Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Pedalling Skepticism: Media Representations of Homeopathy as "Junk Science"

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Pedalling Skepticism: Media Representations of Homeopathy as "Junk Science"

Article excerpt


In recent years, the media has focussed attention on the notion of "junk science," which it has characterized as research or therapeutic treatments which lack credibility in the scientific community. Through its application of the label "junk science," the media invites its audience to treat these claims with a certain skepticism. The term junk science has actually been in use in the scientific community for many years but was popularized in 1991 with the publication of Peter William Huber's book Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, which maintained that the federal courts are being inundated with fringe science by personal injury lawyers trying to convince civil juries into awarding large and unwarranted compensation. The term is defined by Huber as the opposite of science:

Junk science is the mirror image of real science, with much of the same form but none of the same substance. There is the astronomer, on the one hand, and the astrologist, on the other. The chemist is paired with the alchemist, the pharmacologist with the homeopathist. Take the serious sciences of allergy and immunology, brush away the detail and rigour, and you have the junk science of clinical ecology (Raso).

The mainstream scientific community defines junk science as "activities that seem scholarly and have appeal and/or superficial utility, but which lack efficiency, reliability and/or soundness"(Raso). The American Council on Science and Health have developed a list of signs that might indicate that a research project or treatment is in the realm of junk science. These signs include the following elements: disparagement or condemning of the double blind [research method]; presentation of anecdotes and testimonials as important evidence; expressing a view on matter that is controversial and/or of considerable interest to a significant percentage of the public through a mass medium, in lay terms, and in a manner likely to generate un-founded hope or fear among non-scientists; hostility toward scientific criticisms disaffirmative of particular beliefs, methods and/or pursuits, and a tendency to describe such criticisms as defences of the status quo, as resulting from hostility toward innovations, or even as products of a full-blown conspiracy (Raso).

Supporters of alternative approaches to science and medicine, and indeed some in the mainstream scientific community, would find these awkwardly phrased "signs" to stem more from a defensive response to criticism of science's core tenets than indications of relevant breaches of scientific method. While aggressive critiques of scientific methodologies are certainly warranted, especially in the wake of evidence of science influenced by corporate funding and research agendas, the term junk science is rarely applied to research used in the interests of the corporate status quo.

The concern that "junk science" has become a political term used to discredit alternative perspectives in the research community is borne out by a recent study by progressive intellectual Edward Herman, an economist emeritus of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1999, Herman, surveyed 258 articles published in mainstream newspapers within the three previous years that included the expression "junk science." He found that in sixty-two percent of these cases the expression was applied by the media to science-related arguments used by environmentalists and other critics of corporations, and to the arguments of personal-injury lawyers who were suing corporations. Herman identifies this use of the term as "corporate junk science."

Corporate junk science plays an extremely important role in the public relations and regulatory strategies of the chemical industry. It aims, first, to reassure the public that pesticides and other chemicals are not a public health threat and are essential to economic growth and welfare. But it is also designed to create enough confusion and uncertainty among legislators and regulators, as well as the public, to preserve the industry's freedom to pour chemicals into the environment. …

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