Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Do You Tell Junk Science from Good?

In the last week, I've linked to a few stories that touch on how science reporting - mostly bad, occasionally good - touches us.  The over-hyping of every solar flare, the poor information on radiation levels from the Fukushima disaster, and the cardiac surgeon (3) who believes we've been told all the wrong things about what to eat and what to avoid.  It raises a very important question:

How can we average people tell when we're being exposed to good science and how do we know junk science?

It used to be pretty easy; in the case of a medical study, the more people who were in the study and the longer the study ran, the better; for the harder sciences, if the study was reported in Science or Nature, or another of the big journals, it was probably as sure as anything.  If there's one thing the Hadley Climate Research Unit's emails (ClimateGate) should teach us, it's that considering the journal's reputation is useless today.  There are scientists involved in climate modeling who really are in search of the truth; it just seems that at the highest levels, it's about as corrupt as Chicago politics.  Among the highlights of those emails was how the top guys at Hadley actually controlled journals, getting editors fired if they dared publish anything that questioned the "orthodox view".  So much for judging by the journal it's published in. With the major journals controlled by the "priesthood", any advances will only show up in the smaller, less prestigious journals, inviting the sneers of the priesthood.   

Nor does it mean anything if the ideas appear well supported by other scientists.  The American Physics Society, certainly one of the great academic societies in the world, has declared "the evidence is incontrovertible" about man-made global warming.  Nobel prize-winning physicist (1973) Dr. Ivar Giaever resigned as a Fellow from the American Physical Society (APS) on September 13, 2011 in disgust over the group's promotion of man-made (anthropogenic) global warming fears. 
"In the APS it is OK to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim (how can you measure the average temperature of the whole earth for a whole year?) is that the temperature has changed from ~288.0 to ~288.8 degree Kelvin in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me is that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this 'warming' period."
When the APS simply published a long letter from Lord Monckton, a well known skeptic about AGW, they went so far as to publish a disclaimer that this was not the APS viewpoint - something they have never done about really "out there" quantum physics.   (It's at the top of article in that link) As Dr. Giaever says; it's acceptable to talk about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which implies that for every decision we make, a parallel universe pops into existence, but it's not acceptable to question computer models about future climates that claim accuracy to even one decimal place? 

A good rule of distinguishing good science from bad might be if they use terms like "evidence is incontrovertible", or "the science is settled", or they have a "consensus committee", it's junk science.  Look at it this way: nobody holds a consensus committee or issues statements like "incontrovertible science" about gravity, where the science, while not settled, is accepted.  Nobody calls a consensus committee unless there is no consensus.  

Neither is it necessarily true that you can judge the quality of research by the connections of the scientist to some "evil" funding agency.  While this is sometimes true (famously, the tobacco companies' responses to anti-smoking studies) it has become a bogeyman used to link anyone who opposes you with an evil funding source - typically a big business .  Linking opponents of AGW with the "big oil", for example.  Everyone works for someone, and scientists who work in government-funded labs are not glowing saints free from comprises either; they often work for agencies with an agenda (the EPA for example).  In the case of the dire warnings about solar flares, do you think NASA might have a dog in the fight?  In an era when government budgets need to be slashed, do they have an interest in trying to get research money to fund more space science missions?  "Cut someone else!  We're more important!"

There's a saying that goes, "the most important words in science aren't 'Eureka, I've found it!', they're 'that's funny....' ".  Science progresses when someone notices the funny results that don't fit the current ideas and begins pulling on the loose thread.  At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, many physicists thought that everything was known about physics and their field was done.  There would be no more physicists in a few years.  All that remained was to dot a few "i"s and cross a few "t"s.  The loose thread someone pulled on led to relativity, quantum theory and an entire century of rich science that no one suspected was there. 

Dr. Dwight Lundell, the heart surgeon I mentioned the other day, appears to be a good example of the kind of guy who says, "that's funny...".  He has observed that the recommendations from the FDA and the other experts who advise us on what to eat have had unintended consequences worse than what they were trying to address - without fixing the problem.  He has written a book to tell you his findings.  Should we ignore his experience with thousands of patients and just assume he's only in it for the money?   The mere fact he's making some extra money on a book says nothing about whether he's right or wrong, and everyone has a right to make an honest living. 

