How to spot junk science

Joe Perrone

Have you heard about the latest study? Coffee fights cancer. Pizza and French fries are addictive like crack. Midnight snacks hamper our ability to retain memories.

Actually, what’s really bad for our brains is all the junk science being reported as gospel.

Scientists agree. According to Pew Research, “79 percent of scientists believe it is a major problem for science that news reports don’t distinguish between well-founded and non-well-founded scientific findings.” With the amount of sensational news stories reporting on shoddy science, these scientists are right to be concerned.

Since the media doesn’t often distinguish things for the public, here are some tell-tale signs of junk science to keep an eye out for.

Dose makes the poison. If you see a study claiming something is dangerous, check the dosage at which the danger occurs. Even water is toxic if you drink enough of it, yet no one would claim water is a health hazard.

Take bisphenol A (BPA) for example. It’s used in canned goods to prevent contamination. Both the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have reviewed hundreds of studies on BPA. EFSA found that “BPA poses no health risk to consumers because current exposure to the chemical is too low to cause harm” and FDA stated that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”

Despite the science, sensational news stories declaring harmful effects have caused the public to distrust BPA. Such effects, however, were found in rats exposed to levels hundreds of times higher than those encountered by humans. To experience similar problems, you’d have to eat about 30 pounds of canned food every day to cause a problem from BPA.

Next is weight of evidence. Science is a collective and never-ending process of testing theories. Solid studies can be replicated and supported by many scientists, which confirms findings aren’t just a fluke. That means a single study isn’t significant — especially if its sample size is small.

There are thousands of studies and meta-analyses showing the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). 89 percent of American scientists affirm GMOs are safe to eat. Yet, thanks to GMO coverage like Dr. Oz’s “The Global Conspiracy to Keep You From Knowing the Truth About Your Food,” only 37 percent of Americans believe GMOs are safe.

Though the gap is concerning, the scientific consensus on GMOs isn’t an American one — it’s global.

The World Health Organization says GMOs “are not likely to present risks for human health.” But there are nearly 2,000 studies affirming the safety of GMOs. And every major global health and scientific institution agrees: GMOs are safe. Add a recent National Academy report on GMO safety and it’s clear: the evidence is overwhelming, but it only takes one junk study to manufacture doubt.

Lastly, remember that sensationalized stories often fail to mention that correlation does not imply causation.

For example, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that per capita cheese consumption correlates with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. We know eating more cheese won’t affect getting tangled in sheets. But the same idea applies to studies since an observed pattern could be meaningless or caused by something that wasn’t measured.

What’s a discerning reader to do? Be inquisitive. Do your own research. Just because the latest study says something, doesn’t make it so.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science.