One of the negative side effects of our totally plugged-in culture is that bad science and misinterpreted results are published quickly and persist long after something has been debunked. Almost everyone has been fooled by bad science in the past, and some bad science has had some very negative impacts.
Here are some examples of bad science that fooled millions of people.
1. The MMR vaccine causes autism
The discredited and later jailed researcher, Andrew Wakefield, led a flawed study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. This study has been publicly withdrawn, but the damage has been durable. Millions of parents have come to fear life-saving childhood vaccines as a result, causing a resurgence of measles in places like the U.K.. According to the World Health Organization, measles killed 158,000 people in 2011. The number of deaths in each country is directly correlated to vaccination rates. Follow-up studies have shown no connection between any vaccine and childhood autism. Fifteen years later, many parents are still repeating the falsehoods found in the original Wakefield study.
2. Einstein was wrong!
Around eighteen months ago, CERN held a press conference claiming researchers had found some neutrinos which had exceeded the speed light. At first no obvious errors could be found in the experiments. Exceeding the speed of light would have affected every major technology based on relativity, including GPS navigation, astronomy, nuclear energy, the age of the universe, etc. Some scientists were positing that time travel would be possible now that Einstein was wrong.
The CERN experiments momentarily shook the foundations of physics. This story ran on CNN, Fox, and all of the major cable news outlets. It even appeared as a story on multiple episodes of NPR’s Science Friday. However, CERN later made the humbling admission that their results were a byproduct of faulty wiring and the laws of physics were still intact. Michio Kaku’s YouTube video provided a very wry and humorous analysis of how CERN had screwed up.
3. Room temperature fusion
In 1989, the Scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann published results claiming that they had a machine cable of room temperature fusion. This study flew around the world within weeks with the promise of cheap, clean, and nearly endless energy. Since our greatest source of energy, the sun, is also based on fusion, many people had dreams of harnessing the nuclear power of the sun in every home. People wanted to believe this result. Later in 1989, cold fusion became the poster child for bad science.
4. Sex burns significant calories
For many years, soft studies and pseudo-scientific articles have made the claim that sexual activity can help fight obesity. A recent article published in the New England Journal of medicine found the number of calories burned is less than 30 for the average sexual act. Since it takes 120 times that amount to burn one pound of fat, the contribution of sex to weight loss is nearly meaningless. Sex might be important, but how many people have had sex, skipped their workouts, and gained weight with the false impression that a morning spent in bed was as good as one spent in the gym?
5. Being too skinny is worse than being a little fat
As someone who is constantly fighting middle age spread, I heard these results and grinned. I turned to my wife and said, “Hmmm … when I used the statement I am in shape because round is a shape, I thought I was only joking.” How many people would love to hear these words from the doctor, “I know I said you should lose weight, but the extra 20 pounds you are carrying are keeping you healthy.”
Like many results that sound too good to be true, this one was quickly destroyed by a Harvard panel, which identified how the original researchers had made some serious methodological errors. Essentially, people who were wasting away due to conditions like cancer were misidentified as “skinny by choice or behavior” when in fact the condition that made them skinny was killing them.
It would be helpful of all science results were first evaluated by scientists before hitting the popular press. The net effect of bad science being published without verification is millions of people with bad or even harmful information. Moreover, bad science hurts all science, and lends credibility to science doubters on the right and among groups like young earth creationist.
The next time you hear a fantastic science story, wait a month to see if the results still hold before repeating them to someone else.