A science section for the Huffington Post? More like a pseudoscience section! (2010 edition)

Funny how everything old is new again, isn’t it?

Yes, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over nearly six years of blogging, it’s that, sooner or later, everything is recycled, and I do mean everything. At least, that was the thought going through my mind when I came across PZ’s discussion of a clueless wonder who appears to be advocating a science section in that cesspit of anti-vaccine quackery and quantum woo, The Huffington Post, whose proclivities for pseudoscience have led its activities to be characterized as a war on medical science. It’s actually more than just a war on medical science, though. It’s a war on all science, as posts by Deepak Chopra and a recent pro-“intelligent design” creationism post claiming that Darwin led inexorably to Hitler’s genocide demonstrated. If there were any conclusive evidence that HuffPo is all about all kinds of pseudoscience, I was hard-pressed to think of what it could be.

It’s déjà vu all over again, as the saying goes, given that a proposal that HuffPo develop a science section was floated to the science blogosphere nearly two and a half years ago, to the hysterical guffaws of the assembled bloggerati, guffaws that turned to gasps of dismay when science bloggers realized that this was actually a serious proposal. Fortunately, the proposal appeared to have gone nowhere, although unfortunately not entirely so given how much HuffPo seems to have expanded its medical writings into realms of quackery hitherto unplumbed outside of NaturalNews.com, Mercola.com, and Whale.to.

So here we are, nearly two and a half years after the previous time that someone advocated a science section for HuffPo, to the ridicule of serious science and medical bloggers everywhere, and the same idea rises from the grave again, like one of those zombies in The Return of the Living Dead who claw their way out of the ground as the rain picks up the 245-Trioxin in the crematorium smoke and saturates the graveyard with it. This time around, the person advocating the formation of a science section at HuffPo is someone named J.L. Vernon, who wrote a post entitled Ongoing debate about the establishment of a “Science” section on the Huffington Post “News” website. He starts out with what sounds like an admirable set of goals:

My pet project of late involves a personal campaign to establish a “real science” section on HuffPo. I have several reasons for pursuing this campaign:

  1. To introduce the concept of “junk science” to HuffPo readers via Twitter and this blog (in case they aren’t aware that most of the content purported to be science on the website, isn’t).
  2. To highlight specific examples of “bad science” that currently are pervasive on the website.
  3. To motivate scientists and science communicators to use the HuffPo phenomenon as a teaching moment for all science lovers.
  4. To perhaps influence HuffPo to consider the damaging effects of their current content.
  5. To encourage HuffPo to actually establish a “Science” section on the website.

First off, I think Dr. Vernon needs to choose a different term than “junk science,” given that that term is hopelessly tarnished by its use by and association with denialist campaigns. That’s a minor quibble, however. It would be very enjoyable to watch some HuffPo bloggers actually try to highlight specific examples of support of pseudoscience in HuffPo blogs, but there are simply too many examples to make this a practical and achievable task. The reason, as I pointed out a mere three weeks after the very launch of HuffPo, is that anti-vaccine pseudoscience is in HuffPo’s very DNA. It was there at the beginning, and, over time, the varieties of pseudoscience, quackery, and woo have only expanded exponentionally, starting with Deepak Chopra and proceeding to a veritable All Star Team of Woo, including homeopaths, cancer quacks, and Chopra–oh my!

Oh, and H1N1 quackery, too.

Besides, if having the entire science and medical blogosphere frequently post examples of the quackery and pseudoscience promoted by HuffPo bloggers and mock them relentlessly over the course of the five years of HuffPo’s existence has failed to shame Arianna Huffington and HuffPo’s editors into dialing down the woo, what on earth makes Vernon think that having that criticism come from actual HuffPo bloggers would make one iota of difference at all? Seriously. Such thinking can only be described as being as magical as the thinking behind homepathy or reiki. Or maybe it’s a case of The Secret, in which wishing for good things brings them inevitably to you.

