Friday, January 6, 2012

Is HuffPo Changing Its Science and Medicine Editorial Policy?

Yesterday the Huffington Post ran a fascinating column in its Science section. Seth Mnookin, a science journalist and author of the book The Panic Virus (required reading for anyone looking for an introduction to the flim-flammy methods of the vaccine-causes-autism cult), commented on the role that responsible journalism has to play in educating its readers on science and medicine. "The fact that a specific story is controversial (or that it is promoted by a particularly outspoken celebrity) does not mean it deserves the oxygen it needs to survive", Mnookin wrote.

Such sentiments have been expressed before by Mnookin as well as other journalists and scientists. What made his dispatch so singularly stunning is that HuffPo has heretofore provided an electronic safe harbor for most well-known anti-vaccine cranks for the past several years. The website has granted a platform to an ongoing campaign of misdirection and misinformation about vaccines and its alleged link to autism, of which this article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is but one odious example.

As a consequence of this policy, Mnookin has, entirely appropriately, devoted much of his energy in recent years to hammering HuffPo for its irresponsibility and harm-inducing potential. (A terse encapsulation of his thoughts can be found in a brief blog entry where he notes, "Let me state very simply: HuffPo publishes dangerously ignorant dreck", and similar thoughts can be found here and here.) Thus, inviting Mnookin to hold forth on...well, basically anything constitutes a very profound shift in attitude.

Will this lead to wholesale changes at HuffPo? Hard to say. "It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out", says Mnookin, wondering if he was being played by the editors who could then claim that they were being "balanced" in their approach. If they are sincere, a good place to start would be to issue some form of retraction, as Salon did in its removal of a Kennedy-authored vaccine/autism piece, co-published with Rolling Stone, entitled Deadly Immunity. (Rolling Stone removed the story as well, but as noted here, they have not been as forthright in dealing with the criticism of their decision to publish Deadly Immunity as Salon.) We'll see what comes of it.

Also in the same vein, it appears that one of the main peddlers of nonsense about the vaccine-autism link, the now-thoroughly-discredited Andrew Wakefield, has decided to file a libel lawsuit in Texas against the authors of a British Medical Journal article published last year in which Wakefield was described as a "fraud". A similar type of lawsuit filed by Wakefield in the UK in 2005; Wakefield dropped the suit after the judge suggested that Wakefield was using the proceedings "for public relations purposes". As the linked article notes, a new law in Texas is supposed to discourage frivolous libel suits by placing a higher burden on the plaintiff than in years past, so the Wakefield suit should become something of a test case.

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