Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The truth gets its pants on? A lie is flushed? Tough call.

DougJ calls attention to a post on Salon that says they have decided to delete from their site a 2005 article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. That article played a big part in helping to push the myth, now thoroughly debunked, that vaccines caused autism.

The piece was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine -- they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running "Deadly Immunity," we amended the story with five corrections (which can still be found logged here) that went far in undermining Kennedy's exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece -- and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency -- was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book "The Panic Virus," further eroded any faith we had in the story's value. We've grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.

I appreciate the difficulty of making this call. (Where is the Blogger Ethics Panel when you need it??) On one hand, you don't want to leave up bad information for someone to stumble across and believe, and you don't want your site's good name sullied by accusations that you still have it up, so you're part of the problem and just as bad as HuffPo. On the other hand, there's just something wrong-feeling about trying to flush stuff down the memory hole. It is generally considered good Netiquette to leave your mistakes up, though you're encouraged to make (noted) corrections in place and/or place a prominent notice that the piece is wrong and you no longer stand behind it.

The point is somewhat moot, of course, since the story has long since been reposted all over the Web. (As a trained contrarian, I'd say this fact could be used equally well in support of keeping it up or taking it down.)

I guess I would like to see Salon put up a post at the original URL explaining what happened -- a brief history of the myth and a well-linked summary describing how it was debunked. Some mention of the consequences of the pervasiveness of the myth would be in order, as well -- children did get sick, and in some cases, die of diseases that could have prevented. And we as a society are not recovered yet -- my "thoroughly debunked" above notwithstanding, vaccination rates are still down from where they were before this nonsense started and lots of misguided parents are still listening to Jenny McCarthy, et al. I'm not calling for Salon to fall on its sword or get sued or anything like that, but it would be good to be clear about what can happen when junk science, charlatans, and celebrities start pushing an idea and the media don't do a good enough and fast enough job looking into the whole story. Once a story like X causes Y!!!1! gets established, there will be a hard core of people who flock to the original claim and then cling to it no matter what, who will dismiss out of hand all negative findings, no matter how credible the researchers. It's very hard to prove a negative; it's nearly impossible when you've got a crowd of well-publicized conspiracy theorists howling "government/Big Industry cover-up!!!1!" every step of the way. It kind of breaks my heart to be watching basketball on TV to see how many PSAs are being run to encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated. So that they don't get some disease I only read about, in old books, when I was a kid.

Salon does get points. They were wrong to run the story originally, but they kept at it, repeatedly trying to get it right. They owned up to their mistakes. They made a considered decision instead of going into bunker mode. They are being open about the process. And finally, they now have some good information on this topic their site. I think they could do a better job in how they've handled the decision to remove the piece, that's all.


[Update 2011-01-18 23:32] The redirection problem described below appears to have been fixed, at least as far as the two URLs mentioned are concerned.

P.S. Just to be a fussbudget about this: Later in the same post quoted above, Salon says:

The story's original URL now links to our autism topics page, which we believe now offers a strong record of clear thinking and skeptical coverage we're proud of -- including the critical pursuit of others who continue to propagate the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.

However, at this moment, Googling as I did with the all over link above shows Salon's story at http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2005/06/16/thimerosal/, and clicking that link leads to a 404 page ("File not found"), not a redirect as is claimed. The story is also listed elsewhere in Google results as being located at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/06/16/thimerosal, and clicking that link gives a 410 page ("Page Has Been Removed.")

I grant that sites get reorganized and Google spiders work in mysterious ways, but still, whatever Salon thinks it means by "original URL," it looks like a little more work has to be done.

No comments: