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A Look Back at the Best Skeptic Book of 2000

Generation sXeptic

Matt Nisbet

January 1, 2001

Voodoo Science Conjures a Celebrity Out of a Scientist

Last May, Oxford University Press released Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud authored by physicist Robert Park. A past chair of both the physics and the astronomy departments at the University of Maryland, Park is probably best known to science policy insiders, members of the media, and the interested public for his weekly e-mail bulletin ”What’s New,” archived and maintained at the American Physical Society (A.P.S.) Web site.

With his close proximity to Washington, D.C., Park has had a Zelig-like ability over the past two decades to pop up on the scene in a number of science-related controversies, often detailing many of his adventures and insider observations in “What’s New.” Heavy with wit, sly spin, and useful information not reported in the mass media, each edition of “What’s New” ends with Park’s trademark signature disclaimer: “Opinions are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the A.P.S., but they should be.”

Voodoo Science, Park’s first book intended for a general readership, is a 200-page essay on foibles, fads, and frauds related to a range of pseudoscientific claims. Written at times in the first-person, Park details his experience as an expert witness before Congress, media spokesperson, and combatant over the truth of competing claims. Among various topics, he writes on media sensationalism, free energy claims, junk science in the courtroom, homeopathy, cold fusion, and government support for bogus science projects.

Market reaction to Voodoo Science has been favorable. In a year dominated by Harry Potter fantasy yarns and the self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, sales figures by year-end placed Voodoo Science within the top 2000 books sold through the Amazon.com Web site.

Beyond sales, however, the release of Voodoo Science was an event in itself, placing Park’s unique and colorful personality for a brief time on the media stage. Features profiling Park appeared in the USA Today, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Boston Globe, Montreal Gazette, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Buffalo News. The profile in the New York Times lionized Park as a scientist-warrior doing battle in a fuzzy-thinking Washington. The caption of a picture of Park read: “Robert Park, a University of Maryland physicist who delights in deflating tales of alien abductions, miracle cures, during a pause in his morning run. He is leaning against a model of the Washington Monument, with the original at right.”

In March, Park was the featured member of a special panel on junk science at the annual APS meetings that was appropriately titled “Voodoo Science.” Throughout August and early September, C-SPAN’s “BookTV” carried segments of a press conference that featured Park discussing Voodoo Science at the National Press Club. Park also became the choice du jour among the media when a skeptical voice was desired, and he appeared on a number of television programs to discuss a range of claims and issues.

A hot media topic during the summer was magnet therapy. “Magnets can’t cure you. We're just not made of very magnetic stuff,” Park told NBC reporter Janice Leiberman in a taped segment appearing on the June 12 Today Show. “A magnetic field really just doesn't do anything to us at all. Makes us no worse, makes us no better.”

Although reporter Lieberman noted during the taped segment that “there are numerous claims of what magnets can do, but almost no scientific proof that they work,” her post-segment studio chat and commentary with Today show host Matt Lauer framed the legitimacy of magnet therapy as a wait-and-see-matter.

Lauer: “Why haven't there been more scientific studies about their—their usefulness?”

Lieberman: “Well, the scientific studies are usually funded by the drug companies.”

Lauer: “Right.”

Lieberman: “And the drug companies don’t make money on magnets, so there isn’t a lot of money behind it. However, NIH is expected to come out with two good studies, so we'll hold tight.”

Park’s public advocacy as a scientist was welcomed among many science enthusiasts and members of the science community. His ability to communicate effectively and provocatively both in his book and through the media drew comparisons to Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. “He is one of the gems of the whole skeptical and critical thinking movement,” magician and friend James Randi told the Baltimore Sun. ” Like Carl Sagan, he is an accredited scientist with considerable clout who is actually willing to stick his neck out.”

“Most of the scientists don’t give a damn. They have no notion of how the real world works. Bob wouldn’t know an ivory tower if it fell on him. He’s a real caring person who wants to get the word out there,” said Randi.

Others drew comparisons to Martin Gardner’s 1952 classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: "...in Voodoo Science, Robert Park has brought us a book that has a freshness and originality — and an importance and potential for influence — perhaps not seen since Gardner’s first,” wrote Kendrick Frazier, longtime editor of Skeptical Inquirer, in a review contributed to Physics Today.

Author Ed Regis described Voodoo Science in a review for the New York Times as “droll and enlightening,” adding that the book was “chock-full of the latest pseudoscientific hoaxes, scams and cases of sheer foolishness. Nothing and nobody are safe from Park’s gaze, which ranges across the absurd and the sublime with equal impartiality....”

One of the few critical reviews appeared in Park’s hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. Park was described as overly-zealous in his attacks on pseudoscience, one-sided in his presentation of evidence, and lacking rigor in his investigations. The reviewer, Charles Platt, compared Park to “a zealous DA who is so convinced that a suspect is guilty that he feels entitled to withhold some information from the jury.” Platt, a senior writer for Wired magazine, speculated that Park’s “widely published attacks create a chilling effect that can discourage even legitimate scientists from discussing controversial work.”

“This hardly seems consistent with the spirit of genuinely free inquiry that should energize science. Likewise, Park’s reliance on second-hand data, his presentation of selective evidence and his refusal to quote his opponents are habits that seem unworthy of a scientist,” wrote Platt.

A series of letters countering Platt’s criticism appeared in a subsequent edition of the Washington Post (See July 23, BookWorld). Several letters alleged Platt’s possible conflict in reviewing the book, noting his veiled enthusiasm for cold fusion in previously authored articles, and his ties to a cryogenic company. One of the letters was by Park himself, who replied with trademark rapier wit that Platt “...is a science fiction writer. The danger in writing science fiction is that, like masturbation, if you do too much of it you may begin to mistake it for the real thing. That could explain Platt’s position as president and CEO of CryoCare, a company that freezes the heads of what the company calls ‘patients.’ Presumably the heads will be reattached to bodies and switched back on when the technology becomes available. It is a truly splendid example of voodoo science.”

Not all of us necessarily share Park’s opinions, but as he would say, we probably should.

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Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.