Junk science, dubious statistics and rash presuppositions
If there's one thing the American news media thrive on, it's sensationalism. Almost
every day it seems there's a new crisis, and a radio or TV reporter on the
scene… "live!" Big deal! It would be far better to have a
television show with healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and a rational analysis
of the facts than a flashy report on the crisis du jour.
Yellow Science: Over the
past several decades an increasing number of scientists have shed the restraints imposed by the scientific
method and begun to proclaim the truth of man-made global warming. This is a hypothesis that remains
untested, makes no predictions that can be tested in the near future, and cannot offer a numerical explanation
for the limited evidence to which it clings. No equations have been shown to explain the relationship
between fossil-fuel emission and global temperature. The only predictions that have been made are
apocalyptic, so the hypothesis has to be accepted before it can be tested.
America's pharmaceutical industry is under scrutiny and attack more than ever before. Critics have pejoratively
nicknamed the industry "Big Pharma" (to associate it with "Big Tobacco"); they characterize it as uncaring,
duplicitous, profit-hungry, and manipulative; they claim that the industry excels in price-gouging while at the
same time delivering very few products of any real value.
Can't See the Warming for the Trees. If you
need further evidence that hysteria is outpacing science in the global warming debate, consider the study published this
week about Northern Hemisphere forests actually causing significant global warming. Researchers from the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory reported in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (April 17) that while
tropical forests exert a cooling influence on global climate, forests in northern regions exert a warming
influence — and it's not just a trivial climatic effect.
Prove": Part II. My late mentor, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, used to say
that it could be very instructive to spend a few hours in a library checking up on studies that had been
cited. When I began doing that, I found it not only instructive but disillusioning.
What is safe, what
isn't? The media constantly bombard us with reports of things that supposedly are good or bad for
our health. Increasingly, they seem to rely on the unsubstantiated warnings of activists, or on anecdotes,
which only reinforces the news organizations' credo, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Gulf Stream Will Not Shut Down, Science Magazines
Admit. Putting to rest nearly a decade of scare scenarios involving polar ice caps quickly
reclaiming Canada, the northern United States, and northern and central Europe, scientists now report there
is no chance of the Gulf Stream shutting down any time soon, regardless of any predicted global warming.
Hype, hoaxes, hacks … and
science. JunkScience.com just published this year's list of Top Ten Most Embarrassing
Moments. The list spotlights individuals and organizations that use the mantle of science to provide
intellectual cover for exaggerated claims, bad judgments, or hidden agendas that have "most egregiously
undermined public confidence in the scientific community's capacity to conduct sound and unbiased research."
Morning News Overstates Circulation. The Dallas Morning News overstated
circulation for its daily and Sunday editions, and its top circulation executive has resigned,
the paper's parent company said Thursday [8/5/2004]. Belo Corp. said the newspaper
overstated its daily circulation by 1.5 percent and Sunday circulation by 5 percent,
mostly due to a 1999 change in the way the paper counted unsold returned copies.
Update: Tribune Co. Accused of Falsifying
Figures. The SEC accused Tribune of failing to uncover inflated circulation figures at Newsday
and Hoy from January 2002 to March 2004 because it lacked adequate internal financial controls. Besides
Newsday and Hoy, Belo Corp.'s Dallas Morning News and Hollinger International Inc.'s Chicago Sun-Times also
were found to have significantly inflated their circulation numbers, which affect the rates charged to
for journalists to study a little economics. People with a basic knowledge of
economics would understand that words like "surplus" and "shortage" imply another word that
may not be mentioned explicitly: Price. And chronic surpluses or chronic
shortages imply price controls.
The Gay Gene: Going, Going… Gone!
Many misconceptions exist about the supposedly inborn nature of complex behaviors such as homosexuality.
Most of these are due to media reports that present scientific studies in selective sound bites. In
reality, no scientific studies show an inborn cause for any such complex behaviors.
Global Warming: Why Can't the Mainstream Press
Get Even Basic Facts Right? Carbon dioxide accounts for less than ten percent of the greenhouse
effect, as carbon dioxide's ability to absorb heat is quite limited. Only about 0.03 percent of the
Earth's atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide (nitrogen, oxygen, and argon constitute about 78 percent,
20 percent, and 0.93 percent of the atmosphere, respectively). The sun, not a gas, is primarily
to "blame" for global warming — and plays a key role in global temperature variations as well.
