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Posted by on Aug 1, 2010 in Media | 0 comments

Quoted Out Of Context: NYT On ScienceBlogs Controversy

It’s not been two weeks since Andrew Breitbart published videos that presented Shirley Sherrod as a racist by quoting her out of context. Now, in Sunday’s New York Times (posted online on Saturday), Virginia Heffernan demonstrates that print journalists aren’t immune from the temptation of embellishment via quote-mining.

This time, the butt of the out-of-context quotes are two science bloggers, and fellow scientists immediately jumped to their defense.

Heffernan may have valid points in her essay, or she may be completely off track. The problem is that her choice to selectively quote two folks and then hold them up as poster-children for her argument sullies everything else she asserts.

Here’s her quote-mining, presented as evidence to her claim that “ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling” and that the sites are full of folks who “jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers.”

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” [emphasis added]

What did GrrlScientist actually say, in context? It turns out that her contempt was directed at Pepsi and ScienceBlogs, not at “fat people” as the excerpt implies. And Pepsi was at the heart of the controversy* that has turned ScienceBlogs end-over-end. Here we go, in full:

It’s taken me a few hours to cool off enough to write coherently and without using (too much) profanity after I learned that ScienceBlogs added a corporate PR “blog” about nutrition written by PepsiCo. I think I’ve learned all I care to know about corporate “food” giants’ definition of what is “nutrition” by being confronted daily by a flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go (yes, even here in Germany).

Surely Heffernan would not argue that Pepsi products are, in general, either healthy or nutritious. For example:

A research team from Princeton University has found that rats who consume high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS), the US’s most common sweetener, gain significantly more weight than rats who consume normal table sugar, despite consuming the same number of calories.

The sweetener used in Pepsi products: high-fructose corn syrup. (Not just Pepsi, mind you. Coke is right there, shoulder-to-shoulder. And just about every other food conglomerate.)

What about Mark Hoofnagle’s quote? (Note, Heffernon didn’t link to his essay — why is that?) Hoofnagle is responding to a series in The New Scientist on denialism. Denialism, to quote Hoofnagle’s own publication, occurs “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

Specifically, Hoofnagle is taking issue with Deborah MacKenzie, who wrote Why Sensible People Reject the Truth. MacKenzie claims, “There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work.” Hoofnagle responds to the claim:

This is demonstrably false, as we have encountered denialists who do deny the efficacy of antibiotics and all of Western medicine, as their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.

Hoofnagle is asserting that his experience as a general surgery resident runs counter to MacKenzie’s claim. Both authors are asking the reader to “trust me.”

This advisory from the Florida Department of Health sheds some light on the topic. Florida regulations “allow for exemption from immunization for religious tenets or practices only.” The advisory continues: “if an individual objects to immunization, then you should expect him to be opposed to routine drug and/or medical intervention such as, but not limited to. over-the-counter medications, antibiotics, x-rays, or filling cavities.” [emphasis added]

Was Hoofnagle “jeer[ing]… at churchgoers” as Heffernon claims? Not in my book. Was his “New Age Nonsense” dismissive (and in my opinion a sweeping indictment)? Yes. Would his argument have been more compelling had he not included this phrase? I think this answer is also yes. But I understand how the steady drip-drip-drip that is not water torture but an ongoing offensive against science could lead to frustration and sharp tongues.

The sad fact is that America is scientifically illiterate: half of us don’t “know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.” In 2007, Michigan State University professor Jon Miller reported that “70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

We are willfully illiterate when it comes to science, and that is a far more serious issue than the faux “analysis” that Heffernan offers, an “analysis” that adds to the growing distrust of “mainstream” media.

* For a rundown on the ScienceBlogs controversy from June, see this piece in TheGuardian.

Much consternation over at the home of science blogging, ScienceBlogs. The forum for the brilliant Orac, Pharyngula, Molecule of the Day, and countless other insightful, funny and informative blogs has decided upon a bizarre new strategy in sourcing new posts. As of yesterday, the platform will host a new blog written by food giant PepsiCo, all about the company’s specialist subject of refreshing sugary drinks and their benefits for dental and dietary health.

Sorry, no, PepsiCo’s scientific staff will be writing about nutrition on the new Food Frontiers blog. I’ll give you a moment to get back on your chair.