The Biggest Junk Science of 2018
Science is essentially the search for and recognition of reality. Each year, there are those who ignore this endeavor entirely, preferring fictitious narratives to concrete truths. There are also those who willfully deny fact for their own gain. Both groups of people can do real harm by flouting the truth, and so, at the closing of the year, we highlight their most egregious missteps over the preceding twelve months. In highlighting these junk science stories, it is our hope that they won't be replicated.
11. Doctor Oz Endorses Astrology. Celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz is a quack doctor, plain and simple. Once a respected surgeon, he left behind his legitimacy long ago by touting questionable health advice, bogus cures, and weight loss "miracles" on his popular daytime television show. This summer, he fell even further down the rabbit hole by tweeting an endorsement of astrology. Astrology, not to be confused with astronomy, suggests that the positions of celestial objects affect the fortunes of people and outcome of events here on Earth. Though patently ridiculous, the pseudoscience has still been tested and – unsurprisingly – been found to be completely bogus. But bogus is good enough for Doctor Oz, it seems.
10. Rattlesnake Pills Lead to Salmonella Infection. Rattlesnake pills containing dehydrated and pulverized rattlesnake meat are sold as a "natural" cure for cancer and acne, though there's no evidence for their effectiveness. They do seem to be effective at transferring salmonella, however. The CDC reported on one such instance this summer, in which a man purchased the pills in Mexico and subsequently became infected with the foodborne illness. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time this has happened. Prior outbreaks of salmonella from rattlesnake pills occurred in the 1980s, predominantly amongst cancer patients desperately searching to cure their tumors by any means necessary. Rather than a treatment, they sadly received another malady to contend with.
9. Electricity Customers Complain About Dangers From Wireless "Smart Meters." Utilities across the country are installing "smart meters" in millions of homes in order to futurize America's aging electrical grid, but in North Carolina, thousands of people claimed "sensitivity" to radio-frequency waves was giving them headaches, ear-ringing, and "brain fog." Such sensitivity to smart meters is not realistic according to the laws of physics, a fact recognized by the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. Nevertheless, North Carolinians are now permitted to opt out of their smart meters thanks to a decision made this summer by the N.C. Utilities Commission.
8. Raw Water Became a Trend. Another year, another absurd health fad, although 2018's was particularly egregious. At a time where at least half a billion people worldwide lack access to a basic drinking water service, numerous companies in the United States are now selling "raw," "naturally probiotic," untreated water. But what they call probiotic, scientists call potentially contaminated with parasites and animal poop. There are no health benefits to drinking so-called "raw" water. It will, however, lighten your wallet significantly more than simply drinking tap water.
7. Hoaxers Reveal That Some Social Science Journals Will Publish Nonsense. This year, three academics, James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, revealed their efforts to publish blatantly ridiculous hoax papers in a variety of social science journals. They were frequently successful. Published in the journal Gender, Place & Culture was "Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon," an article about "rape culture" in dogs. Accepted at Affilia was "Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism," which essentially reworded a chapter from Hitler's Mein Kampf. Revised and resubmitted to Women's Studies International Forum was "Stars, Planets, and Gender: A Framework for a Feminist Astronomy," which argues "that feminist and queer astrology should be considered part of the science of astronomy." Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghoassian showed that social science, and especially postmodernist grievance studies, are apt to publish meaningless gibberish.*
6. Jury Finds That Glyphosate Caused Man's Lymphoma. Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, in part because it is highly effective at killing weeds while at the same time being less acutely toxic than table salt. However, the chemical's ubiquity coupled with the fact that it was created by the much-maligned company Monsanto have made it a target of fearmongering and litigation. In August, a California jury awarded $289 million to a man who claimed that the weedkiller caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though a judge later drastically reduced the punitive damages to $39 million. The jury's conclusion is not in keeping with available scientific evidence, which has not found a link between glyphosate and cancer.
5. In California, Coffee Is a Carcinogen. Coffee contains a tiny amount of the chemical acrylamide (on average, a half a millionth of a gram in a cup of roasted coffee). Based mostly on animal and in vitro studies, acrylamide has been found to be a potential risk factor for cancer in very high doses. Therefore coffee causes cancer and requires a warning label. Such was the apparent logic of California Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle in a ruling this past spring. Scientists and experts almost universally decried the move as a gross overextension of the precautionary principle, but to no avail. Coffee is immensely unlikely to cause cancer, but in California, the popular drink now comes accompanied by a scary and misleading warning label.
4. Woman Dies After Live Bee Acupuncture Session. Acupuncture doesn't work, so the flabbergasting response of some acupuncturists is to replace needles with bee stings, which also doesn't provide any health benefits beyond placebo. Still, this fruitless alternative therapy is not without risks, a fact tragically brought to light in a case report published in April, which documented a woman's death from a severe allergic reaction suffered after a session of bee acupuncture. Even more saddening is that she could have been saved by a dose of epinephrine, but the clinic didn't have any on site. How does a clinic that "treats" people with bee stings not keep an EpiPen in case of an allergic reaction?
3. The Trump Administration Still Denies Climate Change. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree on policies related to climate change. It is also acceptable to critique climate models as well as some of the more outlandish, alarmist claims about global warming. What is not acceptable, however, is to deny the increasingly obvious fact that the climate is changing and humans are responsible. Yet that is exactly what the Trump Administration is doing through misrepresentation and obfuscation. In November, the administration tried to bury a damning government report outlining the potential perils and immense costs of climate change. Afterwards, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spouted myriad mistruths when questioned about the scientific assessment. A couple weeks later, the U.S. joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in refusing to endorse an IPCC report on climate change. Denial of reality on this level is tantamount to charlatanism. Science and evidence must be adhered to at the federal government if the U.S. is to prosper.
2. The World Health Organization Endorses Traditional Chinese Medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the largest pseudoscientific medical practice in the world. It is fundamentally based on the notion that vital energy (qi) circulates through bodily channels called meridians, and when this energy is out of balance, disease occurs. Like the four distinct bodily humours of ancient Hippocratic medicine, this energy does not exist and has no bearing on health. So it is astonishing that the World Health Organization (WHO) for the first time recognized TCM in its global medical compendium. By doing so, the WHO is tacitly endorsing TCM and its "treatments" like acupuncture, cupping, and herbal medicine as effective, when available scientific evidence suggests otherwise. TCM is also notoriously responsible for creating a lucrative trade in pangolin scales, rhino horns, and tiger penises. As a result, these beautiful animals are now threatened with extinction.
1. Measles Resurges Globally. Anti-vaxxers have been threatening to bring back measles for a few years now, and now, it seems they finally have. More than 41,000 children and adults across Europe were infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, the BMJ reported. There were 23,927 cases in all of 2017, the previous decadal high. The reason is obvious, says the World Health Organization: "vaccine hesitancy". Fewer people are receiving vaccines against infectious diseases in many parts of the world, partly out of complacency, but mostly due to the spread of false information and deliberate fearmongering by vaccine opponents. As Dr. Alberto Villani, president of the Italian Pediatric Society, told NBC News, "People are dying from measles. This was unbelievable five or 10 years ago." There were 110,000 global deaths in 2017, a tragic number almost sure to be eclipsed this year.