Combatting antiscience denialism and quackery

I spent a nice long weekend in New York at NECSS, which has grown to quite the big skeptical conference since the last time I was there five years ago. The Friday Science-Based Medicine session went quite well and, as far as I could tell, appeared to be well-received; so hopefully we will be doing something like it again next year. And, heck, I got to meet Bill Nye. How cool is that?

One topic that came up over and over at NECSS had to do with what is the best way to communicate science and, in particular, contrast it to the unfortunately all-too-common denialist antiscience doctrines of the day, such as denial of anthropogenic global climate change, vaccine safety and efficacy, and evolution. It’s not an easy task, because antiscience and pseudoscience of theses sorts are ubiquitous. Some of them, such as climate change denial, are promoted through popular media outlets by powerful people and organizations. Others, like antivaccine pseudoscience, tend not to be promoted so much through the media, but the media has been guilty of facilitating its spread through one its most annoying tendencies, to apply the concept of “balance” to scientific stories, turning it into false balance. While telling both sides is usually a good thing when it comes to the majority of stories, in particular political stories, covered by the media, in science there are actually right and wrong answers. Representing “both sides” of a manufactroversy in which pseudoscience is being pitted against science gives pseudoscience the appearance of being an equally valid viewpoint to the scientific consensus when it is not. It’s something I’ve complained about many times right on this very blog.

That’s why an article by Julia Belluz over at caught my interest yesterday. Entitled How should journalists cover quacks like Dr. Oz or the Food Babe? the article presents the viewpoints of several science communicators about how the media should cover such cranks. My first thought upon reading it was gratitude that I’m a blogger. I can basically write about what I want when I want and how I want. I have no editor watching over me; I don’t have to pitch ideas to anyone; and I don’t have people telling me what to cover. Of course, on the other hand, as a result I’ll always be considered “second tier,” always at least somewhat (and often a lot more than somewhat) less than legitimate when compared to the “real” press.

Belluz’s description of her first encounter with Vani Hari’s (a.k.a. The Food Babe’s) ignorance rather mirrors mine, except that it happened later (I think) than mine because it started when she received a review copy of Hari’s book, which was released a couple of months ago. Here was her reaction:

Everything about this reeked of pseudoscience: the suggestion that people can reinvent their bodies with quick fixes. The notion that we’re being attacked by chemicals and in need of a thorough detox. I didn’t want to dedicate any reporting energy to addressing Hari’s nonsense.

A couple months later, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Profiles of the Food Babe were turning up in the New York Times and the Atlantic. Her audience now numbered in the millions, and her mostly insane tirades against the toxins in our environment seemed to be catching on. Some were even calling her the next Dr. Oz.

The Food Babe was now impossible to ignore, so I wrote a quick item highlighting some of the reasons scientists think she’s completely off-base. It’s a tactic I’ve used a lot in reporting on people like Hari. Highlight the gap between what a misinformed celebrity says and what the science says. Point out how they’re hoodwinking the public, when necessary. Advocate for science and rational thinking.
But even then, I wasn’t sure if that was the right way to deal with Hari. Perhaps I should have dedicated many more reporting hours to debunking her ideas. Or perhaps I should have continued to ignore her altogether. Maybe drawing any attention to Hari would help popularize her message — making me complicit in spreading misinformation.

Belluz makes the point that the media need to get better at dealing with pseudoscience, and wonders:

The debate over how to handle peddlers of pseudoscience comes up again and again in the newsroom. With every Food Babe, Dr. Oz, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy, we mull some combination of the following: Do they deserve to be addressed? Should we seriously engage their ideas? And if we cover them, what’s the best way to do so: mockery? Earnest debunking?

My answer to these questions would be a simple: Yes. Of course, the devil is in the details; i.e., knowing how to match the tactic to the crank and the situation. If it were easy, every scientist or science advocate could do it. Belluz points out that everyone she contacted agreed that it probably isn’t worth it to engage cranks before they break through to the mainstream. The rationale seems to be that because such cranks thrive on attention.

