Carolina Critic

No. 109: Junk Science Judo: Quacks Hazardous to Our Health

Steven J. Milloy: Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares & Scams; Cato Institute; 2001; 191 pp.; $18.95

Nov. 26th, 2002
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So much of staying healthy and sane is worrying about what’s important, and not sweating the small stuff. It makes sense to worry about, say, getting enough exercise since exercising regularly can greatly improve one’s quality of life. Most rules for maintaining a healthy life are quite simple.
Since most of us are not physicians or actuaries, we rely on the media to furnish us with the health information we incorporate into our personal risk assessment calculus. Unfortunately, media outlets often muddy our view of risk assessment with outlandish and overstated threats. At the core of many of these threats one often finds the fingerprints of the junk scientist. He urges us to fret about small risks such as Alar, breast implants, and second-hand smoke, and confuses us with shrill warnings about what we breathe, buy, and eat. Sometimes it seems that the junk scientist would have us sweat only the small stuff. Thankfully, Steven J. Milloy reminds us that the most important lessons of risk assessment are often the simplest.
His book, Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares & Scams, delivers what it advertises. The antijunk-science movement revels in exposing quacks, crooks, and misguided do-gooders, but here Milloy goes a step further. He gathers the lessons learned from locking horns with junk scientists, and offers a handbook for staying sane in a culture seething with corrupted science.
Milloy reminds us that, while science may appear intimidating, the scientific process remains simple. We should find comfort in the scientific method with its predictable process of observation, hypothesis, testing, revising of hypothesis, and more testing. Science plods, ever so slowly and deliberately, toward truth. Science is not fickle; it does not leap from one truth to the next. Headlines that tout the findings of a shocking new study should be understood in the larger context of science plodding toward truth. One study cannot turn thousands of years of accumulated knowledge on its head. As Milloy notes in a pronouncement typical of the book’s colloquial style: “A hypothesis should get the you-know-what tested out of it until it is credible enough to be labeled a ‘theory’”. Even then, more testing is needed before a theory can graduate to scientific law. Before we buy into the scare of the moment we ought to see how it conforms to the larger body of scientific knowledge. It may not be necessary to uproot the family and move away from those power lines, after all.
Milloy correctly notes that most of us remain properly skeptical of scientific claims made by corporations, since corporations often have selfish motives in under or overstating health risks. But we become trusting when confronted with the claims of government officials, activists, and consumer and environmental groups. Some groups seem untainted by self-interest, motivated only to serve the common good. However, the intentions of activists may be especially menacing since noble rhetoric camouflages their self-interest.
Take fund-raising for environmental groups. It has become a multibillion dollar industry, and, whether the science is sound or not, coffers grow with each new scare. Often, the junk scientist is merely a partisan in public advocate’s clothing.
Milloy is particularly effective when he illustrates (with endless examples) two fundamental rules of Junk Science Judo: statistics aren’t science, and the dose makes the poison. Statistics provide associations; they do not establish causation between phenomena. Often journalists try to skirt this issue by using weasel words. “May,” “might,” “possibly,” and “link,” all imply causation where causation may not exist.
Milloy rebuffs a journalist who writes that PCBs have been “linked” with cancer: “Certainly PCBs have been ‘linked’ with cancer — the same way Richard Jewell was ‘linked’ with the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. Both were accused and assumed guilty but subsequently vindicated.”
Such prejudice is common in the public sphere. Certain substances are simply presumed guilty. Alar, radiation, dioxin, and lead can only be harmful. While the mantra of the junk scientist is “any dose is poison,” Milloy encourages us to remember a fundamental principle of toxicology: “the dose makes the poison.” Two aspirin relieve your headache; 200 may kill you.
Here we find the crux of an archetypal junk science issue, the Alar scare. Yes, you might be at greater risk for developing cancer if you drink juice from Alar treated apples — but only if you spend your life drinking 19,000 quarts per day.
One area Milloy could emphasize more is the importance of taking the junk out of science. Junk science makes us less safe by using the noise of outlandish risks to distract us from health and safety measures that actually improve lives. Crisis is the seedling of big government. So even if we side-step junk science in our personal lives, we still must face politicians bent on making junk science the law of the land.

Theodore Blaker is a network TV news associate producer.
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