPo been that I even coined a term for it: Choprawoo. I also coined an the only response ever needed to Choprawoo, too.

Sadly, in 2009, the woo at HuffPo kicked into overdrive. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that there was pure quackery in multiple posts, including distant healing, swine flu quackery (even recycling the old lies about homeopathy preventing a swine flu pandemic), and promotion of some of the vilest cancer quackery there is, namely the claim that all cancer is a fungus. I had wondered what had happened, and it was obvious. A new “Health and Wellness” editor had been hired. I’ve mentioned her before, but Dr. Parikh explains her malign influence:

In May, Huffington hired Patricia Fitzgerald, who had previously blogged on the site, to serve as Wellness editor. In Huffington’s words, Fitzgerald will add “another layer to the vetting process for posts dealing with medical, health, and nutritional advice.” Fitzgerald, an acupuncturist with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine, is the author of “The Detox Solution: The Missing Link to Radiant Health, Abundant Energy, Ideal Weight, and Peace of Mind.” Her posts had praised actress Jenny McCarthy for healing her son’s autism with “biomedical intervention,” a menu of “detoxification, and removal of interfering factors, such as yeast, food allergies, viruses, bacteria, and heavy metals,” restrictive diets, expensive nutritional supplements and chelation therapy — all unproven.

Fitzgerald told me her mission “is to assist in providing interesting, informative and well-written pieces that support and inspire people looking to live healthier lives.” She added, “I spend a considerable amount of time helping medical professionals used to writing for other medical professionals develop a style more accessible to a general audience. Every blog post on HuffPost is reviewed by our editorial team. I vet and offer input on some posts dealing with health advice.”

That pretty much explains it all, doesn’t it? HuffPo has a homeopath and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in charge of all of its blogging about “wellness.” Moreover, she claims to vet some posts. Certainly, this could well be a case when correlation actually does equal causation, because the woo quotient on HuffPo went from woo-tastic to woo-monuclear shortly after she took over, and that’s when the blogosphere started really noticing just how bad HuffPo had become. Before, I had felt like the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness criticizing HuffPo, but now several others joined in.

In any case, in preparing his article, Dr. Parikh did what I’m far too lazy to do. He actually interviewed some of the other woo-meisters on HuffPo. Remember, Kim Evans, believer in the idea that antibiotics cause cancer and in colon cleanses? Here’s what she says:

When I asked Evans to substantiate the views she has expressed on the Huffington Post, I had a hard time being persuaded by her answer. “First and really foremost, articles on the Huffington Post are typically about 15 paragraphs max and generally, they are not written for the medical or scientific community,” she said. “My articles in particular are written for the average person, and the average person generally isn’t interested in reading every study ever published or all of the research available to support an argument.”

Which is not what Dr. Parikh asked, and the length of articles permitted is completely irrelevant. It’s a red herring. There are plenty of health writers who have less space and don’t spew quackery to the world. Dr. Parikh then asked her to justify her belief that candida is the cause of many diseases, including cancer. She couldn’t. She punted. She retreated to the favored tactic of woo-meisters in saying she’s down with the people and, by the way, you horrible pointy-headed rationaiist scientists are attacking Real Cures for Real People. She knows this stuff works, because, well, personal anecdotes tell her so!

Of course, Dr. Parikh can’t write such an article without commenting on HuffPo’s longest standing topic in which its bloggers regularly support truly dangerous pseudoscience, the sort of stuff that is a profound threat to public health. Indeed, before the premier anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism ever came into existence last year, the blog with the largest number of anti-vaccine cranks blogging on it was surely HuffPo. Before AoA, no other blog that I’m aware of even came close. I don’t know the relative traffic, but I’d guess that, even with AoA’s unfortunately fairly respectable traffic, HuffPo probably still serves up antivaccine nonsense to more people than AoA. I have no idea if I’m right about this. Who knows?Maybe HuffPo resents AoA’s seizing the flag to take the lead among anti-vaccine blogs. After all, David Kirby used to be HuffPo’s main vaccine crank before moving over to AoA. Actually, it’s probably all collegial, as there is a fair amount of cross-pollination between AoA and HuffPo. At least a couple AoA bloggers (David Kirby and Kim Stagliano) also blog for HuffPo, and AoA frequently pimps the anti-vaccine crank posts on HuffPo. Indeed, even the main squeeze of Generation Rescue’s spokesmodel, Jenny McCarthy, has blogged for HuffPo. That’s right, Jim Carrey. (I need to thank him, by the way. His post on vaccines provided fodder for what I consider to be one of the funniest posts I’ve ever written.)

