Voodoo Science

Article excerpt

by Robert Park

Oxford University Press * 2000 * 230 pages * $25.00

I really wanted to like Robert Park's Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud a lot more than I did. It's a pretty good book about how bad science manages to prosper and replicate, despite failure after failure, and for that much I recommend a purchase. But it simply does not go far enough and ultimately reveals a naivete that I found shocking from a Washington insider like Park, who is the American Physical Society's chief lobbyist in D.C. ("He also directs the Washington office of the American Physical Society," the liner says. That's close enough for me.) I am heavily mired in the morass of global-warming science, where there's plenty of voodoo, and I was hoping that, as a physicist, Park would go there.

But he didn't. Instead, his first shots are easy and obvious ones against perpetual motion machines and high-output "cold fusion" a la Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. He holds these as archetypes of "pathological science," which is when, according to Park, scientists fool themselves. It doesn't help, he notes, that the media aren't up to making critical distinctions and that sensational stories get more viewers than mundane ones.

Then there's "junk science," in which the motif of science is used to deceive; "psuedo-- science," in which the rhetoric of science is used illogically and deceptively (as in Deepak Chopra's purposeful conflation of quantum theory and aging); and outright fraud. All of these Park collects under the notion of "voodoo science."

There are plenty of targets out there, and Park takes full advantage of that. Homeopathy. Alternative medicine. ESP, parapsychology. But why? Everyone with a worthwhile college education (an increasingly small fraction of the population) knows these are bunkum. Why not go after the big Kahuna: the phenomenal exaggeration of the magnitude and implications of global warming, consciously promoted by a large scientific community. Now that would be a good subject for a book about weird science!

Instead, Park seems to think everything is okay in a global-warming world, and that the science is just going to sort itself out. As an example, he doesn't well represent the out-and-out problem between global satellite data and global-warming models. Someone without special knowledge of this field would conclude, from reading Park, that an error was found in the satellite data that invalidated their assault on the gloom-and-- doom paradigm, when in fact the error has been corrected and the annual average satellite data still show no statistically significant warming in its 23-year history. …