Junk science

2012-06-10 20:31

So, it’s pretty well established that there is a market for bad science — that is to say, “science” which is really carefully-crafted to produce a particular set of results for which there is a market demand.

It has occurred to me that this ought to be detectable. First off, there are multiple distinct goals people might have in pursuing such things.

Question #1: Does the truth matter economically? The answer to a question like “how much will the sea level rise in the next twenty years” is of substantial economic importance. If you are wrong about this, you can lose a lot of money. If you are right when other people are wrong, you can make a lot of money.

Question #2: Do your customers already know/suspect the truth? Do they care? Sometimes people don’t really care, they just want to feel good; other times, being able to make informed decisions is crucial to them; their goal is to have other people be misled.

Question #3: Do you need to promote a given belief, or merely cast doubt on another? There is a world of difference between “cigarettes are safe” and “it is not clear that cigarettes are dangerous”.

Question #4: Who’s the audience? Scientists? Regulators? Non-scientists?

To take a concrete example, consider the market for anti-evolution writing. The truth is, for purposes of the purveyors of junk science, not economically relevant. We’re talking about past events, and it simply doesn’t matter; no one’s betting on future outcomes. (I’m skipping #2 temporarily, will be back to it.) You don’t really have to promote a given belief; you just have to make people feel like there’s doubt about evolution. The audience is absolutely not scientists; it’s mostly non-scientists, with occasional forays into regulators. The hard question is #2, because to answer it, you have to know who the customers are. Are you selling this to the actual end-users, the ordinary people going about their lives who don’t need to know, or are you selling it to people who want to manipulate them? Quite a lot of the latter category are almost certainly aware of what they’re doing; it’s a way to make money, that’s all. But the former category… They don’t seem to show any sign of realizing that they’re holding a silly position. That means that your primary pitch has to look sincere, but, it doesn’t have to meet even very low standards of plausibility. It doesn’t have to be able to fool anyone remotely competent.

On other issues, though, there may be a much greater need to present something that’s at least plausible. People who are trying to oppose or prevent legislation have no need to advance a convincing counterclaim; they just need to create doubt.

My suspicion would be that, with a bit of data mining, you could find very significant differences between publications in different fields, that would correlate to the economic necessities driving the creation of junk science in the first place.

Peter Seebach