Jul 292003

You might be a junk scientist if:

You prophesy disaster in some remote future. It is safest to choose a date in the long run, when we’re all dead, but even the less judicious have little to worry about: by the time D-Day rolls around people will have forgotten what you said. If someone does happen to remember, you can either issue a new report revising your predictions, or, as a last gasp, maintain that you were right in general, even as your every specific prediction has been falsified. Or both.

You deal in poorly-understood, multi-causal phenomena, traditional playgrounds for the scientific crank. Cancer and climatology are especially popular.

You have trouble with extrapolation, like Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Health, who concluded that college drinking causes 1,400 deaths annually, by taking the total number of alcohol-related deaths among people 18-24 and multiplying by, uh, the percentage of them in college. (Note that this is supposed to establish that college drinking is especially dangerous.) Social science: it’s easy!

You are famous for work outside your field, like Paul Ehrlich, a bug man best-known for speculation on overpopulation and global cooling (yes, cooling); Barry Commoner, the cancer-biologist-cum-nuclear-testing-authority-cum-geneticist; Rachel Carson, an expert on chemicals by virtue of her master’s in marine biology; and Stephen Jay Gould, another genetics authority, trained in paleontology. The press, notwithstanding, can be relied on to refer to you as “Dr.,” “Ph.D.,” or “distinguished scientist.”

You do a lot of testifying for plaintiffs in class-action suits. Extra credit if this is how you make your living.

  10 Responses to “A Brief Topology of Junk Science”

  1. The politicization of science is very worrying to me, because the institution depends upon a kind of trust and honesty that simply can’t be forced, and we know how conducive politics can be for these virtues. These charlatans end up creating distrust in science altogether, which allows a whole other group of charlatans (psychics, faith healers, new age gurus, etc.) a greater foothold in the culture.

    That said, I’m not sure why you associate Gould with these others. He seems to me mainly a popularizer of evolutionary theory. What am I missing? (And should I not read the huge tome on evolution that I bought this summer?)

  2. In Gould’s case I was thinking of The Mismeasure of Man, his book purporting to debunk Herrnstein and Murray, which was sloppy and disingenuous from beginning to end.

    Not having read Gould’s last opus, I can’t answer your parenthetical question, but at least it’s in his field.

  3. So in your opinion, the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change is "junk science?" This assertion is based on what, exactly?

  4. I add links so people can read them. If you had bothered, you would have noted the following passage, among others of similar import: "By 2100, most projections of human-induced climate change fall into ranges of about 1.4 to almost 5.8C increase in annual global mean surface temperature compared to 1990 (although estimates that are outliers to both ends of even this large range can be found in the literature; and about 10- to 90-cm rise in mean sea level…The potential impacts of these very large projected changes cannot be disregarded, even though it is difficult to imagine what human societies would look like in the 22nd century."

    This is classic junk. All 100-year predictions are based, necessarily, on bogus assumptions, and serious scientists eschew them altogether. Note also the projected range of 1.4 to almost 5.8C. This is code for "we haven’t the faintest idea."

  5. Not only did I read the page you listed, I also read deeper into the site, notably about the purpose and mission of the IPCC itself, which is not to conduct scientific experiments, but to evaluate all the peer-reviewed literature on the subject and make recommendations to most of the world’s goverments. So one cannot accurately call the IPCC junk science at all, since they don’t do science. Note that in the passage you so triumphantly flourish, the authors aren’t making any predictions whatsoever of their own; they are merely reporting the range of predictions made by the scientific community, acknowledging the wide range of said predictions and further acknowledging the difficulty of making assumptions about society that far in the future. Your ‘junk science’ label, applied to this work, has, in my view, precisely no purpose or meaning other than your own (longstanding) hostility to the notion of taking questions about climate change seriously.

    And that’s the broader, and far more important, point: do humans have any business studying climate change at all, which by its very nature means doing our best to look ahead 100 years? Or should we take Aaron’s view and conclude that trying to think and plan that far ahead is stupid and doomed, and that therefore the best course of action is to do nothing?

  6. Obviously the junk science label applies to the scientists who made the 100-year predictions, not to the IPCC itself, which is guilty only of taking junk science seriously. I tolerate pedantry here but only to a point.

    I’m all for studying climate change. Explain again why that entails 100-year predictions; I must have missed it the first time.

  7. I disagree that the IPCC is "guilty only of taking junk science seriously." As a political body making both policy and research recomendations, the IPCC is helping to define the science being done and how its results are being interpreted. Also, the IPCC has been engaged in some serious sleight-of-hand manipulation of data, such as its writing out of history how warm the medieval period was.

  8. I’ll take all climatology much more seriously when they will be able to tell me with better than a 50% probability whether I will be rained on next Tuesday. Are 100 year predictions supposed to be EASIER that predictions of two days from now?

  9. "Are 100 year predictions supposed to be EASIER that predictions of two days from now?"

    Actually, they can be. Nobody is trying to predict whether it will rain in a specific place on a specific day in 2103. Meteorology and climatology are related, but distinctly different fields.

    I’m as skeptical of global warming as you are, but lets not confuse the issue.

  10. Nathan:

    I know your argument, but I ain’t buying. We know much about what the weather will be like in NYC–just look west. Yet we still get it wrong much of the time.

    As for long term predictions on a global basis, we know much less. Will atmospheric dust have warming or cooling effect? Will the oceans act as heat sinks? Do sunspots have effects? And if they do, along with volcanoes and cattle and termite flatus and combustion engines, how do you predict not only their effects, but their likelihood of occurrance?

    No algorithm I know of can tell us to a degree of certainty that even gets the SIGN right, let alone the magnitude.

    Tell me what the weather will be on Tuesday, and I’ll be happy.

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