Fighting Back Against Junk Science

Published December 1, 2007

In last month’s column, I identified five groups responsible for perpetuating the fake consensus that pesticides pose a significant public health threat: the media, politicians, liberal advocacy groups, government agencies, and the organic food industry. These people profit considerably by taking the alarmist position in the public policy debate.

To fight back against junk science, we need to understand the underlying trends that make these interest groups’ tactics so successful. I believe five trends are particularly important.

Lousy Schools

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. Most kids graduate from high school and even college without the ability to interpret scientific and public health data, so they simply accept whatever claims they pick up in the popular culture.

In many colleges, the situation is particularly bad because students are taught how to campaign for political action on these issues, but not to question whether political action is necessary. The aging hippies who graduated in the 1960s are now tenured chairmen of their departments, and they’ve turned their universities into recruitment and training facilities for the left-wing causes they still embrace.

The solution is to get instructional materials that feature sound science and economics into classrooms. 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 and perhaps debate junk-science advocates.

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

Incompetent Journalists

Being a journalist, even at the most prestigious publications, doesn’t pay well, so the career attracts two types of people: Those who couldn’t do well in science and math in school, and those with parents wealthy enough to have paid their way through Ivy League schools.

Journalists from the first group aren’t very bright or ambitious, and they are easily trained to treat the news releases put out by a small group of liberal advocacy groups and government agencies as reliable sources for news stories. Journalists from the second group are often very bright and ambitious, but the faculties of the colleges they attended were far to the left even of the typical college, and their lack of exposure to real middle-class life makes them easy recruits 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, 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.

The Society of Environmental Journalists hosts frequent conferences and is well funded, but leans far to the left. There is an opportunity to create a competing organization that would be more mainstream.

Nonprofits on Steroids

You may have noticed there are more nonprofit advocacy organizations around today, which are getting more attention for their views, than there were several years ago. The nonprofit sector is exploding thanks to growth in the overall economy, rising rates of charitable giving, and increased sophistication in nonprofit fundraising efforts. Environmental advocacy groups raised $6.6 billion in 2006, and their take is growing fast.

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 CFACT, the American Council on Science and Health, Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Center for Policy Analysis, Hudson Institute, and (naturally) The Heartland Institute.

Groups 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 the Capital Research Center. These corporations may think they are influencing these groups’ agendas, or perhaps only paying protection money, but in the long run this is a failing strategy.

Pandering Politicians

The fourth trend that explains the rise of junk science is pandering politicians. Politicians have always pandered to special-interest groups, but the emergence of nonprofit advocacy groups on steroids–many of them with 501(c)4s and related political action committees (PACs) able to give campaign contributions to pliant elected officials–means politicians have a new set of groups to which they can pander.

It also has grown more difficult to hold politicians accountable for their decisions, thanks to rising population, campaign-finance laws that benefit incumbents, and less-rigorous coverage by journalists.

Groups that track how elected officials vote on important policy matters, such as the American Conservative Union and National Taxpayers Union, play an increasingly important role in efforts to hold politicians accountable for their actions. Conservative- or free-market-oriented counterparts to liberal groups that score elected officials using a pro-government-control scorecard are needed.

Wealthy Wimps

The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet, and in the history of the world, and is growing richer all the time. You might suspect this would have some effect on debates about potential environmental and health risks, and you would be right.

A wealthy society is often a society of risk-averse, easily frightened, and eager-to-please wimps. Wealth allows us to invest in reducing risks, and 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.

People in wealthy societies are less likely than those in poorer societies to actually make things, such as manufacturing goods. As a result, our value to our neighbors and friends depends on the information and ideas we are able to express and manipulate–and therefore when we criticize someone’s ideas and opinions, we are more apt to damage their self-esteem. Informed debate is likely to hurt someone’s self-esteem, so it’s not cool anymore.

We can win over “wealthy wimps” to our sound science and economics perspective by calling attention to risk-risk analysis–showing how a particular public policy often decreases one risk while unintentionally increasing other risks.

Banning pesticides, for example, decreases the already-minute health risks of consuming pesticide residues, but increases the risk of cancer and other illnesses by making fruits and vegetables more expensive and therefore a smaller part of people’s diets.

Winning Strategies

The notion that all victims should be compensated for their losses–regardless of whether another person is truly responsible–can be combated by documenting examples of lawsuit abuse, showing how “real” victims are often shortchanged by the legal system while lawyers get rich.

And the fear that challenging someone’s poorly formed opinion might hurt that person’s self-esteem can be overcome if we support activities, such as public debates, that re-normalize the idea that debate is appropriate and constructive.

We can defeat the junk scientists, but it requires hard work on a variety of fronts. We need to improve education at all levels, work to bring journalists up to speed on the issues, support reliable nonprofit organizations, hold politicians accountable, and find ways to communicate with an increasingly prosperous and distracted public.

Some think tanks, trade associations, and advocacy groups are already doing some of these things well, and they deserve our thanks. They need to do more. The trends responsible for the disappearance of sound science aren’t going to stop, and most of them will only get stronger over time. We need to be stronger, too.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of Health Care News.