Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us

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9780312352417: Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us

An overdue indictment of government, industry, and faith groups that twist science for their own gain.
 
During the next thirty years, the American public will suffer from a rampage against reason by special interests in government, commerce, and the faith industry, and the rampage has already begun. In Junk Science, Dan Agin offers a response--a stinging condemnation of the egregious and constant warping of science for ideological gain.
 
In this provocative, wide-ranging, and hard-hitting book, Agin argues from the center that we will pay a heavy price for the follies of people who consciously twist the public's understanding of the real world.
 
In an entertaining but frank tone, Agin separates fact from conveniently "scientific" fiction and exposes the data faking, reality ignoring, fear mongering, and outright lying that contribute to intentionally manufactured public ignorance. Many factions twist scientific data to maintain riches and power, and Agin outs them all in sections like these:
 
--"Buyer Beware" (genetically modified foods, aging, and tobacco companies)
--"Medical Follies" (chiropractics, health care, talk therapy)
--"Poison and Bombs in the Greenhouse" (pollution, warfare, global warming)
--"Religion, Embryos, and Cloning"
--"Genes, Behavior, and Race"
 
We already pay a heavy price for many groups' conscious manipulation of the public's understanding of science, and Junk Science arms us with understanding, cutting through the fabric of lies and setting the record straight.

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About the Author:

Dan Agin has a Ph.D. in biological psychology and thirty years of laboratory-research experience in neurobiology. He is Associate Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago, and editor in chief of the online journal ScienceWeek (http://scienceweek.com).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
Science, Junk Science, and Dogma
 
Rome has spoken; the case is concluded.
--St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
 
There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any error.
--J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967)
 
What happens when dogma rules? We need the past as a guide, since only through the lens of history are the realities of the behavior of whole societies completely visible. To ignore our past, to avoid learning from it, is a mindless attitude that only increases the likelihood of personal and social calamity. What a tragedy it is that history is hardly ever taught to children as a cautionary tale. Instead, history is taught as an exercise in tribal self-glorification, a pedagogical scheme that may be useful to politicians in their manipulations of the public, but a scheme that in the long run produces social dangers and the catastrophes of war.
 
Galileo and the Moons of Jupiter
 
So we begin with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a man whose very name has come to signify the perpetual battle between dogma and science, a battle won by dogma, a defeat now recognized as a disaster for human society.
 
The story of the Church against Galileo has been repeated (and often distorted) over and over again in history and literature. But what was the crux of it? Some say that the officials of the Church of that time were aware of the truth of Galileo's assertions that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but were incapable of publicly admitting this because of fear of demolishing the philosophical structure upon which the Church rested--the theological position, originating with the ancient Greeks, that a mechanistic interpretation of nature could never be more than a model, an intellectual artifact, since between theory and reality there would always be a gap that could not be bridged by human reason. The Church had received from the ancients a fundamental view of the cosmos that the Church had preached since the beginning of Christianity, and that view could not be denied without demolishing the foundations of the religion itself. At least, according to this interpretation of the crux of the conflict, that was the view of Church officials of the seventeenth century. Of course, eventually, after two hundred years, the Church did accept the Galilean/Copernican view of the solar system, and without destruction of its theological foundations. (Some may argue that if anything the foundations were strengthened.)
 
The other view of the crux of the matter is simpler and focuses on the elemental battle between dogma and reality, the refusal of the dogmatists to acknowledge reality, the stubborn efforts of the dogmatists to contrive and deny even when one is handed a telescope and told to look at the moons of Jupiter and see whether or not they are real. So goes the story of the Church and Jupiter's moons, although if officials of the Church refused to look, many academics, the so-called philosophers of Pisa, also refused to look.
 
Why not look? Because to look and see what Galileo (and others) said could be seen would demolish the foundations of one's reality. The dogma was that the Earth did not move. And even of those who accepted the Copernican idea that the planets (other than Earth) revolved around the Sun, many would not accept the idea that the Earth itself revolved around the sun--because they believed the Earth would then lose its moon. Thus, to see the moons of Jupiter was to understand that a planet could revolve around the sun without losing its moons, and that the Earth could do this also.
 
