A few months ago, I discussed the ineptitude of modern-day journalism. Specifically, I picked on some blowhards and relics from the Columbia Journalism Review.
Well, the latest issue of CJR arrived in my mailbox the other day, and in addition to the obligatory tear-stained “obits” for downsized reporters, it has an inexcusably lazy piece of writing by Alissa Quart.
In a story called “The Trouble With Experts,” Quart begins by excoriating Jenny McCarthy, the brain-dead figurehead of the anti-vaccine movement. Now, I’m fine with that. McCarthy deserves all the criticism she gets. She’s a menace to public health.
But Quart’s next move is to make the sort of moronic comparison that only a “fair-minded” journalist can in providing “balanced” and “objective” reporting. She characterizes the acclaimed medical blogger “Orac” as the pro-vaccine equivalent of McCarthy. In verbose, pompous fashion, she suggests that Orac is no more qualified to speak on medical issues than McCarthy is.
This suggestion is so fraught with stupidity and tortured logic that it makes use of the word “refudiate
” seem scholarly. Had Quart demonstrated even a tiny awareness of Orac’s background, it might have made her position a bit stronger. (Not much, but a little.) Instead, she writes:
And then there’s Orac, McCarthy’s opposite number. Orac is the nom de blog of someone who writes that he is a “surgeon/scientist.” He’s another self-appointed autism expert but, unlike McCarthy, Orac attacks the vaccines-cause-autism set. He recently delighted in the downfall of a telegenic anti-vaccine doctor in England, for example, who finally lost his license. We, the audience, don’t know who Orac really is, although he has taken on a leading role as a debunker of the autism-vaccine link.
“We the audience don’t know who Orac really is”?
Um…what? It takes about 5 minutes for a visitor at Orac’s blog, Respectful Insolence, to deduce that Orac is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. Additionally, he is:
In short, Orac and the individuals with whom he consorts professionally are what you might call medical “experts.” Jenny McCarthy, on the other hand, is a celebrity with terrible ideas and easy access to Oprah, which makes her almost as dangerous as a nuclear warhead.
Not that any of this would interest Quart, who’s stymied by the the impenetrable and mystery-laden pseudonym of “Orac.”
Allow me to help with this puzzle.
From what I can glean, Orac uses a pseudonym because he doesn’t want Google-savvy patients to conflate his semi-caustic “Orac persona” with the temperament of the doctor who’s about to cut them open. There’s nothing deceptive or misleading about this, and certainly nothing that should prevent a dogged journalist from uncovering the “truth.” Even the surprisingly clueless Batman, who had problems associating a guy named “Ed Nigma” with “the Riddler,” could’ve solved the mystery of Orac by reading Respectful Insolence‘s “about” page.
That aside, I have some pointed questions to ask.
- First, how is it that a reporter for CJR has such pedestrian investigative skills (and sloppy attention to detail) that she cannot locate Orac’s alter ego by conducting a 5-minute Google search?
- Second, let’s assume Quart did her homework and was able to discern that Orac is an accomplished professional. Did she play dumb simply to beef up her story’s “false prophet” angle?
- Third, perhaps Quart is a pseudo-skeptic who misapplies skepticism ala Birthers, Truthers, and Climate Change Denialists? (Cue angry voices in the comments section right…now!)
These questions elicit some unsatisfying answers, ones that don’t elevate my opinion of Quart or her profession.
But there could be a fourth possibility — it might be that Quart wrote an informed, accurate piece that somehow got butchered by another set of eyes in CJR’s “editing” process.
I know this pain all too well — I once wrote a story about a “ufologist” (cue laugh track) for the local “paper of record.” At one point during my interview with UFO Guy, the work of “alien abductee” researcher John Mack came up, which I mentioned in the article. But to my embarrassment and horror, the editor inexplicably inserted last-minute language that characterized Mack as not only a researcher of abductions, but an abductee himself.
What guff! What malarkey! What awful editing!
I was extremely pissed.
The error was appalling for multiple reasons, but mainly because Mack was a familiar figure to me. I had previously read about his research in David Grinspoon‘s excellent book, Lonely Planets: the Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. Plus, I had heard plenty of John Mack discussion on the lunatic radio program Coast to Coast A.M. Thus, there’s no reason why readers should have suspected that I was careless with the facts.
Regardless, UFO Guy alluded to the screw-up on the Mutual UFO Network Web site, which infuriated me even more. I remain angry to this day, and I still refuse to pitch story ideas to local publications (I know, I know; they must be crestfallen). As I see it, the scrawny pittance awarded to a local freelancer is poor compensation for the awful editing and “story shaping” he must endure.
Still, I suspect that the carelessness exhibited in Quart’s story is all her own. At the very least, Quart’s decision to characterize Orac as an expert of questionable veracity was stupid. There are numerous examples online of Orac (and his alter-ego) slicing through the idiot-flesh of quackery with a white-hot scalpel of reason. Orac’s reputation as a hyper-knowledgeable proponent of science-based medicine precedes him. A wide-ranging group of voices in education, medicine, and publishing regard him as a valuable weapon in the fight against woo and unreason.
Shame on Quart and the Columbia Journalism Review for not only failing to acknowledge this, but for misrepresenting a knowledgeable doctor and diminishing the public’s perception of him.