Vernon then builds up a Mt. Everest-sized straw man about the arguments made against having a science section in the HuffPo and proceeds to apply napalm liberally to it:

Now, the opponents of my little campaign include upstart bloggers and well-established science writers. Some have directly challenged the wisdom of my pursuit while others have passively expressed their opposition to the idea of partnering with HuffPo, whom they consider to be an “enemy” of science. The most resounding message emerging from the opposition is the idea that having “real science” share a platform with “bad science” will ultimately tarnish the reputation of the legitimate scientists and science communicators who choose to participate. This is essentially the same argument Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and others take when refusing to debate creationists. The concept here being that by sharing the stage with creationists, scientists lend credibility to the creationist arguments. In some ways, I think this is a cowardly response. If you have a sound argument, the opposition should not win the debate.

Didn’t anyone tell Vernon that straw men that large have a tendency to collapse due to their own weight long before the flames of burning stupid can set them alight? First, that is not quite the argument that is used by Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and others (including myself) for not promoting a science section in HuffPo. It’s the argument used for not getting on a stage with a creationist or other pseudoscientist and, you know, literally debating them, not the argument for why it’s a bad idea to have a science section in the HuffPo. In the case of a live debate, having a creationist appear on stage with a real scientist does give undue credence to his views, because his points appear to be equal to those of the scientist.

More importantly, for a debate to be an intellectually useful exercise, there should be two reasonable points of view being argued, points of view that have a sufficient amount of evidence to support them that it is not unreasonable to hold either view being debated. The evidence doesn’t have to be of equal quantity and quality on each side, of course, but it should at least be somewhere in the same ball park — or on the same planet. This isn’t a rule that is limited to just Holocaust deniers, either. Vaccine denialists (a.k.a. anti-vaxers), evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), scientific medicine denialists (a.k.a. alt-med mavens), HIV/AIDS denialists, or 9/11 Truthers, they all fall into this category. All of them desperately crave respectability. As much as they disparage mainstream thought in the disciplines that they attack, be it medicine, vaccines, history, or current events, they desperately crave to be taken seriously by the relevant disciplines. Being seen in the same venue, on the same stage, or on the same media outlet with relevant experts as an apparent equal gives them just what they want. Switching to another example of cranks, Holocaust historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt has stated clearly that she does not debate Holocaust deniers and used the most apt simile I’ve seen about debating pseudohistorians that could apply equally to pseudoscientists, “Debating a denier is like trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall.” Some of the bloggers (Deepak Chopra, anyone?) are really good at being the jelly that you can’t nail to the wall with science.

No, the reasons that Vernon’s proposal won’t work only partially have to do with giving undue credence to pseudoscientists by appearing on the same blog with them or because reputable science bloggers would have their reputation sullied by appearing with pseudoscientists on HuffPo, although both are not unreasonable concerns. Rather, the reason Vernon’s proposal won’t work is simple: Arianna Huffington. Does he honestly believe that anything major happens on HuffPo without Arianna’s approval? Moreover, for such an endeavor to have even the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of actually working, even Vernon realizes that there have to be some ground rules, rules that HuffPo has already shown it won’t abide by. HuffPo censors comments and even edits posts that are too critical of the pseudoscience that resides there. Again, it’s embedded in the culture of the organization. For any change to occur, you’d have to get some serious buy-in from Arianna herself, along with a sea change in the editorial staff who oversee the bloggers and censor moderate the comments. When Vernon writes things like this in a previous post, it’s clear he’s not living on the same planet I am:

If HuffPo were to create a “Science” section, I would hope that they would follow one simple rule. The content must meet the rigors of the peer review process. The pseudoscience blogged by Jenny McCarthy and Deepak Chopra should not see the light of day on the Science section.

