I realize that our fearless leader Steve Novella has already written about this topic twice. He has, as usual, done a bang-up job of describing how Arianna Huffington’s political news blog has become a haven for quackery, even going so far as to entitle his followup post The Huffington Post’s War on Science. And he’s absolutely right. The Huffington Post has waged a war on science, at least a war on science-based medicine, ever since its inception, a mere two weeks after which it was first noticed that anti-vaccine lunacy ruled the roost there. Because I’ve had experience with this topic since 2005, I thought I’d try to put some perspective on the issue, in order to show you just how pervasive pseudoscience has been (and for how long) at the blog whose name is often abbreviated as “HuffPo.”
ANTI-VACCINE LUNACY AT THE HUFFINGTON POST
My disdain for The Huffington Post’s treatment of medical science goes way, way back–all the way back to its very beginnings. As I mentioned before, a mere two or three weeks after Arianna Huffington’s little vanity project hit the blogosphere, I noticed a very disturbing trend in its content. That trend was a strong undercurrent of antivaccination blogging. At the time, a “friend” of mine pointed out how Santa Monica pediatrician to the stars and “vaccine skeptic” Dr. Jay Gordon (whom both Steve and I have discussed) had found a home there, along with David Kirby, author of the mercury militia Bible Evidence of Harm (and who has been a regular punching bag of mine for at least four years, and deservedly so), and Janet Grilo.
This was right from the beginning.
These anti-vaccine “luminaries” were soon joined by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr (whose anti-vaccine activism I have discussed before) and more recently by Deirdre Imus, the driving force ramping up the antivaccinationist mercury militia proclivities of her husband, aging shock jock Don Imus. (Indeed, if Jenny McCarthy didn’t exist, Deirdre Imus would get my vote for the antvaccine zealot who routinely says the most astoundingly ignorant things about science.) Although we don’t hear much from Grilo or Gordon anymore, other than an occasional specious analogy between tobacco companies and the pro-vaccine stance of the CDC and AAP or nonsense about Tamiflu, unfortunately we do hear from Kirby, Imus, and Kennedy on a fairly regular basis, all on The Huffington Post, with one of the few voices of reason when it comes to vaccines being Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. Unfortunately, Allen has not posted to HuffPo in a long time. Given this history, it’s not for naught that on occasion I’ve referred to The Huffington Post “Arianna’s Home for Happy Antivaccinationists” and noted that it’s been seriously questioned whether it could ever do a real science section.
Meanwhile, while anti-vaccine “luminaries” such as David Kirby and RFK, Jr. regularly delivered the anti-vaccine propaganda on HuffPo, former Media & Special Projects Editor of The Huffington Post, Rachel Sklar was quite impressed with McCarthy’s antics on CNN back in April 2008, when McCarthy shouted down pediatricians and scientists who tried to refute her scientific ignorance. Since then, she has e-mailed me to argue that she is not “anti-vaccine,” and I will take her at her word, but she sure could have fooled me with her breathless praise of Jenny McCarthy’s boorishness last April on Larry King Live. Soon after, Alison Rose Levy joined her. In recent days, I’ve learned that Levy also happens to be a booster of other forms of unscientific medicine and was recently very impressed with the testimony of Dean Ornish, Andrew Weil, Mehmet Oz, and Mark Hyman, at the Institute of Medicine that I discussed earlier this year, arguing that their talks were nothing more than the same old pseudoscientific justifications for “integrating” pseudoscience and faith-based medicine with science-based medicine. Indeed, of late, HuffPo even invited a managing editor of the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, namely Kim Stagliano, to blog for it. It doesn’t get more anti-vaccine than that–one of the “editors” of the most prominent anti-vaccine blog promoting the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines somehow cause autism.
