Policy Documents

October 2007: Junk Science and Fake Consensus

Joseph Bast –
October 1, 2007

The problem of junk science masquerading as consensus is a familiar one to long-time readers of The Heartlander and other Heartland publications. By understanding some of the social trends that are making the problem so severe, we can take action to bring sound science back into the public debate.

Three Cases of Fake Consensus

We hear over and over the assertion that there is a consensus that “global warming” is man-made and a crisis. Says who? There have been only two recent surveys of scientists on the issue of global warming, one an international survey of 530 climate scientists conducted in 2003 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, and the second a 2006 survey of U.S. members of the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.

According to the surveys, a majority of scientists, but certainly not all, believe humans are responsible for some part of the warming that occurred after 1940. Most scientists, however, don’t agree on how much of the modern warming is natural and how much is man-made. The scientific community is split down the middle on whether future warming would be moderate and benign, or severe and harmful.

A second phoney consensus is that exposure to secondhand smoke is a serious public health problem. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, for example, has said, “The debate is over. The science is clear: Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance, but a serious health hazard.”

The Surgeon General released a seemingly impressive 727-page report on secondhand smoke to support his claim, but does it? Most of the research it cites would not be admissible as evidence in a court of law, according to the “Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, Second Edition,” from the Federal Judicial Center. Many of the studies were rejected by a federal judge in 1993, when EPA first tried to classify secondhand smoke as a human carcinogen.

The Surgeon General ignores the largest and most credible study ever conducted of spouses of smokers, by Enstrom and Kabat, published in 2003 in the British Medical Journal, which found, “The results do not support a causal relationship between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco-related mortality. The association between tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.”

A third example of fake consensus concerns pesticides. According to the Environmental Working Group, “There is growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect people, especially during vulnerable periods of fetal development and childhood when exposures can have long-lasting effects.”

That claim is simply not true. Most scientists believe the synthetic chemicals that might cause cancer in high doses are present in the human diet in amounts too small to pose more than a minuscule threat to human health. As our ability improves to detect ever-smaller amounts of chemicals in human and other animal tissue, we are discovering that synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous. But just because they are detectible doesn’t mean their presence is harmful. It is still the case that “the dose makes the poison.”

We consume 10,000 times more naturally occurring potential carcinogens than man-made pesticide residues, by weight, yet even natural carcinogens are not likely to pose a significant health threat. And age-adjusted cancer rates in the U.S. are falling, and have been since at least the 1970s, even while pesticide use has grown. How could that be if exposure to pesticides causes cancer?

How to Stop It

Global warming, secondhand smoke, and pesticides would seem to be three very different topics, but in all three we see a pattern of junk science masquerading as consensus and interest groups whipping up public alarm and capitalizing on the public’s fear.

We can stop this from happening by confronting the underlying trends that make the junk scientists’ tactics so successful.

Teaching Science and Economics

It starts in the schools, from kindergarten through college, when children and young adults are not taught even the most rudimentary facts of science, health, and economics. When global warming, smoking, and pesticides are mentioned in a typical classroom, the purpose often isn’t to teach scientific principles but to deliver moralizing sermons about brave scientists and activists battling evil corporations and public indifference.

We can start by getting instructional materials that feature sound science and economics into classrooms. Here, technology can be our friend. CDs and DVDs are inexpensive to reproduce and distribute, and the busy or lazy teacher is often happy to show his or her class a DVD while grading papers at the back of the room. We can also recruit speakers to address classrooms, perhaps offering to debate junk scientists.

Several national organizations exist to get free-market ideas and thinkers onto college campuses, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), Young America’s Foundation (YAF), and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).

Two Types of Journalists

Journalism doesn’t pay well, even for the most prestigious publications, so it attracts two types of people: Those who couldn’t do well enough in science and math to get better-paying jobs, and those with parents wealthy enough to pay their way through Ivy League schools. Journalists of both types are easily recruited to the popular liberal causes of the day.

Young journalists can be re-educated by introducing them to sound science and free-market ideas at seminars and conferences, such as those hosted by the Leadership Institute, Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). All journalists can be influenced through correspondence and conversation concerning the articles they write, either praise for accurate articles or questions and suggestions about inaccurate articles.

Nonprofits on Steroids

The nonprofit sector is exploding thanks to growth in the overall economy, rising rates of charitable giving, and the increased sophistication of nonprofit fundraising efforts. Environmental advocacy groups alone raised $6.6 billion in 2006. Giving to anti-smoking causes is also huge, with a single donor, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, giving some $200 million to these groups over the years.

The best way to restore balance to the role nonprofit advocacy organizations play in public policy debates is to adequately fund organizations that support sound science and economics, including the American Council on Science and Health, Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Center for Policy Analysis, Hudson Institute, CFACT, and (naturally) The Heartland Institute.

Groups that are known to use junk science need to be exposed, rebutted, and when possible defunded. Most corporate funding of nonprofit public policy organizations goes to anti-market groups, according to research by the Capital Research Center. These corporations may think they need a “seat at the table,” or perhaps are only paying protection money, but in the long run this is a failing strategy.

Wealthy Wimps

The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet, and in the history of the world, and it is growing richer all the time. This wealth allows us to invest in reducing risks. The wealthier a society becomes, the more it is able to spend pursuing smaller and smaller risks. Wealthy societies also want every victim of misfortune--even misfortunes due to natural causes, or risks brought on by the victim’s own choices--to be made whole.

Weaning a wealthy society off of junk science won’t be easy. We can stress risk-risk analysis--showing how a particular public policy often decreases one risk while unintentionally increasing other risks. Banning pesticides, for example, might decrease the already-minute health risks of consuming pesticide residues, but has the unintended consequence of increasing the risk of cancer and other illnesses by making fruits and vegetables more expensive and therefore a smaller part of people’s diets.

The notion that all victims should be compensated for their losses can be combated by documenting examples of lawsuit abuse, showing how “real” victims are often short-changed by the legal system while lawyers get rich.

Conclusion

There are multiple reasons why science is disappearing from the public debate, which is why a solution requires action on several fronts. We need to improve education at all levels, work to bring journalists up to speed on the issues, support reliable nonprofit organizations, and find ways to communicate with an increasingly affluent and risk-averse public.

The Heartland Institute is deliberately pursuing projects in all these areas to help win back the ground lost in recent years to junk scientists. If you have other ideas and suggestions for projects, please let me know. We need your help.


Joseph Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.