The Plural of 'Junk Science' Is Still Junk

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Jeff Stier's New York Post piece "9/11 Junk Science" inspired negative letters and a critical response from U.S. Rep.s for NY Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, Peter King, and Michael McMahon, accompanied by the new Stier piece below.

Rep. Maloney et al cite over a hundred "studies," but many of them aren't even studies, let alone peer-reviewed. And a good number have nothing to do with "Ground Zero toxins."

The few actual studies that do focus on the real issue here share a huge methodological flaw -- which is why they were largely published in third-rate journals that manufacture "peer-reviewed" reports regularly relied on by activists and plaintiffs. The "reviewers" in such cases are a small clique of self-interested ideological fearmongers who evaluate each others' studies.

To be clear: Some studies on Maloney's list are quite legitimate -- but they cover issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, not Trade Center dust.

Yet other publications on the list don't even pretend to about science -- they merely chronicle the fact that, as one piece puts it, "a broad and sophisticated grassroots environmental movement has arisen in Lower Manhattan to push for environmental cleanup and for access to health care for impacted populations and communities. This movement unites community, labor and environmental groups and continues to organize five years after 9/11."

That's political science, not health science.

Two of the citations are from the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine -- but they're not relevant. One study isn't even about 9/11 per se -- just sarcoidosis. The other is a "perspective" -- an opinion piece, not a peer-reviewed study.

Scanning down the list, the best-known journal to publish an actual study that's actually on "9/11 dust" is the Lancet. But that journal has a sordid history of failed peer review -- most notoriously, publishing the flawed study that supposedly linked vaccines to autism, which the Lancet defended for 12 years before finally withdrawing it recently.

Far more of the studies appeared in more obscure journals such as Environmental Health Perspectives and the American Journal of Public Health -- publications that regularly tout dubious (trial-lawyer-friendly) environmental claims.

One particularly egregious study suggests a link between the dust and the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis, which the authors themselves admit is of "unknown etiology," meaning we don't know the cause. This study is based on a whopping two cases.

The bottom line on Maloney's list: The plural of "flawed study" is not "evidence."

Most of the 9/11 "toxic dust" studies share a common and devastating inherent bias: They examine a large group of self-selected people who have received free and thorough medical screening over nearly a decade and who've been told they may be sick and therefore eligible for compensation. The studies then compared these subjects to the general population, which hasn't received screening or the incentive of compensation if they become (or claim to become) ill.

Both common sense and the scientific method tell you that such methodology introduces bias.

Mind you, those who believe they suffer from 9/11 dust may well be genuinely sick -- after so many years, any large group of people will develop illnesses. But -- aside from minor issues like aggravating existing cases of asthma -- there is simply no evidence that the dust was the cause.

Because the lawyers haven't made the case for a 9/11-disease causal relationship, the politicians want to bypass the courts and play on public sympathy to pass a bill that isn't justified by the science.