Dr. Parikh goes into Arianna Huffington’s far-out New Age beliefs, which have been discussed before elsewhere. What’s clear is that there’s practically no woo that’s too incredible for her to swallow whole. Although Dr. Parikh didn’t discuss it much, it’s clear that the anti-vaccine stance that has characterized HuffPo since the beginning also comes just as much from the top as the HuffPo’s promotion of pseudoscience, mysticism, and outright quackery. Indeed, an excellent (but unrelated) example of Huffington’s anti-vaccine sympathies comes from an MSNBC interview earlier this week. It involved Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Arianna Huffington, and Dr. Fauci the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which will oversee the trials of new swine flu vaccines, discussing the H1N1 flu strain that has achieved pandemic status. Huffington’s “contribution” to the discussion begins about halfway in, when she begins hectoring Drs. Fauci and Snyderman about vaccine side effects. Her very first set of comments involve saying that we almost always underestimate the side effects of vaccines and that we’ve done enormous harm with them. Later, Huffington says that she would never get her children vaccinated against the flu, all the while playing up the unknown and making it sound as scary as possible. Drs. Fauci and Snyderman patiently try to explain to her all the safety precautions and monitoring that take place with this (and every other) vaccine program, along with the concept of risk-benefit ratios, but Huffington will have none of it, continuing to rant about how there needs to be a “concerted effort” to find out the side effects of these vaccines, as if safety monitoring were not already a huge component of any vaccine program. At at least one point, she comes across as a (slightly) less obnoxious version of J.B. Handley.

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Yes, it’s very clear that HuffPo is rotten when it comes to vaccines, and that that rotteness flows right from the very top. Meanwhile, her minions give these excuses:

When I asked Fitzgerald about why the site granted so much credence to the vaccine-autism link, her response left me unimpressed: “When it comes to hot-button topics like this one, I think it’s important to present as many viewpoints as possible — and that is what we have tried to do on HuffPost.” It’s hard to see a diversity of viewpoints, though, in Imus, Kirby, Carrey, RFK Jr., Gordon and Fitzgerald herself, who all maintain that childhood vaccines contributed to autism.

If the site is now making an effort to feature all sides of a health debate, it’s not apparent to Ken Reibel. Two months ago, Reibel, founder of the blog Autism News-Beat, and a parent of a child with autism, contacted the Huffington Post to express his dissatisfaction with its anti-vaccine bias. He was invited to blog by Jonah Peretti, a co-founder of the Post. However, neither Fitzgerald, Ornish nor anybody else has followed up with Reibel, and so he has not been able to post on the site.

It’s the same non-answer that Oprah Winfrey uses as a defense: We’re just putting information out there. We’re just allowing “diverse” viewpoints. Let the reader/viewer/listener decide for himself! However, when it comes to vaccines, HuffPo’s claims of diversity are belied by the huge preponderance of health bloggers who are flagrantly anti-vaccine, the most famous of which are David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Deirdre Imus, Dr. Jay Gordon, and now Fire Marshal Bill–I mean Jim Carrey. Those few, lonely voices on HuffPo who defend vaccines and try to rebut the lies and pseudoscience that pour torrentially from HuffPo’s blogs all feel like lone voices crying in the wilderness, especially when the anti-vaccine army of HuffPo readers inevitably descend upon them to flood their comment sections with pseudoscience and vitriol. That’s one why I now feel that I can reveal that, in the wake of my earlier criticisms of HuffPo, I actually received an invitation to blog a few months ago. I thought about it long and hard. I recognized that maybe, just maybe an editor or two at HuffPo was embarrassed and wanted to try to change things. Ultimately, however, I decided against it, and after reading Dr. Parikh’s article I think I made the right decision. It would have been too much work, and I can’t afford to affiliate myelf with such rank pseudoscience.