Finally, just a little more than a week ago, surprising me, given that I had been waiting for Jenny McCarthy to make an appearance as a blogger on HuffPo, her much more famous boyfriend, Jim Carrey, started blogging for HuffPo with an incredibly inane bit of anti-vaccine propaganda entitled The Judgment on Vaccines Is In??? In it, Carrey regurgitated all manner of anti-vaccine talking points, including the “toxins” gambit (apparently Dr. Jay never warned Carrey just how much it reveals Carrey’s ignorance to use the “formaldehyde” or “antifreeze” in vaccines gambit); parroted the intellectually dishonest Generation Rescue “study” that tries to correlate the vaccine schedules of various nations with their autism prevalences (which I discussed here) and its equally intellectually dishonest “Fourteen Studies” website (discussed by Steve, leading to an all-out personal attack on him by J.B. Handley; Mark; and, of course, me). Suffice it to say, the intellectual incompetence on display by Carrey was very reminiscent of at least one of characters he used to play on In Living Color back in the 1990s. The post even had a similar structure to one of his old sketches.
There is little doubt that the blogging culture of HuffPo is steeped in anti-vaccine pseudoscience. If that were all that’s wrong with HuffPo, it would be bad enough. But it’s not. This year, HuffPo blogging has taken a turn for the worse. For HuffPo, this year is the year of the quack.
2009: THE EMERGENCE OF RANK QUACKERY IN THE HUFFINGTON POST
HuffPo has been home to more than just anti-vaccine propaganda over the years. Perhaps the most famous example is the regular appearance of that maven of “quantum” healing pseudoscience, Deepak Chopra (whose IntentBlog often crossposts the same nonsense), who of late has become a point man in the battle to coopt President Obama’s plans for health care reform in order to insert unscientific ‘alternative medicine” under the guise of “wellness” and “prevention.” On the HuffPo, he has laid down all sorts of nonsense about dualism, “intelligent design” creationism, universal consciousness, and “quantum” healing. All of this is standard fare for Chopra, and, for the most part, that’s as far as HuffPo went into dubious medical science outside of vaccines. Indeed, before 2009 advocacy of rank quackery not related to vaccines in the HuffPo has been relatively slight.
In 2009, that changed. Big time. Enter licensed acupuncturist, certified clinical nutritionist, and a homeopath (not to mention HuffPo’s new “Wellness Editor”). Here is how she is described in her bio:
She has a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine. She is the founder and Medical Director of the Santa Monica Wellness Center and the author of the best-selling, award-winning The Detox Solution: The Missing Link to Radiant Health, Abundant Energy, Ideal Weight, and Peace of Mind. You can learn more at TheDetoxSolution.com.
On HuffPo, Patricia Fitzgerald has recommended a “spring cleaning” for your liver for “detox” and praised Jenny McCarthy and her promotion of “biomedical” quackery for autism. I can’t help but speculate that in this case, the correlation between Fitzgerald’s arrival and the major uptick in the number of posts touting unproven and pseudoscientific medical practices on HuffPo may well equal causation, even though Fitzgerald appears to be relatively careful not to go too far off the deep end in terms of the health care practices she advocates on HuffPo. She, at least, is apparently smart enough to qualify them and stick mostly with diet and exercise as her cure-all.
Ramping up the woo a bit more into Deepak Chopra territory is Srinivasan Pillay, “certified master coach, psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and speaker,” whatever that means (other than psychiatrist). As Peter Lipson has pointed out, his “brain imaging” publications in PubMed are pretty darned sparse, mostly functional MRI studies, which are very difficult to do correctly in order to obtain any correlations or useful data. If his HuffPo presence is any indication, I hate to think what he’s doing with that fMRI machine. His first major “contribution” was an article entitled The Science of Distant Healing, in which he purports to present the “scientific evidence” for distant healing. Distant healing, for those who may not be aware, is the magical belief that just by sending one’s “intent” or wishes to a distant person one can actually heal that person or send one’s “intent” to him or her. I say “magical” belief because there really isn’t any other word to describe it. There’s no scientific or physical mechanism by which it can occur, at least none that scientists have yet been able to find. His followup post, with Pillay seemingly irked at all the criticism he received for his distant healing article, was aptly entitled Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be. In it, he concludes that, because humans are irrational, science can never be rational, never realizing that the scientific method itself is a system designed to minimize the effects of human cognitive biases and shortcomings on the observation of nature. Steve Novella had some real fun with the nonsense in this post, and I can’t say that I blame him.
