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Science on the HuffPo

Science writer JL Vernon has written a post outlining his campaign to have the Huffington Post create a dedicated science section. His suggestion has been met by near universal derision from the science blogging community. Orac and PZ Myers, for example, have both criticized the proposal and Vernon’s fallacious arguments. Even the comments below Vernon’s post are almost completely negative.

So what’s this controversy all about?

As background I must remind readers that the HuffPo is a massive group blog masquerading as an online news source. Further, it’s editorial policy is distinctly anti-science. Over the years I and other science bloggers have taken to frequent “damage control” – pointing out the scientific absurdity of the regular bloggers at the HuffPo – including Deepak Chopra, Dana Ullman, and a host of anti-vaccine loons.

There terrible scientific content on HuffPo is not an accident, or simply the result of poor editorial oversight. It appears to be the result of the deliberate editorial intent of the higher ups at HuffPo – the promotion of New Age and alternative medicine nonsense.

As a result of this realization, most science bloggers have given up on the HuffPo. It is a problem to be dealt with, and there is essentially no hope (at least not under the current editors) of any meaningful improvement. It is a lost cause.

Vernon, however, thinks that the HuffPo can be used to popularize science, and to undo some of the damage from within the HuffPo itself, by forming a science section. His goals are noble, but his defense of this particular strategy ignores established facts and relies upon some transparent logical fallacies to deal with his critics. He writes:

With this in mind, I feel that a well-managed “Science” section on HuffPo could become a respected voice for science. When I say “well-managed” I mean the stories, articles and blog posts on the “science” section must meet very basic criteria:
1) The stories must be based on peer-reviewed science as is true for any other science publication.
2) The authors of the articles and blog posts must be qualified “science” communicators. Qualified means they must understand and respect the value of the peer-review process of science and they must apply this to their own work.
3) It must be explicitly stated on the “science” section that articles appearing in other HuffPo sections shall not be considered “scientific” unless they also meet the criteria described in 1 and 2.

But there are two important questions to address. The first is whether or not a truly editorially independent science section is possible at the HuffPo. History says no. The HuffPo edits and censors science, and promoted woo and pseudoscience. As many have already pointed out, a science section at the HuffPo is certain to be infiltrated by the promoters of pseudoscience, who now have a “respectable” section in which to promote their nonsense. It may not happen immediately, but the chances are overwhelming that a science section int he HuffPo would eventually become a disaster.

The second question is this – even if successful, what would it accomplish and is the price worth it? Vernon suggests that this would be a good way to expose many readers to good science. This may be true, but there are other venues for promoting science that are not tainted, as the HuffPo is. He has not made a case that the HuffPo provides a unique opportunity or venue for the promotion of science. Further – what is the effect of having legitimate science nuzzled up against the seething pseudoscience in the rest of the HuffPo (even without contamination?) The promoters of pseudoscience do not play fair – it is inevitable that any legitimate scientist lending their credibility to the HuffPo science section will be exploited to lend legitimacy to the other sections in which pseudoscience is rampant.

Vernon’s answer to this is a massive straw man, which I think explains his differences with other science bloggers. He discusses the “Pepsigate” affair at Scienceblogs – Scienceblogs allowed Pepsi to pay them for a blog, and the science bloggers objected. Vernon writes:

The “enemy” entered their territory and rather than rallying together to insist that the “enemy” change its ways or exit the field, the scientists took their ball and went home.  This epitomizes the elitist mentality that these bloggers and writers rail against when talking about science communication.

Vernon is making the classic mistake of confusing quality control and transparency with “elitism.” We have come to expect this from the Discovery Institute and denialists in general, but it’s a bit shocking coming from a science communicator. The issues that the science bloggers had was the blurring of the lines between paid advertisements and science content. Pepsi wanted to infiltrate a science blogging community to promote its commercial interests on the sly – masquerading as science reporting. The bloggers there were right to object. They also had issues with lack of transparency and communication from Seed Media Group who hosts Scienceblogs – this was in no way the pouting response of elitists that Vernon makes it out to be.

