February 28 2013
Yesterday, the Independent Women's Forum sponsored a panel in partnership with America's Future Foundation to discuss how nanny-state activists and news stories foster a culture of alarmism and the dangers that presents to society. As one of the presenters, I discussed chemical risk issues, highlighting why claims about trace-chemicals causing cancer are largely unfounded.
During the question and answer session, one participant asked why activists hype the risks so much when evidence is weak. It was a good question. I suggested it may be related to the distrust that some groups have toward big business, and Julie Gunlock, who moderated the panel, pointed out how chemical scares attract headlines and funding for both researchers and environmental groups. In a recent article in the Daily Beast, Trever Butterworth points to another imortant factor that fosters fearmongering:
There’s little question that the [scientific] literature is awash in false findings—findings that if you try to replicate you’ll probably never succeed or at least find them to be different from what was initially said,” says [Daniele] Fanelli [in Nature magazine]. “But people don’t appreciate that this is not because scientists are manipulating these results, consciously or unconsciously; it’s largely because we have a system that favors statistical flukes instead of replicable findings. ... One particularly challenging bias is that academic journals tend to publish only positive results. As Isabelle Boutron, a professor of epidemiology at René Descartes University in Paris, points out, studies have shown that peer reviewers are influenced by trial results; one study showed that they not only favored a paper showing a positive effect over a near-identical paper showing no effect, they also gave the positive paper higher scores for its scientific methods. And Boutron has herself found extensive evidence of scientists spinning their findings to claim benefits that their actual results didn’t quite support.
It's not clear how anyone can change this dynamic, but it does explain why science can become skewed and why we should remain skeptical of the many alarming headlines.