Still, like Fitzgerald, Dr. Pillay is relatively careful to stay in the rather mystical quantum world of Deepak Chopra and not to directly advocate anything clearly dangerous. The same cannot be said of other bloggers, as not long after Fitzgerald’s arrival a new quackery apologist lit up HuffPo with some of the most outrageously dangerous quackery I’ve seen in a long time.
I’m referring to Kim Evans, “author of Cleaning Up! and the creator of The Cleaning Up! Cleanse, a powerful body cleanse that addresses deep levels of toxicity throughout the body and a common fungal problem, candida overgrowth.” She goes on to describe herself in her bio:
Kim believes that toxicity in the body is at the root of most all disease and impacts us in ways spiritually that perhaps defies current spiritual understanding. She also believes that most disease can be permanently removed from the body with deep body cleansing, upgrading your on-going diet and consciously avoiding common toxicity sources.
Kim has spent thousands of hours researching, studying, cleansing and experimenting with different cleansing techniques and has eliminated more than a dozen problems in her own body – including several problems that medical doctors had no solutions for. She’s given people information that when they applied it, eliminated their health problems and had medical doctors adding years to their life expectancy – in addition to asking what they were doing so they could pass the information along to their patients because they had “never seen anything like it.”
Regular readers of this blog can predict the sorts of nonsense that Ms. Evans has been laying down about “detox” and colon and liver “cleanses.” And lay it down she has, claiming that “detox” can get rid of fungal infections which, she claims that 90% of us have. Of course, 90% of us do have candida albicans growing on or in our body somewhere, but in the presence of a competent immune system, it doesn’t cause any problems. That’s not what Kim Evans is saying. She’s claiming that 90% of us have “overgrowth” or are infected with candida.
Steve has already discussed Kim Evans’ quackery advocacy twice, pointing out that her claim that antibiotics cause cancer and that fungus is cancer is rank quackery and that her defensiveness over the criticism that she is promoting pseudoscience is, in fact, an excellent example of how pseudoscientists think, rife with logical fallacies, postmodernist nonsense and tu quoque, as did a certain “friend” of mine. However, because I’m a surgical oncologist, I can’t help but briefly discuss one aspect of Kim Evan’s world view that disturbs me greatly. Specifically, it’s her belief that Dr. Tullio Simoncini is correct about cancer.
DANGEROUS CANCER QUACKERY
So who is Dr. Simoncini? He’s an Italian physician who claims to be an oncologist, whose claim to fame is the invention of the quackery–yes, quackery–that claims that cancer is in reality a fungus and that all cancer can be treated and cured with sodium bicarbonate. Here is a video in which Simoncini describes how he came to this conclusion as he hawkshis book Cancer Is A Fungus, makes the argument that fungus is the One True Cause of Cancer and that the medical establishment is Too Deluded or Too Blind to realize it:
Worse, Simoncini proposes a treatment that, even if cancer were a fungus, is completely implausible and wouldn’t work. Indeed, we don’t treat fungal infections that way even when we are treating a clearly diagnosed fungal infection. You can get an idea of just how quacktastic this video is by listening to Dr. Simoncini opine in the first couple of minutes of the vide that whenever he sees a cancerous tumor in the body, the lumps are “always white.” He emphasizes this amazing observation several times, so apparently important is it. Yes, that was the observation that supposedly led him to his idea (I refuse to dignify it with the term “hypothesis”) that tumors are in fact due to fungus. In response, the host gushes about how brilliant that is and how obvious it is. Just crush up a mushroom! Of course, it would be a major blow to Dr. Simoncini’s idea, would it not, if not all mushrooms are white. Truly, Dr. Simonici has demonstrated the the ultimate in taking a flawed observation and running with it straight off the cliff, as this description of his book shows:
The book “Cancer is a fungus” describes how a fungous infection always forms the basis of every neoplastic formation, and this formation tries to spread within the whole organism without stopping.