I would tend to agree—if you are a journalist for a mainstream news outlet. However, ignoring such seeming “low level”—or perhaps “sub-mainstream” would be a better way to put it—cranks leads to a terrible problem. That “sub-mainstream” crankery can be very, very influential even if it never reaches the mainstream, like the messages of Dr. Mehmet Oz, The Food Babe, or Jenny McCarthy have done. Think, for example, Mike Adams, a.k.a. The Health Ranger, and his website,, which reaches as many people as a lot of the mainstream media outlets. His articles espousing quackery and attacking science percolate through social media to wide audiences. The same is true, for instance, of Joe Mercola. If their quackery and pseudoscience are never addressed by the mainstream media, there it remains on the web for people doing Google searches to discover, high on the list of their search results and unopposed.

That’s where I—and skeptical bloggers—come in. Yes, we know that there is the risk of giving cranks more attention, but consider an example. Several months ago, our old buddy, one of those whose crankery has gone mainstream, the ever-annoying, reiki-loving, quackery-spouting Dr. Mehmet Oz, did a segment in which he gave considerable credence to the idea that cell phone radiation can cause cancer, featuring a young woman who happened to carry her cell phone in her bra a lot and later developed breast cancer on the same side. Her mother was convinced that the cell phone had caused it, and Dr. Oz managed to find a breast surgeon who believed in the same crankery, publishing a rather crappy case series of four to make his point. Now, if you search for “Mehmet Oz cell phone cancer” on Google, what you will find on the first page is a link to Oz’s original segment and a whole lot of links to stories basically presenting the story without one whit of skepticism. You will find only two skeptical links. First, you will find my deconstruction of this story, entitled Fear mongering over cell phones and cancer by Dr. Oz. Second, you will find a link to a different version of the same post that was published on my not-so-super-secret other blog. And that’s it!

That. Is. It. (Well, other than a Google Plus link to one of my posts.)

That’s not the only issue where this has happened, either, be it posts by other skeptical bloggers or myself. Now, granted, to achieve this, you have to achieve a certain level of traffic and Google juice, but that’s what I’ve achieved in ten years, and I’m not alone. We can do this because we are not mainstream media.

But back to the mainstream media, and I do like the various principles Belluz lays down:

  1. Don’t just go after cranks — hold their enablers accountable.
  2. Be clear on where the balance of scientific evidence lies.
  3. Beware of turning cranks into martyrs.
  4. Don’t overstate the influence of cranks.
  5. Critical coverage is important — but avoid creating controversy for its own sake.

In particular, I agree whole-heartedly with #1. A great example was Oprah Winfrey. After all, she created Dr. Oz, bringing him in as her regular go-to doctor and ultimately launching him on his own show. She shilled for the faith healing quack John of God. She promoted the New Age woo known as The Secret, which influenced at least one woman with breast cancer to eschew effective treatment in favor of wishful thinking. She paid with her life. Then there’s America’s quack Dr. Oz, who has, over the course of his show, featured an amazing panoply of quacks, including homeopaths, Joe Mercola, faith healers, and even psychic scammers John Edward and Theresa Caputo. The list goes on.

I also can’t argue with #2. It’s the sort of thing I’ve said time and time and time again: No false balance. Sometimes, even presenting a crank or a quack in the same segment as a real doctor or scientist, gives the impression that that crankery or quackery is somewhere near the same level as the real science. That’s bad, and I really wish journalists would knock it off.

I’m less concerned about #3, because I don’t quite buy the argument used to justify it:

A similar dynamic occurred with Andrew Wakefield, the fraudulent physician who popularized the autism-vaccine link. He fabricated his research — research that was retracted, research that is blamed for stoking vaccine fears and bringing back preventable diseases. But all along, he has insisted he’s the victim of a witch hunt and PR campaign, and some vaccine deniers see him as a sacrificial lamb. “The more press coverage, the more scrutiny, the more you end up with these martyrs and with people saying, Everyone is against us,'” Oransky said.

