Saturday, August 25, 2007

Junk Science?

Living in a world which, despite a strong post-modern leaning, is still largely modern, most of us have been educated to have a deep respect for the finding of science. But what, exactly, qualifies as "science"? Images of university researchers in which white lab coats, and computers churning out reams of statistics, come to mind. But beyond the physical appearances, there are also the phrases, which at least sound profound, about an "objective spirit of rational inquiry." And, to be sure, the great minds of people like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday deserve our respect, in part because of their noble minds, and in part because their findings have stood the test of time.

Sadly, however, there is a far-less-than-honorable industry, known as "junk science," which peddles propaganda disguised as intellectual effort.

How can you distinguish "junk science" from the real thing? There are a few clues: first, "junk science" will deal only with topics with immediate political or economic value, not with truth for truth's sake; second, it is funded by individuals or groups with a stake in the outcome; third, it proceeds with an agenda.

Consider a researcher trying to arrive at the most accurate possible value for the atomic weight of copper to fifty decimal places. This is not a social "hot button" topic; let us assume that the scientist doesn't have any preconceptions about the answer; it will be funded by those who desire only to have an accurate body of information for chemistry and physics. This is not "junk" science.

On the other hand, consider those who are paid by political parties and governments, not to find out "if" there is global warming, but rather accumulate evidence to persuade voters that there is global warming. Or those who are supported by governments and political parties, not to objectively and calmly compare Darwinism and Intelligent Design Theories, but rather to undermine and discredit those who question Darwinism. Likewise those who are paid, not to find out what causes some people to engage in homosexual behavior, but rather to support political policies about homosexual activities. None of these are intellectually respectable, and are in fact merely cleverly disguised propaganda. Whatever the word "science" might mean, these last three examples are not it.

One more example: medical research into the efficacy of various drugs is often funded by those who desire a certain outcome from the trials. Such experimentation, and the analysis of the resulting data, is often subject to financial, not scientific, pressures.

So, the next time a politician, a newspaper reporter, or an "expert" on TV or the Internet begins to tell you that there is "scientific" support for some view or opinion, beware!