I also have to wonder what kind of oncologist Simoncini is if that’s all he’s seen. From my experience as a surgeon, it’s trivial for me to tell you that not all tumors are white. Many are, but a lot of them are brownish-colored, tan, or even greenish-colored. (Uh-oh, better not let Dr. Simoncini know that; that’s fungus color we’re talking!) And what about leukemias and other blood cancers? Dr. Simoncini then shows a bronchoscopy and thoracoscopy demonstrating white tumors. I’m supposed to be impressed by this? He also argues that in reality cancer is due to “excess acidity” that allows the fungus free rein.
So what is the answer, according to Dr. Simoncini? Baking soda. Yes, baking soda, a.k.a. sodium bicarbonate. Dr. Simoncini injects sodium bicarbonate into tumors and claims to be able to cure any cancer using these injections. One thought that immediately comes to mind whenever I see a claim like this is: If Dr. Simoncini can actually do what he claims he can do, where are his publications? Where is his Nobel Prize? To be able to cure cancer by something as simple as injections of sodium bicarbonate directly into tumors would be such an incredible breakthrough that there’s no way it could be kept quiet. Yet somehow only Dr. Simoncini knows this remedy, which is not only physiologically incredibly implausible and isn’t even used to treat real, biopsy- or culture-proven fungal infections but has no evidence to support it. There’s a whole culture of acid-base quackery that I’ve been meaning to write about in more detail, and Dr. Simoncini would be right up there among its chief “practitioners.”
Not surprisingly, Dr. Simoncini has been a focus of attention for the Italian health authorities.All I could find was this thread on the JREF forums. According to various commenters, not only was Dr. Simoncini expelled from the Italian Medical Order (Ordine dei Medici e Chirurghi) but he was condemned in the first degree by an Italian court for cheating and homicide. Here’s one report from a woman by the ‘nym of JennyJo:
I live in the Netherlands.
Last year, tullio simoncini was giving his treatments with sodium bicarbonate in a private clinic for alternative ‘medicine’ in Bilthoven in the Netherlands.
October 2007, a woman with curable breast cancer, who was afraid of operation and chemo therapy, came into contact with simoncini and was treated by him. He injected large doses of baking soda into her breast.
On the fourth day of the therapy, the woman became very ill and was transported to a university hospital in Amsterdam, where she died the following day.
The matter is since under investigation by the Dutch Justice Department. Simoncini denies he ever treated the woman, although various staff members have seen him administering injections. The clinic maintains the woman died of dehydration (sic).
More application of science to Dr. Simoncini’s quackery can be found at Cancer Is Not A Fungus and, of course, the Quackwatch affiliate Cancer Treatment Watch. There’s just so much wrong with Simoncini’s ideas that at some point I may well jump into the ring myself with a more detailed explanation of just what is so wrong and why. Suffice it to say Dr. Simoncini is without a doubt the very picture of a quack. Also suffice it to say that Kim Evans believes in Simoncini’s quackery and views him as “persecuted,” as this comment by her reveals:
Tullio Simoncini, yes, he had his license revoked, and there are reasons for that. In modern medicine today, medical doctors must practice standard accepted procedures, and if not, their license is in jeopardy. Let’s be clear, Dr. Simoncini was not going the standard and accepted chemo and radiation route. He found something far more effective and posed no harm to the patient. But because it was outside standard practice, he had his license revoked. Unfortunately, vitamin and herbal therapies also fall outside standard accepted practice, and are not often taught in medical school, as this community seems to think that only drugs are effective and little else plays a role in the body.
There are plenty of videos on the net if you care to watch Dr. Simoncini pour an alkaline solution of baking soda and water as close to a tumor as possible, and have the tumor disappear, often in a matter of days. While I grant that it is possible that Dr. Simoncini could be wrong about the cause of the tumor (I don’t believe he is, but for arguments sake, I’ll allow that possibility), I find it hard to believe that after graduating from oncology school he doesn’t know what a tumor looks like. Or that the videos showing the tumors being eliminated were somehow not eliminated or not tumors to begin with. So, even if the cause was incorrect, the fact that these tumors are being quickly eliminated seems pretty straight forward.
