Legislating Pseudoscience

Lawmakers are often pressured by ideologues to pass laws based on bad science.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Environment, General Science, Health, History & Pseudohistory, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #368
June 25, 2013
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Science is not done in the courtroom or in the halls of legislature, but all too often, ideologues try to do so through the legal system. They try to pass new laws requiring bad science to be made compulsory, thus forcing others to live by their ideology. Examples abound, and today we're going to look at just a few of these. While we do, keep in mind that any time you hear about lawmakers considering passing a law in support of what appears to be a scientific finding, you should always approach with skepticism. By way of advisory against this practice, I offer the following maxim:

Beware of those who would legislate their ideology and cloak it with bad science.

The most familiar example of this is Young Earth Creationism, backed by legions of fundamentalist lawmakers worldwide trying to change education standards to require the teaching of religious creation stories in place of science-based history. This particular movement is so pervasive that specific examples are superfluous. One need only visit the web site of the National Center for Science Education to get the latest updates on virtually all such pending legislation. But there are many other examples of legislated pseudoscience, more insidious, that give a better impression of being about protecting the public. Let's look at a few of these.

In 2013, New York City attempted to pass a ban on sugar-sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. As of today the bill is still being appealed and debated. Now, obviously, large soft drinks are an easy way to quickly consume a lot of calories, thus contributing to obesity and all its related health problems. So why is this bad science? As the judge rightly pointed out, the law was "arbitrary and capricious". The ban is gutless because only certain retail channels are affected, but it's bad science because virtually any restaurant meal contains far more calories than even the largest soft drink. Many retail coffee shop drinks contain more calories. Such a ban would wrongly inform the public that large soft drinks are worse than other equally available calorific offerings, like the famous hamburgers, pizzas, and fish and chips served throughout New York's iconic food scene. If the intent is to limit the number of calories a person can buy on the spot, then the law is entirely pointless. But if the motivation is merely to stroke voters' popular recognition that soft drinks are unhealthy, then it's a win.

Vaccines are acknowledged by virtually all medical professionals as perhaps the single most important public health initiative in history. Vaccines have prevented more diseases than any other medical advance. For this reason, most public school systems require that students be vaccinated; schools being the places where germs are swapped most often. Yet, due to the increasingly popular public belief that vaccines do more harm than good, much pressure is put on lawmakers to allow parents with unscientific beliefs to be exempted from this, thus damaging herd immunity, and defeating the whole purpose. Let's look at the 50 United States as an example. 19 of the states, which include the majority of the population, allow philosophical exemptions, meaning that anyone can be exempted for virtually any reason they wish to identify as a belief or a philosophy. But even if you live in the 31 states that don't allow these exemptions, 29 of them allow religious exemptions, which means that all you have to do is state that your anti-vaccine beliefs are religious. Presto, you're in, no vaccines needed. Only two US states, Mississippi and West Virginia — accounting for 1.5% of the national population — fully protect their public school attendees by allowing no exemptions. Laws leave 98.5% of students unprotected.

Worldwide, practitioners of discredited or pseudoscientific medical modalities, such as naturopathy, have worked to get licensure for their professions recognized by the government. One example is House Bill 612 in the state of Pennsylvania. Skeptics sometimes react to such licensing positively: If they have to be licensed, it would mean that they have to pass some scrutiny and must deliver real services. That's what the naturopaths hope you're going to think, but it's not the case at all. There are no standards for naturopathy. In most of the world, anyone can hang out a shingle and legally call himself a naturopathic doctor. But this law would make that illegal in Pennsylvania, for all except those whom the state board of self-certifying naturopaths accept fees from. The law would wrongly imply to consumers that licensed naturopaths, by virtue of their being licensed, are valid medical practitioners; when in fact they are merely fee-paying members of a private club that has neither legitimate standards of practice nor any scientific foundation.

The Saanich school district in British Columbia, Canada is one of a growing number that have imposed strict controls on the use of Wi-Fi network connectivity due to pressure from citizen groups who believe that radio signals are harmful. This is a fundamentally unscientific position, and these groups are usually motivated by the naturalistic fallacy and also promote similar xenophobic causes like opposing water fluoridation and promoting organic produce. Even if radio were harmful, what would be the benefit of banning a single narrow frequency, or a source as weak as Wi-Fi that's barely a whisper against all the other sources of radio all around us — cell phones, TV and radio, the sun? A principal argument used by anti-Wi-Fi activists is that the World Health Organization added radio frequency to group 2B in 2011. This was popularly misunderstood as classification as a carcinogen. In fact, it was not. Group 1 is the WHO's classification for carcinogens; group 2 is for substances for which further research has been requested. Group 2A includes substances for which some evidence has been found, and group 2B is for substances for which no evidence has yet been found. In fact, the WHO statement on RF says:

...Current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.

