Junk Science Then and Now

Many years ago, Martin Gardner wrote a book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, featuring chapters on flat earth and eccentric astronomy theories, UFO’s, alternative physics, dowsing, creationism, Lysenkoism, pyramid truthers, medical quacks, food faddists, ESP, etc.

The Wikipedia page summarizes Gardner’s book as follows:

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science starts with a brief survey of the spread of the ideas of “cranks” and “pseudo-scientists”, attacking the credulity of the popular press and the irresponsibility of publishing houses in helping to propagate these ideas. . . .

Gardner says that cranks have two common characteristics. The first “and most important” is that they work in almost total isolation from the scientific community. Gardner defines the community as an efficient network of communication within scientific fields, together with a co-operative process of testing new theories. This process allows for apparently bizarre theories to be published — such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, which initially met with considerable opposition; it was never dismissed as the work of a crackpot, and it soon met with almost universal acceptance. But the crank “stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals or, if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent.” . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about junk science lately. (Someone once said that I’d talked about “shoddy science,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever used the word “shoddy” in my life; I stand by the term “junk science,” by which I mean work that has some of the forms of scientific research but is missing key elements such as valid and reliable measurements, transparency, and openness to criticism.) And it recently struck me that junk science has changed a lot since Gardner’s time.

I’d like to write something more formal on this topic, in collaboration with some actual historians or sociologists of science, but for now let me just quickly list a few differences that I see, comparing the junk science of 1950 to the junk science of today.

1. From the periphery to the core. As indicated by the quote above, the junk science of the mid-twentieth century came from cranks and outsiders, often self-educated people with no academic positions, and even those who were in academia were peripheral figures, for example, the ESP researcher J. B. Rhine at Duke University, who according to Wikipedia was trained as a botanist and was not a central figure in the psychology profession. Immanuel “Worlds in Collision” Velikovsky had lots of scientist friends, but he was an outsider to the scientific community. And those guys from the 1970s who wrote books about ancient astronauts and the Bermuda triangle, I don’t think they even claimed to have any scientific backing. Yes, there were some missteps within academic science from N-rays to cold fusion, but these were minor storms that blew up and went away.

Nowadays, though, the pseudoscientists are well ensconced in the academy, they play power games in the field of psychology, and they get to publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (air rage, himmicanes, ages ending in 9, etc etc) whenever they want. The call is coming from inside the house, as it were. Until recently, they were considered by the news media to be the legitimate representatives of the scientific community. Culture hero Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole book about how we had no choice but to believe that their claims are true (a statement he has since retracted).

In its ensconcement within the scientific establishment, modern pseudoscience has some similarities to Lysenkoism in that it was, until recently, an orthodoxy supported by leading institutions. Not coercive like the Soviet Union—there has always been plenty of room here for dissent, and nobody was talking about sending Paul Meehl off to a labor camp—but I see a link between junk science, scientific power structures, scientific ideology (Communism in Lysenko’s case, just-so evolution stories in the case of modern junk psychology), and research methods that was able to keep the system going for many years in each case. Along with many people who sincerely believed in the orthodoxy. I’m reminded of the dictum that if you want to fool others, you should first fool yourself.

So, again, there’s been a key change. Mid-century junk science in the U.S. was coming from outsiders; modern junk science comes from leading universities and is endorsed by prestige media.

2. From blue collar to white collar. I feel like the above-described shift represents a sort of gentrification of scientific error, mirroring the professionalism that has come into so many other aspects of our intellectual life. There’s just less room in our society for the intellectual contributions of people who are untethered to academia.

But I think that some of the modern spread of junk science in academia is just by chance. Consider an apparatchik such as Robert Sternberg, the psychologist who’s had an impressive array of academic positions, awards, and publications, a man whose CV is the paper equivalent of the array of medals pinned to Leonid Brezhnev’s jacket. It seems to me that 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, Sternberg wouldn’t been happy just being an academic bigshot, receiving and bestowing awards on the academic rubber-chicken circuit. It just happened that academic psychology hit the popular press—I don’t know who we should credit for this: Malcom Gladwell, NPR, the editors of Psychological Science?—and Sternberg and his pals were happy to go along for the ride.