To Evans, Simoncini is a persecuted martyr for the One True Cause of Cancer who’s being attacked because he’s supposedly better at curing cancer than “”outside of standard practice.” Never mind that it has zero physiological plausibility, relies on a model of cancer causation that is trivial to demonstrate to be utterly incorrect, and has zero evidence other than the lowest quality testimonials to support it. Never mind that it’s never been convincingly demonstrated that injecting anything into a large, established tumor will cure it, much less solutions of baking soda. Never mind that Simoncini has been directly linked to the deaths of patients from his quackery. Again, if Simoncini could really do what he claims and demonstrate it to accepted scientific standards, the Nobel Prize is his. I suspect, however, that the Nobel committee won’t be considering him any time soon.
This is the sort of irresponsible promotion of outright quackery that HuffPo permits within its pages, but it doesn’t end even there.
SWINE FLU QUACKERY AT HUFFPO
Given the recent scare over the likelihood of a swine flu pandemic, the quackery level has ramped up even more at HuffPo, led by (who else?) Kim Evans, who penned a post called Swine Flu: Protect Yourself and Loved Ones. In this post, Evans is more than willing to recommend her detox quackery to protect against swine flu:
Cleansing involves changing your internal environment and specifically, removing a bunch of the stored waste that most people have trapped in their bodies. Most estimates are that the average person has ten or more pounds of stored waste just in their colon, and I’d argue far more throughout their body. In any case, many people have found that disease disappears when this waste is gone, and that when the body is clean it’s much more difficult for new problems, like viruses, to take hold in the first place. And it’s my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well.
That’s right. Evans is recommending enemas and “detox” quackery to protect yourself against the swine flu. I can tell you one thing; this woman is utterly ignorant of history.There was no vaccine against influenza during the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, influenza vaccines were only developed widely available during World War II, where they were used to protect our soldiers. After the war, development of the vaccine continued. Moreover, there are not–I repeat, not–ten or twenty pounds of “stored waste” in the colon that are making people sick, and it especially isn’t feces in your colon that gives you the flu. Any surgeon who’s ever operated on the colon regularly (as I used to do until I subspecialized) or gastroenterologist who does endoscopy knows this to by a myth, but it’s the basis of so much enema quackery, as is the belief that the liver needs “help” dealing with these unnamed “toxins” through purging and enemas. Indeed, this obsession with “toxins” and poo caking the inside of the colon is nothing more than the alt-med version of the religious belief that one is “unclean” and desperately needs “purification” in order to achieve righteousness but all the enemas in the world won’t purify believers in this woo. They always think they are “toxic.”
Next up is Matthew Stein, who wrote a post entitled When a Superbug Strikes Close to Home, How Will You Deal With it? (also published in a patently unreadable form on Stein’s own website). After a whole lot of fear-mongering over “superbugs” and swine flu, Stein presents his answer:
The good news is that there are many alternative medicines, herbs, and treatments that can be quite effective in the fight against a wide variety of viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to which mainstream high-tech Western medicine has little or nothing to offer. The bad news is that 99 percent of the doctors in our hospitals are not trained in these alternatives, and don’t have a clue about what to do when their pharmaceutical high-tech medicines fail to heal. If you wait until a pandemic starts, you will have only a slim chance for locating an available health practitioner familiar with alternative herbs, medicines, and methods. In the words of Robert Saum, PhD, the typical attitude amongst most of his medical colleagues in this country is, “If I didn’t learn it in medical school, it can’t be true.”