Meanwhile, I also learned something I didn’t know before. HuffPo has hired Dr. Dean Ornish to be its overall medical editor. (There goes any chance of a repeat invitation for me to blog for HuffPo, I guess.) After all, I’ve taken Dr. Ornish to task for abusing expression array profiling data and conspiring with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to hijack President Obama’s health care reform initiative to legitimize quackery. He even showed up in the comments of a couple of my posts, quite unhappy with my criticizing him and his buddies for trying to co-opt diet and exercise as “alternative” and the foot in the door to nonsense like reiki and homeopathy. To be fair, though, I’ve also seen enough that I once urged Dr. Ornish to turn away from the dark side of woo, given that he’s tried to do actual science to show that his dietary interventions actually do what he claims. I ran into a dead end. Worse, I now find out that Dr. Mark Hyman (he of “functional medicine”) is now blogging for HuffPo. He, too, was one of the Four Horsemen of the Woo-pocalypse brought in by Sen. Harkin to help him co-opt President Obama’s health care reform plan to cover “alternative” medicine. I see a very target-rich environment there just perusing the titles of his posts.

Thanks again for the blogging material, Arianna, but no thanks for the pseudoscience.

President Obama emphasized in his inaugural address that he wanted to restore science to its “rightful place” and use it to guide policy. Unfortunately, his allies at HuffPo appear not to have gotten the message. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    July 31, 2009

    “woo-monuclear” made me chuckle. Good post, it does well summing up the frustration many of us feel with HuffPo.

  2. #2 ntsc
    July 31, 2009

    Just discovered you. Don’t think I’ve ever been to HuffPo, don’t think I’ll bother.

  3. #3 Matthew Cline
    July 31, 2009

    In May, Huffington hired Patricia Fitzgerald … to serve as Wellness editor. … Fitzgerald, an acupuncturist with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine,

    *boggles*

    Oh, and this sentence cuts off early:

    It would have been too much work, and I can’t afford to affiliate myelf with such rank

  4. #4 eNeMeE
    July 31, 2009

    What is a doctorate in homeopathy?

    …I just can’t manage to come up with a course of study in homeopathy that would involve a doctorate. A lazy sunday of playing in the sprinkler, sure, but a doctorate?

  5. #5 JayZee
    July 31, 2009

    Dr. Rahul’s comment:

    “As a physician, I am not necessarily opposed to alternative health treatments. But I do want to be responsible and certain that what I prescribe to patients is safe and effective and not a waste of their time and money.”

    That’s good news!
    I’ve read that more and more Dr.’s are successfully using IV sodium ascorbate to treat infectious disease.

    Here’s a link to an oncologist who can “splain” the cancer fungus connection.Not all cancers can be treated this way…still very interesting.

    http://www.curenaturalicancro.com/therapy-simoncini.html

  6. #6 Pablo
    July 31, 2009

    One of the general requirements for obtaining a PhD is that you carry out research to learn something new about your specific field. I usually say that the difference between a PhD and other degrees is that while in other degrees you gain knowledge by learning what is known, for a PhD you have to CREATE knowledge.

    So what knowledge about homeopathy did Patricia Fitzgerald create? Where can I read about her research and what she all learned?

    Most people who get a PhD in the US will submit their thesis to the Dissertation database. Mine is there. PZ Myers’s is there. Bill Cosby’s is there. Martin Luther King, Newt Gingrich are there. Heck, even Laura Schlessinger is there.

    Unfortunately, I am not in the office and don’t have access from home. However, I am not too concerned. I will say now, Patricia Fitzgerald is not going to have one there.

  7. #7 Pablo
    July 31, 2009

    JayZee – Simoncini is a very dangerous man. He does NOT in any way “explain the fungus” crap. It makes absolutely no sense, and is completely incompatible with all of pathology.

  8. #8 Skeptico
    July 31, 2009

    Read the first few pages (all I could bother with) of the comments to that Salon story. Really depressing – logical fallacy after logical fallacy.

  9. #9 Skeptico
    July 31, 2009

    Read the first few pages (all I could bother with) of the comments to that Salon story. Really depressing – logical fallacy after logical fallacy.

  10. #10 Der Bruno Stroszek
    July 31, 2009

    Oh, and this sentence cuts off early: It would have been too much work, and I can’t afford to affiliate myself with such rank

    To be fair to Orac, that could still have been a complete (and accurate) sentence. You just need to change one letter in the last word.

