Junk science

As a result of the Washington shootings, there are increasing calls in the US for gun ‘fingerprinting’. The idea is guns would be test-fired and records of the bullets kept for matching with those retrieved from crime scenes. As both opponents and critics have acknowledged, this would, in effect be a registration system, something that is anathema to the National Rifle Association and other supporters of an unrestricted right to bear arms.

However, I didn’t want to comment on this debate but on an article in which it is argued that such fingerprinting won’t and can’t work. This piece, linked by Instapundit.com:, was published at a site called Junkscience.com which purports to refute “”Junk science” defined as” faulty scientific data and analysis used to used to further a special agenda. ”

The publisher of Junk Science is Steve Milloy, who is an adjunct fellow at the Cato Institute. So, one might ask whether Milloy’s definition of junk science applies to his own site. Since scientific truth is always provisional it’s hard to prove that any particular piece of scientific work is ‘faulty’ (alternatively, if you apply a sufficiently high standard of rigour, all work is faulty). So the obvious question is whether the work is being used to ‘further a special agenda’. After all, scientific facts being as awkward as they are, anyone who pursues objective research is sooner or later going to come up with results that have political implications they don’t like.

This has, however, not happened to Milloy, as far as I can see. I went through his site, and failed to find a single instance where the results he reported weren’t in line with the poltical agenda of the Cato Institute. On some issues, such as global warming, his claims are clearly inconsistent with the views of even the most sceptical scientific commentators. Milloy says
“Global warming is a silly controversy that should have faded long ago. But gullible youth, a corrupt bureaucracy and biased media may keep it alive for years to come.”
Among serious scientists, even strong Kyoto opponents like Richard Lindzen agree that the balance of evidence favors the existence of some human-induced global warming, and argue only that the uncertainty surrounding the issue is too great to justify immediate action. Milloy would be hard-pressed to find any credible scientist who would endorse his claim.

But more to the point, even when Milloy’s facts are right, what he’s doing is advocacy disguised as science. He selects the facts that support his political case, and ignores those that don’t. Does anyone seriously suppose, for example, that if a new and improved method of gun fingerprinting were developed, Milloy would publicise it? What he does is rightly described as “junk science”.

This kind of thing is done on all sides of politics, particularly in relation to environmental issues. What makes Milloy particularly dangerous, however, is that he engages in advocacy while purporting to defend scientific objectivity. Quite a few others, often claiming to be ‘sceptics’, do the same thing. The right word for someone who believes scientific evidence will always confirm their preconceived views is ‘credulous’ not sceptical’.

A good test on this relates to environmental and food safety ‘scares’. There have been a great many of these over the past thirty or forty years, relating to such diverse risks as acid rain, aluminium saucepans, Alar (a pesticide used on apples) and asbestos, to name only the first few on my list. Anyone who investigates them honestly will find some where the scientific evidence of danger is overwhelming, some where it is non-existent and some that are in-between. It follows that someone who always finds that scares are justified, or always finds that they are not justified, is not a scientist but a lobbyist.