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FROM THE PRESIDENT

The 'Junk Science' Dilemma

During the second half of the 20th century scientific knowledge has grown exponentially and has permeated nearly every aspect of everyday living. Consequently, the use and misuse of scientific knowledge must be major concerns of any community of responsible scientists and engineers. In the courts in recent years scientists, often with impressive credentials, have testified on both sides of such issues as the immunological consequences of breast implants, the addictive properties of tobacco products and the ability of electromagnetic radiation from power lines and telephone receivers to produce brain tumors. Prominent scientists and scholars have promoted controversial approaches to the management of common illnesses. For example, Linus Pauling recommended the use of vitamin C as a cure for the common cold, and Aldous Huxley advocated staring into the sun to treat nearsightedness.

Are these examples of the responsible use of science—or of its intentional or unintentional misuse? The question most often arises in a legal or political context. No matter how deeply the scientific community is concerned with the responsible representation of science, in these contexts there is much controversy over what is responsible and what is "junk."

On one end of the political spectrum, the environmental advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists defines junk science as “work presented as valid science that falls outside the rigors of the scientific method and the peer review process. It can take the form of presentation of selective results, politically motivated distortions of scientifically sound papers, or the publishing of quasi scientific non-reviewed journals." (http://www.ucsusa.org/junkscience/whatisjunk.html). On the other side, Steven J. Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the book Silencing Science, manages an entertaining and provocative Web page (http://www.junkscience.com) that debunks what he considers junk science. He lists numerous cases in which junk science has been used to support attacks on businesses and their products.

Many, if not most, readers of this editorial have experienced a sense of frustration, and perhaps anger, when they have encountered the public pronouncements of their "peers" on controversial scientific matters. They know that nonscientists, including political leaders, trial lawyers and jury members, often lack the education, training or background that would allow for a reasoned evaluation of a scientific dispute.

This is clearly a question that has consequences. What nonscientists perceive as quarreling among scientists lessens their respect for scientists and for science. Also, junk science can lead to the removal of products from the marketplace or prevent the introduction of new products that might contribute significantly to one's health or that might improve the quality of one’s life.

How scientists and engineers might address the junk-science dilemma is a difficult question for which answers are needed. In 1998 the American Medical Association considered a proposal for a peer-review system that would hold physicians accountable for medical testimony that might be false or misleading or that might promote untenable scientific theories. Other professional organizations might consider similar approaches. Certainly any solution must involve a collaborative effort of the scientific, governmental and business communities.

Peggie J. Hollingsworth
President, Sigma Xi


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