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Exposing Fools Gladly

Malcolm Sherman

Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Robert L. Park. 230 pp. Oxford University Press, 2000, $25.

Physicist Robert Park is the longtime director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society and author of a weekly electronic column on science issues (which he always concludes with the disclaimer that "Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the APS, but they should be"). Voodoo Science is directed at the general public, although it can profitably and enjoyably be read by scientists.

Park does more than analyze and expose various kinds of bad ("voodoo") science. He demonstrates how valid science is distorted or ignored by the media and by those (including scientists) seeking to influence public policy. National science policy is often dominated by nonscientific considerations.

Park describes several categories of voodoo science. In pathological science, scientists manage to fool themselves, usually by misinterpreting unremarkable events and convincing themselves that they have made a great discovery. The cold fusion fiasco is a prime recent illustration, and comments on various aspects of it are scattered through several chapters.

Junk science usually consists of "tortured theories of what could be so, but with little supporting evidence." Junk science mainly fools nonscientists, ranging from jurors to senators. Park describes the politics and science behind claims that electromagnetic fields from electric power lines are a cause of cancer. This cancer fear became widespread with publication of Paul Brodeur's New Yorker articles alleging vast conspiracies to conceal the dangers of electromagnetic fields. Although junk science has facilitated successful lawsuits (for example, those regarding cosmetic breast implants), a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring judges to limit expert testimony to that based on "scientifically valid principles" effectively killed suits alleging injury from electric power lines. Even so, as Park ruefully notes, the cost of these unjustified fears was something like $25 billion (a figure that includes property value losses as well as money spent on the relocation of power lines and dubious research projects).

Pseudoscience, which involves passionate belief with no evidence, is often the result of convictions based on religion or politics. Examples are beliefs that extrasensory perception exists, transcendental meditation can have material effects, the earth has been visited by aliens, magnets have healing powers and a "quantum jump" to a new level of consciousness can banish cancer. Pathological science, junk science and pseudoscience can all lead to fraudulent science, which involves deliberate deception.

Where science is incomplete and uncertain, nonscientific considerations are likely to trump science, especially if policy decisions need to be made. Park devotes several pages to the global warming debate. He describes those at the extremes as Malthusian pessimists and technological optimists and observes that they disagree more about social values than about science.

Space exploration priorities are political, not scientific. Symbolic Cold War triumphs seemed to require manned exploration of space, even though robotic vehicles are cheaper and of more scientific value. (The Pathfinder mission to Mars cost far less than a single low-orbit launch of the space shuttle.) Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American space station has become an international one (with the United States paying most of the bills), whose overt rationale is international cooperation and whose tacit goals are to support the U.S. aerospace industry and to prevent otherwise unemployed Russian space engineers from working for rogue nations.

Park opposed efforts to build a missile defense system based on an x-ray laser and played a role in creating the panel whose technical evaluation ended congressional support for that particular version of Star Wars. His analysis of Star Wars would be more convincing if he had restrained his impulse to destroy Edward Teller's credibility as a physicist. Teller was ultimately responsible for labeling J. Robert Oppenheimer ("father of the atomic bomb") a security risk. "Many physicists [Park clearly includes himself] never forgave Teller for . . . his betrayal of a talented and honorable colleague." But Teller was right and Oppenheimer was wrong about the technical feasibility and strategic necessity of building a fusion bomb before Stalin. Yet Park credits Teller with an "almost unblemished record of technical failure." If Teller could be right about the need to build a fusion bomb, even though it was Stanislaw Ulam's conception, not Teller's, that proved viable, why couldn't Teller be right about missile defense, even though wrong about the specifics?—Malcolm J. Sherman, Mathematics and Statistics, University at Albany, State University of New York

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