The term "junk science" refers to inaccurate data and the analysis of data that is used to skew opinions or push an agenda. Junk science may be used by a variety of people for a variety of purposes. The best way to be able to identify examples of junk science is to know who are the users, what are the popular topics, how the information was gathered, and what was the source of the information.
Junk science is information that is presented as if it represents scientific facts or data, but it really does not. It can take many forms and be about many topics. The defining characteristic of junk science is that whatever information is being presented was not properly gathered or analyzed using unbiased scientific procedures. Pseudoscience is a synonym for junk science.
There are many junk science examples in everyday life, covering a wide variety of topics.
- tobacco usage - For many years, smoking tobacco was touted as something that is good for people. These assertions were based on research conducted or funded by companies in the tobacco industry. It took a long time for true scientific studies to debunk the myths caused by junk science.
- dietary recommendations - Prior to the current United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, the agency recommended a food pyramid that consisted primarily of carbohydrates. The junk science this was based on contributed to the obesity epidemic and negative health outcomes.
- weight loss miracle cures - Companies that sell weight-loss miracle cures touted to bring about rapid weight loss often cite so-called studies that back up the claims they are making. Such assertions represent junk science.
- magic energy cards - In Thailand, junk science is being used to convince (trick) people into purchasing plastic cards that are being touted as a way to boost their energy, metabolism and immune system. In an ironic turn, officials have discovered that the cards themselves are radioactive.
- saccharine reversal - For years, the artificial sweetener saccharine was considered to be extremely carcinogenic, due to scientific research that was later determined to be flawed. As a result, saccharine has now been removed from the World Health Organization's (WHO) list of substances considered dangerous to humans.
- coal ash safety - The American Coal Ash Association has asserted that they have scientific evidence that indicated that coal ash is no more hazardous than ordinary dirt. However, rather than approaching the matter scientifically, it seems they chose to consider only information that backs up their assertion.
- hoax assertions - Informational claims asserting that the global Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax are using junk science to promote a dangerous agenda with serious public health consequences.
- climate change - Sources who try to use an isolated incident, such as a blizzard in the winter or a cool snap during the summer, to try to assert that climate change is real are using junk science to try to counter mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary.
When looking at research labeled as scientific, it's important to consider the source. If the source had a reason to slant the information, take that into account when determining if the information is valid or not. Examples of those who may utilize junk science and their reason for use include:
- media - to increase its audience through sensationalism or to support an agenda
- lawyers - to win cases or deceive or bias judges and juries
- social activists - to support their own agendas and build membership
- political campaigns - to win over supporters
- businesses - to advance their brand over products created and sold by competitors
- politicians - to perpetuate their agenda, bad-mouth an opponent's record and garner votes
- lobbyists - to encourage legislators and government regulatory agencies to make decisions favorable to their clients
- unethical scientists - to propel themselves forward in their field for the purpose of awards or compensation
The fact that something is labeled as junk science doesn't necessarily mean that it really is. That's one thing that makes it so difficult for people who aren't scientists to separate scientific results from pseudoscience. Any topic that may be controversial, may run counter to a political agenda, or may stand in the way of corporate profits is one where junk science is possible.
- climate change
- energy subsidies
- renewable vs. nonrenewable energy
- DNA research
- wildlife conservation
- vaccinations and side effects
- radioactive waste
- energy types (natural gas, fossil fuel, clean energy, nuclear energy, and more)
- genetically modified food (GMO)
- artificial sweeteners
- animal consumption of antibiotics
- caffeine consumption
When a corporation sees research that is counter to their best interest, they're likely to label it as junk science whether it is or not. The same is true with politicians, lobbyists and many others who have a vested interest in swaying public opinion or the actions of decision-makers. It can be a challenge to determine if information is junk science. In order to find out if what is being reported is legitimate information or unfounded or skewed junk science, people must develop strategies to tell fact from fiction.
When seeking to determine if information is junk science, it is critically important to carefully analyze the quality and source of the information. Always consider:
- sources used to gather the information
- resources used to get the information by the source
- how data was collected and analyzed, including how the sample was taken
- do assertions logically follow from data
- level of known bias of the source of the information
- any agenda that the person or organization reporting the information might have
- who will benefit if the information is accepted to be true
- whether the information has been fact-checked or verified by credible sources
- is it being widely reported, or just by a single (likely biased) source
- is it consistent with information published in peer-reviewed scientific journals
There are a few online resources that specialize in uncovering junk science and other incorrect information. For example, Snopes.com is a good resource for finding out if information shared via social media and other sources is true. Quackwatch.org focuses on providing factual information countering false and fraudulent medical claims.
When the science about a subject is controversial, consider the source of the information. For example, a tobacco company study showing that cigarettes don't cause lung cancer or aren't addictive is likely to be a good example of junk science. The tobacco companies have a financial interest in deceiving you on the addictive and dangerous nature of their product. Protect yourself against junk science by developing strong critical thinking skills.