Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Voodoo Science

I just finished reading the latest in my series of books exploring the complicated mix of science, theology, and politics. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud by Robert Park. There are lots of silly pseudoscience claims out there and Robert Park addresses many of the most common ideas. Topics ranged from homeopathy and perpetual motion machines to EMF causing cancer and US military skunk works.

Without throwing so much science into the discussion that he would bore anybody but a physicist, Parks is clearly able to explain why the claims of homeopathy are impossible to prove either true or false. He follows the same path with many other pseudoscience claims such as cold fusion and gravity shields. If for this alone the book would have been well worth my time.

Park goes one step further. He explains, as he calls it in his subtitle, the road from foolishness to fraud. He believes that most proponents of these pseudoscience claims start out with good intentions but not necessarily with the most careful science to support it. After multiple attempts to gain credibility and validate their claims at some point he believes they realize their mistake and either choose to own up to it and take a few lumps or to continue on knowing that they are perpetuating a fraud. Personally I believe that most of the new age medicine claims like acupuncture, homeopathy, and reiki fall into this category. I believe that at one point most of the practitioners believed what they were peddling. They then chose to either ignore the mountain of evidence against it and continue in their self deception or accept the evidence but keep selling their craft as if it is science. Either way they are deceiving someone, if only themselves.

The big surprise to me in this book was his attack on the manned space flight program. I’ve always believed that Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle and the ISS were first and foremost political adventures rather than scientific expeditions. Park analyses all of the scientific gains we have achieved from manned space flight and concludes that there is not one single scientific discovery that could not have been made cheaper and exponentially safer by sending unmanned probes. Park admits that the science behind manned space flight is real and therefore should not be classified as “voodoo” however due to the manipulation of science by politicians and the ultimate uselessness of manned space flight he chose to include it in this book. Having always been a fan of manned space flight this chapter was particularly eye opening.
I really enjoyed reading this. Because it challenged my beliefs in certain areas I will remember it longer than books that simply confirm what I've already believed.

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