A misstep in castigating HuffPo’s journey into creationism

I’ve been a critic of Arianna Huffington’s massive group blog, The Huffington Post, since three weeks after it first blighted the blogosphere. That’s when I first noticed that the “health” section (such as it is) of HuffPo had already become a wretched hive of scum and anti-vaccine quackery, something I began documenting again and again and again and again and again over five years ago, before Salon.com and Rolling Stone flushed their credibility right down the crapper with Robert F. Kennedy’s infamous conspiracy mongering about thimerosal in vaccines. Indeed, I continue to document the horrific abuse of medical science that occurs on a near daily basis on HuffPo right up until now, be it applying some not-so-Respectful Insolence to spectacular bits of anti-vaccine pseudoscience written by clueless Hollywood celebrities full of the arrogance of ignorance like Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, or Bill Maher, promotion of dangerous cancer quackery, claims that homeopathy and other quackery can treat the swine flu, or the various and sundry other offenses perpetrated by HuffPo against medical science. It’s not for nothing that HuffPo has been referred to as waging a war on medical science.

Given that background, you might think I’d be happy to see a post by Alex Pareene in Salon.com castigating HuffPo. To some extent, I am. Unfortunately Pareene wasted an excellent opportunity and revealed something that’s irritated the crap out of me for quite a while. Specifically, it’s the status of medicine and, more specifically, medical quackery and how they’re viewed by too many people that I encounter. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. First, let’s take a look at Pareene’s post entitled Huffington Post publishes anti-Darwin smears from creationist think tank. I’ll start with the good.

In his post, Pareene is quite correctly lambasting a recent article by Discovery Institute flak David Klinghoffer entitled The Dark Side of Darwinism. In his HuffPo piece, Klinghoffer regurgitates a number of distortions and outright lies favored by the “intelligent design” creationism movement about Darwin, specifically the myth that “Darwinism” leads straight to Hitler; i.e., that Hitler and his followers began the Nazi eugenics program and conceived the Holocaust because they believed so fervently in Darwinism that the Nazi “biomedical” vision developed to apply evolutoinary principles to the human race. Pareene is quite correct when he characterizes this as “cancerous bullshit,” citing P.Z. Myers post deconstructing said “cancerous bullshit.” I’ve done the very same thing myself many times, once even going so far as to do a Hitler Zombie parody of this sort of religion-inspired pseudoscientific rubbish that the drones at the Discovery Institute like to produce. Bully for Alex for that.

But, why, oh, why did Alex have to ruin everything? Why, oh, why, did he have to include this passage:

But publishing the new agey holistic naturopath crystal-healing Beverly Hills quack-to-the-stars bullshit of Arianna’s good friend’s nutritionist is one (stupid, potentially dangerous) thing. Giving a platform to the anti-science creationist dingbats at The Discovery Institute is a step in a darker direction.

What’s “darker” than promoting anti-vaccine quackery that can kill children? I mean, seriously. I’m on board with evolution as much as pretty much any blogger here. True, I don’t write about it nearly as much as I used to. That’s partially because I’ve become more interested in quackery and partially because there are so many other excellent bloggers on ScienceBlogs who can do it so much better than I can. Even so, I do try from time to time to counter the creationist lie that evolution is useless when it comes to understanding medical science. This is a line of propaganda particularly favored by everyone’s not-so-favorite creationist neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor, so much so that time and time again I’ve slunk away in shame at the nonsense that a fellow surgeon lays down on a regular basis as a fellow hack for the Discovery Institute with Klinghoffer. I’ve even castigated Egnor for repeating the same “Darwin leads to Hitler” lie. But Pareene just revealed his agenda by dismissively referring to promoting life-threatening quackery as just being bad while promoting lies about Darwin leading directly to Hitler as some sort of monstrosity that goes far beyond mere medical quackery. Letting quacks peddle medical antiscience is merely “insulting,” while giving space to the promotion of creationism is “beyond the pale”:

Giving a space to quacks to sell vitamin supplements to morons is insulting enough, but actually allowing a shameless asshole like Klinghoffer to use the Holocaust to promote his right-wing crusade to teach children lies is beyond the pale. Platform or no, there’s no reason for anyone rational or even anyone with a sense of shame to continue giving Huffington free content.