That’s right, according to Matthew Stein, there are all of those “natural cures ‘they’ don’t want you to know about” for all those nasty, horrible, resistant bacteria. And, of course, those nasty, close-minded “allopathic” physicians are too clueless or prejudiced against them to learn about them or offer them to you. Even better, they will heal when the products of big pharma fail. So says Stein, who even claims that homeopathy could be an answer, citing an article Could Homeopathy Prevent a Pandemic?:
Do we have alternatives? During Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the U.S. reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. W.A. Dewey, MD, gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over one percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.
Today, a number of homeopathic remedies for the flu are available, including oscillo, or oscillococcinum, which has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset. Homeopaths have been given this remedy since 1925. Interestingly, it’s made from the heart and liver of ducks, which carry flu viruses in their digestive tracts.
“Based on clinical studies, homeopathy produces some of the fastest results in relieving flu symptoms,” says Dana Ullman, MPH, the author of nine books on homeopathic medicine.
Anyone who’s been a regular here for a while probably remembers Dana Ullman, the homeopath who seems to have a lot of time on his hands to Google himself for new mentions on blogs and then infest blogs that criticize him and homeopathy. I have little doubt that he will show up here. If you want the best deconstruction of Ullman’s nonsense, check out the new Internet law that my coblogger Kimball Atwood laid down about him:
In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.
How true. Moreover, Stein’s falling for the same old claims by homeopaths that somehow patients treated with homeopathy only suffered a 1% mortality compared to conventional physicians, whose patients supposedly suffered a 30% mortality. As co-blogger David Kroll pointed out a couple of years back, these are the same sorts of nonsense claims that were trotted out during the avian flu scare. Of course there’s a big problem here. No doubt homeopaths reported low mortality, but was there any objective evidence that they actually observed such low mortality in their patients? What about selection bias, where the less severely ill patients chose real medicine instead of homeopathy? How do we know that patients who got sicker under the homeopaths’ care didn’t go to real physicians or die without being followed up? Do we know that the homeopaths’ patients were comparable to the patients treated by “conventional” medicine? We don’t. Finally, if the peer review of the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy is anything like the peer review of homeopathy journals in 2009, I don’t have high hopes that Dewey’s article was subjected to anything resembling rigorous peer review. That hasn’t stopped it from being trotted out in the intervening 90 years since the Spanish flu pandemic by homeopaths every time a flu pandemic or flu scare comes up. Truly, it is a zombie study that just won’t die, and a HuffPo blogger is promoting it.
But that’s not all Stein is promoting. He’s also promoting something called the Beck protocol, which consists of:
- Blood electrification
- Colloidal silver
- Magnetic pulsing
- Ozonated water
The Beck protocol could take up an entire post on its own, and perhaps someday I will write one. In fact, each of the four elements of the Beck protocol could be the topic of its very own post, and perhaps I should do a four-parter. However, in the meantime, regular readers should recognize that each of these four elements is quackery. But even that level of quackery isn’t enough for Stein. He finishes with a list of a veritable panoply of herbalism, supplements, and other dubious remedies to “protect yourself” against the swine flu.
Most recently, another HuffPo blogger, Lisa Sharkey, opined in a post entitled What Most Doctors Won’t Tell You About Preparing for the Swine Flu:
What can I do to keep my family safe? How can I boost our immune systems now and what complementary medicines can I begin taking immediately, regardless if I ever come in contact with the dreaded Swine Flu?
You know what sort of answers are coming, I bet. That’s right: Supplements, herbalism, homeopathy, reflexology, tapping, this post is a veritable cornucopia of quackery for swine flu, with Sharkey touting it all as “immune-boosting.”
She even prefaced her post with the typical “dodge the FDA” disclaimer:
Author’s note: This swine flu story on alternative and complementary medicine is not meant to replace anything you hear from you doctor, the WHO or the CDC, but is meant to show you some natural ways to enhance your overall wellness in addition to any medication you may need either to prevent or treat the flu.
Very appropriate, I would say. Too bad the rest of HuffPo’s health bloggers don’t add the same disclaimer to their posts.
WHY IS HEALTH PSEUDOSCIENCE SO INGRAINED AT THE HUFFINGTON POST?
