Should the news site label its columnists and editors as “doctors” when they don’t have medical degrees?
Peter Lipson, an internist who specializes in the prevention and treatment of illness, doesn’t remember exactly when he first began criticizing health-related articles at the Huffington Post, but his agitation has reached its apogee over the past few weeks. During that time the health section — placed within the larger “Living” tab — has published articles claiming possible links between vaccinations and autism, a piece on colon cleansing and detox, and a swine flu article stating that Americans should “stay home as much as possible,” “avoid public places unnecessarily,” and “get some surgical face masks and wear one when you need to be in public places, even if you feel a little foolish and until others have caught on.”
Lipson is a blogger for ScienceBlogs, run by Seed Media Group, and has been writing a series of critical pieces attempting to debunk the claims in many of these articles. He isn’t the only one; several of the other science bloggers under the same domain have been piling on as well, and recently two of them have gone after the credibility of “Dr.” Patricia Fitzgerald, a ” licensed acupuncturist, certified clinical nutritionist, and a homeopath,” who has received a “Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a Doctorate in Homeopathic Medicine.” She also — to the science bloggers’ disdain — happens to be the Huffington Post’s “wellness” editor (an email sent to the website requesting comment for this piece was not returned).
“Part of it is a misrepresentation of qualifications,” Lipson told me in a phone conversation. “They started putting the word ‘Dr’ in front of everyone’s name — more or less for anyone who has a doctorate in something or other — and Patricia Fitzgerald claims to have a doctorate in homeopathy, whatever that is. Homeopathy is a completely discredited fantasy. When you give that kind of credibility — I mean first you invite them to a well-known mainstream outlet, you let them call themselves a doctor when they’re not really qualified, and then you let them interview other people and present them as professionals — it just layers on and layers on.”
It would be different if they admitted up front that these stories were all editorial in nature, the internist said, and presented them as such. He compared the method of fact checking in the health section of HuffPo to that of the Gray Lady. “They need to exercise some kind of journalistic integrity,” Lipson said. “When you read the New York Times, whether you agree with what they do or not — people can argue about the quality having gone down — but when you read the editorial pages and you read the news, you know there’s some editing going on. You know they don’t just say, ‘write whatever you want and we’ll throw our name above it.’ They have real editors.”
As a point of reference, Fitzgerald recently wrote a post about actress and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy and her book, Healing and Preventing Autism. “Jenny McCarthy and thousands of concerned parents, doctors, and health advocates aren’t just waiting for an official cure,” Fitzgerald wrote. “They’re finding answers, and getting results.” (italics in the original) The article states that McCarthy promotes “biomedical intervention” and the actress claims that “thousands of children have improved with this type of therapy.”
Inevitably, the article does touch upon McCarthy’s claims about possible dangers from the “excessive” use of vaccines. Fitzgerald writes at the end of this section, “The autism-vaccine link is being studied because there are actual concerns that warrant these studies. Some studies support the use of certain vaccines, while other studies do not. Often there are conflicts of interest within studies. It can make anybody’s head spin trying to sort through these studies.”
Given that the vaccine-autism links are widely rejected by the scientific and medical community, this “two-sideism,” as Lipson calls it, is infuriating.
“It is irresponsible and it’s immoral,” he said. “They’re allowed to write whatever they want — I make that clear. But they should show some editorial fortitude that there are some lines that you shouldn’t cross. It’s an idealogical problem.”