Why didn’t Pareene conclude that there’s no reason for anyone rational or with a sense of shame to continue giving HuffPo free content before he saw that HuffPo had allowed a creationist to post a Hitler Zombie-worthy abuse of argumentum ad Nazi-um on HuffPo? To him, apparently, it’s all just “selling vitamin supplements to morons.” Well, I have a message for Pareene: He’s a moron himself if that’s really all he thinks it is that HuffPo is doing when it promotes medical pseudoscience. As I’ve pointed out time and time again, HuffPo does far more than that. It is one of the most persistent and influential voices promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience and the myth that vaccines cause autism. Remember, this is a blog that gives voice to many of the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement and is home to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the most misbegotten misguided “environmentalist” I’ve seen. This is a problem that has led to pockets of decreasing vaccine uptake rates, particularly in the affluent, hypereducated, cozy white middle class enclaves where HuffPo readers tend to dwell. So full of virulent, flamingly stupid antiscientific idiocy were many of HuffPo’s posts about H1N1, for example, that I truly fear what effect HuffPo could have had if we hadn’t been so fortunate and the H1N1 pandemic had been much worse.

To me, that‘s some real evil.

I find Pareene’s attitude particularly puzzling given that he spents a significant chunk of his post pointing out how he’s castigated HuffPo for its promotion of quackery and pseudoscience. It almost sounded as though he realized that this sort of pseudoscience is one where there is a direct and immmediate effect on people. In fact, people die. People waste their life’s savings chasing fairy dust and then dying anyway. Worse, some forms of quackery don’t just affect those who indulge in them. Anti-vaccine quackery, for instance, endangers even vaccinated children by eroding herd immunity. We could easily see the resurgence of deadly vaccine-preventable diseases again, thanks to the efforts of HuffPo and its ideologically like-minded fellow travelers, such as Generation Rescue.

Let’s put it this way. What is the consequence if Klinghoffer convinced some people that Darwin’s theory was a straight path to Hitler? Yes, it would be bad for science education, particularly if the Discovery Institute managed to persuade a lot of state boards of education that this sort of view should be taught in the classroom, somehow magically overcoming court challenges that would demonstrate ID to be a religious viewpoint? It would be bad for science education, that’s for sure. It might even erode the already pathetic knowledge of evolution as theoretical foundation underpinning all biology. Years from now, when the children who were victimized by a crappy education in biology and science reach adulthood and enter the workforce, we’ll have a bigger problem than we do now.

Now what would happen if the woo-meisters promoting quackery and anti-vaccine pseudoscience on HuffPo had their way? We’d see increases in the number of children suffering from vaccine-preventable infectious disease. Oh, wait. We’ve already seen that in the U.K. We’d see more deaths, suffering, and brain damage. We’d see more quacks peddling their wares and more people dying of diseases that they don’t necessarily have to die from. We’d see laws protecting and even licensing pseudoscience beyond what we have now licensing acupuncturists and chiropractors. Naturopathy and homeopathy would come to be seen as coequal with scientific medicine. We’d see brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes. The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Ooops. I got a little carried away in the opposite direction that Pareene did. It’s easy to do.

Look, I understand that various skeptics and supporters of science have different areas of interest and different agendas. I get it. I even pointed that out just yesterday when I made my mea culpa for not having seen the danger in corporate blogs infiltrating my home here at ScienceBlogs. We all have or blindsides. Unfortunately, as someone who’s a physician and who’s chosen medical quackery as the primary type of antiscience against which he’s making his stand, I’m continually annoyed by attitudes such as what I see in Alex Pareene’s post. That attitude is one of dismissal of quackery and anti-vaccine pseudoscience as somehow being not as important as the Big Problems like anti-evolution sentiment or belief in irrational paranormal or religion. Tut tut, the attitude seems to be, to each his own, and if some idiot wants to buy a bunch of supplements from some quack writing for HuffPo, that’s his business. Maybe so, but the existence of the quack promoting medical antiscience on HuffPo is a problem not just for promoters of science-based medicine like me.

I once got into a fairly epic “discussion” (well, argument, actually, but a friendly one) with some fellow supporters of science-based medicine about whether we should emphasize the depredations and abuses of science that come from pharma. My argument was that we should; their argument was that the anti-science inherent in quackery is a different beast that is corrupting medical science itself. I was reminded of a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, The Great Escape, in which Roger Bartlett (“Big X”) is being warned of escaping, namely that the prisoners would all be turned over to the SS if they tried their mass escape and failed. Bartlett replies.

Look, sir, you talk about the high command of the Luftwaffe, then the SS and the Gestapo. To me they’re the same. We’re fighting the bloody lot. There’s only one way to put it, sir. They are the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom.

Creationists, quacks, science denialists of all stripes, to me they are more or less the same. They’re the common enemies of everyone who supports science. True, different forms of antiscience do have different consequences. Some are arguably relatively harmless while some, like quackery, are very harmful indeed. Even so, I find it hard to believe someone who says he supports science and opposes pseudoscience when he views the quackery and medical pseudoscience on HuffPo as merely “insulting enough” but views creationism as “darker” and downright evil. I don’t distinguish on that basis, and neither should you.