The Repercussions of Bad Science

By Mark Ridinger

 

One of the core missions at CReST is separating out dogma from the process of informing policy.  Our goal is the advancement of sound policy based on science. And by that we mean, of course, good science. Science is not immune to conflict of interests, to shoddy methodical practices, and yes, even fraud. To wit, in the book Best Available Science, co-written by the Potomac Institute’s CEO Mike Swetnam, the authors correctly assess that “many individuals—some with good will, others with more malevolent desires—have misused scientific information…”

 

Last month, a comprehensive review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.” Surprised? A recent article published in the Wall Street Journal  picked up on this, and chronicled the poor science that took place, almost unbelievably over decades, that claimed saturated fats cause cardiovascular disease. The studies, which date all the way back to the 1950’s, were terribly flawed on many levels.

 

The author of the article, who has a book coming out on the subject, concludes that they believe this to be so, because “nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.” The repercussions are significant. The American Heart Association, and then later the US Department of Agriculture, rolled out dietary guidelines that eventually took the country by storm. The result was that carbohydrates began replacing saturated fats in Americans’ diets, and that has contributed to obesity and Type 2 diabetes, conditions now becoming of almost epidemic proportions.

 

Bad science can also be in the form of outright fraud, such as the now infamous paper published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in 1998 that claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. The article wasn’t completely retracted until 2010, but not before the MMR vaccine had taken a beating in the court of public opinion, and worse, resulted in parents avoiding vaccinating their children with resulting significant morbidity and mortality. The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the resultant backlash against vaccinations included “damage to individual and community well-being from outbreaks of previously controlled diseases, withdrawal of vaccine manufacturers from the market, compromising of national security (in the case of anthrax and smallpox vaccines), and lost productivity.”

 

In our efforts to resist dogma as a means to inform intelligent policy, we must however still stay vigilant to bad science, as—although both can be extraordinarily damaging—bad science is worse. Why?

 

For one, dogma is easier to spot—much more so than bad science. Science has become a “new god” to some, and thus it is all too easy to view science as infallible (no one likes to argue with a god). It takes specialized education and skill to identify bad science, which few have in today’s complex times. Furthermore, bad science is much more likely than dogma to be adopted and institutionalized. Last, the ability to profit from bad science is much greater than from bad dogma, and that can be a motivation to overlooking inconvenient outcomes, or even worse, to making fraudulent claims that can adversely affect millions.

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