Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud

Article excerpt

Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. By Robert Park. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 230 pp. $25.00 (cloth).

In this informative and sometimes entertaining volume, the author's thesis is that people choose to believe in science the way they believe in religion, and that is based on how they wish the world to be. The problem is one of blind faith in many areas of unproven scientific assertion, assertions that presumably would be beneficial not only for the believer but for the rest of humanity. Robert Park, Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, examines many such claims: cold fusion or an unlimited source of renewable energy; belief in the salutary effects of "alternative" medicines (notably, "Vitamin O," or salt water, and "bio-magnetic therapy"); the feasibility of sustaining an extraterrestrial colony on Mars; the gullibility of lawmakers in accepting unproven follies of some would-be inventors; the belief that electric power lines and magnetic fields cause cancer.

Park delineates what he means by voodoo science with several adjectives to deplore the misuse of acceptable science (pp. 9, 10). Admitting that "science fascinates us by its power to surprise," he describes pathological science as misinterpreting events that lead to an inclination to see what is expected; junk science as misleading lawmakers and others with little or no scientific background; pseudoscience as a belief in space aliens who travel faster than the speed of light, or a belief that wearing magnets in one's shoes will enable a person to draw energy from the earth; and fraudulent science, as the evolution of honest error to self-delusion to fraud (p. 9).

Science is defined as "the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories" (pp. 39, 198). Park offers two rules for assessing its credibility: "Expose new ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists"; and "Abandon or modify accepted facts or theories in the light of more complete or reliable experimental evidence" (p. 39). Most of his examples of voodoo science have failed one or both of these rules. A notable exception might be the debate about global warming, although this reviewer is willing to accept the word of the National Academy of Science that global warming is a real and present danger. …