AP Fumbles Global Warming Story. In
late March, the Associated Press ran a global warming story that makes a number of misleading, if not downright
inaccurate, statements. Faulty "news" stories like this one, which mislead people all over the world, do
not reflect a consensus of scientists. It is alarming that a media outlet as influential as AP would run
a story this wrong … and that so many news editors would be gullible enough to run it.
Don't Trust Hollywood Science: Global Warming Won't
Cause a New Ice Age. "The Day After Tomorrow," is the subject of a multi-million dollar PR campaign
touting it as if it were not fiction, but cinema verite - a realistic warning of what could happen if we don't
dismantle our modern economy to stave off global warming. Yet the extreme scenarios promoted by global
warming theory advocates are supported more by political ideology than by science.
The Miracle of
Recovery: Though the ecological legacy of the Yellowstone wildfires is a mixed bag for some
species, the forest's remarkable recovery shows how the news media overstated the fire's impact.
The Alar Scare Ten Years Later: The
credibility of the environmentalists' mythology has very much faded. In the June 1993 issue of ECO magazine,
reporter Keith Schneider stated: "[The] NRDC and 60 Minutes teamed up to cause a food scare by
attacking Alar… as the single greatest cancer threat to children in the food supply. That conclusion has
since been described as completely specious by university, federal and state health experts across the country."
The propaganda broadcasting network:
The definition of propaganda describes ABC News' decision to enlist the services of actor and teenage heartthrob,
Leonardo DiCaprio, to interview President Clinton about the environment: "the spreading of ideas,
information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person."
"Bogus" story aired by
CNN. CNN is being urged to run a correction after it aired a story about a piece of
evolution-related legislation — a story that was full of inaccuracies.
Same as above: Bee
Can't Verify 43 Sources in Columns. A newspaper investigation of a
former columnist for The Sacramento Bee could not verify 43 sources she used in a
sampling of 12 years of her work. Diana Griego Erwin resigned May 11 as
she came under scrutiny about the existence of people she quoted.
alive: [There was no flu epidemic.] No crisis. And not because
of anything we did, or didn't do. The flu simply came on, as it does every year, and
went away, as it does every year. This year's flu "epidemic" simply follows the media
panic we saw last year over SARS.
Miracle of Recovery: Though the ecological legacy of the Yellowstone
wildfires is a mixed bag for some species, the forest's remarkable recovery shows
how the news media overstated the fire's impact.
history, no study, no debate. The Associated Press and various newspapers
reported this month that the University of California at Los Angeles' Chicano Studies
Research Center released a "study" that recommended allowing California's 4.6 million
non-citizens to vote in local elections. But there was no study. There was no
new research or in-depth information.
Trade Credibility for Access: A few years ago, ABC's Cokie Roberts
was pasted by the accuracy police when she pretended to be reporting from Capitol
Hill when she was really standing in a coat in the studio. But it would be much
better if TV reporters stood and told the truth standing in American studios while
pretending to be in Baghdad, instead of standing in Baghdad passing falsehoods and
pretending to be reporters.
Are the Media Giving You the Whole Story on Global
Warming? Most media reports ignore the evidence for cooling and focus instead on records from
land stations, which indicate a 1°F increase in surface temperatures during the 20th century.
What they fail to report is that this increase was measured mostly in and around urban centers, and therefore
indicates urban — not global — warming.
Statistics: Hysteria sells -- and accuracy takes time, which could make
the news stale by the time the statisticians check it out.
Health News That's Unhealthy: Television
commercials for heartburn, back pain and overactive bladder aren't the worst ailments afflicting network
newscasts. Most of us probably take the commercials with a grain of salt. But if you examine some
of the evening newscasts' medical stories, you may want to start taking them with a gram of salt.
One way of telling whether a given statistic is a fact or an artifact is to ask whether the definition used
fits the thing that is being defined. Buried in the news story about the children with disabilities is
the fact that the definition of "disability" has been expanding over the years.
What you don't know:
The media elite continues to discover new "weapons of mass destruction" that Islamic terrorists are "believed"
to have got their hands on. Don't let them fool you. The only true WMD is a nuke. Nothing
else comes close.