The other difficulty is that these martyrs often wade into areas that relate to our very deepest fears and desires. Wakefield exploited parents’ worries about vaccines and autism. Dr. Oz trades on the near-universal pursuit of better health and weight loss and mistrust of Big Pharma. Food Babe Vani Hari has built her brand around the worry that unseen and ubiquitous toxins are slowly killing us all.

When these figures are ridiculed and struck down by critics, their audiences can interpret the criticism of their work as diminishing or making fun of their own, often understandable concerns, thus helping to fuel the crank-to-martyr transformation.

In actuality, for several years, it was the press in the UK, mostly the tabloid press, that facilitated Andrew Wakefield, that spread his message. Without the press, Wakefield’s message would never have spread throughout the UK and Europe and beyond, nor would it have sparked the fear of the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism that led to MMR uptake in the UK plummeting and the resultant entirely predictable resurgence of measles. In fact, it was a single journalist who went beyond skepticism and actually did the years of hard work it took to prove Wakefield’s conflicts of interest (he took hundreds of thousands of pounds from a lawyer suing vaccine manufacturers to do his study) and his scientific fraud. In fact, arguably the press didn’t truly turn against Wakefield until the British government began hearings to revoke his license to practice medicine, and didn’t truly become as hostile as it is now until after Wakefield’s original Lancet case series from 1998 that started the whole thing was retracted.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that martyring cranks is not a risk. It’s just that fear of “martyring” a crank like Andrew Wakefield should not be a particularly large consideration in deciding whether to engage in critical reporting on him. Think of it this way. Conspiracy theories in which proponents of antiscience views are viewed as martyrs are part and parcel of denialist antiscience movements like the antivaccine movement. They already think they are martyrs and that the mainstream press is “persecuting” their heros. They already think that denialist leaders like Wakefield are “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.” There’s no real reason to go easy on them for fear of such a reaction, because the reaction is going to be there no matter what. It’s baked in, so to speak.

I do, however, agree with #4. Those of us in the science blogosphere have a tendency to attribute more influence to certain cranks than they, in fact, actually have. The antivaccine views of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for instance, are virtually unknown outside of the antivaccine circles that admire him. To most people (at least those who even really know who he is), he’s rather annoying as a person and an environmental activist. Most people (in the US, at least) have no idea who Andrew Wakefield is. On the other hand, I’m not quite down with this:

I asked Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, how he would suggest covering this event. He said it was important to consider the broader context here: “The fortunate truth of the matter is that there’s tremendous confidence by the American public in vaccines,” he said. “We have had 90 percent coverage for well over a decade. There are enclaves of people who are concerned. But most parents vaccinate and don’t give it a second thought.”

Well, yes and no. If you average over states or large swaths of the country, this is true, but in the case of vaccines there are enclaves of people who are more than just “concerned.” They’re “concerned” enough to go to the trouble of getting personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates or to sending their children to antivaccine-friendly private schools like Waldorf schools. It is a big problem, and Kahan is far too blase about the threat that even that small contingent of antivaccine parents is, because that small contingent tends to concentrate into groups where it causes the biggest hit to local vaccination rates.

Finally, who could disagree with #5? Of course you don’t want to cause controversy just to cause controversy. Personally, though, I look at it this way. My target audience is not the hard core committed crank, such as Andrew Wakefield or the parents who worship him. It is the fence-sitters, the undecided, those who might be persuadable. I also reserve to myself all reasonable strategies ranging from presenting facts, dissecting bad arguments, pointing out the flaws in crank arguments, and, yes, mocking mercilessly particularly dumb crank arguments. Of course, I’m a blogger; I can do that. Mainstream press can’t, although the five suggested rules presented by Belluz are, except perhaps for #3, a good set of guidelines.