It seems a bit different for the junk scientists of earlier decades. Some of them must have been true believers—they came up with a new theory of relativity! a new way to harness the power of the mind! an engine that runs on water! etc.—and others must have been pure and simple hucksters (the Chariots of the Gods guy, the Jupiter Effect guy, etc.). But, for whatever reason, they were rule-breakers.

In contrast, modern junk scientists in academia seem more like rule-followers. They’re conformists, and it’s just their bad luck that the rules they’re conforming to don’t make much scientific sense in the context of their work. Or maybe their good luck that their lack of scientific scruple—their willingness not to look too carefully at their claims and their research methods—has allowed them to rise to the top of their profession.

3. From anti-establishment to cargo cult. As Gardner discusses in his classic book, the purveyors of junk science in the mid-twentieth century were not just social and academic outsiders; they also mostly rejected the process of science. (I guess J. B. Rhine was an exception here.) They had theories and intuitions and they were angry about the conspiracies that the establishment used to suppress their theories.

In contrast, modern junk science follows the process and terminology of science very carefully. That’s why I follow Feynman and call it cargo cult science. It may not be serious scientific research, but it looks like science. An extreme example would be those studies of intercessory prayer (see discussion here and here) or those gaydar papers where a sort of scientism leads to a measurement protocol that removes much that is interesting in the phenomenon under study.

4. Crowding out. This is related to point 2 above. I expect that there are thousands of Velikovsky-like outsiders right now developing new theories of this and that, demonstrating ESP and perpetual motion machines, curing cancer with crystals, unearthing fragments of Noah’s ark and the true cross, etc.—but we don’t hear so much about them, because in the news media they’ve been crowded out by the credentialed researchers in our Ivy League psychology departments and business schools. The 1950s was a simpler time, when academic researchers were more restrained, giving some space for outsiders to get attention for their goofy theories.

Nowadays, even Dr. Oz has an academic affiliation. Junk science and an Ivy League post and a TV contract. How do you compete with that?

The only place in junk science were non-academics currently seem to have much purchase is in those few areas that have essentially zero academic support. It’s not so easy to fight the scientific consensus on WW2 atrocities, climate change, evolution, the risks and effectiveness of vaccines, or the power of nonstandard diets to change your life. For these sorts of things, the closest you’ll get to an insider will be various political figures, eccentric scientists and subfields, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Brady.

5. Publishers and the news media. Back in the 1950s, Gardner was annoyed that mainstream publishers promoted junk science. This continued at least through the 1970s, when those Chariots of the Gods and Bermuda Triangle books sold a few zillion copies. Nowadays, yes, junk science gets promoted in books, but I feel like I hear more about audiovisual media such as Ted talks and NPR, along with newspapers such as the New York Times which can both spread and validate iffy claims. I guess my point is that, back in the day, Gardner had to get mad at the publishers: he couldn’t really work up much anger at the actual people who were writing the junk science, as they were some mixture of true believers and con artists. Nowadays, though, the there’s this media-academic-industrial complex. It’s a different setup.

What do say?

I don’t know exactly what to make of all this. I recognize that my above ramblings have some internal contradictions, and of course I could be wrong in some of the science. Maybe cold fusion works, maybe Cornell students really do have ESP, etc.

I do think there’s some interesting sociological point here that’s worth pursuing further. In many areas of public life there’s been a “death of expertise” (in the words of Tom Nichols), a decline in trust in many institutions. How does this line up with what one might call the professionalization of junk science? I’m not sure.

P.S. I was thinking some more, and I realized there is one area of junk science that exists in academic research, which has been well ensconced in the academy for hundreds of years, and that’s scientific racism. Gardner did include scientific racism in his survey of pseudoscience, and it’s different from the other items on his list in that it had, and continues to have, strong institutional support.