Pseudoscience: A Threat to Our Environment

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By Roberta C. Barbalace

Nov 2004


Editor's Note:

All footnote references refer to citations in the bibliography at the very end of this article.

Under pressure from industry and special interests, biased research has resulted in pseudoscience that threatens the integrity of science in America. Until recently, U.S. Government scientists have always been free to conduct unbiased research for the betterment of society and the environment.

Science verses pseudoscience

"Pseudoscience"... It's the catchword of the times in the scientific community. Originally coined by Sir Karl Popper in the 1950's, the term "pseudoscience" has become a political weapon being hurled around the scientific and pseudoscientific communities to disclaim research that disagrees with a group's political or personal convictions(12). It is difficult for the average individual to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

James Randi, a stage magician, author, lecturer, investigator of unusual claims, and opponent of pseudoscience has defined science as "a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence(31)." Science is dynamic, and scientific knowledge is always building upon previous discoveries. True scientific knowledge must be unbiased and start with a falsifiable hypothesis that the investigator assumes could be true or false (2). Investigation that begins with a predetermined outcome and searches for evidence to prove a foregone conclusion does not fit the criteria for scientific investigation and is not science, but at the very best, pseudoscience.

When Science goes astray

The vast majority of research scientists are dedicated researchers who understand the principles of the scientific method and conduct research according to these principles. Scientists know that their published work will be scrutinized by colleagues who will try to replicate published findings. Reputation is at stake should published data not be replicable.

There are pitfalls that can undermine scientific research. Some of these pitfalls are noble intentions gone astray. Occasionally a scientist will become so zealot about a cause or ideology that they will make claims before there is adequate evidence to back a claim (21). Environmental scientists who predict worldwide devastation due to pollution without sufficient documentation (21), and those who recommend the abandonment of wearing bras because they supposedly cause cancer (1,6) are two such examples.

On the other side of the spectrum are the scientists who work for companies that expect research results to be in their favor. Experiments can be set up in a manner that would be more likely to produce results favorable to their product(21). Results that do not conform to desired outcome are sometimes discounted. A prime example of this type of pseudoscience is found in the tobacco industry. Scientists who refused to discard research that was detrimental to the tobacco industry were fired. The pharmaceutical industry has sometimes become wrapped up in this type of pseudoscience (3).

When government steps in

While the term "pseudoscience" was not coined until sometime in the mid-1900s, it is easy to see that pseudoscientific theories predated science. The Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that males and females (presumably humans) had a different number of teeth (31). It is possible that he had noted that usually only male horses have fully developed canine teeth. Canines are usually either missing or under developed in mares. At any rate, he never tested his hypothesis by counting the adult teeth in humans, a step that is an absolute necessity in the scientific method. Science requires a proof, not just arguments as to why the hypothesis must be true.

Galileo used the scientific method in determining that the earth revolves about the sun, but the Church armed with arguments, but no proofs was powerful enough to reject Galileo's theory in favor of the religiously held belief that the earth is the center of the universe (33).

In the early 20th century, a non-scientific peasant plant breeder named Lysenko became a proponent of Michurin, who believed Lamarck's theory that organisms could inherit traits that had been acquired by their ancestors. An example of this would be if the environment changed so that giraffes had to stretch higher to reach food, their necks would grow longer from stretching. These giraffes would then pass the long neck on to their offspring (19). In reality what would happen is that giraffes that had longer necks to begin with would be better suited for the new environment and thus would have a greater chance of survival and reproduction.

By the beginning of the 20th century, most scientists had accepted natural selection as the means by which species evolve. For some reason, which is yet unclear, Stalin was particularly fond of the evolutionary model that Lysenko had borrowed from Limarck. Stalin, however, chose to do major editing of Lysenko's writings to better fit his own ideology, and at one point stated that the Michurin trend was neither neo-Lamarckian nor neo-Darwinism, but rather "creative Soviet Darwinism". Soviet scientists that chose Darwinism over the Michurin model were either sent to the gulags or simply disappeared. "Creative Soviet Darwinism" crippled agriculture in the USSR for decades (20).

Pseudoscience has been used not only by government and religious groups, but also by industry and special interest groups who are trying to prove some deeply held belief. Occasionally government and religion or government and industry will join hands to push some pseudoscientific idea onto the general population.

