Careful, I might actually start to think that someone out there takes me seriously

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.]