“Science” Blogs: Seed Media’s Aggressive Weed

September 22, 2009

AGE OF AUTISM – It is self-styled as the largest conversation about science on the web.  Boasting 69 blogs, along with 114,506 posts and 1,742,506 comments that are ever increasing, there is no question “Science”Blogs are highly trafficked and frequently updated. Their slogan brags, “Where the world discusses science,” and crowed a record of 2.2 million unique visitors in the month of May alone. There is now a German “Science”Blogs as well as a “Science”Blogs Brazil written in Portuguese. Their owner, Seed Media Group, likens itself to Rolling Stone during the magazine’s “early years” which according to Seed was “when music was less a subject than a lens for viewing culture.”

by Jake Crosby (see Comments)

Part I: Fertilizer From Pharma

kudzoo_house-ne_northcarolinaTo Seed Media Group, “science” is its gimmick, defined by corporate sponsors. This has led to the vitriol emanating from “Science”Blogs, so much so that it has directly prompted multiple responses from Age of Autism, mostly to a “Science”Blogger using a fake name, hardly ethical journalistically. While the media’s job is to report the news, not make it, that principle has not merely been ignored, but butchered by Seed Media Group, that presents itself as an unbiased, scientific source. Instead, it doesn’t just report on science, it attempts to define “science” as the pharmaceutical industry sees fit.

Distorters Who Pretend to be Reporters

SMG pretends to be a media outlet that reports science-related topics as pop culture, seeking to reach a wider, trendier audience. On its website, pretentiously obvious promotional statements are made, such as “Science affects every single person on the planet.” And “The pursuit and impact of science is borderless.” Used-car commercials have higher advertising standards. Perhaps the worst of the slogans is displayed right on the homepage of the website: “Science is culture.” Apparently, to Adam Bly, culture is business, especially since the views expressed by the 69 bloggers who post on SMG’s Seed Media Group, established in 2005, was born out of SEED Magazine, founded in 2001 by Adam Bly, young Canadian entrepreneur and self-proclaimed prodigy.  Bly wants the world to know he served at the age of sixteen as the youngest guest researcher at the National Research Council- a Canadian government body that overseas scientific progress, studying “cell adhesion and cancer.” That, apparently, was his springboard to success. It is unclear if Bly was actually doing real research, or just the equivalent to entering a high school science fair. The significance of this is not obvious from the website, and I can’t imagine what gets taught by 10th grade in Canada that merits cancer research. He does not mention any previous accomplishments that qualified him for such a position. Nor does he mention who invited him to be a guest researcher. Nonetheless, this, Bly claims, was what inspired him, not to become a scientist, but to become a businessman who runs a media company that writes/blogs about scientists, which is exactly what he did. This was when SEED was conceived, though it would be a couple more years before it would start to sprout weeds.

SEED Magazine before Seed Media Group did not have such a slant. In May 2004, for example, a contributor launched an impressive, critical investigation into the controversy surrounding mercury in vaccines. The article was a thoughtful piece of investigative journalism in which public health officials declined to comment while outside researchers willingly participated. That, however, was five years ago.

Nothing published before 2005 is traceable on the magazine website, and the article can only be located from alternative sources. SEED magazine would never take such a contribution now, especially since the most popular “Science”Blogger, P.Z. Myers, writes a column for the bimonthly magazine. Myers’s “Science”Blogging about the subject of autism and vaccines is not very in-depth, but he still calls proponents of the theory that vaccines cause autism “anti-vaxers.” I wonder if he thinks the late W.D. Hamilton, arguably the greatest evolutionary biologist since Charles Darwin, was an “anti-vaxer,” for saying he was 95% certain the polio vaccine in Africa caused AIDS. Myers isn’t the only one at SEED who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge a vaccine-autism link. “Autism’s False Prophets”, written by vaccine millionaire Paul Offit, was at the top of SEED’s list of “THE YEAR’S OUTSTANDING BOOK RELEASES” for 2008, which provides a “Buy” link to the book’s profile on Amazon. On SEED’s list, a short review of Offit’s book stated that it is “More than a book about a disease, it is an ode to uncorrupted science and a cautionary tale that data alone is never enough.”

The following are two messages about vaccines.  Can you tell the difference between the pharmaceutically-funded thought leader and the honest clinician?

