Monday, September 5, 2011

Junk Science Defined

by Andrea Campbell

I often talk to readers about their frustration over conflicting information which is thrust at them under the guise of being “scientific.” For example, a few years ago there were published studies about eggs as related to a healthy diet—were they a cholesterol risk? and should they should be restricted? Today, we read articles touting eggs as an excellent source of protein and are told the benefits outweigh any supposed cholesterol risk assessment or trial. This same type of controversy has been applied to many foodstuffs, vitamin supplements, drugs and even forensic science. Aspirin in, aspirin out; dairy in, dairy out, evidence in, evidence out. What is a reader to believe?

I remember an article published in Imprimis by Lee Ann Fisher Baron, who was at that time, Savona Professor for Natural Sciences at Hillsdale College. Her writing zeroed in on some of that frustration and provides suggestions. Baron believes there has been much political abuse of scientific research. She says, “From persistent doomsday scenarios like global warming to the latest ergonomic arguments for near-total regulation of the American workplace, this abuse of science represents not only an economic threat, but a threat to freedom as well.” To further define what she means by “threat,” Baron sites Americans inability to distinguish solid science from “junk science.”

Further, Baron argues that science has the ability to change history. As fruit of this, she points to the discovery of antibiotics, polymers, and the importance of the Human Genome Project as key discoveries in both the past and future of our lives. In addition to the benefits though, we must also look at apparent drawbacks: that is, in order to come up with these revolutionary discoveries, science is also prone to error, and publishes findings that are just plain wrong or wrong-headed in their thinking. The proper scientific approach to projects should involve the “scientific method.” This type of methodology is based on a precise set of steps or experiments that can be repeated with the same results by anyone.

One of the best arbiters of testing success then is the use of “the control.” We’ll explain control using a hypothetical—let’s say that there is a vaccine that can lengthen the interval between blood sugar levels for a diabetic, in order to prevent severe highs or lows. Two or more groups should be formed to assure the accuracy of the tests. The larger group should be divided into a group of subjects who take the actual vaccine, and a second group is given a placebo.

To further validate the test, neither group should be told which medication they are taking. And to complete the facilitation of true scientific testing, the researchers who administer the vaccine should not know which group is which, thereby creating a “double-blind.” By working under these secret test arrangements, the researchers can measure the “placebo effect”—a phenomenon whereby patients improve because they falsely believe they are receiving medicine. Also, with the researchers in the dark as to who is getting what, it completes the exam by precluding any prejudice they may unknowingly present in their reports.

In an ideal world, a scientist will publish his results, present his paper, and allow the research community to evaluate his findings, sometimes called “peer review.” Others will review the articles, repeat any relevant tests, and question the various conclusions. Junk science, Baron claims, bypasses this process and is often presented to the public under the aegis of “expert” status and whole cloth truth.

So what is a reader to do to protect themselves against the onslaught of guesstimation? Baron suggests that schools up their curricula and imbue students with a love of research. Teach them to become pit-bulls for accuracy. Stimulate their minds with valuable, educational experiments—not like a Seattle middle school, which taught children the eating habits of birds by trying to pick up Cheerios with tongue depressors, toothpicks, spoons and clothespins between their teeth!

In general, Baron suggests: we should be careful to only accept evidence after it has been subjected to the scientific method; that we read everything with a healthy skepticism, and ask questions instead of blindly believing what we hear or read.

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Anonymous said...

This problem is pervasive all over in today's society, I think. The respect for and knowledge about science in the broad population is rapidly declining thus opening the way for pseudo- and junk-science. And jury's are selected from the broad population...

A Voice of Sanity said...

"In general, Baron suggests: we should be careful to only accept evidence after it has been subjected to the scientific method;"

Good luck on that one. The entire Scott Peterson trial was based on wild speculation by people testifying well outside their expertise. I counted over 164 completely unwarranted assumptions before I got tired of counting them. The real question is why didn't his defense challenge this nonsense vigorously? Why did they let valid evidence of his innocence pass them by without comment? Defense attorneys either have to learn enough science (or find people who do) to stop this flood of nonsense coming into court.

Andrea Campbell said...

Thank you both for your cogent comments. I think it is important that intelligent people accept their "jury duty" to oversee the process and add input where wrong-headed thinking prevails.