  11. #11 Chris
    July 31, 2009

    JayZee – nowhere does that guy explain the connection between cancer and fungi, he only declares that tomours are fungi and then moves on with ridiculous mumbo jumbo about sodium bicarbonate treatments that are better than other fungi treaments. I’m not a doctor or a scientist but that blog told me nothing about WHY cancer = fungi, since all the docs I know don’t agree with that, I can’t move on to believing his treatment will do anything for cancer.

    I don’t care if sodium bicarbonate works on fungi (nor am I aware of what medical benefit salt water injected into my arteries would have) because the treatment I would be looking for is for CANCER, and I have yet to see a reason to believe that the cancer is fungal in nature. I’m sure medical science would be all over it if salt water cured cancer.

  12. #12 Phoenix Woman
    July 31, 2009

    Skeptico, it gets better: The pro-science folk jump in after about five pages, and seriously start kicking ass after ten. The wooies still dominate, but there have been a number of good postings countering their blather.

  13. #13 Pieter B
    July 31, 2009

    I was going to add something to the Salon comments last night but was too knackered to get to it. An early commenter wrote

    “It took the medical community 300 years to accept the germ theory.”

    If comments are still open I’ll add

    Since germ theory dates only to the mid-1800s, I take your assertion with considerably more than a grain of salt. However, homeopathy and several other forms of “alternative” medicine haven’t accepted germ theory yet. What’s your point?

    Insolent enough? I’m also tempted to point out Chopra’s undiclosed conflict of interest when he wrote about Maharishi Ayurvedic woo in JAMA in the early ’90s, since many commenters played the Big Pharma Shill card.

  14. #14 qetzal
    July 31, 2009

    I too was struck by the “doctorate in homeopathic medicine.” If that means she actually wrote a doctoral thesis on homeopathy, I would LOVE to read it. I expect it would be highly entertaining. (Of coure, I’m also highly entertained by really bad sci-fi and 1950′s monster movies. Not that there’s any connection – wink, wink.)

    Via Google, I see that there were various discussions of Fitzgerald’s “doctorate” a few months ago. I missed them at the time. Did anyone ever try to contact her or make any other serious attempt to find out about her “doctorate?”

  15. #15 Wholly Father
    July 31, 2009

    “What is a doctorate in homeopathy?”

    I think the law of infinitesimals applies here. The lower the concentration of critical thinking, the better homeopath you become. When the concentration becomes undetectable, you are awarded a PhD.

  16. #16 FreeSpeaker
    July 31, 2009

    How to write a dissertation for a PhD in Homeopathy:

    1. Go to your favorite office supply store.

    2. Purchase a ream of paper.

    3. Turn in the ream of paper without opening the package.

    4. Receive PhD in Homeopathy

  17. #17 usagi
    July 31, 2009

    With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    The most succinct description of the Obama administration I’ve seen so far.

  18. #18 Marcus Ranum
    July 31, 2009

    Mildly OT: ABC takes a look at sCAM medicine and screws the pooch. Summary “gosh we spend $30 billion / year on this stuff!” but then has a ‘skeptical’ doctor that talks about ‘alternative modalities’ and ‘allopathic medicine’ FAIL
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/Story?id=8215703

  19. #19 rob
    July 31, 2009

    i found a typo in your post Orac. you wrote:

    “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

    i think you really meant to write:

    “With friends like these, who needs enemas?”

  20. #20 Warren
    July 31, 2009

    I wonder when the exact moment was that “offering diverse viewpoints” became synonymous with “spewing bullshit”.

  21. #21 Dr. P
    July 31, 2009

    JayZee- To my best recollection, IV/po ascorbate has been looked at for greater than 30 years without any encouraging well done studies demonstrating any significant benefit;If this isn’t correct and you have citations it would be helpful.

  22. #22 qetzal
    July 31, 2009

    @Freespeaker

    I think you missed a few steps:

    2a. Remove one sheet and write some gibberish on it.

    2b. Mix that sheet with 9 blank ones and shake vigorously.

    2c. Remove one sheet at random, mix with 9 more blank ones, and shake vigorously.

    Repeat 2c at least 10-20 times (more if you want to graduate with honors).

