More Junk Science and Journalism

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I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it. It keeps happening and I just can’t stand it.

Yesterday there was this absurd short news piece posted on the website of the so-called journal Science, “Apollo astronauts much more likely to die from heart disease”. describing a research paper published by one of Nature’s side journals, Scientific Reports. Before I even looked at the story I said to myself, “How can they possibly come to that conclusion considering the tiny number of humans who have ever traveled beyond Earth orbit? The sample will simply be too small to allow for any such finding.”

Then I looked at the article and found my instincts confirmed. As Steve Milloy noted on his very aptly named website, Junk Science,

Yes, the result is based on a total of three (3) cases of heart disease deaths of out seven (7) Apollo astronauts. Past the vanishingly small sample size and even smaller number of cases, heart disease is a natural disease of aging and the Apollo lunar astronauts were 10 years older than the other comparison groups.

To put it more bluntly, this was a garbage piece of very bad science. While it was somewhat embarrassing for a Nature journal to publish it, it was far more disgraceful for the journal Science to highlight it. I, however, don’t have to join these two peer-review journals and participate in their stupidity, and thus I made no mention of the story on Behind the Black, because it is my policy to not waste much time on bad science, unless I think that bad science is going to have bad repercussions.

Well the bad repercussions have arrived. Since yesterday, the following so-called news organizations have run with this story, without the slightest indication that they have faintest understanding of science, statistics, or plain common sense:

Most of these articles failed to note the absurdly small sample size that made any reasonable conclusions impossible. Some mentioned this “minor” detail, but did their best to minimize it or only mention it as an afterthought. Only the last two articles had the intellectual honesty to put the uncertainty of this result up front, but even here they are giving too much publicity to some very poor research that just doesn’t deserve the print space.

In reviewing all this junk journalism I must wonder what prompts these reporters and editors to do this. Are the driven by an unstated agenda (possibly a hostility to space exploration for any number of reasons)? Do they think the story so cool and having so much potential for generating hits that they don’t care if it is bad science? Are they so dependent on a reliance-on-authority that — simply because the study was published in a Nature journal and Science touted it, they assume it must be significant?

Or are they simply that ignorant of the basics of scientific research?

Unfortunately, it is probably a combination of all of the above, in differing amounts, depending on the publication. What all these news sources apparently lack is any reasonable skepticism and independent judgment when presented with an absurd claim. Instead, they nod their heads like good little children and run with it. It is this same bad judgment that I see repeatedly in endless stories about global warming and climate change, where no matter what happens — it gets cold, it gets hot, it gets wet, it gets dry, we have big storms, we have no storms — the press is immediately convinced when told that it must be because of the carbon dioxide humans are putting into the atmosphere.

This of course raises a much more significant issue: If the science journalists for so many major publications are so unable to exercise even the slightest judgment when it comes to bad science, what kind of bad reporting are we getting from every other department?

Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question.


  • Phill O

    Nature and Science are not peer reviewed and as such do not constitute the scientific literature. The same goes for Scientific American and National Geographic. Many will think of other magazines too.

    What I look for in magazines is reporting on science making alternate theories known. Nature and Science do not generally do this. I had a supervisor who was reported to have left out data that did not fit when publishing in Nature.

  • Phill: Nature and Science are peer review journals, unlike Scientific American and National Geographic, which are merely popular magazines for the general public. The problem, especially with Science, is that they only allow certain people whom they agree with to do the reviewing. The result is that the science they publish that has any political components is generally junk, because even though they say it is peer reviewed it is really only rubber-stamped by leftwing scientists who are only interested in pushing leftwing scientific agendas.

  • Phill O

    Thanks for the update. Still does not get an old supervisor off the hook for fraud.

  • Phill: Now this sounds like a story I’d like to know more about. Please, don’t be shy. If you don’t want to write it up publicly as a comment, email me the details. I know how to keep things off the record.

  • wayne

    Referencing the article in the WSJ– they ran it on page 2, easily a 1/3 of the page, with a nice large color picture of Edgar Mitchell, whom they noted had died in February.
    -The first paragraph is the clincher–presents the study conclusion essentially as fact. The rest of the article does try to qualify and explain, but basically quotes the study, to fill up the space.

    Complete on-line version is behind a paywall, but the public-viewable portion is just the first paragraph.
    Last sentence is telling, if you can make it that far–“For this study, causes of death were determined from obituaries and death certificates.”
    –This tells me this is all total BS— you need forensic autopsies at a minimum to establish “cause of death.” And death certificates are largely spurious as a source of actual scientific-data.

  • Localfluff

    “obituaries” as data source?
    I wonder if they had gotten any headlines if they had claimed that spacemen live longer than earthlings. Or if it’s rigged with a certain purpose in mind, to “prove” that space is lethal and must be avoided. Like ALL other news items on the topic. Without exception. Health in space always mens danger in space.

    Space is invading Earth, the black nothingness is falling down on us tomorrow doomsday. We have to get rid of NASA now in order to survive this Hell it has brought down on us.

  • Steve Earle

    Exactly. Obituaries are written by families and/or Funeral Directors, and are many times vague and/or outright lies designed to protect the honor or sensibilities of the family and/or the deceased.

    When I was working in our CSI unit, it was eye-opening to investigate a death, know exactly what happened (or at least what likely happened…) and then read about it in the newspaper the next day.

  • wayne

    Steve– fascinating stuff!

    Unless you have David McCallum from NCIS doing a forensic autopsy, “it’s a guess.”
    (I re-read my parents Death Certificates— “who are these people?” even the purely demographic data is filled with errors.)

  • wayne


    The august 5th JB show, gets more into this study— the guy being interviewed from NASA, wouldn’t shut up about how, “brilliant and utterly groundbreaking the results are…”

    He was just gushing about “cutting edge” it all was… “a pivotal study, paving the way..”

    They used some sort of “never been done before, super-duper Statistical analysis…”

    Caine Mutiny:
    Queeg on the Stand

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