Temporary Triumphs for the Totally, Indisputably, Extravagantly Wrong

September 17, 2000

Book Review
James Case

Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. By Robert Park, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, x + 230 pages, $25.00.


In 1982, Robert Park agreed to establish---during a long-overdue sabbatical from the University of Maryland---a Washington office of the American Physical Society. Asked to serve as the eyes and ears of his profession, he quickly proved an effective voice as well, not only for physics but for all of science. Then, as no obvious successor had emerged by year's end, he agreed to stay on for a while, dividing his time between teaching at nearby College Park and minding the APS store in downtown Washington. He continues to stalk the halls of Congress and to report his findings in his sardonically informative weekly column What's New (available electronically at www.aps.org/WN/).

Persuaded that few if any of the major issues now confronting society can be productively addressed without input from the sciences, and that most elected officials are ill equipped either to identify or to evaluate such input, he determined to offer what assistance he could. Although prepared to suffer the agony of occasional defeat, he was amazed by the regularity with which it came at the hands of people whose scientific claims and ideas he describes as "totally, indisputably, extravagantly, wrong." As a result, many of his most memorable What's New columns have recounted disputes in which such ideas triumph---at least temporarily---over sound science.

The book under review draws heavily on those columns. The subjects include "star wars," cold fusion, the health dangers of electric power lines, silicone gel breast implants, homeopathic medicine, the Roswell event, infinite free energy via repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, and much, much more.

The term "voodoo science" is a catchall invented by one of Park's editors for the four separate and distinct categories of erroneous science that Park has identified: pathological, junk, pseudo-, and fraudulent science. The fourth requires no explanation, being the science of unperformed experiments and/or falsified results; when detected, it is deemed scandalous and often becomes headline news. The other three are more common, and are often presented favorably in the media. Absent allegations of fraud, they become useful for selling newspapers and filling air time on slow news days.

Error, as Park points out, is a normal part of scientific discovery. Scientists spend much of their time uncovering flaws in their own and other observations and reasoning. They go to extreme lengths---as Richard Feynman so memorably pointed out in his 1974 commencement address to the students at Caltech---to avoid attributing significance to spurious results by (among other things) repeating measurements and designing control experiments. Yet mistakes are made. That is why the scientific community tends to withhold judgment until experimental results have been replicated by independent investigators and/or published in peer-reviewed journals.

The term "pathological science" was coined by Irving Langmuir---winner (in 1932) of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry---to describe the "science of things that are not so." He became fascinated with such science when, not long after receiving the Nobel, he read about the work of Duke University psychologist J.B. Rhine on extrasensory perception. Deciding to investigate, Langmuir found Rhine to be commendably open and above board concerning the conduct and analysis of his experiments, which involved a special deck of cards designed to produce success rates of about 20% in various guessing games. Because his subjects consistently scored higher than 20%, Rhine concluded that they possessed a previously unidentified power---one that deserved a catchy name like ESP, as well as further investigation.

Langmuir soon discovered, to his horror, that Rhine had biased his results by culling certain low scores from the data he subsequently analyzed, on
the ground that the subjects responsible had deliberately guessed wrong. Langmuir attempted to explain the concept of statistical bias to a reporter but was unable to make himself understood---the reporter conveyed only the information that a Nobel prize winner was looking into ESP. As a result, Rhine was soon overwhelmed with new graduate students and offers of support. Not surprisingly, at least to Rhine, Langmuir had lent credibility to ESP merely by expressing interest in it.

Langmuir exposed Rhine not as a fraud, but as a victim of self-deception. Enamored of his ESP hypothesis, and fully expecting experiment to confirm it, he found confirmation where none existed. Although every investigator is mistaken from time to time, most are prevented from publishing fallacious results by their own mental discipline, by colleagues willing to play devil's advocate, and/or the peer-review process itself. And of those who still manage to err in print, most are guilty of nothing more than foolish, wishful thinking. Like the international dateline, however, the border between foolishness and fraud is less than clearly marked, making it possible to cross unknowingly, and making the precise instant of crossing impossible to determine. Most scientists agree that only those who willfully ignore or conceal evidence invalidating their published claims merit designation as fraudulent.

Junk science differs from pathological science in purpose, being intended to create doubt and uncertainty---particularly in the minds of jurists or legislators---where none need exist. It typically consists of tortured theories of what could be so, with little or no indication that it is so. Courtroom claims concerning silicone gel breast implants furnish outstanding examples. Soon after the devices became readily available, initially satisfied customers began to blame them for all manner of ailments. The experts called to testify on behalf of the alleged victims were quite unable to identify the mechanism(s) whereby the implants might cause the reported ailments, or even to demonstrate that women with implants were more likely than women without them to contract the ailments in question. Experts could confirm only that the alleged victims were indeed sick, and describe ways in which implants might have caused their illnesses. But that was often enough for the jury.

A few years later, with the gradual accumulation of sufficient quantities of data, it became increasingly clear that women with implants are no more likely than women without them to contract the ailments in question. By that time, though, at least one manufacturer of the implants---Dow-Corning---had been forced into bankruptcy by judgments as high as $25 million to a single alleged victim. The real victim, says Park, was Dow-Corning, which fell prey to junk science, and to the trial lawyers who suborn it.

In another instance of junk science, both the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences were obliged to conduct lengthy reviews of the possible health effects of exposure to residential electromagnetic fields. Fears were first expressed in 1979, when an unemployed epidemiologist named Nancy Wertheimer obtained the addresses of childhood leukemia patients in Denver and drove around the city looking for common environmental factors that might have contributed to the children's conditions. Noticing that the homes of many victims were near electric power transformers, she wondered whether electromagnetic fields might somehow compound the risk of childhood leukemia. In collaboration with a local physicist, she wrote a paper concluding that children from homes with "high" magnetic fields from power lines were three times as likely to develop leukemia as children from homes with "low" fields.

