Apart from the one or two posts about John Lott I’ve also posted about ozone depletion denial, creationism and astroturf. All these topics, as well as Lott, come together in the person of Steve Milloy. Milloy runs a website junkscience.com that purports to debunk “junk science”.
Unsuspecting visitors might think that Milloy’s site is devoted to criticizing shoddy science, but they would be wrong. If you look at what he “debunks” you will find that the real criterion for deciding what is “junk science” is not the quality of the work, but the political agenda that it might support. Studies that support a right-wing agenda are endorsed, while studies that don’t are harshly criticized. John Quiggin noticed the same thing, while Milloy almost admits it in his definition of junk science:
“Junk science” is bad science used to further a special agenda, such as personal injury lawyers extorting deep-pocket businesses; the “food police,” environmental Chicken Littles and gun-control extremists advocating wacky social programs; overzealous regulators expanding bureaucratic power/budgets; cut-throat businesses attacking competitors; unethical businesses making bogus product claims; slick politicians; and wannabe scientists seeking fame and fortune.
He no longer uses this definition (too much of a give away?) but archive.org has preserved a copy.
Armed with this knowledge we can predict the junkscience.com verdict of any scientific result without having to even look at how the study was carried out. Here are some examples:
The ozone hole? Completely natural:
The same seasonal (and localised) depletion was actually discovered in the 1950s and recognised as an interesting natural phenomenon (interest then was centred on the massive increase in ozone levels over the south pole in late spring, early summer as the massive high concentrations from the adjacent temperate regions penetrate the weakening polar vortex). In the misanthropic ’80s it was given significant publicity and a character change – this time it was big, bad and (you guessed it) man-made while the parallel build up of ozone outside the polar vortex no longer rated a mention. Stratospheric ozone levels are volatile and seasonal, whether there has been any unusual change in ozone levels over the period is moot. There is only one certainty and that is that perceptions changed purely because the great ozone ‘hole’ got a new publicist.
Oh really? Look at this graph, which shows ozone levels in October at Halley Station in Antarctica. (from this page). Pretty obviously there was no hole in the 1950s. Anyone writing about ozone depletion who is unaware of this fact has to be actively avoiding learning the facts about ozone depletion.
The Theory of Evolution? A plot to promote atheism. (OK, Milloy didn’t write that article, but it was endorsed as the “Commentary of the Day”).
Laws that require safe storage of guns? A study by Cummings et al used a pooled time series design similar to Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime” to study the effect of laws that make gun owners criminally liable if someone is injured because a child gains unsupervised access to a gun. They found that the laws were associated with a 23% reduction in unintentional shooting deaths of children.
Here’s what Milloy writes about the Cummings study:
This was an ecologic epidemiology study, meaning the conclusion is based on very “macro” comparisons of groups of people. The study involved no data about individuals, just groups. Traditionally, these studies are only useful for forming hypotheses for further testing, not irrefutable facts.
In particular, no data was collected on compliance with these laws and the relationship of compliance to the decrease in injuries. There may have been fewer unintentional firearm-related injuries in states with safe storage laws, but this study assumed compliance with the laws and assumed that compliance is responsible for the decrease in injuries. A big assumption considering the result.
The reported 23% decrease in injuries is a pretty weak result-probably beyond the capability of the ecologic type of study to reliably detect. Even in the better types of epidemiology studies (i.e., cohort and case-control), rate increases of less than 100% (and rate decreases of less than 50%) are very suspect.
So how much stock can be put in a weak result based on inadequate data?
Now this criticism applies equally to Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime”, only more so, since the crime decreases found by Lott were much less than 23%. (For the bit that reads “assumed compliance with the laws” you need to read “assumed frequent encounters between criminals and permit holders”.) So what is Milloy’s take on “More Guns, Less Crime”? Does he call it an even weaker result based on inadequate data? No, he endorses it
I emailed Milloy and asked him to explain his inconsistent treatment of the Cummings and Lott studies. His reply:
That wasn’t my summary… but quotes from the article.
The weakness is the article is that there is no direct link that it is gun ownership that is causing the decline in violent crime. But the statistics cited are actuarial, not estimated or hypothesized.
Yes, he didn’t write the summary that praised Lott’s work, but he did endorse the summary instead of treating Lott’s study like that of Cummings. And actually Cummings’ study used actuarial statistics while Lott did not, so his “explanation” is nonsense. No, it is clear that to Milloy, Cummings is junk science, while Lott is to be endorsed.
Given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that junkscience.com is another astroturf operation. As part of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Philip Morris agreed to release millions of documents about their operations. These detail how TASSC (The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition) was a front secretly created and funded by a PR firm acting for Philip Morris. Here is the key document (with annotations by Stewart Fist). TASSC and junkscience.com shared the same address and were both run by Milloy. Studies that find harmful effects from tobacco smoke seem to attract particularly venomous attacks from junkscience.com. PR Watch has the full story of Milloy’s history.
And this conduct by Milloy is absolutely disgraceful.
Update:The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was folded up in 1998, but the term “sound science” continues to be used in the same, political, way. Chris Mooney has the scoop on the latest developments.