Public pressure often drives lawmakers to act against established science, often under the guise of "an abundance of caution". One such example comes from the states of California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, and Washington, all of which have enacted statutes limiting or banning the use of the preservative thimerosal from vaccines, because thimerosal contains mercury, and mercury is a neurotoxin. Sounds like it makes sense... until you consider basic chemistry. Elements like mercury, carbon, oxygen, or anything are not usually found in nature in their pure form. They are almost always chemically bound to other elements to form the compounds we see in our world. Salt is widely used and found throughout our bodies; yet its two elements, sodium and chlorine, are both extremely toxic and dangerous in their pure elemental forms. Similarly, the mercury used in thimerosal is chemically bound as ethylmercury, and has never been found to represent a danger. Fortunately these states all allow exemptions for public health emergencies.

In 2012, the country of Kenya joined those that have banned genetically engineered crops. GE crops, also called GMOs, allow botanists to confer staple crops with genes from other plant species that are resilient against certain specific threats, such as pests, drought, or disease. This allows superior crop yield with much reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers, a necessity in famine-stricken countries like Kenya. But Kenya's government yielded to pressure from groups promoting unscientific beliefs like GMOs are radioactive or affect the consumer's own genetics in some way, or are otherwise nonspecifically harmful. The direct result is continued famine in Africa while champagne corks pop in the offices of Western anti-biotech activists.

How about pseudohistory? The claim that Gustav Whitehead made a controlled flight in an airplane in Connecticut two years before the Wright Brothers is one that's largely promoted by a single researcher, Australian John Brown. And, despite virtually all historians and authorities like Smithsonian insisting otherwise, the state of Connecticut voted in 2013 to change their holiday "Powered Flight Day" to honor Whitehead instead of the Wrights.

In 2012, the state of North Carolina mandated that changes in sea level must be estimated using historical data rather than by using current scientific models. Their language was eerily similar to that used by Young Earth Creationists who urge that when biology or evolution are taught, assertions of flaws or weaknesses in the theories must be given as well:

When summarizing research dealing with sea level, the Commission and the Science Panel shall define the assumptions and limitations of predictive modeling used to predict future sea-level scenarios.

When something has economic impacts as profound as those that come with a rising sea level, economic interests are sure to get involved. Which is better, a long-term plan that accommodates the actual sea-level, or a short-term plan that denies any rise to realize short-term savings in redevelopment costs? Especially for a coastal state like North Carolina, the only rational choice would be to demand the very best and very latest in sea level data.

It's also important to note that politicians don't always need an ideology to legislate based on bad science; sometimes all they need is ignorance. A really famous case is the 1897 "Indiana Pi Bill" where a physician, Edwin Goodwin, believed he had found a way to create a square with the same area as a circle. His was an honest attempt at mathematics, which he believed would have useful implications in things like measuring real estate lots. The Indiana state legislature didn't know any better and actually deliberated the bill, until a visiting mathematics professor, Clarence Waldo, recognized what was going on and explained that Mr. Goodwin, well-intentioned though he might have been, had merely discovered a few amateurish ways to estimate pi — but pi was already well established in mathematics, and had been for millennia. Upon learning this, the state Senate expeditiously took the bill behind the barn and shot it.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Since then there have been no serious efforts to legislate the redefinition of mathematical truths, despite a number of urban legends. But given the other fiascos that lawmakers have managed, we shouldn't be surprised to see this happen, or worse. Keep science in the lab, and keep laws in the courts. Don't let them mix.

Correction: In the recorded version of this show I said "methylmercury" instead of "ethylmercury". That's exactly wrong. Ethylmercury, as shown in this transcript, is correct.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

CDC. "Thimerosal." Vaccine Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 Jun. 2013. <http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal/>

Editors. "Wright or wrong? Smithsonian enters 'first in flight' fight." Fox News. Fox News Network, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Jun. 2013. <http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/03/18/wright-or-wrong-smithsonian-enters-first-in-flight-fight/>

Hill, S. "Give your two-cents on the PA bill regarding naturopath licensing." Doubtful. Sharon Hill, 9 Jun. 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2013. <http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/give-your-two-cents-on-the-pa-bill-regarding-naturopath-licensing/>

NCSL. "States with Religious and Philosophical Exemptions from School Immunization Requirements." Issues & Research. National Conference of State Legislatures, 1 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Jun. 2013. <http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/school-immunization-exemption-state-laws.aspx>

Saanich School District Board. "Use of Technology and Information Systems." Student Services Info. Saanich School District 63, 1 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Jun. 2013. <http://www.sd63.bc.ca/ourboard/board-policies/educational-programs-and-services/instructional-materials-and-resources/use->

Willingham, E. "Seralini Paper Influences Kenya Ban of GMO Imports." Pharma & Healthcare. Forbes.com LLC, 9 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Jun. 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/12/09/seralini-paper-influences-kenya-ban-of-gmo-imports/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Legislating Pseudoscience." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 25 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4368>


10 most recent comments | Show all 80 comments

And may I add,

Brian posted his raw milk article this week.

