Six days after The Huffington Post published my latest article, browsers had logged in 156 comments. The post was titled Marijuana Legalization Proponents Deny Health Harms Just Like the Tobacco Industry Did; 153 of the 156 comments proved the point.
Just 30 people made 80 percent (125) of the comments. Contributing the most were truthaboutmmj (19); kevin hunt2012 (12); Andrew swanteni (9); Blows Against the Empire and ConnieInCleveland (6 each); RMForbes, SchumannFu, and Volteric (5 each); JohnThomas, Tomaniac, and WowFolksAreDumb (4 each); average dude, FlyingTooLow, JD Salinger, Matthew Fairbrother, McMike55, moldy, Paul Paul, and susierr (3 each). Eleven people contributed 2 comments each; 28 contributed 1 each. Only one person, Jan Beauregard, PhD, a Virginia psychotherapist whose specialties include addictive disorders, agreed that marijuana has health harms. She contributed three comments.
Clicking a link in a commenter’s name will take you to Huff Post’s Social News and a collection of all the comments that person has made about Huff Post stories. Commenters apply for a spot on Social News by linking it to their Facebook accounts, which magnifies Huff Post’s reach. Call it Huff Post squared. Huff Post cubed occurs if commenters also link Social News to their Twitter accounts. Huff Post awards badges to commenters based on the number of comments they make on Huff Post’s stories and the number of Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers they have. The more comments, friends, and followers, the higher level badges they earn. WowFolksAreDumb, for example, who must hold some kind of record, has written more than 10,000 comments since joining Social News in May 2012 and has earned four badges–Level 2 Networker, Level 2 Superuser, Level 1 Crime Solver, and Moderator.
Huff Post has brilliantly tapped into social media to expand its audience exponentially. But this brave new world comes at a cost. Few editors live in this world. Opinions triumph over facts. Quantity trumps quality. Truth loses.
Juxtapose this with two major problems of current science: 1) the public cannot access most published studies and 2) scientific disciplines are so specialized that public access would hardly matter. A PhD is needed to understand the complexity of new knowledge scientists are developing today, and a PhD in one discipline does not guarantee understanding of knowledge developed in another. Scientists can’t speak each other’s languages anymore, so specialized have various disciplines become. An astronomer couldn’t explain the genome to you any better than a geneticist could explain the cosmos.
Without access to comprehensible science, science illiteracy rules, particularly in the area of the science that underlies addictive drugs. Perhaps the most puzzling argument that runs through many of the comments about my post is one that rejects later work which contradicts earlier studies. WowFolksAreDumb, for example, writes, “According to Dreher 1994, there are no prenatal or neonatal differences between babies from mothers who did use cannabis during pregnancy and babies from mothers who did not.” In addition to the 2012 study I wrote about, more than 50 other studies about the harmful effects of marijuana on the developing fetus have been published since 1994, but WowFolksAreDumb claims the 1994 study negates them all. Maxpost, Midnight Toker, goes a step further. He interprets Dreher’s study to mean: “Pregnant women SHOULD smoke DOPE!!!”
Commenters attacked all the studies I wrote about, particularly the study indicating a link between marijuana use and testicular cancer. Steve Hager dismissed it this way: “I believe the testicular cancer study involved 6 people, maybe it was only 3. Worthless, really.” That study actually involved 163 young men diagnosed with testicular cancer and a control group of 292 healthy men of the same age and ethnicity and asked them about their drug use. The investigators found that compared to those who had never used marijuana, men who had used the drug were twice as likely to have testicular cancer. It’s difficult to understand why Mr. Hager couldn’t trouble himself to check how many people were involved in the study since I provided links to both the account of it published by Science Daily and the abstract of the study itself. Both clearly state the number of research subjects.
The collision of social media with current, complex science produces a chasm where scientific truth can be manipulated easily – and aggressively. I emailed Dr. Beauregard to thank her for supporting the marijuana science I had written about. She emailed back, “I have found many of the same facts, but the comments are more than I can stand and the backlash is horrific. I only posted a few things and have had literally over 50 people email me with hostile, emotional comments based on personal experience as a user.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the heart of the problem. When it comes to marijuana, users dominate not just Huff Post, but the Internet as well. They relentlessly assault anyone who reports that a marijuana study might show a detrimental effect. Few have time to put up with this, not therapists like Dr. Beauregard who treats marijuana addiction, not scientists who conduct the studies, not writers who report the science. With marijuana, what takes place on the Internet is a shouting match; those who shout loudest win.
After this experience, I’ve learned something else about the drug: marijuana not only makes you lie, it makes you rude.