July 13, 2005
The deviation from the principles of the scientific method, also known as "pathological science," is increasingly common among certain self-styled public interest groups, says Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
This activist-funded research is commonly held to a far lower standard than industrial research and the claims are invariably promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media, but seldom are independently peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.
Miller says the distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research offering potential benefits to society, increased public health risks, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits and higher costs of R&D. For example:
- A1998 study suggested an association, but not causation, between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism; despite being based on only 12 children, the results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations of children.
- In the 1990s, many were alarmed by the supposed hazards of electromagnetic radiation, which is emitted from a variety of sources including power lines and cell phones; however, at the current rate of occurrence of brain cancers, about 3,600 cases would be expected to occur among 60 million cell phone owners, whether or not they use them.
Miller says what makes false alarms hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects. Furthermore, most alarmist claims demonstrate the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (believing that because two events are temporally related, they must be causally related).
Source: Henry I. Miller, "Some Activist Groups Exhibit a 'Pathological Scientific' Stance," Genetic Engineering News, April 26, 2005.
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