Seeing the pervasiveness of anti-vaccine views, New Age mysticism and pseudoscience à la Deepak Chopra, and, most recently, outright quackery at HuffPo, one is left to ask: Why? Why is health pseudoscience and even outright quackery so pervasive at HuffPo? Why is it that (as I have been told) so many commenters who try to counter this nonsense find that their comments are “moderated” (a.k.a. censored), as I myself have experienced when trying to counter anti-vaccine posts I’ve seen on HuffPo. Why is it that a woman who so profusely praised President Barack Obama in an editorial about his first 100 days for reversing the Bush Administration stand on embryonic stem cell research, runs such a site so full of quackery? Huffington in particular praised Obama’s statement that it is “about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” I agree. It’s a fine sentiment, long overdue after the Bush administration. Too bad Arianna Huffington doesn’t apply President Obama’s sentiment to her own blog and kick out the quacks and pseudoscientists.
But then the question is, once again, why? Why doesn’t Huffington kick out the quacks? Part of the answer, at least, is suggested in an article in The New Yorker that appeared about her last fall entitled The Oracle: The Many Lives of Arianna Huffington, in particular these excerpts:
During a student-group fair, Huffington toured the chambers of the university’s debating society. Since girlhood, she had possessed a spiritual impulse, studying Hinduism and fasting on the name day of the Virgin Mary.
Huffington’s business and spiritual pursuits merge in her interest in human-potential movements, the sorts of popular groundswell that, as she once wrote, will provide us, in “a new age that is being born,” with “an opening for great possibilities of new being, for a breakthrough in our evolution.”
Over the years, Huffington has been touchier about her relationship with John-Roger, the baby-faced spiritual leader of M.S.I.A., who was born Roger Delano Hinkins in Rains, Utah, in 1934, and, in 1963, rechristened himself upon his emergence from a nine-day coma induced by kidney-stone surgery. In an investigation published in the Los Angeles Times in 1988, the reporters Bob Sipchen and David Johnston linked John-Roger—whose students believe that he has unique access to a power called Mystical Traveler Consciousness—to financial and sexual improprieties. (John-Roger stated, through a spokesman, that the allegations “remain as untrue today as when they were first published.”) His views on the body are certainly unusual: In “Sex, Spirit & You,” he writes, “When a woman has a history of blocking her creative flow and shutting off this area of expression by pushing the energy back down into the creative center, she may develop many problems related to her menstrual flow.”
The couple eventually embarked on a period of metaphysical inquiry that alienated some of their friends and colleagues as much as it entertained the press. Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Let the record show that in October 1979. . . Bernard Levin achieved the total state of self-absorption towards which he had been moving for so long. The venue was the Café Royal: amid incense and vaguely Oriental music, flanked by his companion, Levin rose and told a large invited audience how they could be ‘changed,’ by investing £150 in a 50-hour ‘Insight training.’ ” (Insight was founded by the spiritual leader John-Roger, with whom Huffington has remained affiliated. Huffington denies that incense and Oriental music played a role in the event.) When Levin died, in 2004, his obituary in the Times noted that Huffington’s “interest in mystic cults . . . was to lead him into one of the more embarrassing episodes of his journalism—his hyperbolic praise through a number of columns of the self-promoting guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.”
Christopher Hitchens, even when I don’t agree with him (which is fairly frequently on political topics), always has a way with words. And, most impressively, there is this descriptoin of Arianna Huffington:
Through all her incarnations, Huffington’s interest in mass movements, human potential, and the improvability of man has been as consistent as her suspicion of pharmacology, utilitarianism, and Skinner boxes. Her own life may be her greatest project.
In five decades of self-improvement, she has tried fire-walking, list-making, journal-keeping, mercury detoxification, homeopathy, chiropractic, infrared saunas, microdermabrasion, est, and—she writes in her 2006 book, “On Becoming Fearless”—“the Beverly Hills diet, the all-brown-rice diet, the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, the no carbs, no fat, indeed no calories diet.” Her daily regimen includes yoga, meditation, and prayer.
