Sunday, July 03, 2005

From Foolishness to Fraud: Voodoo Science by Robert L. Park

The examples may be slightly dated, but the concept is critical: science is a specific discipline, not just anything labeled "science." In Voodoo Science, Professor Robert L. Park discusses ten ways that junk science masquerades as the real thing, and details how accepting such claims costs us all.

"It's Not News, It's Entertainment" opens the book, and this is a crucial point. After all, if "the Media" did not cover voodoo science so supportively, most junk science claims would not get very far. And that willingness to support junk science is, Park explains, motivated by ratings and readership. (No less in the blogosphere than in the "old Media," I think.)
Science fascinates us by its power to surprize. Unexpected results that appear to violate accepted laws of nature can portend revolutionary advances in human knowledge... Alas, many "revolutionary" discoveries turn out to be wrong. Error is a normal part of science... Scientists, no less than others, are inclined to see what they expect to see, and an erroneous conclusion by a respected colleague often carries other scientists along the road to ignominy... If scientists can fool themselves, how much easier is it to craft soft arguments deliberately intended to befuddle jurists or lawmakers with little or no scientific background?

Park next takes on "The Belief Gene," the concept that we are all equipped to lend credence to an idea that has once captured our attention. Using the Natural Law Party's peace experiment of 1993, and fears about global warming, he looks at how this system of building beliefs proceeds apart from data collection, and often, in opposition to the data gathered. This is the "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up" mindset.

"Placebos Have Side Effects" builds on the first two essays to examine the voodoo medicine field, specifically, homeopathy and magnet therapy. Park explains the placebo effect, and concedes that placebos do have a medical effect. "The placebo... works by fooling the brain into thinking the problem is being taken care of. Once the brain is persuaded that things are under control, it may turn the [pain] signal down by releasing endorphins..." Homeopathic remedies are placebos, because their dilution removes the possibility of the "active" ingredient actually being found in the mixture.
Avogadro's Number is memorized in freshman chemistry. Homeopathists have calculated the dilution limit, and they agree that not a single molecule of the herbal extract or mineral could remain in their medications. But they insist it doesn't matter...

Many science fiction readers may part ways with Park in Chapter 4: "The Virtual Astronaut." Park admits his desire to believe in the possibility of human space travel nearly became his own bout with voodoo science. Reluctantly, he argues that man cannot possibly expect to travel in the flesh to distant star systems, citing logistical and philosophical limits that make it far more economical to send robots and electronic sensors. He concludes with John Glenn's historic second trip into space in 1998:
But the real symbolism of the mission was that after thirty-five years, John Glenn had traveled only eighty miles further from Earth than he did the first time.

The costs of supporting voodoo science stretch far and wide, and never more than when Congress gets involved in legislating science, by awarding grants and funds from tax dollars. "There Ought to Be a Law" looks at this process, with examples from cold fusion to Joe Newman's perpetual motion machine. We see this going on today, with Congress and the White House firmly behind hydrogen energy solutions—lawyers and other politicians are simply not equipped to judge the feasibility of such technologies, but they often dismiss opinions from those who are as "controversial" or "biased." Park's point: When scientific reality clashes with political goals, politicians are easily drawn into support for voodoo science.

The desire to get something for nothing seems deeply rooted in the human psyche, and "Perpetuuam Mobile" explore several schemes that are essentially perpetual motion voodoo, "in which people dream of infinite free energy." Dan Rather of CBS news makes a prominent appearance in this chapter, by the way, giving a somewhat-awed boost to Joe Newman and his Energy Machine. (Newman's appearance before Congress is featured in the previous chapter.) Not to be outdone, ABC News touts the Patterson cell, a cold-fusion process that generated more money for Patterson's CET Inc. than it did energy. There are multitudes of such devices, which every conspiracy theorist knows the energy companies hve suppressed.

Perhaps the problem is that power lines cause cancer. "Currents of Fear" examines this scare, and the panicked shutdowns, relocations and loss of property value that resulted from it. (This cost was estimated in 1999 by the Clinton White House Science Office to be in excess of $25 billion.) From this example, Parks launches into an examination of junk science in the courts on "Judgement Day." Power-line-caused leukemia, allegations of birth defects triggered by pharmaceuticals, silicon implants and immunosuppression claims, all have placed severe strains on the judicial system.
In junk science, we contend with scientists, many of whom have impressive credentials, who craft arguments deliberately intended to deceive or confuse... [that do] not rise quite to the level of fraud... Junk science can exist entirely outside the realm of scientific discourse, immune from the self-correcting mechanisms of genuine science.

With "Only Mushrooms Grow in the Dark," Park extends this argument about the cost of junk science to areas "protected by official secrecy." Two words are all one needs to encapsulate this chapter: Area 51. In fact, many UFO theories can cite real U.S. government projects as "proof" that "the truth is out there." SDI and the "mythical X-ray laser" in the U.S. is matched with the "mineral sniffer" plane that France tried out. Both projects were scams that ate billions in government funds before they were finally debunked.

Park closes by taking on Deepak Chopra and other "new age" mysticisms in "How Strange is the Universe?" New age philosophies, "in which ancient superstitions reappear as pseudoscience," take religious or quasi-religious concepts and recast them as quantum physics or chaos theory. This process, Park admits, is aided by physicists working on the frontiers of science, who cannot "resist pandering to the public's appetite for the 'spooky' part of science."

Lest you be ready to charge in, guns blazing, to defend any of the voodoo science Park cites, it would be better to read the simple description of a scientific inquiry into healing by touch. The test, which cost all of $10 to set up, showed that the touch healers tested could not even match results that could be had by guessing at random. The experimenter was nine-year-old Emily Rosa.
In 280 trials, the therapists scored 44 percent. The therapists were stunned. They were honestly convinced of their ability... Emily Rosa,the scientist, is doing what scientists are supposed to do—taking the strangeness out of the universe.

These are not exhaustive essays; they do not cover every known instance of junk, pseudo or fraudulent science known. Instead, Park uses his examples judiciously, to illustrate the ways in which we come to be duped by the mere flavor of science, even where the substance is obviously flimsy, how wanting to believe feeds our credulous acceptance of claims that are purely voodoo.

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