In 1990, then President, George H. W. Bush (Senior) stated that, "Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now, more than ever, on issues ranging from climate changes to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance (17)." If a government is to make correct decisions in issues related to science, it must depend upon impartial and objective scientific research and analysis. While government officials in the past have occasionally violated this policy when scientific evidence was in conflict with strongly held political or ideological views, most leaders have trusted the scientific community to guide decision-making in scientific issues (17).

Government and Industry

Recently the most highly respected members of the scientific community have been cast aside, and science has been politicized. Before George W. Bush (Jr.) was elected in 2000, he announced that the Internet was placing such a burden on the nation's electrical grid that the country would have to build more coal-fired generators and nuclear reactors. He stated that the Internet was consuming 8% of all the electricity produced in the United States (15). At the same time analysts from the Lawrence Berkley National Labs and Center for Energy and Climate Solutions had calculated that the Internet was drawing about 1% of the nation's electricity (15).

In the past, energy consumption has increased at about the same rate as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Between 1993-1996 the US GDP grew at a rate of 3.2% annually and the electricity demand grew at a rate of 2.9% annually (a 1.1-1 ratio). The Internet era of 1997-2000 saw an average annual GDP of 4.2% and an annual growth in electricity demand of 2.2% (a 1.9 to 1 ratio). This information simply doesn't support the claim that the Internet is increasing our need for electricity. In fact the opposite is true, electricity consumption is actually growing slower in the "Internet age" than it was just a few years earlier. Where then did the information that George W. Bush cited come from? These figures can be traced to a 1999 study entitled, "The Internet Begins With Coal" and written by Mark Mills who is associated with "The Greening Earth Society," an innocent sounding organization that actually was established by the Western Fuels Association, a cooperative owned by seven coal-burning utilities. The Greening Earth Society is a think tank dedicated to the idea that increasing amounts of CO2 produced by burning of fossil fuels is good for the environment. Note that the research is based upon a predetermined result, a violation of the scientific method (15).

Scientific community outraged

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), with a world wide membership of more than 100,000, has become alarmed at the degree to which government has begun to edit, delete and rewrite scientific reports to committees. In response, as of October 10, 2004 12,478 scientists including 48 Nobel laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences, conservatives, liberals and moderates alike had signed a UCS petition directed to the US Senate to restore scientific integrity in policy making. A report published in Scientific American, April 26, 2004, it was revealed that 62 leading scientists including 20 Nobel laureates, 19 recipients of the National Medal of Science and the advisors to the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations gave the White House a failing grade in a signed statement in February 2004 in regards to the scientific integrity of the administration's policy making(23, 29). The statement begins with the quote from George H. W. Bush quoted previously in this article.

According to the UCS the president's political appointees have placed people with questionable credentials on federal scientific advisory committees, choosing candidates recommended by industry over those recommended by professional agency staff. The unprecedented misrepresentation, manipulation and suppression of scientific information has alarmed appointees of past Republican administrations as well as senior scientists who advised administrations of both parties (17,29).

In 2002 Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson dismissed several highly qualified researchers from a committee of the Center For Disease Control Prevention (CDC) just when they seemed ready to recommend a more stringent federal lead standard. Two of dismissed scientists were replaced with individuals that were hand picked from the lead industry (17).

Fisheries policies undermined

In May 2004 Michael Kelly, Fishery Biologist, Arcata, CA NOAA Fisheries Field Office resigned his position. In 2002 he had filed a disclosure under the whistleblower Protection Act disclosing that he believed the agency had violated the law during the Klamath River ESA section 7 consultation. The judge ruled that the Klamath consultation was illegal, but dismissed specific allegations. According to Kelly the coho salmon in the Klamath still do not have adequate flow conditions to assure survival. In early 2004 Kelly found himself in a similar situation. He felt certain that he would again be asked to change conclusions, or "that the biological opinion would be re-written by someone else based on less rigorous examination of evidence and without an appropriate level of caution." Kelly and other biologists were appalled when they heard from high-ranking agency officials that, "Just as natural habitats provide a place for fish to spawn and to rear, also hatcheries can do that." Scientific evidence has shown that hatcheries have contributed to the demise of natural populations of salmon (13,29).


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