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Sep 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 15)

Activism, Mendacity, and Pathological Science

Distortion of Science Has Given Rise to Flawed Policies and Regulations

  • Consumers are increasingly being exposed to what chemistry Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science,” the “science of things that aren’t so.” It is the specialty of self-styled public interest groups, whose agenda too often is not protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to whatever research, product, or technology they happen to dislike. This is not a harmless diversion: When their machinations give rise to overregulation—or even bans—of safe and useful products or processes, all of society is the poorer for it.

    Activists who disapprove of certain kinds of R&D or marketed products often try to stigmatize them via guilt by association with corporate interests. For several reasons, however, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer review. When it doesn’t, the scientific method, market forces, and regulatory oversight collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed, condemned, and punished.

    By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a lower standard, or none at all. Activists’ claims are typically promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media (their dual mottos: “If it bleeds, it leads,” and “Never let facts get in the way of a good story”), but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. Sadly, after its claims are repeated again and again, policy-makers, the media, and the public come to accept this pathological science as credible—or even proven. 

    Misinformation thrives in part because of the “information cascade” phenomenon, the way in which ideas gain acceptance by being parroted until eventually we assume they must be true even in the absence of persuasive evidence. 


Readers' Comments

Posted 09/11/2009 by consultant

True, but rarely unpopular ideas turn out to be major discoveries.

You did not mention the time, effort and money that is wasted in adressing some of the examples you gave.

I think that mercury-containg is incorrect chemically and misleading too non-chemists. Assuming that mercury means elemental mercury. This was never a vaccine component. Thimerosal contains is an organic mercurial with anionic mercury. As we know 1 electron changes everything. Not that this means there is no potential harm. Everything has its other side. But let's be specific so that the risks can be properly attributed and evaluated.
There are infinitly greater sources of mercury compounds in the enviorment and these require attention.

Posted 09/06/2009 by Nurse Specialist Smoking Cessation

I agree with Bill's approach. It's the smoke inhalation that is causing the true public health problem. Sure poeple get addicted to nicotine surges and consequent dopamine release but it's the delivery vehicle that is the true health problem. Stopping the sale of any product designed to work by inhaling smoke is where we should be putting our energy, and using whatever non-smoke inhahalation device we have available to do this should be our focus.

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