Hype, hoaxes, hacks . . . and science

Paul Jacob
Posted: Dec 05, 2004 12:00 AM

The end is near. Well, the end of the year is near. So it's time to ape Dave Letterman's favorite bit and construct a Top Ten list. I'm working on mine: a Top Ten List of The Year's Top Ten Lists. And I've found a contender for the Number One spot, courtesy of a website dedicated to "All the junk that's fit to debunk."

JunkScience.com just published this year's list of Top Ten Most Embarrassing Moments. The list spotlights individuals and organizations that use the mantle of science to provide intellectual cover for exaggerated claims, bad judgments, or hidden agendas that have "most egregiously undermined public confidence in the scientific community's capacity to conduct sound and unbiased research."

Here are just a few of its "embarrassing moments":

  • Polar bears, we were told, face extinction because of global warming. The claim, however, underplayed the cyclical nature of warming and cooling in the Arctic. It also ignored the inconvenient fact that polar bear populations have increased, rather than decreased, during the recent warming.
  • A leading scientist successfully plugged stem cell research to California voters. The research may or may not be a promising avenue to achieve the promised results. But it certainly was the most promising way for said scientist's troubled company to make millions off of taxpayers ? the scientist's economic ties to the company were of course not disclosed to the public.
  • Four years ago, those in charge of public water in Washington, D.C. stopped using chlorine. They abandoned the world's most effective disinfectant for something more expensive and less effective. Why? On undocumented fear that chlorine causes cancer. Unfortunately, the substitute was more corrosive. So this year they detected increased levels of lead in the water, corroded from old pipes.

Obviously, too much of what activists and worrywarts and even scientists publicly claim as science isn't science. It's what's been called "scientism" ? the romance of science wrapped up in a good story, involving catastrophe if at all possible. It belongs in the science fiction mags, not in government or the newspapers. But, says JunkScience.com publisher Steven Milloy, "all too often, the media simply repeat such claims verbatim."

Of course, the conflict between hype and science is nothing new. And journalism traditionally takes the side of hype. Indeed, in the old days outright hoaxery in pursuit of story was part of the journalist's toolkit.

For example, in the 1830s and '40s, after a wildly popular series of fantastic articles in The Sun was admitted as a hoax ? articles describing a lunar civilization made up of humans with bat-like wings ? Edgar Allan Poe was one of the few to be really upset. He was annoyed at the articles' obvious bad science.

But as debunkers go, Poe retained a strong streak of bunk. He appears to have been miffed that similar writing of his own had not gained the same notoriety. So, after tiring of playing debunker, Poe approached The Sun and concocted the Balloon Hoax, slightly more "scientific" in nature, an account of the "first" trans-Atlantic flight. No people with bat wings. Unfortunately for its money-making potential, The Sun had to repudiate it much quicker than the earlier extravaganza, and the chief effect of it seems to have been to spark the career of Jules Verne. But that's another story.

It's hard to keep a good liar, er, fictionalist, down, though. A number of Poe's fantastic whoppers originally appeared, or were reprinted, as true tales.

Nowadays, we say things are different. Our journalistic reading material is less muddled than in the past. The Weekly World News may present science fiction as sensational fact, but few other periodicals do. When we read Time or Newsweek or The Washington Post, we expect something close to good reporting about science.

But how sure can we be? News is entertainment, and journalists will always be tempted by The Big Story. They have every reason to downplay critics of whatever catastrophe is in the offing.

Scientists should have a closer track on the truth. But though public testing is the modus operandi of their business, the actual business side of their business proceeds on funding, and . . . well, you can probably write the rest of this sentence yourself.

Funding for research these days has One Big Source that may be more corrupting than the journalists' desire for the Big Story. As long as scientists expect the federal government to provide the bulk of the funds for their work, there will always be a strong element of ideology, hyperbole, and scare-mongering in the way they present their stories to journalists.

Example? I'm tempted to say, "global warming," but that story is extremely complicated. (It's a pity that journalists so often make it out as simple then, isn't it?) Instead, I'll cite a scientistic fad a tad more political, Keynesianism.

From the Great Depression up until the stagflation of the '70s, economists had great deal of prestige, and economics then was almost synonymous with Keynesianism. Tied closely to government, the economists' job was to micromanage the "macro-economy." It turned out a mess on every level, and soon after Richard Nixon said "We are all Keynesians now," nearly everyone started repudiating Keynesianism.

How did the science of economics get corrupted? By working too closely with the state. How did the Keynesians treat their critics during the period of their ascendancy? With arrogant contempt. And how did the Keynesian ediface crumble? Well, with less ballyhoo than it started. In paradigm shifts and in hoax stories, retractions are printed in small type on page D-6.

So I appreciate the work of the debunkers. I may even qualify as one myself ? in my Common Sense e-letter I often debunk the Big Stories of the day. Power tends to corrupt, and journalists too often miss that story. And without debunkers like Steven Milloy of Junkscience.com, the corruption of science by politics and scare-mongering journalism might be missed.

I have a new Top Ten list idea: Top Ten Things to Do to Be a Good Citizen. Number one? Don't believe everything you read in the papers.