Saturday, June 6, 2009

The idea of celebrity as Authority and as such, "Expert".

The ability for an individual to shift from one side of the ideological spectrum to another based on changing facts and rationality usually reflects an ideal of principle over dogma, or country over party.

I agree with many that Huffington does have a lot of valuable insight to contribute to the worldwide political discourse. However, her expansion into other areas of study and commentary have made for some unfortunate entangling alliances. When it comes to science and medicine, she is an incredulous purveyor of snake-oil, magical thinking, and completely ineffective alternative medicine. She has given a platform to the anti-vaccination movement with several columns on her website, as well as the promotion of Jenny McCarthy's mindless "mommy instinct" and Jim Carrey's own article about the MMR legal decision that completely missed the point. (The judges asked those making the claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism to examine each incident on a case by case basis, and pick the three strongest, most air-tight cases proving the claim to present in court. They did, and they still lost. Carrey's thesis is, "But this is only 3 cases! There needs to be more study!")

Huffington, when it comes to supernatural or paranormal claims about healing or medicine, or promoting con-artists selling miracles in the form of "quantum consciousness", is tantamount to Oprah when it comes to the promotion of the bullshit that is pseudo-science.

Please do not take my word for it:

Science-blogger David Gorski (possibly also known as Orac) MD, PhD, FACS is a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer and an Associate Professor of Surgery at the Wayne State University School of Medicine based at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Relevant posts by Gorski can be found here, here and here*.
*(This last post is especially telling, as it chronicles the incidents on MSNBC's Countdown of February 11th of this year, and how Olbermann got played like a $2 banjo by an anti-vaccination kook David Kirby. In short, the Times' Investigative reporter Brian Deer uncovered that Dr Andrew Wakefield, who is the father of the crusade against vaccines, faked all his data. David Kirby, American Anti-vaxxer and blogger at Huffpo, got in touch with Olbermann after the previous night's segment, where Olbermann listed Wakefield as the WPITW. Kirby informed him that Deer and his article were products of a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch. It seems Keith is so blinded by his willingness to dogpile on Murdoch, that he showcased Deer in his "Worst Persons in the World" segment that night.)


Yale Neurologist Steven Novella is also a writer at Science-Based Medicine, but he is much more than that. He is the founder of that site, his own Neurologica blog, co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, and host/producer of "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe" (one of the Top 10 science podcasts on iTunes).
Novella has written extensively about Huffington, her site, and their nefarious relationship with woo-woo:

April 30, 2009
we engage not only with the scientific community, but also with the public, and with those on the fringes of science. This means we often engage with those who do not play by the rules of science. A recent example is that of J.B. Handley from Age of Autism. David Gorski and I (and later Mark Crislip) wrote blog entries criticizing their 14 studies website with a detailed analysis. Handley responded with a full frontal personal assault sprinkled with irrelevant accusations. He ignored the vast majority of our actual criticisms, and those few he took on he completely botched.

Sometimes the targets of scientific criticism respond with another tactic - the diversion. Rather than make an obvious ad hominem attack, they try to distract the public (often the real target of the exchange) from the points of the criticism with a series of non sequiturs. They try to “re-frame” the discussion to make it about something other than the scientific evidence.

Those who promote unscientific claims in medicine are no different. When scientists bother to examine their claims and level the sort of criticism typical of the scientific community at them, they often respond with some combination of personal attacks and distraction. Last week I criticised the Huffington Post for running a series of blogs and articles that are promoting dangerously pseudoscientific medical claims. I specifically commented on an outrageous article by Kim Evans, promoting the absurd claim that all cancers are caused by fungal infections, which in turn are caused by antibiotics. Evans has responded (sort of) with this week’s column, in which she addresses her critics, without naming anyone in particular.

Her response is right out of the pseudoscientific health claim play book, under “how to distract from legitimate criticism with logical fallacies and misdirection.” We have literally heard it all before, and have even answered much of it in detail.

June 02, 2009:
Maybe David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and one of the major proponents of the notion that thimerosal in vaccines was largely responsible for the recent increase in autism diagnoses, is sincere when he claims he is not anti-vaccine. I say that because he has backed so far off from his stance that vaccines are the culprit - not completely, and without overtly acknowledging his past errors, but has put some significant distance between him current position and his prior certainty.

