Sep 29 2009

Science Bloggers Pigpile on HuffPo

And with good reason.

I am a bit late to the latest round of this party, but as I have previously pointed out, The Huffington Post has been since its inception a bastion of pseudoscience, especially in the medical field. Like distressingly many news outlets, it has decided to abandon all pretense of being “fair and balanced” in its actual content when it comes to its ideological stance.

Arianna Huffington clearly is enamored of anti-scientific pseudomedical nonsense. Earlier in her career she wrote for and frequently appeared on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher – another quack-friendly media personality.

So it is no surprise that the HuffPo has been a haven for unscientific dangerous medical misinformation. Specifically, writers for the HuffPo, including David Kirby, have consistently taken an anti-vaccine stance.

The science blogging community just can’t keep up with the steady stream of medical stupid coming from the HuffPo, but occasionally an article or group of articles reaches a critical mass of stupid and triggers a response. Such is the case recently.

Peter Lipson at Science-Based Medicine and Orac at Respectful Insolence point out that Dana Ullman, a notorious apologist for homeopathy, an absurd and discredited medical cult, has started blogging for the HuffPo. If Arianna wanted to further drag down the overall scientific quality of her news site (a difficult task), Ullman was a good choice.

His first post, as Peter says, is an “ignorant load of goat droppings.” Essentially, Ullman argues that symptoms are the body’s way of fighting disease, and that by treating symptoms real doctors are impairing the body’s attempts to heal itself naturally. This is pure ideological nonsense, or crap-based medicine, as we call it.

Real life is far more complex than Ullman’s childish straw men. Sometimes symptoms have nothing to do with the body’s reaction to a disease or infection, it is a symptom of a primary malfunction of the body. The hands shake in Parkinson’s disease because cells in the brain that regulate movement have died, and now the system is malfunctioning. We cannot fix or replace these lost brain cells – but we are working on it. We are approaching the problem from every conceivable angle – slowing down the rate of degeneration, or even replacing the cells with new ones. So far any gains in this area have been minimal at best.

But, we can partly compensate for the lost cells pharmacologically, by replacing their lost function. This reduces symptoms, and dramatically increases function and quality of life. Scientists have even obsessed for years over the question of if particular treatments might accelerate the degeneration of neurons, because we wanted to be sure that the treatments were not having any unintended consequences. The evidence so far is reassuring that treatments do not worsen long term outcomes.

Every symptom of every disease requires a similarly complex and individual assessment – not blanket and self-serving ideology.

Ullman basically gets everything wrong – so he should feel right at home at the HuffPo.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, takes on Frank Lipman who brought out the anti-vax crazy for the HuffPo. Yes, that’s right, Frank Lipman, even though he has an MD after his name, was just pwned by an astronomer about a medical issue.

Lipman essentially advises not to get the flu vaccine because there is insufficient evidence for its safety and effectiveness. I respect this approach to a medical question – assessing the evidence. But then Lipman goes on to recommend that instead people rely upon a host of quackery with even less evidence – including homeopathy. This is not just stupid, it’s hypocritical.

Lipman basically misrepresents the evidence to make his point. On his website he cites Cochrane database reviews, arguing that they show the flu vaccine doesn’t work. But the very reviews he cites, for healthy adults, for example, conclude:

Influenza vaccines are effective in reducing cases of influenza, especially when the content predicts accurately circulating types and circulation is high. However, they are less effective in reducing cases of influenza-like illness and have a modest impact on working days lost. There is insufficient evidence to assess their impact on complications. Whole-virion monovalent vaccines may perform best in a pandemic.

In fact the review shows that the vaccine is 90% effective when the strain in the vaccine matches the strain that is going around that season, but this effectiveness drops to 50% when the strains do not match. This means that the flu vaccine works, but there is room for improvement. Yet amazingly Lipman reads this and concludes that the vaccine does not work and recommends that people do not get it.

The same is true of the other subgroups he cites – the evidence shows the flu vaccine works, but Lipman still manages to get the bottom line wrong. He also ignores the fact that focusing on subgroups misses a major advantage of the vaccine – herd immunity. The best way to prevent the flu is to keep it from spreading, and that’s what herd immunity does, but that requires high rates of vaccine compliance.

All of these shenanigans at the HuffPo have motivated the most popular science blogger, PZ Myers, to advise his readers to boycott the HuffPo, and to yearn for its demise.

Some of us in the science blogging community have wondered aloud if our criticism of the anti-science at the HuffPo is even being noticed. A few months ago it seemed that the editors of the HuffPo blinked at all this criticism – maybe resulting in a brief flirtation with some actual science writing over there, but clearly after reflection they have abandoned scientific legitimacy.

The Huffington Post now seems hopeless.

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