Popular science bloggers are familiar with such infiltration tactics. We are often sent unsolicited “guest posts” which are nothing but marketing campaigns. I was offered a text add for my blog – but not labeled as an advertisement, rather they wanted the link slipped into the body of my blog posts so that the reader would not know it was a paid ad. These are just a couple of examples. The science blogging community is correct to be vigilant about attempts by commercial interests to infiltrate science reporting for marketing purposes.

Conclusion

The big picture here is that the internet has made it easier to communicate science (and all kinds of news) to the public, but at the same time has created new challenges for quality control and transparency. The community of online science communicators (through blogs, reference sites, podcasts, and other kinds of content) are entering new territory and trying to figure out ways to deal with the opportunities and challenges presented by the internet and specifically Web 2.0 and beyond.

The main problem is that the traditional filters are no longer in place. Content from respected scientists sit along side content from ideologues, from pseudoscientists, from con artists, and from corporate interests with no easy way to distinguish among them. While we are exploring ways to create some kind of quality standard for science news online, those with other agendas are searching for ways to subvert quality control so that they can sell something or promote an ideology.

We almost daily face the challenge of balancing our goals of getting the word of science out, while maintaining quality control and not inadvertantly promoting pseudoscience by association. This is a real challenge, and Vernon is naive and more than a bit self-righteous to dismiss this as “elitism.”

With regard to the HuffPo, I agree with those who claim that the HuffPo is broken – it is hopeless and is likely to taint any science content that comes near it. A science section in HuffPo is likely to do more harm than good, despite all the best intentions.

3 comments to Science on the HuffPo

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SkepticsGuide, Shane P. Brady and LadyFriendLove, kosmofilo. kosmofilo said: #TheRoguesGallery Science on the HuffPo: Science writer JL Vernon has written a post outlining his campaign to hav… http://bit.ly/czM68w [...]

  • nighthiker

    Steven,

    I agree Vernon’s idea is naive and his arguments fallacious, but I can see where he is coming from. The problem is that scientifically illiterate people rarely visit science web sites, if ever. So, while there are plenty of trustworthy science news websites around, they fail to reach those who most need them – the concept of trying make good science available to more people, therefore, is a valid one. There are two ways of doing it: we can try to add scientific content to otherwise scientifically poor sites, or we can try to add other kinds of news to a good, science compatible site. The first is very dangerous, and the second is very expensive, but I believe that instead of dismissing such thoughts we should maybe try to figure if there’s a good way to do it.

    Maybe it’s futile to add a science section to a woo site, but it might be worthy to try to gather scientifically literate people who write about other subjects around an initiative ran by good science editors, and slowly start to attract people who ordinarily don’t like to read about science, but might have a peek after reaching the site because of a political essay or a movie review.

    In short, if we can’t have quality science sections on popular sites, maybe we should try to add other quality news to our science sites.

  • GleeDuck

    >>1) The stories must be based on peer-reviewed science as is true for any other science publication.

    I’m sure there are at least a few CAM journals that claim to be peer-reviewed – and they are, by the same quacks that promote the stuff. So, strike one.

    >>2) The authors of the articles and blog posts must be qualified “science” communicators. Qualified means they must understand and respect the value of the peer-review process of science and they must apply this to their own work.

    Ask “Dr.” Mercola, and he’ll say that he’s a qualified science communicator. Same with the dozens of other woo-peddling shysters. So, strike two.

    >>3) It must be explicitly stated on the “science” section that articles appearing in other HuffPo sections shall not be considered “scientific” unless they also meet the criteria described in 1 and 2.

    Since you’re relying on criteria that are of dubious legitimacy anyway, I’m not sure how this would work. So, strike three, and the idea’s out of there.

    Give up on HuffPo. It’s a lost cause. :/

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