The Biggest Junk Science of 2019
There is never a shortage of people who abuse science, logic, and reason, whether out of cynical opportunism or simple ignorance. And so, every year, RealClearScience counts down the most glaring forays into junk science. Perhaps one day human actions will be guided by evidence and careful consideration of the facts, but this utopian dream did not come true in 2019. Here are nine examples to prove it.
9. Florida's New Board of Education Chairman Doesn't Support Evolution Being Taught as "Fact." This summer, Andy Tuck was elected to chair Florida's Board of Education, a committee that guides and directs public education in the state, from kindergarten through college. Eleven years ago, Tuck said "as a person of faith, I strongly oppose any study of evolution as fact at all. I’m purely in favor of it staying a theory and only a theory... I won’t support any evolution being taught as fact at all in any of our schools." When recently asked if his views had changed, Tuck gave a noncommittal answer, simply saying that students need to learn how to sort through information so they can arrive at sound conclusions.
8. Bizarre Fox News Segment Suggests the Metric System Is a Global Conspiracy. "Esperanto died, but the metric system continues, this weird, utopian, inelegant, creepy system that we alone have resisted," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said earlier this spring when conversing with art critic James Panero. He and Panero proceeded to spout odd, misinformed arguments against the "original system of global revolution and new world orders." Whether serious or not, the brief segment was certainly strange and full of logical fallacies.
7. Grain-Free Dog Food May Be Killing Dogs. With all of the inane fad diets, it was only a matter of time before hucksters marketed one for our pets as well. Enter grain-free dog food.
"The justification for this trend is the notion that since dogs are essentially wolves, and wolves are pure carnivores, then we should not be feeding our dogs grains. This is basically the paleo diet for dogs," Steven Novella explained.
But dogs are not wolves. They split from wolves tens of thousands of years go and have different nutritional requirements, requirements that conventional dog food was entirely adequate at fulfilling.
With the rise of grain-free dog food, however, the FDA has noticed a steep increase in dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, where the heart is unable to pump enough blood because its left ventricle is enlarged and weakened. Research has found that 91% of reported cases involved dogs fed a grain-free diet.
"This was an entirely unforced error," Novella wrote. "Dog food formulas have been tested and were evidence-based, safe and healthy... However, trying to capitalize on the “clean eating” nonsense, some pet food manufacturers and pet stores decided to ride the trend. So they promoted an untested product based on dubious science and likely caused completely unnecessary health problems."
6. Paper Claims to Singlehandedly Debunk Human-Caused Climate Change. When two authors claim to "prove" that the conclusion of rigorously gathered climate science is wrong in one fell swoop, there's good reason to be skeptical. When they do so in a paper that isn't peer-reviewed, there's more reason to be skeptical. When you actually read their paper, you realize that your skepticism was entirely warranted.
In a six-page paper published to arXiv earlier this year with scant references, J. Kauppinen and P. Malmi argued that low-altitude cloud cover accounts for all of anthropogenic climate change. The elevation of clouds does significantly affect global temperatures, but it is a complex relationship that scientists are still striving to completely understand.
Kauppinen and Malmi's paper was heavily criticized for not referencing any data, ignoring contradictory data, attacking climate models while creating and touting a flawed one, and incorrectly claiming that carbon dioxide travels from the oceans to the atmosphere, when the opposite is true.
5. Media Touts Terrible Study to Claim That Phone Use Is Causing People to Grow Horns. In today's
media environment, accuracy often falls by the wayside when lots of clicks are up for grabs. In June, oulets across the Internet tried to ride a viral wave that formed around a 2018 study suggesting that bone spurs of the skull are growing more common due to people constantly looking down at their gadgets. The Washington Post may have published the most egregious headline: "‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests."
Thankfully, a few outlets didn't take the bait. Ars Technica (which took the top spot on our countdown of 2019's best websites for science) scolded those that elected to mislead readers rather than report the facts. Writing for Ars, veteran science journalist Beth Mole excoriated the study for using poor data and sloppy statistics to make an outlandish claim.
4. Radioactive "Energy Cards" Are Being Sold in Thailand. Grifters in Thailand are selling credit card-sized cards for the equivalent of $35 to $50 that they claim can improve the immune system, strengthen the heart, energize the user's metabolism, and purify water. They do none of those things, of course, and that would be bad enough, but the cards are radioactive to boot! Thailand's state nuclear agency actually found that the cards contain uranium and thorium, giving off radiation at roughly 40 microsieverts per hour. Writing at Science-Based Medicine, Steven Novella calculated that a bearer of one of these cards would reach their five-year safe radiation exposure limit in 104 days of using it.
3. Bill Maher Fawningly Interviews an Anti-Vaccine Doctor. Just a couple months ago, HBO's Bill Maher had pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon on his show to talk about vaccines. During the 15-minute interview, the two bemoaned being labeled heretics for questioning the safety of vaccines, touted various anecdotes that vaccines cause autism (dismissing the copious evidence to the contrary), and spouted a stream of misinformation and logical fallacies about the practice of medicine.
Prominent doctor and skeptic David Gorski picked apart the anti-science interview in detail, and reserved his harshest criticism for HBO:
"By airing a show in which the host is allowed to spout antivaccine pseudoscience, fear mongering, and conspiracy theories, along with clearly refutable outright misinformation about vaccines to a national—no, worldwide—audience in the middle of a huge measles outbreak in the US (and much larger measles outbreaks elsewhere) resulting from vaccine hesitancy, HBO is complicit in facilitating the spread of antivaccine misinformation."
2. Measles Continues Its Comeback. The resurgence of measles, a vaccine-preventable disease, made our junk science list last year, and regrettably, it deserves mention again this year. Outbreaks persisted and swelled again in 2019. Through September, the U.S. had 1,249 reported cases, the highest since 1992. Samoa is now in the grips of a devastating outbreak, which has sickened at least 4,800 and killed seventy, many of them children. Globally, the first six months of 2019 produced more measles cases than any year since 2006, according to World Health Organization. "Vaccine hesitancy" is widely cited as the primary reason for measles' deadly return.
1. The Canadian Government Was Spending Money to Send Homeopaths to Honduras. Since 2015, the Canadian government has provided $70,000 annually to a homeopathy organization in Quebec in order to send homeopaths to Honduras to "treat" infectious diseases. Homeopathy is a debunked practice in which substances that cause symptoms of various conditions are diluted in water to the point of nonexistence. These potions supposedly then treat the conditions that their diluted ingredients would otherwise cause.
As you can tell, homeopathy is pure nonsense, which raises the question of how it snuck into Canada's foreign aid spending in the first place. Government officials were quick to offer deflecting answers to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporters.
Regardless, the program will not be continuing. Scientists like Dr. Zain Chagla at McMaster University raised an appropriate stink, insisting that these homeopaths could be doing real harm to at-risk Hondurans. The funding will come to an end this year.