A persistent question–treated in this site a few times and the one for which we got banned from the Huffington Post–concerns the authority and legitimacy of authors who present themselves as experts in matters on which they are given space to comment and adjudicate.
We have followed the case of David Brooks, who as a journalist with no clear training or apparent knowledge of its rudiments, is now devoting his leisure time to write about metaethics and publish it in places that give him great projection in public discourse. Brooks, following some low-grade, yet highly visible, trends in popular psychology has decided that–lo and behold–moral principles are relative and depend on emotions. And this, as he said, “is nice”. To blame for this, first and foremost, is The New York Times which has a responsibility to its readers and who by publishing Brooks amateur metaethical musings is abusing its authority and the trust of its public.
Much like the NYT publishing Brooks’ psudo or proto-ideas, the Huffington Post has become a strange platform for Quacks. The list is truly staggering and breathtaking in scope: Deepak Chopra and Ervin Laszlo, who write on what we can probably call QuantumNeuroTheology, Matthew Stein on some version of epidemiology (Great column at scienceblogs.com), Dr. Jay Gordon on Immunology and the dangers of vaccines (Article at Sciencebasedmedicine.com), Patricia Fitzgerald on Wellness (whatever that may be though apparently it involves scrubbing your liver among other things) and so on and so forth. This are very few of a rather great list of travesties of intellectual honesty and journalistic rigor and responsibility.
The joint efforts of the Huffington Post community were labeled by Steven Novella as The Huffington Post’s War on Science (Novella’s Article) and as a reader of the TRS points out, the campaign of promotion of quackery and snake oil is one that can be counted among the mechanisms deployed against scientific literacy. But in addition, it also amounts to a serious abuse of public trust. In some sense, journalism in any of its forms ought to be understood as extracurricular education and an organization that knowingly portrays incompetence as expertise, is engaging in swindle and an abuse of public trust. No better example of this than Fox News to which we will return shortly.
Surly enough, it behooves consumers of this type of information to equip themselves with tools that will let tem distinguish differing qualities of scientific or religious claims. When in 2005 Terry Schiavo was about to be disconnected from life support after 15 years in a coma and the Republican Congress was attempting to enact a law to halt the disconnection, Fox News brought on screen a panel of ‘experts’ to discuss the case. Among them was John Edwards who in his Tv show “Crossing Over” spoke to the souls of the deceased. As an expert in paranormal communications, Edwards was asked to weigh in on the Schiavo case, he was asked if he thought if Ms. Schiavo’s soul was still in the body. Mr. Edawrds was asked by the host: “So she may not be able to talk with her brain, but she can with her soul” and he responded “But she’s clear on what’s going — and I can tell you that she’s definitely clear on what’s happening now around her.” (Column at Media Matters).
But it turns out that–as opposed to simple spiritualist chicanery, which most if not all people seem to be able to filter–quantum physics is a notably difficult area of study and it seems disingenuous to demand of readers that they be prepared to understand the fact that Chopra’s and Laszlo’s claims are bald-face lies or expressions of deep ignorance in the fields of which they speak. It seems it is too much to ask from a general readership, awareness of the schism between the classical model in physics and the quantum one so as to see how the idea of a quantum consciousness amounts to gibberish. This is the reason why editors are called in to adjudicate the quality of the work that the organization is offering.
When TRS criticized Laszlo, Chopra and their lack of credentials or cursory knowledge of the things that the Huffington Post was giving them space to discuss, TRS was banned. As Novella points out in the opening line of his column, “a common human reaction [is] to respond to criticism by attacking those leveling the criticism.” Chopra, though, got a taste of what a true open forum would be in his visit to CalTech, in which he was slapped around by Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and an auditorium of scientist as he was trying to give some strange rendition of “non-locality” as it applies to all things macroscopic such as consciousness and presumably also cows, tables and bacon cheese burgers (Full set of videos with especial emphasis on Part 3). Though publicly shamed, on matters of QuantumNeuroTheology he is still good enough to talk about QuantumNeuroTheology at Huffington Post.
Its been now two weeks since TRS has left the HuffPo. In the last few days, it seems that administrators of the site have felt compelled to response to what is presumably mounting criticism of the editorial and moderation policies of the site. (Here is my guest post response with link to the original piece at Banned from HuffPo http://bannedfromhuffpo.blogspot.com/2010/10/from-radical-secularist-hp-protests.html).