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An “ode to uncorrupted science?” Paul Offit wrote in a paper that a child should be able to handle 10,000 vaccines at once, and called it a “conservative estimate.” He later said to CBS reporter Sharyl Attkinson that the number is probably closer to 100,000. He’s also the media’s main secondary source for all the industry-forged “science.” Of course, as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said, the drug-industry-sponsored studies do not even take a scientist to deconstruct. Fudging data after thimerosal removal (Danish study), misrepresenting thimerosal removal (California study), comparing MMR immunization rates of one city to autism rates of another (Quebec study), and irrelevantly looking for an increase in children being rushed to the hospital for developing autism after MMR introduction (Finnish study), to name a few, Statens Serum Institut, the biggest vaccine maker in Denmark, conducted one study. Another was by the head of immunization in California, another by Eric Fombonne who received consulting fees from vaccine makers, and another by a researcher who received grant support from Merck, the company that invented the MMR and puts thimerosal in some of its vaccines. These studies are far from uncorrupted, and that “uncorrupted science” quote alone would be enough to sum up the position of SEED Magazine in this controversy. Something, somewhere along the way, changed drastically causing SEED to go from at least attempting to interview all sides, to interviewing one side of the story while resorting to smear attacks on the other. At this point, the overall tone of “Science”Blogs has not only lost any sense of scientific dignity, it has turned downright nasty. It is a place where, as one “Science”Blogger bragged, “You can cuss me out, call me an idiot, whatever.” I’m sure Adam Bly must be very proud of himself for opening up such “scientific” dialogue.

Pre-programmed Conclusions

Today, SMG is divided into two categories: SEED Magazine and “Science”Blogs, formed in 2006. The latter is an invitation-only blog of around 69 paid “Science”Bloggers, and every blogger’s view relating to the controversy over autism and its relation to vaccines is entirely predetermined and seemingly the same, whether it’s thimerosal, or the MMR: They do not cause autism, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an “anti-vaccinationist.”

I was no exception to the rule, gaining a bit of “Science”Blogs infamy myself: “The mindset of an Anti-Vaccinationist revealed:” one “Science” Blogger’s thread-title screamed, “courtesy of Jake Crosby of the Age of Autism Blog.” This was in response to my alleging a conspiracy “theory” and stating those “14” or so “studies” were no more scientifically sound than claims that the earth was flat. Ironically, the “Science”Blogger then asserted I was part of a “cult,” and also said, “David Kirby…is every bit as much a member of the cult as Jake.” I found it puzzling that this typical “Science”Blogger accused me of conspiracy theorizing, while concocting a conspiracy theory himself.

Similar views are universally expressed about Gardasil, the HPV vaccine linked to dozens of deaths and thousands of serious adverse events so far and which does not even adequately protect against cervical cancer. Another typical “Science”Blogger, in response to concerns over Gardasil’s safety, copied and pasted FAQs from the CDC website. All I could think to myself at the time was what was the point of that? Does he really believe people are more likely to see those on his own blog, rather than on the CDC website first, as I had? The FAQs were posted in response to concerns raised by someone who happened to be hosting a local TV show in the Boston area. Apparently, the “Science”Blogger’s own voice of “reason” was not enough, since his criticisms were reduced to mocking the person’s Bostonian accent. Perhaps what stood out the most was when the “Science”Blogger called him an “asshole.” Apparently, this is what Adam Bly considers a “conversation about science.”

Pharma Sponsorship: Influencing “Science”Blogs?

Curious about Seed Media Group’s funding sources, I did a search for them with everyone’s favorite pharmaceutical company, Merck, and I got a result on SMG’s media center from a number of months ago. It read, “11.10, Adam Bly, CEO of Seed Media Group, will speak at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, DC next week…DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, chairman of the Council on Competitiveness, will lead the day-long Innovation Symposium. Other members of the Council on Competitiveness who will participate in the dialogue include Richard Clark, CEO of Merck & Co.” So, Adam Bly, CEO of SMG, the company that owns “Science”Blogs and SEED Magazine, spoke at the Council on Competitiveness (CoC), with the Merck CEO being the executive committee member of the CoC who attended Bly’s speech. But that’s not all.

Earlier this year, a friend handed me the Business Section of The New York Times. The featured story was of a merger currently taking place between Merck and a smaller pharmaceutical corporation, Schering-Plough,  which Merck will buy for over $40 billion, becoming the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world.  Interestingly, the following month I began to notice a frequently recurring ad at the top of “Science”Blogs web pages, that read, “Schering Plough – A relentless commitment to Life.”

