Has the Huffington Post embraced science & closed the door on anti-vaccine quackery?

When I launched my Panic Virus blog on my own site back in December 2010, the second piece I posted was titled “The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005.” The takeaway of that piece could be summed up with this sentence: “The site arguably features more scientific quackery than any other mainstream media outlet.”

For whatever reason, HuffPo seemed to have a particular bee in its bonnet about vaccines and autism: If you made a list of the most irresponsible, misinformed people on the topic, it was a safe bet the majority of them had been given space for their rantings on the site. David Kirby? Check. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? Check. Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jay Gordon, and Kim Stagliano? Check, check, check, and check. There were days when the site’s main prerequisites for getting published seemed to be either a hatred of Republicans or a love of pseudoscientific quackery.

This is a theme I’ve returned to again and again (and it’s something Orac has been detailing for almost half a decade. To wit:

* Feb. 07, 2012 (sethmnookin.com): “Let me state very simply: HuffPo publishes dangerously ignorant dreck

* Feb. 11, 2012 (sethmnookin.com): “The Huffington Post‘s medical review board signs off on vaccine fear mongering

* Feb. 11, 2012 (Scientific American): “The Huffington Post and the ongoing fear that vaccines might cause autism

* May 5, 2012 (PLoS Blogs): “Pre-mature optimism about a Huffington Post shift away from anti-vaccine rhetoric

So I was somewhat surprised when a new HuffPo editor approached me about contributing to their about-to-be launched science section. It would be, he promised, a marked departure from what the site had featured in the past. Ultimately, I decided it was worth a shot…and so today, I have a new piece titled, “The Autism-Vaccine Controversy and the Need for Responsible Science Journalism.” In it, I talk about “the legacy of years of dispatches that created a false equivalency between verifiable facts and…outlandish allegations,” and I implicitly (and in one instance explicitly), point to HuffPo‘s own past.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out. The piece has only been up for a few hours and already the comments section is swarming with anti-vaccine misinformation and fear-mongering. I figure a worst-case scenario is the site uses the fig leaf of “balance” and posts another anti-vac screed in the next day or so…in which case, lesson learned. But I’m hopeful this really does signal a new direction from an indisputably major player in the new media world.

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