Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Junk Science" 2005

Steve Milloy is Fox News and the Cato Institute's political pundit who pretends to discuss science, though in reality he's an ideologue using science to score his political points. He talks about what he calls "junk science", by which he means science that disagrees with his politics -- namely, any science that suggests that totally unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism requires any sort of check or balance. Milloy's not interested in what is important science or good science or bad science, he's interested in pushing a particular politico-economic agenda. To that extent, sometimes he finds good science that disagrees with his politics and disses it. Sometimes he finds good science that agrees with his politics and pushes that. Occasionally, he finds real bad science and rightly castigates its authors, funders, and overseers.

Milloy has published his list of "Junk Science" for 2005. I haven't had time to go through his list in detail and attempt to refute it point by point, but the line, "In a bid to blame alleged global warming for hurricanes and tsunamis...the United Nations..." alone suggests a lot. He's either misled or deliberately distorting the landscape by suggesting that any significant number of real scientists, government officials or even policy advocates would blame a tsunami on global warming.

As further evidence, I offer the list below -- the list of one working scientist/engineer (namely, me) on what could be considered the big stories of the year in ethics and science. The absence of the Hwang item from Milloy's list is proof enough by itself that the issue is not the science, it's the politics; there was no bigger story in science this year regarding ethics. It was a blockbuster breakthrough, making headlines around the world, offering both profound new fundamental science and the possibility of medical treatment for many conditions. It was also, apparently, false -- though the verdict is not final, so let's not be marching with pitchforks and torches just yet.


  • Tops of the list has to be Hwang Woo-Suk and his stem cell cloning team. He claimed to have created 11 patient-specific stem cell lines, but that now appears to be questionable, at best. Likewise, Snuppy, his cloned puppy, is now being questioned, and his team seems to be unable to provide the expected evidence of their claims.
  • The New Orleans levees demonstrated that Mother Nature is not to be messed with, not for political gain, squabbling, or general incompetence.
  • The fuss over the discovery of the Kuiper Belt object 2003 EL61, a planet-sized object orbiting far from the Sun. Mike Brown's team at Caltech, which has found many important solar system objects in the last decade, got scooped by Santos-Sanz and Ortiz on this one. Or did they? Someone using the same computers as Santos-Sanz and Ortiz in Spain accessed telescope log files showing where Brown's team had been looking just days before announcing the discovery based on two-year-old data. Hmm.
  • The Bush aministration's shift of money away from fundamental computer science research. You could throw in a whole bunch of administration moves that I disagree with, including folding PITAC into PCAST (a move which many people are trying to look on the bright side of).
  • MIT immunologist Luk Van Parijs, fired in October for fabricating data on short interfering RNA in mice. He was also a postdoc in David Baltimore's lab at Caltech, though I haven't seen any suggestion that any of his misdeeds took place during his sojourn in Pasadena.
  • The continued "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" of "scientific whaling". Note that I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong to eat whale meat, just that the current approach is not honest. These are separate questions. But what legitimate scientific purpose could be served by continuing to kill them? I'm no marine mammalogist, but I find it hard to believe that we really need to be killing tens or hundreds of whales a year to answer some obscure question.
  • Ninety Japanese apartment buildings, most in and around Tokyo, for which seismic safety data were faked. They were supposed to survive a magnitude 8 earthquake, but officials now believe a weak six could take them down -- and we have those every couple of years. Arguably, this is a consequence of shifting the building inspection responsibility from the government to the building contractors, who obviously have an incentive to hire the "friendliest" inspector they can find. Technically "junk engineering", not "junk science", but it's my list, and another example of don't try to fool Mother Nature.
  • Dover, PA and the rest of the intelligent design movement, for continuing to waste our time and money and water down or ruin science education. The "right" result was reached in both the court case and the election, but we shouldn't even be having this conversation in 2005. Science tells us what happened; religion tells us why. End of story.
  • As long as I'm talking about intelligent design, it makes me sad that both President Bush and Bill Frist have endorsed its teaching.


All that and not a single mention of global warming.
You could make an entire list out of that alone.

You'll find a couple of excellent sources on Milloy here and here, and an earlier message of mine on Milloy on the IP list here.

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