Pseudoscience In Medical News at the Huffington Post

As many have pointed out, we are in the midst of a transformation in the way news is created, distributed, and monetized – all brought on by the internet. Access to information has dramatically increased, while the traditional news outlets are fading away. The new internet-based outlets that are cropping up are often hybrids that do not fit into any existing definition. Science-based medicine itself is such an outlet – it’s primarily a group professional blog, but we have editors and take submissions. We also plan to expand the type of resources available on SBM. We’re experimenting.

Others, like Plos ONE, are experimenting with open-access peer-reviewed journals. And there are online newspapers that are part blog, part news feed, part something else.

While we are in this phase of experimentation it is important to monitor quality control, as the old institutions lose their grip on the flow of information. Health information in particular, now the most common type of information on the internet, suffers from poor quality control, leading the average consumer with too much information of too low quality.

The Huffington Post, which bills itself as “The Internet Newspaper: News Blogs Video Community” is a hybrid news outlet. While it contains traditional news articles, as one would expect from any newspaper, it also has developed a reputation for publishing consistently anti-scientific blogs and articles, particularly in the area of medicine. Some of these articles would make a Weekly World News editor blush.

From one point of view, these are just personal blogs, and therefore they are the opinions of an individual published without any filter. But they are packaged as part of something that calls itself a newspaper, and this raises the question of editorial responsibility. What is the responsibility of the Huffington Post when they publish gross health misinformation on their site?

Two recent posts illustrate the problem. But to first put them into context, the Huffington Post has long been a home to anti-vaccinationists such as David Kirby and RFK Jr. It has also been an outlet for Deepak Chopra to promote his unscientific medical claims. In fact it does not seem that the problem is a lack of a quality filter for health informtion, but that there is a specific editorial policy at the Huffington Post to promote anything that goes against the scientific medical mainstream.

Antibiotics Cause Cancer?

Perhaps the single worst article I have ever read on the Huffington Post, which is saying something, is a recent article by Kim Evans in which she claims that antibiotics cause cancer.

She starts off with some reasonable premises, that antibiotics are being over-used – a problem recognized by mainstream medicine, although she is sloppy in her use of terminology. For example, she refers to the normal friendly bacteria that colonize our bodies as “probiotics”. Actually, probiotics refers to products that include live bacteria that are meant to support the normal bacterial flora in our bodies – not the bacteria themselves. This is a small point, but reflects the intellectual laziness that Evans brought to this post.

Then she launches into her ridiculous claims:

These healthy bacteria, which should be in abundance in our guts, dine on unhealthy bacteria and yeasts in our bodies, serving to keep these problems in check for us.

Actually, these healthy bacteria form the basis of our immune system — or they did until we took antibiotics because antibiotics regularly kill our healthy bacteria. And that can set you up for numerous problems down the road — including some very serious problems.

This is factually wrong, and betrays a level of ignorance of basic human biology that should preclude Evans from writing about any medical topic. Healthy bacteria do not form the basis of our immune system. Specialized human tissue and cells form the basis of our immune system. Our skin also provides an important barrier and can be considered part of our immunity.

Healthy bacteria are not part of our immune system. It is true that they play a role resisting infection because they form a stable ecosystem of bacteria and they crowd out harmful bacteria or fungus. It is also true, however, that under physiological stress healthy bacteria can become infectious.

Also, healthy bacteria do not “eat” other bacteria or fungus – again, their function is simply to crowd out infections organisms.

While overuse of antibiotics is a problem because of the rise of resistant bacteria, antibiotic use has not altered the role healthy bacteria play for our digestion and resistance to infection. Most people still have healthy bacterial ecosystems. It is true that broad-spectrum antibiotic used to treat serious infections can also kill off some of the healthy bacteria, and this can result in certain bacteria or funguses growing out of control and creating an infection. These infections can then be treated themselves, and the bacterial flora will eventually recover to normal.

There may also be a role for probiotics if taken early enough, but the effects are modest and symptomatic only. Probiotics do not restore a healthy bacterial ecosystem, and are not needed for maintenance. (Mark Crislip wrote an excellent review of this topic here.)

