Tools for detecting junk science? Transparency is the key.

April 12, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

In an article to appear in the journal Child Development, “Distinguishing polemic from commentary in science,” physicist David Grimes and psychologist Dorothy Bishop write:

Exposure to nonionizing radiation used in wireless communication remains a contentious topic in the public mind—while the overwhelming scientific evidence to date suggests that microwave and radio frequencies used in modern communications are safe, public apprehension remains considerable. A recent article in Child Development has caused concern by alleging a causative connection between nonionizing radiation and a host of conditions, including autism and cancer. This commentary outlines why these claims are devoid of merit, and why they should not have been given a scientific veneer of legitimacy. The commentary also outlines some hallmarks of potentially dubious science, with the hope that authors, reviewers, and editors might be better able to avoid suspect scientific claims.

The article in question is, “Electromagnetic Fields, Pulsed Radiofrequency Radiation, and Epigenetics: How Wireless Technologies May Affect Childhood Development,” by Cindy Sage and Ernesto Burgio. I haven’t read the two articles in detail, but Grimes and Bishop’s critique seems reasonable to me; I have no reason to believe the claims of Sage and Burgio, and indeed the most interesting thing there is that this article, which has no psychology content, was published in the journal Child Development. Yes, the claims in that article, if true, would indeed be highly relevant to the topic of child development—but I’d expect an article such as this to appear in a journal such as Health Physics whose review pool is more qualified to evaluate it.

How did that happen? The Sage and Burgio article appeared in a “Special Section is Contemporary Mobile Technology and Child and Adolescent Development, edited by Zheng Yan and Lennart Hardell.” And if you google Lennard Hardell, you’ll see this:

Lennart Hardell (born 1944), is a Swedish oncologist and professor at Örebro University Hospital in Örebro, Sweden. He is known for his research into what he says are environmental cancer-causing agents, such as Agent Orange, and has said that cell phones increase the risk of brain tumors.

So now we know how the paper got published in Child Development.

Of more interest, perhaps, are the guidelines that Grimes and Bishop give for evaluating research claims:

I’m reminded by another article by Dorothy Bishop, this one written with Stephen Lewandowsky a couple years ago, giving red flags for research claims.

As I wrote back then, what’s important to me is not peer review (see recent discussion) but transparency. And several of the above questions (#3, #4, #7, and, to some extent, #8 and #9) are about transparency. So that could be a way forward.

Not that all transparent claims are correct—of course, you can do a crappy study, share all your data, and still come to an erroneous conclusion—but I think transparency is a good start, as lots of the problems with poor data collection and analysis can be hidden by lack of transparency. Just imagine how many tens of thousands of person-years of wasted effort could’ve been avoided if that pizzagate guy had shared all his data and code from the start.

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