Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Salon's Retraction on Vaccines, and Blog Revamp

I just returned from a symposium sponsored by the New England Science Writers on science and medicine blogging; it was truly invigorating to listen to some tips from some fellow travelers, all of whom have a good deal of experience and heavy-hitting credentials as they blog on issues dear to my heart. Their thoughts have inspired me to do the blogging equivalent of a facelift, so there will be some changes in the coming days. An important change will be that I will revamp the links, adding some and losing others.

One of the additions is Retraction Watch written by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky (Ivan spoke eloquently and humorously at tonight's symposium), a blog devoted to tracking the retractions taking place in scientific literature "as a window into the scientific process," as they say. It is a fascinating blog and makes for a kind-of scientist's version of The National Enquirer. Though behind the tawdry headlines (and reading some of the scientific shenanigans really does require a strong stomach) lies a journalist's concern for the accuracy in scientific research, and more broadly a serious concern for transparency--both critical elements in a healthy, functioning democracy. The Billy Rubin Blog is officially a fan! (And, with blogs like this, he is wondering what his own purpose in blogdom is.)

One of the pieces Retraction Watch discusses is a piece I've linked to on Facebook but not on the Billy Rubin Blog: the recent retraction by Salon of their own anti-vaccine article of 2005. Salon gets huge credit for coming clean on its past mistakes, not just in admitting the specific errors of the piece, but in saying that it was wrong to the core. The link in Retraction Watch notes how Rolling Stone, which wrote a similar piece entitled "Deadly Immunity" also in 2005, has removed the article from its website without ever owning up to its general wrongheadedness, even issuing a "correction" that acknowledged they were wrong on some specifics, but with a generally defiant tone that most lay readers would assume meant that Rolling Stone wasn't really disowning it.

This all reminded me of the 2006 article by "journalist" Celia Farber in Harper's Magazine essentially contending that AIDS wasn't actually caused by HIV after all, and which led me to cancel my 12-year subscription to the magazine. (Please don't actually follow the link unless you plan to read this point-by-point rebuttal here, or get a general introduction to AIDS denialists here.) It was a depressing, though relatively little noted, episode in the history of American intellectualism and a huge blot on one of America's great magazines of ideas.

Retraction Watch includes Salon's retraction alongside periodicals more commonly thought of as "journals"--that is, "magazines" written on technical matters by and large for specialists. But Salon reaches not only more readers than these specialized publications, but is writing about science and staking claims about the validity of science just like all these other organizations whose collective feet are held to the fire when faulty or, much worse, fabricated data grace their pages. Yet the errors of a publication like Salon, just because they are written by lay writers, are no less excusable, and Salon should be commended for coming clean. (To my knowledge, Harper's has never issued a retraction of the Celia Farber piece, as far as I am aware, for instance.)

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