TCS Daily

'Disturbing Statistics'

By James K. Glassman - March 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Junk Science Judo is not your typical self-help snorer. Unlike Chicken Soup for the Soul, or Who Moved My Cheese?, Steven Milloy's new book provides something all of us can actually use. And it's entertaining to boot.

A Fox News contributor and the publisher of the popular web site, Milloy aims to help you protect your family and your business from junk science, the latest weapon wielded by interest groups to advance their agendas. It is the perfect tool in a world where ends justify means, and is wielded with equal expertise in courtrooms, political campaigns, the marketplace, and the media.

Milloy warns of political activists who turn their activism into organizations that operate under benign banners like "physicians committees" or "public-interest" groups. "Activists often place their agendas ahead of the facts," he writes. "They will say and do virtually anything to promote their cause. If a health scare will help, then a health scare can be manufactured."

But it's not just political activists for whom junk science is prized. It comes in handy for many others. It's a useful tool for the rapacious trial lawyer buckraking for class-action contingency riches; for the politician striving for election; for the business that wants to harm competitors or promote its own products; for the regulatory agency bureaucrat who wants his authority expanded; for the obscure scientist hoping to make a name for himself; and for the journalist hungry to make news.

Junk science is a new term for an old concept - fraud. The phenomenon of this kind of fraud in recent decades, however, has infected many of our institutions, and at great costs to the economy. The pervasiveness of junk science Milloy catalogs is quite simply shocking. What's more shocking is the likelihood that even the most skeptical customer has at one time or another unwillingly bought into - i.e., fallen victim to - junk science mythology.

Are silicone breast implants dangerous? How could they not be? After all, they were banned by the Food and Drug Administration. Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Cellular phone companies are being forced to defend themselves in court on that very charge. Are apples with Alar unhealthy? 60 Minutes seemed to suggest so. Does fen-phen heighten the risk of heart disease? That's what the nightly news reported. Shouldn't pregnant women avoid sodas and coffee? The word is that caffeine can cause birth defects. Same with plastic baby bottles, which are alleged to leach toxins into a vulnerable child's bloodstream. Are organic foods healthier than non-organic? Of course, right?

The answer to each of these questions is no, but you can't fault the casual observer for thinking otherwise. Thanks to the efforts of environmental groups, scheming politicians, and media enablers willing to pass along spoon-fed alarmism without subjecting it to scrutiny, many Americans are convinced that the world (and the marketplace) is a lot more dangerous than it is.

Most junk science claims use evidence that is (at best) weak, employing dubious statistical associations using suspect data. Which is why it would be smart to note Milloy's point that statistics is not science. Neither is epidemiology. That's just statistics. And it is important not to assume that something that is scientific sounding - like a parade of statistics - is scientific. After all, stats don't prove cause and effect.

Next time a television anchor peddles the latest "disturbing statistics" suggesting a new health concern, keep in mind the conversation between Homer Simpson and Smartline's pompous TV newsman Kent Brockman.

Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charges that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down eighty percent, while heavy sack-beatings are up a shocking nine hundred percent?

Homer: Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

The Simpsons might be a cartoon, but that exchange isn't so far off the mark. Junk science is a cartoon discipline that might be funny if it weren't for the severe consequences. Included in these are mind-boggling legal judgments, personal and corporate bankruptcies, and the other societal costs associated with scaring the bejesus out of everyday people. (And if you are a baseball fan, there is the sad case of Baltimore Orioles owner and trial lawyer Peter Angelos, who wrecked the once-proud franchise after buying it with the ill-gotten gains from junk-science asbestos litigation.)

But all is not black, and there are ways to combat the tide of cynical junk science. The key to learning junk science judo is developing a healthy skepticism and a willingness to question conventional wisdom. Question everything, including the prestigious medical journals. There are too many parties that often have vested interests that can be advanced by dubious science, too many people for whom science is merely a tool and never an end in and of itself.

There is reason for optimism, if not here then in the next world. Milloy notes that in his Inferno, Dante "placed the diviners, astrologers, magicians, sowers of scandal and discord, alchemists, and liars in the eighth and next-to-most damned level of hell."

Now that's a health risk the junk scientists should worry about.

TCS Daily Archives