Junk science, dubious statistics
and rash presuppositions

If there's one thing the American news media thrive on, it's sensationalism.  Almost every day it seems there's a new crisis, and a radio or TV reporter on the scene… "live!"  Big deal!  It would be far better to have a television show with healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and a rational analysis of the facts than a flashy report on the crisis du jour.



Yellow Science:  Over the past several decades an increasing number of scientists have shed the restraints imposed by the scientific method and begun to proclaim the truth of man-made global warming.  This is a hypothesis that remains untested, makes no predictions that can be tested in the near future, and cannot offer a numerical explanation for the limited evidence to which it clings.  No equations have been shown to explain the relationship between fossil-fuel emission and global temperature.  The only predictions that have been made are apocalyptic, so the hypothesis has to be accepted before it can be tested.

Junk-Science Reporting:  America's pharmaceutical industry is under scrutiny and attack more than ever before.  Critics have pejoratively nicknamed the industry "Big Pharma" (to associate it with "Big Tobacco"); they characterize it as uncaring, duplicitous, profit-hungry, and manipulative; they claim that the industry excels in price-gouging while at the same time delivering very few products of any real value.

Can't See the Warming for the Trees.  If you need further evidence that hysteria is outpacing science in the global warming debate, consider the study published this week about Northern Hemisphere forests actually causing significant global warming.  Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (April 17) that while tropical forests exert a cooling influence on global climate, forests in northern regions exert a warming influence — and it's not just a trivial climatic effect.

"Studies Prove":  Part II.  My late mentor, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, used to say that it could be very instructive to spend a few hours in a library checking up on studies that had been cited.  When I began doing that, I found it not only instructive but disillusioning.

What is safe, what isn't?  The media constantly bombard us with reports of things that supposedly are good or bad for our health.  Increasingly, they seem to rely on the unsubstantiated warnings of activists, or on anecdotes, which only reinforces the news organizations' credo, "If it bleeds, it leads."

In Their Own Words:  Media quotes about global warming.

Gulf Stream Will Not Shut Down, Science Magazines Admit.  Putting to rest nearly a decade of scare scenarios involving polar ice caps quickly reclaiming Canada, the northern United States, and northern and central Europe, scientists now report there is no chance of the Gulf Stream shutting down any time soon, regardless of any predicted global warming.

Hype, hoaxes, hacks … and science.  JunkScience.com just published this year's list of Top Ten Most Embarrassing Moments.  The list spotlights individuals and organizations that use the mantle of science to provide intellectual cover for exaggerated claims, bad judgments, or hidden agendas that have "most egregiously undermined public confidence in the scientific community's capacity to conduct sound and unbiased research."

Dallas Morning News Overstates Circulation.  The Dallas Morning News overstated circulation for its daily and Sunday editions, and its top circulation executive has resigned, the paper's parent company said Thursday [8/5/2004].  Belo Corp. said the newspaper overstated its daily circulation by 1.5 percent and Sunday circulation by 5 percent, mostly due to a 1999 change in the way the paper counted unsold returned copies.

Update:
Tribune Co. Accused of Falsifying Figures.  The SEC accused Tribune of failing to uncover inflated circulation figures at Newsday and Hoy from January 2002 to March 2004 because it lacked adequate internal financial controls.  Besides Newsday and Hoy, Belo Corp.'s Dallas Morning News and Hollinger International Inc.'s Chicago Sun-Times also were found to have significantly inflated their circulation numbers, which affect the rates charged to advertisers.

It's time for journalists to study a little economics.  People with a basic knowledge of economics would understand that words like "surplus" and "shortage" imply another word that may not be mentioned explicitly:  Price.  And chronic surpluses or chronic shortages imply price controls.

Low Carbs and Lower Journalistic Standards:  Nobody used that headline to describe the reaction to a pair of new studies on the controversial Atkins diet, but they should have.  And the deception was global.

The Gay Gene:  Going, Going… Gone!  Many misconceptions exist about the supposedly inborn nature of complex behaviors such as homosexuality.  Most of these are due to media reports that present scientific studies in selective sound bites.  In reality, no scientific studies show an inborn cause for any such complex behaviors.

Global Warming:  Why Can't the Mainstream Press Get Even Basic Facts Right?  Carbon dioxide accounts for less than ten percent of the greenhouse effect, as carbon dioxide's ability to absorb heat is quite limited.  Only about 0.03 percent of the Earth's atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide (nitrogen, oxygen, and argon constitute about 78 percent, 20 percent, and 0.93 percent of the atmosphere, respectively).  The sun, not a gas, is primarily to "blame" for global warming — and plays a key role in global temperature variations as well.