The work was a pilot study at best---it was not a "blind" study, and field strengths were estimated rather than measured. But Paul Brodeur, a staff writer at The New Yorker, got wind of their findings and saw in them an opportunity to create public awareness of the possible health effects of Electro Magnetic Fields (EMFs) in the home. Farmers whose fields were crossed by power lines soon began to report declining milk and egg production; women who worked at computer terminals, or slept under electric blankets, were found to bear an increased risk of miscarriage; people living under power lines were found to commit suicide with unusual frequency. No mention was made of the fact that people living near power lines are also typically poor.

Robert Adair, a physicist at Yale, felt at once that the fears of EMFs were unjustified. For one thing, such fears had arisen among radar workers during World War II, and had been thoroughly investigated many times since by teams of both military and civilian scientists, who found no harmful effects. For another, all known cancer-inducing agents---including chemical carcinogens like benzene and tobacco smoke, ionizing radiation like x-rays and ultraviolet rays, as well as certain viruses---act by damaging DNA. The damage consists of broken or altered chemical bonds, which result in mutant strands of DNA. But microwave photons don't carry enough energy to inflict such damage. They can bend or stretch valence bonds, but lack the strength to break them. In time, Adair published an article concluding that there was no known physical process by which microwave radiation might bring about the reported health effects.

The hounds were by then in full cry, and any denial of responsibility was sure to be regarded as a cover-up. By the time the APS could complete a thorough review of the evidence---which it did in 1995---an entire industry had grown up around the power-line controversy. Armies of epidemiologists conducted ever-larger studies; activists organized campaigns to relocate power lines away from schools; courts were clogged with damage suits; newsletters were devoted to the issue; the measurement of 60-Hz magnetic fields in homes and offices had become a cottage industry; fraudulent devices were being marketed to protect against possible health damage; and Paul Brodeur's books were selling well. Only the massive APS study, followed a year later by a report from the National Academy of Sciences, could begin to limit the damage.

Pseudoscience is even more vacuous than junk science. As Park employs the term, it refers to no misreading of experimental data, nor to any misapplication of established theory. Rather, it refers to a purely linguistic exercise in which hucksters incorporate the buzz-words of science into their sales pitches. It happens when a health guru like Deepak Chopra, MD (several of whose books have remained for many weeks at or near the top of bestseller lists), asserts that his brand of spiritual healing is firmly grounded in quantum theory; it happens when devices placed on the market are said to offer protection from extraterrestrials who use their mastery of faster-than-light space travel to visit (with obvious intent to cuckold, enslave, or dessicate) earthlings; and it happens when the manufacturers of magnetic shoe inserts (doubtless employing the latest CD-ROM technology) claim that their products draw "energy" from the Earth. Pseudoscience is nothing more than age-old superstition dressed up in the language of science.

Park seems to possess an endless supply of "insider" stories. One of the more chilling concerns "star wars" and the Reykjavik summit, at which the U.S. failed to conclude a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union, despite the reported readiness of then Soviet leader Gorbachev to sign. The treaty would have called for the elimination of all offensive nuclear weapons within ten years, on the sole condition that all SDI-type weaponry be confined to the laboratory. Somehow, the most promising opportunity of the entire Cold War era to conclude a verifiable peace agreement slipped away.

Park relates that, on the very eve of the summit, Edward Teller sent a telegram to Paul Nitze---the chief U.S. arms negotiator---informing him that something called Super Excalibur had been successfully tested and was "ready for engineering development." Nitze could easily have taken the message to mean that Teller's minions were on the verge of programming a single x-ray laser "the size of an office desk" to shoot down the entire Soviet land-based missile force. In truth, Super Excalibur was tested only once, almost a full year before Reykjavik, with unimpressive results. While it is impossible to know whether Teller's eleventh-hour revelation caused the breakdown of the Reykjavik peace talks, it is a matter of record that his funding for "star wars" research was promptly extended.

Park is a long-time member---and a recently elected fellow---of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The roster already includes scientists like Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Leon Lederman, Glenn Seaborg (now deceased), and Steven Weinberg, as well as writer/philosophers like Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstadter, and other prominent citizens. The committee publishes---among other things---the bimonthly Skeptical Inquirer, which bills itself as a "magazine for science and reason." Its stated purpose is to "critically examine claims of paranormal, fringe science from a responsible, scientific point of view." Some of the most prominent fellows have contributed articles over the years. Topics of continuing interest include dowsing, alternative medicine, ESP, PSI, The New Age, vampires, Heaven's Gate, Bigfoot, astrology, the Roswell event, alien autopsies, Holocaust denial, and the madness of crowds. The purpose is not to have the last word on such matters--an obvious impossibility---but merely to expose claims concerning them to the light of reason. SI has published numerous proposals for the improvement of science education, as well it might in a nation where untold millions fear alien abduction, doubt the Holocaust, and patronize psychic hot lines.

Voodoo Science carries SI's mission to another level---the dizzying heights of Capitol Hill. It exposes the manner in which claims of the paranormal influence public policy and waste public funds. Claims made during and after the energy crisis on behalf of cold fusion, the Newman Energy Machine, and the Patterson Energy Cell figure prominently in Park's account. He traces their histories, with particular attention to the role played by the news media in generating congressional hearings. He also argues convincingly that, in more than a few cases, what presumably began as innocent pathological science seems all but certain to have crossed the line into outright fraud. His book is in turn amusing, informative, thought-provoking, and distressing. To educators, the emphasis must be on distressing.

James Case writes from Baltimore, Maryland.


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