Glossary for the Liberal Media: Republicans
call the taxes assessed on an estate valued at a million dollars or more a "death tax," while Democrats generally
call it an "estate tax." "Death tax" — used by conservative outlets like Fox —
sounds appropriately ominous. But most outlets like CNN and the Washington Post insist on the more benign
and less unobjectionable term "estate tax."
Distorted media coverage of youth and
crime: The Justice Policy Institute finds that media coverage of crime understates the proportion of
minorities who are victims, overstates youth participation in crime, and exaggerates the rate of crime.
Paved With Good
Intentions: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced Federal legislation that would prohibit
schools from selling soft drinks or "foods of minimal nutritional value" (read: snacks) during times when
breakfast and lunch are served. It would also give the US Department of Agriculture the power to ban
sodas and snacks outright on school grounds.
How to Recognize a Skunk: Reading the morning paper,
you come across a wire-service article on a subject you know well -- [for example,] guns. The article is
filled with biased language ("gun violence," "spraying bullets" "million moms") and statistics
that are either made up or cooked from highly unscientific methodology ("12 students killed by guns every
day," "43 times more likely to be killed by a gun in your own home"). How do we tell truth
from fiction, or recognize when half-truths and twisted language are being used to manipulate us, without
spending our lives tracking down every obscure databit or factoid behind every news story?
Journalists and Economics 101: Is
deficit spending "a potent recession cure when administered properly"? A newspaper business writer made this assertion
in an article entitled "The Budget Deficit Faced by Many States." But is it true, that it's a good thing when governments
spend more than they take in?
Where Have You Gone, Isaac Newton? More and
more today, we are inundated with foolishness masquerading as science. Psychic hotlines proliferate, politicians
consult astrologers, and people reject their doctor's advice in favor of "alternative healing" dispensed by
quacks. In the past, defenders of real science could be relied upon to expose and debunk such
nonsense. So where are these defenders today?
Small-Time Crooks: The pattern is clear. The
current scandal frenzy is not a campaign against fraud -- it's a campaign against business and capitalism. The
people leading the hysteria about "corporate crime" are eager to expose and condemn fraud by a private businessman -- but
they ignore or excuse it when the lies are told by federal employees.
Ten People and a Baby: Some
time ago, a newspaper began a report on a terrible accident near Los Angeles with the headline "Ten People, Baby Die
When Van Hits Truck." When I questioned him, an editor saw no reason to reword this as "Eleven People Including
Baby Die" or "Ten Adults and Baby Die." To him a 1-year-old was not a "person." Indeed, the subject seemed
to interest him less than if I had complained about the use of a comma instead of a semicolon.
Putting School Violence Into Perspective:
According to the National School Safety Center exactly six students have been murdered, committed suicide, or
suffered weapons-related violent death in the United States in the 2000-2001 school year. The false perception of
rampant school violence in American schools is fueled by media outlets that instinctively are drawn to extremes.
The Social Security Debate: A War of Lies. The
battle to reform Social Security meets the war over the federal budget -- and the first casualty is the truth. The fact
is that there is no such thing as "Social Security tax revenues" and there is no such thing as a "Social Security surplus" and
there is no such thing as a "Social Security Trust Fund" and there is no such thing as a "Social Security Lock Box." All
revenues received by the federal government from whatever source is simply interchangeable income, to be spent by the government
any way it chooses. There is no Social Security surplus, and never has been. The present value of the system's
liabilities is greater than its assets by trillions of dollars.
Eradicating the Constitution: Socialism
is not in desperate retreat, as falsely proclaimed by the establishment press. On the contrary, it moves forward confidently,
aggressively and, for the most part, uncontested everywhere in the world.
Book review: Junk
Science Judo - Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams by
Steven J. Milloy. Milloy's new book is written to enable the reader - without
benefit of extensive scientific training - to ferret out, understand and debunk the
blizzard of phony health scares that fill today's media. This is a quick,
easy read in spite of dealing with scientific issues. It won't make you
an expert, but it will equip you to tell who is and who isn't.
Book review: It
Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality. What should
readers make of the news report stating that minority mortgage applications are refused twice as often as those of white
applicants, when another one claims that their applications are approved 89% as often? How are we to evaluate
the various scientific reports we come across every day? Washington, D.C.-based social scientists
Murray, Schwartz and Lichter demonstrate how journalists can put a spin on research results to make them conform to
preexisting beliefs, and, alternatively, how complicated findings can be easily and innocently misinterpreted.