AP Fumbles Global Warming Story.  In late March, the Associated Press ran a global warming story that makes a number of misleading, if not downright inaccurate, statements.  Faulty "news" stories like this one, which mislead people all over the world, do not reflect a consensus of scientists.  It is alarming that a media outlet as influential as AP would run a story this wrong … and that so many news editors would be gullible enough to run it.

This is an original compilation, Copyright © 2013 by Andrew K. Dart

Don't Trust Hollywood Science:  Global Warming Won't Cause a New Ice Age.  "The Day After Tomorrow," is the subject of a multi-million dollar PR campaign touting it as if it were not fiction, but cinema verite - a realistic warning of what could happen if we don't dismantle our modern economy to stave off global warming.  Yet the extreme scenarios promoted by global warming theory advocates are supported more by political ideology than by science.

Media Misconceptions Help Lead to Public Fear of Global Warming.  A review of the actual scientific record shows that atmospheric increases in temperature are nonexistent.  This information is too important to be ignored in these stories.

The Miracle of Recovery:  Though the ecological legacy of the Yellowstone wildfires is a mixed bag for some species, the forest's remarkable recovery shows how the news media overstated the fire's impact.

The Alar Scare Ten Years Later:  The credibility of the environmentalists' mythology has very much faded.  In the June 1993 issue of ECO magazine, reporter Keith Schneider stated:  "[The] NRDC and 60 Minutes teamed up to cause a food scare by attacking Alar… as the single greatest cancer threat to children in the food supply.  That conclusion has since been described as completely specious by university, federal and state health experts across the country."

The propaganda broadcasting network:  The definition of propaganda describes ABC News' decision to enlist the services of actor and teenage heartthrob, Leonardo DiCaprio, to interview President Clinton about the environment:  "the spreading of ideas, information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person."

"Bogus" story aired by CNN.  CNN is being urged to run a correction after it aired a story about a piece of evolution-related legislation — a story that was full of inaccuracies.

Columnist invents 43 people?  The Sacramento Bee can't locate many profiled by Diana Griego Erwin.

Same as above:
Bee Can't Verify 43 Sources in Columns.  A newspaper investigation of a former columnist for The Sacramento Bee could not verify 43 sources she used in a sampling of 12 years of her work.  Diana Griego Erwin resigned May 11 as she came under scrutiny about the existence of people she quoted.

Staying alive:  [There was no flu epidemic.]  No crisis.  And not because of anything we did, or didn't do.  The flu simply came on, as it does every year, and went away, as it does every year.  This year's flu "epidemic" simply follows the media panic we saw last year over SARS.

The Miracle of Recovery:  Though the ecological legacy of the Yellowstone wildfires is a mixed bag for some species, the forest's remarkable recovery shows how the news media overstated the fire's impact.

No history, no study, no debate.  The Associated Press and various newspapers reported this month that the University of California at Los Angeles' Chicano Studies Research Center released a "study" that recommended allowing California's 4.6 million non-citizens to vote in local elections.  But there was no study.  There was no new research or in-depth information.

Reporters Trade Credibility for Access:  A few years ago, ABC's Cokie Roberts was pasted by the accuracy police when she pretended to be reporting from Capitol Hill when she was really standing in a coat in the studio.  But it would be much better if TV reporters stood and told the truth standing in American studios while pretending to be in Baghdad, instead of standing in Baghdad passing falsehoods and pretending to be reporters.

Are the Media Giving You the Whole Story on Global Warming?  Most media reports ignore the evidence for cooling and focus instead on records from land stations, which indicate a 1F increase in surface temperatures during the 20th century.  What they fail to report is that this increase was measured mostly in and around urban centers, and therefore indicates urban — not global — warming.

Lying Statistics:  Hysteria sells -- and accuracy takes time, which could make the news stale by the time the statisticians check it out.

Health News That's Unhealthy:  Television commercials for heartburn, back pain and overactive bladder aren't the worst ailments afflicting network newscasts.  Most of us probably take the commercials with a grain of salt.  But if you examine some of the evening newscasts' medical stories, you may want to start taking them with a gram of salt.

Suspicious stats:  One way of telling whether a given statistic is a fact or an artifact is to ask whether the definition used fits the thing that is being defined.  Buried in the news story about the children with disabilities is the fact that the definition of "disability" has been expanding over the years.

What you don't know:  The media elite continues to discover new "weapons of mass destruction" that Islamic terrorists are "believed" to have got their hands on.  Don't let them fool you.  The only true WMD is a nuke.  Nothing else comes close.

