Given her site's controversial history of handling scientific topics, Arianna Huffington's thoughtful and excited-sounding announcement about the new Huffington Post Science section left at least one of the site's new contributors scratching his head a little bit. Journalist, author and MIT Lecturer Seth Mnookin joined an impressive list of big names -- including Sir Richard Branson and Nobel Laureate George Smoot -- in the inaugural batch of blog posts at HuffPost Science. But as a vocal critic of HuffPost's history of controversy when covering scientific topics, he did so with some reservations.
"From my perspective it's never been clear if The Huffington Post approach towards science was the result of some conscious decision that someone made or if, for a series of unrelated reasons, it ended up becoming an outpost for quackery," Mnookin told The Atlantic Wire, specifically mentioning the site's having published questionable anti-vaccination posts. "I can imagine either being true." But having signed up to contribute, he's hopeful it's the former. "I guess I would like to be an optimist," Mnookin said.
Mnookin went into depth about "the need for responsible science journalism" in his first HuffPost Science blog post but he took to his personal blog at the Public Library of Science to explain why he decided to write for The Huffington Post at all. As The Panic Virus, a book about the dangers of promoting the idea that vaccinations can somehow lead to developmental disorders, Mnookin is astutely aware of and concerned with HuffPost's history of promoting these ideas. To quote his PLoS post, which came out in tandem with his debut at HuffPost Science:
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.
What follows are a series of links to stories he's written criticizing The Huffington Post for its anti-vaccine rhetoric. Last February, Mnookin lit into the site for publishing a story by David Kirby that addresses the debate about the link between autism and vaccines that underwent a "vetting process by a newly installed Medical Review Board. While HuffPost's editors insisted that the piece "doesn't say there is an autism link for sure… rather the jury's still out," Mnookin fears that the speculation alone is a dangerous thing.
There is something to be said about the value of reasonable debate. And bringing this open forum mentality into a new area of coverage remains The Huffington Post's motivation in launching yet another section. "The launch of HuffPost Science underscores not only our commitment to evidence-based science, but to providing a forum for curious minds to explore questions not yet answered," Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz said in a statement. "We believe in providing a platform to bloggers from a variety of disciplines and points of view -- indeed, we welcomed Seth Mnookin’s critique, and regularly present multiple sides of hotly debated issues."
It's been nearly a year since that David Kirby column, and for The Huffington Post, it's been quite a year. With the influx of resources provided by its new parent, AOL, the once scrappy site aims to compete with legacy media brands like The New York Times and The Washington Post. In doing so, they've been scooping up talent around town and hiring talented editors away from their would-be competitors. If anybody had doubts about The Huffington Post's commitment to journalism, the story goes, The Huffington Post would just hire as many high caliber journalists as it could. And that's exactly what happened leading up to the launch of HuffPost Science. HuffPost wooed David Freeman, veteran science expert and former managing editor of CBSNews.com's health section, who said in his first blog post on the site that "HuffPost Science aims to entertain as well as inform." Extra emphasis on the latter. "Given the pluses and minuses, my hope is that HuffPost Science sparks a well-informed conversation about science -- opinionated, yes, but never mean-spirited," Freeman explained.
Freeman's emphasis on accuracy and strong track record is just what won Mnookin over. "[David] wanted me to contribute and was very vocal about the fact that this was going to be a pro-science section that adhered to strong standards. And David certainly has a good track record," Mnookin told us, adding that he'd worked with Freeman a bit a CBS. "From the first time we talked he's always struck me as someone who's incredibly smart and also very responsible. Again, my most optimistic reading its that Arianna wouldn't have hired someone like him if she wasn't interested in doing this the right way."
Mnookin's critical, self-aware perspective seems like an integral part of HuffPost's broader quest for greater relevance. Sharing space on a page with other unpaid bloggers who can write about what they want, when they want with limited oversight from editors can be a dangerous thing. (It's unclear if and when the Medical Review Board will vet science content.) This, perhaps, is how The Huffington Post become a repository for controversial theories about health and science. Furthermore, when sharing a page with headlines like "PHOTOS: Weirdest Animal Mating Practices," "Did Columbus Bring Syphilis to Europe" and "Will 'Frankenfood' Save The Planet Or Just Gross Out Consumers" it's understandable that more serious science writers would worry about being taken, err, seriously.
More than anything, however, Mnookin says that it's up to HuffPost, and its approach to facts that matter most. Even the blog posts on the lefthand side of the page ought to be held to a certain standard of journalism. "At some point they're going to need to confront the fact that they're going to want to play in the sand box with The New York Times, The Washington Post and other places but not obey any of the rules that are used in journalism," said the journalist. "I would certainly like to give the site the benefit of the doubt which is why I decided to post there."
And The Huffington Post is happy to have him. "We look forward to furthering a great scientific tradition by starting conversations, fostering civil discussion and welcoming a wide range of voices to discuss scientific ideas, discoveries and mysteries," Ruiz concluded.
Disclosure: I worked as an editor on the social news team at HuffPost from 2009 to 2010.