Junk Science Oscars

It’s time to pay homage to the year’s outstanding junk science performances. Without further ado, the envelope, please…

Best performance by Swedish meatballs. Swedish scientists alarmed us in April that baking and frying high-carbohydrate foods, like potatoes and bread, formed acrylamide, a substance that has been linked with cancer in laboratory animal experiments.

What they didn’t say was that even if lab animal experiments were a good predictor of cancer risk in humans -- a HUGE leap of faith -- someone of average bodyweight would have to eat 35,000 potato chips (about 62.5 pounds) per day for life to get an equivalent dose of acrylamide as the lab animals!

You might not be able to eat just one Lays potato chip, but 35,000?

Best performance supporting the Swedish meatballs. The World Health Organization held in June an "urgent" meeting where acrylamide was called a "major concern." Further study was recommended, but no warning to consumers was issued -- yet.

During the three days the W.H.O. “fiddled” with acrylamide, more than 16,000 third-world children died largely preventable deaths caused by food and water contaminated with bacteria.

WHO knows what its priorities are?

Most embarrassing performance by “reputable” experts. The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) announced in July that no amounts of margarine, vegetable shortening, dairy products, pastries, crackers, fried foods and breast milk are safe to eat.

These foods and others contain trans fatty acids, vegetable oils altered to be firm at room temperature. Trans fats, according to the IOM, raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol --  supposedly, the "bad" cholesterol -- and allegedly increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

But none of the six studies of human populations consuming trans fats come close to linking trans fats with heart disease risk. No doubt this is why the IOM barely even mentioned their existence in its report and didn't rely on them in the slightest to support its conclusion.

Performance most likely to sent enviros into a tizzy.

The New York Times editorialized in December that the insecticide DDT should be used in Africa to reduce the death toll from malaria -- quite a welcome change from the Times’ 30 years of DDT fearmongering. Sadly, the turnaround by the influential newspaper comes too late for the 60-90 million people in the third world -- mostly children -- who died from malaria during those 30 years. No doubt the Times’ editorial will send its environmental activist allies into orbit as they continue to urge a total ban on DDT use.

Most underreported global warming story. Hardly a day goes by without a media report on the dire consequences of alleged manmade global warming and the attendant need for an international treaty to control greenhouse gas emissions.

But when 18 scientists who believe in manmade global warming wrote in the Nov. 1 issue of the major journal Science that no treaty will prevent global warming, nary a word was reported. The scientists also dismissed the near-term prospects for alternatives to burning coal, oil and gas.

I commented at the time that the “gloomy assessment of regulatory and technology-based solutions might just encourage policy makers to pay more attention to the junk science underlying the fantasy of manmade global warming.”

That observation presumed, of course, that such a significant assessment by such respected sources in such a prominent publication would be reported by someone in the media. Oh well…

Best performance in statistical malpractice. Researchers garnered national headlines in April with a report that 1,400 college students die every year from excessive drinking.

The estimate was derived by assuming that because college students constitute 31 percent of the population of 18-24 year olds, they also account for 31 percent of the alcohol-related deaths in that age group.

The simplistic reasoning -- which would merit an “F” in an undergraduate statistics course -- is equivalent to assuming that because women constitute about half of the population, they commit half of all crime. In fact, men commit more than 75 percent of crime.

What kind of researcher would commit such a flagrant statistical foul? It was Boston University’s Ralph Hingson, who moonlights as a board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- a formerly laudable activist group whose new mission seems to be more akin to “Mothers Against Drinking of Any Kind.”

Most shameful exploitation of a tragedy. Gun control activists exploited the Washington, D.C.-area sniper spree by calling for “ballistic fingerprinting” of guns before sale. Mandatory pre-sale ballistic fingerprinting, they hoped, might lead to reduced gun sales and even national gun registration.

The activists ignored the failure of existing pre-sale ballistics fingerprinting programs in Maryland and New York to lead to a single conviction. A report by California state ballistics experts -- and hushed up by California’s pro-gun control attorney general -- concluded that pre-sale ballistic fingerprinting was impractical. Moreover, Americans already own more than 200 million guns; those won't be included in any ballistics database.

It’s no wonder the gun-controllers tried to take advantage of public panic. Those are this year’s junk science winners (weeners?). Have a great 2003 and stay tuned for more next year.

Steven Milloy is the publisher ofJunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001)

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