In a recent Spectator article called “Lying with science: a guide to myth debunking,” Matt Ridley begins by observing that, “Pseudoscience is on the rise – and the media is completely hooked.” After quoting H.L. Mencken (‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’) Ridley adds:
Newspapers, politicians and pressure groups have been moving smoothly for decades from one forecast apocalypse to another (nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer, mad cow disease, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, the millennium bug…) without waiting to be proved right or wrong.
Increasingly, in a crowded market for alarm, it becomes necessary to make the scares up. More and more headlines about medical or environmental panics are based on published scientific papers, but ones that are little more than lies laundered into respectability with a little statistical legerdemain. Sometimes, even the exposure of the laundered lies fails to stop the scare. Dr Andrew Wakefield was struck off in 2010 after the General Medical Council found his 1998 study in the Lancet claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism to be fraudulent. Yet Wakefield is now a celebrity anti-vaccine activist in the United States and has left his long-suffering wife for the supermodel Elle Macpherson. Anti-vax campaigning is a lucrative business.
Meanwhile, the notion that chemicals such as bisphenol A, found in plastics, are acting as ‘endocrine disruptors’, interfering with human hormones even at very low doses, started with an outright fraudulent study that has since been retracted. Many low-quality studies on BPA have pushed this theory, but they have been torpedoed by high-quality analyses including a recent US government study called Clarity. Yet this is of course being largely ignored by the media and the activists.
Ridley goes on to discuss three recent examples of pseudo-scientific claims that have been reported as fact by the media: “Insects could vanish within a century”; “Exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller, … increases risk of cancer by 41 per cent”; and “Since 2005, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times.” As Ridley shows, these stories are nothing more than “ocean-going, weapons-grade, château-bottled nonsense.” Nevertheless, thanks in large part to “investigative journalists” who can’t be bothered to investigate, they have been successfully used to divert large sums of money into the hands of unscrupulous environmental organizations and predatory law firms. Read the whole thing!