First off, Jenny McCarthy, much to my surprise, has only ever written three posts for HuffPo, the first of which was a brain-meltingly awful defense of Andrew Wakefield; amazingly, it took until 2010 for her to show up as a HuffPo blogger, although her ex-boyfriend Jim Carrey beat her to it with his Fire Marshall Bill discusses vaccines post. As I’ve speculated before, maybe she’s so bad that even HuffPo can’t fix what’s wrong with her writing. That’s exactly the problem at HuffPo. As PZ alluded to, in the HuffPo universe, Deepak Chopra, homeopaths, Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Jay Gordon, Robert Lanza are the “scientists.” Even if Vernon got his way and managed to produce a perfect little world of science blogging about only peer-reviewed studies in the HuffPo blog universe, how long would it be before Chopra or Bill Maher asked their good friend Arianna if they could have a blogging spot in the new science section? Or before Dr. Mark Hyman, purveyor of “functional medicine” asked to write about the latest “scientific discoveries” in medicine?

Not long at all, and thus endeth the science section.

If you don’t believe me, check out Vernon’s first post in which he advocates for a science section at HuffPo. He described an event at which Arianna Huffington was speaking and where he had the opportunity to ask her a question after her talk. Seizing the opportunity, Vernon quite reasonably and admirably asked Huffington why HuffPo promotes anti-vaccine pseudoscience and the claims that vaccines cause autism. What do you think Arianna Huffington’s response to his polite but challenging question was? It was that the science behind vaccines and autism was “unsettled,” and the reception Vernon received for asking that question was not entirely welcoming:

My question, however, was received with cheers from the audience and her answer with boos and hisses. I pressed on. I inquired about the likelihood of the HuffPost creating a science section for readers like me. Her response, I paraphrase, “We have plans for a travel section first. Then we’ll look into a science section.” Again, ewwws and boos from the audience. What could I say? She put it all out there in no uncertain terms. Science is not a priority for the HuffPost.

So, Arianna Huffington basically told Vernon publicly and point blank that science is not a priority at HuffPo (tell me something I don’t know!); yet in his fantasies he wishes to persist. He even wishes to persist after Arianna pointedly (and almost literally) gave him the cold shoulder, ignoring him completely later at the reception, even though he was standing right next to her. Does a message get any more obvious than that? Arianna supports the anti-vaccine quackery, the New Age woo, and the various flavors of “alt-med” nonsense, each more ridiculous than the last. She even showed it in no uncertain terms through her hostility towards someone who had the temerity to ask her about her blog’s support for quackery and pseudoscience in public. I don’t know about Vernon, but Arianna Huffington’s behavior is pretty darned strong evidence that she is not about to reconsider her position any time soon. In fact, Vernon reminds me a bit of the stalker who won’t take no for an answer and starts hanging out outside the house of the object of his affection, monitoring her comings and goings, and looking for every opportunity to press his case to her.

Vernon also has the gall to bring up the recent kerfuffle over the Pepsi blog that recently engulfed ScienceBlogs:

The recent soap opera that transpired at scienceblogs.com is a prime example of scientists failing to see the potential opportunity in holding steady in the face of confrontation. Despite many years of frank language about the importance of scientists communicating effectively, some of the greatest internet science communicators tucked and ran out the back door when Pepsi landed a spot in their neck of the woods. For me, it was a sad defeat for science. The scientists owned the playing field. The “enemy” entered their territory and rather than rallying together to insist that the “enemy” change its ways or exit the field, the scientists took their ball and went home. This epitomizes the elitist mentality that these bloggers and writers rail against when talking about science communication. What a missed opportunity to bring Pepsi to the table and hold them accountable for their bad science! Who knows? Maybe this community could have identified some good science behind that “evil” Pepsi Logo or, even better, they could have pressured Pepsi to correct some of their “bad science” ways. Instead, like a World Cup Futbol chump, the scientists pulled a poorly executed flop hoping to draw a yellow card on their opponent. Pepsi, on the other hand, simply went back to their corporate jet and headed back home, uniform untarnished.