I had never seen that ad before. “Science”Blogs, the site full of bloggers who relentlessly defend mercury in vaccines and the MMR – even if it means defending sham studies, defending the CDC when it broke the law at Simpsonwood, destroyed data, lied, and did not disclose conflicts of interest – just started advertising for a company being bought by Merck. And the ad ran shortly after the announcement was made about the merger. Not only was it an ad for “Schering-Plough,” but a link to the company website, where another link to “www.anewmerck.com” was displayed, co-created by Merck and Schering-Plough to briefly discuss the terms surrounding the buy-out. Despite the incredible timing of the ad with the announcement of the merger, the Schering-Plough ad even without the buy-out still constitutes a conflict of interest regarding issues of vaccine safety. Although the pharmaceutical company primarily specializes in vaccines for animals, owning the largest animal vaccine production facility in the world in New Zealand, it also owns a subsidiary called Nobilon that specializes in human vaccines. These include shots for traveler’s diarrhea, STDs, and respiratory illnesses. Nobilon’s specialty is the development of flu shots, both human and avian. The conflicts, however, do not end there.

More Pharma Sponsorship

When I noticed the recurring ads for Schering-Plough on “Science”Blogs in close temporal association with the announcement of the merger between Merck and Schering-Plough, I truly thought I had hit the peak of the conflicted advertising on “Science”Blogs, but I was wrong. The next ad I found seemed to directly connect back to the first mention I found about Merck on Seed Media’s website through Adam Bly’s speech to the Council on Competitiveness.

Although I have not seen ads for Schering-Plough since I pointed them out on “Science”Blogs, they were followed by ads for the website, www.americanchemistry.com. This is the official website of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the trade organization of the American chemical industry, a lobby group. A number of prominent companies are members, such as DuPont, the largest chemical company in the US whose CEO is chairman of the Council on Competitiveness (CoC), the one Seed’s CEO Adam Bly spoke for. Only one pharmaceutical company is involved – Merck. (HERE) Why would Merck be a member of the chemical lobby?

I came across an explanation in my investigations: the “DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company.” This was a joint venture between DuPont and Merck, where the two companies teamed up to make pharmaceutical products from 1991 until 1998, when full ownership was taken over by DuPont and the venture became the chemical giant’s pharmaceutical division. Although this venture was terminated over a decade ago, DuPont lists this as a pivotal moment in the company’s history on the heritage category of its website and still holds Merck in high esteem, saying, “The 1991 formation of the DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company, a joint venture with prescription drug giant Merck and Company, made DuPont a competitive force in the field of life sciences.” (HERE)

DuPont credits its continued success in pharmaceutical manufacturing to Merck. That best explains why the Merck CEO, who attended Bly’s Speech in November, sits on the executive committee of the CoC below the DuPont CEO, the CoC chair. This is would also explain why Merck is a member of the American Chemistry Council, which was heavily advertised on “Science”Blogs.    Ads for Schering-Plough and partner company PerkinElmer (the ads for PerkinElmer still run on “Science”Blogs), along with the ad for the ACC, and Bly’s own speech to the CoC hosted by the council chair and CEO of DuPont all connect to Merck. Yet another ad on “Science”Blogs I took note of was for the Cambridge Science Festival. Both Merck and Schering-Plough sponsored the event, which brings the number of detectable connections between Adam Bly/“Science”Blogs and Merck to six.

There are ties to other major drug companies, too. Several drug ads have been found on “Science”Blogs. One of them was for Lunesta, a sleeping pill made by the company Sepracor, which signed a deal allowing GlaxoSmithKline to sell the drug in Europe. Other ads include those for drugs made by AstraZeneca, makers of the flu shot: “FluMist,” and an ad for Valtrex, which is made by GlaxoSmithKline, makers of MMR and vaccines that have contained mercury preservative thimerosal. There is another ad for the psychotropic drug Concerta for treating ADHD and is made by Ortho-McNeil-Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson which also made the RhoGam immunoglobulin that contained the thimerosal preservative.

Earlier this year, the subsidiary’s mental health division, Janssen, has been the target of litigation due to the adverse side effects from another drug of theirs called Risperdal, FDA-approved to treat autism, and used off-label for ADHD. The drug has been found to grow milk-producing breasts on the chests of young children, including boys, but Janssen never properly marked that side effect on the label of its drug. Now Janssen is advertising its ADHD drug Concerta, on “Sciene”Blogs. Such a prevalence of drug industry-sponsored ads on “Science”Blogs truly begs the question: do the pharma connections of Seed Media end with advertising?