Evans then builds her case with this falsehood:

First, an estimated 90 percent of the population has a problem with candida overgrowth, although most don’t know it. And second, candida overgrowth can be the root cause of literally hundreds of different problems in the body.

Wrong. Candida does colonize about 90% of the population, but as part of the normal ecosystem. Most people do not have a problem with candida overgrowth. There is also no evidence that candida causes hundreds of health problems. This is a pseudoscientific claim that is not uncommon among sectarian practitioners. Candida overgrowth is a popular “fake” diagnosis that fits the common pattern – claims that it causes common non-specific symptoms and hundreds of real health problems, so that it can be diagnosed in anybody.

While candida can cause real infections, it can be treated with antifungals and usually presents only an acute illness that can be cured. Some people do have problems with recurrent infections. But there is no evidence that chronic candidiasis is an epidemic or can cause many disparate conditions. This concept of candidiasis is used as a “theory of everything”, popular among medical pseudosciences.

Evan then brings it home with this astounding claim:

It’s also fascinating that an oncologist in Rome, Dr. Tullio Simoncini, says that cancer is a fungus and actually an advanced form of candida overgrowth. You can read more in his book, Cancer is a Fungus, in which he scientifically explains that the cause of cancer “is always and only candida.” Because Dr. Simoncini is having a great deal of success eliminating cancer in the body very quickly, I believe he’s one to listen to.

Dr. Simoncini is a notorious cancer quack with bizarre claims that have not been demonstrated scientifically. In fact, they are demonstrably false. That is what Evans was leading us too with her sloppy journalism and medical falsehoods – the promotion of a typical cure for all cancers scam.

Intuitive Scanning

Next up is Margaret Ruth who recently informed Huffington Post readers about medical intuitives.  She writes:

Just as an X-ray machine scans a body in order to gain specific medical details, an intuitive scan works to provide an energetic portrait of the client. The premise is that the physical body has an energy blueprint and so the intuitive scan will look for energy blockages and areas of stress. Good health is, in general, considered to be clear flows of energy between all the chakras and easy, free functioning of all organs and body systems. Because this is an intuitive technique, scans can be done in person or from a distance with equal accuracy.

This is pure magical thinking.  A couple centuries of biological science has failed to either discover a human”energy blueprint” nor the need for any such hypothesis. The vitalists (those who believe in a life force) lost the scientific battle in the 19th century. No one who currently claims to be able to detect or manipulate vague human energy fields has been able to demonstrate that they can do so.

Yet Ruth writes about medical intuitives as if they were as established as X-rays.  She doesn’t even try to achieve the “false balance” typical of the journalistic approach to controversial scientific topics. Most journalists at least know they should cover both sides of an issue. This becomes problematic when they balance an issue that is inherently asymetrical. For example, they may give equal weight to a lone crank as they do the the solid scientific consensus of opinion.

Ruth is not even doing that – she writes as if there is no controversy at all, let alone that the scientific evidence is heavily against any notion of human energy fields or intuitive diagnosis. There is no attempt to put these claims into any scientific context – Ruth’s article is pure promotion.

She follows with an interview of two nurses who claim to be medical intuitives  – without asking any inconvenient questions about science or evidence, of course. I am curious as to why Ruth only gave their first names, without any comment. This betrays a lack of transparency necessary to good journalism and good science.


Evans article was nothing more than a thinly veiled promotion of her book on “cleansing”, devoid of anything that can be considered journalism or even basic scientific knowledge. Ruth’s article was a promotion of a dubious pseudoscientific medical claim. The readers of the Huffington Post were not well-served by either article. Readers were not given enough information to make an informed decision about the claims that were being promoted, nor even of the controversial status of the claims. They were also fed demonstrable medical falsehoods and misinformation.

This is now what I expect from the Huffington Post, which is also one of the main outlets of the anti-vaccination movement. This fatally compromises the credibility of the Huffington Post in my opinion, and raises the bigger question of what we can expect from the new breed of online blog/news hybrids.

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