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Junk science

To the list of junk mail and junk food, add one other offering of the modern world, one more thing that has form but lacks substance: junk science.

But where junk mail may be irritating and junk food may offer empty calories, junk science is impacting public policy and costing society in incalculable ways, according to a panel that discussed the topic at a conference sponsored by the National Consumers League recently in Orlando, Fla.We are bombarded almost daily with new claims, new reports, new studies, sometimes even conflicting evidence, said Mary Heslin, former director of public policy for the Association of Food and Drug Officials who now works as a business consultant. A lot of it is couched in terms that sound very scientific, she says, but a lot of it is not based on sound scientific principles.

So, what is junk science?

Jerod Loeb, vice president of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and an adjunct professor of physiology at Northwestern University Medical School, calls it "the mirror image of real science."

Steven J. Milloy, executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition and publisher of the Junk Science Home Page, has an even stronger definition: "Junk science is bad science used by personal injury lawyers to shake down deep-pocket businesses; the `food police' and environmental Chicken Littles to fuel wacky social agendas; power-drunk regulators; cutthroat businesses to attack competitors; and slick politicians and overly ambitious scientists to gain personal fame and fortune."

Consider, for example:

- Headlines and studies compiled by Milloy on his Web site (www.junkscience.com): "Bath ducks face ban in sex change scare," a story about the fact that the toys contain a tiny amount of the chemical phthalate, which some "experts" say could be linked to cancer and sex changes witnessed in fish. "Smog spreading to South Pacific?," a story based on a press release; supporting studies have not been published. "Study says diet pill Redux is less dangerous than believed," an odd study that looks at Redux and heart valve disease when it is fen-phen, not Redux, that was associated with heart valve disease. Redux was reportedly linked with pulmonary hypertension.

- The case of Bendectin, detailed by Peter Huber in his book "Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom." Bendectin was a drug developed in the mid-1950s by Merrell Dow to alleviate nausea during pregnancy. However, among the millions of women who were helped by the drug, a few gave birth to children with deformed limbs, and some concluded the drug was to blame. Merrell Dow was soon inundated with product liability claims. The company won the vast majority of the lawsuits - not surprising, since the FDA and medical researchers involved in more than 30 wide-ranging studies of the drug had concluded that it was safe.

But the energy and money required to defend itself in court became more than the drug manufacturer wanted to deal with, and it pulled the drug off the market in 1983, much to the dismay of the medical community that had no equally safe and effective methods of dealing with pregnancy-related nausea, a problem that can itself be severe enough to cause damage to the fetus.

- Some popularly believed notions such as "red wine prevents heart disease," "oat bran will assure a long and healthy life," "cellular phones and electromagnetic fields cause brain cancer," "butter is worse for you than margarine," "the mercury in your teeth fillings causes cancer."

Some of these statements contain a modicum of truth, says Loeb. Red wine, for example, in moderate amounts has been shown to have some beneficial qualities; but there is still no agreement whether it is the wine or something in the grapes themselves, and in either case, it doesn't "prevent" heart disease. Oat bran has some beneficial qualities but by itself will not keep you healthy. And some of the statements are flat-out wrong, he says. There is no proof that cellular phones or mercury fillings cause cancer. Simple cause-and-effect statements like that are rarely true, says Loeb.

Is all science junk science? "Not by a long shot," says Milloy, from his home in Washington, D.C. "The vast majority of scientists are talented, hardworking, underpaid and honest individuals. The work they do is solid." Unfortunately, a very vocal minority of "junk scientists" add little to scientific knowledge. "Aside from providing headlines, their major con-tri-bu-tion is to divert funding and attention from deserving scientists."

So why does junk science receive such attention? A number of factors are involved, among them:

A desire for simple answers: "The public demands certainties," says Loeb. "But in science and technology there are none." Science deals with prob-a-bil-ity and chances; there are few guarantees.

Milloy worries, for example, that recent news about the abilities of the drug tamoxifen to reduce cancer risk is going to lead some people to consider the drug a vaccine. "We still don't know what causes breast cancer and how you get it. You can't just take this drug and sit back and not worry about some of the other risks. You still have to be vigilant."

Misunderstanding the process. Science is not a body of facts, says Loeb, but a way of thinking about the world. And so far, nothing has changed the basic scientific method of testing hypotheses in ways that can be verified by others, that stand up to peer review.

Loeb quoted a 19th century physician and philosopher named Peter Latham who wrote: "People in general have no notion of the sort and amount of evidence needed to prove the simplest matter of fact." That's still true today, says Loeb.

"In science, there are gaps and uncertainties," says Milloy, "We try to get around them by making policy assumptions. If something causes cancer in rats, we assume that it does the same in humans. But in many cases, those assumptions have not been borne out."

Contradictions. Loeb is the first to admit that there are a lot of conflicting and confusing reports out there, sometimes to the point that people give up on trying to sort it all out. Part of that is because of the way science is. "People say, `why do you always change your minds?' But, the fact is that as evidence continues to accumulate, as larger samples are involved, we sometimes reach new conclusions. Drugs that were thought to be relatively risk-free are found not to be."

So, people ask, why not wait until you know for sure before you release re-sults? "We never know for sure," says Loeb; that's part of the scientific process. Scientists reach the point where they think the findings have relevance and benefit and publish them, so that they can be evaluated and tested by others and even more evidence gathered.

This is the major difference between law and science, he says. "In law, you have to decide right now, based on the evidence you have. In science you continue to accumulate evidence."

The role of the media. The media often looks for easy answers and dramatic headlines, says Loeb. They have to meet deadlines and they want to be interesting, so they often strip complex issues to their barest details. Scientists, on the other hand, sometimes don't want to deal with the media.

A recent survey conducted by Vanderbilt University found a "science-media" gap. Of scientists surveyed, 76 percent felt the media was more interested in sensationalism than scientific truth; 82 percent thought the media do not understand statistics well enough to explain new findings; 72 percent said they want the public to know about their work, but 41 percent were afraid of being embarrassed by what the story might report.

Of the journalists surveyed, 85 percent said they did not find scientists very accessible, and 39 percent said they rarely or never seek independent verification for science stories.

So, what can be done in the quest for sound science vs. junk science?

There has been a push for Congressional reform. In 1975 Congress loosened federal rules of evidence to allow testimony by maverick scientists. A bill introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch last year (SB79) would, as part of broad civil justice reform measures, tighten up those rules by requiring that "expert" witnesses have expertise in the fields in which they are testifying and that they present only theories that have general acceptance in the scientific community. The bill is still in committee, however, and no action has been taken.

But there is also a need for education, says Loeb. One study, he says, shows that only 5 percent of adults in this country meet basic standards for scientific literacy.

More people - those involved in making policy decisions and those impacted by the decisions - need to be able to recognize junk when they see it.