Over lunch at the deli, my friend Charles mourns that neither of us orders a beer: "They're finding out alcohol is good for you,"18 he says. On the car ride home, I hear a radio ad for eHarmony, the dating service that promises to find me a scientifically matched wife.19 Near my exit, there's a billboard ad: "Is breast cancer's most avoidable risk factor elective abortion?"20
When I get home, I turn on the radio and hear the angry voice of Roger Hedgecock, the man sitting in for Rush Limbaugh, who is in rehab for drug addiction. "No U.S. animal species are falling extinct,"21 he says.
Soon I'm off to the gym. I stop by the blood pressure reader, and notice a warning label: "Only a physician is qualified to interpret the significance of blood pressure measurements." I am not a physician, so presumably I should note the measurements but not interpret them.
18. Alcohol is good for you: Yes, and it's bad for you. A landmark study that followed the drinking habits of nearly 90,000 male physicians showed that those who had one drink per day had significantly lower morbidity and mortality from diabetes, stroke and heart disease. But people who drink excessively-and the definition of that is still debated-die at high rates from liver diseases, esophageal cancer and car accidents.
19. eHarmony: Incomplete. In the hot and heavy world of Web matchmaking, eHarmony distinguishes itself as, first, a service for the traditional altar-bound and, second, scientific in its approach, taking data points on clients' levels of obstreperousness, submissiveness and other characteristics. The company now says it has conducted an internal scientific study of its matchmaking results using a standard methodology that gives "clear indication that the eHarmony matching algorithm works." Reviewing eHarmony's Web site, Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, notes that "it's true compatibility can be measured, but what they're measuring accounts for only a small portion of what makes a successful marriage."
20. Abortion: False. The National Cancer Institute reviewed many studies and concluded abortions do not increase risk of breast cancer.
21. Extinct: Hogwash. Tell that to one of the three remaining Hawaiian po'ouli birds; the po'ouli is just one of several Hawaiian birds at serious risk of extinction. Plenty of U.S. animals are endangered.
I'm offered a blood pressure machine but warned not to use the information. Science for the science-ignorant is talismanic. Roger Hedgecock hurls out claims so believers will believe. The billboard binds abortion to breast cancer with the scientific-sounding term "risk factor," giving an ethical argument -concerning the right to life-the halo of science.
This is the nub of the power of science claims in advertising and in slipshod media: Science claims give permission to believe, even if the science itself, when examined, provides no such encouragement.