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The Junk Science Test

Lately, I’ve been reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason[i], a book with arguments so well presented that anything I might write about it seems a little trite. So, I won’t attempt to write a book review; rather, I will simply urge the readers of this blog to put it on your “must read” list. Her jumping-off point, as a juxtaposition to Thomas Paine’s 18th critique of institutionalized religion in his 3-volume series, The Age of Reason, brings the reader up-to-date in the technologically-controlled media-rich environment of early 21st century America. One of the points in her discourse builds upon the notion that within this modern context there lies a plethora of junk thought. She also argues that the term “junk science” is pervasive in our society; but it also has a double meaning. To scientists, the phrase is synonymous with pseudoscience, a system of thought that may “cloak itself in scientific language” but is nonetheless, “impervious to evidentiary challenge.” She contrasts this use of the term “junk science” with the more politicized version which is, she argues, diametrically opposed to the interpretation of the scientific community. She argues:

“It has been appropriated by right-wing politicians and journalists to describe any scientific consensus that contradicts their political, economic, or cultural agenda.”

She further points out that the label is pinned on everything from climate research to genetics to family planning to evolutionary biology. In this use it is often used as a diatribe to discount the validity of real scientific research if the findings do not fit neatly into a social or political agenda.

I could not help but reflect on the use of this term in the context of what is happening in the world today. Although she applied her analysis primarily to domestic politics within the U.S., I also see how “junk thought” is being used in the international context. The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the uncertainty about the level and extent of radiological contamination as a result of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the decline of confidence by the world in the U.S. dollar because of our inability to get spending under control are all examples of current global issues where “junk science” has been employed with some success by various parties that have an agenda to advance. Let’s take each of these in turn.

MENA on Fire

The main thing I can think of when I see the agony of the family members mourning lost loved ones at the seemingly unending funerals for the people lost from the recent violence in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and other countries dominating the news feeds, is the unimaginable level of sadness, agony and pain that is now erupting across this region and around the world. This is compounded by the long-lasting agony of those that have been suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an empathetic person, this level of suffering is almost too much to bear. Is there a linkage between the political unrest and the prevalence of “junk thought” in these countries? If so, which of the two variations described above best characterizes the type of junk thought being used?

If we take one of these countries as an example, the actions of Gaddafi and his clan provide, perhaps, one of the richest examples of junk thought I’ve seen in the modern world. The level of self-delusion and propagandizing that his regime has engaged in to promote his green book, his petty aristocratic rule, his visions of grandeur as a Pan-African leader, and his authoritarian, intimidating and brutal approach to governance is beyond belief. He has been, rightfully, compared to Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot as one of the most divisive, evil forces to have ever walked on the face of this planet. That he has been able to convince a few (also self-deluded) African leaders, Turkish businessmen, and other potential beneficiaries of his illicit funding of his self-righteousness is, for me, beyond belief. I can only guess that the people who are being bought off either as mercenaries, family or tribal members, or regime apologists are also engaged in the same level of junk thought. In this context, I’m using the term as it was defined by Jacoby as junk thought advancing a self-serving agenda. His regime tried to present an image of respectability, even with a son advancing to the level of gaining a PhD in London, but now the world can see that the emperor has no clothes.

Japanese Nuclear Crisis

Since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan there has been a proliferation of misinformation floating around the web through blogs and advocacy sites about various issues surrounding nuclear contamination. In a previous article I noted the importance of precision when looking at the prospect of contamination via a nuclear source. I pointed out that the specific isotopes, the half-lives of these isotopes, the route of exposure, the length of time of exposure and many other factors are all important when looking at radiation exposure. None of this was accounted for by consumers of potassium iodate and potassium iodide tablets that spiked around the world after the disaster first struck. Both of these substances can be toxic at improper doses, and are only useful for reducing radiation exposure from Iodine-131, a relatively short-lived radioisotope that would not likely be present in contaminated materials beyond 8 days. These scientific facts did nothing to dissuade the consuming public of their frantic purchases of the tablets in the days right after the disaster. I can only hope that not too many people were made sick from the consumption of these iodine supplements.

Perhaps this type of junk thought gives us a whole new category; one not yet defined by Jacoby. This would be one where a partially informed audience of poorly researched and reported journalism forms a collective opinion and acts on it without further researching the health implications of their actions.

US Budget Junk Thought

Where do we begin with describing the junk thought around this issue? There are many good resources out now that provide thoughtful, grounded analyses of the implications of uncontrolled spending by the U.S. Government. The social sciences, such as economics and political science, do run into a challenge with the concept of the evidentiary basis for arguing certain nuisances in the budget debates because much of the data are subject to interpretation. Some argue that there is a need to cut spending, which means Medicare and the military budget should be on the table. Others argue that there is a need to raise taxes. In late 2010 Sander Levin argued that “According to the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, extending the tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 would add $38 billion to the federal deficit next year alone.”[ii]

The last-minute, burning the midnight oil, Federal budget resolution that barely passed earlier this month was a solemn reminder that the actions of our elected representatives are often swayed by junk thought. The debate over Planned Parenthood funding (because of abortion) and National Public Radio (because of in-depth reporting) took a lot of time and political capital on both sides and really resulted in very little savings to the budget process. It seems that the real issues, like those mentioned above, where some significant savings could be made, were off the table.

Here again, we see the various parties on each side of the debate relying on junk thought to advance their own political platforms and points of view. And each side has its own panel of experts presenting their own interpretation of the scientific facts in order to make their politicized points. And now, we see a looming crisis upon us: 1) falling confidence in the U.S. dollar, 2) China, among others unwilling to take on any more U.S. Treasury bill debt, 3) gold at an all-time high, 4) rising food costs around the world with the accompanying political instability that it brings.

These are the signs of our times.

I guess the U.S. public policy makers have failed the junk science test, as have consumers that bought and consumed potassium iodide tablets.

Shadow of man behind screenBut the biggest loser is Gaddafi. He and his clan not only failed the junk science test; but they are about to lose control of their homeland and legacy. I have no doubt that NATO will use its forces to further assist the rebellion to ultimately squelch the entire Gaddafi clan. Those that do not die on the battlefield will spend a long time in a cell in The Hague at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

For what? Junk thought?

And all the suffering left behind.


[i] Vintage Books, 2009.

[ii] USnews.com, September 13, 2010