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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on the Salon Retraction

An earlier post noted that Salon has retracted RFK Jr.'s well-known article about vaccines. Retraction Watch has more:

Of note: Rolling Stone deleted the story from its site sometime last year, without notice or explanation. That link now has a 404 error. However, it has been archived at

As it happens, one of us (Ivan) is here in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, for Science Online 2011, and so is Seth Mnookin, whose book Salon credited in their retraction. We asked Mnookin for his thoughts on it. (Full disclosure: Ivan and Seth are friends from college, and they’ll be talking about his book on a Reuters webcast on Tuesday, Jan. 18.)

He applauded Salon’s move, and contrasted it with Rolling Stone’s handling of criticism. In particular, he pointed Retraction Watch to a note Rolling Stone had attached to their version on July 14, 2005, about a month after it was first posted:

What is most striking is the lengths to which major media outlets have gone to disparage the story and to calm public fears — even in the face of the questionable science on the subject. In a segment on World News Tonight titled “A Closer Look,” ABC pointed out that Kennedy is “not a scientist or a doctor” and dismissed his extensive evidence as nothing more than “a few scientific studies.” The network also trotted out its medical editor, Dr. Timothy Johnson, to praise the “impeccably impartial Institute of Medicine” and to again state that Kennedy is not a scientist.


Mnookin tells Retraction Watch:

Salon didn’t do something like that. They printed the corrections, and didn’t start getting aggressive about the fact that 500 words of corrections made no difference in the underlying accuracy of the story.

Mnookin’s book, The Panic Virus, includes a whole chapter about piece. He went on:

There are so many problems with the story. It shows what can be done with the fig leaf of fact-checking. You can make a statement that is technically correct and fundamentally wrong. That’s what happened here. He was taking quotes ridiculously out of context. There was a transcript of hundreds of pages. The piece took quotes that were dozens of pages apart and connected them with an ellipsis.

What struck Mnookin was Rolling Stone’s refusal to admit error:

People make mistakes. It’s just a reality of life. This was with the perspective of five years of hindsight and fact-checking. I was just surprised that they would dig in their feet in ways that seemed self-defeating.