Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Junk Science

by Dan Agin


"Junk science" is Dan Agin's name for corrupted science which results in useless conclusions and false claims. This isn't about poor methods and failures to design experiments with proper controls, double-blind methods, and so on. Rather, it's about the political and social pressures exerted on scientific endeavour until the truth about the world we live in is concealed from the public.

The author tackles many of the ways science is used and abused to back up spurious claims, and it's a wide-ranging examination. Topics include food and diet, ageing, the tobacco industry, medicine, pollution, terrorism, global warming, creationism, stem cell research, eugenics, and the relationship between race and IQ. Basically it's all of civilisation: wherever science has an impact on us there are people trying to twist it for personal or political gain. The chapter on fraud exposes how easy it is for people to get away with faking data, using the hoaxes of Piltdown man and Abderhalden's Ferments as case studies. Sometimes it isn't a question of fraud, though, and the suppression of unfavourable results combined with a willingness to believe comforting things is behind some junk science.

The book is written with a general audience in mind so there are no footnotes, although there is an extensive list of references at the back. The writing is clear and compulsively readable. This is partly because the subject matter is important to most people, and partly because there are some shocking revelations and statistics contained within. Even if we aren't individually affected by such things as mercury toxicity, oversold talk therapy or the dangers of unregulated herbal remedies, it all builds up to reveal a pervasive and routine misuse of science to dupe the general public.

The tone is angry, and the author isn't ashamed to use rhetoric to make his point. In particular that ire is directed George W. Bush's administration and the negative effects of policies and laws passed during that time. The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act also comes under fire for undermining independence in academic research. The book is quite US-centric

In the chapter on GM crops the author examines how the media distorted the science behind food biotechnology that caused a panic and no doubt sold a lot of papers, especially in the UK. This has had a major impact on the fight to control malnutrition in the developing world, where genetic modification of rice crops could go some way to relieving blindness caused by vitamin deficiencies in millions of people. Ironically Junk Science is also full of alarming facts and figures calculated to scare readers, just like the media the author is criticising, the main difference being the amount of fact-checking involved.

For the most part this is a well-researched book, brimming with data to back up its conclusions. However in one or two chapters I would have liked to see more evidence to support claims that certain ideas are based on junk science. Eugenic sterilisations may be abhorrent, but the author doesn't go far enough in explaining the effects it had in Germany or the USA on future generations. It's not the kind of thing general non-scientists will necessarily know, and the author seems to assume a lot of knowledge in this specific instance. More debunking of eugenics would have been useful.

However for the most part the book deals with why a particular scientific view is wrong, as well as the harm it does and the reasons people promote that idea. The prose is a sledgehammer, designed to leave readers feeling that science is under attack from all sides and civilisation is under seige. For many people the various scams and wool-pulling the book details won't all be new information, but when they're presented together it forms a picture of pervasive corruption. It's a warning, and it will make you want to question everything you are told under the banner of so-called science.

22nd July 2011

Book Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Books


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Review © Ros Jackson