Wading Through Junk Science During a Global Pandemic

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One morning many years later I was talking to my wife of many years. I was irritated at an article I am reading produced from a medical study. It was an article that focused on data but did not include any theory--a common problem in the field of medical research. Often, for those scientists, if there was a statistical relationship, then that meant there was a real causality.

She says, “You’re already yelling at the TV every night, now, you are screaming at your laptop”.

I looked at her and grinned. “You’re right,” I said. “Did I ever tell you about the leisure suit?”.

I tell a story to my classes that, many years ago, Johnny Carson had a medical doctor as a guest. They were talking about the current era, the 70’s, and the doctor commented that he had read a study published by the New England Medical Journal of Medicine. The doctor said he was not certain about the details, but that the conclusion of the study was that leisure suits caused cancer. When Carson asked for details, the doctor had few.

He said, “It was a real study and published in this journal, one of the most highly thought of research journals in our field”.

This was a bit problematic because there was a celebrity sitting on the couch with the doctor that was wearing a leisure suit. This created an additional need for explanation. And despite the fact he had already said he was not sure about the details of the article he continued:

“I would assume it would be due to the fact that suits are made of polyester”.

The next day, The New York Times includes the Johnny Carson reference to cancer causing leisure suits in an article on medical oddities.  Fast forward 40+ years and similar absurd assumptions are cascading across newspapers, newsrooms, and social media.  However, during a global pandemic this becomes especially dangerous.  I realize I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but feel very strongly that belaboring this point is vital to the safety of our society. 


Dr. Knowles has a PhD. in economics and started the Knowles Group in the 1984. He has been retired since 2016, and in his newfound free time enjoys writing about his times as an economics professor

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