The confusion between elected and enacted standards based on sound science vs personal preferences comes to fore.

Are too many inspecting authorities enough?

Maybe not..

If you can poison yourself easily enough, companies should remove that extra opportunity by compliance with standards.

And take insurance.

Meal Ditto, Gerringong The IL. USO
October 10, 2013 4:35am


I enjoy the show but I also have to take issue with the argument on soda. You are assuming that the reason for the proposed law is a simple matter of restricting calorie intake but there's a fair amount of evidence that the effects of high-sugar drinks and foods are much more than simple calorie intake. Not only Robert Lustig, as mentioned, but also Barry Groves' work contains a lot of references to controlled trials and experiments.

And I'm unable to resist the more anecdotal argument that during your episode on Super Size Me, you made the point that Morgan Spurlock drank many more sodas and milkshakes than the people tried similar experiments with less soda and found the experience less detrimental to their health.

I don't think that lumping this case in with the Young Earth Creationists and anti-vaxxers is at all fair.


Andy, London UK
October 15, 2013 10:06am

Most adults don't get booster shots. There is no herd immunity and there never has been.

David Rockefeller's Evil Twin, Westchester, NY
November 2, 2013 2:21pm

read many of the articles on this site. mostly, they were fun and informative. then i came upon this article and ironically, it felt like i was reading some sort of religious rant. the religion being the ivory tower of the scientific establishment. that scientific establishment has an oddly bad habit of becoming its own echo chamber at the expense of real science. very sad. well, we all stumble into pitting ourselves against others in a flurry of arrogance from time to time i guess.

nobody special, ny
November 6, 2013 2:57pm

Note: the 'Indiana Pi Bill' has strictly been deferred 'until a later date'- which it still stands. In other words, it can still be passed into law.

Bill, Canberra
November 24, 2013 8:38pm

It should be noted that sometimes legislating science is a good idea. For example, you mentioned vaccines. The fact that they are required, was legislated at some time. Same with fluoridation. It's odd that you only mention the instances of bad legislating, while skimming over the good. I agree with you on those issues covered, but wondered if you saw that flaw in your premise.

lagaya, maui
November 29, 2013 10:57am

@nobody special...

Exactly what do you define "real science" as? In the real world, these 'ivory tower' scientists are the only folks doing real science.

Crackpot bloggers and nutritionists masquerading around as climatologists are certainly NOT performing real science and almost certainly don't have access to the data required for proper research. Or the means to understand and apply said data if they did miraculously acquire the reams of data needed to support their hypothesis.

Alyas, Chattanooga
December 10, 2013 3:35pm

I'm a bit put off by this episode. Keep science out of the law? I get that you are suggesting that they shouldn't try to legislate science, but legal practice relies on evidence pretty much the same way that science does. In the end, science and law tend to go hand in hand if not necessary for the same reasons.

R. Anthony Steele, Austin/Texas
February 9, 2014 3:25pm

Your own bias against natural medicine (from which many modern medicines are derived) demonstrates that you yourself lack the ability to think scientifically. Indeed, you seem to have elevated science to a religion, and in the process, given up your ability to challenge assumptions. It's a shame, but inevitable, because you're as blinded by your cognitive biases as everyone else, and seem to not know it.

FYI, flouride as an example of good science? LOL, you should look into how this particular public policy came to pass, you might be surprised to learn the role of industry (rather than science) had more to do with it.

Rj, Nebraska
March 6, 2014 11:30am

There is plenty of bad science in law, but the caution not to let science and law mix is naive. They effectively mix all the time. Our health and environmental regulations, which save lives, are science-based and directed by legislation. Unfortunately bad science or non-science gets in the way.

On a side note, I was working in the NYS legislature years ago when there was a bill to allow hunting of morning doves. Folks opposed to the measure wrote hundreds of letters so one legislator sponsored a bill to protect morning doves as an endangered species. He was forced to withdraw the bill when it was pointed out that they are among the most common of species of bird in NYS and the nation.

Unsprung, Frederick, MD
June 15, 2014 1:49am

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