Martial Arts for Media
Watchers: A Review of Steven J. Milloy's Junk Science Judo
- Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams
by Tom Randall
If you plan on reading another newspaper or watching the nightly news, you need to read Steven J. Milloy's Junk Science Judo - Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams.1
Milloy's new book is written to enable the reader - without benefit of extensive scientific training - to ferret out, understand and debunk the blizzard of phony health scares that fill today's media. This is a quick, easy read in spite of dealing with scientific issues. It won't make you an expert, but it will equip you to tell who is and who isn't.
"Mice aren't little people," observes Milloy, who often displays a sense of humor that pleasantly compliments his string of academic degrees in natural science, biostatistics and law from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore.
He follows the comment about mice with the revelation that mice used for laboratory experiments aren't even normal mice. They are specially bred to have a higher-than-normal tendency to contract cancer. Milloy also points out that tests of supposed cancer-causing agents on these mice often last the entire natural life-span of the animals - during which as many as half the animals spontaneously develop tumors not related to the tests.
In the chapter "Lesson 8: Boycott Bioassays," discussing the many shortcomings of using animals to predict human reactions to chemicals, Milloy debunks many of today's more pervasive health myths. This helps the reader understand how to use the simple tools the book offers. The debunking of past and current phony health scares is a strong element running throughout.
PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), which were widely used as hydraulic and insulating fluids, were reported in 1975 to cause high incidences of liver tumors in laboratory rats. The ensuing panic reports in the media led to the enactment of a law banning PCBs in 1976 and a health scare that still exists today. The problem, Milloy points out, is that no studies were done to determine the effect of PCBs on humans. Finally, in 1999, the largest-ever study of workers exposed to high doses of PCBs was published, showing no increase in cancer deaths among them. However, the ban and the unfounded health concerns still exist. As Milloy says many times and many ways in this book, "Oh, well. Another law without a scientific basis."
In that chapter, as in others, Milloy offers several common sense rules that media reporters often overlook in their work. In addition to the "Mice Aren't Little People," rule, he points out others: "Humans Aren't Cancer Time Bombs; Real Cancer Risks Occur in Real People; Poisoning Animals Is Probably Not Science" and "Poisoning May be Toxic." Words to live by.
"Lesson 2: Show Me The Science," offers other pithy rules, such as:
* "De Omnibus Dubitantum." Doubt everything.
* "The Yoke's on Them." Scientists have to prove they are right, you don't have to prove they are wrong.
* "Speculation isn't Science." However, it often is reported as such in the media.
* "Anecdotes Aren't Scientific Data." But they are often reported the same as speculation.
These and dozens more are gems of wisdom, clearly supported by simple analyses and serious documentation.
The book does create one problem for itself - but not for the reader - in the excellent first chapter: "Lesson 1: Know Thine Enemies," in which Milloy identifies the enemies of truthful scientific information about health and environmental issues. He lists the media, personal injury lawyers, activists businesses, politicians, regulators, medical journals and scientists.
He adequately makes the case for each of these groups standing in the way of sound information. That's not a problem. However, with a list of enemies like that, how is a book ever going to get a lot of favorable reviews?
We suggest you simply pick up a copy of Junk Science Judo. Take it with you on the train, in the car pool. Regale your companions with its nuggets of wisdom and hard facts that contradict accepted myths. Enjoy the "debates" which are sure to ensue.
This is not a book to be used by weenies.
As Milloy says in the closing pages, after exhorting the reader
to go forth and fight junk science, "Be Prepared, Chicago-Style."
"Make no mistake," Milloy says. "If you criticize junksters, you open yourself to attack by them. Certainly their best and most likely strategy is to ignore critics."
"If you persist and especially if you succeed, prepare yourself for savage retaliation."
"Remember the lines uttered by Sean Connery to Kevin Costner
as Elliot Ness in the move The Untouchables: 'He pulls a knife
on you, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital;
you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way.'"
1 Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams, by Steven J. Milloy has been published by the Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001, $18.95.
Note: This review appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 9, 2001.
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Tom Randall is the Director of Environmental & Regulatory Affairs of the John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs of The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC. Comments may be sent to TRandall@nationalcenter.org.