Almost every day we are bombarded with reports of scientific studies purportedly proving that exposure to, or consumption of, some substance will cause us harm. Recent examples include claims that vaccines cause autism, BPA kills, and genetically modified foods engender disease. While there is little to no filter on what “science” is presented to the general public through the available forms of media and communications, what jurors are allowed to hear in courts of law is very different. Courts require much tougher standards before admitting scientific evidence. Good science proposes a hypothesis then sets about to try and disprove it – – not just seek “proof” supporting the hypothesis. Good science results from research, application of the scientific method, and peer review. Courts look to these criteria when determining whether to admit scientific evidence under the Frye or Daubert standards. Judges thereby serve a “gate-keeping function to differentiate serious science from ‘junk science.’”
But outside of the courtroom there are no judicial gatekeepers. As a result junk science has crept its way into the headlines. So how can the public differentiate between legitimate science and junk science? One answer is to trust credited experts, not sensationalized headlines. Three recent examples highlight the pitfalls of jumping to conclusions:
First, the claim that certain vaccines cause autism. Over the past several years, there have been numerous reports claiming that autism can be caused by childhood vaccinations. As a result, many who fear the MMR vaccine causes autism have opted not to vaccinate their children despite positions to the contrary from several highly respected authorities such as the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, and American Academy of Pediatrics. A 1998 study that sparked the “autism is caused by vaccines” debate has since been discredited—ten of the thirteen authors withdrew their support, the journal retracted the study, and the lead author was found guilty of professional misconduct and lost his license to practice medicine in the UK. Furthermore, a 2009 Autism Proceeding in the “vaccine court” found scientific publications linking MMR to autism to be scientifically unreliable and unsound under Daubert. The World Health Organization says that 95% of children should be vaccinated to limit the spread of measles. However in many states the WHO’s target was missed, in some instances by a wide margin—only 81.7% of children in Colorado were vaccinated for measles in the 2013-2014 school year. Measles is a highly infectious disease that spreads like wildfire. Each unvaccinated child has the potential to fuel the fire onward, while each vaccinated child acts as a firewall, curbing the spread of measles. This transmission potential was recently seen at Disneyland, where a measles outbreak affected children in17 states.
. . . junk science is “half baked”—it is all about “showy results”
Another example is BPA, a chemical that lines metal cans and plastic bottles. U.S. and European food regulators have determined that low-level exposure to BPA does not pose health or safety concerns. In a recent FDA study, people who ate tomato soup with traceable levels of BPA neutralized 998 out of every 1,000 BPA molecules. And in 24 hours, the entire sample had passed through their systems. Worried about larger doses? The National Toxicology Program recently concluded that those don’t create a risk either. Still, corporations receive thousands of letters accusing them of poisoning children with BPA. Accordingly Campbell’s recently announced that it intends to go BPA-free. As one of its Vice Presidents said, “if you have a fear based concern around a material or package you don’t win over anyone with a fact based science argument . . . how can we be scientifically credible without appearing to be ignoring our consumers?”
Then there is the headline on genetically modified foods. In 1992, the FDA announced that it regarded foods produced through recombinant DNA techniques to be “generally recognized as safe.” The World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have also supported genetically modified crops. Foods are generally recognized as safe when there is (1) “technical evidence of safety, usually in published scientific studies, and (2) this technical evidence [is] generally known and accepted in the scientific community.” A 2012 study, however, linked the consumption of genetically modified corn to large tumor growth. Scientists argued that the study “‘would fail as a lab project from students in an undergraduate class;’” its sample size was too small and the rats were prone to growing tumors. Though it was retracted, the paper is still relied on by groups opposed to genetically modified food. What’s the result? Kenya, for one, has banned the import of genetically modified food, exacerbating food shortages and malnutrition.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, junk science is “half baked”—it is all about “showy results” that promise breakthroughs rather than reproducible results. While there is nothing to keep these “showy results” out of the headlines, there is at least a way to keep them out of the courtroom. “Fairness . . . require[s] that before the results of a scientific process can be used against [a litigant], he is entitled to a scientific judgment on the reliability of that process.” For that reason, theories hoping to end up in the transcript rather than in the trashcan must be reproducible, reliable, and scientifically accepted.