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April 21, 2011

Junk Science and Joke Science

How many laws and regulations are based on junk science or joke science?

I define “junk science” as the use of flawed or incomplete methodologies to manufacture pre-determined conclusions. Counting things that support your case and ignoring things that don’t. But the things being counted actually do have a connection to the pre-determined conclusion.

“Joke science” can be explained by example. Nick Pinto at the Village Voice quotes Steve Doig of Arizona State University: 

“Consider this analogy: Imagine that 100 people were shown pictures of various automobiles and asked to identify the make, and that 38 percent of the time people misidentified Fords as Chevrolets. . .[T]his would mean that 38 percent of Fords on the street actually are Chevys.”

That line of logic belongs in a comedy. A study conducted like that must be a joke, right?

And yet this was actually how a study was produced “proving” the prevalance of child prostitution. Wendy McElroy writes . . .

Before a full study began, researchers asked a group of 100 observers to judge the ages of young women in photographs. . . The accuracy rate was 38 percent. The same people were then shown similar online ads of young women seeking sexual partners and answered the same question about age. Researchers multiplied the resulting number of allegedly under-aged photos by 0.38 to arrive at a total number of presumed child prostitutes.

Whole thing here.

While McElroy calls this “junk science,” I think this gives even junk science a bad name. The study doesn’t measure anything at all. It is a non-sequitur. It’s more accurate to call it “joke science.” Child prostitution rates could be ten times larger than the study conveys, or one-tenth or one percent. This study provides no evidence or guidance whatsoever.

And yet, writes Pinto: “[T]he group behind the study admits as much. It’s now clear they used fake data to deceive the media and lie to Congress. And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding.”

What is particularly disconcerting about this isn’t this study itself, but rather how many other joke “studies” are presented as “fact” in Congressional or state legislative hearings. If the group presenting such “facts” are promoting a good cause, isn’t it more likely that legislators will take the groups and its studies at face value, without looking into the methodology?

It’s a scary thought. If legislators are willing to believe an obvious fraud like this child prostitution study, how are they intellectually equipped to question the methodologies used to collect economic, environmental, or medical data?

How are they competent to make decisions regarding your life, liberty, and property?

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