Dr. Lundell is not alone.  Dr William Davis runs a "Track your Plaque" website/program for people diagnosed with actual cardiovascular disease, and his recommendations parallel Dr. Lundell's.  The whole lipid/cholesterol hypothesis is badly broken (at least, IMO), and there are probably thousands of people studying it who will tell you that (excellent summary pdf).  Dr. Duane Graveline, former NASA astronaut and M.D., has a good introductory website.  Statins may have some benefit, but those benefits likely have nothing to do with cholesterol lowering, but are from the changes to epithelial cells that they cause.  They seem to me to be extremely over prescribed. 

The whole low-fat mantra has led to a very fat industry that produces tons of heavily processed and modified foods that make them bundles of money.  In your typical grocery store, anything around the walls tends to be "whole food" (i.e., milk, cheese, butter, meats, fish, poultry, fresh fruits and veggies) that makes these companies nothing, while the other 80% of the store is filled with these processed products (i.e. breakfast cereals, cake mixes, pastas, sodas, breads, all kinds of prepared foods).  Perhaps the McGovern aides who started the whole "low fat diet as national policy" thing simply wanted to force everyone to eat like they do in Big Sur, but in the end, they got SnackWells, Honey Nut Cheerios and other highly processed junk that got a good reputation because it said "low fat" on the label.  Even the mandatory FDA labels that count a handful of nutrients, sodium, and macronutrient composition are deceptive about whether a food is a good choice to eat. 

I wouldn't trade our free market, even as badly distorted as it is, for any other system, but one of the problems with it is that industries and trade groups get together and manipulate government bodies to get their research funded (in the case of climate modeling) or to make their products to appear favorable (in the case of diet/food).  My answer to this is government is too damned big if these tactics make money, but I know that's wishing for days we'll probably never see again.

It's tempting to say that any time the news headline starts with "scientists say", ignore it.  The problem is we need to stay on top of all of this, not only for our good health, but because the behemoth Fed hydra, constantly, addictively driven by thirst for control, uses these ideas to control us.  And it doesn't have to be good science for them to use it as justification for controlling your life.  It's also tempting to say only trust things you read in small journals by honest (if not iconoclastic) researchers, but these things rarely make the news and feed back to the first point: if the news starts with "scientists say", ignore it.  And I think I stand by what I said the other day:  In general, if a government committee recommends something, do the opposite.


  1. If Obama is for it, it' junk science.


    1. For anyone reluctant to go see a video with descriptions around it, the video is called "Science for Smart People" (as opposed to for dummies) and it's worth watching.

      It's almost 47 minutes long, and if you're interested in this topic, it supplements my small column extremely well. There's coverage of a lot of things I didn't cover, like observational studies vs. controlled studies (clinical trials in medicine). It's also funny, and I'm really a big fan of funny.

  3. Jacob Bronowski and James Burke both ended their series' with the admonition that if *proper* science isn't taught in our schools, along with skepticism and rational thought, our civilization was doomed.
    And I agree with both of them.....

  4. First off, if you are reading "scientists say" you are reading what a journalist thought a scientist said. One of the more illuminating exercises I ever did was read an original experiment on the effects of caffeine on aerobic athletic performance. The original research showed no clear link to caffeine and performance, but tracing the "citations" through several other scholarly articles by the time it was a second hand citation others clearly believed that caffeine was a performance enhancing drug.

    Scientists don't always get it right, and our public schools are nothing more than indoctrination machines that use "argument from authority" to squash any healthy skepticism they find.

    1. Good point. I used to read more papers online; most journals now want you to pay for a subscription before you can read anything.

      From most useful to least useful, you can break down a paper that has been reported on this way:
      actual paper
      press release.

      You are probably just getting the press release version when you catch a headline on TV. Occasionally, you get the abstract version. I have read papers where I thought the data didn't support the abstract, let alone the press release.

      Publications and citations are the "currency" of academia. Colleges want to get as many published as they can, and I think everybody has heard that for working scientists the command is "publish or perish".

  5. Good science != funding
    Bad science (politically correct) = funding.

    Quantum particle theory sounds sexy and's politically safe.
    It gets left-over funding.

    I think that pretty much covers it