Integrating Media into Industry

SMG shares a PR firm, Ruder Finn, with Merck, as well as GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis to name a few. In fact, Ruder Finn has a whole client category called “Pharma.” I was hardly surprised to read on the Seed Media Group webpage for advertising that SMG not only runs advertisements for large companies, but also consults with them. “Our consulting unit, SMG Consulting, works with companies and institutions to help drive their future innovations. To discuss a new project with our team, please email us.” That apparently includes starting up a new blog on “Science”Blogs, which is exactly what Seed Media Group did when it co-sponsored the “Science + Society Blog” with Schering-Plough from December 7, 2007 to March 5, 2008. The blog said, “On January 30th, the Seed and Schering-Plough hosted the second Science + Society breakfast on Capitol Hill. Entitled “Synthetic Biology: Constructing a Golden Age,” the discussion covered the technology behind synthetic bio, the state of current research, and emerging legal and regulatory issues.” The permanent slogan next to the blog headline reads, “brought to you by Schering-Plough.” Well, “Science”Blogs, thank you for Schering.

Schering-Plough is not the only company to collaborate with Seed Media Group that gets a “Science”Blogs mention. In February, one “Science”Blogger for a thread titled “Common Knowledge,” was overjoyed to write about Merck’s donation of data to the public domain. The “Science”Blogger, John Wilbanks, wrote, “Merck has pledged to donate a remarkable resource to the commons – a vast database of highly consistent data about the biology of disease, as well as software tools and other resources to use it” and, “This is all going to happen through the establishment of a non-profit organization called Sage to serve as the guardian of the resources.” He then said, “I am proud to serve on the founding Board of Directors for Sage.” This “Science”Blogger will become a founding board of director to a non-profit established by Merck. Another “Science”Blogger for “The Daily Transcript” thread recently hosted a meeting at Harvard Medical School sponsored by Merck. This same “Science”Blogger called a link between MMR and autism “bogus” while telling parents of autistic children not to use EDTA chelation.

Yet another new ad hit “Science”Blogs, which read “PerkinElmer – For the Better.” PerkinElmer is a company that makes laboratory equipment for biomedical research. If there was ever a type of company that made deals with pharmaceutical companies, this would be it. Sure enough, the company website said that PerkinElmer signed a contract for a 3-year partnership with a subsidiary of Schering-Plough, the company merging with Merck, at the end of 2006. (HERE) That means the partnership between between PerkinElmer and Schering-Plough is still in effect, and interestingly, I noticed that both Schering-Plough and PerkinElmer started advertising on “Science”Blogs shortly after the deal with Merck was announced.

My mention of a Schering-Plough ad in the comments section of a thread on “Science”Blogs hit a nerve. For one, I never saw that ad on “Science”Blogs again after mentioning it. Secondly, I immediately found myself on the receiving end of the ad nauseum “anti-vax” gambit along with a complaint from a “Science”Blogger of how horrible it was that I was interfering with “normal commerce” to prove my point about the conflicts of interest on “Science”Blogs from a typical “Science”Blogger. Sure, one can see how “normal commerce” affects what certain medical journals such as Pediatrics do and don’t publish such as the Verstraeten study where preliminary data never meant for the public showed an entirely different story from what made it into the “peer-reviewed” journal. This is a journal that is edited by Lewis First, a doctor with an M.S. in epidemiology from Harvard who confused 0-exposure with 62.5 mcg of exposure to ethylmercury when describing the latest flimsy study on thimerosal that was published in Pediatrics, The paper only included one autistic participant and was conducted by a grant recipient from Wyeth. If advertising can have this profound an impact on a “peer-reviewed” medical journal, then the effects on a blog where the media group that owns it also consults for companies directly are limitless.

Right after I pointed out the Schering-Plough ad on “Science”Blogs and its connection to Merck, one of the “Science”Bloggers attempted to counter this by criticizing Age of Autism, “Apparently AoA has graduated from accepting advertising from supplement manufacturers to accepting pure pseudoscience, as long as it brings in the green,” as if the contributors of Age of Autism are blogging just so Lee Silsby can sell more vitamins. Comparing Lee Silsby to Merck is like comparing a Chihuahua to a Rottweiler.

Jake Crosby is a history student with an autism spectrum disorder at Brandeis University, and a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.