‘Junk Science’ Is Everywhere, And The Media Eat It Up

A worker in a laboratory in the offices of the Central Forensic Customs Administration of the Federal Customs Service of the Russian Federation.
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Junk science — worthless theories or data presented as fact — can be found everywhere, from scientific journals to media reports. It’s become a profitable industry, where scheming researchers get taxpayer-funded grants to find specific conclusions, then those manipulated and fake conclusions are reported back to the public as if they are real, and then policies and recommendations are made that further cost people money.

A good example of this is “research” surrounding sexual assault statistics. Researchers at universities use taxpayer dollars to find out how many women and men are sexually assaulted on campus. They don’t specifically ask if anyone has been sexually assaulted, instead they ask about a wide range of behaviors the researchers then deem to be sexual assault, such as “unwanted” behaviors. The behaviors need not fit into a legal definition of sexual assault or rape, but if respondents answer “yes,” they are considered sexual assault victims.

These “researchers” then report unrealistically high numbers of women to be victims, and the media uncritically broadcasts the findings, which is why you repeatedly see reports that “1-in-5” women have been sexually assaulted during college.

Unscrupulous activists and lawmakers then use these junk findings to make harmful policies. The Obama administration cited the “1-in-5” statistics as justification for removing due process rights and basic fairness from campus sex assault tribunals.

And the problem is more widespread than sex statistics, as Dr. S. Stanley Young and Henry I. Miller write at Real Clear Science (full disclosure: I used to work for Real Clear Investigations, part of Real Clear Media).

“Should we believe the headline, ‘Drinking four cups of coffee daily lowers risk of death’? How about, ‘Mouthwash May Trigger Diabetes. . .’? Should we really eat more, not less, fat? And what should we make of data that suggest people with spouses live longer?” the pair write. “These sorts of conclusions, from supposedly scientific studies, seem to vary from month to month, leading to ever-shifting ‘expert’ recommendations. However, most of their admonitions are based on flawed research that produces results worthy of daytime TV.”

The duo insist that social science studies are some of the worst offenders, and point out the recent hoax perpetrated by three scholars who were able to get multiple bogus studies published. The team had set out to prove that too many “academic” journals are willing to ignore basic science and logic for ideological purposes.

One way scholars have been able to prove that some studies are bunk is through replication. A recent study attempted to replicate 21 social science studies and found that only “62% of the replications show an effect in the same direction as the original studies.”

Young and Miller explain the reasons why so much junk science is getting published and accepted.

“Science is supposed to be self-correcting. Smart editors. Peer review. Competition from other labs. But when we see that university research claims — published in the crème de la crème of scientific journals, no less — are so often wrong, there must be systematic problems. One of them is outright fraud — ‘advocacy research’ that has methodological flaws or intentionally misinterprets the results,” the pair wrote. “Another is the abject failure of peer review, which is especially prevalent at “social science” journals. The tale of three scholars who tested the integrity of journals’ peer review is revealing.”

The two say publishing articles in “predatory journals,” which publish just about anything for the right price, also helps spread junk science.

Science “journalists” are a huge part of the problem. If the talking points make for a good headline, like Young and Miller’s example about coffee, then the “research” will get written up, no questions asked.

Young and Miller ultimately ask what can be done to save science, and suggest the solution might fall on government funding agencies “to cut off support for studies with flawed design; and to universities, which must stop rewarding the publication of bad research.” But since so many studies these days just confirm preconceived notions, it seems unlikely that partisans at federal agencies or congressional appropriators will stop giving funds.

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