Talk about clueless. Vernon obviously hasn’t been paying attention. ScienceBloggers didn’t object to the Pepsi blog “entered their field.” ScienceBloggers objected because management started the blog with no communication with them, didn’t involve us in the decision-making process or even let us know about the blog before it went live. Worse, given that the Pepsi blog blurred the line between advertising and our content, many of us decided that, after factoring in all the other indignities and examples of not communicating with its own bloggers about such issues, they could no longer be associated with ScienceBlogs. (I’m still not sure whether I should remain associated with it.) In other words, the whole “Pepsigate” affair was about far more than merely the presence of the Pepsi blog, as a post by Vernon’s apparent hero in the matter and choice to be the organizer of this fantastical new HuffPo science section, Bora Zikovic explains.

Sadly, Vernon is very confused, and his motivation seems to be far more about page counts and eyes reading web pages than it is about promoting science to the masses. For example, in his earlier post, he opined:

In February 2010, the Huffington Post was averaging more than 40 million unique visitors each month. Arianna credits the growth to the website’s creation of subcategories for its content. For example, HuffPo’s technology and sports sections didn’t exist last summer, and now they account for 10 percent of the traffic. Comedy, Style and Entertainment sections have all grown in recent months. To date, despite the creation of a “Religion” section, there is no “Science” section.

Why do I care? Because I can’t think of a single science website that receives this kind of traffic. Where else can “Science” fall in the direct path of 40 million web surfers each month? No where!

In other words, to him it’s all about the eyeballs, and Vernon is willing to do practically anything to deliver them to science, including getting in bed with the devil, metaphorically speaking. In his current post, he builds on this idea:

Once the “real science” section has been created, I have few concerns that the section will receive traffic. Further, I have confidence that science will not lose face, assuming HuffPo follows some basic rules (see below). Why do I have such confidence? Because I see science side-by-side with unsavory content everyday on the internet and television and in magazines and newspapers. For example, while watching local news, there might be a story about Lindsay Lohan going to prison followed by a story describing the most recent archeological discovery. Most often, the news anchor leads the science story with “Scientists have discovered…” In these circumstances, I give the public enough credit to distinguish the science news from entertainment news. Not to mention that every major broadcasting channel carries reality TV, daytime programming, infomercials, talk shows, news and, occasionally a science show (if you consider Jack Hanna to be science). The public knows the difference between the different types of programming. I also believe the public is smart enough to know that the falsified articles by NYT’s Jayson Blair do not impact the science writers of the NYT Science News. People do have the ability to compartmentalize, therefore I know the public will be able to recognize when they click on the “science” section tab, they are getting different programming from the “comedy” section.

I like the Jayson Blair example as evidence of Vernon’s blind spot in this issue. For one thing, it’s not about the science itself, it’s about the credibility of the source reporting on the science. If Jayson Blair were a science reporter and had pulled his fraud in his reporting of science, then, yes, his falsifications would indeed have impacted the NYT reputation for science reporting. I will give him credit for awesome framing, though. He frames the debate over whether HuffPo should have a science section as being the idealists (him) versus the naysayers (apparently those of us who think his idea has no chance of success and demonstrates breathtaking naïveté). Personally, I’d frame it as realists and scientists (us) versus fantasists in denial that elements of the left wing can be just as deeply anti-science as the right wing.

More interesting, is daytime TV really the sort of model that Vernon wants to apply to how science blogging would fit in at HuffPo? Really? Think about it. What sort of science content do you see on daytime TV? In terms of medical science, you see The Doctors “telling both sides” of the vaccine-autism manufactroversy and Dr. Oz’s show promoting the joys of reiki. You see Oprah Winfrey giving a platform to Jenny McCarthy and a whole host of woo-meisters, including Suzanne Somers and Christiane Northrup. On local news, you see stuff like stories on orbs. That’s all mixed in with fluff stories about celebrities, hard news, inanely happy chat shows, and all manner of other mindless drivel. Worse, given the blurring of the line between science news and entertainment news perpetrated by these sorts of shows and news outlets, I do not share Vernon’s faith in the ability of the American public to distinguish between real science news and entertainment news. After all, there seem to be large numbers of people who can’t tell that what HuffPo serves up in terms of science isn’t science but rather pure pseudoscience.

