Monday, December 13, 2010

Review - Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us by Dan Agin

Short review: A scientist exposes a collection of misinformation that has been foisted on the public, but then undermines his argument by trying to make ill-founded policy suggestions.

Junk science fools us
You can't say "government out"
And regulate too

Full review: At the outset, I should make clear that I agree with Dan Agin on just about every scientific point he makes in Junk Science. This fact makes the book that much more frustrating, because while he makes a number of quite salient points, and does a decent job in arguing his case at some points, in other sections of the book his arguments are supported by little more than ranting, and when he tackles economics, he stumbles into the same fundamental error he accuses other scientists of falling into. Some portions of this book are quite good, excellent even, but given its uneven quality and muddled conclusions, the book as a whole is no better than average.

Junk Science is intended to expose all of the twisted misuses of science that are performed in the service of political gain, corporate greed, religious ideology, and simple deceit. The book is divided into five broad sections capped by an introduction and an epilogue. The introduction gives an overview of what "junk science" is, and an overview of some of the misuses of science through history. In short, "junk science" is not bad science or nonscience posing as science, it is actual science that has been twisted and corrupted by what Agin describes as "special interests" or by scientists with an agenda. Each of the following sections tackles a group of more or less thematically related subjects and argues that science has been twisted or distorted with potentially damaging societal effects. For example, the first section, titled "Buyer Beware", deals with food and quasi-food products marketed to people: first dealing with the content of food in general and herbal or diet supplements that promise a variety of beneficial effects, then genetically modified foods, then a variety of products that suggest they can extend human lifespan, and finally the marketing ans sale of tobacco. The book then closes with an epilogue that tries to address the broader question of who is responsible for this corrupted science being promoted to the public, and some general ideas about how this could be prevented.

Agin is a biological psychologist - the cover of the book prominently credits him as "Dan Agin, Ph.D." to establish his science credentials - but as he repeats several times, even a highly trained scientist is little more than a reasonably well-informed layman when he opines on subjects outside of his particular field of study. When Agin deals with areas related to biology and genetics he is clearly on solid footing, and his discussions are replete with concrete details. He takes on topics such as genetically modified organisms, alternative "herbal" medicine, and stem cell therapy, and then relentlessly illustrates exactly much of what is popularly believed about these topics is dangerously wrong and why and how such misinformation is disseminated. But when Agin tackles subjects such as global warming or health care policy his style degenerates into little more than pointing out, for example, that scientific consensus is in favor of anthropomorphic global warming and following up with some rants about the foolishness of those who believe otherwise. On subjects outside his field of expertise, Agin is simply not able to mount a detailed argument in favor of the science. Were I not already convinced of the correctness of the positions he takes on many of these issues, I doubt I would be convinced by his rhetoric.

And that is the first substantial problem with this book: Exactly who is this book aimed at? People who already believe that science has been corrupted by political, religious, and financial forces by and large don't really need to have it explained to them why the junk science described in the book is, in fact, junk science. Those who are ideologically opposed to some of the conclusions in the book will likely be immune to any argument contained in this or any other book, and will be comforted by the fact that the weak chapters are simply not very well-argued. Those who are undecided, who would probably benefit most from this book, will probably come away feeling confused, and not particularly convinced. While it might be helpful to a reader who wants to formulate arguments to convince others that, say, chiropractic medicine is bunk, the book is at best unevenly useful for this purpose, since in many areas the arguments are little more than a pile of finger pointing and shouting.

The first problem is further exacerbated by the second,more substantial problem: Agin makes a couple of pronouncements that are simply wrong, and others that are self-contradictory. One thing that comes through clearly in the book is that Agin dislikes Milton Friedman. This is, of course, not a failing in and of itself. But Agin's denunciations of Friedman demonstrate that Agin is engaged in the practice of opining on an academic field that he has little training in, a practice that he castigates other scientists for engaging in at several points in his book. He exposes his ignorance most clearly when taking Friedman to task for a response Friedman made in a verbal interview concerning child labor in Victorian England. Leaving aside the farcical nature of Agin's criticism that Friedman was not sufficiently precise when discussing a matter in a verbal interview, Agin simply gets some of his facts wrong. Friedman's basic argument was that while child labor is not good in the abstract, one has to consider context, and the context was that city life and working in the factories was probably superior to the conditions of rural life in England at the time. After all, people were migrating to the cities in large numbers, and one would not expect them to do so unless they expected to better their situation. Among Agin's criticisms of Friedman, he takes Friedman to task by saying that the legal system in rural England was the same as the laissez-faire system in urban England, so they couldn't be moving to get better treatment on that basis. But here Agin exposes his ignorance: the laws were not the same. Rural England was still covered by a patchwork of customary and common law precedents controlling land usage and relations between people that dated back centuries, a patchwork of law that did not extend to the cities. In short, while there are many reasons to disagree with Friedman, Agin harms his own arguments by choosing to criticize him on a fallacious basis.

But this is only the beginning of the muddled mess that Agin's book degenerates to in its waning pages. Agin makes the case that one should not evaluate scientific output by looking to the character of the scientist who produced it, but in his chapter on race, heredity, and intelligence, he proceeds to do just that by tying A.R. Jensen to the White Supremacist movement via the Pioneer Fund. This is entirely gratuitous as Agin's argument in this area doesn't need buttressing. But by indulging in it, Agin exposes himself to the charge that he is a hypocrite, and as the book continues on, this characterization becomes more and more apt. Through much of his chapters on stem cell research and cloning, Agin takes the President's Council on Bioethics, a government commission, to task for interfering in the pursuit of science. He is especially critical of Charles Krauthammer's contributions to the Council. Agin regards the council as interfering busybodies who lack the scientific training to understand bioethics, and who are unfairly interfering with valuable research. And it is likely that they are. But later Agin states that he is incensed by Friedman's argument that a corporation can serve no purpose other than the legal pursuit of profit, and points out that it is the government's duty to oversee how corporations deal with science. The same government that the Council on Bioethics is part of. In short, when he talks about government, he wants government to butt out of science, and when he talks about corporations, he wants government to butt back in. Similarly, he wants schools to provide strong basic science education to counter the spread of anti-science ideas like creationism, but once again, those schools are an arm of government. Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways. If you want government to provide science education and regulate the market's use of science, then science will be affected by political ideology. If you want corporations to fund science, then corporations will also expect to control the uses to which the fruits of that science are put. And so on. When it comes to policy prescriptions, Agin fails to realize that science will always be buffeted by special interests: even scientists are shown in the book to bend and twist science for their own material benefit, or for the benefit of their own ideological biases.

To a certain extent, it is probably inevitable that someone trying to write a book with as broad a scope as this one would prove to be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. However, that doesn't excuse the weaknesses of the book. Agin could have focused on those scientific areas in which he is clearly bubbling over with expertise, and produced a powerful piece of work. Instead, he produced a broad but unfocused mess and then capped it off with a collection of policy prescriptions that are poorly founded and inherently self-contradictory. The result is a work that, while brilliant at times, is profoundly flawed.

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