The origins of the junk science epidemic


Author: John Luik
Article Published: 15/12/2003


The anti-tobacco movement likes to call the tobacco industry the “disease vector” of the tobacco epidemic. While that claim is certainly disputable, what is indisputable is that the anti-tobacco movement and their allies in the public health community are the disease vector of the junk science epidemic that threatens to overwhelm sound public policy, not only in tobacco but in a wide range of health issues.

Junk science along with simply incompetent science has always been a feature of the scientific and policy landscape. The early environmental movement had a tendency to use junk science. But it is has been the anti-tobacco movement who over the last 15-20 years has perfected, justified and systematically introduced junk science into public policy debates. 

The junk science epidemic began with the anti-tobacco movement’s call for advertising bans on tobacco products, backed by a series of studies that claimed to show that bans reduced tobacco consumption and prevented kids from smoking. Despite years of evidence showing that advertising was not the trigger that started kids smoking and that bans were ineffective, the anti-tobacco movement persisted until the Canadian federal government used the junk science claims in court to back its ban on tobacco advertising. But while junk science works well in the media sound-bite it holds up poorly in the courtroom. The trial judge concluded that the “evidence” about the effectiveness of the bans was largely junk science- manufactured claims posing as science for a political purpose.

Undeterred the anti-smoking movement next used junk science to support its claim that secondhand smoke was a health hazard to nonsmokers. Even though the scientific evidence was at best inconclusive, the US EPA constructed a classic junk science case through using only selected studies, changing statistical confidence levels and rigging a meta-analysis. Despite being dismissed as junk science by a US federal court, the report continues to be used  around the world as the primary justification for public smoking bans.

How can you tell when junk science is being used in a policy debate? All junk science shares four characteristics. First, junk science inverts normal scientific procedure. Instead of starting with a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and then coming to a conclusion, junk science starts with the “right” conclusion and then goes out to get the “right” selective evidence to support the conclusion. The EPA, for instance, began with the conclusion that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer and then assembled the “evidence” to make that case.  

Second, junk science always misrepresents what it tries to explain. Rather than acknowledging alternative evidence or problems with the evidence that would cast doubt on its conclusions, rather than admitting complexity or uncertainty, junk science sweeps all of this aside and presents what is at best a carefully chosen partial truth as the whole and only truth. The bulk of studies on secondhand smoke, for example, do not show an increased risk of lung cancer for nonsmokers, yet these studies are never mentioned by the junk scientist.

Third, junk science always cloaks the process by which it arrives at its conclusions. Instead of acknowledging that it started with a conclusion instead of a question, instead of admitting that its evidence is selection and that there are other views, it treats both its process and conclusions as revealed truth. It was only under cross-examination that the process supposedly showing that advertising bans reduced smoking fell apart.  

Fourth, whereas genuine science welcomes disagreement and dissent and judges arguments on the quality of their logic and evidence not on who is advancing them, junk science uses ad hominem argument to silence those who disagree, questioning the character and motivation of its critics, not their arguments. For instance, virtually every critic of the anti-tobacco movement’s arguments about advertising, youth smoking or secondhand smoke is attacked on the basis of their character as opposed to their arguments. Indeed, the arguments are lost, as intended, in the flurry of character assassination.

In addition to these characteristics  junk science tends to use three techniques that give the game away. First, junk science tends to report risks in terms of percentages without putting its findings in context. If the evening news tells you that being obese increases your risk of premature death by 25%, this sound alarming. If on the other hand risks were always reported by their Relative Risk (RR) one would have a better understanding of whether the risk was real. For instance, if the obesity figure were reported as 1.25, and if the public were told that risks under 4 were not considered serious, the junk scientist would be out of business. Or take the alleged risk of lung cancer from secondhand smoke. Typically these risks are reported as 20-25% increased risks and consequently much of the public believes that a single whiff of tobacco smoke is a death sentence. Reported as a risk of 1.20 the true insignificance of the risk would be apparent.

Second, junk science makes frequent use of what are called consensus statements or reports in which a small group of scientists looks at a selective portion ( never the entirety) of the evidence of a purported risk and then pronounces judgement. One is expected to take the risk seriously because a scientific consensus has been reached. For example, it was recently reported that a group of experts put together by WHO had determined the ideal nutritional diet. Again, it is regularly argued that there is scientific consensus that global warming is a fact or that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer. Genuine science does not proceed by way of consensus conferences but instead by the slow development of individual studies. Consensus science is simply a way to make one particular view of the evidence appear to be the entire and only truth.

Third, junk science tends to report epidemiological findings as if they represented causal truths about the world- obesity causes cancer, humans cause global warming, secondhand smoke causes lung cancer. Epidemiology is not about causes but about associations and statistical associations at that. Its usefulness comes from the degree to which it can precisely compare two groups of people who are exactly the same except for the one relevant variable that creates the risk. But this is a process fraught with potential error in that the two groups are rarely the same and their multiple differences  make it impossible to identify which factor actually creates the risk.

All of this would be less of a worry if junk science were still confined to its anti-tobacco home. Then, like SARS, we could at least quarantine and possibly destroy it. But its success there has legitimized and institutionalized its presence throughout the public health establishment and beyond. It is now a public health growth industry that is used to support everything from Kyoto to the new war on fat.

The consequences of this for public policy are disturbing for at bottom the use of junk science corrupts not only the process of policy making but the core assumption of democracy as well. Junk science effectively undermines the process through allowing decisions to be made not on the basis of sound evidence and logic but on manipulated and manufactured truth. Science which should be one of the more objective parts of the process instead becomes something tainted by dogma.

Junk science also threatens the core assumption of democracy as well for it implicitly suggests that people are too stupid, too reluctant or too recalcitrant to understand and do what they “should” without being frightened by the findings of junk science. It suggests that bad science in the service of a good cause like fighting fat, stopping smoking or saving the planet from global warming is a reasonable tradeoff in the interests of a good life. And that’s the most dangerous lie of all.




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