In other words, in this article, at least, Arianna Huffington comes across as a credulous New Age believer, flitting from one woo to the next, one quackery to the next, with no apparent understanding of why they are woo and quackery. Anyone who can embrace homeopathy uncritically is not someone who runs her life from a science-based perspective, all of her praise of President Obama’s sentiments about science and all of her claims not to be a relativist described in the New Yorker article notwithstanding. It is thus not surprising that her political blog would reflect this. However, until recently HuffPo’s bad medical science was primarily limited to its support of anti-vaccine bloggers such as David Kirby, Kim Stagliano, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and, most recently, Jim Carrey. Recently, however, HuffPo’s promotion of pseudoscience has accelerated.
WHAT TO DO?
In the wake of the recent surge in quackery promotion on HuffPo, there has been a debate in the blogsophere over what, if anything, can be done. My co-blogger Peter Lipson has described the promotion of quackery on HuffPo as a “dangerous assault on medicine” and suggested a “Vendetta!” of sorts, in reality a letter-writing campaign in which writers are urged to present “specific examples of their malfeasance, and asking them to consider altering their editorial policy on health issues, for the sake of morality, health, and humanity.”
Although I understand the sentiment, sadly, I don’t think that it will do that much good, unless it somehow impacts HuffPo’s bottom line in terms of the page views that determine advertising rates. The antivaccine nonsense, for example, has been very deeply ingrained in HuffPo blogging culture from the very beginning. I highly doubt, for instance, that Arianna would ever kick Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. off of HuffPo or allow any of her editors to do so. He’s just too high profile a liberal voice. Similarly, given how the influx of outright quackery has coincided with the tenure of the new “wellness editor,” I highly doubt that, short of removing her, any level of complaints will dislodge the quacks. I’d love to be wrong, but I fear I’m not, which is why I don’t think it’s a bad idea at least to try to deluge the editors with complaints about the recent spike in quackery blogging on HuffPo, the most irresponsible and utterly opportunistic of which are the claims by various charlatans that homeopathy or “detox” regimens can somehow protect you from the swine flu or that “cancer is a fungus” and sodium bicarbonate can cure it.
Janet Stemwedel, who blogs at Adventures in Ethics and Science, echoes a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, namely whether to engage with The Huffington Post:
Should scientists and physicians try to do something about this?
Sure, blogular dissections of problematic HuffPo posts count as responses, and I know a great deal of work goes into countering flaky reasoning with logic while preventing one’s own head from exploding. But it’s not clear how many of the responses to HuffPo posts arguing that enemas and prayers will be sufficient to protect us from swine flu are getting to the large HuffPo audience.
Hypothetically, if HuffPo invited a scientist or physician to write an article, would it be a good idea or a bad idea to accept the offer? Would it help the HuffPo readers? Would it hurt the scientist or physician?
I don’t know the answer to that one. On the one hand, any respectable physician or medical scientists who blogs about health on HuffPo runs the risk of taint by association, along with a deluge of HuffPo CAM aficianados shouting “pharma shill” in the comments. Moreover, such a person risks being coopted by HuffPo’s editors as “evidence” that HuffPo does provide an outlet for science-based blogging about health. On the other hand, HuffPo has a very large readership, far larger than even the most popular of science bloggers. Granted, it’s the front page political blogs that drive most of the traffic, and it’s unclear how much traffic that the many dozens, if not hundreds, of other blogs on HuffPo actually garner. Still, there’s no doubt that, if it continues on its current path, HuffPo may someday rival Whale.to, Mercola.com, and NaturalNews.com. Should medical scientists try to stop that by “joining up,” so to speak? And what would be the price? More importantly, would joining up be more effective in muting the cheerleading for quackery on HuffPo than remaining outside and ruthlessly criticizing and mocking examples of it? Should we try to “fight from the inside” or “attack from the rear”?
Again, I don’t know the answer to this question. However, this question is somewhat more than hypothetical, which is why I need to contemplate it further. In either case, something needs to be done to counter HuffPo’s war on medical science.