Here are Galileo's own words about the import of Jupiter's moons:
 
Here [in the Jovian moons] we have a powerful and elegant argument to quiet the doubts of those who, while accepting without difficulty that the planets revolve around the Sun in the Copernican system, are so disturbed to have the Moon alone revolve around the Earth while accompanying it in an annual revolution about the Sun, that they believe that this structure of the Universe should be rejected as impossible. But now we have not just one planet revolving around another while both make a large circle around the Sun, but our eyes show us four stars that wander around Jupiter, as does the Moon around the Earth, and these stars together with Jupiter describe a large circle around the Sun in a period of twelve years.
 
But the hard evidence that there were indeed people who refused to look at Jupiter's moons is scanty, most of the evidence in comments by Galileo himself. The best surmise is that there were indeed people, academics, philosophers, Church officials, who refused to look, even when others did look and were looking all over Europe as soon as the announcement of the Jovian moons was made. And if they looked, did they believe the moons were there? In this context, the important point is not who looked and who refused to look--no, the important fact is that there were probably enough people of substance, even of eminence, people of the established order who refused to look, assuming that Galileo did not concoct the idea of refusals, as some have suggested.
 
Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in the year 1610. On June 22, 1633, he received the final sentence of the Church, with the following words read out to him:
 
You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.
 
Never mind Galileo's subsequent recantation, the question of who looked or who did not look, the question of how many Church officials quietly accepted the reality of Jupiter's moons, the crux of the matter, the essence of dogma, the fundamental and unresolvable confrontation between dogma and science is clear in the above paragraph, in the accusation read to scientist Galileo Galilei as on Wednesday, the 22nd of June in the year 1633, he knelt on the floor in a room adjoining the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His crime was to refute a doctrine with a telescope, counter a dogma that suddenly, with the invention of the telescope, became a dogma based on junk science.
 
And the junk science endured. When Harvard University was founded in the year 1636, the assembled university scholars did not accept Galileo's work and they remained firmly committed to the Ptolemaic theory of the universe. Were they too busy to look at Jupiter's moons?
 
Galileo's major work on the solar system, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was not removed from the Roman Catholic index of prohibited books until 1835, two hundred years after the Church forced his recantation.
 
Dogma is not easily melted.
 
Phrenology and Inherited Traits
 
The junk science foisted on human society by the Church during the two centuries following the invention of the telescope concerned man's view of the world. At about the same time the Church finally accepted the reality of the Galilean world, a new junk science arose concerning man's view of himself, his view of his mind and brain, and this new junk science came to be a precursor of twentieth-century catastrophe.
 
Both science and junk science have a powerful impact on the public when concerned with mind and brain, the workings of intellect and emotions, and the differences in individual character.
 
In the eighteenth century, knowledge of human physiology--and of the workings of the brain and nervous system--was primitive, sometimes fanciful, and often overshadowed by centuries-old myths and religious doctrine. There was still uncertainty about whether the brain was the organ of mind, uncertainty about the function of nerves. Muscle action was a mystery, the connections between nerves and muscles not known until the 1870s, and electricity was for the most part a parlor trick used to entertain the aristocracy in their salons. But no matter what Aristotle or the Church or Descartes decreed, many physicians understood, on the basis of repeated clinical observations of traumatic injuries, that the brain had a great deal to do with mental faculties, both ordinary and peculiar. And if mental faculties could be rationally categorized, the faculties given this or that name and differentiated one from the other by observation, was it not possible that the brain itself was organized in a similar fashion?
 
The idea that the anatomical organization of the brain is related to its various functions is more than two hundred years old and is today called "localization of brain function." The existence of considerable localization of function is indisputable: There are brain regions involved with specific primary inputs such as vision, audition, taste, etc.; brain regions for specific primary outputs to various muscle systems; and brain regions for speech and the understanding of language. The still unclear aspects concern anatomical localization of other so-called higher faculties, e.g., learning, memory, perceptual analysis, motivations, and various other cognitive abilities. But the general idea of localization of brain function is not new; it arrived in Europe two centuries ago--and rapidly degenerated into junk science.
 
At the end of the eighteenth century, the neurologist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) proposed a view of the brain and mental function that quickly swept both sides of the Atlantic, flowered in public lecture halls and magazines, and drew the approval of people in upper-class drawing rooms because of the tenet that mental faculties were fixed from birth by inheritance and incapable of modification by education. E...

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