Friday, June 18, 2004

Bad Science in Your Everyday Life

Great story in Popular Science about bad science claims. The author looks at how many you get exposed to and what you should do about it.
I'm not up five minutes, and it looks like I'll get my RDA of science claims at breakfast. Cheerios "can reduce your cholesterol."1 My milk derives from a dairy whose cows "graze freely on lush natural pastures as nature intended."2 My Concord Foods soy shake is "fat-free" and a "good source of fresh fruit."3

Then it's off to the e-mail inbox for some fresh scientific-sounding morning spam: A miracle pill guarantees I will "gain 3+ full inches in length."4 A second promises me "huge breasts overnight."5 A third will make me "look 20 years younger."6 I wonder what I'd look like if I took all three.

In my first waking minutes of October 15, I wrote down 13 scientific claims. Only one, for Cheerios, had any reasonable science behind it. According to the National Science Board's 2002 study "Science and Engineering Indicators," only one-third of Americans can "adequately explain what it means to study something scientifically." Which presumably leaves those who would exploit scientific claims with two suckers born every three minutes. As a nation, we are easy prey to the pseudoscientific, and the National Science Board survey blames education and the media for this.

But how much "science" is the average American fed in a day, and how nutritious is it? I did not actively search through scientific journals, because the average American probably doesn't do that. Rather, I simply noted every claim to scientific veracity thrust upon me through radio, television, the Internet, product packaging, billboards and a light read of the daily paper. By bedtime, I had encountered more than 100 (not all of which are detailed here, you'll be relieved to know; I've included a representative assortment). That's one science claim every 10 minutes, on average.

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