He coyly insists he was just asking questions, but the book makes a strong and, in my opinion, one sided case that there is “evidence of harm” - specifically evidence that thimerosal was a major contributor to autism. It also builds a case for a grand conspiracy to hide this fact from the public. Kirby then made a career out of promoting the notion of a link between vaccines and autism with government and professional malfeasance. He became a hero of the anti-vaccine movement.

Yet he insisted, implausibly, he was not “anti-vaccine.” As recently as December 2007 Kirby was writing this nonsense in the Huff Po:

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn’t we throw some research dollars into studying them?

By this time the handwriting was on the wall - thimerosal in vaccines is not linked to autism. After moving the goalpost several times on the evidence, it could be moved no longer. The removal of thimerosal from the routine vaccine schedule by 2002 was followed by a continued increase in autism disgnoses - without even a blip. The predicted (by Kirby and others) precipitous decrease in autism diagnoses never came.

Kirby and the anti-vaccine crowd moved quietly over to the other ingredients in vaccines, in what has been called their “toxin gambit.” This move, more than anything else, is what convinced me that this was all really about being anti-vaccine. The MMR vaccine was vindicated. Now thimerosal was vindicated. So there must be something else in those vaccines that’s the problem - even though there is no evidence to link vaccines at all to autism.


Any public figure lending credence to dangerous practices, whether they are informed about politics or no, needs to be addressed and set straight as publicly as possible.

For further example of what I mean, Jesse Ventura has been very very valuable voice on the subject of torture in the last few months, however, just because of his admirable stance on one "no-brainer" issue, doesn't mean he doesn't deserve criticism for some of the ridiculous things he does believe and states publicly (Ventura is a New World Order conspiracy theorist, and a 9/11Truther).

Celebrities have no extra credentials or faculties beyond our own abilities. They are not a pantheon of Roman or Greek gods, but we as a nation and a culture, lend them our credulity because they are a face and a voice that everyone recognizes. They have told us about a good book that we should read. They have made us laugh and cry with them. And they've gotten famous for being big-titted and picking their noses on MTV.

To quote Charles Pierce:

The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents -- for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power -- the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense." The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the "yuck factor." The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

It's a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, "faith-based," a cheap huckster's phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It's a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.

After all, faith is about the heart and soul and about transcendence. Anything calling itself faith-based is admitting that it is secular and profane. In the way that it relies on the Gut to determine its science, its politics, and even the way it sends its people to war, Idiot America is not a country of faith; it's a faith-based country, fashioning itself in the world, which is not the place where faith is best fashioned.

Hofstadter saw this one coming. "Intellect is pitted against feeling," he wrote, "on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical."

The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
2) Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

UPDATE: Oprah Responds to Newsweek:
"For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors' medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers," Winfrey said in the statement. "I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them."


The Bad Astronomer, JREF President, Author, Science Educator, and self-described "anal dickhead",
Dr. Phil Plait, Ph. D., the floor is yours:

That, to be blunt, is baloney. First off, it’s wrong. She pounds home the New Age nonsense from Somers and McCarthy, giving them a platform to relentlessly mislead and misinform people millions at a time, and on those shows rarely gives more than very brief lip service to actual medical research.

Second, it’s at best a cop-out to say that her viewers will do more research. She has to know that’s almost certainly not true! The Oprah imprimatur can rocket a book up the best-selling list, as it has for Somers and McCarthy, as well as many others. Clearly, a vast horde of people will go out and buy what she tells them to because she’s the one who told them to.

And what she’s telling them to buy is dangerous medical nonsense.

In other words, for 23 years Oprah has gotten rich promoting hours upon hours of credulous nonsense that doesn't pass even the most basic smell test or scrutiny. Failed diets, Bunk theories of self-actualization, untested and medically averse health regimes, all shown on Oprah's show with her reaction shot always being an attentive, riveted nodding of her head. Nah, her tacit approval or lack of skepticism wouldn't be evidence enough to suggest that her audience seek a second opinion would it? And besides, Oprah loves helping people, and if she didn't love it, why would she keep doing what she does?

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