It’s no secret that I’ve been highly critical of The Huffington Post, at least of its approach to science and medicine. In fact, it was a mere three weeks after Arianna Huffington launched her blog back in 2005 that I noticed something very distressing about it, namely that it had recruited someone who would later become and “old friend” (and punching bag) of the blog, Dr. Jay Gordon, as well as the mercury militia stalwart David Kirby, among others. As a result, antivaccination lunacy was running rampant on HuffPo, even in its infancy. Many, many, many more examples followed very quickly. More followed, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and even Jenny McCarthy joining the stable of HuffPo antivaccine bloggers. Indeed, the antivaccine slant at HuffPo has been so pronounced for so long that it’s irredeemable, as far as I’m concerned.
Nor are antivaccine screeds the only pseudoscience promoted by that wretched hive of scum and quackery. If you have any doubt that HuffPo is soundly dedicated to only the rankest forms of pseudoscience, I give you two words: Deepak Chopra, who’s regularly laid down his “quantum” quackery for nearly as long as antivaccine pseudoscience has reigned supreme at HuffPo. Still not enough? How about the amount of attention to that quackiest of quackery, homeopathy, in the form of Dana Ullman. Heck, just last week a homeopath named Judith Acosta completed a two-part “personal case for homeopathy.” (Part one is here.) None of this even includes other woo-meisters, such as Robert Lanza, whose quantum woo is even more embarrassing–if such a thing were possible–than Deepak Chopra’s quantum woo, Dr. Nalini Chilkov’s promotion of a breast cancer testimonial in which a woman named Hollie Quinn eschewed adjuvant therapy for quackery after surgery for breast cancer, or Dr. Christiane Northrup’s promotion of thermography, an unproven technique, for breast cancer screening. It was for that and many other reasons that HuffPo’s medical posts have been characterized as a war on medical science and I scoffed contemptuously at the idea of a science section for HuffPo and HuffPost Health as “soon to be a one-stop shop for quackery.” My reaction was similar to the concept of a science section for HuffPo, a concept that I characterized as a pseudoscience section.
I guess it’s now time to see if I was right or not.
The reason is this e-mail, which I received yesterday, apparently because I’m a registered commenter over at HuffPo. The e-mail announces:
I’m delighted to announce the launch of our newest section, HuffPost Science, a one-stop shop for the latest scientific news and opinion. From the farthest reaches of space to the tiniest cells inside our bodies, HuffPost Science will report on the world’s greatest mysteries, most cutting-edge discoveries, and most thought-provoking ideas.
The initial part of the announcement looks pretty generic and unobjectionable, but then there are these two passages:
I’m particularly looking forward to HuffPost Science’s coverage of one of my longtime passions: the intersection of science and religion, two fields often seen as contradictory — or at least presented that way by those waging The War on Science. A key part of HuffPost Science’s mission will be to cut through the divisions that have resulted from that false war.
Rather than taking up arms in those misguided, outdated battles, HuffPost Science will work in the tradition of inquisitive minds that can accommodate both logic and mystery. It’s a tradition exemplified by Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, who, when I visited with him last year, told me that he sees Darwin not as an obstacle to faith but as “the key to understanding our relationship with God.”
That sure sounds to me like an opening for quantum woo of the kind favored by Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through. Quantumly, of course.
The advent of a HuffPo Science Section, of course, begs the question of whether HuffPo is no longer a denialist site, as Mark Hoofnagle asked. My perspective with respect to that question is that even if HuffPo Science features only the hardest of the hard science, the most scientifically rigorous blog posts, it doesn’t matter. HuffPo is still a denialist site, through and through. Here’s the reason. Let’s take a look at what happened when HuffPo introduced HuffPo Health. The content there is not obviously quacky on the surface, and there are even regularly some halfway decent health articles there from time to time. There are also articles with titles like Five Foods That Kick Your Metabolism Into Overdrive Naturally, which features gems like claims that apple cider vinegar increases your body’s metabolic rate “allowing you to burn calories more efficiently,” that drinking high quality cold water can “help to flush toxins and fat from the cells in your body, which in turn will help you lose weight,” and that cayenne pepper can help to “clean fat out of the arteries.” If that’s not enough there are articles like this one, which touts supplements slow aging, prevent Alzheimer’s disease,
I rather suspect that that’s just like what the HuffPo Science Section will be.
