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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Warning signs of junk science

ESR makes some excellent points here:
I’ve seen a lot of “scientific” panics ginned up from nonexistent or scanty evidence over the last several decades. There’s a pattern to these episodes, a characteristic stench that becomes recognizable after a while. I’ll describe some of the indicia, which I’ve culled from episodes like the Alar scare, the ozone-hole brouhaha, the AIDS panic (are you old enough to remember when it was predicted to become endemic among heterosexuals in the U.S.?), acid rain, and even the great global cooling flap of 1975.

So. Here is a non-exclusive list of seven eight symptoms to watch out for:

Science by press release. It’s never, ever a good sign when ‘scientists’ announce dramatic results before publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. When this happens, we generally find out later that they were either self-deluded or functioning as political animals rather than scientists. This generalizes a bit; one should also be suspicious of, for example, science first broadcast by congressional testimony or talk-show circuit.

Rhetoric that mixes science with the tropes of eschatological panic. When the argument for theory X slides from “theory X is supported by evidence” to “a terrible catastrophe looms over us if theory X is true, therefore we cannot risk disbelieving it”, you can be pretty sure that X is junk science. Consciously or unconsciously, advocates who say these sorts of things are trying to panic the herd into stampeding rather than focusing on the quality of the evidence for theory X.

Rhetoric that mixes science with the tropes of moral panic. When the argument for theory X slides from “theory X is supported by evidence” to “only bad/sinful/uncaring people disbelieve theory X”, you can be even more sure that theory X is junk science. Consciously or unconsciously, advocates who say these sorts of things are trying to induce a state of preference falsification in which people are peer-pressured to publicly affirm a belief in theory X in spite of private doubts.

Consignment of failed predictions to the memory hole. It’s a sign of sound science when advocates for theory X publicly acknowledge failed predictions and explain why they think they can now make better ones. Conversely, it’s a sign of junk science when they try to bury failed predictions and deny they ever made them.
AGW/CC was obviously bogus from the very start, which is why it has been so laughably easy to predict the failures of its models and anticipate its scandals. It is interesting to note how many other aspects of science are easily shown to be junk science this way, beginning with TE(p)NSBMGDaGF and including other notorious non-sciences such as string theory and macroeconomics.

This quote in the comments was particularly apt: "Prediction is everything, and it must work more than once. Explaining everything after the fact is merely making up complicated stories."

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