In fact, I’m not particularly sure that Vernon himself is able to recognize good science. On his blog, he posted a video called The Story of Cosmetics:

As you may recall, I had quite a bit to say about a video very similar to the video above by supporter of all things quackery, Dr. Joe Mercola. The particular video that Vernon posted happens to be very much beloved of that other supporter of all things quackery, Mike Adams. The video itself is a perfect example of misunderstanding the entire principle of “the dose makes the poison” and raises fear of chemicals to ridiculous levels, describing her bathroom as a “minefield of toxins,” complete with an image of a baby in a bathtub with a skull and crossbones placed over him and another image of men with money signs on their chests wearing top hats pouring poison into the baby’s bathtub. About the only thing in the video that isn’t completely over the top is the part about hair straighteners, and even that skirts the limits of believability. Of note, the narrator claims that she had herself “tested for toxicity” and found herself to be “loaded with“–not just having been exposed to, but loaded with–mercury, lead, and other horrible toxic chemicals. One can only wonder if she used Doctors Data to test herself. This is exactly the same sort of exaggerated fearmongering that would be right at home in HuffPo.

Oh, wait. It is at home on HuffPo. Annie Leonard, the woman who narrated the video, blogs for HuffPo and posted the video on her HuffPo blog. It would appear that Vernon is far more in tune with the sorts of dreck that is regularly posted on HuffPo as “medicine” and “science” than he would care to admit if he thinks that this video is an accurate representation of the science of the health risks and “toxin” content of cosmetic products and shampoos.

I think I’m starting to understand why Vernon appears so misguided in his quest to get a science section started in the pseudoscience-infused ocean of woo that is The Huffington Post. I also find it rather depressing that he would say simply repeat variation on his theme in his followup post. Particularly tiresome is his repetition that scientists are being somehow childish by concluding that HuffPo is beyond redemption and not wanting to have the stench of its pseudoscience attach itself to them. One wonders if, because Vernon himself is a self-described liberal who adheres to the same sorts of political beliefs represented by HuffPo, he is simply in denial that HuffPo, that bastion of “progressive” political commentary, is so bad in its support of quackery, New Age woo, and pseudoscience that it can’t be salvaged. After all, it’s supposed to be the Republicans who are waging a “war on science,” not liberals and progressives, but such a view of one’s superiority when it comes to science becomes difficult to maintain when a bastion of “progressive” politics like HuffPo is waging its own ideology-based war on medical science.

If Vernon wants to dive into the cesspool of pseudoscience that is HuffPo and try to change it, all I can say to him is: Good luck. He’ll really need it. I also say to Vernon: Stop blaming science writers, science bloggers, and scientists for not wanting to associate themselves with pseudoscience on HuffPo. I don’t want to associate myself with it, and I can’t blame other scientists who don’t want to associate themselves with it. Besides, the real way to produce a science section for HuffPo with any credibility whatsoever is to purge the pseudoscience first. Do that, and then credible science writers might be willing to consider joining up. Don’t do it, and they won’t. It’s that simple. As Vernon himself demonstrates in his first post on this topic, the anti-science comes from the very top, and it’s the very top that needs to prove it’s changed by acting to clean up HuffPo.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

It’s been two years since the last time someone proposed a science section for HuffPo. Nothing’s happened. My prediction is that the results of Vernon’s efforts will be exactly the same, and in 2012, besides the end of the world hapenning, someone new will try to get a science started in HuffPo. My only fear is that, if that someone succeeds, 2012 may indeed be the end of time.