Not everyone agrees with me. Or perhaps not everyone is as cynical about HuffPo as I’ve become over the last six and a half years. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, for instance, is ready to let antivaccine bygones be bygones and give HuffPo Science a chance, asking Has the Huffington Post embraced science & closed the door on anti-vaccine quackery? This, even though Mnookin acknowledges:
For whatever reason, HuffPo seemed to have a particular bee in its bonnet about vaccines and autism: If you made a list of the most irresponsible, misinformed people on the topic, it was a safe bet the majority of them had been given space for their rantings on the site. David Kirby? Check. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? Check. Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jay Gordon, and Kim Stagliano? Check, check, check, and check. There were days when the site’s main prerequisites for getting published seemed to be either a hatred of Republicans or a love of pseudoscientific quackery.
Mnookin’s first foray into posting for the HuffPo Science section is a post entitled The Autism Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism. It’s a perfectly fine piece discussing the damage that antivaccine pseudoscience can do and how journalists’ fetishizing “balance,” even when it’s false balance, contributes to the problem. Not surprisingly, given HuffPo’s readership, the comments are crawling with antivaccinationists, including Anne Dachel, Media Editor for the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, flooding the comments with her usual cut ‘n’ paste jobs. True, the more recent comments are less dominated by antivaccine loons, but there’s still a lot of nonsense there, and it’s hard to combat. One also can’t help but wonder why Mnookin was invited to join the science section, rather than the medicine section, which is where he’d be more appropriate.
Dont’ get me wrong. I’m not being critical of bloggers who accepted Freeman’s offer to blog for the HuffPo Science. I understand the temptation. It’s flattering to be asked to join a large and famous blog network as a way of trying to repair its reputation for pseudoscience. It’s easy to think that you might be part of something bigger than yourself, that you can do some good by helping to move a blog like HuffPo away from its current orientation towards pseudoscience and quackery. Who knows? Maybe you will. However, I would ask the scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit before joining up (or even after having joined up). The quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine propaganda. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just (mostly) not the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to keep things science-based in the beginning, but it’s infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture. The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on HuffPo. It’s still there, though, and it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.
That’s why my advice to bloggers (and readers) would be to wait before concluding that HuffPo has changed its ways. Make its editors prove it. For example, as long as RFK, Jr., homoepaths like Judith Acosta or Dana Ullman, antivaccinationists like Kim Stagliano and other refugees from Age of Autism, Deepak Chopra, and Robert Lanza are still blogging for HuffPo, you don’t want to be associated with it. If HuffPo were really serious about cleaning up its act with respect to science, it would clean house and get rid of all the quacks and pseudoscience boosters before undertaking a medicine or science section. At the very least, it would start the process, and there would be evidence that the level of promotion of quackery and pseudoscience were decreasing. It didn’t, there isn’t, and I suspect that’s because HuffPo wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to keep pleasing Arianna with a heapin’ helpin’ of quackery but segregate the “real” science in the science section as a means of “damage control” for its image, which has been hurt by its enthusiastic embrace of quackery and pseudoscience. The problem, of course, is that there is no firewall between the science section and the rest of HuffPo, just as there is no firewall between the medical section and the rest of HuffPo. As the example of HuffPo’s medical section has shown, the woo bleeds through, at least the “softer” woo, like supplements and acupuncture, does. I fully expect that the same thing will happen in the science section under the guise of “exploring the interface between science and religion,” which no less a person than Arianna Huffington herself has declared as a major focus of this newborn science section.
It’s up to HuffPo’s editors to prove me wrong, at least if they want to be taken seriously.