The Art of Junk Science

I read an article in the local paper that a U.S. Senator had evoked the phrase “junk science” when explaining why Rachel Carson’s work should not be considered for an award in the U.S. Senate. He was speaking specifically about her work entitled Silent Spring, which used scientific findings to raise questions about the widespread use of pesticides. This U.S. Senator referred to the science in Carson’s work as “junk science.” And this senator has a background in medicine.

I checked the National Science Education Standards, and I couldn’t find any reference to “junk science” in the Standards, so I suppose that this term is not part of the Nation’s science education curriculum.

But it is a phrase some members of Congress use in certain circumstances, and there is a website called that Fox News would have you believe is journalistic. Except for the fact that Exxon-Mobile provides financial support to the web-master, a Stephen Malloy.

The term Junk Science is a recent one. For example the tobacco industry has used the term “junk science” to describe scientific research that demonstrated harmful effects of smoking and second hand-smoke. And indeed, they used another term, “sound science,” to direct your attention at corporate research that supported their position.

Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are supported by the scientific community. Junk science has been evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.

Now back to that U.S. Congressman that I mentioned at the head of this piece. It seems that a committee in the U.S. Senate wants to give an honor in memory of the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth for her contributions to science. The honorable Senator Tom Coburn had decided to block the resolution claiming that Carson used “junk science” to open the eyes of the U.S. public that pesticides were not a good thing to be using without looking into the effects on human health.

This topic is a very powerful one if you are teaching students about the nature of science. What is science? What are the characteristics of a scientific study that would be reviewed favorably by a panel of peers? What is “junk science”? And do scientists use the term “sound science,” and in what situations?

Some sites on the web that you might look to for planning a discussion might be:

Junk Science–An outline of the history of the use of the term, Junk Science, and some specifics on how the term is used.
Pseudoscience–A very interesting site written by Stephen Lower, a retired faculty member of the Dept. of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University Burnaby / Vancouver, Canada.
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science–A very good article published in the Chronicle Review of Higher Education.
The Scientific Method–A valuable site exploring the nature of the scientific method.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.