HuffPo Health: a post-fact zone

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Arianna Huffington has created a home for cranks and charlatans of all types on the health page of the Huffington Post. On HuffPo Health there is no claim too absurd to justify publication, even if (perhaps especially if) it has already been thoroughly debunked and is presented by an entertainment celebrity. In other words, HuffPo Health is a post-fact zone.

The term was coined by Farhad Manjoo in his 2008 book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. As Manjoo explains, we live in a society that not only promotes belief over fact, but justifies belief in utterly discredited claims by promoting belief AS fact.

…[I]n order to avoid cognitive dissonance, we all seek out information that jibes with our beliefs and avoid information that conflicts with them. While the theory is controversial, there’s ample evidence that selective exposure plays a role in how people parse the news today. Survey data show that folks on the right and folks on the left now swim in very different news pools. Right-wing blogs link to righty sites, while left-wing blogs link to lefty sites.

In a post-fact world, it does not matter if a claim is objectively demonstrated as untrue. The claimants just go on making the claim as if it were true. The Republican Right has fabricated a claim that Barack Obama was not born a US citizen, a claim that has absolutely no basis in reality. It has been discredited thoroughly and repeatedly in the mainstream media, yet the “birthers” continue to receive sympathetic treatment in the right wing media.

Similarly, on HuffPo Health, it doesn’t matter that the claim that vaccination causes autism has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited in the scientific literature and it doesn’t matter that national and international data shows that as the vaccination level has dropped off in first world countries the incidence of autism diagnoses has continue to rise. On HuffPo Health, vaccine rejectionists, particularly celebrity vaccine rejectionists, continue to receive sympathetic treatment.

Arianna Huffington offers a platform for alternative health nonsense because she believes in alternative health nonsense. In the post-fact world belief is the same as fact.

How can the reader tell the difference between scientific fact and belief masquerading as fact? Consider the approach recommended by Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine in the UK. Ernst has spent his career analyzing the claims of alternative and complementary medicine and has found most to be absurd

When confronted with a ‘suspicious claim’, my advice is to first check whether it is testable and whether it has already been tested…

Often a review of the scientific literature will show that the claim has been debunked. But what happens if the evidence is contradictory or incomplete? According to Ernst we should first consider if a claim is scientifically plausible:

Plausibility relates to the question whether the claim and its underlying assumptions are in agreement with the known facts. If, for instance, homeopaths tell us that less is more or that nothing is something, we have little difficulty in showing that this is not supported by the known laws of nature…

Finally we should examine the claim for specific hallmarks of charlatanism:

Intolerance: Many PACs are consumed with evangelic zeal and find it hard to accept or even consider well-reasoned criticism or debate…

Selectivity: Most PACs tend to ignore facts that contradict their own assumptions. Instead they favor selected anomalous data or anecdotal findings which apparently support their notions… In arguing their case, PACs often seem to first formulate their conclusions, then selectively identify those bits of information that apparently confirm them.

Paranoia: Many PACs believe in conspiracy theories which posit that ‘the establishment’ is determined to suppress their views or findings… Anyone who points out what the evidence really shows is likely to be accused of being part of the conspiracy…

Utilizing this approach makes it clear that HuffPo Health does not simply present belief over facts; it presents beliefs (especially Arianna Huffington’s beliefs) as if they are facts.