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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

junk science

(1980’s | legalese | “quackery”)

This is an expression with an agenda. We began to hear it regularly a little after 1990; a Washington Post editorial referred to “what some are beginning to call ‘junk science'” in March 1996. Google Books and LexisNexis cough up several instances from the eighties, and even this diamond in the rough from 1903: “But that conceited laugh of junk science, how laughable it is after all” (Peter Burrowes, “What is truth?” in Revolutionary Essays in Socialist Faith and Fancy, Comrade Publishing Co.). Whatever Burrowes may have meant, both the meaning and connotation of this expression were pretty clear when it came into its own at the other end of the century. The term was most often used by lawyers to complain about so-called expert witnesses purveying unsubstantiated theories about harms to plaintiffs and driving up the cost of judgments against well-meaning, God-fearing corporations. The phrase generally reared its head in discussions of tort law, that is, lawsuits filed to obtain compensation for wrongs not covered by criminal law. And it was generally used to assail dubious medical or technical testimony that swayed gullible juries (or judges).

It isn’t always so clear what “good” science is, even in our everyday Newtonian world; practicing scientists with good credentials may disagree vigorously on the interpretation of a piece of evidence even in simple cases. Attacks on junk science often rely on the unstated assumption that proper science is easily defined and recognized, not subject to controversy among scientists. That is true most of the time, but not all the time, and it does foreclose the possibility of finding value in the new or unconventional. The Supreme Court has ruled that scientific evidence should be peer-reviewed but stopped short of setting absolute limits on what can or can’t be presented in the courtroom.

No doubt many verdicts have been influenced by doubtful expert testimony. Peter Huber cited and documented several with relish in “Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom” (Basic Books, 1991); the subtitle probably played a role in popularizing the phrase. His plaintiff-bashing set the tone; it took several years before “junk science” came to be applied regularly to any doubtful theories propounded by big business. In its early days, junk science always had a bleeding heart, causing courts to fall for sob stories bolstered by expert witnesses who were far too sure of themselves. Crazed environmentalists, quack psychiatrists, doctors on the take — they were the ones who relied on junk science to con the scientifically illiterate. Nowadays, the phrase is comfortably used in a much wider variety of contexts, but it still seems to be favored by the right wing, though it is no longer solely their property. (I shudder when I ponder future semantic possibilities given the recent rise of “junk” as a slang term for “genitals.”)

The funny thing is that you would expect the forward-looking lefties to brandish science against the backward righties, but they got in first on this term, which fit neatly into their strategy of attacking people seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by corporate negligence. The web site Junk Science, opened in 1996, is unabashedly right-wing and contemptuous of the scientific establishment, debunking climate change, solar power, and other usual suspects, particularly government participation in scientific research. (Ironic, because the original definition of “junk science” as propounded by lawyers depends on conformity with scientific consensus.) The phrase allows right-wingers to dismiss a favorite left-wingers’ trump card and beat them at their own game. References to science make you sound serious and learned, and who’s going to make you explain why the object of your scorn violates this or that scientific principle? It has become one more way to say, “Shut up. You’re wrong.” But then, it never really was anything else.

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