Glossary for the Liberal Media:  Republicans call the taxes assessed on an estate valued at a million dollars or more a "death tax," while Democrats generally call it an "estate tax."  "Death tax" — used by conservative outlets like Fox — sounds appropriately ominous.  But most outlets like CNN and the Washington Post insist on the more benign and less unobjectionable term "estate tax."

Distorted media coverage of youth and crime:  The Justice Policy Institute finds that media coverage of crime understates the proportion of minorities who are victims, overstates youth participation in crime, and exaggerates the rate of crime.

Paved With Good Intentions: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced Federal legislation that would prohibit schools from selling soft drinks or "foods of minimal nutritional value" (read: snacks) during times when breakfast and lunch are served.  It would also give the US Department of Agriculture the power to ban sodas and snacks outright on school grounds.

How to Recognize a Skunk:  Reading the morning paper, you come across a wire-service article on a subject you know well -- [for example,] guns.  The article is filled with biased language ("gun violence," "spraying bullets" "million moms") and statistics that are either made up or cooked from highly unscientific methodology ("12 students killed by guns every day,"  "43 times more likely to be killed by a gun in your own home").  How do we tell truth from fiction, or recognize when half-truths and twisted language are being used to manipulate us, without spending our lives tracking down every obscure databit or factoid behind every news story?

Journalists and Economics 101:  Is deficit spending "a potent recession cure when administered properly"?  A newspaper business writer made this assertion in an article entitled "The Budget Deficit Faced by Many States."  But is it true, that it's a good thing when governments spend more than they take in?

Where Have You Gone, Isaac Newton?  More and more today, we are inundated with foolishness masquerading as science.  Psychic hotlines proliferate, politicians consult astrologers, and people reject their doctor's advice in favor of "alternative healing" dispensed by quacks.  In the past, defenders of real science could be relied upon to expose and debunk such nonsense.  So where are these defenders today?

Small-Time Crooks:  The pattern is clear.  The current scandal frenzy is not a campaign against fraud -- it's a campaign against business and capitalism.  The people leading the hysteria about "corporate crime" are eager to expose and condemn fraud by a private businessman -- but they ignore or excuse it when the lies are told by federal employees.

Ten People and a Baby:  Some time ago, a newspaper began a report on a terrible accident near Los Angeles with the headline "Ten People, Baby Die When Van Hits Truck."  When I questioned him, an editor saw no reason to reword this as "Eleven People Including Baby Die" or "Ten Adults and Baby Die."  To him a 1-year-old was not a "person."  Indeed, the subject seemed to interest him less than if I had complained about the use of a comma instead of a semicolon.

Putting School Violence Into Perspective:  According to the National School Safety Center exactly six students have been murdered, committed suicide, or suffered weapons-related violent death in the United States in the 2000-2001 school year.  The false perception of rampant school violence in American schools is fueled by media outlets that instinctively are drawn to extremes.

The Social Security Debate:  A War of Lies.  The battle to reform Social Security meets the war over the federal budget -- and the first casualty is the truth.  The fact is that there is no such thing as "Social Security tax revenues" and there is no such thing as a "Social Security surplus" and there is no such thing as a "Social Security Trust Fund" and there is no such thing as a "Social Security Lock Box."  All revenues received by the federal government from whatever source is simply interchangeable income, to be spent by the government any way it chooses.  There is no Social Security surplus, and never has been.  The present value of the system's liabilities is greater than its assets by trillions of dollars.

Eradicating the Constitution:  Socialism is not in desperate retreat, as falsely proclaimed by the establishment press.  On the contrary, it moves forward confidently, aggressively and, for the most part, uncontested everywhere in the world.

Book review:
Junk Science Judo - Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams  by Steven J. Milloy.  Milloy's new book is written to enable the reader - without benefit of extensive scientific training - to ferret out, understand and debunk the blizzard of phony health scares that fill today's media.  This is a quick, easy read in spite of dealing with scientific issues.  It won't make you an expert, but it will equip you to tell who is and who isn't.

Book review:
It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality.  What should readers make of the news report stating that minority mortgage applications are refused twice as often as those of white applicants, when another one claims that their applications are approved 89% as often?  How are we to evaluate the various scientific reports we come across every day?  Washington, D.C.-based social scientists Murray, Schwartz and Lichter demonstrate how journalists can put a spin on research results to make them conform to preexisting beliefs, and, alternatively, how complicated findings can be easily and innocently misinterpreted.

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Updated June 28, 2007.

©2013 by Andrew K. Dart