What is junk science?

‘Junk science’ is a term used to refer to arguments presented to the public as having been scientifically verified, but which are in fact false or misleading. Often, inaccurate statements are made in the media about human health, environmental safety or the benefits or risks associated with certain products.

Why it matters for journalists

Not only does the existence of junk science lead to people being misinformed about important issues, it also does enormous damage by undermining real scientific evidence: the sort of evidence which helps to better inform public policy and to assist individuals in living better and healthier lives. Respected scientific authorities are best-placed to offer the guidance which the public needs, but the ongoing problem of junk science makes ordinary consumers of mass media more sceptical of that guidance, regardless of how conclusive the scientific evidence behind it is. This does not just damage public awareness, it damages journalism too.

The processes which journalists and scientists follow are different – and journalists should never surrender their scepticism and questioning, of published research, the integrity of the researchers or the interests of those who funded it.  But by being aware of some simple rules and steps to follow, the quality of science journalism can improve.

Examples of junk science

Every passing day brings with it an avalanche of media reports dealing with science, health and lifestyle issues. While most reporting is based on scientifically-sound research and evidence, junk science is a recurring problem in many areas.

Some recurring examples of junk science theories are outlined below:

“Vaccines cause autism”

Over recent centuries, widespread public vaccination programmes have been undertaken by governments in order to reduce the incidence of many dangerous diseases. The results of these vaccination programmes have been stunningly successful: previously catastrophic diseases such as measles and polio have been all but eradicated, while other diseases like smallpox have been eliminated completely.

In spite of this positive legacy, anti-vaccine myths and conspiracy theories – backed up by junk science claims – have become more and more common in the developed world. While anti-vaccine activists put forward numerous claims, one of the most commonly-heard arguments is that MMR vaccines cause autism. In spite of the WHO’s declaration that there is “no evidence” of a causal association between MMR vaccines and autism, persistent claims based on junk science reports are leading to a fall in vaccination rates in some countries, and this is likely to have devastating effects for many people in future.

“Fluoride is dangerous ”

Public authorities in many jurisdictions around the world have been adding fluoride to their water supplies for many decades. Fluoride is a naturally occurring substance which is scientifically proven to reduce tooth decay: a serious and common problem for people of all ages.

The policy has been so successful in combating this problem that the Center for Disease Control stated that water fluoridation was one of the ten greatest public health achievements in the US in the 20th century, a view that America’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research strongly supports. The evidence base to support this policy extends far beyond the United States. In the United Kingdom, the most recent report from the Department of Health’s research body – Public Health England – concluded that “water fluoridation is an effective and safe public health measure.” The Department of Health in Australia is similarly supportive, stating that the policy of water fluoridation had “made a significant contribution to improving the oral health of Australians.”

In spite of this track record of success, campaigners have continued to target fluoride, and claims that water fluoridation is linked to ailments such as kidney disease and diabetes continue to abound in online media and elsewhere. While all potential risks to human health deserve to be investigated, paying attention to the scientific consensus and listening to the judgements from the foremost medical authorities is vital to ensure that any debate is fact-based, rather than agenda-driven.

“Homeopathy works”

Homeopathy is a set of practices based around the belief that the human body can cure itself of serious ailments. Those who engage in the practise consume miniscule amounts of natural substances in an attempt to treat illnesses. While a large number of people across the world engage in ‘homeopathic medicine,’ there is no evidence to suggest that homeopathy is effective in treating any specific condition.

In fact, in 2009, the World Health Organization specifically warned that people with serious conditions such as HIV, TB and malaria should not rely on homeopathy, in response to such treatments being promoted in the developing world. Moreover, the prevalence of homeopathic treatments in clinics in Africa and Asia has led some scientists to appeal to the WHO to take an even stronger line against these practices and the claims which are made by those offering them. In spite of this, the homeopathic sector is continuing to expand rapidly, with baseless contentions about the benefits of such treatment.

“Multivitamins improve human health”

Multivitamins are the most commonly used supplements in the world, being consumed by many millions of people eager to get their full requirement of each vitamin and mineral every day. The dietary supplements industry is growing rapidly, and is expected to be worth well over $200 billion by 2022. While multivitamins are often marketed in a way that points to the health benefits of using them, a growing volume of scientific evidence casts much doubt on whether the consumption of such supplements carries with it significant benefits.

Steps we can take to reduce the risk of spreading junk science

While junk science will never be eradicated entirely, there are meaningful steps which journalists can take to ensure that the dissemination of fraudulent scientific claims is reduced:

  • Do not repeat false claims: When a false claim – for example, the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism – is being reported on, it is important not to repeat the claim. Doing this merely pours fuel on the fire of junk science. In this circumstance, it is better to correct the error in a forthright manner: “Leading scientific authorities from the WHO down have been abundantly clear; the MMR does NOT cause autism.”
  • There should be no false equivalence between facts and frauds: In political reporting, it is often considered best practice to give both sides equal time in order to let them make their case. However, that principle should not extend to giving the same amount of space to a theory which has been categorically disproven (fluoride causes cancer, human history extends back no further than 6,000 years, etc) as one would provide to facts borne out by the evidence which is presented by leading scientific authorities.
  • Focus on the study: Before writing a news article about any academic study, a journalist should always carefully consider the findings which are contained within it. Often, the most egregious examples of journalistic exaggeration or simplification occurs as a result of a reporter’s decision to disregard important elements of a scientific study or their decision to overlook the nuances contained within in order to extrapolate the claims which would make for the most sensationalist headline.
  • Identify the funders and check the integrity of the authors: It is vital to consider who is funding any research which is undertaken, and what underlying agendas they might have. In the same way, the scientific and academic credentials of authors should be verified.
  • Focus on the sample: One very important part of scientific research relates to how many people or products are tested as part of any one study. To help ensure that the research is credible, researchers will usually look to include a wide pool of participants. This does not always happen, however, and some of the most spurious examples of junk science are derived from very small studies, or studies which fail to take account of all the factors which could lead to a certain finding.
  • Consider the source: While quality scientific research can appear in any publication, it is also clear that leading scientific journals carry more weight. These journals tend to have higher standards when it comes to determining what is published and what is not published. Where possible journalists should check that studies have been peer reviewed, and should inform readers if the study quoted hasn’t been.