    3. Turn in the last group of 10 sheets. (Take care! If you performed step 2c fifty or more times, the wisdom and knowledge in those last ten sheets will be so concentrated it may beyond the ability of your committee to comprehend!)

  23. #23 Pablo
    July 31, 2009

    Actually, I think I saw that once, the “Homeopathy Dissertation.” It was a title page, and the rest was blank.

  24. #24 Pablo
    July 31, 2009

    JayZee – nowhere does that guy explain the connection between cancer and fungi, he only declares that tomours are fungi and then moves on

    Chris – here’s Simoncini’s approach:

    1) Look at these tumors. They have white spots
    2) Some fungi are white
    3) Ergo, tumors are fungus

    Seriously, that is the level of analysis he has done.

    Meanwhile, real pathologists who do detailed biopsies of tumors daily, fail to find any fungus in them.

    In order to believe Simoncini’s crap, you have to believe that pathologists are incapable of indentifying fungus when they see it.

    I know a few pathologists. My conclusion has always been that they are probably, as a group, the scariestly smartest people I have ever met. The baseline amount that you need to know in order to be just a passable pathologist is scary. Med school is just the beginning.

  25. #25 The Science Pundit
    July 31, 2009

    I have a homeopathic PhD! I started by doing a google image search for “PhD diploma”. After finding the right one, I downloaded it and opened it with GIMP2. I increased the brightness by 90%, saved it and closed it. Then I reopened the new file and increased the brightness by 90%, saved it and closed it. The diploma appeared to be totally blank white at iteration #6, but I felt that the homeopathic diploma still wasn’t quite strong enough to pass muster. Iteration #7 is my homeopathic doctorate for the moment. I may need to dilute it further and/or get a nice frame so I can hang it on my wall.

  26. #26 Wholly Father
    July 31, 2009

    @The Science Pundit “I increased the brightness by 90%, saved it and closed it. Then I reopened the new file and increased the brightness by 90%, saved it and closed it.”

    I hope you didn’t forget to shake your computer vigorously between dilutions.

  27. #27 T. Bruce McNeely
    July 31, 2009

    Why, thank you for the kind words, Pablo. Blush, blush.

    As a pathologist, I’d just like to add to the comments on Simonici’s word salad. We don’t just look at the surface of tumors, except when it’s a small “bite” biopsy. We don’t see fungi within tumors, not even with special stains for fungi. The tissue reaction to invasive fungi is characteristic, and different than cancer. It is a caseating granuloma reaction, like the reaction to mycobacterium tuberculosis. Fungi can be missed on routine stains (although they often can be seen). However, they are easily visible with PAS or silver stains. They would not be overlooked in a cancer biopsy.
    JayZee thinks that the fungus-cancer connection is “very interesting”.
    It’s not interesting. It’s “not even wrong”.

  28. #28 JustaTech
    July 31, 2009

    So, if tumors have white spots then they must be fungus, couldn’t they also be rabbits?

    Cancers are rabbits in your body! To cure your cancer we need only introduce a terrier into your body, that will clear up the cancer(rabbit) problem right away!

    Where do people come up with this stuff? Wonderland makes more sense!

  29. #29 Chris
    July 31, 2009

    JayZee, if you look at the left hand side of this page you will find a search box. Before you post anymore “interesting ideas” about cancer, you should try to check to see if it has been discussed here.

    Here is what I found by putting in the word “Simoncini”: A Fungus Among Us in Oncology.

    (By the way, I am a different “Chris” than the one above, but I agree with everything he/she said!)

  30. #30 Matthew Cline
    July 31, 2009

    So, if tumors have white spots then they must be fungus, couldn’t they also be rabbits?

    That rabbit’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on. It’s got a vicious streak a mile wide; it’s a killer! </obligatory-python-quote>

  31. #31 Uncle Glenny
    August 1, 2009
  32. #32 Pablo
    August 2, 2009

    T Bruce McNeely: I should mention that, while I consider pathologists to be the scariestingly smartest people I know, I also consider them seriously mentally deranged

    Come on, dude, you actually LIKE doing that stuff? You must be mental…

  33. #33 Harry
    August 5, 2009

    “Come on, dude, you actually LIKE doing that stuff? You must be mental…”- Pablo

    Awwww, I’m only 2 year away from my Pathology Residency application!

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