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.
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?