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book review

Voodoo Science

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If “voodoo science” sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because it is. Robert Park uses the term to cover all kinds of situations where the language and authority of science are invoked to lend credibility to outrageous claims. In his Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To Fraud, he identifies three types of science that he calls “voodoo science.”

The first is pathological science. This is science that started out as real science but left the path of honest, peer-reviewed study for some reason. He cites the hoopla surrounding cold fusion in the mid 1980s as an example. A similar case could be made today against embryonic stem cell research. Pathological science is science gone awry.

Park shows how pathological science can easily become fraudulent science. This is science that has no other aim than deception, perhaps even self-deception. Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s claims to have greatly advanced the possibilities of human cloning in 2004 and 2005 are examples of fraudulent science. His results were later shown to have been falsified.

Finally, Park addresses pseudoscience, quackery dressed in scientific garb. Homeopathy is a good example. The supposed “medicines” are solutions diluted with water or alcohol to the point where it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original solution is in the final product. Park explains:

In over-the-counter homeopathic remedies, for example, a dilution of 30X is fairly standard. The notation 30X means the substance was diluted one part in 10 and shaken, and this was repeated sequentially thirty times. The final dilution would be one part medicine to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts of water. That would be far beyond the dilution limit. To be precise, at a dilution of 30X you would have to drink 7,874 gallons of solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine.

As Park points out, there is no way to enforce quality control. The resulting solution should be pure water, and there is no test that can tell what the original medicine was, since no molecules of it remain in the solution.

The section where Park tells about Dennis Lee was embarrassing to read. Lee was a flimflam artist hawking perpetual motion and free energy with all the trappings of a traveling evangelist. He began his show with prayer, seemed to be healed of laryngitis, and repeatedly invoked God to legitimize his claims. “He even made references to his jail time—naturally, his incarceration had been part of a plot by the greedy polluters to suppress the technologies that might save the world.”

Throughout the book, Parks clearly describes in nontechnical language the fundamental errors made by voodoo science, and he equips readers with knowledge that will help keep them from being taken in by ridiculous but plausible-sounding claims.

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Plan B

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I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith. I read some of Bird By Bird, which was recommended to everyone attending the Willow Creek Arts Conference several years ago. That was a book about writing, and it had some sensible advice in it. Reading it did not prepare me for the mixture of  vitriolic bitchiness and grave splendor in Plan B.

Anne Lamott is a Christian. She loves Jesus and follows him to the best of her ability. She’s also a liberal Democrat who hated President George Bush. She swears. She refers to God with feminine pronouns. She lets us see her dirty laundry.

Several years ago when I was still single, I was visiting some friends who had a young girl. While I chatted with my friends in the kitchen, their little girl played with another little girl who was also visiting. The two girls were both about four or five years old. After a while, her parents became concerned that they had not heard from their girl in quite a while. They went looking for her and found her with her playmate in the closet in her bedroom. She had pooped on the floor. She and her little friend had taken the poop and smeared it all over themselves and the walls of her closet. I decided it was a good time to excuse myself and go home.

Reading Lamott’s book is a little like discovering those two girls playing with poop. It is at once funny, cute, disturbing, and disgusting. And I’m so relieved that I don’t have to clean any of it up.

Some of her entries—the book reads like a blog—are touching and sweet, like the one about having a dog. Others, like the one about her son’s adolescence, are painful. A few, such as the one describing a peace march in the rain, are infuriating.

Which brings me to why I recommend this book.

I like to think of myself as calm and steady, not easily ruffled. Sure, I have occasional bouts of rage when I yell at my son in that stentorian voice reserved for righteous indignation and motivating teenagers, but I’m a reasonable guy even when others are unreasonable. Yet I have come away from reading Plan B seething with anger and indignation. What’s going on?

It turns out that I’m offended at Lamott’s liberalism. Despite claiming that Christians need not be Republicans, when I’m confronted with a genuine, liberal Democrat, who is obviously a genuine Christian, I am affronted. I want to deny her a place in the kingdom—which is an innocuous way of saying, “She can go to hell.” Not a very charitable response.

Instead I keep reading. I try to see her point of view. I try to imagine living next door to Anne Lamott, borrowing a cup of sugar, inviting her to a barbecue, making small talk about the weather and maybe eventually working around to politics with great caution and deliberate care. I wonder if she will hate me for voting Republican. I wonder: Can we be friends? I hope we can. Because I like her. She’s my sister.

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How To Fail

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Read this article on my blog.

Jim Collins’ latest book, How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, is his best yet. His data-driven approach to business analysis is refreshing in a genre dominated by anecdotal, “common sense” approaches. Collins identifies five stages in the fall of once great companies, and as in his previous studies, he compares the fallen companies to similar companies in the same industry that did not fall, effectively demonstrating that decline was due to choices made by the business leaders, not to market forces outside their control.

Rather than summarize the five stages and fail to do them justice, I will just say this: Read this book. Anyone who leads an organization can benefit from its insights. The biggest surprise was finding that companies rarely fall from doing nothing. Instead they enter a period of frenetic activity characterized by innovation, restructuring, re-inventing, and loss of connection to core values. The key seems to be the loss of cohesive vision. A company that recovers its vision can often pull out of its dive and return to greatness.

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