A Junk Science Congregation

The New York State Assembly's Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse recently held hearings on whether or not alcohol advertising has an effect on youthful drinking and, if so, what action the Assembly should take.

For most who testified, it was an article of faith: Alcohol ads causes young people to drink and strong action is needed. They converged on the hearing like the faithful assembling for a tent revival meeting. And their testimony was about as science-based as the rhetoric at a religious revival.

Research from around the world has repeatedly demonstrated for decades that alcohol advertising doesn't increase overall consumption, doesn't contribute to alcohol abuse, and doesn't cause non-drinkers to become drinkers. However, what it has found is that successful advertisers increase their market share at the expense of their competitors, who lose market share.

But scientific evidence was irrelevant to the true believers, who showed great faith in their beliefs. As one testified, "we should trust our eyes and ears" instead of believing what science has demonstrated.

Because those who opposed alcohol advertising were not supported by the scientific facts, they were forced to rely on anecdotal stories, emotional appeals, impressions, beliefs, and extensive use of "junk science." Of course there were testimonials, without which no tent meeting would be complete.

To "prove" that alcohol ads cause young people to drink, the faithful resorted to polls indicating that many people think alcohol ads increase youthful drinking. But polls also find that many people think that extraterrestrial aliens have landed on earth, that ghosts can communicate with us, and that some races are systematically inferior to others.

The true believers made great use of correlations that never, even once, proved anything. We know that increased consumption of ice cream is correlated with an increase in drownings. But that doesn't mean that eating ice cream causes people to drown. People are more likely to both eat ice cream and to go swimming (and sometimes drown) in warm weather.

Virtually every true believer used meaningless correlations to convince legislators to impose additional restrictions on advertising. Reflecting either naiveté or contempt for the Constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment free-speech rights of others, some even called for the prohibition of alcohol advertising.

The junk science congregation tended to have its own vocabulary, with meanings different from the "outside world." For example, much was made of alcohol ads appearing in youth-oriented magazines. To most people a youth-oriented magazine would have at least a majority of youthful readers. But to be clearly youth-oriented, perhaps the readership should be two-thirds young people, or perhaps three-fourths. Would you believe that anything above 15.8% youthful readership was defined as a youth-oriented magazine?!

This definition may be counter-intuitive, but if a common-sense definition were used the "researchers" wouldn't have any headline-grabbing findings to report. That's the nature of junk science. Those who practice it are interested in sound bites instead of sound science.

The misuse of language to persuade was pervasive. For example, believers defined the term" binge" so loosely that a so-called binge drinker needn't have any measurable blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Similarly, 20-year-old married adults serving their country in the military would be "kids." Persuading others rather than presenting facts accurately is the goal of junk science.

The true believers had faith, deep conviction, emotional fervor and proselytizing zeal. What they didn't have was a shred of scientific evidence to support any of their beliefs and recommendations.

A the end of the day, the faithful returned home to the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, and other bastions of committed believers to refresh their zeal.