01 Feb 2002 Lies, Damned Lies and Science: When Scientific Research is Actually Scientific Sham
In his autobiography, Mark Twain famously – and probably wrongly – attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the now celebrated quote, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.”1
The year was 1906, and the American public’s appetite for science and technology had been whetted by the inventions of Edison, Bell, Westinghouse, Eastman, Ford and the Wright Brothers, to name a few.
But no one in that long-past era could possibly have imagined a time like today when science would become so specialized that it would be almost impossible for the average citizen to determine whose statistics were factual and whose were, as Twain might put it, “damned lies.”
That’s why a speech by Dr. S. Fred Singer at the 10th annual Environmental Forum in Brussels last month entitled “The Role of Science in Environmental Policy Making”2 ought to be required reading by any American with an active interest in science, technology and the environment.
Singer is a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, a nonprofit policy institute in Fairfax, Virginia.
As with all first-rate scientists, Singer has a skeptical, questioning mind that puts aside personal ideology in a relentless search for truth.
Unfortunately, a small but influential fraction of today’s scientists sometimes put their own value systems into the scientific process – and then seek to defend flawed results with fudged facts.
Over the past 30 years, Singer has seen far too much scientific data fudged or worse, ignored; and on some occasions, even forged.
Scientific experiments that take place in a laboratory setting can be judged fairly easily; if their results can be replicated, they are genuine; if not they may be sham.
But how can you be assured of the accuracy of today’s computer modeling projects, such as those predicting long-term climate change, when the results too often are dependent on the mix of assumptions initially fed into the program? Computer models can, after all, be designed to get politically correct rather than scientifically correct answers.
That’s a tragedy because results generated for political advantage rather than scientific certainty can cost taxpayers and the economy billions of dollars. Also, misused science can end up damaging the very environment its perpetrators say they want to save.3
Playing to widespread public fears, government scientists and private scientists receiving government grants have sometimes used misleading statistics to panic Americans into supporting over-reactive remedies for imaginary or overstated problems. By doing so, they help assure to further public funding for their agency or project by a largely-scientifically-illiterate Congress.
“The U.S. has spent billions of dollars removing asbestos from schools, and for no good health reasons,” Singer says.4 He cites government and media-incited scares about other substances such as dioxins, PCBs and saccharine when virtually unimaginable worst-case scenarios were presented as very likely occurrences. Likewise, he says, the claim made the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that second-hand cigarette smoke produced cancer later was exposed as a misuse of statistics.
Actual forging of scientific data is much rarer, but Singer points to a glaring example in the late 1990s when a research publication on endocrine disrupters by scientists at Tulane University was withdrawn because the results could not be replicated. The research scientist involved admitted fraud and was censured, but not before immeasurable damage was done to the reputation of a prestigious institution of higher learning.
Many more cases can be found where important science was simply ignored. One example Singer cites happened when Congress passed a costly 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment to curb acid rain after EPA scientists studiously disregarded a $600 million study that found acid rain was only a minor environmental problem.
Publication of the EPA study, which had been mandated by Congress, was delayed until the amendments were passed, after which the study was no longer “policy-relevant.” The cost to taxpayers and industry for cleaning up the nearly non-existent problem ran into the billions.
Another case in point was last year’s final report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicted the Earth’s temperatures will warm disastrously over the next century.
But two extremely significant, but politically inconvenient, phrases were simply expunged from the final report:
“None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gases,” read one. “No study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic (related to human activity) causes.”
In other words, the scientists wrote that there is no clear evidence that mankind is causing global warming, and this conclusion was removed from the report.
Singer believes these kinds of deceptions can occur because many of those involved in such studies often are regulators at heart.
“In general, we find that those who oppose the use of science and call for more regulation, also tend to be anti-technology, anti-energy and ideologically anti-economic growth,” he says.5
To counter these anti-science forces, Singer suggests that environmental science bearing on health issues should be removed from regulatory agencies like the EPA and given to a government agency concerned more broadly with human health.
The Bush Administration and Congress should seriously consider his recommendation.
Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
1 In his autobiography, Twain wrote: “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.'” However, no one has been able to find evidence that the British Prime Minister ever made such a remark. As noted in Ralph Keyes’s Nice Guys Finish Seventh, Harper Collins, 1992, investigators have discovered the following comment by a member of the (British) Royal Statistical Society: “We may quote to one another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, lies, damned lies, statistics…” (Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 1896). The similarity between the comments is unmistakable, but any connection to Twain or Disraeli is unknown.
2 “The Role of Science in Environmental Policy Making,” keynote address by S. Fred Singer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, Fairfax, Virginia, at 10th Annual Environmental Forum, Brussels, January 16, 2002.
3 Take, for example, the case of PCBs in the Hudson River. Although PCB is less dangerous than many regulators are willing to concede, the government wants the Hudson River expensively and extensively dredged to remove it. The dredging operation may harm a local endangered fish and will definitely harm local businesses, all to remove a substance that, most likely, is not especially harmful. Should PCB be dangerous, however, removing it from its current location (both under water and under river sediment) will expose it to more humans than leaving it in the river ever would.
4 Summary of “The Role of Science in Environmental Policy Making,” keynote address by Dr. S. Fred Singer at the 10th Annual Environmental Forum in Brussels, January 16, 2002, distributed by e-mail by Dr. S. Fred Singer and the Science and Environmental Policy Project, Fairfax, Virginia.