The Chicago Tribune’s Julie Deardorff and the mercury militia: Do newspapers have a responsibility for policing their blogs?

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.”