~Originally published at Junkee.com~
The Huffington Post has finally arrived in Australia — and while our mainstream media will certainly benefit from more diversity, we may have reason to be afraid. Not just because of the brand’s infamous embrace of clickbait (we’re all guilty), or even its questionable practice of sourcing content from unpaid bloggers.
No: in a country where the CSIRO’s funding is free-falling, and science is routinely under attack from elected officials, of greatest concern to me is the Huffington Post’s uncritical promotion of pseudoscience and quackery.
Since its inception in 2005, the Huffington Post has provided a platform for anti-vaccine activists, new age spiritualists and other types of scientific illiteracy dressed up as genuine news. While media outlets sprouting the virtues of miracle diets and cures is nothing new, HuffPo’s massive world-wide reach and agenda-setting aspirations made its scientific illiteracy particularly concerning at the time. And although the publication’s embrace of pseudoscience has moderated in recent years, it’s worth taking a closer look at its recent past to be wary of what its Australian edition might bring.
The (Unvaccinated) Birth Of The Huffington Post
Arianna Huffington was a failed gubernatorial candidate and political divorcee when she founded the Huffington Post in 2005. A vanity exercise in the nascent blogosphere, it became a home for liberal politics and vitriolic pieces attacking key figures in the Bush administration. Huffington, formerly a Republican through personal belief and marriage, alienated many of her friends by her political conversion to the left — she even went so far as to ask her daughter Isabella to choose a new godmother (Isabella’s first godmother was appointed Secretary of Labor by Bush).
Shortly after HuffPo’s launch, some science bloggers noticed a disturbing trend in its coverage of health issues. Anti-vaccination activists such as Janet Grillo, Jay Gordon and David Kirby dominated the outlet’s “health” coverage; between them they published pieces supporting the long-discredited “link” between vaccines and autism, scare-mongering over pesticides (“parks and school ball fields are sprayed with chemicals so toxic they should be illegal”), and promoting the “Pharma-Political Complex” that apparently wants to harm all the children (presumably to sell them drugs to make them better or something).
These bylines were soon joined by the doyen of disinformation Jenny McCarthy, an actor and TV host who’s now infamous for leading the anti-vaccination movement, and her painfully unfunny then-boyfriend Jim Carrey. They both repeated the usual claims that “toxic” ingredients of the “lucrative vaccine program” are “causing autism and other disorders (Aspergers, ADD, ADHD)”. Of course there is no credible evidence to support this or any other of their claims; in fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. But in the world of the anti-vaxxer, contrary evidence isn’t valid, because it comes from government health organisations who are ‘in on it’ too.
(A quick debunk of the anti-vaccination movement: the vaccine ingredient anti-vaxxers claim causes autism – mercury – is not present in scheduled childhood vaccines. Thimerosal, a preservative used in some other vaccines, does indeed contain mercury, but in the form of an ethylmercury which is easily filtered out by your body. All this, however, is moot. Even if children are given vaccines that contain thimerosal, there is no known link between mercury and autism. None. The exact cause (or causes) of autism remain unknown, but what we do know is that vaccines are not to blame.)
The Sickness Of “Wellness”
Alas, HuffPo did not confine its anti-science stance to a few ill-advised stories on vaccines. In 2009 they devoted an entire section to “wellness”, edited by homeopath and licenced acupuncturist “Dr” Patricia Fitzgerald. Contrary to her title, “Dr” Fitzgerald was not a licenced medical practitioner, but rather held a doctorate in homeopathy. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop her offering dud medical advice, promoting ineffective “detox” routines while also having nice things to say about Jenny McCarthy.
Then it got worse. “Quantum healer” and self-help millionaire Deepak Chopra became a contributor, as did Kim Evans, who wrote that antibiotics are responsible for cancer, and that all cancers are fungi and can be treated with baking soda. Yep, you won’t believe what THEY don’t want you to know, dear sheeple.
There wasn’t a shred of credible evidence to support these astonishing claims either — only the assumption that Big Government, Big Pharma or Big Pineapple was out to get you. By 2010, the height of HuffPo’s questionable relationship with science, the site garnered around 28 million unique views per month. In 2011, AOL acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million. Since then it has only grown in size and audience to become the most popular blog in the world, claiming to attract some 100 million visitors per month. That’s a big global audience to be selling garbage science to.
But the web fought back. The same internet that helped propagate HuffPo also hosted a new generation of science-literate blogs and websites such as Science-Based Medicine, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy and ScienceBlogs, among many others. The condemnation from these bloggers was swift, universal and derisive.
PZ Meyers of ScienceBlogs offered this gem:
Slowly, contributors with science and evidence on their side began to have a regular presence on HuffPo, with the site even launching a science section in 2012. While today’s HuffPo continues to publish articles on topics of questionable scientific validity including acupuncture, immune system “boosting”, detox diets, and anti-GMO food, there are also a few choice bylines with the all-important post-nominals “M.D.” to counter the hokum and provide real actual medical science.
The problem is that the two types of articles sit side by side, and it is very difficult for the lay reader to determine what is a good, evidence-based article and what is pseudoscientific rubbish. While this is great for the free expression of quacks everywhere, it does little to further science in the popular understanding.
Search HuffPo today for “vaccines+autism” and you’ll find a hodgepodge of pro and anti-vaccine articles with vague, clickbaited headlines and questionable contentions. Presenting vaccination as a “debate” with two equal sides is bad journalism at best, and life-endangering at worst. When it comes to childhood vaccinations, there is no debate; there are not two equal sides. There is evidence-based science and there is opinion. As Neil deGrasse Tyson argued on the Colbert Report, science doesn’t care what your opinion is: “It’s true whether or not you believe in it”. Vaccines are the most effective medical intervention in the history of humankind.
Should we hold out hope that the Australian edition of HuffPo will improve on its parent’s chequered past? Perhaps. Right out of the gate, they have published two decent pieces on mental health, one by noted adolescent psychologist Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, and the other looking at a new Beyond Blue anxiety program. They have also published a piece promoting the healing properties of crystals (they help “clear and release old toxic emotions”, apparently). If we can continue this ratio of 2-1 good science-based medical articles to hokum, there might be hope yet.
The methods of science are not optional to understanding our world; they are mandatory. They consist of careful observation and rigorous intellectual honesty, and are the best ways to confront the world’s many and varied problems. In a recent interview with the ABC’s Lateline, Huffington stated that she supports the key tenets of “fairness, accuracy and fact checking” in journalism, along with the scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming. I sorely hope she implores her news sites, with a global audience of tens of millions, to follow the same principles.