Voodoo Science


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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