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Junk Science -- How Can You Tell? July 20, 2003 by RedStar2000

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, many revolutionaries express little interest in science and even less comprehension. This always surprises me because Marxism itself is scientific in origins and shares many of the basic assumptions of a scientific outlook on the world.

Accordingly I offer the following as a sketchy beginning at how Marxists should look at science today.


We live in a "scientific age"--it's pretty close to an "article of faith" that this statement is true.

Well, yes and no. Yes, we have a lot more real knowledge about the material world, knowledge that is both verifiable and useful. And the total of that real knowledge grows with every passing year.

At the same time, we also "know" a lot of things that are either not true, not verified, not useful, or just plain horseshit...and yet nevertheless seek to cloak themselves in the garb of real "science". And that total also grows with every passing year.

And how is someone who is not a scientist supposed to tell the difference?

A lot of people (most people?) don't even try. They'll believe any jackass dressed in a white lab coat, wearing horn-rim glasses, carrying a clipboard...who says, for example, that "a new scientific breakthrough" has created a product that "melts away fat".

This is the image of "scientist" as "high priest". It's not required that you understand, it's only required that you obey...or buy now as the case may be.

The "age of science" is also, of course, the "age of numbers". Anything with a number attached is "more real, more scientific" than anything without a number. If you suggest that a small proportion of the population may be vulnerable to certain modern building products, you've said nothing. But if you claim that "50,000,000 Americans are at risk from poisoned buildings", you can go ahead and make your appointment to be on "Good Morning America"'re in business.

It's not necessary that the number be accurate. Go ahead and make one up; only a few real scientists are ever likely to check up on you...and their refutations, appearing in professional journals, will probably get little media coverage. A "danger" disproven is not really "news"; a new "danger" is the lead item on tonight's broadcast.

People who are not slaves to the dummyvision and actually try to use their brains are better off...but not by much. If some respected "scientist" with impressive credentials makes a "prediction", what tools can the non-expert bring to bear on the matter? How do we actually tell if this person really knows what they're talking about or if they're blowing smoke out of their ass?

This is not a problem for most of us with regard to the "hard sciences"...a dispute among particle physicists or cosmologists usually does not have that much of a real-world effect on us (though it can...recall the "cold fusion" scam and the resources that were wasted--and almost wasted--on "developing" it).

In medicine and engineering, just to name two fields, things get a lot touchier...bad medical advice and engineering errors can have immediate and disasterous consequences, as well as long-range negative effects.

In the "social sciences", of course, all bets are off. Not only is the methodology unusually weak but people have direct career incentives to lie their asses off...and while other "social scientists" may well dispute the more dubious "findings", there's no "court of final appeal"...except, perhaps, the mainstream capitalist media, which has its own profit-making agenda.

The phrase "junk science" has been coined to describe "findings" which are garbage...or, at least, completely unsupported by the "evidence" provided. The phrase will probably grow in junk science itself appears to be a "growth industry".

I can tell you what I do...but with the warning that my "junk science" filter is far from perfect; I'm sure there are things that I think are "scientifically true" that are, in fact, garbage.

1. I've noticed that real scientists make a point of the uncertainties in their data and conclusions; junk scientists will just yell real loud that "the sky is falling".

2. I am hyper-suspicious of any "finding" that "supports" official government policies on anything. There's just too much incentive for social scientists to "fudge the numbers" or just plain lie...that next federal research grant is too tempting.

3. Corporate research in biology and medicine should likewise be regarded with suspicion...for obvious reasons. Fear of class action lawsuits is probably all that restrains them.

4. Any finding that contains a number preceeded by the word "estimate" should be disregarded; unless you are aware of all the factors and assumptions that went into the "estimate", you have no idea whether the number has any meaning at all...or not.

5. Beware of ratios and percentages; unless you know the real numbers and how they were accumulated, ratios and percentages can be wildly misleading. If my net worth is one cent and I find a penny on the sidewalk, I've doubled my "personal fortune", an increase of 100%!

6. And remember that all scientists are humans, situated in a class society with all the stresses and strains thereof. They are not "priests" dispensing "divine wisdom" before which we mere mortals must humbly abase ourselves. To degrade science to the level of just another religion is to attack its core value: the use of human reason to investigate the real world.

The combination of reason and evidence is the most powerful tool we humans have ever invented; its misuse is perhaps one of the most odious crimes of class society.
First posted at Che-Lives, July 10, 2003

Postscript: After I posted this article I was informed of, and checked out this site:

I recommend it with this warning: It is associated with Fox News and the Cato Institute--two right-wing institutions hardly noted for their scholarly and disinterested pursuit of "truth".

So it should be read carefully and critically, the same way you would read any openly pro-capitalist source. Nevertheless, pay attention to how one constructs a scientific argument and seeks to verify it...there is much to be learned here from our enemies.

July 20, 2003
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