The Huffington Post’s announcement last week that it had launched a new section intended to be a “one-stop shop for the latest scientific news and opinion” incited a flurry of circumspect commentary about whether or not the site was turning over “a new leaf” in science coverage.
Over the years, The Huffington Post has drawn widespread criticism for publishing misleading columns about health and medicine in particular, which have alleged spurious connections between vaccines and autism, antibiotics and cancer, and enemas and flu protection. A variety of doctors, scientists, and journalists have gone as far as accusing the site of waging a “war on science.”
Nonetheless, one of The Huffington Post’s fiercest critics, freelance journalist and author Seth Mnookin, wondered whether the site had “closed the door on pseudoscientific quackery” with the creation of its new section. On launch day, it even published a column from Mnookin expounding on “the need for responsible science journalism.”
Mnookin told The Atlantic Wire that David Freeman—who left a job as managing editor of the health section at CBSNews.com to become The Huffington Post’s new science editor—persuaded him to contribute, adding that Freeman’s professional track record is reassuring.
“From the first time we talked he’s always struck me as someone who’s incredibly smart and also very responsible,” Mnookin said. “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.”
Freeman, though, says he doesn’t consider the new section to be a critical juncture in The Huffington Post’s treatment of science. Asked about past criticisms, Freeman said in an interview:
I don’t see this as a before-and-after. It’s a continuum and I think that launching the science vertical is an expression of The Huffington Post’s desire to cover evidence-based science. We will be controversial. Science is by nature about putting information out there and having it criticized. That’s the way journals work, of course.
The point is, we’re all about putting forth science information, and one of the things that The Huffington Post is famous for is reaching out to large numbers of people and fostering civil discussion with lots of viewpoints. I will say, however, that these viewpoints are going to make it onto the page only if they’re from people who really have the scientific credentials and we do have a vetting process to make sure these people have the cred to participate.
It’s understandable that Freeman wouldn’t want to speak ill of his new employer. Most of The Huffington Post’s shoddy science coverage has come from health writers, who published in the Living section until October 2010, when the site launched a Health section, which became the Healthy Living section in May 2011. (There is also a Green section, launched in May 2008, which has done mostly admirable work, publishing some good series on topics like global water issues and sharp reporting by journalists like Dan Froomkin.)
One hopes, though, that Freeman does, in fact, recognize that the science section is an opportunity to make an important break from the past. A “continuum” is not what the public needs. Indeed, in a column introducing the new science section, Arianna Huffington, the site’s founder and editor in chief, denounced abuses and misrepresentations of science:
There’s no better time than now to launch a venue that explores these questions, given the explosion of truly medieval thinking in our world — and not just on the fringes. It’s a world in which we have senators and presidential candidates who don’t believe in evolution and who think that global warming is a myth. A world in which politicians don’t just have their own set of ideas but their own set of facts.
Freeman was reluctant to say that watchdogging political distortions of science would be a priority, but the section has already run good columns by Peter Gleick, Chris Mooney, Shawn Lawrence Otto, and Jamil Zaki criticizing Republicans for taking “anti-science” positions.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much original reporting since last week’s launch. Critics such as the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit and Paul Raeburn have pointed out that, true to Huffington form, most of the section’s content has been syndicated content from other outlets, synopses of other outlets’ content, and essays from well known voices in the worlds of science, policy, and industry.